Monday, 28 November 2016

Letting Go - Sunday 27th November 2016

We all have things that are precious to us despite their actual use or value, and we all do things that have become so much a part of our life that we have little or no idea why we do them. These quite normal dynamics of human existence inevitably feature in faith and religion, and when they do we lazily assume that we have or do these things because God requires them.
If you were to visit ancient Jerusalem, around 600BCE, you would consider them to be a devout and religious people. The skyline was dominated by the inspiring architecture of Solomon’s temple; the rhythms of life revolved around numerous religious feasts and fasts. Into this apparently faithful setting, the prophet Jeremiah cast a disturbing message: This city is about to be totally destroyed - the Temple included - you will all be carried off into exile as slaves, and (this is the crunch part) this is God’s deliberate plan.
The destruction of Jerusalem was not an act of wanton vandalism by God. Far from it. It was a lovingly planned revitalisation project. "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” But for this to be achieved, Jerusalem, its Temple and it’s ancient customs had first to be completely dismantled.
Who would buy a new television or washing machine, then set it up next to the old one and continue to use the old one, even though the new one is better? Nobody! But in our religions we often do just that.
Jeremiah’s message was that in order to gain God’s promised future, the past would have to be lost. Surely, the same is true today, on some levels at least. In order to fully engage with the future, we sometimes need to let go of the past. Our attachment to old ways is often rooted in insecurity. God is not insecure. God knows that his love is good and fresh for each new generation. He will not be honoured if the habits of the past distract us from the promise and opportunity of today.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Financially Committed - Sunday 20th November 2016

Most of us have a long list of financial commitments which counterbalance our regular income with essential outgoings. By time we have paid our utility bills, insurance premiums, tax obligations and much more, we often feel reluctant to commit ourselves to additional, voluntary commitments to charities or churches.
The Old Testament shares a charming story of a woman who one day invited Elisha (the man of God) to supper. At the end of their meal she extended the invitation by offering to feed him any time he was passing by - which he accepted. In the course of time she extended the invitation further, offering Elisha and his assistant a bed for the night. Then, after they had become frequent house guests, she extended her invitation further still by building and furnishing a guest room especially for Elisha, which he was welcome to use at any time.
No doubt this was a great help to Elisha as he sought to carry God’s call for justice around ancient Israel. And was also, no doubt, a significant commitment for the woman and her husband - in both money and time - for many years. Their commitment was noted by God, who blessed the couple with a long-hoped for son in appreciation for their generosity.
God notices when, in addition to our unavoidable financial commitments, we commit ourselves to some cause or causes that lie near the heart of his care for the world. It may stretch our budgets at times, but - if we choose carefully - the world will be a better place for our commitment, and God will smile.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Shopping Reconsidered - Sunday 14th November 2016

When we shop, we generally like to get as much as possible for as little as possible. It is the selfish engine that drives the market system which, in turn, rules the world. But a system built on selfishness is fundamentally flawed, undoubtedly ungodly, and needs to be held in check by robust laws.
Trading standards legislation is nothing new. The book of Deuteronomy which, in parts, dates back 3.5 thousand years, contains clear instruction on swift payment, animal welfare and standard measures - all issues that are at the forefront of trading standards today.
However, while trading laws are a good thing, they are constantly under pressure from the lust for profit (on one hand) and for a bargain (on the other).
But there is another way to think about shopping. Turn your thinking around. Rather than asking: which shall I get? think: who shall I pay? I have just tried it. Driven in search of a coffee shop by unexpected rain, I made myself think differently. I put aside my usual thinking: who’s coffee do I prefer? or, who’s coffee is cheapest? Instead, I asked myself: which of these coffee providers shall I hand my money to, and why?
Every time we shop, this question is there for us. Which shop shall I support? Which manufacturer or producer? Which country of origin? These are powerful questions, and if we answer them wisely, we have power to change the world for good.
So, next time you buy something, don’t just think about what is the best or cheapest product. Also consider what is the best or most laudable supplier. If you do that, an underpaid, overworked, undervalued labourer - possibly in some distant corner of the planet - will be better off. And God will smile.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Joyfully Taxed - Sunday 6th November 2016

How do you feel about paying tax?
It may seem like a stupid question, considering the universal consensus that paying tax is a bad thing. But think again.
The undoubted opinion of the greatest minds in the Bible is that the work of God, and the worship of God, is to care for those who are not able to care for themselves. In Biblical terms that was widows, orphans and migrants.
James wrote: "Religion that is pure before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress." Jesus expressed a similar theme in his teaching on the judgment of the nations: 'The righteous will ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”'
These are the very things that the majority of our tax goes towards - social security, healthcare, support for refugees, prisons etc. And these are the very things that God delights to see us doing. So, next time you think about the tax you pay, don't resent it, but joyfully remind yourself that you are doing the work of God.

The Right Gift - Sunday 6th November 2016

We all know the experience of receiving a gift that we neither liked nor needed. Sometimes we receive such gifts with gracious delight, like when a young child presents us with their latest artwork. On other occasions we look at the miss-chosen gift with a sense disappointment that someone who knows us so well, understands us so little.
As people of faith, our religion is our gift to God, so it is wise for us to consider what kind of gift God likes to receive. Is your choice of worship something that genuinely delights God, or is it simply your own preferences that you are following?
This question goes back a long way, and it seems that we humans have a bad habit of giving God what we like, without considering what God likes. Through Isaiah, God said to the worshippers in Jerusalem, "I do not delight in the blood of bulls or goats. Incense is an abomination to me.” Through Amos he said, "Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
So what does God like? Isaiah, Amos and the the other Old Testament prophets all give the same answer. Jesus’ brother, James, put it like this: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this - to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
If you really want to put a smile of God’s face, give some of your time or money to help someone who is not able to help themselves.