Saturday, January 16, 2021

Climbing a hillside 2)

The first Beatitude is the most important -foundational to the rest.  Its two parts balance each other: blessed are the poor in spirit describes the condition and for theirs is the kingdom of heaven describes the outcome. One follows the other. Those who are not poor in spirit miss out on the kingdom. 

Right away it sounds wrong doesn't it?  Surely it should be: 'Blessed are the rich in spirit.'  People who are obviously alive and rich in faith with deep faith, Bible knowledge and gifted prayer lives.  Poor in spirit sounds weak and pathetic. Spiritually sub-par. Little spiritual depth. In short, not very good Christians.  Is the key to Christian living that I say: 'I'm not a very good Christian'?  Actually, YES.  Jesus says that I must admit to a kind of spiritual poverty.  The word 'poor' is strong and relates to the abject poverty of the hopeless beggar.  J.B. Phillips translates it: Happy are the humble-minded for the Kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Two stories illustrate contrasting challenges of this beatitude. The first poignantly records 12 men who behave like schoolboys in Mark 10: 35-45. Handpicked by Jesus, with him day and night, they should know better than anyone else about what it means to belong to him.  Only a couple of years before James and John were fishermen.  Jesus had met them preparing their nets in the boat with their father Zebedee. That was their life.  When he called them to follow him they began a steep learning curve on discipleship. But by now they think they have been around long enough to ask a question of Jesus: Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask.   It sounds presumptuous doesn't it? Rather entitled?

When Jesus replies: What do you want me to do for you' there is no hesitation 'Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory'.  It's like: Bags the right throne, bags the left! They have passed the point of needing to grow further in God's grace. What arrogance, self-magnification is on display. They know that if they don't ask they won't get and they are so full of themselves they go straight for it.   No subtlety. They are so pumped up!  Rich in spirit!  Sure of their place ahead of others.  Pumped up disciples.

Jesus gently says they don't know what they are asking. They retort: Oh, yes we do1  The other 10 express their annoyance that James and John have got in first.  The whole scenario of pumped up discipleship is writ large and leads to Jesus' teaching that the greatest must be the servant of all.

This story underlines how the first beatitude is a correction beatitude to Christians who see themselves as bigger than others!

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Climbing a hillside 1)

Beginning a series on the Beatitudes (Matt: 5: 1-10) has pushed me into deep places!  I have preached on them before but this lockdown gives so much more time to listen to Scripture.  And, bluntly, some of these words, at first sight, do seem to make little sense.  Of course, one of the immediate problems is the word 'Blessed' itself which prefaces each sentence.

It's difficult to translate because it is a God word - it expresses something that only God can do for us. It's about his power at move in our lives.  We cannot manufacture it.  And it has a root meaning of happiness suggesting that this teaching leads to the happiest people in the world.  Actually, a few translators have taken the word Happy directly into their translations: Happy are the...happy are the....

But what a different kind of happiness!  I summarized the work of two psychologists (Shaver and Freedman) who interviewed 52,000 people about what made them happy. They found 16 qualities which varied in order according to whether you were male or female, single or married.  The top four were: friends and social life, job or primary activity, recognition and success, being in love. The least reasons for happiness included: exercise, being a parent and religion.  Because whoever could imagine that religion and spirituality could really make you happy!  Everything on that list is about feeling happy.

Jesus defines happiness completely differently.  It's about being good.  Of truly grasping how God wants  humans to live together, experiencing God's loving purpose working out for the whole of their lives so that its whole direction, everything hangs together.  It's about answering that little voice inside: 'Is this what my life was meant to be?  Is this it?  Yes. Humans created to fellowship with God, for truth, for peace of soul find they truly belong to God, together.  This completely reverses the world's expectations. It contrasts living God's way with living our way.  The opposite of blessed is self-help that seeks success without God.

Whether God is blessing you with his grace and power, or not, is the most critical issue of our lives.  All those sixteen qualities the psychologists listed still matter of course, but they belong within God's good purpose for us. 

Saturday, January 9, 2021


The other challenge from Mary's song is REVOLUTION.  That's how E. Stanley Jones called it - the most revolutionary document in the world.  Apparently Mark Lowry spent 7 years completing the words to the song: 'Mary did you know?  It's a good question...what did she know about the future work of her son? Well, not the details - she's in the unfolding story as a witness to those.  But here are the boldest broad brush strokes imaginable.  Couched in strong Old Testament language (echoing Hannah in 1 Sam. 2), its prophetic past tense assumes that it is good as done as she looks at the implications of her son's birth.

-v. 51. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm - Psalmists exult in God's 'arm' separating the sea in Exodus, but Jesus' greatest act is with his outstretched arms on Calvary. He has scattered the proud in their inmost thoughts - Pride is the ultimate sin and God overthrows those who magnifies themselves.

- v.52 he has brought down rulers from their thrones.  Of all the claims this seems the most absurd. Mary's baby is at the bottom of the social, wealth, political scale.  Yet his kingdom works quietly away and the ultimate story has all the big names, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas as footnotes in the kingdom of Jesus.  He has lifted up the humble - complementing his rejection of the proud,

- v,53 he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. The world has always believed that rich people will be OK.  Like healthy people.  You wouldn't be rich or healthy if God (should you believe in him) didn't favour you! But Jesus, born poor, lives among the poor and spends his life with them and the sick. These are the people who matter!

I mentioned a Christmas children's address I gave many years ago.  We had a large cardboard box for a guitar.  I wrapped it up and (after seeing the children's gifts) asked them what they thought was inside. Of course some said a guitar.  Others were wily.  A couple came to the front to unwrap it and opening it found nothing.  Groans were heard.  But I insisted it was not empty.  Looking hard they found an apple pip in the corner.  Sadly, I couldn't find a mustard seed which would have made the point clearer (Matt. 13;31). Because what Jesus begins is the gradual, often hidden, glorious new way of living called the Kingdom of God.

Finally, I invited my hearers to begin a fresh look at the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.  They are the obvious follow-up to Mary's song.  So, over a few weeks you will see me dipping into these!



Friday, January 8, 2021


The first challenge is MAGNIFICATION - that's a good translation of megalunei 'My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour'. This is such a challenge to praise at full throttle.  Formula 1 praise.  In continuous tense Mary focuses on who God is - he fills the space, his attributes are enlarged and overwhelming. I once visited a place in Buxton many years ago where high magnification microscopes were set up with a number of glass slides ready to view. (I have since called the place a microscoparium...but I don't think there is such a word)! Suddenly a human hair, splinter of wood, flea and several things of beauty lay magnified in front of me.  I was amazed you at the detail, textures, qualities which I would have missed without slowing down, focusing, enlarging and giving time to wonder.

Magnification pushes us to ask how big our God is in our prayer lives.  About how much wonder and awe  we are seeing as we talk with the Mighty God whose character is so majestic with attributes of wisdom, goodness, righteousness, justice, love, mercy and so many qualities way beyond us - of his all-knowing, ever-presence, unchangeability... and so on.  And Mary's song helps us focus by going to the most distinctive attribute of all - that God is holy.  Holiness is the best God description of all.  That's why when Jesus was asked by his disciples how they should pray he began: 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name'  Because 'holy' gloriously sums up the sheer distance, otherness, of God from creation, from us. His utter difference, transcendence, moral perfection, awe-inspiriting majesty.  Yet, this mighty holy God has come close to in Jesus and shown his mercy and love.

I shared with the congregation that I have put a new note on the bathroom mirror.  A personalizing of verse 49: Mighty God you've  done great things for me. Holy is your name and your mercy extends to me. That's a pretty good way to begin a day.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Sermon bombing

Last Sunday I was preaching on zoom for my local church.  I like to stand up to preach - for some reason sitting down doesn't work for me (though wandering from the microphone is unhelpful)!  Anyway, this means that I need to set up my laptop on several large books on the dresser in our small front bedroom. Do you need to know this, I hear you ask?   Well, to share in the service Carol and I sit down in front of the screen but when it comes to me standing up to preach she sidles off just out of sight of the screen.

Except, this Sunday she decided to check on my appearance.  Unknown by me she poked her head around the corner...twice.   At the service's  conclusion, during the breakout groups, it was clear that her appearance had been noted!   Indeed, one person took a photograph of her appearance which he showed the whole group.  Another person said that it was an obvious attempt at sermon bombing!.  We know how saboteurs sometimes break into zoom programmes!  

Serious readers of this blog may wonder what I was preaching on.  I centred on the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-56) which is a thrilling way to begin the New Year.  As always happens when you give time to listening, all kinds of challenges hit me from Mary's song.  In the end I focused on two. Perhaps they deserve a separate blog?

Friday, January 1, 2021

Disturbing our neighbours

 Yesterday evening as I prepared to go on our (short) early evening walk Carol proposed that we knock on neighbours' doors to wish them a Happy New Year to brighten up their lives.  I wish I could say that I jumped at the idea and congratulated Carol for her idea. Alas, I did not!  My introvert tendency plus the thought of disturbing neighbours on our cul-de-sac, all comfortably locked up for the night having to come to open freezing front doors, made me uncooperative.  However, she pointed out that if she did it on her own it would reflect badly on me.  I admitted I was in a lose-lose situation.

Maybe it could be a good idea?   So we proceeded down the road. True, each neighbour had to turn on hall lights and find the right key to open up (and it was a very cold night) but to my surprise they greeted us with genuine smiles and thanks. Relief perhaps that it was only us?  All together we knocked on 14 front doors (though two households seemed to be out) with continuous happy receptions and even a comment from one that we were doing such a nice thing!

Re-entering our warm house Carol drew out the moral of the story.  That my instincts had been proved utterly wrong while hers had been spot-on.  I guess this is another sign of our marriage working out because I had to agree with her!  And so we soldier on into another fresh year working on our complementary personality traits.   

May this day mark the beginning of a brighter New Year for you and positive working on complementary traits in your relationships.   

Thursday, December 31, 2020

5 Year Journals

Greetings for a bright(er) 2021!  Today I have reached the end of my 5 year journal which has charted daily happenings 2016-2020.  I started journaling in 1996 but have to admit that the journals only give 4-6 tight lines for each day.  Sometimes (as in these non-happening Covid days) this is more than enough space!  On other days I have needed to squeeze recording big moments.   As I look back I realize several things:

  1.  My handwriting is both appalling and small.  Really bad. To read earlier entries I now often need a magnifying glass and even then cannot decipher some of the words.  Clearly they meant something to me at the time.  This is the most frustrating find.
  2.  Nothing makes clearer the slowing of pace than to read of past life in a (Baptist) fast lane from early years at Spurgeon's College, through heady days in Chicago, to retirement in Cambridge.  I cannot believe what we packed into consecutive days back then.  A Wild 25 years!
  3. The jogging of memory that partially deciphered scribbles can still provoke - especially odd happenings of little consequence
  4. Overall, profound gratitude for the goodness of God shepherding us through these years and the kindness of friends who populate the pages.
I am glad I kept the discipline going through the years and though I have to wait a few weeks for a fresh journal (courtesy of Amazon) I shall try to keep going - with awareness both of the need for tidier writing and of the unlikelihood that will ever happen. 

May you have a really good fulfilling and healthy New Year!