Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Uncertainty Principle

Life is uncertain. We would rather it wasn’t, but it unavoidably is. We live in a society that invests huge amounts of resource into trying to make things reliable. But not matter how hard we try, the uncertainty remains. For many centuries, we have had a fantasy of a perfect world where all uncertainties are brought under control. Within Christian cultures, we have tended to think of heaven as such a place. We would be wrong to do so. Uncertainty isn’t an expression of things going wrong; it is a fundamental feature of God’s creation.
Nearly a hundred years ago, a german scientist called Werner Heisenberg came to an understanding that uncertainty is woven into the fabric of the universe. Some things, he concluded, simply cannot be known. It is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
A very long time before Werner Heisenberg, Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, was having his own uncertainty dilemma. Thomas’ colleagues were telling him that Jesus - who had been expertly executed by the Roman army - was alive and well. This contradicted everything that Thomas knew and understood about the world. He was justifiably uncertain about his friends’ claim.
Nine days after Jesus’ undoubted death, Thomas met him in person - alive and well. Jesus did not criticise Thomas for his uncertainty. Instead, he urged the confused young man to take a different approach: to trust. “Don’t be suspicious,” Jesus said. “But trust.” Trust is a positive response to uncertainty.
God has not created a predictable universe in which we can rely on everything running to some unchanging plan. God’s creation is not like that, and neither is God. God created an uncertain universe and has given us intentionally unpredictable lives. He has done it because uncertainty is the crucible in which we learn to trust. And trust, like love, is the stuff of God.
Jesus wanted Thomas to trust him. Trusting Jesus is not a random spiritual mental twist. Trust is always specific. We trust that Jesus is God’s message to humanity. We trust Jesus that God loves us and cares for us (even when things seem to be going wrong). We trust Jesus that loving other people is always the best course of action. And we trust Jesus that there is another life beyond this one.
And that other life, which we call ‘Heaven’, will be uncertain too. You may not want to hear that! But without uncertainty there would be no room for trust. And trust is the stuff of God.

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

Monday, 15 April 2019

Learning to be unimportant

Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must take up their cross daily.” This is not a comfortable part of his message. And - forgive me for being flippant - Roman Empire execution equipment is hard to come by in the 21st century.
Jesus was not suggesting that we should daily seek to get ourselves killed. Dying isn’t something that can be done on a daily basis. He is referring to the attitude of mind with which we live our daily lives.
Jesus understood there to be an inverse relationship between importance in this world and importance in his Father’s world. As he put it, “The one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
Think of the way that fractions work in maths: 1/2, 1/4, 1/8. The bigger the number in the bottom half of the fraction, the smaller the resulting number. This is how Jesus understood human life. This life is like the bottom half of a fraction. The greater we become in the ways of this world, the lesser we become in ways of God.
To look at it the other way round: the only way to become significant in God’s kingdom is by daily resolving to be unimportant in this world. The simplest application of this principle is to consider other people’s needs as more important than our own. Jesus said, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”
In Jesus' day, a man or woman seen carrying a cross was on a one-way journey towards being nothing. Their reputation was in tatters, their assets had almost certainly been seized, and they themselves were about to suffer an agonising and humiliating death. This is the path that Jesus had chosen for himself, because he knew it would benefit us. He was about to become nothing in the eyes of this world in order to achieve an unimaginable gain for the work of God.
If we wish to learn from Jesus, we must learn to put others before ourselves, especially those others who are not valued or cared for by the society around us.

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

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Called to be normal

There’s a big gap in the story of Jesus’ life - a gap that stretches for eighteen years. At the age of twelve, he decided to stay in Jerusalem after Passover in order to learn at the feet of Israel’s most famous rabbis. His plan didn’t last long. Mary and Joseph tracked him down and insisted that he return with them to Nazareth. Next we hear, Jesus was thirty years old as he began his public work as a rabbi. What had he been doing for eighteen years?
A few months into his teaching ministry, Jesus returned to Nazareth, where - as far as we can tell - he had spent those eighteen years. Nazareth was a tiny village, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. His old neighbours were astounded to see what, for them, was a totally new aspect of Jesus. They said, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
It seems that for the first eighteen years of his adult life, Jesus’ primary calling was to be ordinary. It seems that for those eighteen years, the neighbours who saw him every day didn’t notice anything exceptional about him.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reflected on this: “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.”
If normal life was a calling for Jesus, then it can be a calling for us too. We easily undervalue our daily existence, but human life is - in fact - remarkable. Even the every day routines of cooking and washing up are remarkable. There is no other known creature in the universe that does anything like it.
God honoured and sanctified the day to day routines of our lives when he chose to live them out for eighteen years in an obscure hillside village on the edge of the Roman Empire. So, next time you stand at the sink or the washing line, doing what has to be done, pause to reflect that God’s call reaches us even there. Do it well!

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

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