For my dog loving friends – two of my favourite dog presentations

This is especially for Edwina and for Simon both enduring horrendous chemotherapy regimes. I would have put it on FB but I can’t work out how to load these kind of files on there. Just a little dog happiness to keep you going…

DogsAndPeople

You may also enjoy ‘Bob the Dog does theology again’

http://wp.me/pOEoK-7O or

Is it possible to think without words?’

http://wp.me/pOEoK-7x

Finally, here is a ‘kiss’ from Bob x and one from me x


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“Be Happy” – yes, but how?

Is it me or has anyone else noticed that we are being bombarded by lists of instructions to ‘Be happy/Be creative/Be patient’ at every turn.

Here is one such list I saw for sale in shop whilst on holiday

2014-07-23 16.35.20These lists pop up all over the place. Twice I’ve seen them on shopping bags (but I didn’t have the courage to stalk the person carrying them just to take a photo) but clearly there is a marketing trend trying to tap into our deepest aspirations – to be happy, good, beautiful, kind, considerate people.

There are several reasons such lists make me say ‘Hmm’ . I don’t mean to be contentious as  the qualities we are urged to express are very often worthy but there is a big part of me that says ‘Yes BUT, it’s not that easy.

First objection: It’s not that easy to pin down what are the actual things it would be most beneficial for us to be. One bag I saw said ‘Dance, sing, floss and travel’. Now I understand items 1,2 and 4 but ‘floss’? Really? Will I be a better person if I simply floss consistently?  Anyway some of the loveliest people I know can’t dance, can’t sing and have never travelled much beyond their home town.  In spite of this (and perhaps to the astonishment of those who think such things as travel or music essential) they still manage to be human beings with big, generous, calm, contented and well-ordered souls.

Second objection: the propaganda behind such lists is a false assumption –  and the false assumption is that ‘merely wanting to be a nice person’ will make me a nice person. It really isn’t that straightforward. Who of us doesn’t want to be a nice person? No-one would disagree with the idea that if we could all just be nice/polite/kind/generous etc the world would be a better place. But we aren’t and the world is often a yucky place where children are oppressed and the vulnerable rejected.

Just sitting having beatific thoughts about love, truth, goodness, honesty, compassion isn’t enough to change us.

We are fundamentally and  deeply flawed – broken inside- and this disintegration between our wills (our good intentions), our feelings, and our actions is what the Bible calls sin. Paul in the letter to the Romans writes

‘so the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want todo what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do what I hate’

Substitute the word ‘law’ for ‘list’ like the one above and Paul is expressing exactly my discomfort with this list. I admire the list, I want to have/demonstrate all those good qualities but some how I simply can’t: I stop short of stealing (clearly wrong) but can I give generously (clearly good)? I don’t like it when people are unkind, or inconsiderate to me or call me names but when I call them names or speak disparagingly about them, I rationalise it ‘I’m not a bad person, they deserved it, they hurt me’. We rationalise  all sort of small deceits and slights (‘I’m not really queue jumping or speeding, I’m just a very busy person with a lot of things to do’).

We have what John Ortberg calls a ‘God given ache for goodness’ which is why we admire these aspirational lists but without God reintegrating (‘curing’) our souls we have no power to achieve it. There are numerous lists in New Testament of qualities which God followers should reflect but  none of these passages suggest we should just get on with it by ourselves. Every time we are directed to the fact that it is only as we stand in right relationship with the one who made us, that we find the power to live the way that Creator intended us to live.

‘The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control’. Galatians 5:22

‘To focus on my soul means to look at my life under the care and connection of God… to focus on my self apart from God leaves me powerless to change’ but the modern world revolves around the self and not the soul. ‘The self is a stand alone, do it yourself unit while the soul reminds us we were not made for ourselves’ (summarised from a brilliant book I have just read called Soul-keeping: caring for the most important part of you by John Ortberg).

And that’s the problem with all of these lists – they are ‘self improvement’ projects and we can no more self improve ourselves than we can pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces.  God offers ‘soul transformation’ but it only comes about slowly and only when God has a proper place in our lives.

That’s why you don’t see the advertising/marketing people mass producing fancy artworked version of the 10 Commandments or even of Jesus’s summary of 2 Commandments (love God and love other people) both of which are impossible to improve on as far as a summary of how humans should live in way that results in a good society. When God gave the first list he as good as said ‘write it down, pin it up on your walls, (he actually said ‘pin it to your forehead’ which is why devout Jews have little boxes on their head and wrists to remind them of the law).  But because both of these lists start with putting God in his proper place, they are no longer popular, instead we get these hopeful but fairly vapid, meaningless alternatives. We all want to be nice people but only when we orientate our lives around worship and love for God (what we were made for) do we find that we are no longer alone in the process of transformation.  The trouble is most people prefer to be self-directed not God directed.

‘You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe… the most important thing about you is your soul. What you are constructing, the person you are becoming is the only thing that will last. You were made for God, and made to need God, which means you were not made to be self sufficient.  Your soul can be right when everything in your world is all wrong. And sooner or later everything in your world will feel all wrong – what will matter at that moment is the soul you have constructed’. (Ortberg)

So ‘be happy/be understanding/generous/patient’ but don’t kid yourself that you can do it on your own. You need forgiveness first for the cracked pot state of your own soul and only then can you find forgiveness/patience/compassion/kindness for all the other cracked pots around you.

 soulkeepingPublished byZondervan 2014

No such thing as ‘ordinary time’

At the start of this week my Lectionary (it’s a set of readings for the Anglican church) told me we were now in ‘ordinary time’.  This means we are not in a period of the church year  leading up to a major festival such as Christmas, Easter or Pentecost (which was last Sunday).  So we are in ‘ordinary time’.

But there is a part of me that wants to shout ‘there is no such thing as ordinary time’!

Time is extraordinary, every day is a gift. To anyone with a terminal diagnosis all time is extraordinary.  And, like it or not, we all have a terminal diagnosis.  The mortality rate for human beings is 100%. It’s all just a question of time.

I’m not meaning to be overly gloomy. But  what has really struck me is that we cannot call any day ‘ordinary’ even days when we feel ‘Meh’ (you know what I mean).  On any ‘ordinary day’ the smallest incident, conversation or action might have unseen ripples of effect, might eventually produce ‘fruit’ – for good or bad.

And thinking about fruit, makes me think about gardening.

I have a confession to make: I have actually taken up gardening. For those of you who know how much it bored me, this is quite a confession. It might also be a mid life crisis.  But, nevertheless, I have been learning that any patch of soil, no matter how ordinary in appearance, can produce the most extraordinarily beautiful, fruitful or simply abundant (in the case of weeds) things. (See ‘A Call to Gardening – surely not me Lord’ posted Dec 2nd 2013, http://wp.me/pOEoK-sZ)

Since moving into the Vicarage and taking up this post, I have taken responsibility for  the two patches of bare earth left to us by the garden clearance guy we employed (David looks after all the rest of the garden).  I know virtually nothing about gardening but I do know I don’t like bare earth. So the first thing I did back in November was plant some bulbs. When these came up (to my utter amazement) they gave me so much joy that ever since I have been secretly sneaking off round markets and garden centres buying up … well anything that takes my fancy really.  Anything cheap that is, because so small is the faith I have in my gardening abilities I’m not yet ready to invest heavily.

Nor do I have any idea of a plan. If there is a plan it’s ‘stick it in the ground and see if it grows’.

So here is the front patch back in early Spring, after I’d neatly planted stuff in rows that were meant to stay tidy:

2014-04-21 19.36.09

Here is is now:

2014-06-11 14.57.34

It’s gone a bit mad but at least it’s not a bare patch of earth.

And as for the weeds – I’ve battled weekly with them on my day off and discovered to my surprise that weeding is enormously therapeutic: all that stabbing at the ground with fork and yanking things up, it’s good for getting rid of aggression and so long as you don’t do more than 20 minutes at a time it doesn’t have to be bad for your back. As you can see there’s still alot of weeds left.

The Vicarage garden is proving extraordinarily fertile – everywhere we look stuff is bursting forth and not all of it good or in the right place.  Because we are NOT horticulturists we had covered over the previous veggie patch with weed blanket and a thick layer of stones. But potato plants are resiliently shoving themselves up to the light through the stones!! Who knows the raspberries for which this garden was famed may even make a comeback attempt later in the year.

All this is very metaphorical: a new garden and a new job, a sensed lack of expertise in both, both enterprises are about ‘growing stuff’. So I’m in my first year as minister her and yes stuff is growing but it’s all fairly chaotic, weeds along with the good stuff and there isn’t much of a plan.

So I shouldn’t be surprised by my new found interest in gardens. Around the time I was appointed to lead this church, a praying friend gave me a picture of my ministry as one of clearing the ground of brambles, preparing the ground for growth’. As an image it didn’t excite at the time. As a gardener, walking round my garden seeing things that badly need pulling up or clearing away, I feel a little more excited. Mind you it’s blinking hard work, this gardening/church growing thing and for a lot of the time it looks like nothing is happening (‘you can say that again’) but when something comes up that you threw into the ground – oh wow!

All the cultivation parables Jesus told are suddenly shouting loudly at me and I love the idea that I only have to have faith the size of a mustard seed and anyway it’s God who makes stuff grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6 ‘Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered it but God made it grow’)

2014-06-11 14.57.47

Here are ‘my’ sweet peas – I threw a packet of seeds  into the ground and promptly forgot about them.  Only when a friend mentioned about growing sweet peas did I think ‘Oh yea, I planted some of those‘ and when I went back to look – WoW! There they were, overwhelmed with weeds but coming up all the same. So I’ve given them some space and something to climb up.

I’ve got a lot to learn about growing a garden and growing a church but thankfully I have an expert gardener to teach me:

‘I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within valleys, I will turn the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar, and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together…  so that people may see and know… that the Holy One of Israel has created it’. 

(Isaiah 41: 18, 19) 

PS for a bittersweet but very beautiful reflection on the process of sowing seeds Amy Grant’s song It’s Better not to Know is very beautiful. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vCk6i0jYQE&feature=kp

Advent: ‘Tis (NOT) the season to be jolly… tra, la, la, la, la, la, la la’

If you are currently lacking in ‘Tra la, la’, allow me to bring you some ‘comfort and joy’.

Yesterday I shouted at the man on the radio  (there will be a fair amount of shouting in this post, indicated by capital letters, do feel free to join in).

The DJ said,  ‘Advent is about waiting for Christmas’

‘NO, IT IS NOT!’ I shouted.

advent-wreath1

The season of advent is NOT about waiting to celebrate his first coming but all about waiting with longing for his second coming.  What’s more, Advent is traditionally a time of lament. In other words it is a time in the church year when we are allowed, nay, even encouraged to sit down and say ‘Well this is rubbish, isn’t it?’. Once we get to Christmas we celebrate that God did indeed come and lived with us and we are comforted by the way that changes everything but on the way there we allowed to acknowledge that life at the moment isn’t all that it could be.

Most weeks in the communion service most Anglicans recite the story that frames our faith:

Christ has died,

Christ is risen,

Christ will come again’

It’s a statement of faith, we believe that Christ died, we have accepted by faith that he rose again but we wait with eager hope for the last part of that statement. And while he hasn’t yet returned to put everything right, it’s perfectly okay to say that life is often a long way off being perfect, in fact more often than not, it’s really rather grim:

‘I’m sick/my teeth hurt/ I can’t sleep/my friends are ignoring me/ my enemies hate me without cause/I’m worn out with crying/God doesn’t appear to be listening/all this praying and being faithful doesn’t seem to have got me anywhere’

Tick any of the above that apply to you!

Is that my personal list of moans? No, not entirely, although I will  sign up to the first three but the rest are all paraphrases taken from the Psalms. In other words, good and Godly people have come to God and said this kind of stuff.  They are all from the psalms of lament and more than half of all the Psalms are Psalms of lament.

The very presence of these Psalms give us permission to come to God and say ‘WHERE ARE YOU GOD? THINGS ARE A BIT PANTS FOR ME RIGHT NOW’. And we call that…? what?

Complaining? Well, yes, maybe.

Letting the side down? No, I don’t think so.

Worship? Yes DEFINITELY.   It IS definitely worship to come honestly to God and tell him how it is with you. (There’s not really a lot of point coming any other way, because he knows anyway). But how can it be worship? Because the very act of coming to God to complain is an act of faith.  It’s okay to come to God and say ‘I’m not despairing, I’m not giving up but yes, I am having a hard time clinging on just now, but even so I AM coming to you God because somewhere inside of me there is seed of faith that says you are there and you are listening and you are the only one who can really answer’.

So don’t get all hung up about having to be happy at this time of year, if you’re not. (If you are happy, you probably haven’t read this post, you’ve probably gone off to dig out your CD of 100 Christmas Carols and Hymns and don’t let me stop you…I’m happy for you, believe me)

But God is better pleased by an honest lament that life is not how it should be than by us putting on a false and jolly gloss over the painful realities of life.

‘From the depths of despair, O Lord, I call for your help… I long for the Lord, more than sentries long for the dawn, yes, more than sentries long for the dawn’ (Psalm 130)

So ‘Come, Lord Jesus, Come’.

‘Nother Nativity Joke

A small boy forgot his lines in the Sunday School music and drama presentation. His mother, sitting in the front row tried to prompt him, gesturing and forming the words silently with her lips, but it didn’t help. Her son’s memory was blank.

Finally she leaned forward and whispered the cue, “I am the light of the world.”

The child beamed with acknowledgment and in a loud, clear voice so that everyone in the congregation could hear said, “My Mommy is the light of the world.”

Looking at God through a Keyhole

I told you a few weeks ago I was having trouble with Luke 13:24 where Jesus says ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to’.

This difficult statement is Jesus’ reply to the entirely reasonable question ‘Are only a few people going to be saved?’ Rather typically Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer (ie the precise number of  the ‘saved is 229, 3o7, 562,4443,555 322!) instead he implies it will be hard and that ‘not many’ will gain entry.

Well, that’s very depressing, isn’t it?  And if it’s not too disrespectful to say so, it rather prompts the question, ”why make it so blinkin’ hard, God?’

The problem is that this statement seems to be at odds with so much else the Bible has to say about the wideness of God’s grace and mercy. ‘all who received him’ (John 1:12) ‘whoever believes in him’ (John 3:16) and ‘How great the love the Father has lavished on us’ (1 John 3:1) to name just a few (and there are lots written by people whose names were not John). It’s even at odds with the end of the original conversation ‘People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of God’ (v.29)

So all that explains why I’ve had a problem with Luke 13. However I have made progress with this issue. It was a phrase from Os Guiness’ brilliant book on doubt that helped me out (the book is called God in the Dark) He said sometimes we are guilty of ‘keyhole theology’. We take a few words out of context or we draw big conclusions from one thing that we don’t even see that  clearly.

It was while I was preparing a sermon on Romans 11 that I suddenly realised how important it was to remember to whom Jesus was talking in Luke 13.  His audience was exclusively Jewish and for them to accept Jesus as God’s anointed would undoubtedly be very hard and on a ‘few’ of them would enter through this narrow door into God’s kingdom. This door was narrow and difficult because Jesus was so not the Messiah they expected.

Os Guiness says there are two key questions that we need to answer: ‘Is God there?’ and ‘Is God good?’ I’m learning to rely less and less on having all the answers and more and more on my belief that he IS there and he IS good. Whatever else I don’t understand has to be framed by these certainties.

Petaflops, Qubits and God

This morning I did some brain training over breakfast.  I didn’t mean to, I was quietly munching through my bowl of muesli and browsing through David’s BBC Focus science magazine left open on the kitchen table. 

So now I know what a petaflop is. I even have a rough idea about a Qubit which is not bad going for an arts graduate with limited mathematical ability. If the BBC has dumbed it down for the likes of me, then what follows is the ”blue peter’ version:

A petaflop is a measure of speed for computers. One petaflop is equivalent to a thousand trillion operations per second.The fastest computer in the world can perform 1.759 petaflops a second.  That’s fast!  Here is a computer that could probably give you the answer about half an hour before you thought of the question!

But that’s nothing. because the current fastest computer in the world is not a quantum computer which are apparently being developed somewhere out there at the extreme boundaries of science.  Here is a comparison between  a quantum computer and today’s supercomputer:

‘It would take our best computer today 10 million years to perform the factorisation done in seconds by quantum computing’

Even given that I don’t know what ‘factorisation’ means, I’m impressed!

Quantum computers use Qubits. Ordinary computers use ‘bits’ of data, a bit is either a ‘zero’ or a ‘one’. A qubit can be a ‘zero’ and a ‘one’ at the same time.  To which the only possible response is  ‘Taaa Da!’

That’s a neat trick!

Feeling throughly entertained I pressed on into the next article all about the cosmos. I learnt that according to ‘string theory’ there are 10 dimensions in our universe, maybe even 26!  Then I finished my muesli and as things were starting to feel seriously weird  I gave up (you’ll have to write your own ‘child’s guide to particle physics’). 

What has all this got to do with God? Recently I was reading for a college assignment about the anthropic principle (the idea that the cosmos seems to have been ‘finely tuned’ to bring about life on earth) and I came across a quote from  Richard Dawkins (who wrote The God Delusion): 

I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable – but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect…. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed’.

Astonishing! Here is the world’s most famous atheist admitting that the idea of  God would be ‘a worthy idea’. Why then can’t he allow himself to believe in the possibility? Firstly, because he can’t imagine a God big enough or incomprehensible enough. This is a very weak argument because if God were comprehensible he would be no where near big enough. What Dawkins is basically saying is ‘I can’t imagine him, therefore he doesn’t exist’. But the world is full of unimaginably fantastic creatures, most of which I could never have imagined, that doesn’t mean to say they don’t exist.  His second argument doesn’t stand much scrutiny either:  he has never heard of such a God from any theologian.  Well, if you’ve ever read any Dawkins you will know he argues from a position of very little knowledge of the Bible or Christianity, dismissing it all as myth without examination, so he clearly hasn’t listened to any theologians. How can you hear what you’re not listening to (‘those that have ears to hear, let them hear’ Jesus). Very short-sighted. He really hasn’t done the cause of atheism any favours.

So going back to petaflops and qubits and other mind boggling stuff, I’m not suggesting that God is some kind of ‘quantum computer’. But if we, ‘mere humans’,  can conceive and create something that can be two things at the same time and perform trillions of functions a second, doesn’t that make it just a tiny bit easier to believe that an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent deity might be possible? 

(For more info on this see June’s edition of BBC Focus www.bbcfocusmagazine.com or for more about the anthropic principle Paul Davies’ book The Goldilocks Enigma. Paul Davies is highly respected scientist, not a Christian as far as I know but making the point that the universe appears to have been created uniquely in order for us to exist).