Category Archives: Sports
One of my daughter’s hobbies is gymnastics. Sometimes I think she would prefer to cartwheel somewhere rather than walk.
The other evening, she asked me to time how long she could hold a handstand with her feet against a bedroom wall. I had to ask her to stop, because I could see her face going beetroot red with the blood. She was disgusted, as it turned out she had not achieved the time she wanted to make.
Our Gospel reading today is about Jesus turning things upside down. Just as the early Christian preachers were accused, according to the Book of Acts, of ‘turning the world upside down’, so had Jesus done precisely that before them. They were only following in their Master’s footsteps.
There are two major areas of life that Jesus turns upside down in these verses. The first is religion itself.
Think about the story of Jesus meeting the man suffering from dropsy on the Sabbath (verses 1-6). The Pharisees are watching him. Healing is banned on the Sabbath, but Jesus asks an awkward question:
“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (Verse 3)
In the face of their embarrassed silence, Jesus heals the man, sends him away, and then asks another embarrassing question that exposes the hypocrisy of the religious rules they were operating:
“If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” (Verse 5)
Again, embarrassed silence (verse 6).
Now, it’s easy for us to be smug and talk about those wicked Pharisees. But … there are a couple of elements here that should make us nervous.
One is that what Jesus shows up with his light here is the darkness of hypocrisy. You know as well as I do that one of the charges non-Christians level at Christians is that we are hypocrites. I know we can retort with comments such as, “Yes, the church is full of hypocrites – but there is always room for one more,” but perhaps sometimes we need to look at our hypocrisies, or at very least our inconsistencies. What are the areas where our lives contradict what we claim to be the truth of God? For a lot of us, there are rather too many.
Sometimes, this is blatant in the way that we do not lives up to the stringent standards that Jesus laid down for the life of discipleship. We do not love the poor. We are glad to have a Food Bank at our church, but we do nothing to support it, not even an occasional tin in the basket.
But our inconsistencies can show up in the most surprising forms. We proclaim that God is love, but we don’t actually believe he loves us.
The late Brennan Manning, one of whose books we have been studying in the Discovery Group, once said that he was convinced that on Judgement Day, God would only ask us one question, and it was this: “Did you believe that I loved you?”
“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?”
Some of us actually don’t believe that God loves us. And because deep down some of us don’t truly believe God loves us – and loves us like this – we manufacture a substitute religion. It comes out in the other thing that Jesus is criticising here: we construct a religion of rules. If we can’t believe God loves and live in response to that, then we will come up with something else that makes it look like we truly believe: outward conformity to rules. It’s as if we are saying that keeping the rules makes us acceptable to God, or keeping the rules shows that we are on the inside of the boundary between those who are God’s people and those who aren’t.
That is what the Pharisees were doing – and they ended up with labyrinthine rules that led to the prohibition on healing on a Sabbath day.
But it’s also what we do. We do it when a sincere churchgoer says to the preacher after the service, “If we only returned to the Ten Commandments, all would be well.” (Not that I am knocking the Ten Commandments!) We see it when we turn those in the religious hierarchy into people who police the laws of our institution, rather than preachers of the Gospel. Anglicans can turn Archdeacons into their police officers, and Methodists can do it with their Superintendents. When we are more concerned with maintaining the institution, we have fallen out of love with God.
Turning religion into a set of rules can actually happen for the best of reasons. We are so used to seeing the Pharisees as the villains of the New Testament piece that we forget they started out as good guys. Before the birth of Christ, they had begun as a group that wanted to return the people of God to the purity of the faith, and away from spiritual compromise. It was a noble goal. But somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn or two and ended up with a caricature of pure faith. Could it also be possible of us that we are people who began with worthy goals as Christians, but took our eyes off Jesus Christ and the grace of God and ended up with a distortion of the real thing, one that – unlike Jesus – rarely brought any kind of healing to people? If that is a description of our faith, then do we not need to start dwelling again on the radical nature of God’s love for us and for the world?
The second are of life that Jesus turns upside down is power. He notices how the guests at the meal lust for the places of honour. But he tells them instead to seek the place of least privilege, and when putting on dinner parties themselves not to invite the movers and shakers of this world but the least and the last, for that is the way of eternal blessing (verses 7-14).
This is the same Jesus who would refuse the request of James and John to sit at his right and his left in glory. He knew the human tendency to seek power, or – if we are unable to gain it for ourselves – to associate with those who are powerful, and so at least be influential.
Unaccountably, despite Jesus’ clear example, this is a lesson the church has struggled to learn over two thousand years. For some bizarre reason, we think the testimony of a celebrity who has become a Christian is more valuable than that of nobodies like us. We think that the church should have clear links with power, whether that is Anglicans clinging on to the idea of being the Established Church, or Methodists not wanting to move our central offices out of London, where we suppose we can talk with national politicians.
And if you think it doesn’t infect ordinary local Methodism, think again. When I arrived in one previous circuit, I inherited a building refurbishment programme. Six months in, we had a grand reopening and managed to get the President of the Conference to preach and dedicate the bright and shiny new premises, with the local mayor performing the official ‘opening’. My biggest headache in the organisation of the day was in satisfying a circuit steward that we had the right dignitaries on the platform. When all that was juggled and agreed, there was no space on the dais for the local MP. He had to sit in the congregation. Thankfully, he wasn’t bothered – unlike the circuit steward!
We need to see, along with Jesus, that the world’s ideas of who should be preferred by virtue of status and power are wrong. They need to be reversed. Let’s think about the examples I’ve just given. The evangelistic initiative that features the testimony of a famous person is actually less effective as a method than ordinary, everyday Christians telling the stories of their faith to friends. The linking of the church with powerful political forces is more likely to end up with spiritual compromise as we try to stay on the right side of these people in order to gain a hearing, whereas the work of the church at street level in standing up for the poor and the forgotten is more credible. And if we have a big event locally, then if we choose to invite the great and the good in order to garner headlines and attract people who otherwise might not come, we will probably largely attract people who come for the wrong reasons – reasons that are inimical to the Gospel, reasons that harden their hearts to Jesus’ message of God’s upside down kingdom, as one author put it.
So the question is, how upside down are we when it comes to power and status? Do we have our own little hierarchies, where we elevate people in a worldly way? Is there any sense here in which we see certain people as more important than others? I certainly hope you don’t see me as your minister as more important. Maybe we even say that some people matter more than us, because we think so little of ourselves, despite the fact that we are loved so much by God.
Or do we set an example here of reversing the world’s values? Do we raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty? Do we bless the poor and not worry too much about what the rich think? Do we favour servanthood over power-grabbing? Are we impressed with humility and disdainful of attempts by people to elevate themselves to positions of prominence?
And do we translate these words and attitudes into action? We know the early church did what it could, even though politically it was a powerless organisation. Slaves became bishops. One early bishop was called Onesimus – the same name as the converted slave Paul sent back to his master, Philemon. It could be the same person. Are we as willing to go against social convention when the Gospel demands it as those first Christians were?
The fourth verse of five pertains to this second point about Jesus upending power and status:
The world wants the wealth to live in state,
but You show a new way to be great:
like a servant You came,
and if we do the same,
we’ll be turning the world upside down.
However, the first verse – which is repeated as the fifth and final verse, too – sums up all we have been talking about:
O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive,
and the new life You give
is what’s turning the world upside down.
May we be turned upside down by the love of God in Jesus. And may we go out, cartwheeling and hand-standing, to do the same in the world.
One reason for light blogging in recent weeks has been pressure of work. But we have also had a fortnight’s holiday in East Looe, Cornwall. One night near the end of the two weeks I jotted down some of the highlights. Here goes:
Food – a supermarket that sells Dark – yes, dark! – Chocolate Hobnobs again.
The Smugglers’ Cott must be the best carvery we have ever visited. A choice of four meats. Not just beef, pork and turkey, but lamb, too. And the beef was offered in rare or well done joints. The kids asking for ‘a piece of crackling for my mum, please’.
Being introduced to the Baobab fruit at the Eden Project, especially when its powder is added to a Pineapple and Coconut Smoothie. The most refreshing drink of the summer, and apparently an energy booster. Will it help us keep up with Mark?
Kelly’s award-winning fish and chips. Beware the Trip Advisor reviews, many of which are based on the over-priced eat-in restaurant: the takeaway is excellent.
Moomaid ice cream: when a dairy farm made losses on milk sales, it decided to use it’s milk production differently. They tried cheese, and then struck gold with ice cream. Cornish ice cream is great anyway, but this beat anything else we tasted. No additives, so the choc mint crisp flavour is white, not green. Shame the Eden Project stopped selling it, because Moomaid wouldn’t drop their prices to uneconomic levels (they must have learned their milk-selling lesson, but how ethical and Fairtrade was the EP on this issue?).
Worship – Steve Wild trying everything to involve our children in worship at Riverside Church. Bringing Horace the Frog with him. Asking them to pick a favourite hymn (a lost cause when the church only used 1982’s Hymns and Psalms and still the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book). Purloining Jaffa Cakes for them from the refreshments area before the service ended. Mark hearing ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘ as an actual hymn for the first time, but nevertheless singing, ‘Glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur‘.
Place – I’ll mention it again: the Eden Project. Stunning is an inadequate adjective. We want to return. Twice.
Looe itself: even with all the tourist shops, it retains an old charm. Fishing trawlers share harbour space with pleasure boats.
Family – aside from the four of us and Rebekah’s sand sculpture of the word ‘family’, the good was to see cousins. My cousin, his wife and son. Debbie’s cousin , his wife and children. The bad – my mum falling and fracturing her hip on our second day here, the burden falling on my sister and her family, and us powerless at two hundred miles’ distance.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, who worked on Friday night’s Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, said this about the volunteers who took part:
The fact that almost 10,000 people kept the secret didn’t surprise Cottrell Boyce. “Those volunteers redefined the nation for me,” he said. “We’re told people need to be paid great sums to get results, but those who are motivated by money cock up. Because they’re crap. People who are motivated by things like love, family, friendship and humanity are the ones who have something to offer.”
(From the Guardian.)
Lately, my American friends on Facebook have been rather exercised by the adventures of one Tim Tebow. “Who he?” thought I, but quickly realised he plays that staged impersonation of rugby that our friends west of the Pond call football. (No ‘American’ to prefix it for the same reason that their baseball has a World Series.)
Furthermore, young Mr Tebow is rather good at the sport, having engineered some remarkable comebacks for his team the Denver Broncos – although they came unstuck against the New England Patriots 45-10 and won’t make the Super Bowl as a result.
Not only that, my American friends are excited because he is a Christian. Born to Baptist missionaries in the Philippines, he has appeared in an advertisement for Focus on the Family, and is overt in owning his faith.
Given some of the hysteria generated by Tebow Time, perhaps it’s actually time to nail some of the Christian myths about famous believing sporting heroes.
If football players on opposing teams each pray to win does God choose who wins or does he just watch the game?
Prayer doesn’t make a Christian win, or even a better athlete. There is no spiritual gift of sporting ability, and Christians have the same mix of natural talents that the rest of the population has. The place of prayer for the sporting Christian is in the request to glorify God in the way they participate. Winning isn’t guaranteed, nor is performance.
Number two, and very dangerous, is the whole notion of celebrity. Tebow is in the public eye, and I hope his Christian supporters are praying for him. But there is nothing of intrinsically greater worth about the testimony of a famous Christian than that of you or me. It plays into the hands of all the unhealthy contemporary obsession with celebrity. And isn’t that a matter of idolatry, and broken idols at that? We build up these people in some kind of false worship, then watch their images smash.
What’s more, your non-Christian friends who like American Football may well watch Tim Tebow with interest. But they will be watching your life more closely and more regularly. Rather than trumpeting a famous Christian, we should be considering our own witness, however quiet and humble it is.
Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.
In a way, this ties into the idolatry issue. Were Shankly being serious, his words would be appalling. I like to think they were satirical. I love it when my team wins. I hate it when they lose. My son is worse. But what matters in the end?
Thankfully, Tebow has a sense of real priorities, and what his fame can and cannot achieve. The Boston Globe reported his reaction to yesterday’s defeat:
“It still wasn’t a bad day,” Tebow said after the game. “It still was a good day, because I got to spend some time before the game with Zack McLeod [a 20-year-old Cambridge native who suffered a traumatic brain injury playing football] and make him smile, and overall when you get to do that, it’s still a positive day. Sometimes that’s hard to see, but it depends what lens you’re looking through. I choose to look through those lenses, and I got to make a kid’s day, that’s more important than winning the game. So, I am proud of that.”
Tebow was asked if the glare of the spotlight this season ever became too much.
“There are pros and cons with everything,” Tebow said. “Sometimes, you don’t want it all. You just like to be able to go to dinner, hang out with friends, be a normal 24-year-old. So that makes it sometimes hard. But I wouldn’t change it for the world, because by having that, I have the platform to walk into a hospital to walk into the hospital and share with kids, I have the opportunity to hang out with Zack before a game, I have the opportunity to go build a hospital in the Philippines or to do a lot more important things than football.”
That sounds like a guy who has got his head screwed on. The rest of us need to do the same.
Yesterday, I took Mark on a belated treat for his seventh birthday – a tour of Wembley Stadium. We had a wonderful time, with a knowledgeable and witty tour guide called Dominic.
And I got annoyed. Later with myself when I realised I’d been careless with the focussing of some shots, but earlier I seethed inwardly when going through the security check at the stadium. As the officer checking my bags noticed I had a LowePro camera bag and that I had a DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses, he gave me a friendly warning.
“Don’t change your lenses on the tour, or the guide will think you’re a professional photographer, and they’re banned from the tours. Choose one lens and stick to it.”
So now you know. Amateur photographers don’t use SLRs. Clearly we only use our phones, or at best a compact. Is that the level we’ve sunk to?
There is no new sermon for tomorrow. Having to give up time yesterday to help nurse a son who had to come home from school mid-morning, I never got the new sermon finished. I ended up abandoning ship and lightly revising last year’s Pentecost message. After all, I’m in a new location, and furthermore not even at one of my two churches in the morning.
However, I did find a wonderful video for Pentecost on the web, which I’ll be using in the morning. My Facebook friends have already seen this, but here it is (again):
You can download it free in HD format here.
Meanwhile, in other news, headlines have been made here in the UK today by the publication of the annual Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Topping the news has been the knighthood for beloved entertainer Bruce Forsyth. Seventy-three MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, calling for him to be knighted. (He was appointed CBE in 2005.) This honour is for ‘services to entertainment and to charity’.
Now, I have nothing against dear old Brucie, and indeed I have a tenuous claim-to-fame link with him: we grew up along the same road. Not at the same time: he is about the same age as my father. He was a local hero due to that fact, even if a little scathing in his autobiography about the way the town declined in latter years, in contrast to how nice it apparently was when he lived there. In his light entertainment career, he has put smiles on the faces of millions. And never more for me than the classic time he first hosted Have I Got News For You in 2008:
However, contrast this with the announcement that founder of The Message Trust Andy Hawthorne has also been awarded an honour, the OBE. He can’t beat Brucie’s sixty years in show business, but he has put nearly twenty years into work in some of the most deprived estates, with difficult young people and prisoners.
The question I ask is, who has given more to society? Because for me it’s Hawthorne. I have no problem with a nation having an honours system, even if ours contains some anachronisms mostly associated with the monarchy and some remembered feudalism. If a society wants to honour those who have made a positive difference to them, fine. And perhaps that will include entertainment, and even sport, given the gongs also awarded for our cricketers thrashing a poor Australian team last winter.
But make a difference? I’m sure Bruce has raised a lot of money for charity, but Andy Hawthorne has got his hands dirty. To me, in kingdom terms, Hawthorne deserves the higher honour, hands down. At least he awaits a reward in glory. In the meantime, this is an area of British life that only reflects God’s kingdom extremely imperfectly.
What do you think? What would you do with the Honours system?
So, England were deservedly thrashed by Germany in the World Cup today. If I have any hope as an England fan, it’s that this humbling will wake up a sport drenched in greed, with players who earn five times in a week what I earn in a year and who still lust for further dosh with Hello magazine spreads, and start coming back to some healthier values. I’m not optimistic, though. Not while the Premier League has its stranglehold on the ‘national game’.
But there is another dark side. The English propensity to football hooliganism is infamous. Though far less evident than it used to be, the real issue seems not its near-eradication at the top level, but that it has moved to other arenas. There is still football-related violence in this country, but much of it now happens away from the stadia. Last week, I had an email from TEAR Fund which included this sobering statistic:
on England match days during the last world cup violence in the home went up by 25% in British homes, it is utterly unacceptable and totally preventable.
How sick is that? And tonight, after England’s defeat, the violence has come near to us on our estate here. Only yesterday, some lay leaders at the local parish church said they had already sustained £3000 of damage to the premises after earlier England games in the tournament, and they were talking of mounting a guard near the building after today’s match.
I don’t yet know whether anything has happened there this evening, but for approximately two hours from 7 pm, we have been serenaded by hovering police helicopters. Checking friends’ status updates on Facebook, we discover that a number of incidents have occurred. There has been a glassing at a local branch of Tesco (I’m not sure which one). Trouble also broke out at a pub we know that shows football on large screens inside while children play outside on a bouncy castle. And there has been an incident with baseball bats and a gun at the pub-restaurant on our quiet, middle class estate. That establishment is right opposite our children’s school. People are staying inside their houses, with windows closed on the hottest day of the year so far.
I cannot prove that any of these incidents are football-related, but the timing is suspicious, especially for an area that is largely unfamiliar with this kind of trouble. Of one thing I am sure, though: our society that trundles along without God should not be so complacent. It reminds me of two powerful quotes from Eunice Attwood’s wonderful Vice-Presidential address to the Methodist Conference yesterday. Firstly, speaking of when she began to get involved with Healing On The Streets:
One of the Big Issue sellers who I know well, called me over and with a very serious look on his face said, ‘At last you’re here, we need you Christians here, Eunice. Why doesn’t the church come here every day? It’s no good staying in your lovely buildings’.
Secondly, in talking about her work with Street Pastors:
When John Wesley came to Newcastle in 1742 he spoke these now famous words, ‘I was surprised so much drunkenness, cursing and swearing even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before in so small a compass of time. Surely this place is ripe for him who came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’
I didn’t get out on the streets tonight. Was I wrong? I don’t know. With police cars, a riot van, paramedics and other supporting people, part of me says I shouldn’t have meddled. But I didn’t know about those details until the helicopters started to disappear, and it’s surprising how alluring putting the rubbish out, emptying the dishwasher and making the children’s sandwiches become. But whether I succeeded or failed as a Christian tonight, Debbie and I shall have a rôle as representatives of the Prince of Peace tomorrow morning at the school gate, when we discover whether and how much people have been troubled by today’s goings on.
I didn’t think I’d keep up my record of daily sabbatical blogs today. By tea-time, I was in bed, exhausted and with a dreadful headache. Several bad nights’ sleep had taken their toll, and adrenaline had kept me going until finally I kept dropping off on the sofa to the embarrassment of the family.
Tomorrow is Rebekah’s sixth birthday, and today was her party. She had chosen a pottery party with ten friends at local studion The Glazed Look. That was going to make for a quiet celebration, rather than exuberant running around and noisy games. When Debbie booked his for her at her request, we didn’t know how significant that was going to be.
Because, just after 6 am, Debbie woke me to say Rebekah had been awake three times in the night with ear pain. (I may be having trouble getting to sleep at present, but once I do, there’s little that would wake me.) She also had a discharge from her right ear. By 6:30, I was on the phone to the out of hours doctors’ service, getting an appointment at their clinic for 8:10 am. Just as I had taken Mark there a couple of weeks ag on a Saturday night, now I was taxi for my daughter.
With nobody in the queue, she was seen on time by a lovely, gentle Indian doctor, and out came the usual prescription for amoxicillin – just what we expected. The nearest pharmacy open at that time on a Saturday was at Tesco, so we drove there. Knowing Rebekah doesn’t like the usual banana flavour of amoxicillin, he prepared an orange version. However, that didn’t make any difference to her dislike. But with alternating doses of calpol and calprofen, at least she got through her party and crashed out a little bit this afternoon. How devastated she and we would have been, had she not been able to. So it’s a big thank you today to the NHS staff who coped so kindly and efficiently with a little girl’s distress.
Harking back to yesterday’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang reference, there’s a scene where Baron Bomburst comes into a room singing ‘Happy Birthday to me’. Yet he’s a married man with a fawning wife and an obsequious entourage.
There would have been the odd time in my past when I would have croaked ‘Happy Birthday’ to myself when I was single and fairly isolated. No longer.
In case you haven’t guessed, it’s my birthday today, and it has been a great joy to share simple pleasures with Debbie and the children. Nothing fancy or expensive, just the joy of family love. And Mastercard can’t buy that.
When I brought the assorted teas (Rebekah and me), coffee (Debbie) and warm milk (Mark) up first thing this morning, the children were on the starting line, desperate to open my presents – gifts they had only wrapped yesterday with Debbie’s help. What fun it was to see them rip the paper with almost as much abandon as if the presents were for them and they didn’t know what was inside.
Much as I love them, I was pleased they were both fit for school today. So after a mundane trip to B&Q for a carbon monoxide detector, Debs and I had coffee in a Wyevale garden centre and then headed for a pub she had seen advertised in the Essex Chronicle. She thought a print-out from their website would be enough to find them, but it was in the middle of nowhere and we soon ended up in the middle of a different nowhere. Oh well, resort to the Essex Street Atlas.
It was worth it. The Duck Inn was fabulous. They were advertising a ‘three courses for ten pounds’ offer. The menu was strictly limited, but the quality certainly wasn’t. For me, chicken pâté followed by fillet of salmon and finished with bread and butter pudding in vanilla cream. For Debbie, deep fried Brie, then roast chicken and finally assorted ice creams. The main courses had some beautifully cooked seasonal vegetables.
They also do a jazz night menu every few Friday evenings – three courses for fifteen pounds with live music. The normal á la carte menu is quite expensive, with main courses around fifteen to twenty pounds, but if you live anywhere near here, then it’s in the tiny hamlet of Newney Green and comes more thumbs aloft than even Paul McCartney can muster.
Back home and a surprise visit from a local friend before the school run. Debbie took Rebekah for her weekly swimming lesson but I stayed home with Mark in view of his ear infection. Then we finally had our Shrove Tuesday pancakes! Plus the children had insisted on a birthday cake. An extremely sickly chocolate one. I managed three mouthfuls. They enjoyed it, along with lighting the candles. Little Becky managed a picture or two on her camera.
Sabbatical work? Today? What do you think?