Extreme Ironing

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A heart-warming story this week from our daughter, who, when she was very young, was child-minded by a friend whom she came to call ‘Grandma Hazel’. She was about 2 years old (our daughter, of course, not Grandma) and was sitting on Hazel’s lap playing with her hair. At one point she lifted it up, kissed her ear, and said ‘There you are: all better now.’ and then just carried on chattering away. Hazel thought nothing of it, and it was a couple of weeks later that she suddenly realised two things. Number one, she’d had a long-standing infection in her ear which made it itchy, and in spite of various medicaments nothing seemed to have improved for ages, such that she’d got used to it and stopped noticing. But number two was that it had completely stopped itching. As she became aware of this she thought back and realised that it was since Vicki’s kiss that the itching had stopped. Vicki had had no idea of the condition, but she had apparently managed with a little kiss to heal it. Sadly this gift has not continued regularly, in spite of various people asking Vicki to kiss various bits of ailing anatomy.

But a few years later Vicki’s kindness towards ‘Grandma’ took a slightly less welcome turn. We were talking at home about some piece of household stuff (I’m not sure but it may have been an ironing board) which had passed its sell-by date, and we used the phrase ‘This [whatever it was] has seen better days’. This was a saying which Vicki had not encountered before. ‘What do you mean “it’s seen better days”?’ she asked. We explained that it meant that it was getting a bit old and worn out, and before long would fall to bits altogether and need replacing.

‘I see,’ replied Vicki. After a few moments’ though she asked a subsidiary question: ‘Has Grandma Hazel seen better days?’

Don’t worry, we’re all still good friends.

 

Steve’s Random Icebreaker

 

Hope you’re having fun in your homegroups with these tantalising questions to kick the evening off with a bang. Here’s the next in the series for you:

 

Take a moment to imagine portable rice… how does that make you feel?

 

Why doesn’t God do something?

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Perhaps the most frequent question about suffering is the one I haven’t addressed yet in this #godingrimtimes blog. It’s fascinating to know what I think is the origin of evil and suffering, and yes, perhaps it does make sense that suffering is only a problem for orthodox Christians. But when life kicks me in the teeth actually none of that matters too much. The agonised question which springs to my lips is far more urgent and poignant: why doesn’t God do something? Who cares about the origins of suffering when the pain of it is gnawing at me: I just want to know why on earth God allows it to go on. That’s the real question, perhaps the only one at all worth asking. Why doesn’t God do something?

I want to suggest first of all that far from being inactive and unconcerned God is most deeply and passionately hurting with those who hurt. I can remember being impacted many years ago by a picture which Graham Kendrick described of seeing the face of Jesus, and focussing in until he could see that Jesus’ eyeballs were in fact spinning worlds, which were being washed by his tears as he wept for the world he created, sustains and loves. His heart breaks for his suffering children: the gospels are full of that. The Greek word which we rather lamely call ‘compassion’ actually describes real gut-wrenching agony. But of course that only makes us want to ask the question again; then why doesn’t he just make it go away? Why doesn’t he do something?

I want to say three things towards in answer to this: No. 1: God has done something. Rather than leaving us to get on with it, like some great but uninvolved architect of the universe, he stepped into our world in Jesus, and went around among the sick and suffering curing pain and alleviating hurt. That of itself doesn’t do that much to help me now, but it does give the lie to accusations that God simply doesn’t care about our fate.

Secondly, God is doing something. I wouldn’t want to say that only Christians do positive things in our world, but the fact is that the Christian church down the centuries has been responsible for the betterment of life and the alleviation of suffering worldwide. Health care, education, care for animals, horticulture, abolition of slavery – too many projects to mention have been and continue to be inspired by the involvement of Christianity’s founder in his world. Countless of his servants have gone to extreme lengths, even to their death, in the attempt to help the world’s lost and suffering people. Remove the Christian faith and its effects from our world, and we would live in a radically different and worse place.

But thirdly, God will do something. The promise of Christianity is that the sufferings of this present age are worth nothing to be compared to the glory which awaits Jesus’ followers. For now we live in a world where appallingly bad things happen to us, and if that were the end of the story it would be tragic indeed. But one day we’ll wake up as if from a bad dream into a reality where all our agonised questioning will seem irrelevant.

Why does God allow suffering? Presumably because he thinks it’s good for us. Why doesn’t he stop it? No idea, but that’s how it is, so we’d better get used to it. But we simply can’t say he does nothing about it. It’s what he’s all about.

 

Coming next week – a new series: What is church for?

And now for something completely different … Preaching the OT

In a gathering of Anglican clergy I was mentioning that I tend to sit quite lightly to the lectionary for my preaching. One priest was indignant: at her church they stuck rigidly to the lectionary come what may because otherwise you only preached on purple passages, whereas with the lectionary people got the whole counsel of God. The conversation continued and within about five minutes someone said something about preaching from the Old Testament to which the very same lady replied ‘Of course we only ever preach on the Gospel reading for the day, and never the OT, Epistle or Psalm’. No-one even laughed, but that story demonstrates the idea that the only bits of the Bible worth giving time to are the Gospels.

So I thought it would be a good use of my blogging time if I were to attempt to put down some thoughts each week on the lectionary readings for the following Sunday, lest any preachers might find it helpful, but to concentrate only on the Old Testament, which, as my lecturer used to say at college, is the real Bible after all. I’m not intending to give an academic commentary, nor a devotional ‘blessed thought’, but rather to ask myself the question ‘If I were preaching on this, what might I say?’ so what better time to start than with the new year on Advent Sunday. My blogs won’t come after hours of learned study (not least because all my books are packed in boxes waiting to move) but as quick off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. I hope, though, that they might be useful and inspirational for all that.

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Advent Sunday    Isaiah 2:1-5

 

Advent is a time for the future to become more real for us. In pastoral ministry I have seen terminally ill people go both ways. Some have a well-developed sense of heaven and the future, and can’t wait to get there, while others, although Christians, seem terrified of death and cling on to this life as though it were all there is. Today’s OT reading points us to a future, but not in a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die way. It shows us something real and then calls us to action.

I’m a big fan of the Myers-Briggs psychological typing system. I can remember when I was first ‘done’ being put into groups of people with the same four letter type, in my case INTP. It was one of the most instantly comfortable groups I’ve been in, and when we were given the task of writing down what we would like the world to say to us it took us all of 10 seconds for us to agree ‘You were right all along!’

This reading, part of a vision of the future given to the prophet, is about the world saying to God ‘You were right all along!’ People and nations who were once hostile will now come streaming into God’s presence to learn from him, and the result will be a better world, free from conflict and hostility, violence and warfare. It’s a great vision. I can remember being excited at a conference years ago by a speaker telling us he was praying for the time when the Prime Minister would ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Tell me what to do, O man of God!’ Something in that caught my imagination, and Isaiah’s vision resonates with that.

But the real question for any sermon is ‘So what? What do we do about that now?’ Isaiah tells us two things: learn and walk. Take time to get to know God and his ways better now, and make sure you put into practice what you’ve learnt. One of my favourite church straplines is ‘Meet Friends; meet God; live life better’. That seems to me to sum it all up: that way we’ll be part of the solution, not the problem.

 

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I would love to ask leaders of large evangelical-charismatic Anglican churches who have abandoned their Anglican liturgical heritage what exactly it is they have against liturgical worship. Indeed I was planning to do exactly that towards a doctorate, but that’s another story. I suspect that in a general sense I already know what they’d say. I have never been in any official way part of the liturgical processes of the C of E, but I am very well aware of the kind of image liturgists and liturgy have. Liturgical worship is perceived as getting in the way of mission and growth, it is seen as formal and irrelevant to the 21st century church, it is seen as mere frippery compared to the far more worthy activity of singing loads of songs which no-one knows. In other words, the common attitude to all things liturgical is ‘We know better!’

I wouldn’t want to make any hard and fast points here, and I certainly wouldn’t want to try to sort out which if any is cause and which is effect, but my observation tells me that big successful Anglican churches often have an arrogance about them which, although it tries to be kind and charitable, fundamentally believes that other churches, and often in particular liturgical ones, are just not quite the ticket. Of course were here to serve such lesser manifestations of church, and to give them any advice we can about how they could be as good as we are, but learn from them? No way! And as for the wider Anglican denomination, and its rules, regulations and funny little ways, well, that’s why the C of E is in such a mess. In any case we do use Anglican liturgy: our 8 am Communion service is straight from the book, and a few elderly people really like it.

Of course it is all much more subtle than this, and most leaders would deny hotly such attitudes, but it is easy to see from the outside. So my final liturgical rant extolling the virtues of this great commodity is about the Christian virtue of submission – being able to say to the church of which we are a part ‘We love you, with all your quirks and oddities. We believe in you; when we made those solemn promises at our licensing we really meant them. We won’t accept all you say uncritically: we do at times want to be a bit of grit in the oyster because there is always room for something beautiful and new to grow. But we will not make a habit of flaunting your rules for the sake of it; we will have the humility to realise that in spite of our apparent success we still need you, and might even have something to learn from you.

I can dream, can’t I?

An Explosion of Taste

 

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A crowd of us from our church went away some years ago to a conference. It is often the case that good things happen at conferences, although I remember this one specifically because of a tragedy. A couple of us decided to skip the Saturday evening session (conferences can be exhausting) and stay in our hotel rooms instead, and it was the sad night when Josh the ambulance man off of Casualty got his house and family blown up in an explosion and got the shout to his own address. I can remember staggering out into the hotel corridor in a state of shock, only to meet my friend who had also emerged from her room, and standing there sobbing in each other arms. (Don’t worry, that was some years ago and I have since figured out that Casualty, like quite a lot of stuff on the telly, isn’t actually real. They’re only actors.)

Anyway, we decided to console ourselves with a meal out. In those days the town where we were staying boasted one of the then rare Thai restaurants, so we thought we’d give it a go. Somewhat nervously we ordered a load of strange-sounding dishes, and set about this new culinary experience. As you might imagine there was quite a bit of sharing (we were Christians after all, and Christians are known for their times of sharing). One of our number, being a bit of a vegetarian, had ordered a dish of little bits of spicy fish, called Pla Nueng something or other. (It is a well known fact that fish are really vegetables, and therefore OK for veggies to eat them.) These were duly shared around too.

The meal was lovely, and we all became Thai fans from that night on, but the post-mortem the next day demonstrated that not everyone had enjoyed all the dishes. ‘Personally’, said one member of the group, ‘I found David’s cod-piece a bit chewy’.

 

 

Steve’s Random Icebreakers

I was thrilled to hear this week of one cell group in Sheffield who had a great evening warmed up by one of my son’s offerings. So, lest things get stale and predictable, here’s another discussion question from his collection:

‘If you owned a ferry company, would you let me redesign the logo?’

Whose fault is suffering?

Last time under the #godingrimtimes hashtag I suggested that it is the Christian belief in a real, powerful and loving God which makes suffering and pain a problem. I also said that it is a consequence of our free will that suffering exists. But did you spot the leap of logic there? It is that which I want to explore now.

I hinted at the belief that suffering is a result of wrong decisions and actions, or ‘sin’ as Christians love to call it. This idea is not, of course, a new one. The idea was common in biblical times, from Job’s ‘comforters’ trying to get him to own up to his secret sins which must have been the cause of his distress, to Jesus’ disciples asking how a blind man’s sins could have caused his disability if he had been born that way and therefore presumably had no time to sin before he was punished. The idea is alive and well today in some circles: have you ever been asked to confess ‘secret sins’ as part of ministry for healing, particularly when not a lot seems to be happening?

I want to say that I do believe that suffering is always a result of sin. But before you pick up stones to hurl at me, let me qualify that. I didn’t say that all your suffering is a result of your sin. Some of it might be, of course. If after a riotous night of partying you get in your car and drive home, eight pints and a few scotches the heavier, and wrap your car round a tree and end up paralysed, you have no-one but yourself to blame. Your suffering is a result of your sin, full stop. That’s why there is teaching about good ways to live, and laws to try to protect us from ourselves. But it may be that rather than wrapping your car round a tree you wrap it round your neighbour’s daughter. That family’s suffering isn’t a result of their sin: it’s a result of yours. So some pain comes from our own sin, but some comes from the sin of others.

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Whilst this goes a long way to explaining suffering, it clearly doesn’t solve the problem entirely. What about ‘natural’ disasters and so on? Surely some sin isn’t anybody’s fault? I think I’d want to say that there is a third category, caused not by our own sin, or by that of other people, but by the sin of the devil. It is an accepted fact that ‘the fall’, however we understand it, had consequences far beyond the immediate suffering of Adam and Eve. The whole creation was cursed: vegetation suffered, the harmony between people and the land was destroyed, and the garden became the desert. There are some things in this world which simply can’t be blamed on people, but are a result of the harmony of nature being upset.

This sounds like a cop-out, of course, until you realise that actually human sin does have far more of an effect even on so-called ‘natural’ disasters than we might like to acknowledge. It is well known that famine in one part of the world is at least partially the result of the greed of other parts. There are many more casualties after natural disasters in areas where due to poor government and corruption the infrastructure is weak and less able to cope with trauma. So maybe the third category, the devil’s sin, is smaller than we might like to think.

Sin always hurts: that’s why we shouldn’t do it!

World without end. Amen.

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It was good to revisit the church where we had once worked, and to see how far they had moved on in their quest for creativity in worship. It was a New Winey, lots-of-worship-songs kind of church, but far from following the music books slavishly they were being dead creative by starting songs not necessarily at the beginning, as is normal, but with the chorus. Coming out of one song, they struck up, without a pause, the rousing chorus:

Be to our God for ever and ever

Be to our God for ever and ever

Be to our God for ever and ever Amen.

This chorus was repeated a few times, then a few times more, with ever-growing intensity, and then without warning we started the next song (from the chorus, of course, not the beginning). Sadly we never did find out exactly what should be to our God: we knew exactly for how long it would be to him, but never what it actually was.

But my favourite piece of musical inanity in worship took place when we were being led in ‘Over the mountains and the sea’ a song, which incidentally, was my nomination when a friend asked via the gift of Facebook what our absolutely worst song was. My immediate response was ‘The one which expects me to sing the line “Oooh I feel like dancing”. I don’t!’ We were being led by an enthusiastic band who seemed particularly to enjoy the line ‘I could sing of your love forever’. Round and round we went, with all the highs and lows of volume and intensity which good worship leaders know instinctively how to handle.

I could sing of your love forever

I could sing of your love forever

I could sing of your love forever

I could sing of your love forever …

After what seemed like about 20 minutes of this, my son (in fact he of the random icebreakers – see below) leant over and whispered in my ear ‘Do you know? I really do believe they could!’

Steve’s Random Icebreaker No 3

Another to add to your collection of questions to get your group’s discussion going:

What’s your favourite thing about a horse?