Tag Archives: Thought for the day

What language the creator speaks…

Today we give space for the fabulous Brian McClaren whose spirituality is infused and energised by the awesome splendour of God’s creative splendour.  It is clear from his writing that he really feels the joy and wonder of the whole created order and a keen excitement that he is part of it!  I feel the creative force of God, therefore I AM!

If you ask what language the creator speaks, the best answer is this:
God’s first language is full spectrum light,
clear water, deep sky, red squirrel,
blue whale, grey parrot, green lizard,
golden aspen, orange mango, yellow warbler,
laughing child, rolling river, serene forest,
churning storm, spinning planet.
A psalmist said the same thing in another way:
The universe is God’s work of art, God’s handiwork.
All created things speak or sing of the God who made them.
If you want to know what the original artist is like,
a smart place to start would be to enjoy the art of creation.
(Brian D McClaren: “Seeking Aliveness“)
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Babel revisited…

DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

I am trying (again) a Bible-in-a-year programme and I am loving it.  Admittedly I am still reading big chunks of Genesis rather than big chunks of Leviticus – but I am trying NOT to reach for commentaries or other people’s analysis, rather I want to allow the bare text to hit me as if for the first time.  (Confession-time here: some of it WILL actually be a first time, shocking as that may sound coming from a Minister ordained for about 26years!)

Anyway – the picture gives it away – today included Babel.  I’m reading from the Message – so this is what I read…

Genesis 11 (MSG)
“God Turned Their Language into ‘Babble’”


At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down.

They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.” They used brick for stone and tar for mortar.

Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.”

God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built.

God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.” Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their language into “babble.” From there God scattered them all over the world.

Now… I am not saying other interpretations are wrong – I have preached them all!  You are familiar with the territory

  • The people build a tower to try to reach heaven.  God doesn’t want the disturbance up there – so she finds an ingenious way to prevent them being good builders – she confuses their speech!
  • or… The people are getting too powerful – far too big for their boots – God can’t really stomach the potential competition so she knocks them down a peg or two by confusing their speech.
  • or… It’s purely an aetiological story (an origin story) to explain why there are so many languages.  (or to explain why there are so many of these ruined old towers littering the countryside!)

Reading it again in its context – it didn’t really sound predominantly like any of those things to me.  Before this story we have the fallout from the flood – and the family tree of Noah – and the story of them all dispersing – scattering – going out into the big wide world to be fruitful and multiply.  After this we have Abram being called to leave the familiar and venture into the unknown – to spread out and scatter.

And this idea of being scattered is quite dominant in the story.  This time I read it as a story of a people who wanted to settle down – put down roots – become established (and powerful) in their own defended and bordered space.  I read it as a story of a people who have had enough of spreading and scattering and going out into the big bad world as nomads and travelers, they wanted to be defined and settled and homogeneous.

And God is horrified.  “Strewth!” she says, “what will they come up with next as an excuse to stop journeying and traveling and moving on and becoming more diverse?”  And she stops them by confusing their speech – they are scattered – which is what she wanted them to do in the first place!

Many a Pentecost sermon has told the Pentecost story – all speaking different languages and yet understanding – as the opposite bookend to the Babel story (many of mine have!)  And that’s all well and good – except that usually the scattering is assumed to be a bad thing!

What if this Babel story expresses somethings that are still true today?

  •  That a mixed up world of differing languages (and associated cultures) is not a bad thing to be healed by Pentecost, but a GOOD thing – a thing that God always wanted.
     
  •  That even if we can only fathom it metaphorically in our very static, non-nomadic definitions of a “normal life” – it is a GOOD thing for us to think of ourselves as a “traveling, wandering race – the people of God” (that old hymn!) and that God is distressed when we find our lives getting too “settled”.

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A brutal killing…

Two teenage girls have been stoned to death by ISIS extremists after they were found in a house with two men – who were each flogged 50 times.  The girls, Hasna, 17, and Madiha, 16, were accused of committing adultery and executed in front of a crowd of hundreds in Deir ez-Zor city, eastern Syria.

Two older men were then sentenced to 50 lashes – also in public – after being identified by a Sharia Court as Abu Zubair al-Idlbi and Maher Hameed.

Yesterday in my morning prayer I was confronted by the account of the stoning of Stephen. Whilst the film, “The Life of Brian” makes light of this method of public torture and execution, I find that I cannot. It is not a thing of the past – it is a brutal reality today. I will not recount the grisly details here, the photo above is the least gruesome I could find without making light of the issue. Paintings of the stoning of Stephen show him serene and almost unaffected by the stones, and whilst I totally understand the motivation of the painters in depicting the story in that way – I found that I could not.

Acts 7:51-8:2 (CEV)

“You stubborn and hardheaded people! You are always fighting against the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors did. Is there one prophet that your ancestors didn’t mistreat? They killed the prophets who told about the coming of the One Who Obeys God. And now you have turned against him and killed him. Angels gave you God’s Law, but you still don’t obey it.”

When the council members heard Stephen’s speech, they were angry and furious. But Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. He looked toward heaven, where he saw our glorious God and Jesus standing at his right side. Then Stephen said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right side of God!”

The council members shouted and covered their ears. At once they all attacked Stephen and dragged him out of the city. Then they started throwing stones at him. The men who had brought charges against him put their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

As Stephen was being stoned to death, he called out, “Lord Jesus, please welcome me!” He knelt down and shouted, “Lord, don’t blame them for what they have done.” Then he died.

Saul approved the stoning of Stephen. Some faithful followers of the Lord buried Stephen and mourned very much for him.

I have found myself haunted by this story – and the stories I have read of people being stoned to death in today’s world. Of course, Luke does not recount the story in order to campaign against the brutality of stoning. Luke tells the story in order to bear witness to the extraordinary courage and assurance that Stephen’s faith in God gives him. Such incidents might not have been commonplace, but they would have been familiar enough to Luke for him not to have been surprised that it happened. And there was more to come as this incident seems to have marked the beginning of a much more targeted campaign of persecution against the early church.

How easily we become desensitised to the brutality of the world around us 
and our involvement in it…

Stoning is a very deliberate kind of torture and execution. It is designed to be carried out by the whole community, it is an expression of the terrifying verdict that this whole community has decided very publicly to demonstrate that they can no longer abide you drawing another breath in their midst, and they will all play their part in killing you. It is also designed to free any single person of individual guilt – with stoning it is impossible to tell which stone actually caused the death or who threw it.


God will not let us get away with that kind of excuse:
“It might not have been MY particular stone…

Jesus said: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And one by one, they melted away.

Martin Luther, talking about the crucifixion, said this: We all carry about in our pockets His very nails.”   He might just have easily said, “We all carry about in our pockets His very stones.

Put those stones down.  You won’t be needing them anymore.

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To be a child of God…

1 John 3:1 (CEV)

Think how much the Father loves us. 

He loves us so much that he lets us be called his children, as we truly are. 

The idea that we are God’s children says something about our relationship to God.
The idea that we are God’s children says something about our relationship to one another.

But for today – just this thought…

I have three children and as a consequence I have sat through many school concerts! I know there are parents who SAY that they enjoy each and every performance and are proud of every single child – but I was never one of those parents.

When kids other than my own were performing, I’d be looking at my watch wondering how much more we could take of this!

BUT

the moment one of mine took the stage – everything changed. I was instantly paying full attention, I was willing them on to greatness – and heart-swellingly proud of every tiny thing they did however accomplished or not it might have been.

That’s what I think of when I hear myself described as a child of God. I think of God willing me on – desperate for me to succeed – immensely proud of every tiny step I take.

And the amazing thing is that we are ALL God’s children – and God is like that for ALL of us!  (even when we play the recorder!)

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Gamaliel the wise?

Acts 5:34-42 (CEV)

But one of the members was the Pharisee Gamaliel, a highly respected teacher. He ordered the apostles to be taken out of the room for a little while. Then he said to the council:

People of Israel, be careful what you do with these men. Not long ago Theudas claimed to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him. But he was killed. All his followers were scattered, and that was the end of that.

Later, when the people of our nation were being counted, Judas from Galilee showed up. A lot of people followed him, but he was killed, and all his followers were scattered.

So I advise you to stay away from these men. Leave them alone. If what they are planning is something of their own doing, it will fail. But if God is behind it, you cannot stop it anyway, unless you want to fight against God.

The council members agreed with what he said, and they called the apostles back in. They had them beaten with a whip and warned them not to speak in the name of Jesus. Then they let them go.

The apostles left the council and were happy, because God had considered them worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesus. Every day they spent time in the temple and in one home after another. They never stopped teaching and telling the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Gamaliel got Paul & Co. out of a tricky spot – but how wise IS his advice?

He seems to be saying that if a human venture is not “of God” then it will fail (so we can leave it to wither) and if a human venture is “of God” it will flourish and there is nothing we could do to stop it anyway. On the face of it, it seems like a recipe for doing nothing in any situation and simply leaving it to either flourish or fade away depending on whether it is “of God”. At least we won’t then have been seen to OPPOSE God’s plans, even though we never actually supported them either.

On the face of it it seems like UNWISE advice. Human ventures that are not “of God” clearly DO flourish and take root – they don’t just wither away! Antisemitism, to take a current hot topic, is deeply rooted and flourishing around the world – the slave trade too (clearly also not “of God”!)

In a previous life I might simply have dismissed Gamaliel on that basis – what on earth could he have to teach us. BUT… it is at least possible that this being a long time ago and us not really knowing the man, I would be being unfair.

so…

Maybe it is wise to suggest that the context for this advice is a bunch of religious people from the same tradition arguing about theology – it is advice for a much more limited sphere than my objection assumes! Maybe in that religious context, Gamaliel’s advice is very pertinent. Why DO religious people spend such a lot of energy arguing among themselves about minutiae? Maybe Gamaliel is saying – these guys are in the same family as us. They’re making some pretty bold claims – but we have traveled together as a community of faith for thousands of years and we have seen great upheaval and change, some of it good and some of it not so good. Let’s just see how this one pans out – it might be phooey – but it might turn out to be something good. God has surprised us in the past! Chill!

That might be enough – it might help put some of our internal religious squabbles into context.

But maybe it’s more too…

There is stuff I should get on with – projects I should launch – and yet I have delayed and held back, possibly for fear they will fail. Maybe Gamaliel’s advice to me today would be – “Go on, Phil – have a go at it, make a start. Maybe it’ll fly, maybe it won’t – if it does, then that’s because the holy Spirit puts wind in its sails, if it doesn’t, then maybe that’s not what God wanted you to be doing just now and it is better to know than than not!

Cheers G – oh wise one!

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Who’s in charge around here?


John 3:31-36 (CEV)
The One Who Comes from Heaven

God’s Son comes from heaven and is above all others. Everyone who comes from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all others. He speaks about what he has seen and heard, and yet no one believes him. But everyone who does believe him has shown that God is truthful. The Son was sent to speak God’s message, and he has been given the full power of God’s Spirit.

The Father loves the Son and has given him everything. Everyone who has faith in the Son has eternal life. But no one who rejects him will ever share in that life, and God will be angry with them forever.

John the Baptist is answering questions from his disciples about this young upstart, Jesus, who people are starting to follow. What should they do? These verses are part of John’s response.

John paints a picture of Jesus being handed the reigns of power by God (the Father). We might want to talk about the theological thinking behind that picture and what the implications are – that might be interesting, but I doubt it would help us understand how to be better people, so I will resists that and stick with John’s word-picture of Jesus being left in charge.

There is a fairly common film/T.V. trope where someone unlikely is put in charge – often of a hard-bitten and close-knit police unit. The new person in charge is sometimes a woman, often an outsider, maybe a young wet-behind-the-ears academic who hasn’t got the street-hardened years that the other detectives have – whatever it is, there is usually something about the newcomer that causes resentment.

It usually starts badly – their authority is questioned as Jesus’s was (“where do you get your authority from?”); their background is put under scrutiny as Jesus’s was (“he’s just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Does anything good come from Nazareth?”); people ignore them, as they ignored Jesus (“He speaks about what he has seen and heard, and yet no one believes him.”) and when the going gets tough, desertion and rebellion begin, as it did with Jesus (“Because of what Jesus said, many of his disciples turned their backs on him and stopped following him.” John 6:66)

But then, against all the odds, the newcomer does something extraordinary and everything changes. (Fill in the blanks yourself!)

Of course it isn’t a perfect analogy – but maybe there’s something in there, and that’s where the film/T.V. series usually ends.

But the Jesus thing doesn’t end there. Jesus goes on to ascend and he leaves us in charge! And maybe we feel like the new police chief, in the thick of it with nobody listening and everybody (including yourself) thinking you are simply not up to the job.

Maybe that’s when we need to (yes, with God’s help!) – DO SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY!

There are so many ways to be extraordinary – we could be extraordinarily generous,
extraordinarily loving, extraordinarily grace-filled, extraordinarily kind, extraordinarily forgiving, extraordinarily ambitious for the gospel of peace…

The world is watching!

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so loved…

John 3:16 (ESV)

For God so loved the world, 
that he gave his only Son, 
that whoever believes in him should not perish 
but have eternal life.

If you give most Christians the first clause of that verse, they will complete it for you.  Many non-Christians would also be able to recite it.  Here’s a little exercise for the day…

God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Henry so loved his hamster that he spent nearly all of his pocket money on treats and food for him and got up early to feed him and clean his cage.

Sandra so loved her Harley that she spend every weekend cleaning it and polishing the chrome – and showing it off to the world at bike shows.

Roger so loved his collection of designer-label shoes that he kept them all polished and dusted and ordered by the colour-spectrum in a special locked wardrobe.

Nicola and Simon so loved Formula One racing that they spent all their spare cash and holiday time travelling the world to watch the grand Prix season.

Dave and Peter so loved their adopted son that they sacrificed everything to help him realise his dream to become a world-famous snowboarder.

(Insert your own name)  so loved God that s/he  (complete the sentence.)

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Whence the power?


Acts 4:32-37 (CEV)
Sharing Possessions

The group of followers all felt the same way about everything. None of them claimed that their possessions were their own, and they shared everything they had with each other. In a powerful way the apostles told everyone that the Lord Jesus was now alive. God greatly blessed his followers, and no one went in need of anything. Everyone who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles. Then they would give the money to anyone who needed it.

Joseph was one of the followers who had sold a piece of property and brought the money to the apostles. He was a Levite from Cyprus, and the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “one who encourages others.”
 

Note the flow of this passage. We are told how the group of followers shared with one another everything they had – THEN we are told that they shared the Gospel in a powerful way.

Many commentators reflect on the communitarian features of the early church – and then talk about their preaching being powered by some special filling of the Holy Spirit – as if the two things were separate.

I wonder if that is the best way to understand this.

Could it not be that the action of the Holy Spirit leads them to a sharing and giving lifestyle – and that it is that lifestyle that gives their Gospel-sharing words power?

This rings true to our own experience, doesn’t it? My words only really have power if the listener perceives that they are LIVED words – or to use older language – that I practice what I preach.

So what is God trying to say to me this morning? I think it might be this:

Hey – Phil – If you are not living a Christlike life, all of your words sound hollow and there is no extra power I can give you to make them less so. Get on with the task of living a Christlike life, though, and your words will be infused with all the power I can offer you.

(or summat like that!)


Christmas is back!

Luke 1:26-38 (CEV)

An Angel Tells about the Birth of Jesus

One month later God sent the angel Gabriel to the town of Nazareth in Galilee with a message for a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to Joseph from the family of King David. The angel greeted Mary and said, “You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was confused by the angel’s words and wondered what they meant. Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

Mary asked the angel, “How can this happen? I am not married!”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come down to you, and God’s power will come over you. So your child will be called the holy Son of God. Your relative Elizabeth is also going to have a son, even though she is old. No one thought she could ever have a baby, but in three months she will have a son. Nothing is impossible for God!”

Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.” And the angel left her.

Even if you haven’t yet started planning for Christmas 2018 – the church has!  You can’t suddenly produce a baby in December unless you get busy in March/April!  So the lectionary marks the feast of the Annunciation – when (in the CEV translation) Mary says “Let it happen as you have said.”

Let it happen!

I was reflecting on this during my morning prayer and it occurred to me that quite a lot of what I think my calling is involves me planning stuff and trying to make stuff happen.  Yet – here is Mary saying “Let it happen.”

Mary doesn’t really have to do anything – she doesn’t even have to go out and get pregnant – it’s all done for her – she just has to let it happen – God is the mover here, God is doing the heavy lifting.

This is a real challenge for me!  I could very easily read this as a charter for doing nothing, but I don’t think that’s what God wants me to take away from this (sadly!)  I also like to feel like I am in control – I’m the one with the plan – I’m the one taking steps a, b and c to make x happen.

So maybe a step back.. What DOES God get from Mary?

I think God gets quite a lot.  It is often said that you can’t be a bit pregnant.  Mary commits to being all-in, 100% committed.  She says to God – here I am – I’m all yours – I’m in.  Whatever the consequences of that are – let it happen!

And it seems to me that this is what God has to ask me today.  “Phil, are you all in?”  And the answer God is looking for is, “Yes God, and whatever the consequences of that might be – let it happen!”

Happy Christmas!

Until then – a great opportunity to share this poem again…

An angel came to me
and I was unprepared
to be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God’s Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.

A palace should have been
the birthplace of a king
(I had no way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
it was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
my cloak was old, and thin.
They turned us from the inn;
the town was overflowing.

God’s Word, a child so small
who still must learn to speak
lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
and moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.

Perhaps it was absurd;
a stable set apart,
the sleepy cattle lowing;
and the incarnate Word
resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
the folly of the Lord,
wiser than all men’s knowing. 

 (Madeleine L’Engle)

Easter Items

I came across this advert today, it made me smile, but it also made me a little bit sad.

I’m not interested in the origins of Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies or whether Pagans once ate them or dressed up as them, nor whether if we claim they did we are also interested in the religious practices that accompanied them – no! – as you can see there is absolutely no way I could ever get easily drawn into a discussion about that! 🙂

It did make me wonder what MY list of “Easter Items” might look like:

  • Whip
  • Bloodied cross
  • Nails
  • Crown of thorns
  • Spear
  • Empty Tomb
  • Discarded graveclothes

(None of them sealed – though the tomb once was; all well used.)

I don’t know which list of Easter Items is most attractive.  My list looks a bit less fun, I guess.  It reminds me of Steve Turner’s poem:

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection. 

Happy (hoppy?) Holy Week!