“Hi, you’re through to God. Please leave a message.”

The Iphone's 'SIRI' voice-activated personal assistant software gets quite testy if you ask it about God.
The Iphone’s ‘SIRI’ voice-activated personal assistant software gets quite testy if you ask it about God.

Jesus Teaches on Prayer

“So I say to you,” said Jesus. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

There was a pause.

“Lord,” said Matthew.

“Yes, Matthew?” said Jesus.

“Is there a Technical Support prayer that I can pray?”

“A… what?”

“I am having some connectivity issues,” went on Matthew. “I can send my prayers, that’s fine – the sending is fine. But I don’t seem to be receiving any signal. I just get silence.”

“Let me deal with this, Master,” smiled Peter, placing his hand on Jesus’ arm. “Matthew, have you correctly begun your prayer?”

“I – I suppose so…”

“You must clearly begin the prayer by addressing God the Father, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. If you don’t state this then the prayer can get lost in the… the… air.”

“Yes, yes I’m doing that.”

“Okay, then have you given the right information? You must begin with Adoration, then follow with Confession, then give Thanks and finally ask for what you want – Supplication. ACTS. If you haven’t entered your details correctly then this can lead to unnecessary delays in prayer-answering.”

“Yes I’ve done all that too – the right order and everything.”

“Hmm,” said Peter. “Tricky one this, what language are you using?”

“Aramaic,” said Matthew.

Peter nodded, deep in thought. “Yes, Aramaic is supported, so it can’t be that – tell you what, maybe there’s a user-error. Are you waiting for the buffering to finish? It can take a while for the answer to download. You have to be really, really quiet and not let yourself think about anything else.”

“Yes, yes I’m doing that! I’m waiting ages!”

“Well,” said Peter, unravelling a scroll and casting his eyes up and down it. “Well that completes the diagnostic schedule – I’m not sure what’s wrong with this one.”

“Have you tried turning yourself off and on again?” Asked John.

“DON’T do that,” said Jesus.

The adolescence of a believer

I never trust anybody who says they enjoyed their teenage years. For me, being a teenager represented a decade of pitched conflict against an army of cleverly-organised guerilla skin pimples, punctuated by brief moments of rejection by girls. Being a teenager meant trying to survive in a nuanced but brutal school hierachy which would make even the most complex Mafia family feel like an article in Hello! magazine.

There were moments, however, of impressive ingenuity – my friends and I could never pass as 18, so we had to rely on the largest of our group to buy the beer and cigarettes for us on a Friday night. Years later, he would casually admit he had been overcharging us the whole time and had happily bought a bookcase-worth of albums from the profits.

I think he’s a lawyer now.

One of the things I found most confusing was the sudden ramp-up in personal responsibility that you go through when you hit adolescence. You’re forced to start thinking and developing for yourself, rather than relying on the constant support of parents or teachers. It ramped-up again at college, where you had to get a job (outrageous) or there’d be no beer for you. I got a job in telesales, signing people with credit cards up for a new credit card (“You seem to be in debt, would you like some more?”).

This was hard because until this point, relationships felt transactional to us. We needed something, and if we asked nicely by adding ‘please’, we might get it. My godson (who is three), for example, has been known to ask “Mummy, can I go to Narnia… Pleeeeez?” and “Mummy, I want ice-cream for breakfast… Pleeeeez!”

But when we hit adolescence, the parent-child relationship increases the tempo of the child’s development. The transaction ceases to be tangible things like pocket money (‘allowances’ to our American friends), lifts in the car and ironed shirts, and instead we receive  independence and growth as people.

And God’s really clear in the Bible about who He expects us to be. Although we are to be dependent on Him, He doesn’t intend for us to be like babies clambering for their next feed. We are to develop into Christians who can stand on their own two feet and take what’s thrown at them in life. We’re to think, and make decisions, in line with what He’s given us in the Bible. Sometimes this can be extremely tough. It means making decisions and coping with things even if we feel like we’re on our own, because God doesn’t seem to be communicating with us.

The quote from Jesus at the start of this article (which comes from Luke 11 and Matthew 7) does not imply that prayer will involve immediate answers or that we will receive exactly what we think we need, or ask for. It’s not a magic ordering service. It promises instead that God will provide for our needs, which He knows better than us. And sometimes it’s just that which we need to cling to as we are compelled to act in spite of radio silence.

So, let’s be careful about running too many diagnostic tests to work out why God isn’t speaking, like he’s a malfunctioning printer or a 1991 Ford Orion. I’m not convinced that God is a blackmailer or a petulant child, who refuses to speak to us because we haven’t (or have) done a certain thing. Instead, let’s think more broadly – and more like grown-ups. Let’s ensure we’re making time to ‘listen’ – that is, we know what to look out for and we’re looking for it, that we’re flexible in what we consider to be ‘answers’ to prayers, or try to find out if an answer might already exist in the Bible first. If nothing’s coming, let’s trust Him that we’re to operate on radio silence for a bit, and do it.

Let’s be better – and less pimply – spiritual adolescents.

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God, Smoothies and 80s Pop Stars

free beer

I was in a cafe this morning and decided to have a smoothie.

This is not as easy as it sounds if you’re British, because we’re not as able to ask for ludicrously-named drinks as other nationals. Maybe it’s the accent (something else it’s hard to do with an English accent in particular is complain – you inevitably sound like an Imperial Officer in Star Wars threatening an Ewok. So you overcompensate, become embarrassed, and end up sounding like Hugh Grant trying to ask someone out in a 1990s British rom-com).

The smoothie in question was made of kiwi and pineapple. They had named it a ‘Naughty Crush’.

This is a challenge I have experienced before. The parade of coffee shops up and down the High Street do not serve ‘small’ or ‘large’ coffees. They serve ‘grande’ or ‘medio’ frothalottahunkyfunkychunkycheekyccinos. Ordering cocktails also involves similar linguistic acrobatics. So I was disturbed – but not surprised – to discover that the perfectly-usable names of fruit on the menu had been replaced by Strawberry Kiss, Carribean Way and, incomprehensibly, Bananarama Llama Farmer.

“Hi,” I said, determined to keep this engagement as sensible and silly-name-free as possible.

“Hello!” said the smiley cafe person. “What can I get for you?”

“I’ll have a double espresso and a kiwi and pineapple smoothie.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have any,” she said. And then after the briefest pause, added, “we have a Naughty Crush, though.”

I was not expecting this sly but subtle counter-attack. I took a moment to rally my thoughts, and then delivered my order with aplomb and free of silly names.

“I’ll have one of those then, please,” I said.

(The espresso, by the way, came in a giant cup of such proportions that Wifey asked where the rest of the coffee was.)

What’s going on with all this tomfoolery is an attempt to heighten our customer experience. It’s about suggestion. Give a smoothie an edgy, trendy name and you feel edgy and trendy. Make someone order a coffee in Italian and they connect to an imagined Italian coffee experience. If Bananarama Llama Farmer – which is pulverised banana – was named accurately it would be called Baby Food With A Straw.

The church has, it seems, largely resisted the urge to re-name stuff to make it more attractive and influential (possibly because the church tends to largely resist everything). In fact our own name – Christians – wasn’t even a brand we came up with, but probably originally a derisive term coined by non-Christians. Presumably we’d have been happy to keep calling ourselves Not-Necessarily-Jews-But-We-Do-Buy-Into-The-Old-Testament-But-In-Support-Of-Our-Recognition-That- Jesus-Is-The-Messiah…ians.

At face value, this seems great. We’re authentic. We don’t need advertising executives to tell people about Jesus, we tell it like it is, right?

Almost.

Yes, this is a real thing.
Yes, this is a real thing.

A Brand New World

What the branding world is on to is that the human mind cannot escape making associations between things it knows, and the new things it’s encountering. We short-cut. So the cafe wanted me to associate my Naughty Crush with a cheeky but pleasurable feeling – a deeper emotional connection than simply the taste of kiwis and pineapples.

So when we talk about God, or Jesus, or church, the people we talk to will automatically interpret them in the context of how they’ve been previously presented. And if that portrayal was negative, then what you’re saying is going to get viewed within that framework.

This blog has already ranted ad nauseam about the use of religious language, but there’s a couple of other things we need to watch out for.

The first is how you portray Jesus when you talk about him. Look at how he portrayed himself. Study it. Emulate it. This blog would argue that Jesus portrayed himself as an open set of arms, with a social justice agenda, urging a focus on principles rather than religious dogma, who mainly saved his moral criticism for religious hypocrites. Is lecturing people on their sin (for example) and issuing them with a religious to-do list the best way to introduce Jesus? How does he come across when we contribute our viewpoints in public life? Do we get the balance right in presenting the full range of Jesus’ teachings and personality, or do we find ourselves focussing on certain aspects and risk misrepresenting him?

The second is to recognise that when you talk about Jesus, you may be at cross-purposes (yeah, I know) with the person you’re talking to. You think of Jesus as forgiving and loving – but they may have heard nothing but hellfire and damnation their whole life. When you talk about Jesus as ‘forgiving’, you’re making the assumption that this carries the same collection of impressions and emotions for them as it does for you.

It’s Still Just A Smoothie

A great way to short-circuit these two issues is to avoid talking in generalities completely. They just get filed in the person’s head under whatever category Jesus is sitting. It’s not always appropriate to talk like an international super-evangelist. We’re not spiritual troubleshooters either, using our negligible understanding of God’s plan for people’s lives to diagnose why they have trouble with the idea of God and giving them an action plan to fix it. Being a Christian is not like being a technician at Kwik-Fit.

Instead, talk about your experience. Just tell your story. Tell others about your Jesus. Tell people about how you know him. About how you and he dealt with issues of forgiveness, love, peace, sin, belief, doubt and healing in your life. When you find yourself talking in generalities, that’s the time to wind it back down and get back to the personal level.

Non-Christians are – contrary to how some of us think – not a hunting ground for religious scalps. This is not gaming season, and we don’t get extra credit in the exam of life for having ‘led someone to Christ’. All any one of us does is play a role (cameo or starring) in the story of that person and God. It might be a romantic comedy, a thriller, a tragedy, an adventure – who knows?

But you get to choose what role you play.

Will you confuse the hero, or help them?

How will you describe the smoothie?

When Church Goes Wrong

firetruck

I wasn’t at church this Sunday, but apparently during a particularly vigorous rendition of ‘Let Your Fire Fall’ the fire alarms went off and the building had to be evacuated.

I’m told, by the way, that it wasn’t a traditional ringing alarm but a slightly more unnerving recorded announcement that went something along the lines of, “there is an incident. This is an emergency. Please stay calm and leave the building by the nearest emergency exit. There is an incident…”

There are few things more likely to endanger my calm than the ominous-sounding word ‘incident’, which makes what is presumably a mundane electrical fault sound like a virus-triggered zombie apocalypse.

It’s wonderful when things go wrong during church services. From when the worship band sing different verses (and sometimes different songs) to those put up on the screen, to when visiting preachers accidentally swear during their talk. I have a faintly apocryphal story about a church on the south coast that used to hold services on the beach, which led to huge confusion during the talk as non-churchfolk set down their towels between the preacher and congregation and then wondered why a man was standing up talking at them. Similarly, there may have been an embarrassing incident during a baptism when two helpful passers-by thought the convert was being assaulted.

One of the reasons that the unexpected is wonderful is because it reminds us not take church too seriously. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to have it all figured out – and although we have some responsibility, we are not fully in control.

We can try to engineer everything as much as we like. We can exercise our control-freakery like zealous contestants on The Apprentice to our hearts’ content. We can try to arrange  ‘the perfect’ lighting to ‘help’ people ‘feel’ close to God. We can bring a non-Christian on ‘the perfect’ day to hear the ‘best’ speaker talk about the things we are convinced they need to hear – glancing fervently at them throughout the service for any sign that their God-gauge is creeping up.

But church is not supposed to be a manipulatathon. It’s not a Derren Brown gig. Church is supposed to be a group of flawed and broken people gathering to commune with each other and the One who keeps the broken pieces together – fixing some bits for us and helping us to cope with the others.

Jesus was forever having to cope with drama during his work. From his rejection in his home town following his first preach (Luke 4:14-30), to a congregation that liked him so much they effectively tried to kidnap him (Luke 4:42), to a ton of interruptions during teaching (Luke 5:17-19, John 8:12-13, etc). Jesus took the opportunities that presented themselves and worked with them. In fact, Jesus actually put a stop to an incident of stage-management by his disciples.

Good churches do their best to create a safe environment where people can meet with each other and meet with God. Great churches know there are limits to how much they can do.

The rest gets done by Someone Else entirely.

Feeding the Five Thousand by Committee

feedthefivethousand

There are a few subtle differences in the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Maybe this is what really happened.

Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said.

There was a pause.

“All of them?” said one.

Jesus looked at them. “Yes, all of them. All five loaves and two fish, please.”

There was another long pause. Somebody shuffled their feet.

“Is there a problem?” asked Jesus.

“Er, Lord,” said Matthew. “It’s just that we don’t have much bread and fish… the economy and that… we’ve already given quite a bit. If we give up this then we won’t have anything. What will we eat?”

“I gave one of my loaves to an old lady earlier,” said John. “I’ve made my contribution.”

“I gave a kid an M&M,” said Thomas.

Jesus rubbed his temples. It was getting late. “Gentlemen, this is not a difficult concept – give me the bread and fish. Seriously.”

“Lord,” said James, who was notably clever. “If we surrender all our possessions, then we will starve, and then we won’t be able to give on a more regular basis. Surely long-term sustainable provision of food security is preferable to this random act of self-deprecation?”

The other disciples looked impressed. James had been to college. He had a BTEC.

“If I may,” said Judas. “Strictly speaking we are only required to donate ten percent, aren’t we? So how about we cut off a bit of fish and a bit of bread and give you that for the people?”

Andrew was looking out at the crowd. “Some of them are quite well-dressed, you know. Should the wealthy not give more? If they’ve got lots of money maybe they should be buying the dinner.”

“Also, Lord,” said Thomas, “this much bread and fish isn’t going to solve the problem, anyway, is it?”

“Well, Thomas,” sighed Jesus. “You’d be surprised.”