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The Beauty Of An Honest Christian Memoir: Ashley Cleveland’s ‘Little Black Sheep’

Ashley Cleveland

Ashley Cleveland by Steve White aka echobase_2000 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Back in July, I wrote about the controversy attending the discovery of substantial fictional elements in Tony Anthony’s book ‘Taming the Tiger’. I noted the evangelical obsession with celebrity, and the lust for dramatic conversion stories as drivers in promoting such books, with an attendant risk of pastoral damage for Christians who do not have a spectacular story to tell. I began the piece with reproducing a cartoon from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine, not a website. ‘Born Again Testimonies’ asked, ‘You may be, but has your TESTIMONY been born again?’

Now I’ve found an antidote in Ashley Cleveland‘s memoir, ‘Little Black Sheep‘. i have loved her music for a good twenty years. Many say she sounds like Melissa Etheridge: I say she makes Janis Joplin sound like Janet Jackson. A blues-rock singer with notes of soul, she sings with passion and honesty about faith and life. In the book, she writes with the same passion and honesty about faith and life.

Superficially, her story has elements that Christian publishers and readers love. Blaming herself as a young child for the divorce of her gay father and vain mother, she slides into multiple addictions – food, alcohol and drugs. She seeks love in all the wrong places and believes that God only wants to punish her. She has no concept of a personal, loving God – although eventually she is – if I may borrow Brennan Manning‘s word – ‘ambushed’ by God.

But hers is no quick fix fairytale of the ‘When I met Jesus, everything was happy ever after’ variety. She slides back, still fighting alcoholism while winning Grammy awards for her music. She struggles to establish a healthy  marriage. The Christian community is locally welcoming, in the non-judgemental members of her church, but the wider Christian constituency is offended when she dares to sing about sex – even as a married woman. But hers is the tale of the God who lifts her up by love every time she falls.

There is much more that I could say about the book, but what I essentially want to say in this post is that all sorts of people would profit from reading this book:

* Music fans should read it;

* Pastors should read it;

* Most of all, broken people should read it.

I’d better end this with some music:

The song which provides the title for the book:

Queen Of Soul – her take on being a woman of God:

An exhortation to others, based on her own experience:

Covering the Rolling Stones:


Sermon: Turning The World Upside Down

Luke 14:1-14

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?

In my teens, we used to sing a modern hymn, ‘O Lord, all the world belongs to you,’ by Patrick Appleford, the man who wrote ‘Living Lord’.

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.

Sermon: Psalm 131, A Question Of Balance

Psalm 131
As a small child, I had a tricycle. But when the time came to graduate to a bike, I never had one. The owner of the local cycle shop wouldn’t sell bikes with stabilisers. He said stabilisers were harmful to children’s attempts at cycling proficiency. So because I had a bad sense of balance, my parents never bought me a bike and to this day I still cannot ride one.

Only later did I learn that my parents couldn’t afford a bike for me and that my poor sense of balance helped them save face, but my wobbliness was a self-evident truth.

Just as we need balance to become a cyclist, so we need balance in the life of the Spirit before God. It’s easy to be an unbalanced Christian. We have to hold together various paradoxes to have a truthful relationship with God, but some of us wobble to one side or the other.

To give one example: God is both awesome in holiness and intimate as a friend, but it’s easy to tilt to one side at the expense of the other. Some so stress reverence before a holy God that they fail to hear the good news of God’s passionate, personal love for us. But some emphasise that intimacy with God to such an extent that they become matey with God and miss the importance of his terrifying holiness.

This week’s Psalm is also about balance. It calls us to hold together two different approaches to God in order that we might have a healthy posture before him. They involve on the one hand a downward move and on the other an upward move.

First, the downward move: we call this humility.

My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. (Verse 1)

Let’s make clear what we don’t mean by humility. We don’t mean the kind of debasing ourselves that sees ourselves as worth no more than a worm. We are not looking at the Uriah Heep notion of being ‘very ‘umble’. We are not referring to models that elevate the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. There is good Christian reason for omitting the infamous verse from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:

The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate.

There is nothing bright and beautiful about these ways of conceiving humility.

Nevertheless, it is the opposite of pride to pursue ambitions beyond our abilities and callings. The RSV doesn’t say ‘My eyes are not haughty’, it renders the text, ‘My eyes are not raised too high’, and that’s the danger. The naked running after personal ambition in order to elevate ourselves is rampant in our society, and something Christians need to guard against. It isn’t just those in the office environment who climb higher by grovelling to those above them and treading on those below them. It also happens in the church. I know of two sad cases where ministers sought preferment beyond their capabilities, and their ministries were derailed by alcohol – in one case temporarily, in the other case permanently.

How can we judge our gifts with humility, then? Paul has a helpful approach in Romans 12. Significantly, it falls between his call for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and some descriptions he gives of the use of spiritual gifts. His link between the two is to call us to think of ourselves with sober judgement (Romans 12:3).

There are various practical ways in which we can come to a sober judgement of our gifts, so that we do not raise our eyes too high and then fall. One way would be this: there are various tools available that will create an inventory of our likely spiritual gifts. They usually come in the form of a questionnaire. You can find various examples on the Internet. Two of the best known are the Spiritual Gifts Inventory from Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and the SHAPE test from Saddleback Church in California. None of these tests is perfect, but they will get you started. They can be useful material for a home group to use and discuss.

And that leads to the other helpful way to approach this: ask your friends and family what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Again, it can be useful to do this in a small group. I have been in groups where we have written down not what we think our own gifts are, but what we think the gifts of the other group members are. If several people in the group start to spot similar abilities in you, then this is something to take seriously.

Ultimately, a sober judgement of our gifts that takes us away from selfish forms of ambition and pride is the way of peace. When we serve according to our abilities, we have the peace of knowing we are where God wants us.

Remember, it is about serving rather than ambition for ourselves. Our ambition must be for the glory of God, not ourselves. If we strain for things beyond us for the sake of our own advancement, we shall only know strife and cause strife. If we humbly accept the limits and extent of the gifts God has given us and use them for his praise, then that will bring with it the peace that comes from contentment.

So we move to the second element in our paradox, from the downward move to the upward move. If humility means a certain growing down, our second element, maturity, is about growing up.

How is this psalm about maturity? Because the writer speaks of being ‘like a weaned child’. Not a child, but a weaned child. This is not an image of being infantile, this is a picture of growth. A weaned child has come off the breast milk and is progressing with solids. Such a child is maturing physically.

Therefore the psalmist holds before us the need to be mature disciples. But what is it to be mature in Christ?

We hear a lot about the existence of mature and faithful Christians, when all we mean is that certain members have been in the church for many years, and turn up most Sundays. However, such people are not necessarily faithful or mature. They are simply regular. They may display signs of immaturity, throwing tantrums when they don’t get what they want, for example. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty such people in over twenty years of ministry.

No: a mature Christian is a growing Christian. Mature Christians are those who are never satisfied with the level of their spiritual lives. They want to know God’s will more deeply, and follow Christ more closely.

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews got frustrated with his readers about this very issue. He told them that they should have progressed in spiritual terms from milk to solid food – it’s a similar image of weaning a child. But they hadn’t, and thus were more likely to succumb to the pressures coming on them from outside the church to compromise their faith, especially about the superiority and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Thus it is not an option for the Christian to mature, it is a necessity. Growing in grace is not merely for the keen Christians, it is for all who might be disciples.

That’s why I was saddened to read in our Family Friendly church questionnaire last autumn about the number of members here who don’t engage regularly with the Bible outside of Sunday services. I’m not saying that daily personal Bible reading is a religious panacea, not least because I have known church members elsewhere who have been avid daily Bible readers who have been among the nastiest of Christians. But it is one key discipline among many we need to practise for the sake of growth. It is part of our feeding and our exercise.

But one sure sign of the immature Christian is the person who forever demands to be fed spiritually and makes little effort to feed themselves. Remember that although Jesus told Simon Peter to feed his sheep, it is also true that the Lord our shepherd in Psalm 23 simply takes the sheep to the green pastures: the assumption is that the sheep get on with feeding themselves.

If we listen to the Apostle Paul, we will learn that the function of church leaders is not to keep administering baby food, but to see to it that the church family grows up. So in Ephesians 4 he says that the purpose of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to see the whole Body of Christ grow up. And in Colossians 1 he says that his aim as an apostle is ‘to present everyone mature in Christ’.

But, you may object, I aim at growth but I fail regularly. How, then, would I encourage us to live?

I would point to the words of the late Brennan Manning, who said in his classic book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ that the Christian life is like a ‘victorious limp’ (chapter 10, passim). In particular, he says this:

The mature Christians I have met along the way are those who have failed and have learned to live gracefully with their failure. Faithfulness requires the courage to risk everything on Jesus, the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout our lives.[1]

The image of the weaned child as one of growing maturity speaks to us on many levels. The child will fail regularly, but the parent lifts them up, dusts them down, and encourages them to keep trying – whether it is attempting to walk, to climb, or to learn another life skill.

The weaned child is growing, and knows that a lot more growing is needed. Think how a child looks forward to when it will be taller than its parents. It will take time, but the child expects to grow.

It is a mystery to me why some Christians therefore seem to give up on the spiritual diet and exercise that are required for growing in grace. I am bemused by those Christians who tell me they should just be concentrating on ‘consolidating’. Believe me, there are only two choices in the life of the Spirit: growth and decline. Would the church not be healthier if we were all aspiring, like a child, to be taller?

But the progress from infancy to childhood is bumpy. Eugene Peterson says,

The early stages of Christian belief are not infrequently marked with miraculous signs and exhilarations of spirit. But as discipleship continues the sensible comforts gradually disappear. For God does not want us neurotically dependent upon him but willingly trustful in him. And so he weans us. The period of infancy will not be sentimentally extended beyond what is necessary. The time of weaning is very often noisy and marked with misunderstandings: “I no longer feel like I did when I was first a Christian. Does that mean I am no longer a Christian? Have I done something terribly wrong?”

The answer is, “Neither: God hasn’t abandoned you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You are being weaned. The apron strings have been cut. You are free to come to God or not come to him. You are, in a sense, on your own with an open invitation to listen and receive and enjoy our Lord.”[2]

Your duty in this is to attend to the diet and exercise that bring growth. My duty as your minister is to be a little like your personal trainer at the gym, advising you on the best ways to achieve fitness.

So we’re back to this question of balance. Some Christians can think altogether too much of themselves and need a dose of humility. Using our gifts requires sober judgement and a commitment to God’s glory, not ours.

But other Christians either don’t want to grow or belittle themselves as if they were no more than worms. To such we hold out the possibility of, and the need for growth in grace, by adjusting their spiritual diet and practising spiritual exercises.

Where does each one of us need to adjust our balance?

Sermon: A Common Destiny For All

Ecclesiastes 9:1-12

In the time from Margaret Thatcher’s recent death to her funeral last Wednesday, I have been involved in three funerals. We hosted a funeral at the church, prior to a burial at Brookwood Cemetery, because the chapel there was in too distressing a state for the family. We have had the funeral of a church member’s mother. I am preparing for another funeral tomorrow, too: I had taken an elderly lady’s funeral a year ago, but when her daughter died younger than most, her children asked for ‘the minister who conducted Granny’s funeral.’

None of these three people was famous, and certainly not like Mrs Thatcher. Yet they all share one thing in common with her, as we all do. Death comes to us all, as today’s reading in Ecclesiastes reminds us:

All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. (Verse 2a)

The same destiny overtakes all. (Verse 3)

“Lying here, she is one of us,” said the Bishop of London in his address, and while the trappings of a ceremonial funeral seemed designed to separate the grocer’s daughter of Grantham from mere mortals, death remains the great fact and great equaliser.

When you are younger, you may live as if you are immortal. As you grow older, reality dawns on you. It may come in the death of a friend or loved one; it may come as you notice signs of decay in your own body.  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes invites us to ask this question: how do we live well in the certain knowledge of death? I offer two main thoughts this morning.

Firstly, live life well. This seems to be the Preacher’s main advice in the passage:

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Verses 7-10)

You could easily interpret this along the lines of, ‘This life is all there is, so you might as well make the most of it.’ Even if you substitute the word ‘temporary’ for the word ‘meaningless’ as I’ve suggested in previous weeks, you would still be talking about ‘this temporary life’ and ‘all your temporary days’. It might boil down to little more than, ‘God has only given you this life, so get on with it.’

But that’s rather worrying, isn’t it? And this is one of those Old Testament texts where the Christian has to bring in the New Testament for a fuller understanding. Left on its own, this passage is not fully Christian. It needs filling out with New Testament revelation. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the finality of death and that we need to live life well before dying, rather than just wait for death. However, the story of Jesus Christ reworks this into a fuller picture.

What is that fuller picture? Simply put, it is one word: resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is far bigger than a promise of eternal life for all his followers (although I do not deny that!). It is the promise of a new world to come, a new creation where God makes all things new, just as he made the body of his Son new after crucifixion. It is the foretaste of new heavens and a new earth.

In other words, we are not dealing with some ethereal life, floating on clouds, playing harps. If harp playing is a requirement, then only one person in this congregation has an eternal future! Rather: it is a physical and material future, seen in the way the Risen Lord cooked and ate fish.

Therefore, to eat and drink, to love and to work well, as the Preacher suggests, are appropriate preparations for the life of the age to come. When we enjoy God’s good creation with thankfulness, we tune in to the coming age. When we love and when we work hard, despite the struggles they involve due to the presence of sin in this world, we tune into the life to come.

Sometimes we are tempted to think in life that what we are doing is worthless or pointless. ‘Why am I giving myself to this?’ we ask ourselves. We might even ask God the same question. However, that is where one of Paul’s greatest insights into the meaning of the Resurrection comes into play. It’s a verse that some of you know came to be very important to me during an extremely hard season in my life. It’s the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Just when many of us would expect him to point at the climax of his argument to God’s glorious future, he instead brings us back to this earth with a practical application:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Aligning yourself with God’s will ‘is not in vain.’ Death will not destroy it. Somehow it will be taken up in the work of building for God’s kingdom. If God has given you a task to do, there is an eternal purpose to it. If God has given you something to enjoy, then do so with gratitude and generosity, not with greed, for that generosity and gratitude is the grain of the wood in his kingdom.

Cover of "Dead Poets Society"

Cover of Dead Poets Society

But what is true is this: one day, the opportunity in this life to build for that kingdom will be gone. We have limited time, and as the Preacher says at the end of the passage, ‘no one knows when their hour will come’ (verse 12). So take the opportunity. Do you have an opening to good or to celebrate God’s gifts? Take it! Remember the slogan from the Robin Williams film from 1989, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day. In the face of death but with the hope ofresurrection, that is what the Christian will do in order to live life well, in a manner that pleases God.

Secondly, prepare for death. On the day of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Giles Fraser had an excellent piece in The Guardian entitled, ‘How to bury Margaret Thatcher’. If you saw a title like that by a left-wing clergyman like Fraser in a paper like the Guardian, you would probably expect something vitriolic. Not so. Fraser spoke how when he was on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Operation True Blue’, the plans for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral arrangements, were on the books all the time he was there. We know that Mrs T had made certain requests about her funeral, as indeed many more humble people do. But I am not talking about leaving a list of requests for the service – although I have to say that if you do so, it is helpful to your relatives after you have gone.

No: I am talking about preparing for our deaths in squaring our relationship with God in Christ, and all the consequences of it. Fraser tells of how last Sunday, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley, told a story in his sermon about the funerals of Habsburg royalty in Austria:

As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “Who is it?” The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “Who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.

Here is how we prepare for death: as ‘a sinner in need of God’s mercy.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes here as if there is nothing after death:

Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun. (Verses 4-6)

However, as I’ve already said, the Christian has received further revelation, the revelation of an empty tomb, and we believe in a life to come, preceded by a Last Judgement. We do not intend to present ourselves before God, clutching a eulogy to our lives that exaggerates our good points and airbrushes the bad bits. We are not to be the Pharisee at the temple, telling God how well we have lived for him, but the publican standing at a distance, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Is that to be morbid and to be miserable? Is that to engage in what I once heard somebody call ‘worm theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am but a worm’?

No. It is to cast ourselves on the grace of God. I’m sure you know the old mnemonic for the word ‘grace’: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In other words, we are forgiven through Christ’s death on the Cross and made new in his Resurrection.

Or put it this way. Here is a slogan I saw the other day on Facebook:

Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection.

We prepare for death by remembering that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious love in Christ. We are, as the late Brennan Manning called himself and all of us, ‘ragamuffins.’ If we come boasting of our good deeds, we shall only be exposed as the hypocrites we are.

There is no room for cover-ups. In his book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Manning tells of being in a group for alcoholics with a man who kept presenting his drinking problem as not too bad. However, the counsellor practised tough love and ruthlessly exposed his lies and deceit, even to the point of having left his daughter in a car on her own during freezing weather while he went on a bender for hours. The daughter developed frostbite and permanently lost her hearing. Only when the man had been brought to honesty about his sins and had put away his egregious attempts to present himself in a good light could redemption come.

It is the same with us before God. If we try to come as good people, decent people, valued pillars of society, God will not be impressed with us. But if we present ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness, and sinners willing to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then just as the imperial chapel was opened to the dead body of Habsburg royalty, so the court of heaven is opened to the deceased pilgrim in Christ.

The Second Coming Of Todd Bentley

Todd Bentley

Todd Bentley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He’s back. Plastered all over the God TV home page, with pictures, blog posts and a live feed. It’s just that he’s had to move a few miles away from Lakeland – to Durban, South Africa, for his latest ‘revival’, humbly called ‘The Great Awakening’. Yes, folks, the ever-modest Todd Bentley, whose trophy healing cases end up dead, is implicitly comparing himself with Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards.

Of course, the publicity machine has had to be dragged out of the garage for this. There is a powder-puff interview with him this evening, and the God TV founders, Rory and Wendy Alec, have had some explaining to do. You see, apparently, they’re going to be persecuted for putting Bentley on screen again. That’s right, the secret police are going to turn up in the middle of the night and cart the Alecs off for interrogation under torture.

No, actually. They will not be persecuted. Other Christians will disagree and criticise. That’s not the same thing. Please stop using the word ‘persecution’ in this way. It’s utterly disrespectful of the suffering church throughout the world and throughout the ages.

However, we’re all right, because the ground has been prepared. The Alecs interviewed Bentley in January, and the controversial matter of his marriage separation, his ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Jessa, whom he went on to marry, is all subsumed under a ‘David and Bathsheba’ motif. Jesus forgave Peter for his three denials, and told him to forgive ‘seventy times seven’. Is Bentley simply a case of someone with a besetting sin who keeps needing the grace of a loving God, in the manner I spoke of Brennan Manning? If I argue that Bentley remains in the relationship that arguably broke up his first marriage and could therefore biblically be said to be adulterous (even though in the eyes of the law he is duly married), then David and Bathsheba are invoked. However, in that case, Bathsheba’s first husband was dead (albeit bumped off at David’s behest). Shonnah Bentley is alive, although in the interview apparently her pastor gave a statement on her behalf, saying she has forgiven Todd and she endorses his on-going ministry. Does that make it right?

There is still the uncomfortable question of verification around Bentley’s ministry. I’ve linked to evidence above that many claimed healings were nothing of the sort. In the current ‘revival’ in Durban, there are alleged manifestations of gold. But no, that’s not enough: there are diamonds as well. So how about some independent testimony? They could pay the expenses of the outreach if they truly are diamonds. There is also a Wendy Alec prophecy, that names specific places which will be affected in the claimed forthcoming revival. You might think that would make things potentially verifiable: will these cities and nations be strongly impacted with the gospel or not? However, it’s a little too vague, even for that, because there is no time frame, apart from a general ‘It is time’ statement. If someone says, ‘Johannesburg has not been transformed, Bulgaria has not been touched’, it will still be easy to say, ‘It isn’t that it hasn’t happened; it just hasn’t happened yet.’

My gut instinct, then, is still to draw a clear line between a Todd Bentley and a Brennan Manning. Both of them, like all of us, are or were sinners in need of restoration, but I am more at ease with one than the other. I think you can guess which.

For those who want to see the whole interview, this seems to be it:

On The Death Of Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning (Photo credit: Jordon)

I was sad to pick up the news today about the death of Brennan Manning. His books, with their radical embrace of God’s grace, have meant a lot to me in recent years. I recall someone once saying that you have not truly preached grace until you are falsely accused of antinomianism – well, if that were ever true of anyone it was true of Brennan Manning. His message that ‘Abba is very fond of you’ was too much for many contemporary Pharisees.

And the same Pharisees had a field day with the self-confessed evidence of Manning’s own life. In many places, not least his final book, a memoir entitled ‘All Is Grace‘, he talks ruthlessly about his failings and his unconquered sins. To the horror of many fellow Catholics, he quit the priesthood to marry (not that I see that as a sin). However, his marriage didn’t last. He never broke his habit for alcohol. To the scandal of many, he would return to his room after giving a powerful sermon or a homily at a retreat and hit the bottle. He knew the gutter at the same time that he knew Jesus Christ. He said that he was dying of a disease caused by his alcoholism, ‘wet brain‘. Where did he stand on the New Testament conviction that Christians will not continue to sin? Some felt this made him a false teacher. Others felt the accusers were not being honest about their own besetting sins.

Time and again, Manning the sinner came back to the message of grace. He brought his readers and listeners back to grace, too. If you have never read ‘All Is Grace’ or classics such as ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel‘, then I commend them to you highly.

Sleep well, child of Abba. A reward awaits you on the Last Day when you awake.

Sermon: The Majesty of God in Creation

Psalm 8

Last Sunday evening, I got in after Richard Goldstraw’s farewell service and tea at Addlestone to find that we had a new temporary resident in the manse.

The Queen.

OK, it was a life-size cardboard cut-out of her, and apparently it is doing the rounds of every house in our road that will have her, ever since the Diamond Jubilee street party.

Jokingly, I put up a comment on my Facebook page, saying that this had happened, and asking any of my friends if they had any messages they would like me to relay to her. These included one friend who had recently been to a Buckingham Palace garden party asking me to give her a cheery wave and say ‘thanks’ for the tea. Another thought I could ask her to whip up a sermon for today. Somebody wanted to know if she had changed her mobile number. And another saw the opportunity for a lucrative business opening. I could advertise my services to parents who are regularly nagging their children over their manners by offering a practice Royal Garden Party. They could ‘meet the Queen’ and ‘have tea with the vicar’.

Of course, I wanted to have some fun with this, but our concept of a ruler’s majesty has declined over the years. The Psalmist, on the other hand, has a rich view of God’s majesty. Yet even then, the way in which that majesty is expressed on earth and in the heavens (verse 1) is surprising at times.

Firstly, God shows his glory in weakness.

Recently I had to take our daughter Rebekah on a Brownies’ trip to the dry ski slope at Aldershot, where the girls had an hour of ‘donutting’ – that is, coming down the dry ski slope in a glorified large rubber tyre, while wearing helmets for safety. As we arrived at the car park, Brown Owl suddenly got very excited and shouted to everyone, “Look! A Vulcan!”

I should explain that this was not a reference to Star Trek but to a Vulcan bomber that could be seen in the sky. The Farnborough Air Show was about to start.

And maybe an air show like that is what we expect in terms of rulers showing their power and might. They use displays of military hardware or force. Think back to all those parades of the Soviet Army through Red Square that we used to see on the news.

But God goes explicitly against this in the display of his majesty:

Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger. (Verse 2)

What could contradict military might much more than ‘the mouths of babes and infants’? Those who claim might and majesty by force are those God treats as enemies. He shows his glory instead in a tiny, fragile life.

The Psalmist wasn’t to know this, but several hundred years later God would show this explicitly. His majesty would be seen not in the palaces of Rome or Jerusalem, but in a manger in Bethlehem. Supremely Christians see this in the incarnation of Jesus. There is God’s upside-down majesty. Wonder at his glory in, say, the words of Charles Wesley:

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

For me, this is captured in the words of a contemporary Christian poet and singer, Bruce Cockburn, in two of his songs. One is called ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’.

The chorus says:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Why does ‘redemption [rip] through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’? Because this is how God shows the splendour of his glory – his majesty. He does so in a reversal of the world’s ways and the world’s values. In the scandal of humility, God reveals his glory.

What does that mean for us? Go to another Cockburn song, one called ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable Door’.

The stable door of the song is the stable in Bethlehem. In the lyrics of the final verse, Cockburn connects the frailty of the Incarnation with the revolutionary words of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit –
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth –
May their gene pool increase

Cockburn took inspiration here from a wonderful spiritual writer called Brennan Manning. The final chapter of one of his books, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, is called ‘The Shipwrecked at the Stable’. Manning makes the case that it is the poor and the weak who find hope in the infant Christ:

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences – “Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

All the time they are battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they are being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought was important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

The God who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability can only be encountered in weakness and humility. Strutting pride and forceful power are not the entry tickets to the kingdom of God. The vulnerable God of Bethlehem meets those who are weak, who admit their need of him, and in doing so reveals his majesty.

Secondly, God shows his glory in insignificance.

I grew up as the son of an amateur astronomer. Even now, my father still belongs to the British Astronomical Association. One Saturday, Dad took me to London for a BAA lecture given by Patrick Moore. I didn’t understand it, but I noticed how he spent as much time afterwards answering the children’s questions as he did the adults’. Conversations at home were punctuated with Sirius, Orion, the Plough, the Pleiades, Aldebaran and the star I as a child called Beetlejuice. Television meant the Apollo missions, Tomorrow’s World and James Burke science shows. To learn that the nearest star outside our solar system was four light years away – that’s 23 trillion miles – was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. Later, when I came to faith in my mid-teens, although I had not kept up the interest in astronomy, to gaze up at a clear night sky was to engender a spirit of worship:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Verses 3-4)

The Psalmist didn’t know what we know about the night sky, but what we know gives these words even greater force: our Sun is but one star among between two and four hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. There are one hundred and seventy billion known galaxies in the observable universe.

In a world like that, don’t you feel tiny and insignificant? No wonder some people say our own planet Earth is just ‘the third stone from the Sun’.

No wonder others say that humans are just ‘dust in the wind’.

The contemporary atheist movement makes a lot of this. It says that the scale of things are such that it is ludicrous to see human beings as in any way special. We are just an impersonal consequence of the Big Bang and evolution.

What is difficult for these arguments is the evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe. An apologist for the Christian faith called Andrew Wilson lays out some of these in his recent book ‘If God, Then What?’ According to Wilson, there are fifteen different mathematical constant numbers that all have to be right to one part in a million (or even more precisely) for life to exist. If the ratio between the strong nuclear constant and the electromagnetic constant were different by one part in ten million billion, we would have no stars. If the balance between the gravity constant and the electromagnetic constant altered by one part in 1040, the stars would not be able to sustain life. And there are many others. Wilson quotes scientists who say that it is like ‘the universe knew we were coming’ and laid out a ‘cosmic welcome mat’.

But more than this, the Psalmist sees human beings as having a specific status and dignity in creation:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour. (Verse 5)

And not only that, this special status comes with a particular function on God’s behalf:

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
(Verses 6-8)

Instead of being meaningless, human beings have dignity and responsibility in creation. In the face of feeling insignificant amidst the vastness and power of creation, God grants to the human race the moral management of creation on earth. This is our calling as a race, and it has huge implications.

For one, this is a restatement of Genesis chapter one, where the function of human beings made in God’s image was to look after this planet. That is far from insignificant. It is humans who feel insignificant. That is not how God regards us.

‘Looking after this planet’ implies our daily work. One sadness I encounter in pastoral conversations is with Christians who think that because they are not ordained or do not work for the church, what they do is of little value to God. I think this is a legacy of our past. The Catholic understanding of vocation was indeed something like this. You had vocations into the priesthood, or into a religious order as a nun or a monk. The Protestant Reformation widened this, and so we began praying for people in the healing, caring and education professions.

But there are all sorts of opportunities for Christian vocation if our calling as people made in God’s image is to look after his world. Graham Dow, who was Bishop of Carlisle until three years ago, wrote a booklet on ‘A Christian Understanding of Daily Work’. He argued that there were three purposes of work for Christians:

  1. Creative management of God’s world.
  2. Moral management for the good of all.
  3. A community of good relationships.

While he didn’t go as far as Martin Luther, who once said that if the job of village hangman fell vacant, the conscientious Christian should apply, we can see from these three purposes of work that we have many opportunities to give glory to God in everyday life and work.

Although it would take a whole sermon to explore the three purposes of work, I want you to see that tomorrow morning, you have an opportunity to give glory to our majestic God in your work. Whether you are in paid employment, doing unpaid work, unemployed or retired, God has set us in a world where we may work to his praise and glory, whether what we do is overtly religious or not.

Yes, in weakness and in work, we can live our lives in ways that reflect the words with which the Psalmist both begins and ends here:

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Verses 1 and 9)

Judgement Day And The God Of Love: Brennan Manning

Few people cut to the heart of grace like a warm knife through butter as Brennan Manning:

HT: (yet again)

Covenant Service Sermon: Jumping Into The Arms Of The Father

John 15:1-17

In one of his books, Brennan Manning tells this story from a Catholic priest in the Bahamas:

A two-storey house caught fire. The family – father, mother, several children – were on their way out when the smallest boy became terrified and ran back upstairs. Seconds later he appeared at a smoke-filled window. His father, outside, shouted at him: “Jump, son, jump! I’ll catch you.” The boy cried, “But, Daddy, I can’t see you.” “I know,” his father called, “I know. But I can see you.”[1]

I wonder whether Covenant Sunday is a day when some of us Methodists are afraid of jumping. Afraid of jumping into our Father’s hands. We are afraid of the solemn covenant promises. Making those promises is like jumping out of a window, and fearing what will happen.

I have long been convinced that a way to approach the renewal of our covenant with God is to appreciate first the nature of the God into whose arms we jump. That, like the father in Brennan Manning’s story, he says to us, “I can see you”, and stretches out sure, strong arms to catch us and to keep us safe when we jump.

How are we going to do that? I want to take our Gospel reading. It is challenging and quite open about the fact that being a disciple of Jesus is not always an easy or comfortable experience. But at the same time, I believe we also find in the passage the Father who can see us, and whose arms are outstretched to catch us.

Firstly, Jesus talks about pruning. Whenever this passage comes up, I am fond of observing that I am no gardener. The only value of a garden centre is if it has a good café with decent coffee and cakes. Gardens hold little pleasure for me, hard as that may be for some of you to understand. But then you may not appreciate my love of cricket and computing! Debbie keeps the manse garden tidy, thankfully.

But for all my lack of interest in gardening, I do know that pruning is something that looks unpleasant. I have seen the implements, and they look like instruments of torture. If Jesus uses an image of pruning for the Father’s work in our lives, then that sounds painful to me. The removal of unfruitful branches and the cutting back of others – no, I don’t fancy being first in the queue for that. It’s like the little boy’s fears as his father calls him to jump from the window – he thinks he will break bones.

However, in a detail we easily miss in English, Jesus says any pruning the Father does is not for the first time. He says,

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (Verse 3)

‘Cleansed’ sounds all right, doesn’t it? A nice, refreshing bath or shower? Except that in the Greek, ‘cleansed’ comes from the same source as ‘pruned’. Jesus effectively says that his word has already pruned us.

That’s what the Gospel does. It prunes us. We know that the call to follow Jesus involves not only faith but also repentance, where we change our minds about the way we lead our lives, where we perform a u-turn in order to go his way. That repentance is a pruning. Certain things go from our lives. The Gospel message of Jesus cuts them away.

So when Jesus tells his disciples here that the Father will continue the pruning process, he is telling us something about the ongoing nature of Christian discipleship. He does not call us to an act of repentance when we come to faith. Rather, he calls us to a life of repentance. Our salvation is more than forgiveness. To sign up to Jesus’ project is to enlist in a process of transformation. To be a disciple is like the road sign, ‘Danger: men at work’, except that in our case it reads, ‘Danger: God at work.’ Or, as the t-shirt puts it, ‘Please be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet.’

To reinforce it further, the apostle Paul had a positive take on this process of transformation. He told the Philippians,

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

Or, as the worship song puts it,

Jesus, You are changing me
By Your Spirit You’re making me like You
Jesus, You’re transforming me
That Your loveliness may be seen in all I do
You are the potter and I am the clay
Help me to be willing to let You have Your way
Jesus, You are changing me
As I let You reign supreme within my heart[2]

So, to mix metaphors, is the ‘pruning’ worth the ‘leap’ out of the building? Marilyn Baker, the author of those song words, says ‘yes’. She says that Jesus is changing her so ‘that your loveliness may be seen in all I do’.

And that is similar to what Jesus says here, when he says that the Father prunes us so that we ‘bear more fruit’ (verse 2). Is it not our longing to be more ‘fruitful’ in the life of faith? If so, we have to recognise that God will want to cut certain things away from our lives. Some will be obvious sins. Others will be good things that we have idolised. Others might be good, but not God’s best for us. The call to repentance is not a diatribe from a severe God who wants to paint a grey coating of misery on our lives. It is, as Paul tells the Romans, his ‘kindness’ that leads to repentance. It is because he has good plans for us in his kingdom purposes.

Is it worth submitting to God’s pruning? Is it worth saying ‘yes’ to that as we renew our solemn promises today? What do you think?

Secondly, Jesus calls us to abide in him as he does in us. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you,’ he says (verse 4). What is this about?

An abode is a dwelling place, a home, a residence. We sometimes say that homeless people are of ‘no fixed abode’. Jesus, however, abides in us. He has taken up residence in our lives. He has not come for a holiday, he has not come as part of a house-swap or to be a house-sitter. He has come to live in us.

So if we are called to abide in Jesus, we are called to live permanently with him. Not only permanently, but in close relationship. He draws near to us; we draw near to him. This mutual abiding is the spiritual version of living in each other’s pockets. That may sound wonderful to some people, and terrifying to others. What might it involve? I can’t cover everything, but here are a couple of areas.

Firstly, abiding in Christ means the disciplines of staying close to him. The most important thing in church life is not the property, it is not the finances or anything like that. The most critical aspect of Christian life is staying close to Jesus. Our property and finance can be in perfect order, but if we are not walking with Christ, we are wasting our time.

Therefore, if we are to heed the call to abide in Christ, we shall want to practise those disciplines which draw us close to his presence and his voice. So, yes, we renew our commitment to worship and fellowship, to personal prayer and Bible reading, to Holy Communion and fasting. All of these matter far more than the typical business preoccupations of many congregations.

But to say that we should renew our commitment to things like prayer and Bible study is to sound rather like I am asking us to make a New Year’s Resolution. And we know how easily we break those. If we just treat these things like that, we shall fail quickly and be discouraged.

I want to say, therefore, that the call to draw close to Jesus with spiritual disciplines is one we do out of response to his love for us. It is not something we do as an ‘ought’ or a ‘must’ or a ‘should’; it is something we do because Jesus has already drawn near to us, to abide in us. It is in gratitude for the love he extends to us.

Of course, we shall fail along the way. But instead of being discouraged that we have not reached the mark, we shall instead feel his abiding love in us that encourages us to get up again, dust ourselves down and keep on going. These things do not always come naturally. We can be like a toddler learning to walk. We fall down, but we get up again and have another go, because we are loved. On the way, I can offer you help with plans for Bible reading and approaches to prayer, but do not be afraid to try and fall down. Just get up and keep going again as you learn to draw closer to Christ.

The other thing I want to say about abiding in Christ is that being so close to him, we want to do what he says. That’s why Jesus links abiding in his love with keeping his commandments (verse 10). If you are close to someone, not only do you want to spend time with them (spiritual disciplines, in the case of our relationship with Jesus), you also want to please them. Abiding in Christ will mean a desire to obey him.

And that’s where the fear of jumping out of the building looms large again. What will he want me to do? What will I have to give up? What dark and strange place does he want to send me to?

But again, the promise is that if we jump, he will catch us. The promise, too, is that he will enable us to obey because he is with us. We are not dependent upon our own strength to do these things.

However, he kicks us off with a commandment that is simple to state, and highly important to take seriously:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (Verses 12-13)

So let’s get going with that one – loving one another. We can take some simple steps straightaway. We can say that we shall no longer treat someone else in the church like they are our servant, but as a valued child of God We can commit ourselves to stop assuming that someone’s motives are wrong and seek to believe the best about them. If we jumped into such a love for one another that disowned the backbiting, backstabbing and character assassination that is too often seen in our society, what kind of witness would that be? Remember what was said of the early Christians:

See how these Christians love one another.

Let’s forget every other distraction and concern for a season. Let’s be known as a community of love. What importance do all our other debates, business items and ideas have in comparison to Jesus’ call to love one another?

Go back to that young boy at the smoke-filled window. Hear the call of the father again. “Jump, son, jump. I’ll catch you.” Is today the day to jump – and find ourselves held in the arms of God? What if we were to risk letting him prune us in repentance? What if we were to risk getting closer to Christ in devotion and obedience, specifically in loving one another?

What if …

What if we jumped?

[1] Brennan Manning, Lion And Lamb: The relentless tenderness of Jesus, p 64.

[2] Marilyn Baker, © 1981 Word’s Spirit of Praise Music.

Brennan Manning On Failure

Failure. Now there’s a word for this blog lately. Nothing except links since 5th December. There are reasons, but best not mentioned publicly. Even my pre-Christmas sermons are not here. In some cases, I wrote one and changed to an old one on the spur of the moment.

Anyhow, by way of dipping my toe gently back in the water, a couple at church gave us a beautiful book for Christmas. Lion And Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness Of Jesus by Brennan Manning.  I’ve been savouring chapter 4, ‘The Affluent Poor’. It’s the chapter that contains the words

we were created from the clay of the earth and the kiss of God’s mouth (p 55)

that Julie Miller read, recounted to Emmylou Harris, and which became Emmylou’s remarkable song about God’s longing for humans, ‘Here I Am‘, on her CD ‘Stumble Into Grace‘:

But it’s a passage three pages later that has stayed with me. Here goes:

Children have no past. They abandon themselves to the reality of the present moment. The one who is childlike is not surprised that he often stumbles. He picks himself up again without discouragement, each time more determined to get where he’s going.

I saw that in action last week.  As compensation for not having a summer holiday this year due to our August move, we took them to Lapland UK. Part of the experience was half an hour’s ice skating. I say ice skating, the surface was synthetic in order to reduce the carbon footprint of the event. Rebekah has ice skated once or twice before, with older friends. Mark – this was his first time. Usually he displays my cautious traits, but he went on the ice without hesitation. Five times he fell down. Five times he got up and continued, sometimes with the help of his sister.

They say that failure is not falling, failure is only when we do not get back up after falling. Brennan Manning is someone who knows about that. Despite his faith, he ended up an alcoholic. But God lifted him up and gave him a wonderful appreciation of grace and ‘the fierce love’ of Jesus.

In the summer of 2009, I felt like not getting up again. I was close to quitting the ministry, or at least coming out of it for a few years. I couldn’t say anything about it here on the blog, and I still wouldn’t go public about the causes. I’ll only say that moral failure wasn’t involved – just to prove that at heart I’m probably a Pharisee. It was other people, notably my Chair of District, who helped me to my feet again, and enabled me to find a more fruitful place.

Thank God for the people he uses to lift us up when we fall.