Thursday, 8 November 2018

Enough is Enough

Saving up for a rainy day is a long-established human custom. We mammals have a natural instinct to save up spare resources. Squirrels get busy squirrelling away spare nuts to last them through the winter. A leopard will haul spare meat up into a tree so save it for the next day. However, we humans are the global specialists the art of hoarding. We fill our cupboards, fridges and freezers with enough food to last many days. And, since the invention of the stock market, we have taken the science of storage to a whole new level. Many people have enough saved up to feed and clothe themselves for several lifetimes, but still they keep on hoarding more.
God is not a fan of our saving habit. When he fed the ancient Israelites during their journey across the Sinai desert, he made a point of only providing enough ‘manna’ for one day at a time. Those Israelites who thought they could work the system and gather an extra helping of the mysterious food, discovered - when they got back to their tents - that they had exactly one omer per person. While those who found the daily collection a struggle, returned to their tents to find that they also had exactly one omer per person. Everyone ended up with just what they needed and no more. When some of them tried to keep some food overnight, to save themselves from having to go gathering before breakfast the next day, it turned rotten and became inedible.
God was making a point: enough is enough. You only need what you need.
This same principle features in Jesus’ teaching. In the ‘Our Father’ - the most repeated piece of Jesus’ teaching - we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Tomorrow doesn’t get a mention. As long as we have enough for today, that is enough.
The last of God’s iconic '10 Words’ takes us onto the advanced course in godly living. "You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, or wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
God is challenging us. He knows it cuts across our basic animal instincts. But he wants us to face the challenge and to learn to be content.
We will know we are making progress when we can say with St Paul. “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

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

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Word Power

It is well known that it takes a lot of time and space to turn around an oil tanker. Something that big doesn’t change direction easily. Sometimes, when we look at the society around us, it can feel like an oil tanker. We see things that are heading in the wrong direction but feel powerless to do anything about it.
The subject of steering large boats came up in a letter written by Jesus’ brother, James, which is preserved in the Bible. James reflected on how even a large boat is steered using a small rudder. (This feature of maritime design hasn’t really changed in 2000 years.) James observed that our tongues are rather like the rudder on a ship; they are very small but have enormous power and influence, for either good or ill.
I write this after a week in which violent hate crimes have dominated the news. We get a lot of weeks like that every year.
Across the world ‘law abiding’ people look on with horror, and wonder how anyone can get to the point of committing such atrocities. But the people who carry out those shootings, bombings and stabbings do not work in isolation. Their murderous impulse is the consequence things that other people have said. Behind every such act of violence are the words of ‘law abiding’ citizens who speak the hatred and prejudice which somebody else eventually puts into action.
Human society may feel as unsteerable as a supertanker, but it is - in fact - effectively directed by the things that ordinary people say. If we speak anger. If we speak intolerance. If we speak prejudice. If we speak hatred. Sooner or later, those words will be turned into violent action, and all of us should share the responsibility.
It works the other way too. If we speak acceptance, and forgiveness, and tolerance, and graciousness, then we are playing a key part in steering our society in a better direction. The results may not be instant, but the tanker will gradually turn.
For good, or for ill, words are powerful things. Let's use them wisely!

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

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Property & Theft

When Jesus turned his mind to the ’10 Commandments’ his intention was not to help us to be perfect but to remind us how helplessly imperfect we all are. He said 'You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you that  if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to judgement...You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you that everyone who looks at someone with lust has already committed adultery.’ This is challenging stuff. But when Jesus turned his attention to the next of God’s iconic words, ‘You shall not steal,’ he took the challenge to another level.
If Jesus was simply keeping to his previous pattern, he would have said something along the lines of, ’do not even think of taking something that belongs to someone else.’ Instead he said, 'If anyone takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt,’ and, 'If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’
What Jesus is drawing our attention to is that theft is only the tip a of the proverbial iceberg of a greater problem. That greater problem is the very concept of ownership.
One day Jesus met an devout young man who had committed himself to keeping God’s law since childhood. The young man asked what else he needed to do to enter heaven. Jesus replied, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ It wasn’t the answer the young man was hoping for.
Jesus is not suggesting that 'property is theft’, but he is pointing out that property is a problem, and one that tends to separate us from God. For Jesus, caring for people is always what matters most. If we can care for someone by letting them steal our property, then we should allow them to do so. When it comes to God’s final judgement, he won’t be interested in how much we own; he will be interested in how much we’ve used it to help people in real need.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Self Justification

"You shall not murder.”
Out of God’s ten famous instructions, this is probably the easiest for the majority of us to read. Most people have never murdered anyone, nor even come near to doing so. So we can give ourselves a satisfied pat of the back…at least until we start reading the New Testament.
Jesus launched a concerted campaign to stop religious people from administering satisfied pats to their own backs. Armed with a strong understanding of God’s forgiveness, Jesus made it his business to cast each and every one of us in the role of “sinner”. He said, “You’ve heard it said from way back, ‘Don’t murder’ … But I say to you: anyone who makes their brother/sister angry is liable to judgement.”
We human beings have a natural instinct to self justification. Without pausing for thought, we cover over our failures, make up excuses and point the finger of blame at other people. It’s not pretty, but we all do it.
When we consider God’s 10 instructions our natural instinct is to justify ourselves, attempting to tick as many boxes as possible to reassure ourselves that we are good people.
Jesus’ advice is: don’t bother! He wanted every person listening to his Sermon of the Mount to walk back down the hill understanding themselves as a sinner in need of forgiveness. OK, you may never have murdered anyone, but you have annoyed plenty of people, and insulted them, and spoken ill of them behind their backs. That hurts God too.
God did not give us those 10 simple instructions with the expectation that we would all live faultless lives. That was never likely to happen. God gave us 10 simple measures to help us understand how far short we consistently fall. He is not inviting us to justify ourselves, he is inviting us to turn to him for forgiveness.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Top of the Range

If you are familiar with Britain’s major supermarket chains, you will know that they have three levels of own-brand products: a low-cost basic range, a mid-cost range, and for those who are prepared to pay the extra there is the top of the range, ‘taste the difference' / ‘finest' range.
When God gave his ten top tips for human society, number 5 on his list was “Honour your father and your mother.” The word that we translate as ‘honour’ is an ancient Hebrew word that expresses the same thing as the labelling on the top of the range products in our supermarkets. God is asking us to consider our parents with high regard, to value them and ensure that we care for them. If we do that, he promises, we will all live longer.
When St Paul turned his mind to his particular divine instruction, he realised that it wasn’t setting parents above their children but was requesting equality. St Paul suggested that children should listen to their parents, and that parents should not exasperate their children. Extending this idea to slaves and masters, Paul requested that both slaves and masters should listen to one another. (The passage in Ephesians 6 commonly uses the term ‘obey’, but the word Paul used means ‘listen to’, which is more open ended.)
The over all picture, from Moses to Paul via Jesus, is that everyone is of value. Whether we are children too young to work, or are too old and frail to work, we are of value, we are top of the range in God’s judgement.
In all human societies, some people are valued more and some less. But this is not how God would have us be. To God, we are all of great value, whatever our age or state of employment. You, and everyone you meet today, are in the “God’s Finest” range. Value them.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

God's Name

I grew up with a wonderful great-aunt, who was called Ezal. Ezal wasn’t her actual name, it was the best my uncle could manage as a small boy, and the new name stuck. Everyone called her Ezal: my parents, me, her sister, my cousins - even the vicar. When I visited her in hospital as she was dying, with the name “Ezal” written on the board above her bed, she confided in me that she wished that someone would call her by her proper name before she died. Her name was Ethel Wash.
When God was preparing to rescue the Israelite people from Egypt, he announced a name for himself, a name by which he wished all generations to address him, for all time. It’s a fairly clear instruction. Some years later, in his 10 key instructions to the newly rescued Israelites, instruction number three was: “Don’t mistreat my name”. God’s name was important; he didn’t want his people to lose it’s value.
Tragically, God’s carefully chosen name has indeed been mistreated, and for many generations - ourselves included. We mistreat it by completely failing to use it.
When Moses asked God his name, God replied, “I am what I am. That is my name. Say to the Israelites, ‘I am’ has sent you.” Because the meaning is the key part of a Jewish name rather than the word itself, if God called himself “I am”, the people were to call him, “He is”. And that is the name that is used throughout the Old Testament - 6823 times in all. When David sung his famous 23rd Psalm, he sang, “He is, is my shepherd…”
However, after calling God by name for a thousand years, the Jewish people stopped using it, and started calling God other things instead. By the time Jesus was alive, they had the name in writing, but they never spoke it, so no-one knew how it was pronounced. Then, when the Old Testament was translated into other languages, the name was lost altogether.
In the English language tradition, we have replaced God’s name, 'He Is’, with a totally different phrase - the LORD. It's a mistake we inherited from the Romans. Some churches have reverted to the four letters of the name in Hebrew - YHWH, which no-one knows how to translate. Some have adopted the anglicised version - Jehovah. But none of these are God’s name. God’s name exists in careful translation, and it means: “He Is”.
It is our loss. We have lost the key emphasis that God himself chose to give us, that he is not above us, or greater than us, but that he simply IS, for all time and for all people. Whoever we are, wherever we are, God is right there with us.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Useless Things

What are the things that you regularly devote time, energy or money to which serve no useful purpose to you or to the people around you? In 21st century urban life we have more spare time and money than almost any generation that has gone before us. We also have a wider range of choice of what to do with that time and money than any generation that has gone before us. Given such spare capacity and broad possibility, most of us engage in a remarkable amount of useless things.
Back in the days of the Old Testament the most popular form of social uselessness was religion. People collected hand crafted images of different deities. They saved up their money to take part in vibrant and colourful festivals. They travelled to distant cities to visit magnificent buildings and share exotic experiences. There was often food, music, dancing and sex involved. Religion was a booming industry which swallowed up people’s time, energy and money - even when they couldn’t afford it. The problem was that the gods which were being worshipped were useless. In fact, they were worse than useless; they didn’t exist.
The people of past millennia were not stupid. If you could sit most of them down for a straight conversation, they would admit that their supposed deities didn’t necessarily exist. What people bought into was the fun, the thrill, the fear and - more than all those - the tradition passed down through generations. They worshipped those gods because they had always worshipped those gods, and everyone around them worshipped those gods. It is the very same reasoning that leads us to engage in our portfolio of useless things.
In God’s top ten top tips for human society (traditionally known as the 10 commandments), he advises us not to devote our time, energy and money to useless things. We may like to commend yourself regarding the second commandment, claiming that we don’t prostrate ourselves before carved images of other gods. However, whenever we devote ourselves to useless things which serve no loving purpose to us or to the people around us, we make the very same mistake that our distant ancestors made when they worshipped idols.
Devote your time, effort and energy to useful things instead.