Singing Like a Canary

London’s Canary Warf is intimidating. Tall buildings and power-dressed people dominate the landscape. Michael invited me into this lion’s den. I felt as an alien might. The area has a sub-culture all its own. And where was the sky? The skyscrapers blocked most of the … sky.

However, Michael had a good purpose. He brought me in to lead a Bible discussion in his workplace. Every two weeks members of our church gather with their friends to talk about the spiritual amongst the temporal.

Our discussion (based on the rich fool, Luke 12.13-21) was insightful, stimulating and challenging. But what struck me most was the heartfelt dedication of these men and women to what they believe. It’s so easy to be swallowed by Mammon’s mass. To keep a clear spiritual ear in an acoustic reverberating to the sound of material success is quite an achievement.

How do they resist the tidal temptation to go with the flow? At least one reason is their continued commitment to care about the spiritual needs of their work colleagues – and not just their own. They ‘sing like a canary’ about their faith in a place not known for spirituality. The unseen spiritual hunger is visible to them, and it causes them to speak about the bread of life that can satiate the soul.

I left refreshed and reminded. Refreshed because I had seen faith in action, and reminded that my own spiritual health is enhanced by concern for the needs of people around me.

Malcolm Cox

A Whale of a Time

Have you ever noticed that in attempting to avoid our fears we often find ourselves running into them full steam ahead?

A TED talk reminded me of this. In 1820 a whaling ship was sunk by a sperm whale (Melville used the incident as inspiration for Moby Dick).

The survivors were thousands of miles from land in small boats and with limited supplies.

They had three options,

  1. Head for the nearest islands (believed to be inhabited by cannibals)
  2. Head for other islands (the possibility of severe storms were in the way)
  3. Head for South America (the longest, but safest route, although supplies were likely to run out)
They chose option three. On the way some died and were eaten by the survivors and one was shot to provide food for the others in the boat. If they had chosen option 1 it is likely they would all have lived to tell the tale. But the ‘safest’ route proved to be the worst choice. In running from their fears of being eaten they arrived in a place where eating one another became acceptable.
King David sets us a good example in so many areas, but the way he dealt with his sons Amnon and  Absalom is not one of them. Amnon raped Tamar – his half-sister and sister to Absalom (2 Sam 13.14). Absalom plotted revenge and killed Amnon (2 Sam 13.28-29). And David? He did nothing. Fear of losing his sons paralysed him. In the end Absalom’s contempt for his father led to a rebellion and David’s expulsion from Jerusalem (2 Sam 15.14). 
How does it end? Absalom dies at Joab’s hand (2 Sam 18.9-15) and David mourns, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33 NIV11). David lost his son. He lost what he feared losing because he refused to face the issues at an earlier opportunity.
We may not be struck by a sperm whale in the near future, but the next time you find yourself caught between unpleasant options it may be best to choose the scariest, not the safest. After all, God is with us in our fears, is He not?
Malcolm Cox

Celebrating Epic Fails

We are back one final time in the Vasa museum. The two previous posts highlighted the twin tragedies of vanity and cowardice. But there is another, more encouraging point. Here we have a multi-million costing museum housing something my wife described as an ‘epic fail’!

Only in a democracy will you find people queuing up to pay money to gaze at a failure (you’re not going to see something like this in North Korea, let’s face it!). I love the way the Bible is blunt about the failures and weaknesses of its heroes. The following list is, as far as I know, unattributed. I have edited it a little:

Noah was drunk
Abraham was too old
Isaac was a daydreamer
Jacob was a deceiver
Joseph was a slave
Moses had a stuttering problem
Gideon was afraid
Samson was a womaniser
Rahab was a prostitute
David had an affair and was a murderer
Solomon worshipped false idols
Elijah was suicidal
Isaiah preached naked
Jeremiah cried all the time
Jonah ran from God
Naomi was a widow
Thomas was a doubter
Peter denied Christ three times
Martha worried about everything
The Samaritan woman couldn’t keep a husband
The disciples fell asleep while praying
Paul persecuted Christians
Timothy was too young
Moses stuttered
David’s armour didn’t fit
John Mark ran away
Timothy had stomach problems
Amos’ only training was in the school of fig-tree pruning
Jacob was a liar
Solomon was too rich
Peter was afraid of death
Lazarus was dead
John was self-righteous
Paul was a murderer
Jonah ran from God
Miriam was a gossip
Jeremiah was depressed and suicidal
Elijah burned out
Did I mention that Moses had a short fuse?

The Bible lays out the humanity of its heroes clearly because then we become convinced it is the power of God that accomplishes all good things, and not our own gifts, talents or intelligence.

The next time you feel like a failure reflect on the fact that you are in some very good company! Trust God, press on, and celebrate the God who uses even an epic fail.

Malcolm Cox

Speaking up Stops Shipwrecks

The Vasa sank in 1628, but its lessons live on. In the previous post we noted that the king’s vanity and impatience led to the ship’s premature launch. However, there was another factor.

In the 17th century most monarchs played on the ‘divine right of kings’ as a method of maintaining control. After all, who can thwart the will of God’s anointed? As a result, those who brought the king ‘bad news’ often found themselves the victim of unfortunate ‘accidents’. Incentives to speak up were thin on the ground.

In the case of the Vasa many people knew she was unseaworthy. A supervising Vice Admiral watched as thirty seamen ran backwards and forwards across her deck. The ship  rolled so alarmingly that he called a halt to the tests. These and other trials revealed she was too narrow, top heavy and lacking ballast.

Why did he not tell the king? For that matter, why was the builder silent? Fear gripped the throats of the only people who could prevent a catastrophe. Cowardice overcame conscience – and a ship was lost, and scores died.

Christians are people called to speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15 NIV11) – no matter the cost. The prophets of old paid a high price (“So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.” (Jeremiah 38:6 NIV11) and were often mocked (Micaiah in 1 Kings 22), but they spoke faithfully.

Is God is calling you to speak to someone? It could save their soul – “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19–20 NIV11)

Turning someone from shipwreck starts with speaking.  Here are three tips for taking action:

  1. Pray before speaking. Ask God for wisdom about what to say and when to say it. 
  2. Ask questions and make no accusations. It can be helpful to say something like, “I’ve noticed………. Would you like to talk about it?”
  3. Offer to help. If you are starting the conversation you also need to be committed to seeing the matter through and not leaving your friend high and dry.

The king intimidated his employees into a silence that cost him far more than he anticipated. Let us not allow any feelings to prevent us being used by God to save someone’s soul.

Malcolm Cox

Vasa Vanity and Babel Babbling

A highlight of a recent trip to Stockholm was a visit to the Vasa museum. The ship was built in the early 1600s, but sank on its maiden voyage within sight of national dignitaries, foreign ambassadors and huge crowds. It was salvaged in 1961 and now lives in an impressive purpose-built museum. What caused this disaster? Several factors. Today we will focus on only one – the king’s vanity. 
The ship was not ready. Testing had revealed stability problems, but the king was keen to impress his enemies. He was not about to wait around for everything to be perfect. At his insistence the ship had been built beyond the technology of the day resulting in it being top-heavy. The king wanted it to join the Baltic fleet as soon as possible and hoped it would prove decisive in the Thirty Years’ War.
King Gustavus Adolphus experienced the opposite of what he expected. The Vasa became a byword for folly instead of fame. Does this story have a biblical parallel? One could think of several, but how about Babel? The problem there seems not that the people wanted to build a tower. The issue was the vanity involved,
“…let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4 NIV11)
They built for their name’s sake, and not to honour God.  Of course, you do not have to be a Biblical character or a Swedish king to experience your own Babel or Vasa moment. Are we pursuing a dream for our own vanity and missing the effect on those we love, including our relationship with God? 
God gives us friends to help us be sober and objective about our ambitions – but that’s another post.
Malcolm Cox

Beauty out of Context

Who doesn’t want to gaze upon the beautiful? Our culture seems obsessed with it. Magasines, TV programs and advertising agencies flood our senses with what is considered beautiful. The question seems to be, “What is beautiful?”. But I’d suggest that almost anything is beautiful – if seen in the right context. Much that is beautiful is invisible. Why is this? Because the beauty is obscured. The real question should be, “Where is the beauty?”

Take the butterfly in the photograph. It settled on a shelf in the kitchen yesterday. The warm weather led us to open a door to the garden, and the butterfly strayed indoors. Out in the garden, moving among the shrubs, flowers and trees it might be noticed. But here, in the starkness of the whiteness it blazed its beauty and shouted to be seen.

Jesus had a beauty that was not conventional. He was hardly a ‘looker’! Is. 53:2 “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Instead, he had an internal beauty which led to a life of beauty. The authenticity of his beauty was in stark contrast to that of the religious, Matt. 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” 
In the heavenly realms the beauty of Jesus was invisible to us here on earth. Only by leaving his ‘natural’ home could his beauty become visible to humankind. There is a lesson here for us as followers of Jesus. The transformed hearts we have been given are of limited value if surrounded only by similar hearts. It is by stepping outside our homes, churches and circle of Christian friends that the beautiful things God has done in us can be seen for all their glory by the rest of the world. 
When we get out there we stand out, look different and reveal a beauty that shocks the world. What a privilege that is! Take the beauty into places where it will be noticed.
Malcolm Cox

Go-Kart Christianity

Life has its complications. If you don’t believe me, wait a while and you’ll see!

The good side of complications are that they deepen us (who can understand the heart of God unless they have struggled or grieved?). But the down-side is that they can cloud our view of what is important.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus was always on the move. It’s not that he was not deep, or did not deal with complicated situations (witness the depth of his grief when Lazarus died, and the deep theological discussion with Nicodemus). It’s just that his mission and message had to be kept simple and straightforward, or it would get lost in a haze of complexity.

Perhaps this is part of what lay behind his instructions to the seventy-two, “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.” (Luke 10:4 NIV11). “Go basic”, he says.

My son and I popped out for a pint at our local pub on Sunday evening. In the car park was the sight in the photograph above. A ‘normal’ car with a go-kart on the roof rack. Very much like our Christian lives, I thought. Most of the time we drive the car with power steering, ABS brakes, air bags, electric windows, stereo, air con and the rest. But now and again we need to get into the go-kart and strip things down to a throttle, a brake, an engine and four wheels.

That is when we experience driving at its most pure, most exhilarating and most dangerous!  There is a different joy when things are simpler. Jesus kept this joy throughout his life, and his followers felt it too, “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17 NIV11) Of course, he had a warning for them about the source of their joy (v20), but he did not rebuke them for their joy.

Would you like more joy in your life? Perhaps it is time for a go-kart Christian day. Can you simplify your life for a day, or a week? My guess is that, if you do, the joy will return.

Malcolm Cox

“Close to the Edge”, Hebrews 12.1

How close to the line can we get? That’s where the excitement seems to be. The edge of safety, the margin of comfort, the fringe of security.

There is no denying that Jesus pushed the boundaries and called his followers to step out in faith. However, seeking danger is never commended.

A friend of mine saw a man sucked under an articulated lorry when changing a wheel at the side of a motorway. He got too close to the edge. The sign on the train platform above tells us what we already know – but we need reminders. That’s why the Bible contains warnings about walking too close to the line, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV11-GK)

We are not to get close, look at, admire, observe or study sin. We are to throw it off. It is to be ejected, abandoned, dismissed, ignored. This is not so that we have less fun. It is so that we can join thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,” (Hebrews 12:22 NIV11-GK)

Let’s not get close to the edge. Let’s reject the edge.

Malcolm Cox