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Reading God’s Handwriting

I made a comment recently that we should be readers of three books in particular: the book of Scripture, the book of Creation, and the book of Providence.

This was off the back of a holiday which took us across the States and into Canada—so enabling us to enjoy some of the glories of God’s creation, whether it was the mountains around Seattle, the islands off Vancouver, the sheer might of Niagara Falls, or the beauty of sunsets. We saw God’s artistry in a new way. Added to that were many experiences of God’s providence as we travelled—from misplacing tickets and missing a train (which ended up saving us money!) to a stranger offering to carry a suitcase down four flights of stairs (which enabled us to catch a bus to the airport to make a flight) to many, many more—which filled us with a sense of our heavenly Father’s care.

So in preaching I said we should be good students of these three books, and in particular we should note down God’s providences so that we can see the regular care of our Father for us, and learn to marvel at his kindnesses. This way we train ourselves to see his […]

Fearing Christianity?

It seems that in the western world there is one category of people not particularly allowed to voice an opinion; one category of people that should be denied office at all costs.

Would that be people with a track record of lying to the public? No. People with a track record of breaking their promises? Nope. People with a history of political violence? Nope again.

What about people who come from a tradition which established schools for all children, brought an end to slavery, built hospitals and hospices, elevated women’s rights, fought racism, put an end to widow burning and cannibalism, alleviated poverty, and much more?

Absolutely—they shouldn’t be let within a beagle’s gowl* of anything political—who knows what sort of damage they might do! Former American Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders typified this attitude last week. He was part of a panel interviewing nominees for the role of deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The problem for Sanders was that nominee Russell Vought had once written that Muslims stand condemned before God because they don’t acknowledge Jesus as the way to God. Sanders pressed him and pressed him on this issue of condemnation, despite the fact that it’s been […]

Missing Words

I am a bit of a word geek. I have a passing interest in where words and phrases come from. A few years ago I had a “Forgotten English” desk calendar which had a different word each day—such glorious terms as dringle (to waste time in a lazy, lingering manner), eargh (superstitiously afraid—from which we get eerie), and searcher (a civil officer employed in Glasgow to apprehend idlers in the streets during the time of public worship on Sunday).

Maybe if towns employed a few searchers to round up the dringlers on a Sabbath morning we won’t suffer from as much eargh. But fair enough, words drop out of usage and we no longer need to be familiar with them—and new words and terminology need to be defined.

In 2008 Oxford University Press, in updating their Junior dictionary, removed words like ‘bishop’, ‘chapel’, ‘goldfish’, ‘liquorice’, ‘buttercup’, and ‘heather’ and replaced them with words like ‘blog’, ‘mp3 player’, ‘cut and paste’ and ‘celebrity’.

But it struck me as interesting what has largely been dropped from the Junior Dictionary—words to do with rural life and the countryside, words to do with royalty and empire (this is the UK version after all), and more crucially as far as I’m concerned, words to […]

Ultimate blame shifting

A businessman from the south of France is suing Uber for a staggering €45 million in damages. (For those who aren’t familiar with Uber—it’s effectively a taxi company without cars. You use your smartphone to submit a request for a cab, and someone nearby who is signed up with Uber as a driver is sent your request.) So what happened?

The man was being unfaithful to his wife, and on several occasions had used her smartphone to request a driver to take him to his lover. Despite signing out of the app, the software kept sending notifications to her phone revealing his travel history and ultimately arousing her suspicions. She divorced him, presumably on the fairly solid grounds of adultery.

And now with all the arrogance of one who had wanted to have his cake and eat it, he is seeking to blame Uber for the mess.

His lawyer said after lodging the case, “My client was the victim of a bug in an application. The bug has caused him problems in his private life.”

Check the language: “My client was a victim”—surely the aggrieved wife was the victim?? The ‘bug’ has caused the problems—seriously?!? The bug?? How about his unfaithfulness?

The glitch in the […]

A rose or a collection of petals?

I learned something amazing about flowers the other day—that the angle between successive leaves on a stem is approximately 137 degrees. Now that particular angle is known as the golden angle. It is to circles what the golden ratio is to squares and rectangles. The golden ratio is seen as the epitome of spatial perfection and proportion—and occurs frequently in nature as well as in human design. And for leaves on a stem this interesting angle is the arrangement that gives the best access to sunlight.

I love design and mathematics, so this was right up my street and I’m sure botanists could give me a thousand more fascinating facts.

They could take a rose and dissect it and show the wonder of the stem, the bud, the way the petals interweave.

And all of that may combine to make one rose more noteworthy than another.

But when I give a rose to my wife it’s saying something far more than the sum of the botanical mathematics and geometry. It’s saying, “I love you.”

I see a parallel with preaching:

Some preachers are great at dissecting a text, analysing it from every angle and setting out every truth in it.
Some preachers are great at bringing new […]

Catastrophizing the Trivial

Someone made a wrong announcement, or at least handed a wrong envelope to a man making an announcement. Nobody died, nobody was injured, but cue more drama than the dramas themselves. When Warren Beatty realised there was something wrong with the name on the card for Best Motion Picture at the Oscars, and showed it to Faye Dunaway his co-presenter, he probably didn’t expect her to blurt it out, much less have a whole troop of the wrong people on stage, and the thing rehashed endlessly through the media the next day.

Mistakes happen—but did ever you see such a kerfuffle about such a non-event? Not by the actors/producers etc—they displayed great grace, but every time I turned on the radio on Monday someone was talking about it.

Now I read on the front page of the Irish Times website the headline: “Oscar blunder worse for PwC than any audit scandal.” Accountancy firm PwC (Price Waterhouse Coopers) has been handling the winning Academy Award envelopes for the past 83 years—and this was their first slip up. So what! Apparently it will prompt “high-profile companies and organisations to reconsider longstanding audit mandates” i.e. to move away from PwC. Really?

I couldn’t care one whit […]

The fairness of God?

Two men live radically different lives. One is morally good, reasonably honest, seeks to help those around him—an all-round nice guy. The other is a rogue: utterly depraved, vilely immoral, with a string of convictions, and a litany of broken people and promises trailing behind him.

On his death-bed the second man asks God for forgiveness. The first sees no great need. According to Jesus, one man gets Heaven, the other Hell. The repentant degenerate finds forgiveness; the other man finds judgment.

It doesn’t seem fair. How can God be a God of justice if that’s the case?

How you frame the story defines how right the answer feels. Ask any parent or teacher. How often have you asked a child what happened, and you hear a story that makes you think that they have been unbearably hard done by, yet when you take a step back and see the event without spin, in its wider context, it all makes sense. We are exceedingly skilled at telling a story in a way that highlights our best endeavours—yet is often only half the story.

Let me frame the story of the two men differently. Two men are both given their lives by God. One man […]

Gerascophobia

My wife and I happened to catch programme on TV about facial cosmetic treatments—it was something of an eye-opener (no pun intended).

A beautiful woman in her 30s walks into a room, talks to a middle-aged, slightly overweight man, with a receding hairline. She exits the room, dejected—she has been told her looks are fading, her skin is poor, and her face is in need of filler (whatever that is). She was attractive before she went in, and attractive when she came out, but not according to the money-makers of the world of beauty therapy and cosmetic surgery.

What was eye-opening wasn’t the treatments, although some were weird, but the shameless playing on, and even creating, insecurities in people to promote the treatments.

A 32 year old(!) has Botox to remove a few lines, or rather to paralyse a few facial muscles so they don’t cause lines. She says, “People noticed something was different”. I’d say they did—and it was the fact that part of her face no longer moved and conveyed expression!

A few years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. In part of it he tells of Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial […]

New Year Weariness

So the web is filling up with resolutions, lists of what to do, what goals to set for 2017; and doubtless sermons will be preached tomorrow exhorting people with all sorts of challenges for 2017 – maybe I’m just getting old, seen too many resolutions fail, seen people dispirited at the prospect of another year ending with disappointed hopes and unrealised dreams – so I’m not going to go that route!

Life can be wearying. New years with all their talk of fresh starts can be wearying – the same desires for improvement, the same desires to see the church grow, to see lost loved ones come to Christ – and another year comes and goes with no discernable change.

Weariness can set in at individual and congregational level. And we crank back on the enthusiasm level, afraid to keep living with high expectations amidst low outcomes.

So here’s my prescription for the New Year:

“Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:3)

Consider him…

Consider all he has done for you. Consider all he is too you. Take what you already know, turn it over in your mind. Turn it upwards in praise. […]

The Wrong Advent

’Tis the season for baby Jesuses and mangers, wise men and shepherds, as people give a passing acknowledgement to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Carol services will be had, children perform their parts, and we will all go home will rosy cheeks and glad hearts, to mince pies and mulled wine, feeling suitably imbued with the Christmas spirit.

This is Advent—marking the coming of the Son of God into the world. The problem is that it is the wrong Advent. I don’t mean simply that we have layered extra detail on top of the Bible’s story, or that we have likely picked the wrong time of the year—although all that is true—I mean that we have picked the wrong advent event.

The word advent means ‘coming’. The Jesus whose arrival we ‘remember’ at Christmas is coming back. That’s the one we are told to be looking for, counting down to. It will be entirely unlike his first arrival. If you’ve missed the point of his first arrival, here’s how you will experience his second—as Jesus describes it.

Imagine the following scenario: You are getting on with a perfectly ordinary day, dropping the children to school, calling in at the shops, sitting at […]