Monday, October 26, 2009

Meaningless Offerings

Yesterday we were challenged to be consistent in taking our “daily bread”. We were to munch into our toast in the morning, or dip our bread into our soup at lunchtime and remember the bread of life – the word that nourishes our souls.

So, while I was eating my porridge, I was reading the open chapter of Isaiah. God was challenging His people about the “meaningless offerings” they were making to Him. They were fulfilling their religious obligations, but just going through the motions. For all their elaborate prayer rituals and their sacrificing a million bulls, they were not connecting with God at all, and they seemed totally unaware that they were not connecting. They were ticking off the boxes on the worship “To Do” list but nothing was making any difference in drawing them nearer to God, or opening up to them all the resources God had made available.

Meaningless means “lacking any significance, without meaning, purpose, or value.”

I can’t think of anyone that hasn’t done the ticky box routine in church on a Sunday at sometime in their lives. I have turned up, sang the songs, listened to the sermon, said amen at the end of the prayers – but through it all there have been times when I haven’t drawn any nearer to God, or found access to all that God has available for me.

For the people of God in Isaiah, it was not happening simply because they didn’t know God, or if they did they had turned their back son him. They were rebelling against his authority. Their acts of worship were not born out of a relationship they had with God. It was all “lacking any significance, without meaning, significance, purpose, or value.”. Although they seemed to have all the externals off pat, nothing was happening internally.

Nothing was happening internally because internally they were not switched on! Their hearts were empty of true devotion.

If I am just going through the motions on a Sunday, ticking the boxes in terms of external involvement, but my heart is empty of true devotion I am not going to draw close to God or find access to all the resources He has made available

Worship is meaningless if I am not changed and transformed in some way that I reflect a better picture of Jesus. It is meaningless if the window to God’s storehouse of resources remains stubbornly shut and I am left bearing wounds and welts and open sores that are not being bandaged and soothed. When I exit the church door, and enter the workplace, there needs to be some blurring of the lines between what is sacred and what is secular – all is sacred. The passion I bring with me to encounter God in church on a Sunday, has to be the same passion that I bring with me to encounter God in my workplace each and every day of the week. And what I experience of God from Monday to Saturday must be a part of what I bring with me on the following Sunday.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

No puddles!

No, we haven’t got a new pet that we are house training, but a less than new kitchen appliance that, rather like me in some ways, is coming apart at the seams.

A few weeks ago the washing machine began seeping small amounts of water and leaving a minor puddle just beneath the door. It wasn’t a frightening kind of puddle with ducks swimming on it and anglers casting lines into the centre. It was a small, one towel wipe up affair. That was a few weeks ago. Wash by wash the puddle increased in size and volume and the size and the number of the towes required to mop it up changed from hand to bath. Before the ducks moved in and the anglers started to bait their hooks, I called a repair man. The plastic seal, it appeared, had worn through and once replaced, the puddles would cease to appear. I am just amazed how adjusted I had become to plopping the towel down in front of the machine before turning the dial. It had become part and parcel of the laundry routine.

My brother had a washing machine in his apartment in Fuengirola. Not for him a simple towel placement issue to mop up spills! The handle on the door of the machine had broken off. The door closed simple by giving it a solid slam. Opening it was a little less easy. One wiggled a screwdriver in the hole where the handle had been to release the door catch. Interesting!

Our house is full of solutions that began their lives as temporary measures, until we could get things properly fixed, but became rather more permanent than we would have wished!

Take, for example, the bedroom curtain rail. Who knows how many years ago it fell down? I am not one of these people that can sleep in a room without curtains. I am sure it can be very calming to be staring up at the stars, but even the smallest slither of light sneaking through irritates me. My solution to make-do until the weekend when we could fix it properly was simply to use a half dozen or more drawing pins to stick the curtains directly onto the wall. It worked…and still does!

Life would be much easier with a curtain rail…or a washing machine with a handle on the door…or no puddles to wipe up. And yet we persist in dealing with the problem with a temporary stop-gap and stops being temporary. We promise ourselves that we will sort it out later, but seldom do.

The things that break are not usually something we can fix ourselves. My husband is under the impression I can fix anything. Mel’s Magic Touch! I doesn’t exist. A dozen drawing pins keeping the curtain on the wall is not fixing the curtain rail! Repair men exist because most people can’t fix washing machines, or televisions, or cookers.

I know that I can’t fix things but I haven’t yet come to the point where the unfixed thing is really bothering me enough to do something about it.

I wonder where the unfixed things in my Christian life are. Where are the drawing pins keeping something up, or the screwdriver to poke around in the hole, or the towels to soak up the leaks? I need to come to a point when these things really bother me and get things properly fixed!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Asking Questions

I once got into a debate about the first question that God asks Adam in the Garden of Eden – the “Adam, where are you?” question. I have heard it preached that God knew exactly where Adam was hiding. He didn’t ask the question because he didn’t know. He asked the question so that Adam would have the opportunity to confess and open up. My friend argued differently. God, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening – well, that was God in human form, walking, as in Jesus. In human form God doesn’t know everything. In human form he has the same limitations as every other human being. I am not sure that I agree with him.

At the end of the gospel of John, there is another question asked. This time it is Jesus asking Peter whether he loves him. He asks him three times. Some people will pick up on the number three and say that asking the question three times corresponds in some way to the three times that Peter denied that he knew Jesus. There are other people who will delve into the various Greek words for love used in the passage. Jesus was asking for a different kind of love, a self sacrificing love, and all Peter could offer was a friendship kind of love. Eventually Jesus concedes that friendship, for now, is enough. Perhaps Peter had realised in denying that he knew Jesus, he hadn’t shown any of the self sacrificing love then, and perhaps in a similar situation he would behave the same, and Jesus needed to know that. He couldn’t make any guarantees that he wouldn’t let Jesus down again. No more brash promises this time. No more passionate declarations. He knew his limitations.

I got to thinking about this whole question thing. Peter’s third answer contains the declaration “Lord, you know all things.” If God already knew where Adam was, and Jesus already knew the level of love Peter was capable of giving – why do they ask the question anyway?

Sometimes there are questions that we will not ask ourselves. Adam, after he had eaten the forbidden fruit, might have had a lot of questions buzzing around in his head. Why on earth did I eat the stupid apple? What have I done? What will happen when God finds out? How could I have been so stupid? Sometimes when you put something into words it makes it real, not that it wasn’t real before. Words are creative. Perhaps silence is a way of trying to prevent creation in some sense. Until you say it, it isn’t real.

By asking the question, God is inviting us say something that needs to be said so that we can move on. God did not want Adam to spend the rest of his life hiding behind trees in the Garden of Eden. Once the rebellion, the disobedience is out in the open and acknowledged, the relationship between God and Adam is redefined and Adam left Eden to begin a different stage of his life.

Sometimes the question is asked so that we can voice the answer and prove that we know it for ourselves. Peter is not just telling Jesus what kind of love he is capable of showing, but also telling himself. Maybe in the telling other people are eavesdropping. The disciples need to know that in the absence of Jesus that they can rely on Peter to not desert them.

I hesitate to think about the questions that God, or Jesus, might be asking me because I am too afraid to ask those questions myself. Asking questions is like testing and probing and that can be an uncomfortable thing. Sometimes we would rather not know. When my eldest sister was first diagnosed with diabetes, her doctor told her to tell the rest of us to get tested. My mum was diabetic, now she was and perhaps that meant it was inherited. I put it off for a while, but eventually underwent the tests to discover I was OK. Another of my sisters just refused. She decided that she would rather not know.

Maybe all that Jesus really needed to hear wasn’t that Peter loved him, but that Peter knew “Lord, you know all things.” When we know that He knows all things we can be secure.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Tale of Two Houses

I seem to remember someone telling me a story a long time ago to describe what happens when a person becomes a Christian.

It’s like a person living in a house that comes under the ownership of a new landlord. Things begin to change. The new landlord for example installs double glazing, so out goes the old wooden frames, which, let’s admit it, were a bit rotten anyway. He has gets rid of the old boiler and puts in central heating. You have nice warm radiators about the place, on a timer switch. You are going to be making significant savings on your gas and electricity bills. The old bathroom suite, with the leaky taps, and the large stains are replaced with something white and gleaming, new wall and floor tiles too. The kitchen also gets the make-over. Gone are the old miss-matched cabinets and the fridge that hums noisily in the corner. He has even put a dishwasher in for you.

Sometimes the landlord consults you about the changes he is making; sometimes he just does it anyway. Like, for example, yellow wall paper in one of the bedrooms might not
be your first choice. You would prefer carpets to the wood flooring and the scattered rugs.

The place is shaping up really nicely. The landlord has invested a lot of time and energy and resources in the house and it has become a really nice place to be.

Then one morning there is a knock on the door. Don’t worry. It’s not the old landlord wanting his property back; although he has been known to shout swear words through the letterbox. The locks have been changed, and he can’t get in, and if he did, the landlord would have him arrested for trespassing. No, it’s the landlord with his arm around a stranger you have never met before.

“Come on in,” says the landlord, “Have a good look around. See what I have done to the house.”

Now this might be all well and good, if you weren’t still lounging around in your pyjamas, with your teeth un-brushed. As the stranger disappears into the kitchen to admire the dishwasher, the landlord turns to you to explain.

“When I became the landlord, the house became mine to do with as I wish. You live in the house, but it’s not really yours any longer. I didn’t make these changes just so you would have a more comfortable life. I want other people to be able to see that I’m a good landlord – the best there is. What better way than to show them your house?”

End of story. I will leave you to work out the meaning.

Early this morning I couldn’t remember what brought the story to mind. I am down to lead the meeting on Sunday and I might have been sifting through sermons I preached a long time ago, forgotten by now, that I could just dust off, breath new life into, resurrect if you will.

“What about part two?” said God, in his most obscure voice. “You know that life isn’t like that, the nice house, the make-over, the dishwasher and all that. What happens five years, or ten years down the line?”

What happens, apparently, is that one morning you wake up with a sore head. You are laying in the hall with a bruise the size of a duck’s egg. You don’t want to look too closely at the cricket bat someone hit you with. There might be blood on it. There’s been a break in.

You drag yourself into the sitting room. The television has gone the DVD player and the collection of DVDs. The ornaments off the shelf, which may not have any value to anyone but you, have been smashed one by one. The sofa has been disembowelled. Offensive graffiti has been sprayed over the walls. In the kitchen, all the cupboards have been emptied, the plates and cups smashed to smithereens, the packets of flour and sugar opened and emptied on the work tops. The microwave is missing and the door of the dishwasher has been wrenched off. The bathroom is bad. They have taken a sledgehammer to the tiles, and that brown stuff on the walls has a particularly foul smell. It’s definitely not brown paint.

There’s another knock at the door. It’s the landlord. Looking through the spy glass, he has a stranger with him. It’s not the man from the insurance. Actually, now you think about it, you know the man. He was the visitor you saw earlier – when you hadn’t had time to dress.

Are you going to open the door this time?

You see, that is my life right now! I had a break in (not in real life). The old landlord perhaps, or a gang of thugs he knew, couldn’t get through the door, so he bashed in a window. I didn’t invite him in, put the cricket bat in his hand and invite him to knock me unconscious. He just did it. He wreaked havoc. He destroyed things that meant nothing to anyone else, but everything to me. He left destruction everywhere.

The temptation is to lock the door. How can it help anyone to see me amidst all the damage?

Yesterday, a friend of mine was brave enough to unlock a door and invite me in to her heart. She had suffered a spiritual break-in and robbery. Her “house” had been ransacked and she was left in tears. She didn’t put a cloth in one hand and a bottle of detergent in another, but I found myself starting to gather up the fragments of the broken ornaments.

It’s what you do in those moments where a powerful testimony lays. I wish we never experience the break-ins, but we do. Let’s not lock the door, to each other, on our messes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On being a Sloth

I am not sure if this is an endearing quality or not, probably not after sixteen or seventeen years, but my husband has a tendency to repeat a story, telling it as if he hasn’t already told me. I used to interrupt and provide the ending, but now I listen as he tells me (for the umpteenth time). He gets so much delight in the telling, and I don’t want to spoil that!

Perhaps I am slowly turning into my husband, but I am also repeating stories! This morning I was reading an e-zine, an on line magazine written by Christian ladies. One of the articles that caught my interest was one in a series about the seven deadly sins, not in this case Celtic football clubs back line of defenders!) Today was the turn of sloth.

The emphasis of the article wasn’t about pure laziness or anything, but how it related to our walk of faith. Wikipedia defines sloth as “spiritual or emotional apathy, neglecting what God has spoken, and being physically and emotionally inactive”. The lady who wrote the article defined it as “the failure to utilize ones talents and gifts”. I am not even going to pretend that I can make the excuse that I don’t know what my talents and gifts are. I don’t always put myself in an environment where I can put them to use. Our church is involved in a coffee shop/chat/fellowship event called “Catalyst”, so I headed down to see if there was something I could contribute.

I am not at my most comfortable talking to people I don’t know, but that wasn’t required of me. I fell into conversation with a lady I met there before. After half an hour or so, we stopped talking and my friend looked at me and said, “We’ve had this conversation before!”

How many months ago? Two, possibly three months the conversation had turned to gift and talents, and the things that we could be doing to utilize them. Neither of us are “utilizers”. We know what the gifts are, and can see areas where we can put those gifts into action. But, sadly, that’s where it all stops…at the planning stage. Part of it is that we are not entirely convinced that we can do what we think we can do. What if it all goes belly-up and we are left with egg on our faces?

I was reading about faith this morning – Hebrews 11 faith – that marvellous line up of faith heroes (and heroines!). “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” We may heave learned the verse off by heart, but I living it is a little more challenging. There are no foolproof guarantees that the things we could be doing to utilize our gifts and talents will not go belly-up. But there again, we won’t know until we try it.

I think we both tried to take another step forward – to make ourselves accountable to each other to take that next step. We didn’t really succeed. Neither of us would just say to the other “Let’s go for it and see what happens!” I guess that makes the two of us sloths.

Catalysts cause changes to happen. I rather think this conversation has caused a tiny change in me to happen. I don’t want to be a sloth. I desperately want to utilize the gifts and talents I have. I want to do that much more that I want to avoid egg on my face! We are stepping forward…just a millimetre!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paul Not With You

My family have a particular way of greeting me when I have gone down to visit on my own. It consists of looking over my shoulder as I walk through the door and saying, “Joe not with you?” There is more than a tinge of disappointment in the voice and the smile flickers just a little. Joe doesn’t believe it happens, but then, he has never been a witness to it happening. He wondered when I went over to Spain to visit Mike whether anyone there would look over my shoulder, as I walked through a door and ask, “¿Dónde está Joseppi?”

I rather think that when Barnabas arrived in Cyprus that there were more than a few people looking over his shoulder asking the question, “Paul not with you?” as their gaze fell upon the strange young man, John Mark.

There had been a strong disagreement between Barnabas and Paul, not about where to go, but who to take along with them. John Mark had let them down before and Paul wasn’t about to trust him a second time. Barnabas was not about to abandon John Mark, so Paul and Barnabas parted company.

As I was reading the account I wondered…

Would Paul have ended up in a prison in Philippi if Barnabas had been with him? I don’t know if Barnabas was Paul’s voice of reason, reigning in his passion and zeal which could be scary at times.

How did John Mark feel about being the cause of the split? I can’t imagine that there wasn’t a lot of side-taking over the whole issue. The congregation seemed to pray over Paul and Silas before they sent them off, but Barnabas and John Mark seemed to leave without anyone waving goodbye.

How did Silas feel filling Barnabas’ shoes? It’s like Alias Smith and Jones when Pete Duel steps out of the role to let the other guy take over. Are there always going to be awkward comparisons?

Did Paul remember the day when Barnabas turned up in Tarsus one morning inviting him to join him in Antioch? The disciples had written Paul off. They were not sure how ex-an-enemy of the church he was and whether he could be trusted, but Barnabas saw something in him to be nurtured and encouraged. Barnabas trusted Paul where others wouldn’t…now Paul was “the others” not trusting John Mark to come good in the end. He came good in the end, and when Paul was in prison, he specifically asked Timothy to send John Mark to serve him.

Would I want to be John Mark with Barnabas, or Silas with Paul? Let me be John Mark any day. I fear that I am a slow learner who needs gentle nurturing, not a wild adventurer that clings on to Paul’s white knuckle roller coaster ride.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

I Sing Because I’m Free

It’s not often that you hear loud, exuberant singing anywhere these days outside of football grounds. Our workplace was privileged to have a group of young Zulu warriors perform a routine of songs and dances.

It was all very energetic. The dances were done to the beat of a single drum and it brought to mind the old Tarzan films, or that golden oldie of a series “Daktari”. It was very atmospheric, even in the confines of a modern hall with bleacher seating. There was nothing sedate about the dances – lots of stamping, shaking spears and shields and scary chants.

In between the dances, they sang some wonderful gospel hymns. One young lady sang a solo “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. It was far better than anything that the X-Factor auditions have come out with. Her voice – she hit every note crystal clear!

The song lyrics are amazing anyway, but when you know that the person singing them has every reason to curse God rather than praise Him, the effect is even more uplifting. The young people come from Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. HIV and Aids are serious problems, dragging families into poverty - no running water, no electricity, no health services and no employment opportunities. It makes you wonder where God is in all of that.

The chorus of the song has the lines “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free”. Hearing the young lady sing those words, so powerfully, really spoke to me. I had been thinking about singing earlier on in the week. I had been reading Psalm 125, a psalm of ascent. The idea of actually singing while ascending a hill or mountain genearally doesn’t occur to me – I’m too busy trying to breath. The idea of singing while climbing a metaphorical mountain, times of sorrow and hardship, doesn't always occur to me either – I’m too busy wiping away tears!

So, yes, the whole singing thing! In church, lately, I have not participated as vocally as I used to. Partly, it’s the nature of some of the songs – although they might express what I feel, the tunes are a little challenging – moving octaves and stuff.

“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free”.

I am free, but I don’t always live like I’m free.

I don’t have any visible shackles or chains, but I allow other people to bind me with invisible ones by the way I seek their approval, and mould my life to meet their expectations. I sometimes allow difficult circumstances to tie me up. My freedom has been hard won. It is something to be treasured, not casually or carelessly bartered away.

It’s time to start living like I’m free.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

You’re Amazing!!!!!!!!!!

There was a newspaper article a few weeks ago where Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church for England and Wales (note the absence of Scotland there!), suggested that social networking websites, texting and e-mails were undermining community life. People were no longer having face to face encounters with real people, but were stuck behind a computer, or hunched over a mobile phone, “talking” to cyber friends. People were losing the skill of reading a person's mood or body language. It was all having a very "dehumanising" effect on our lives.

I doubt that I would ever have found my brother Mike without Facebook. I can’t see that Mike would have written a letter, or made a telephone call or simply just turned up on my doorstep one sunny afternoon. It is more likely that being on the computer anyway, writing one of his witty articles for Costa Life Magazine, he would have popped over to Facebook to see who was posting…and found me.

I confess to liking Facebook! I have 72 “friends” some of whom I have met face to face, some of whom I share more than a few chromosomes with and some whose names I know from the interests we have in common. There are one or two genuine “strangers”.

What I really like about Facebook at the moment is one of the messages that pop up in my notifications. It says, in capital letters “YOU’RE AMAZING!!!!!!!!” It is linked to an on going poll about who likes who! I rarely make the top ten of the best liked among my friends, but I find that the words YOU’RE AMAZING lift my spirit! It may only be a computer generated message to tell me to waste a little bit more time selecting ten of my pals to nominate, but sometimes I just need to be reminded that I am, indeed, amazing!

I have to admit that I would rather someone told me face to face that I am amazing. Over this whole year so far I think I have been pretty amazing! We all need someone to tell us that we are amazing, rather than have them scrutinize our lives to highlight the not-so-amazing things that we do!

I challenge myself! Don’t leave it up to a computer generated message to say to someome “YOU’RE AMAZING!!!!!!!!”