In Whose Image?

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Michelangelo – Public Domain

Genesis begins with a simple phrase in English: “In the beginning God  . . . .”  How often do we ponder this starting point?  In the biblical narrative it continues on to explain the sequence of creation.  Before all of it, however, God existed.  “At the creation, God created . . .” is one rendering of the Hebrew.  He was pre-existent.

As the Creator, He is the cosmological cause of each of us.  He has made us, not we ourselves.  Most theists (and people of faith more generally) will except this as a obvious truth.  Our physical forms are “inherited” from the long sequence of reproduction which begun with “In the beginning.”

We are not so forthcoming in our “making of ourselves” in spiritual, and social terms.  Think about the term: “self-made man/woman.”  The achievements and accomplishments are attributed to the hard work and talents of the individual, not to some divine plan.  We set our minds on a course, and off we go.  Or do we?

 

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27).”    Even is the rule and mastery humanity has shown over the creation, it was tasked to them by god.  It was a destiny set by God, not one of our creation.  So why should it be any less so in our individual lives?

Our purposes have a starting point: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29). We are to be conformed to Jesus’ image.  Put simply to be Christ-like.   Yet Jesus was not one to do His own thing – to fly after any or every fancy.  Nor was he dictated by ego.  John 5:30 says in part, records Jesus’ words, “for I seek not my will, but the will of him that sent me.”  Again at Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Father, all things are possible to thee, take away this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done (Mark 14:36).”  

If we are truly conformed to God’s will – if we are Christ-like, we should be seeking what is good for His purposes, not what strokes our egos.  Let us test our motives.  Are we striving to be in God’s image, or are we trying to force His purposes into our wills.  Are we like some Medieval artist making God in the image of man, not man in the image of God?

 

Padre

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Hold the Course

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

At thirteen I was taller than many of my classmates and very much stronger.   I was a shot putter on the track and field team, and was good at sport in general.  Despite my size and strength, I was often bullied, precisely because of those characteristics.  I however held the conviction instilled in me by my mother that it would be wrong for me the harm a smaller child. Therefore, I endured the bullying.

At thirteen, I had teachers who saw me as clever, and some diligently tried to convince me of my non-physical abilities.  But I, whether because of the bullying, or whether I had something to prove to myself, stayed fixedly focused on athletics.

High school was an uncomfortable turning point.  By fifteen I had stopped growing and settled in at five foot – seven.  I still competed in the shot put, but each year my ranking fell, as others first caught up to me in size and then surpassed it.  My response was to practice more, spending long hours with the weights and in the shot put ring.  I remained strong, and especially strong for my size.  My academics, however, were not a priority.  Yes I got mostly A-s, but not consistently so.  My senior year, I even took only the classes I needed to graduate.

Alas, I am no athlete.  I got a job, married, and went to community college, where I got A-s yet again.  Then I joined the forces, where academically I did well even being noted on three occasions as “honor man”  in military schools.

I left the forces, and went to uni, and then into ministry.  I eventually even did graduate study at the University of Cambridge.  I am still no athlete, but I am, as my teachers at age thirteen tried to show me – clever.

So what advice should I give a thirteen year old me?  Give up the sport, you will end up too small?  Hit the books, your future lies there?

No!  The message to the thirteen year old me is:  “Hold the Course.  The path you are on is the one that will make you – you!”

Padre

Haunted Wordsmith Nonfiction Prompt: What is something you would tell your 13-year-old self?

What Are You Made Of?: A Review

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image: Wikipedia

I don’t usually make it a habit to read Christian devotional literature.  The scriptures?Yes.  Theological tomes? Those too.  But not much in the devotional genre.  I generally find them too formulaic and often shallow.

That said, I have recently read Amba Keeble’s What Are You Made Of?, which I found neither shallow nor formulaic.  This devotional work is based on Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, and provides both thoughtful commentary and sincere personal sentiment.

Keeble’s book is rich in analogy and metaphor, and it is written in a very approachable and conversational style.  Her focus question: What are we made of? is a great lens to examine Paul’s letter from.  She humanises this approach to the modern reader by drawing a parallel to reality TV competitions, and the same question as put forward to contestants when they are on the verge of giving up.  What a great Christian parallel!  What are we made of when life is about to “defeat” us?

Sister Amba uses other illustrations which are wonderfully picked as well, such as Russian Stacking Dolls.  She examines these, and how they are constructed from a solid core outwards.  This analogy of a Christ-centred life (a solid core) runs throughout the book.

Popular cultural references as diverse as How the Grinch  Stole Christmas and misaligned shopping trolley wheels engage the reader with familiar modern parables to illustrate the apostle’s timeless words.

Keeble draws her key question together wonderfully in challenging us to live boldly,  live freely,  and to shine forth that which is at our “Russian Doll” cores, in our Christian walk.  I may not be a great fan of devotionals, but this work is one worth reading.

Amba and her husband, Rich are associate pastors at The Abundant Life (AOG) Church in Suffolk.

Padre

 

 

The Elephant in the Room and Such

 

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source: YouTube

The elephant in the room is a modern idiom which suggests that we don’t discuss the big (and often uncomfortable) topics which affect our lives or relationships. But Jesus was not prepared to let these topics be ignored.

The biggest elephant He addressed was sin. And while He didn’t mention pachyderms, He did make full use of camels and logs.

Just like us today, with our tendency to make “small talk” or to skirt issues, so did the “religious” people of Jesus’ day.  They seemed obsessed with the minor or inconsequential matters and often missed the real point of their relationship with God and man.

In Matthew 23: 23-24 Jesus said,

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

This is not only a direct challenge to the leaders’ religious focus of devotion, but a great play on words as well (something I am sure His audience would find memorable). In Aramaic, gnat is “gamla” and camel is “gamal.”   Jesus was challenging the leaders to sort out their gamlas from their gamals, an effective metaphor for discerning the trivial from the “big issues.”

Jesus didn’t just put the elites on notice, however. He clearly reminded all of his auditors of the need to examine their priorities and perceptions, especially when dealing with others.

In Matthew 7: 3-5 he warns,

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

How often do we nitpick while glossing over our own shortcomings?

We as believers have this challenge set by Jesus – to focus on the “big things.” What elephants (camels and planks) do we need to see and deal with? Maybe it is time to get these out of our rooms.

Padre

“Look What I Did!”

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I have written before about the prevalent attitude of entitlement.  Hand in hand with this is the obsession with fame, glory, and celebrity.  Society revels in the Kardashians, “reality” champions, and X Y Zs that “Got Talent.” If we are honest, “Look, they are winners!” and “Look what they achieved;” comments often belie the true desire to be so recognised ourselves.

People often see all gains in life as the result of human effort: “I earned a promotion,” and “Look what I did.” It is bad enough to hear my students say such things like “We won the match,” when not one of them was on the field, much less even on the team. But such flippant self-congratulations are more than just mis-speaking, they are a form of vanity. To be fair, I have done (and do) this as well.  But, are we giving credit where credit is due?

It is refreshing, and informative therefore that in Psalm 44 we find a reality check,

“We have heard it with our ears, O God; our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days, in days long ago. With your hand you drove out the nations and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples and made our ancestors flourish. It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them (verses 1-3).”

The Psalmist rightly notes two key facts.  The first, is that they listened to a true testimony (wow, they listened to their elders, teachers, and priests).  But more importantly, they acknowledged that blessing, and accomplishments were in the hands of God.

In Evan Almighty there is a scene when Evan prays, thanking God for what had been provided.  Good start.  He goes one to thank God for his home, but lapses into the “Kardashian” attitude of “but I picked it out.” Me, Myself, and I; not Thee, Thou, and Thine.

As we look at “what I have done,” let us keep some perspective. Yes, we have made effort.  Yes, we have accomplished tasks. But the blessing is from the Lord.  Even the very talents, skills, beauty, intelligence, etc. that enabled such accomplishments came from Him.  There is no such thing as a “self-made man (woman).”

Let us be hesitant to say “Look at what I did,” and be readily prepared to note “What He has done.”  Let’s give credit where credit is due.

Padre

Key to Life

Key to Life

Pastor Vince gave a passionate presentation this week of the key principles of Christian life, and life more generally. He then expanded this general theme by noting the example and attitude of the Apostle Paul.

Philippians 4: 10f reads, “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” A central factor in the key to life, is accepting the circumstances that we are in and making the most of the situation.

Pastor Vince then expanded this with the observation, that each of us has a different ministry, different lives, and different callings.  All too often, we fail to find “the peace beyond understanding,” because we are judging our own lives by the standards, abilities, and callings of others.

Paul had in several places spoken of the different gifts of the Spirit, and of the different parts and functions of parts of the body. We are meant to function corporately. Think in secular terms. Could we function as a society if everyone was a lawyer, or doctor? Who would build our houses or grow our food? We need to find the gift and vocation God has prepared us for, and then be the best at it we can be.  Not spending our time wishing we were something else, someone else, or that things were different.

Luke 22 shows us this.  Jesus told the disciples of trials ahead.  Peter took the view that that can’t be the case. He was after the “making things different than they are” approach. Verses 31 and 32 tell us how Jesus then prophecised, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Essentially it is saying “Peter, you are going to be tested, and tried. The chaff will be blown away, and what is left will be stronger for it.”

Tested, proved, completed. We have examples of this as well, notably in I Samuel 17. Young David had already killed a  lion and a bear before he ever saw Goliath. God had tested him, proved him, and perfected him to the task of facing giants.

We like Paul need to be open to the good and the bad.  We need to grow in the times of want, and to praise in the times of plenty. We need to not seek to accept that we have a role even when times are difficult, and wishing them away is not an option (like Peter had to learn). And we need to take those opportunities to grow and be tempered as Peter and David were.

The key to life, is to trust God who is guiding us, and to take the world for what it is, in the good and the bad.

Padre

 

The Gifts Within

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On Sunday Sister Ima brought her testimony, which was powerful in its humility, and insight.  The service’s theme was a reflection on the power of “ordinary” Christians to do great things.  Ima spoke about her inward faith, and how it made an impact into the life of her, then non-Christian, husband.  She told how her life of prayer and dedication, not expressions of ostentatiousness, but of simple faith, changed him by her example.  She went on to speak about the misfortune of a work-mate, whose family circumstances left in distress.  Ima, in living up to Christ’s call to “love your neighbour” showed acts of kindness, and has since changed the life of this family, again through prayer and example.

Pastor Vince expanded on this message by talking about some of his recent experiences where whole congregations reached out to touch, pray, and support one another.  Jesus called all Christians to “go into the world.” And in order to prepare us for this call, He has equipped each of us with the gifts necessary to fulfill to roles given to us by His Spirit.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4: 11-12).”

But not only these,

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines (1 Corinthians 12: 4-11).”

“Just as He determines.” We are gifted in building up the body.  Not all are pastors, but this does not mean that we “leave the work to the pastors.”  We each have gifts. We may only lack the confidence to use them.

I have had several Wizard of Oz moments recently.  Okay, some background first, I am a theologian and ecclesiastical historian. I have training, education, and experience.  But the Spirit is more powerful than any university or education system. He gives Christians the gifts mentioned. I am at times humbled by the knowledge and faith of my brothers and sisters.  I love learning from them!  Yes, I learn as they offer insights and experiences beyond my “book learning.”  This is not to say that I have nothing to offer, but it is all in the balance that Christ has constructed a body “just as He determines,” each uplifting and complimenting the gifts of others.

For those lacking confidence, trust in Him who is in you.  Remember the Wizard of Oz gave nothing to the Lion or Tin Man they didn’t already have within them.

Padre

 

A Matter of Scale

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In cooking, and in life in general, scale is important.  If you are throwing together a snack, the difference of a gram or two either way usually doesn’t have a major impact.  General scales and guess-work are often all that is needed.  For more intricate dishes, tiny differences in the amount of spice or thickeners can have and profound effect on the subtlety of the flavours, or on the textures of the dish.  Precision can make all the  difference.

In my kitchen we have some grand old fashioned scales with brass weights and it is wonderful for rough work, and bread making.  We also have a set of electronic postal scales.  These are more exact than we can possibly ever need going into milligrams, but they are really useful when dividing recipes, or doing the fine work with spices.

Life is often that way too.  We can cut a few corners, make estimates rather than surveys, and get by with vague greetings to ones we know.  But there are times when “close enough for government work” doesn’t cut it.  We in our budgeting may need to really come in in the black, as there is not reserve to fall back on.  We might give that vague “How are you?” to someone who really needs to tell you how they are.  Are we prepared for that challenge?  Have you ever giving that quick and easy “Howdy” with no expectation of hearing (or sadly caring about) an answer?

Personally, I do try to only offer an open greeting of that sort with an expectation, of listening.  Usually, it is greeted with a “Fine, thanks,” but not always.  Sometimes it is about scale.  Rough and ready “Okay,” versus “I am really felling down.”  The first can be responded to with a nod.  The latter requires your ear, and better still your heart.

As a person of faith, I cannot afford to be lax. As Sister Lisa commented on in church a few weeks ago, we are ambassadors.  Are we cutting corners in the work we are tasked with from above? Are we shoddy workmen, or do we work with all of the precision of my kitchen postal scales?

Rough estimates work some of the time.  Exactitude rarely is expected of us (unless you work in finance). But in the eyes of God, there is an area we cannot dodge or hedge.  It is our conduct.  An ounce of extra flour may not spoil the loaf.  But sin in our lives, is still sin.  When it comes to scale there are not big sins and little sins.  People often think of the Ten Commandments and the weighty sins of murder, and theft.  But covetousness and disrespect to parents weigh equally heavy on God’s scales.

Let us examine our lives today, and measure them with the postal scales of His word, and not with the guesswork of indifference.

Padre

Foundations

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Pastor Rich centred the family service on Matthew 7:24-27 this week.  It is well known as the parable of the wise and foolish builders.

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’

The idea is clear, we need to make the foundations of our lives firm.  All too often people choose the wrong foundation to build their lives on however.  For some (especially in this present age) it is based on fame and prestige.   People seek out their fifteen minutes of fame.  Celebrity is a do all and end all in itself.  For others it is artificial crutches of drugs or alcohol which are seen to be needed “just to get through the day.” And yet for others, who may well look down upon those who build of the values of the world, they themselves often fall into the trap of “self-righteousness.”

But Jesus said there is a firm foundation, beyond the temporal, the artificial, and the self that gives life true meaning.  These are Jesus’  “words of mine  . . . puts  . . . into practice.” I remember a youth minister decades ago saying that each of us has a Christ-shaped vacuum within our lives.  Many of us seek to fill it with the wrong things.  Only Jesus, the true rock of foundation is sufficient to bear us up when “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew.”  

Are your foundations set in the rock of God’s love today, or on the sand of the illusion of stability?  Let us seek to dig deep into the stone of truth, and put the word into practice today.  Let’s be wise builders.

Padre

Why I Teach

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There are many reasons why people become teachers. For some it is the desire to “make a difference” in the world. For others the motivation is a care and concern for young people.  And for yet others, it is the importance of their subjects, and the concern that knowledge of it endures.  We can add to this a small minority that didn’t know what else to do with their degree. [As an aside, I remember overhearing a conversation between two final year university students on their futures.  One of them said he would do teacher training, “while he worked out what he really wanted to do.”]

Why stay a teacher? Now here is a more interesting concept.  Some – but not all – of the world changers become disillusioned and leave.  Some “kid’s are our futures” types, equally withdraw after seeing the realities of the classroom.  And “preservation of knowledge” advocates become frustrated when their beloved topics fall on disinterested ears.  But the majority persevere. Why, because they come to embrace all of the above, and become educators.

Our little victories drive us onwards. That moment when little Johnny “gets it.”  The realization that these young people are indeed people, and they are developing into wonderful human beings.

I have been an educator for nearly three decades.  I may have started out as a “my subject matters” type, but I have grown!  I really care about the students I teach.  I feel for their hurts, and I really find joy in their triumphs.   I see them as full individuals, not just as recipients of my subject. As a case in point, I love watching the programme on the last day of the year, when those about to leave us make their speeches, share their recollections, and share their talents in music or drama.  I can look then, and take pride that I in some small part helped shape these awesome people.

That is why I teach.  I may not have changed the world, but I have touched the lives that have touched mine.

Padre