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

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Utterly Lovely

There’s a famous hymn which goes: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” It’s the kind of Christian hymn that I was brought up on. It presents God as a being of unreachable grandeur - a God who is beyond understanding, beyond human reach; who is to be feared.
At the same time, as I grew up, I was reminded every Sunday that this unimaginable God expected me to love him, first and foremost, above all else. It presented me with a problem: this all powerful, all knowing and ever living God did not seem very lovable. He was frightening. How unfair that he should command me to love him!
Jesus didn’t have this problem.
Jesus didn’t have this problem because he knew a very different kind of God. Jesus knew God to be like a doting father who, when his wayward son had gone astray and got into trouble, looked longingly for his return every day, and then ran down the road in expansive delight when the young man finally returned, showering him with gifts. Jesus knew God to be like an excited woman who threw a party for her neighbours just because she’d found a coin she’d been looking for all day.
Jesus didn’t know God as a being that is ‘unresting, unhasting, and silent as light, nor wanting, nor wasting, and ruling in might.’ He knew God as the kind of person who gives big hugs and throws impromptu parties, who wears his heart on his sleeve and forgives huge offences in the blink of an eye.
Jesus knew God to be thoroughly lovable.
Underlying all Jesus’ teaching is a confident knowledge that God is utterly lovely. Once we grasp that fact, loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength isn’t so daunting a prospect.

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

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.