Thursday, 21 March 2019

Looking at the heart

We all make judgements about people. We make them instantly. The moment we see someone, we make judgements about them. We can’t help it. Within a fraction of a second we assess someone’s age, gender, race, social class, relative wealth, general health and prevailing mood. We are remarkably good at it. It is a key skill for our survival.
However, it is a skill that is nonetheless flawed and limited. As we grow up, we learn to make value judgements about different kinds of people. We adopt common generalisations, and come to value some people more than others. This is an entirely natural way of processing information, but it is also a fertile seedbed for racism, sexism and all manner of unhelpful isms.
Three thousand years ago, the prophet Samuel was tasked with anointing a new king for the ancient nation of Israel. The first king had gone off the rails and God was preparing to bring on a substitute. Samuel went, as directed, to the now-famous town of Bethlehem and announced to a man called Jesse that one of his sons would be the next king. Jesse's eldest son was quickly introduced to the prophet. Samuel was impressed. From his perspective as a seasoned political leader, Samuel saw in Eliab an ideal candidate - tall, distinguished, steady, and and experienced soldier - qualities needed in a king. God did not agree. God said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature. I do not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but I look on the heart.”
One by one, six more of Jesse’s sons were brought to Samuel and each one of them got the divine thumbs down. Somewhat confused, Samuel asked the old man if he had any more sons. Jesse’s reply was dismissive: “There’s the youngest. He’s only a shepherd.” Samuel insisted the youth was summoned. As soon as he saw David, Samuel understood what it is that God looks for in a person. David was different from his older, wealthier brothers. He was bright eyed, and - more to the point - his heart was in the right place. 
When we rely on our natural instincts to assess people, the assumptions of our upbringing and the prejudices of our community distract us. Like Samuel, we need to learn to look beyond people’s outward appearance. We need to look through the windows of their eyes into the state of their heart. When we learn to do that, we will begin to notice all sorts of things that God is doing in our world.

Recently published:
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus 
by Robert Harrison

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Following Judas

In most Christian tradition, Judas is seen as an archetypal baddie. In Dante’s ‘Inferno’, Judas occupies the innermost circle of hell. We have a long tradition of rejecting and condemning the man who handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. But, for a moment, let’s put all that cultural negativity to one side and remember that Judas was called by Jesus to be one of his disciples. He was then further called to be one of the twelve apostles. He was sent out to proclaim Jesus’ message and to heal those who were sick. He was there at the last supper; Jesus washed his feet, and shared broken bread with him. It was at this moment that Judas received his most challenging calling - Jesus leaned across the table, handed Judas a piece of bread and said to him, "Do quickly what you are going to do.” Judas was specifically called by Jesus to hand him over.
Because our minds are weighed down with assumptions of Judas’ guilt, we imagine Jesus’ instruction to have been deeply ironic. But irony wasn’t Jesus’ style. Also, if it was ironic, none of the others round that table noticed it. John reports, "No one at the table knew why Jesus said this to Judas. Some thought that Jesus was telling him to give something to the poor.”
The defence of Judas begins to gain ground when you realise that the word “betray”, which is applied to him 38 times, doesn’t actually mean “betray”. The word used by all four Gospel writers means “to hand over”. It is exactly the same word they use for Caiaphas handing Jesus over to Pilate, for Pilate handing Jesus over to be crucified, and for Jesus handing over his own spirit to death. In all the many times this word appears in the Bible, it is consistently translated as “hand over”, except when applied to Judas. Judas has been stitched up by the translators.
The narrative itself tells a different story. Jesus instructed Judas to do what he needed to do, knowing that Judas would guide the authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane. An hour or so later, Jesus knowingly led the rest of his disciples to that very spot, where he anxiously waited for Judas to arrive. Jesus had arranged with Judas for him to effect the first in a series of handovers, which would lead to Jesus’ death. That was God’s plan. Judas wasn’t betraying Jesus. Jesus was in on the plan. Judas was fulfilling the mission that Jesus had called him to.
There may be times, for any of us, when we are called by God into Judas’ company, when we are called by God to do something that will be misunderstood and condemned by others, but which is, nonetheless, fundamentally part of God’s plan. These are the toughest callings. Jeremiah discovered just how tough they can be. Are you ready to follow Judas?

Recently published:
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus 
by Robert Harrison

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Looking in the Right Place

Whatever you may be looking for at any point in your life, this is certain: you won’t find it unless you are looking in the right place. (I once had my entire family searching the house for a set of keys, which I eventually found….in my own hand!)
God called Simeon (an old man) and Anna (an 84 year old woman), to keep an eye out for his Messiah. Simeon and Anna were not only Jewish people looking for God’s Messiah, lots of people were. They however, were only one's who had worked out the right place to look.
I suspect that the priests were busily looking for God’s Messiah amongst their fellow priests, the rabbis looking among the rabbis, and the politicians looking among their political colleagues. Anna and Simeon knew better.
Having been nudged by God’s spirit to visit the Temple, Simeon spotted a poor, young couple and a tiny baby. He quickly took a closer look. Could this be what he had been looking for all those years?
If you want to see what God is doing in the world, you have to tune into God’s wavelength. Simeon and Anna were not looking among the rich and powerful, nor were they looking among those who were steeped in religion and highly educated. They saw a young couple, carrying a 6 week old baby, and four pigeons for a sacrifice. And they knew they were on the right track. The pigeons identified Mary and Joseph as being poor (families of comfortable means were required to bring a lamb). Knowing that God has a special love for those who are weak and disadvantaged, Simeon knew this was God’s kind of family. He stepped forwards, greeted Mary and Joseph, and delivered the message that he had been waiting to pass on. Anna was on the lookout too, she realised what Simeon was doing, and told the people around her that God’s Messiah had finally arrived.
One of the most common callings that any of us will receive from God is the calling to look out for what God is doing, and bring people’s attention to it. It is a calling that can come to anyone of us at any time. If we’re going to be any good at it, we need to be looking in the right place.

Recently published:
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus 
by Robert Harrison

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Qualifying Disqualification

There are many cases in the story of the Bible when God seems to pick the most unlikely people to do particular things. Abraham and Sarah were called by God to found a nation, but were incapable of having children. Gideon was called by God to defeat the invading Midianites, but came from a small clan, and had no military experience. Paul was called by God to take the message of Jesus to the Gentile world, even though he passionately hated the teaching of Jesus and was trying hard to suppress it. These four, and many others, appear to be particularly unqualified for the tasks God was choosing them for.
God, however, does not simply call the least suitable person for any given task. Abraham and Sarah were extremely rich and powerful, and were on first name terms with most of the kings in the region; in that, they were well placed to found a new nation. Gideon proved to be an imaginative and resourceful man who could turn his mind to unusual challenges. Paul was a Citizen of Rome, highly educated in Greek culture as well as Jewish theology, and was undoubtedly energetic and passionate. All these factors made God’s chosen agents particularly well qualified for the tasks in hand.
God looks for people who have the right skills and qualifications for a job, but he also picks people who have a notable disqualification. He does that to keep them humble, so that they will work in partnership with him and not try to do things on their own. After Gideon had assembled an army of 32,000 men, God said, 'The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would say, “My own hand has delivered me.”’ Eventually, it was with an army of just 300 that Gideon outwitted the huge Midianite army.
In our own situations, God works to a similar pattern. He looks to use our skills and our strengths, but he also makes use of our weaknesses. God loves us to work in partnership with him, and for that he chooses people with a qualifying disqualification.
God will not call us to do things that we can do easily. He is more likely to call us to do something that we can only achieve with his help.

Recently published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Monday, 24 December 2018

Child in a Manger

The angel said to Mary: "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David." When we think of greatness, most highness and thrones, our minds immediately conjure up images of power and wealth. It's how our brains have been trained.
But that's not how God's mind works. When God thinks of greatness, most highness and thrones, he thinks of a tiny baby, sleeping in a manger because other people have been allowed the comfort of the guest room.
The striking humility of Jesus' birth, which we celebrate at Christmas, is not God taking an uncharacteristic break from his usual divine grandeur. It is articulate expression of what the creator of the universe is really like. As that tiny baby grew into a man, his style never changed. Jesus remained humble, and consistently sacrificed his own comfort for the benefit of others - right up to the agonising end.
Take a moment to reflect on that vulnerable child, lying in an animal's feed box, and wonder at the character of God. This is what God is like. And this is what God would like us to be like.
​Happy Christmas

Also by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Something's Coming

The run up to Christmas always carries with it a sense of anticipation. Something is coming. Christmas is coming. It can’t be dodged or avoided, and we need to be ready. When we were children, the anticipation of Christmas was exciting - there were parties and presents to look forward to, and there was nothing required of us but to contain our excitement. In adult life, the coming of Christmas is more complex. While we long for the innocent excitement of our childhood, we are all too aware that things need to be organised, presents need to be bought, cards need to be sent - the responsibility falls on us to be ready.
This sense of anticipation surrounds Christmas in other ways too. The traditional season of Advent focuses on the expectation of Jesus’ return as well as the expectation of his birth. Centuries before Jesus’ intriguing birth, prophets were telling their people that something was coming, God was hatching a plan and was about to do something significant.
There are numerous Old Testament expressions of this expectation, and in the centuries that followed there were countless theories about what exactly this ’something’ was which God was bringing about. Ancient Jews studied their scriptures and tried to predict God’s coming. With the same enthusiastic confidence many Christians today study the references to Jesus’ return. And try to work out what to expect.
However, when God did come - when he did do his thing - it wasn’t anything like what people were expecting. No-one was expecting a newborn child, lying in the manger of an ordinary home. No-one was expecting a bunch of shepherds and a handful of foreign mystics to be the first on the scene.
The adult Jesus reminds us that God still has more plan up his sleeve. There is another something which is coming - which we need to be ready for. But he advises us not to waste time speculating what that something will be like. God is the master fo the unexpected. We will know it when we see it, but it won’t be anything like anything we have imagined. We just have to be ready.

Just published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Thursday, 6 December 2018

99.6% Loving & Forgiving

We are all familiar with the world of advertising. Whether it is in print, sound or vision, businesses seek to attract us with carefully constructed messages that convey the essence of their product in a just a few words. Though the intensity of the advertising around us may be unprecedented, the idea of a short and punchy sales pitch is nothing new. God himself has done it.
Shortly after rescuing the Israelites from Egypt, God needed to introduce himself to a frightened and bewildered people. After the drama of crossing a divided sea, the Israelites needed to know what kind of a god it was who they were following. This was God’s pitch: “The Lord: a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving transgression, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation."
There is a deeply ingrained belief among Christians that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh and judgmental god, whereas the God of the New Testament is gentle and loving. This common prejudice draws our attention to the idea that God would punish children and grandchildren for the failings of their parents. We read it, and dislike what we read. But that is only a fraction of God’s self-description. He may visit the iniquity of the parents on the children to the 4th generation, but he keeps steadfast love for the 1,000th generation. In mathematical terms that means God is 250:1 loving, and plans on being so for at least the next 20,000 years.
This is God’s own understanding of himself and of his dealings with humanity. He’s not a total pushover. He has his limits. But when he handed his proverbial calling card to Moses, it read: “God: 99.6% loving and forgiving."

Just published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus