The Puppet Message

Meet Holly.  She’s a close friend of mine.  We first met in about 2002, when she joined our ministry team for our Avenues Church.  From the first moment I met Holly, her personality was evident. She’s strong-minded, feisty, feminist and opinionated.  We got Holly on board as a creative way of introducing things that sometimes needed words and explanation.  She fitted with our All-Age Worship and added to the visual atmosphere.  What we didn’t anticipate was the way that she’d be received.  Right from the start she was a winning addition to our team.  And the enthusiasm surprisingly, was not just from the children.  She added a bit of humour and colour and energy to our worship.  She also, through her stark honesty, curiosity and contradictory nature, helped us to focus our thinking and ask more questions in a setting where interaction was encouraged.  People interacted with her.  They argued with her and asked her questions.  They laughed with her and told her jokes and stories.  She provoked reaction.  And she was never short of something to say.

Of course, despite the arguments that Holly and I frequently have, Holly is always on message.  The message I want to convey.  While she might challenge what I say at times, she always comes around to agreeing with the point that I want to raise.  This is hardly surprising.  Even though Holly has her own personality, she’s a part of me.  Holly is a puppet.  The only person who controls Holly is me.  I am the one who ‘thinks’ her, I ‘voice’ her, I ‘act’ her.  She’s a version of me and my thinking.  It is impossible for her to be anything different.  Without me breathing life into her, she is just like a rag doll.

I’ve been pondering lately about the way I hear people sometimes talk about Jesus.  Some people say they’re a Christian and then state their personal view on all the things that Jesus would and wouldn’t agree with.  They challenge individuals, they hurt and damage and cause unhappiness, they create rules and put up fences – all in the name of Jesus.  The things they say, don’t tally up with my view of Jesus at all. They sound to me like they are treating Jesus like their puppet.  His message becomes what they want it to be and his voice becomes theirs and not his own.  But Jesus is not like Holly.  He’s not a puppet.  And for any human to choose to be a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus is a brave and risky thing to do.

Of course anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus, a Christian, does become a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus. Whether they intend to or not, want to or not, inevitably others around them will immediately view them as such.  The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to take this responsibility seriously.   How can we really know Jesus?  How can we dare to act as if we know Jesus so closely it is as if we are actually Jesus himself?  How can we actually be qualified to be the mouthpiece of Jesus Christ?  What does this actually mean for us?  What does it mean for Jesus?

This is where the concept of ‘follower’ can make us breathe a sigh of relief.  If we call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ, then we acknowledge that we are on a journey following him.  We’re a ‘follower of Jesus’.  We’re not Jesus himself.  We’re on a journey toward Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus.  We’re following Jesus, moving towards him, being guided and supported and even carried by him, understanding him more and more as time passes.  He’s in our sight, he’s urging us on, he’s guiding us, letting us rest against him, sustaining us, rejuvenating us. The journey is always changing. When we want to be on it, it is never truly stopped. And the joy of being a follower of Jesus is found in the journey itself.  We’re not at the destination yet, we’re on the road towards it.

This is why groups of followers gather together to talk about Jesus, to share food and conversation, struggles and joys, to sing their praises to Jesus for the journey and to pray for their own needs and the needs of others around them.  This is why followers of Jesus read the Bible over and over again and talk about what they’ve discovered about the person of Jesus in the pages of the gospels.  This is why followers of Jesus after reading about his teachings, his miracles, his stories, look outward beyond themselves, to others around them, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, protecting the refugee, supporting the oppressed, advocating for the marginalised, healing the sick, grieving with the dying, crying with the ostracised. This is why followers of Jesus increasingly value the characteristics of grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, humility, kindness to name a few and incorporate these characteristics into their lives.  This is why followers of Jesus look eagerly for Jesus at work around them in God’s creation and actively engage in being part of that work and bringing it to fruitfulness.  This is why followers joining together share a memory meal of Jesus Christ.  This is why followers of Jesus see potential in the journey.

If we call ourselves followers of Jesus we need to be people of faith who constantly strive to understand Jesus’ message and allow ourselves to be internally changed by Jesus.  To keep travelling the Christian faith journey, constantly growing and changing and evolving in understanding.  To view our faith as a work in progress, a moving forward work in progress, a frail, human, underwhelming attempt to understand and reflect Jesus to others who may or may not be on the journey too.

And when we open our mouths to say words that represent Jesus, we need to be ever so aware that Jesus is not our puppet.

Farm Fresh Organic Eggs and the Still Small Voice of God

‘If you could choose only one food, what food would you choose to not live without?’  That seemingly lightweight question that people ask sometimes for fun… and for most of my life, ‘chocolate’ would have been the first word on my lips, but with my recent health challenges, I’ve had to radically rethink my answer.

Since last November my diet has been lacking in variety.  Amongst a few other things, I’ve been eating eggs! I’ve always liked eggs, but I would never have thought them to be my ‘can’t live without food’.  How things change.  Currently they truly are a super food to me!

I’ve become obsessive about them, and very particular!  They have to be fresh and they have to be free range.  It’s all about nuances and subtle differences – I mean we’ve never stocked our pantry with reject eggs!  But as eggs make up at least one of my daily meals I’ve become a fussy egg connoisseur.  Does such a thing exist?  You hear of wine connoisseurs, but eggs???

I had such a special gift a couple of weeks ago.   Andrew was leading a church service at the country church in his parish and they had a harvest festival.  When he came home with six eggs, freshly laid that morning I was extremely elated, causing a lot of laughter in our household as I made it clear to the family (and a guest we had staying), that the eggs were mine only so hands-off everyone!!

It set me to thinking that by simplifying my diet and focussing on eggs, I have been able to notice the subtleties of eggs so much.  Whether it’s, the way the egg poaches, the size or softness of the yolk, the colour of the yolk, the flavour when I eat it – I notice it all now.

I can hear my children groaning, “Here comes Mum with another metaphor!”  So I will not disappoint them!  Yep, I can see a metaphor for our own God journeys.   In this case, I was thinking how my new found appreciation of the subtleties and nuances in different eggs, is a bit like our conversations with God.   When we’re surrounded by a cacophony of noises, hearing God’s voice in our lives is hard work.  When we’re only talking to God occasionally on a, ‘I need something from you now God’ way, it’s almost impossible to know what is God’s voice and what is our own voice reverberating in our heads with our hopes and dreams.

My Aunty Ada was a distant cousin on my mother’s side.  When I was a teenager she used to visit us to stay sometimes.  Having an elderly guest in a house full of energy and the teenage activity of me and my three brothers might sound like a problem, but Aunty Ada was a welcome guest.  She was a very little lady with twinkling mischievous eyes, a sense of humour and a wicked laugh.  She was also a ‘rebellious nun’ (her words).   By rebellious I think what she meant was that she didn’t like being obedient within the institution of the church if it didn’t make sense to her and she as always looking at ways to challenge things.  It wasn’t that she was rebellious against God.  Having lived a very secluded life, she was amazingly knowing, intelligent and insightful about people. The power of prayer was strong in Aunty Ada. She prayed about everything and when she talked about God she sounded like her entire everyday life was one long conversation with God.   She always wanted fresh things to pray about and to know that she was praying for you was an extremely good feeling.  She was one of those rare souls who really ‘walked with God’ and her answers to prayer were amazing and breathtakingly spot on, time after time.

Eileen was also a little old lady, married to an energetic and extrovert Irishman.  With rosy pink cheeks and a warm smile, she was the quiet one.  Her husband, a church elder, was active and busy both in local church life and in para-church organisations.  He never sat still, and wherever he went, Eileen went with him, quietly supporting him in all that he undertook.  While her husband was often in upfront roles, including leading worship on a regular basis, where we were treated to upbeat rousing hymns sung with gusto and energy, Eileen was always the unassuming and quiet one.  But Eileen was neither invisible nor overlooked.  When Eileen spoke, people listened.  Because Eileen heard from God.  Often.  Sometimes Eileen would say, “I believe the Lord is saying…” and there would be a collective intake of breath, the hairs on the back of the neck prickling sensation around the congregation.  Eileen’s words from God were so carefully given, and so amazingly spot on.  She was also a woman who ‘walked with God’.

It is interesting how often in the scriptures we see God talking in the stillness and silence.  I loved the story of Samuel as a child and young teen.  The idea that God was calling out to Samuel in the middle of the night and eventually Samuel responds, ‘Speak Lord!  Your servant is listening.’ (You can read it in 1 Samuel 3 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+3&version=GNT ) God spoke to Samuel and Samuel listened to God.

I do believe that God can speak to any of us, but I also know that life is noisy and finding time to listen to God is all too easy to reduce to the times when we want something from God.   We fill our days with a multitude of voices, and it can be hard to hear God’s voice amongst the competing noise.   It’s not that we don’t want to hear God, or even that we can’t hear God.  But in the same way as my change in eating habits has made me an egg connoisseur, hearing God’s voice requires regular prayer and times of silence when we stop to listen.

This is of course why retreat centres and health spas exist.  People need to take time out of their busy lives and their ordinary routines and stop.  Stop, relax and be refreshed.  Stop and reflect.  Stop and be.  Stop and think.  Stop and pray.   Hearing God’s voice is available to all of us.  But we have to be ready to listen.  We have to find the time and the space, and (just like noticing the subtleties and nuances of eggs) the more we do it, the more we hear from God.  I love this paraphrase from The Message of Psalm 46:8 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+46:8&version=MSG

Many Christians past and present have made a regular pattern of prayer in the early morning or in the dark evening.  There is something about the half-light or night light that makes it easier to be soothed and relaxed.   Some people like to walk and pray, or sit in a peaceful spot, or kneel to pray. Others like to pray before they fall asleep at night or when they first awake in the morning.  Whatever it is, having a pattern of prayer and listening to God, means whatever comes, good or bad, in the journey of our lives, we have the time and space as well as the practise of praying and listening about everything that is going on in our lives and in the lives of people near and far around us.   When God speaks we are not only ready to listen, we also hear the subtleties and the nuances.

We live in busy and noisy times, but God is not too busy to listen to us, ever!  While simplifying our lives might not be possible, maybe it is possible to simplify a portion of time in the regular routine of our days and focus on prayer.   A regular routine of speaking and listening to God, through the good, the bad and the average days of our ordinary lives.  And expect to hear the still small voice of God!

(Photo credit: my perfect breakfast)

Wrapped in Bubble Wrap

We all experience times in our lives when we have to deal with tough stuff.  Things go wrong.  Things we didn’t expect to happen to us, do happen and we are hurt, sad and grief stricken.  The truth is that bad things do happen to good people.  Having a Christian faith doesn’t protect us from sour experiences.  But, hopefully our faith when we’re going through tough times helps us cope.

After my dramatic health situation while on holiday in Germany, last year, I’m continuing to experience ongoing health problems.  But despite the fact that it’s now been five months, and I’m still not well, I’m still feeling somewhat cocooned and protected.  I said to Andrew the other day that it feels like I’m wrapped in bubble wrap.  The impact of all the ongoing health problems is cushioned.  It’s still happening, but I’m not bruising as easily as I could be.   I don’t think I’m in any denial about what is going on with my body, the daily grind is impossible to ignore.  So why do I feel so cushioned and safe?  I can only conclude that my faith has carried me through.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this really, given it’s what I believe for myself and for others I guide on their spiritual journey, but it’s nice when it really matters, to know that faith really does help!  And it’s extremely comforting to me, to know that my faith does provide me comfort.

But I know people who are going through difficult times and don’t find the same comfort in their faith.  It’s made me think a bit about this of late and reflect on why my faith has helped me so much as well as hoping that in the future I’ll continue to get the same comfort from my faith.  I’ve been wondering if for me, my current bubble-wrap comfort is rooted in my view of God.  Maybe our view of God, affects what we think God can be and do in our lives.  Two people experiencing the same thing, both cope differently and have a different view of God’s involvement in their lives.

I’ve heard all kinds of things said by people that show how they view God.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Santa Claus’, handing out special treats to good boys and girls, we assume that our ‘goodness’ as noticed by God is rewarded by treats from God. Our interaction with God is reduced to something like us making lists of things we want to receive once a year, while trying to avoid getting on a naughty list meaning we’d end up with no treats.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Fairy Godmother’, waving a wand and fixing things that are not quite right, magically turning our pumpkins into carriages and our rags into beautiful gowns, we assume that God moves in and out of our lives, transforming some of our ordinary into extraordinary and making us feel special.  Our interaction with God is reduced to a cry for help for what we want from God, a cry to change our circumstances and bring us riches and magical moments.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Police Officer’, enforcing rules, keeping the law, looking after public health and safety, we see God as official law enforcers, uniformed and tough, sometimes on our side, sometimes on the side of the other person.  Our interaction with God is reduced to a valiant attempt to keep the laws and be a good citizen, staying out of God’s way, and only involving God’s help personally with our emergency phone call when something is going wrong.

If our view of God is something like ‘God as Judge’,  determining whether by our behaviour we’re guilty or not-guilty and dishing out punishment accordingly, we see God as remote from us, sitting behind a high bench, protected by the legal traditions and processes.  Our interaction with God only happens at times of judgement, maybe when we think we’ve done something wrong or if someone else we know has wronged us, and in our eyes deserves punishment.

There are plenty of other views of God out there, and feel free to post a comment with your ideas. I think the closest I can come to describing my view of God, is something like God as Journey Guide.  You’ll know if you’ve ever been on a tourist tour and had a great local guide, how it helps to really see what is going on in the places you’re travelling through, to get an appreciation of the people that live in that place, their history and customs, to figure out currencies and sort out simple things that become so important on tour, such as great places to eat!  There is also the adventure guide, such as the Sherpas that guide hiking groups up the Nepalese mountains.  I imagine that these guides know the way, know the conditions, know what to do when things get rough, know the unpredictability and uncertainties of the climb.  These guides have experience of such journeys, yet at the same time, each journey is unique and new.  No two climbs are the same, and each brings their own challenges, joys, dangers and achievements.  And of course a journey guide can only lead if people are willing to follow. And as a follower, you can’t opt in and out of parts of the climb, picking out the parts you want, choosing only to walk on the flat bits and somehow jump over the steep climbs and avoid them. You have to follow from the bottom to the top all the way if you’re going to be sure of where you’re going.

To me this metaphor comes closest to my faith understanding of Jesus as journey guide.  One of my favourite things about Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel.  In the birth of Jesus, the world received Emmanuel or ‘God is with us’.  As Jesus lived amongst people, we have the eyewitness records of what kind of person this ‘God with us’ was, what he did, what he said and what he felt. ‘God with us’ or Jesus Christ as ‘journey guide’ is to me extremely comforting.  Jesus who understands pain and suffering. Jesus who speaks words of peace and love, forgiveness and hope.  Jesus who gives priority to the poor, the needy and the sick.  Jesus who tells us to follow him.  Jesus who shows us the way, the truth and the life. Jesus who faced despair, loneliness, sorrow and grief.  There is such comfort in knowing that God with us, in the person of Jesus is alongside me. And right now he’s got me bubble wrapped because he knows that’s what I need.

I’ve been thinking all of this over in my head in the last few weeks, and had actually started writing the blog a few days ago up to this point…

This weekend I’ve been quietly sitting with my laptop and formatting our next book, ‘Solving the God Problem’.  It’s written by Brian K. Smith, and is actually a revised version of a manuscript he wrote many years ago, called ‘The Xerox Equation’.    As my eyes flicked over the words, it struck me that this manuscript has been hugely influential in my thinking and concept of my view of God.  In fact it actually surprised me how many of the thoughts and ideas in Brian’s book, are integrally part of my faith, fully permeated through my thinking and have been now for many years.   “Jesus is the Son of God. See him, and you’ve seen the God that nobody has ever seen.” (Brian K. Smith from the ‘Solving the God Problem – John for Today” Due for publication in next few weeks from Kereru Publishing.)

I first encountered Brian’s Xerox Equation when I was running a children’s holiday programme based on the seven signs from John’s gospel about 25 years ago.  Andrew had a photocopy of the manuscript from his time at theological college when Brian was the Principal, and I used it as my base document to build up our holiday programme content.  Over the years I’ve dipped into it many times.  We were very excited when Brian agreed to give it a brush up for today’s world and publish it with Kereru.   And many of Brian’s old students have already expressed enthusiasm to get a copy once we’ve published, so it’s not just us who’ve been influenced and impressed by his thinking. Brian’s commentary on John We see God through the person of Jesus.  Reading the book of John from the bible alongside Brian’s John commentary shows that through understanding Jesus, we get a view of God.

Well this blog did not start out as a plug for our new book, but it is intriguing that the blog post flitting through my head of late and half written until today, should connect so well with my weekend’s work, so I really can’t help giving this a push!  Brian’s book is written for those with little or no biblical background, so fits in well with my ‘all ages and all stages’ thinking and is really a book for anyone. Brian uses contemporary language and metaphors to unpack the gospel of John and things that you read in the bible and wonder what they mean, are explained engagingly and creatively.  In its earlier format it was probably one of the first bible commentaries I had ever read, and reflecting on it now, I see how significant this has been to the foundation of my adult faith, my view of God and my life journey through the good times and the tough times. My bubble wrapping shouldn’t surprise me after all!

(Photo credit: my dress as seen through the bubble wrap)

Light in the Darkness

Our family is using the 25 Stockings book each night at the dinner table.  As well as three versions of homemade ’25 Stockings’ hanging across the room, our 19 year old daughter bought an Advent candle this year. It’s one of those candles with incremental marks down it from 1 – 25.  So each night when we are all together we light the candle as we eat our dinner.  This requires very careful watching because although the candle starts off burning slowly, all of a sudden the wax drips down the side and the mark is reached for the day and it’s time to blow out the candle.

Once we’ve finished eating we read the bible passage. Because our children have always had this experience (I started writing the book when I was 19!) they love the three questions so we have to include that, and then we usually read the reflection and the prayer.

A couple of nights ago we also did the Discussion Time talking about darkness and times when we’ve been in the dark and turned on a light and how this makes a difference and of course how this relates to the metaphor of God’s love.  We had a satisfying conversation about light and darkness and times we’ve each felt God’s presence.   It was nice sitting there in front of a candle and talking about the impact of light that a single candle creates in a darkened room.

Last night I wasn’t feeling so good and although I went to bed early, I was up and down all night.  At first the rest of the family were still all up so while my room was in darkness, the rest of the house was a blaze of light.  By about midnight, 17’s door was shut and I figured he had turned in for the night. But sometime after 1, when I was up again and the rest of the house was this time in darkness too, I reasonably thought everyone else had now gone to bed.  But… around 17’s closed door was a silhouette of light.  (Not that, there was anything wrong with him still being up – he is on holiday)

I was pondering the idea that I had only seen the light around his door because the rest of the house was in darkness.  It was kind of the opposite thinking of our earlier discussion talking about darkness and the difference that happens when a candle is lit.  (Okay, I know it sounds like the same thing but bear with me.)  The light had been on all the time, but I only saw that it was on when the rest of the house changed from light to dark.

So maybe sometimes the metaphor is that we can be like a light in the darkness for others just like a candle lighting up the darkness.  And maybe other times we are part of a larger group of lights, indistinguishable as individuals until we are separated and stand as a solitary light in darkness.

I’ve really liked the metaphor as a follower of Jesus, of being a light in the darkness, or being salt adding flavour to the world.  But I also think there is a balance and when we are being ‘light’ we carry on being true to our call to follow Jesus and be light to the world, by both gathering with a larger group of other ‘lights’ and also living, working and spending time on our own with others who are not followers of Jesus, and therefore hopefully bringing light to their darkness.

It’s a balance that is a struggle and maybe always changing.  There is something wonderful and refreshing for followers to spend large amounts of time with other followers of Jesus.  And maybe at different times in our lives we need this fellowship more than other times.   But if we spend all of our time with our friends from our church groups, then how much is our light shining noticeably to others?  And if we spend too much time with others who are not followers of Jesus, are we in danger of our light ‘battery’ running out or our candle burning until the flame is extinguished.

Anyway, that was my middle of the night musing… instead of sleeping!  Just thought I’d share it.