Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Difficulty Of Accepting Forgiveness

We know it can be hard to offer forgiveness, but is it not also difficult to accept forgiveness?

In some ways, that is obvious, such as when I have done something I believe to be so terrible that I cannot forgive myself, let alone receive that from the wronged party.

But that is not what is in my mind. Something has happened in the last ten days. Let me tell the story.

We are a two-car family. Debbie drives the family car, a Citroen Picasso. I have a small, economical car to run around in on church business. It’s a Renault Clio. Girly car, you may say, but it’s economical. However, it is eleven years old, and while it is still functioning well the time will soon come when repairs and servicing will cost more than it is worth. Before long, I shall need to replace it.

I wasn’t thinking of doing that just yet, but ten days ago, we were walking home after dropping off the children at school when Debbie noticed another small car for sale. It was six years old, whereas I had thought I would aim for a three-year-old car. It was a Hyundai Getz, and my memory of Hyundai’s reputation wasn’t good. However, it was being offered for a decent price and as Debbie said, it would tide me over for a period while we got more savings together to buy a newer car.

After an exchange of text messages with the owner, I went out that night to his house and I test-drove it. I was impressed, and this was allied to some fairly positive reviews of the model I found on the Internet. Not being mechanically minded, I said to the owner that I wanted to have a full RAC inspection of the vehicle, but provided that was satisfactory, I would buy the car from him.

The RAC weren’t too flexible, sadly. The owner used the car for work, but the RAC wanted it made available for a whole day for their mechanic to turn up whenever he could fit it in. So I made alternative arrangements with the owner. He agreed to have it put through an MOT test three months early, and I spoke to an ex-mechanic friend from Kent who was willing to come up and give it a visual inspection.

The MOT happened on Tuesday. One tyre failed, but the owner had that replaced by the end of the day and we were all set for my friend to inspect the car on Wednesday evening.

Except that on Tuesday night he texted. He was getting rid of the car because his wife wanted a Ford Mondeo. That night they had found the perfect Mondeo, but the Mondeo owner wanted a small car, fell in love with the Getz and tough luck on me. He was full of apologies.

I was too stunned to reply that night, but I received a further guilt-laden email early the next morning. Clearly I had to reply. I told him that I forgave him. And since forgiveness means the absorbing of a debt, I truly did that. For although I had not had to pay for the RAC or the MOT, I had in the meantime had an HPI check done on the financial provenance of the car. That was £24.99. I chose not to ask him for that money, for otherwise I didn’t think it would be true forgiveness, and in fact I didn’t even mention that outlay to him.

Time to lick wounds, move on and perhaps postpone the purchase of a car until after we had moved to Surrey in three weeks’ time.

Or so I thought. Because yesterday morning I received another email from the now former owner of the Getz. He thanked me for my response, and it was clear from his explanation that he had caved in to pressure from his wife and the lady selling the Mondeo. Under that pressure, moral principles had crumbled.

Except that – in my opinion – he didn’t really accept the forgiveness. Because he added a PS where he told me that next time I was in a position like that, I should put down a deposit, take my mechanic friend along for the test drive and do the deal there and then. In other words, he tried to shift the blame onto me. He tried to suggest there had been something defective in my conduct. He no longer accepted full responsibility for his actions. He attempted to disperse some of the guilt.

Some people are too proud to accept forgiveness. That’s why it’s difficult to accept. To receive forgiveness, people have to acknowledge full responsibility for their actions. Rather than do that and receive a gift of grace, pride means people find other parties or factors to blame, even if those factors are part of themselves, such as their upbringing or something that has been done to them.

But healing only comes with a full acknowledgement of what we have done. Only then can we be forgiven.

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The Writing Industry And The Digital Revolution

We know the decimation of the music industry in the face of digitisation. A whole industry looked for a beach full of sand and buried its collective heads.

Thankfully, there are some signs that in the world of writing and publishing, there are some more visionary leaders. Take this Guardian interview with John Makinson, the head of Penguin books. He knows that devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad are changing the landscape, now that Amazon’s US operation sells more e-books than hardbacks. He envisages all sorts of added value content in ebooks. Steve Ballmer knows that Microsoft needs to play catch-up. What are the pros and cons? A few thoughts:

1. Carrying around 3500 books with you on one small device, such as you can with a Kindle, has to be amazingly appealing.

2. Being able to search a book, rather like you do a Word document or a PDF, must also be a terrific advantage.

3. There is a clear focus from Makinson and others on the core issue, which is the promotion of good writing, rather than holding up soon-to-be-outdated structures. See Clay Shirky’s recent thoughts about newspapers and jounalism: the question isn’t protecting papers with paywalls, it’s a concern for journalists. Hence why I refer to the writing industry, not the newspaper industry or the publishing industry, even if what we are talking about is new forms of publishing.

4. More negatively, will we take in less cognitively this way? It’s generally accepted that people absorb about 25% less information on a PC screen than on hard copy. Will the same be true for 6 inch screens, even with e-ink?

5. What about the financial implications for smaller publishers, given the cash flow problems of independent publishers or the well-documented difficulties of Christian bookshops and publishers? Will they simply have to persist with print while the rest of the world marches on, or will this finish them off?

What do you think?

On Recycling And Moving Home

How is house moving for you? It’s stressful for most, if not all people. In the case of a minister, you are not just moving home but work base, too, if (like me and probably most British ministers) you work from home. In our forthcoming move, we are bringing together the following factors:

There are minimum standards for a Methodist minister’s house, but they vary hugely (that’s inevitable). When we moved here, we downsized from an Edwardian house with six bedrooms, two reception rooms and a huge kitchen that had once belonged to a Navy Admiral to a small three-bedroom house with a lounge-diner. We became Mr and Mrs eBay as we prepared to move. Now, we are moving back up the scale to a four-bedroom house with separate lounge and dining room, plus a conservatory. Whereas here it has been difficult to offer hospitality, in the new manse it will be eminently possible, and we need to kit ourselves out to that effect.

To do that, we need to rid ourselves of certain items, such as the small sofas we bought to squeeze into this house, a redundant wall unit, the current dining table and chairs and several other smaller things. We need to replace them with a new three-piece suite, conservatory furniture, a sideboard, and miscellaneous other items. How can we afford this? We have been given some generous financial gifts by the churches here, and we are sourcing good second-hand pieces on eBay. In some cases, we are using an excellent website called Shiply to arrange economical transporting of them. So this morning, we took delivery of the conservatory furniture we wanted, which came 150 miles, and which we could not reasonably have collected.

Next, we tried the local branch of Freecycle. If you don’t know Freecycle, it’s a great way to offer items you no longer need, or request things you do need. It’s all done by an email to a list that circulates around people in your geographical area. With our local branch, however, all emails have to go through moderators and can take up to two days to appear. When you do get rid of something, it also takes that length of time for the email you circulate telling people the item has gone to go round. In the meantime, you have to tell maybe ten other people that what they want is no longer available. However, most of the people who have collected from us have been grateful. Only the odd one or two have expected us to dance to their tunes.

In fact, Freecycle was so slow when we first started using it that in our frustration I rang the local council and booked a delivery slot for them to take away some of our stuff. I didn’t want to do that for two reasons: one, it would go to landfill, and two, I had to pay! Thankfully, as of tonight everything I had asked the council to come and take next week has finally gone on Freecycle. Tomorrow I get to ring the council again and see whether I can get a refund.

I can’t help thinking all this could be a lot simpler. Maybe you could strip the moderation out of Freecycle and just ban those who break the rules. All I do know is that I’m glad we have a three-week break between me taking my final service last Sunday and our actual moving date! Right now, I wouldn’t have time for ministry!

So – do you have any tips to share on successful ethical disposal of possessions? Do you have any stories about moving to share? I hope nobody has had incidents like this one.

Ancient And Modern

My friend Rob Ryan is an Anglican pioneer minister on the staff of Rochester Cathedral. What pioneering stuff does he do? Well, in among the outreach to the Wetherspoon’s community, he does such groundbreaking stuff as, er, the Book of Common Prayer. On Sunday morning, he tweeted:

8am BCP … ugh! when are people gonna realise even God is still asleep at such a time on a Sunday morning

Which took my mind to the question of why people continue to prefer these forms of worship. In one respect’, continued devotion to the Book of Common Prayer is surely contrary to the spirit of Cranmer, who wanted worship to be ‘in a tongue understanded of the people’. It isn’t a phenomenon limited to traditional Anglicans: there are equivalents in other streams of Christianity. In Methodism, it might be those who insist on a certain proportion of Charles Wesley hymns in an act of worship.

So what are the reasons, good and bad, for people clinging to forms of worship from bygone eras?

A good reason might be theology. Sometimes the older forms express a depth of theology, or they include important aspects that are neglected in contemporary music and liturgy. Another Anglican friend of mine, Brian Kelly, once said to me that BCP was good for emphasis on the Cross, whereas the modern liturgies were better on the Resurrection. Methodists might identify with this. Scour the eucharistic prayers in our 1999 Methodist Worship Book and you will find few references to the Cross as atonement. Not substitution, representation, Christus Victor, exemplarism or any other theory you care to mention. Most of the references to Christ’s death in those prayers seem to be necessary staging post on the way to celebrating his conquest of death. (Which I’m not against! But something vital is routinely omitted.)

Similarly, you will find a richness of theological expression in Wesley’s hymns that you rarely encounter in contemporary hymns and worship songs. Simplicity is good, too, but not as the sole diet.

A poor reason would be aesthetics. Yes, the language of ancient rites is beautiful to many people, but who or what is then being worshipped? Is this a vehicle for worship, or is idolatry going on here? Take this to its logical conclusion and you will employ a pair of scissors on the Scriptures. You will retain the Shakespearean Hebrew of Job, but cut out the tabloid Greek of Mark’s Gospel.

Another poor reason would be escapism. I find this approach used as a way to baptise a strong disconnect from everyday life. This is the holy stuff, not those modern songs and liturgies. The same people who endorse older worship forms at criticise modern ones have, in my experience, also been the people who had discos for their silver wedding celebrations. There is a serious lack of integration.

None of this is to say that all things modern are automatically correct, nor that we can completely comprehend God in worship. Both such propositions are ridiculous. But it is to ask, would you add anything to my list of good and bad reasons? Do you have a constructive critique of my thoughts?

By the way, after BCP this morning, Rob tweeted again:

now experiencing the good side of 8am BCP … a big ‘spoons breakfast and a large black coffee mmmmm :-)

What Shape Is The Digital Future?

Interesting piece by Andrew Marr in the BBC Magazine: A New Journalism On The Horizon. If digital means the end of cinemas and bookshops as well as record shops, along with the catastrophe facing the newspaper industry, what shape will the future take?

Marr being a journalist with a history in newspapers (he edited The Independent in the 1990s), he has an interesting slant on Rupert Murdoch’s paywall approach. If traffic to The Times sites has fallen by 90% since its introduction, is it viable? But is free content viable, either? Marr suggests an alternative way. Just pay for the content you’re interested in, not the whole lot. Effectively, you don’t pay for the whole newspaper, given that you might want the sport section but not the showbiz coverage.

If he is right, then while this might be the economic solution (cheap enough, but still creates revenue), is it not a further sign of digitalisation being the ally of consumerist individualism? The advent of personal MP3 players has made it harder to share an excitement about a new musical discovery than before. It is still possible, but it is slower and less easy to do so. Will this be the same with journalism?

Is Marr right? What do you think? Pete Phillips, if you’re reading, does CODEC have any thoughts on this?

Sermon: Praying To A Good God

So here it is, my very last sermon in Chelmsford. The next sermon will appear on this blog in early September, when I begin my new appointment. In the meantime, I hope to post other items here.

Luke 11:1-13

Our children, like so many, are always sustaining bruises on their legs from accidents. They tend to have a colourful collection at most times. Right now it’s Mark who is particularly prone, and when I wash him in the bath at night he tells me to be careful around his right knee. If I’m not watchful, he will flinch with pain.

Preachers know there are certain subjects for sermons where, if we’re not careful, we will cause congregations to wince as we touch their spiritual bruises. Talk about evangelism, and people will become defensive about whether and how they share their faith with others. Preach on giving, and it’s easy to induce guilt.

Another is prayer – the subject of today’s reading. It wouldn’t take too much effort to take the theme of prayer and load heavy weights of condemnation on a congregation: “Do you pray enough?” (Well, who can reply ‘Yes’ to that question?) “Are your prayers always answered?” (You can wriggle out of that one by saying, ‘Sometimes God says ‘no’,’ but you’re left feeling it’s a cop-out.) And so on.

Yet Jesus doesn’t use guilt trips here when he teaches about prayer. Our reading collects – in my opinion – three different episodes about Jesus and prayer and edits them together. In each of them, what we have is not condemnation but encouragement in prayer. As a way of identifying each section, I am going to label each of them by a person who features in them.

The first character is the teacher. And I mean Jesus himself. ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples,’ says one of his own disciples (verse 1).

Now in some sense, Jesus is the teacher of prayer right throughout this passage, but in the first four verses this is especially in focus. This unnamed disciple asks him to teach the group how to pray – and after all, that’s what a rabbi did with his disciples: he taught them. Hence the fact that John had taught his disciples how to pray.

Furthermore, the request comes after Jesus ‘was praying in a certain place’ (verse 1). In other words, he had been praying and his disciples had been observing his practice. This was common practice for a rabbi with his disciples: the rabbi lived his life openly before his disciples, and they began to learn by watching and copying his example.

Jesus teaches prayer by example. It’s ‘Do as I do, as well as do as I say’ with him. We don’t have the privilege of observing him praying ‘in the flesh’, but we do have the testimony of four Gospels to his life, including his prayer life. He has left an example for us to follow, in both carving our special time for prayer and also spontaneously praying when the need arises. We see both the joy of his intimacy with the Father and the agony of responding to the Father’s will in Gethsemane. We see the prayer life of Jesus as one where he does not merely present a shopping list to God, but seeks to tune himself into the will of the Father and then live accordingly. In doing so, he teaches us how to pray.

Perhaps this also means it’s worth looking out for people who will teach us to pray. Jesus may be the supreme example of prayer, but throughout the centuries, the Church has known that certain people have had specific gifts both in prayer and in teaching prayer by example. It’s why one of the great gifts from the Catholic tradition to the rest of Christianity is the idea of the ‘spiritual director’ – one who can teach the spiritual life, including prayer, by example. There is much more to the work of the spiritual director than that, but it certainly includes this. Friends of mine who have spiritual directors and who meet with them every few months testify to the benefit that has on their growth in prayer.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t only teach by example, he also teaches by pattern. He gives a specific pattern here, which we have come to call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (verses 2-4). Some Christians call it ‘the pattern prayer’, and I think that isn’t a bad name for it. Given that we have two different forms of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels – a concise version here in Luke and a longer one in Matthew 6 – it would be hard to argue that the apostolic Church thought Jesus simply wanted us to repeat these words by rote, as if they were a magic incantation. And then, of course, you find that when I lead worship, I don’t use what many call the ‘traditional’ words of the Lord’s Prayer, but a modern translation!

Without going into the details of the Lord’s Prayer this morning – I don’t have time and when I have done, it has been a series of sermons – the simple point I want to make is that Jesus gives us this pattern so that we can pray in a fashion that reflects God’s priorities. How many of us have become bored with prayer when we have reduced it to a shopping list? So the name, honour and purposes of God come before we get to pray for ourselves in the second half, although God is deeply concerned for our spiritual and material needs. The pattern reminds us that prayer is not limited to a set of requests.

And that leads into the second section of teaching on prayer here. In the Parable of the Friend at Midnight, Jesus introduces us to the second key character here in understanding prayer, the neighbour.

Now here is where I want to take our conventional understanding of this parable and turn it on its head. Most preachers will tell you this parable is told to encourage persistence in prayer. They will point to typical translations of verse 8 at the end of the story as evidence of this:

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Furthermore, they will link with the teaching that follows where disciples are exhorted to ask, search and knock and point out that the Greek literally means, ‘Go on asking’, ‘Go on searching’ and ‘Go on knocking’.

However, this explanation does not fit the cultural background of ancient and modern Israel-Palestine. Without boring you with all the technical details, there is a very good argument[1] to translate verse 8’s punchline differently. Rather than referring to the persistence of the man who knocks, it refers to the neighbour who is woken up. And it is the neighbour’s desire to avoid shame that Jesus highlights.

Why? Leaving aside complicated questions of translation and which Aramaic or Hebrew words might be behind the Greek of Luke’s Gospel, it would have been a scandal in the hospitable culture of the Middle East for a neighbour not to help the person who had had a friend turn up on his doorstep out of the blue. Were he to fail to help, he would bring shame on himself and heap shame on the village.

Therefore what Jesus teaches us through the neighbour is that God will respond to our needs in prayer because if he did not, it would bring shame and dishonour on his holy name. While it is good not to give up in prayer (as Jesus teaches elsewhere in Luke 18 in the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge), God is not someone who has to be harangued and cajoled into answering prayer. Just as we call God ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer, so he listens to his children. Just as we pray that his name will be hallowed, so he will ensure that his name is not besmirched by failing to care for his children.

So we should not see the Parable of the Friend at Midnight as reason for badgering God. Rather, God is the true neighbour in prayer who will give what we need, even at great personal cost and inconvenience to himself. Even, I would suggest, the cost and ‘inconvenience’ of the Cross. Be encouraged: this is the caring, loving God in whom we put our trust. He is better than we often think he is.

And that neatly leads us to the third character here that teaches us about prayer, the Father. Isn’t it good news that God is kinder than we often portray him to be?

It is good news – for some. But others find it scandalous. As Jesus goes on to commend the idea of asking, seeking and knocking, and as he envisages human parents who will not substitute a snake for a fish or a scorpion for an egg, there is something withering here that our English partly disguises. Did you notice that reference to ‘you, then, who are evil’ (verse 13)? Put that together with the fact that Jesus introduces these words with the formula, ‘So I say to you’ (verse 9) which he sometimes uses when addressing enemies, and I think you can see that Jesus has turned from addressing disciples to confronting critics.

Let me suggest to you that here Jesus is emphasising the scandal of God’s love. He says that everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find and everyone who knocks will have the door opened for them (verse 10). Jesus’ enemies didn’t like the way he threw open the kingdom of God to the disreputable, the unclean and the marginalised. So Jesus offends those critics here by telling them that God the Father’s love is so scandalously good that he doesn’t just answer the righteous, the respectable, the elite, the in-crowd: he answers the prayers of sinners! No: even his ‘evil’ critics can give good things to their children: how much more will God give what is good and even the best to ‘everyone’! Terrible! Disgusting!

Worse than that, though: the scandalous God and Father of Jesus will give of himself to wretched sinners: he will give the Holy Spirit to them if they ask (verse 13)! He does not limit the spiritual action to the priestly classes, the theologically educated and the financially privileged. He opens ‘wide the gate of glory’ to all and sundry!

So let no-one here think they are not good enough for God to listen to them. The God of grace invites prayer from anyone.

And let no-one here think that anybody we know – however outrageous their lifestyles – is beyond the potential embrace of God’s love. I have encouraged you before to offer prayer for friends outside the faith who have needs, and to let them know you are praying for them. But I would also say on the basis of this text that we can encourage those same people themselves to pray. Who knows how they might be surprised by the way God responds to the cries of their hearts?

Various friends of mine have at times gone out onto the streets and offered prayer for anyone who would like it. One of them, a vicar called Simon, once found himself and a friend surrounded by some sceptical teenagers. Rather than debate with them, they offered to pray for them. In the middle of praying, the lads started to feel what they described as some strange but wonderful sensations.

“What was that?” they asked.

“The Holy Spirit,” said Simon.

“Would you pray for us again?”

Simon did. They experienced God again.

I’m not saying it will always be that sensational – any more than it always is for us. But I am saying that Jesus here presents the daring God of outrageous grace who is not constrained by the restrictive rules of decent people. So full of fatherly love is he that his heart bursts with compassion for all of creation. Let us dare to believe in such a God, the God of Jesus. Let us dare others to believe in him, too.

Truly, God is better than we think he is.


[1] Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, pp 119-141.

Cleverness Is A Gift, Kindness Is A Choice

I never thought I’d be using Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, as an illustration of the difference between talents and character, between the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. But the graduation speech at Princeton University shown above is certainly an example. He might seem a surprising choice, given this recent article about Amazon’s ruthless business methods and this one about the effect of their low download prices on musicians, though. Surely the difficult decisions that individuals have to make in favour of kindness need also to be made corporately.

Yet sin will always be a problem. This is where it becomes more than an issue of choice: it is about needing to co-operate with the renewing power of the Holy Spirit in all areas of life. And that is not an instant thing. It is acquired with practice, as Tom Wright argues in Virtue Reborn. Bit by bit, we train ourselves to behave and react differently, until holiness becomes more of a habit. It takes time to acquire Christlike habits. Perhaps that is why Paul refers to ‘the fruit of the Spirit': fruit doesn’t just appear, it takes time to grow.

Bezos’ speech above is only short and cannot cover all bases in twelve minutes. A longer exposition might explore a relationship between gifts and character, such as using gifts with character. It might also take on the thought that although gifts are given, we still need to work on crafting them. But whatever the failings of Amazon as a company, his call at the end of his speech to students to make a difference in the world with kindness is a welcome one. It might not be what we expected from a billionaire entrepreneur, but it is a breath of fresh air.

The Picnic

Yesterday (Thursday), our children finished at their primary school before our forthcoming move from Essex to Surrey. The other week, the mother of one of our daughter’s friends texted us to ask whether we would be free to share a picnic with her today. We were, so we agreed.

At 11 this morning, we made our way over to the park where we had agreed to meet. Only it wasn’t just this one family. It was a whole collection of families. And more turned up over the next couple of hours. We were deeply touched by their affection for us, and their gratitude for the part we had played in the community.

It reminded me of a story from a previous sabbatical, when Debbie and I worshipped at a Church Of Another Denomination. The pastor was a friend and a good preacher, but one Sunday morning a lay elder preached. He pranced around at the front like an evangelical superstar, and pronounced in his sermon that when non-Christians ask you how you are, they never mean it. Only your Christian friends truly care about you.

“Idiot,” we both thought. We have both had good reason to be grateful for our non-Christian friends. Sometimes they have been far better friends than some of our Christian acquaintances.

Whatever I believe about the need for everyone to follow Christ (and I do believe that), we need a theology to cope with the goodness of non-Christians.

Filtering Information Overload On The Internet

How do you deal with the overwhelming amount of information available on the Internet? Do you spend too much time surfing or hunting down further information? Here are a couple of ideas I have found.

Firstly, here is a piece on some personal self-disciplines. As a Christian, I would substitute the references to Buddhist meditation with other approaches, but I find it a helpful article.

Secondly, there is a new tool available for sorting through the mass of tweets and updates on certain subjects. It’s called SwiftRiver, and the BBC has a report on it.

Do you find these helpful? What approaches do you take?

Public Intercession

There’s a useful post called Leading a Church in Prayer at Leadership Journal, by Kevin DeYoung. Any Worship leader, preacher of minister would benefit from reading it. What do you think of DeYoung’s advice? What would you add?

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