Dwelling Spaces

Monday, 19 February 2018

Ugly bulbs

For the first time in a few years I have been growing an amaryllis lily.  When I planted the huge ugly bulb 5 weeks ago in a pot that was almost as big as the bulb I had forgotten what an extraordinary process it is watching the stem, bud and flowers emerge.  The stems are now 72cm!  And the flowers that have been opening in the last few days are quite beautiful. Who would have imagined all that life and beauty was waiting to burst free?  Certainly the look on my little nephews face when I showed him the bulb at Christmas said something along the lines of 'you must be mad, that is like the worst and weirdest Christmas present in the world!'

A couple of weeks ago my sermon was on 2 Corinthians 5.11-21.  In that passage, we are reminded that Jesus looked like nothing special, but turned out to be God, and so we should learn from this not to judge people by what we see.  God is at work in people bringing new life (new acts of creation the verse says). It can be pretty discouraging sometimes looking around at the world, wondering if things are going to change or whether they will stay ugly and broken.  And then I look at myself, and think about the changes that God has helped bring about in me, sometimes in the blink of an eye and sometimes in the imperceptible process of reflection, repentance and forgiveness.  We all look pretty ugly inside from certain angles, maybe in places so hidden from others that only God sees.  But watching my lily grow reminds me that God is not phased by the ugly and the broken, because God sees the potential of life and beauty held within that and always wants to call it forth.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Dragons (or being distinctive)

It's Chinese New Year (well it was yesterday really) and so it was fun to see some dragon dancing for the first time in a while. The colourful outfits, drumming and well choreographed dancing transport you to a different place, seems so incongruous seeing it moving down the High Street past Poundland!

It made me think a bit about being Christians in our culture.  The Bible talks about Christians being in the world but not of the world (John 17.15-18).  The dragons today really stood out as something different. But surveys have shown little difference between Christians and non-Christians in our society. What does it mean for Christians to live in such a way that we stand out (for good reasons)? I find it a challenge.  I meet many people who seem more generous or kind than me.  What makes my decision to follow Jesus, to try and live the way I think He is calling me to live, distinctive?  

Friday, 16 February 2018


Today I popped in to visit a lady who moved into a care home a few months ago. She is an amazing woman who worked as a missionary teacher in India for many years. I enjoyed hearing her talk about disembarking the boat at Bombay (as was) and the close to 24 hour journey by steam train to Madras. As I prepare to go to Tanzania it was good to be reminded that even though my trip is going to take me well out of my comfort zone, it is nevertheless considerably more accessible and connected than similar ventures in the past!

As we chatted she showed me the Bible that she is currently reading.  It is in the Tamil language as she maintains the vividly remembered connection with India.  And we talked about the last meal she ever made for herself, cauliflower cheese, and the suddenness that big changes can arrive with.  Then we talked some more about the Bible, and I was amused after yesterdays post to hear her talk about the Bible she received for her confirmation, that was edited by Stirling and included what sounded wonderful illustration, in that the 'boring bits' (her words!) were in smaller font and three columns to a page.  So we shared a chuckle at what I had written about yesterday.  I was wondering if she still had that Bible, but no, she had recently given it to one of her carers who asked if she had a Bible the carer could have. I was touched by the generosity of giving away a Bible that obviously had many precious memories. And she just said, "well I had read it right through!"

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Bible's boring bits

This year I am reading the Bible through in a year.  I try and do that every other year so I can keep in mind the big picture of the story of God and God's people, whilst on the alternate year I try and drill down deeper into themes or books.  Anyway, each time I read it through I of course find myself getting to the 'boring bits' that we can often just feel like skipping over. And I have to admit that I approached the start of the book of Numbers a couple of days ago with a slightly heavy heart. If you know me, then you know that I am the sort of person who finds it hard to skip past a footnote, and I want to work out the connections between things. So the book of Numbers can be a bit tricky because I find myself checking the numbers do add up and that the relationships between people match what we know from other parts of the Bible.  It makes for a lot of calculating and page turning!  However, leaving my personal quirks to one side, as I was reading Numbers 7 I was asking God: why on earth is this same list of gifts for the tabernacle just repeated over and again 12 times?! (and yes, I did check it is exactly the same!)

As the tabernacle is dedicated as the space for worshipping and meeting with God, each of the twelve tribes of Israel sends exactly the same gifts (see picture above) with their leader to be given to Moses.  But rather than saying that in a sentence, the Bible has 60 verses detailing the gifts.  And let's be honest...that is just not as gripping as a virgin birth, astonishing miracles, or the simple confirmation that God is love.

So what should we do when we are faced with a 'boring bit' of the Bible?  I think the answer is to read it with the same question in heart and mind with which we read the 'exciting bits': "Lord, what do you want to show me through what I am reading?" And as I read those 60 verses, the importance that this act had in the early life of the nation became clearer.  We are meant to dwell on the significance of the presence of God, and the worship that results, being at the heart of the peoples lives. Whilst a summary would've saved time, it would also have rushed past the 12 days of each tribe taking their turn to make their offering. I thought how wonderful that every tribe gave the same, whether the tribe was bigger or smaller, each gave exactly a twelfth of the offering.  Each tribe equal before God, named and valued, and fitting into the plan and purpose of God's intended life for God's people.  In its own way quite beautiful as a passage in its simplicity and constancy.   

I wouldn't want to read a passage like that every day, but that is the joy of the Bible, so much variety and different ways of telling this one amazing story.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Ash Wednesday

This morning we had 'ashes imposed' as part of our communion service. The sign of the cross is made using ashes which often come from the burning of the previous years palm crosses from Palm Sunday. While the sign of the cross is being made on your forehead, these words are said: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Today I was struck for the first time about the significance of using the palm crosses for ashes.  The palm crosses remind us of the welcome that Jesus had as he came into Jerusalem the week before he was crucified. As he entered Jerusalem that day, the crowds hailed him as their king in great hope that Jesus was about to save them and bring about the restoration of Israel. The palms were all about how people expected God to meet their hopes and expectations.

But of course, Jesus was about the business of salvation on a much grander scale - for all humanity in every generation - setting aside nationalism and hopes driven by selfish desires. In the end the people who had welcomed Jesus as king either didn't get the truth, or didn't want it, and so their cries turned to 'Crucify him'!

So I was struck today how right it is that we burn up our palms. To follow Jesus is to decide to stop trying to conform Jesus to our expectations, but to begin to conform ourselves to his expectations.  This can feel like death, and the bible tells us it is in fact putting our 'flesh', our selfish desires to death. We are 'but dust', but we are dust with the life of God breathed into us, created out of love, and for purpose. I cannot imagine a 'better' life than deciding this is true, and so turning away from sin (doing things my way) and back to God (doing things God's way).

So Happy Ash Wednesday! And Happy Valentine's Day! May you know and love the one who fully knows and fully loves you. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Bad habits, holy orders

I wonder if you watched the recent Channel 5 series: Bad Habits, Holy Orders? For 4 weeks it followed a group of 5 young women as they went from 'selfie' driven lives that for most included hard partying, regular one night stands, and high-spend shopping, to life in a convent with a group of nuns. In some ways the story followed an expected trajectory, shock at being separated from phones and makeup, and adapting to living simple lives of prayer and practical work with very little spending money. Then rebellion and handling the motivations behind that, all of which resulted in quite a moving growing relationship between the women and the nuns.  However it was the third episode that struck me at quite a profound level.

The nuns sent the women off on 'mission' to other convents where they were to help out with work amongst elderly people and homeless people.  For most of the women it was the first time they had spoken to people who lived such different lives to them. And quite a beautiful thing happened. Each young woman, in her own way, began to find herself. And for some it was quite a dramatic transformation.  And it helped me realise this....the culture that we find ourselves in is one that wants to consume us. Our image is graded by the level of positive response it receives, our value is determined by the amount of money we can spend, our personal attractiveness is based on swipes to the right or number of sexual partners. For the young women on the programme the gap between the person that was being consumed and who they actually were had almost become unbridgeable. These women were giving what they felt the world wanted to consume, but the bridge back to finding themselves was to really give of themselves. 

The young women could take or leave the prayer and being part of the worshipping lives of the nuns. What they deeply needed was the love of a 'stranger' someone not compelled to love them, but someone who loved and valued them as the women they were beneath their appearances. The nuns were concerned for the who the women were becoming, they were concerned for their characters, and to encourage them to really think about what they valued. For me this is the gospel, the good news of God. The bible talks about God looking on our hearts, not being concerned about physical appearance or what others might say about a person (see 1 Samuel 16.7 or John 2.25 for example). Why is this important? Because God truly knows us. The gospel tells us that God created us as good people designed to be in relationship with God participating in the divine life where each person is valued for the unique place they have in fulness of life for all people and all creation. This fulness of life means being able to give of who you are out of love for God, love for others and love for yourself. 

The narrative of our culture which says 'give me what I want' is a narrative that consumes, not fulfils. For the young women on this programme, the gospel brought transformation, because it showed them the freedom that comes from a new narrative, a story of self-giving. A self-giving that reveals and fulfils who we are.

The series is still available here on catch up: http://www.channel5.com/show/bad-habits-holy-orders/

Monday, 20 November 2017

How to embarrass yourself the Christian way

(c) William Hole - Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Tree

I wonder if you have ever done or been accused of doing something embarrassing? If you are a parent, you will almost certainly have been accused of being embarrassing by your child at some point! Fortunately I am not prone to being easily embarrassed which was helpful earlier this year during the baptisms we held at the Cheltenham Lido.  After I had baptised Charles and Sarah, I got out of the pool and tied my towel around my waist. And then continued with leading the prayers.  I was holding the microphone with one hand and suddenly realised that my towel was unwrapping and rapidly descending, not easy to catch and keep yourself decent with one hand.  Anyway, I survived and most people were gracious enough not to mention it afterwards!

In Luke 19.1-10 Zacchaeus puts himself in an embarrassing position. He has a very responsible, if despised job as the chief tax collector in Jericho.  It would have been a very privileged position because it was a town close to Jerusalem on a major trade route. And so he would have been a very wealthy man.  Wealthy people are used to having places of honour which makes this story interesting.  It might be normal when important people came to town for Zacchaeus to be invited to dine with them.  But as we begin this story, not only is Zacchaeus not invited to meet Jesus, but with such a big crowd gathering to see Jesus, Zacchaeus can't even see over the crowds and capture a glimpse of Jesus because he is too short.  But why does Zacchaeus even want to see Jesus?  He is clearly desperate to see Jesus, because he decides it doesn’t matter what people think, he will awkwardly clamber up a tree to try and get a chance of seeing this man.

Can you imagine it?  Zacchaeus wouldn’t be wearing trousers or shorts, he would’ve been in a flowing robe, so he may even have had to hitch his robes right up into his belt and show everyone his pants as he scrambled from branch to branch.  How ungainly, and how people probably pointed and laughed at him making a fool of himself.  “Ha! Look up there! It’s the tax collector, what on earth does he think he looks like, silly man!”

Perhaps his cheeks are red, and he hopes people will stop noticing him, but no! Suddenly there’s Jesus, and perhaps he sees people pointing and looking, and so he looks up too. But he doesn’t make fun of Zacchaeus.  Far from it.  Jesus is the one who looks on the heart, who knows our motivations. And he sees something in Zacchaeus that others have missed. And he says, probably with a smile: “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down from there, I want to hang out with you at your house today.” I bet Zacchaeus swung down quickly, embarrassment forgotten, and with a broad smile on his face.  Everyone else though was grumbling: “Jesus has gone to be the guest of a sinner, and a rich one at that, just think about all the money Zacchaeus has cheated us out of, why does someone like Jesus want to eat with him, eat food brought with dirty money. Maybe Jesus isn’t who we thought he was…”

But the effect on Zacchaeus is totally the opposite.  As Jesus sits down at his table, Zacchaeus discovers who he really is.  You see, the name Zacchaeus means righteous one, or pure one. That is his true identity. And he suddenly realises that, and realises that he can change from who he has become.  The encounter with Jesus has opened the door to repentance.  And he says, "Lord I will give away half my money and repay those I have cheated by giving them back four times what I took." And Jesus tells him, truly you are a child of God, and are saved, considered righteous by God.

In Psalm 11 we read that God is righteous and God’s eyes scan the earth as God tests our hearts to see whether we are choosing wickedness or righteousness. To everyone who saw him, Zacchaeus was wicked, but Zacchaeus was willing to humble himself, to embarrass himself, by climbing a tree to find Jesus and to be restored to the man he knew he was born to be.

Jesus was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, where He would also humble Himself and be nailed to a tree and be lifted up for all to mock. Zacchaeus has shown us what it is like to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, and as he did it he found Jesus willing to accept his repentance and to offer him forgiveness. And as a result he rediscovered who he truly was.    
May we today be prepared to die to ourselves, even to look foolish in the eyes of others, because we want to follow our Saviour, and become all that we were made to be.  Amen.