Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What is God like?

In some ways it’s an impossible question, because when we talk about God we’re trying to describe someone who is greater than all the universes in the cosmos and yet whose spirit is also able to come and dwell inside each one of us. Baptism is about welcoming God’s Spirit into our lives and the life of our family, and asking God to shape the way we live and care for another, following the example of Jesus who also showed us what God is like.
But apart from talking about the spirit of God and looking at the life, and death, and new life of Jesus, to see what he teaches us about God, is there anything else we can say about what God is like? The Bible says there is.
It has lots of suggestions and one of them, which I thought might be interesting for a few minutes, is to look at some animals and birds and see what they might be able to show us about what God is like.
An eagle  So the Bible says that God is sometimes a bit like an eagle. Really? With those fierce talons and that sharp beak? And all those big feathers?
The people who wrote the Bible had watched eagles trying to teach their young to fly and they thought that showed us what God is sometimes like. Deuteronomy 32.11 says, ‘God is like an eagle teaching its young to fly, always ready to swoop down and catch them on its back.’
Now actually it’s very hard to get close to an eagle, especially when it’s protecting its young, so in the days before binoculars people could only watch eagles doing their thing from quite a distance. To the people who wrote the Bible it looked as though sometimes the mother eagle swoops down and catches a falling young one and carries it aloft on her back. There’s no evidence that’s what really happens, but it’s a lovely idea. God is circling round us waiting to swoop down and help us when we get into trouble.
A lion  Even more surprisingly the Bible says that God sometimes seems a bit like a roaring lion. Really? With that mighty roar and those big teeth? Not to mention the claws!
Isaiah 31.4 says, ‘God said to me, “I will roar and attack like a fearless lion that isn’t frightened by the shouting of the shepherds who are trying to protect their sheep.”’
Imagine the scene. A group of shepherds are sitting round the fire at night keeping watch over the sheep, when suddenly a lion prowls out of the shadows. They shout at it and wave their arms, hoping to frighten it away from the sheep. But the lion is fearless and it roars back at them and threatens to attack.
It seems strange to compare God to a roaring lion, but the prophet says that God gets angry when someone behaves wickedly and bullies those weaker than them who can’t look out for themselves. The bullies think they can get away with it because they don’t know God is watching them. But God is like a lion hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce, and God isn’t afraid to let them know they’ve done wrong and give them a fright.
A wild ox  The Bible aso says that God is like a wild ox. What, with those big sweeping horns and those powerful hooves? Wild oxen disappeared a long time ago, but fairly recently people have tried to recreate the breed and this majestic animal is what they’ve come up with.
When the Bible compares God to a wild ox the writers are thinking of an animal that cares for its young just as much as an eagle, but does it in a different way, not by catching its young when they’re falling but by keeping danger at bay with its long horns, so that its young calves may graze in safety. Just as the roaring lion isn’t frightened by the shepherds but roars back and frightens them instead, so the ox isn’t frightened of enemies but stands her ground and tries to protect those she loves, and that’s how God feels about us.
A mother bird  You might have noticed a theme emerging here. With the exception of the lion, God is often compared to a mother animal, like this mother hen.
Isaiah 31.5 says, ‘God said, “I will protect you like a mother bird circling over her nest…” And in Luke 13.34 Jesus says, “I have often wanted to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.”
Mother eagles and mother oxen are all very well aren’t they, but they’re not very soft and cuddly. A nesting bird, flying up into the air to distract predators and make them follow her away from the nest, or a mother hen cuddling up to her chicks or playing with them in the dust, is a warmer, cosier idea isn’t it. And the Bible says God wants to be like that, too, loving and nurturing us.
A lamb  Perhaps you noticed that in one of those readings Jesus compared himself to a chicken, and the Bible also compares him to a lamb. John 1.29 says, ‘John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God.”’
Just as mother animals put themselves in harm’s way to protect their children, so in most religions lambs were offered by people as a sacrifice to try to persuade God to bless them. But the Christian religion says it’s wrong to sacrifice defenceless animals. That’s not what God wants. Instead, in Jesus, he was prepared to come and die himself to try to show us a better way to live and save us from harm. That’s why the Bible calls Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’.
A dove  We’ve seen different animals that the Bible says teach us something about God and Jesus, but what about God’s Spirit? The Bible compares God’s Spirit to a dove. Matthew 3.16 says, ‘Jesus saw the spirit of God coming down on him like a dove.’
Why a dove? Because doves are gentle; because they sometimes hover in the air but sometimes glide along; because they’re symbols of peace and grace. God comes to dwell in us and bring us that same kind of grace and peace, but in a gentle way, as a gift, not something that we’re forced to accept. These gifts are ours if we want them.
The only other thing to say is that sometimes God does these things with our help. God asks us to be like an eagle, a lion, a wild ox, a mother bird - even like a lamb or a dove - for one another.
Based on http://www.barnabasinchurches.org.uk/animal-pictures-whats-god-like/ published by the Bible Reading Fellowship

Absolute Allegiance

Deuteronomy 6
Deuteronomy 6 is a call for absolute obedience. Moses tells the people of Israel, 'You and your children, and your children’s children, [must] fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.’
Hear, O Israel,’ he continues portentously, ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.’ He goes on to say that they must love the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and might.
Compare this with the commandment of the Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal: ‘You shall love Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, as you love yourselves… You shall instruct your sons who will live in the future… you shall not set over yourselves another king, another lord.’*
Israel was fairly unique, in the ancient Middle East at any rate, in giving absolute loyalty not to the state, nor to a ruler, but to God. No wonder, then, that there was so much resistance in Israel to the idea of kingship. Here everyone was, in theory at least, equal before God. People didn't want to bow the knee to any mere mortal, however charismatic or powerful they might be.
Some other things follow from this. The moral code, given by God, always claims precedence over the law of the land or the will of the leader. God's people can never say, 'My country, right or wrong!’ Indeed, the original quote continues, ‘If right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.’
And that’s because Christians always owe allegiance to a wider realm than the land of their birth or where they’re citizens. We’re citizens of heaven, children of God and part of his family before we're citizens of Britain or any other country. In fact, by comparison, being British citizens scarcely matters at all.
How we interpret this depends on our point of view. Some Christians would emphasize that we’re all part of the worldwide Church. Others would say that God’s people is not only wider than any one denomination or tradition, but wider even than those who profess allegiance to God in Christ. They would include in God’s family all people of goodwill. Some would go further still and affirm that God's family embraces the whole human race, and certainly all people who believe in God. And some would want to say that it extends to the whole of creation - birds, animals, insects, fish and the whole environment.
*Quoted in Oldi Morava, Guidelines, Bible Reading Fellowship, January 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

In The Wilderness

Genesis 21.9-21, Luke 5.15-16
Understandably, the Bible tends to see the wilderness as a harsh and arid place. 'Remember,’ says the writer of Deuteronomy, 'How God led you in that huge and frightening desert where snakes and scorpions live.’ Warming to his theme, he says, 'The Lord discovered you in a barren desert filled with howling winds.’
But the wilderness is also a place of encounter where, to our surprise, God is waiting to meet us, to strengthen and encourage us. 'In the desert God became your fortress, protecting you,’ the writer says. And when ‘there was no water’ in the desert, the Lord 'split open a rock, and water poured out so you could drink.’
That means we're never alone during the wilderness moments in our lives. Life can seem pretty daunting in these moments, but God is always there with us, doing surprising things.
And so it was for Hagar. Someone has said, 'Cast out into the desert with her young son, she finds a landscape in which her life is totally scoured—a place that is empty of all meaning.’ Except that to her surprise she finds God is there too.
Conveniently for Abraham, whose concubine she’d been until now, God tells him not to worry about Hagar and their son because He will watch over them both and protect them. But either Abraham cruelly withholds this information from Hagar, or else she doesn't believe it. Not unnaturally, she’s anxious and afraid. Having run out of water she gives her son and herself up for dead, leaving him in the shade of a bush a long way off ‘because she could not bear to watch him die.’ Yet the desert is not as inhospitable as she’d imagined. God shows her a well close by and not only are they able to survive in the desert but Ishmael is able to grow up there, hunting game with his bow and arrows.
None of us wants to be in the wilderness. We want to be able to live comfortably, to be among friends and to feel we’ve got a positive role to play in society. But wilderness experiences are sometimes unavoidable and when we find ourselves in the midst of one it would be easy to give in to despair.
Hagar’s experience in the wilderness reminds us that God is always there with us. Jesus is certainly no stranger to it. He camps out in the wilderness alongside us. And always close by are spiritual wells where we can draw life-giving water.
For some people the wilderness is all they ever know. They face hardship and suffering every day of their lives. That's not ideal. We shouldn't be neglectful of their well-being like Abraham was towards Hagar and Ishmael. We should be seeking to rescue people from the wildernesses they face and to give them a richer, fuller experience of life. But nonetheless, even in the wilderness there can be hope as well as despair.
Sometimes people can be amazingly resilient. Sometimes they still find joy and happiness in desert places. Sometimes they find peace and spiritual strength in adversity. Sometimes they encounter God and sense his presence there. Sometimes, like Hagar and Ishmael, they make a go of things despite being in the wilderness.
Bishop Graham Usher points out that a careful distinction is made in the Bible between loneliness and solitude; between being absolutely alone, and feeling lost or abandoned in the wilderness, and seeking solitude there, a space just to be and encounter God.
In our Gospel passage large crowds are juxtaposed with the emptiness of the desert. Graham Usher says, 'Jesus emptied himself in places that were full of people, and needed to be filled again in places that were empty of people.’ That's because 'even a space where we’re completely alone is still ’full of God’ and - without the distractions of everyday life - an excellent place to discover him.
Are we reluctant to be alone, is it a penance, something we have to put  up with; or is it something we accept and perhaps even embrace? Do we prefer to make ourselves busy rather than being still? Do we make space for the sort of wilderness moments where we can be refilled by God and concentrate on him? God is in the hustle and bustle, just as much as in the quietness, but sometimes it's easier to feel his closeness when we are alone. As Graham Usher puts it, in the quiet places God can ‘become the totality of [our] gaze and attention.’

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Burning Bush

Exodus 3.1-17
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote these words about the burning bush,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
What did Moses see in the desert? Was it actually a bush, set on fire by lightning or by the sun's intense heat, and yet not being consumed by the flames? Or was it something which other less discerning people would have passed, scarcely noticing anything unusual?
I’m reminded of a walk through  the Alps with Helen and our teenage children. It was  a very hot day. As the  sun beat down on us our elder son asked, ‘Why are  you making us trek through this barren wilderness?’ regardless of the fact that we were in an Alpine meadow and surrounded by millions of flowers. Much later he returned to the Alps with his own wife and waxed lyrical about exactly the same kind of scenery.
Earth is indeed crammed with heaven and every bush and meadow afire with God. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder! Only those who see can recognise that they stand on holy ground and take off their shoes. The rest continue on their way unaware of what they’re missing.
Setting aside the possibility that his perception was simply deranged, which seems unlikely given his subsequent career, Moses must have had an acute awareness of God’s presence. How aware are we?
Is the God whose name is 'I Am’ waiting to encounter us, not in some spectacular way but in the people we meet and the places we go? And does he have a challenge for each one of us? 'I am sending you,’ God said to Moses. What would he send us to do if we could only recognise his call?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Walking the Plank

Exodus 33.18-34.8, Romans 8.31-39
Moses asked to see God in all his glory. God granted his request but said that, unfortunately, it would be fatal to look upon his face. 'You will see my back,’ he promised, ‘[But] you will not see my face.’
Christians can sometimes be a bit condescending about this. Unlike Moses we do get to see God face to face, at least in the face of Jesus.
But there again, do we actually know what Jesus looked like? The Methodist Prayer Handbook this year has the face of Jesus on the front cover, but it isn't just a picture of one face; instead it’s a composite of four very different faces of Jesus. He’s at once both familiar, with a face like ours, and impossible to know.
The Welsh poet R S Thomas, who was a priest in the Church in Wales, said that God is very difficult to see. ‘We never catch him at work,’ Thomas said. It's always as if he’s just left the room.
In the film 'Whistle Down the Wind’ some children walk to an isolated farm to see Jesus, who they've heard is staying there. Unfortunately, by the time they arrive the man who’s supposed to be Jesus has been taken away in a police car. 'You’ve just missed him,’ says another child, 'But he's coming back.’
That’s how R S Thomas felt about every experience of God. In the Bible we read about what God has done in the past, and where he was seen by other people, but it's not always so easy for us to see him now.  
God, Thomas said somewhat gloomily, ‘Is never known as anything but an absence... It is this great absence,’ he said, ‘That is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply.’ Trying to meet with God in church was often, in his view, like ‘a room I enter from which someone has just gone, the vestibule for the arrival of someone who has not yet come.’
I suspect church sometimes feels a bit like that for all of us. We're waiting for God to come, we've prepared to welcome him, but it feels as if he's not yet arrived. And that's how it often seemed to the Revd Thomas.
In the days when churches had big Sunday Schools a lot of children would stop attending when they went to secondary school. If - later in life - they were asked why they’d lapsed, they would often answer that they’d outgrown religion. Having been fed a diet of improbable Bible stories they’d concluded that the whole thing was a fairytale. It was something childish that they’d put aside. But that’s because they never got beyond the foothills. They never started the difficult and demanding climb towards the cleft in the rock where we can safely hide as God passes by.
Frustratingly, R S Thomas found that the higher he climbed up the mountain, the nearer he came to that face-to-face experience, the more he learnt about God, and the closer he felt to God, the harder it was to be really sure he understood what God is like. 'The higher one ascends,’ Thomas said, 'The poorer the visibility becomes.’ It was a bit like leaving the valley in bright sunshine only to be enveloped in fog as he neared the summit. And that was Moses’ experience, too.
In many ways this mirrors ordinary life. The closer we come to really knowing anything, the more detail about it starts to emerge and the bigger the task of comprehending it then becomes.
A bed bug is as small as an apple seed; we live alongside them without ever knowing they are there. But viewed up close through a microscope they suddenly become terrifying and wonderful to behold.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if we looked down at an elephant from the top of a mountain it would seem like a child's toy that we might easily pick up between finger and thumb, but if we dared to get up close to a very docile elephant it would suddenly seem dauntingly large. We mightn't - even if it wanted to be friendly - be able to stretch both our arms around one of its legs.
The more someone studies an enormous subject like God, the more impossible the task can seem. ‘I have no faith,’ said Thomas, 'That to put a name to a thing is [enough] to bring it before one. I am a seeker in time for that which is beyond time, that is everywhere and nowhere; ...yet always about to be.’
Going to meet God, said Thomas, is rather like walking the plank. Forget it's connection with piracy, he advised, because he wasn’t thinking of Long John Silver, or Pieces of Eight, or the Skull and Crossbones. He was thinking of walking the plank as being more like venturing out on a high diving board, only with ‘seventy thousand fathoms’ of clear blue water beneath us, 'and far out from the land.’ It would be a high adventure, the sort of experience that sets the pulse racing.
‘I have abandoned my theories,’ said Thomas, ‘The easier certainties of belief’ that we were taught in Sunday School, or even - in his case - in theological college; for ‘there are no handrails to grasp’ when you're walking the plank.
And yet that risky, slightly alarming side of seeking for God - like Moses hiding in the cleft in the rock s God passed by - was only part of Thomas’s experience. Sometimes he felt as though encountering God is akin to stepping out into a void, like the narrow causeway that was only visible to the eye of faith in the Indiana Jones film about the Holy Grail. But he also said there were other times when, in everyday life, it was the plain facts and natural happenings that sometimes seem to ‘conceal God’ and yet at other times ‘reveal him to us little by little.’
Sometimes, when things are going wrong, we wonder where God has got to and we long to feel him close to us. But instead we only sense his absence, like Jesus hanging on the cross and feeling dreadfully forsaken. But there are other times when God does seem to be helping us, and an awareness of his presence, and his care for us, breaks in even though trouble is swirling all around us.
And finally, there is prayer. R S Thomas was no stranger to prayer. As a priest he had to pray every morning and evening in church, whether other people came to join him or not. ‘There have been times,’ he said, ‘When, after long on my knees in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled from my mind, and I have looked in and seen the old questions lie folded and in a place by themselves, like the piled grave clothes of love’s risen body.’
In other words, there’d been times when, although he was alone, he felt the presence of the risen Jesus calmly and quietly responding to his concerns and putting them in their true perspective. ‘If [the risen Christ] is for us, who can be against us?’ said St Paul. ‘[God] ...did not withhold his son, but gave him up for all of us. [So] will he not with him also give us everything else?’ For nothing, Paul concluded, will ever ‘be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Jacob's Dream

Genesis 28.10-22
This an interesting passage because so much of it can be read either in a rather negative way or in a really positive way.
In the dream God says to Jacob, 'I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
On the face of it this is a wonderful promise. Jacob is a penniless fugitive without a friend in the world, but God will be with him, watching over him, ensuring that he will prosper.
On my 19th birthday my wife gave me a little book. It finished with the words, 'Let’s be friends for ever and a day.' But God's promise to Jacob isn't ‘for ever and a day.’ God says, ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
It's not just a promise, it's a deal. To use management jargon for a moment, it's activity based. While they're engaged in the project together, God will be there for him. But what if the project ended? What if the goal was reached?
Is that how God also deals with us? Maybe it's not such a big issue, because maybe the project never comes to an end. Following God and working in partnership with him is a lifelong commitment on both sides.
Maybe, therefore, the message of Jacob’s dream is that belonging to God is not a passive relationship, where God makes us feel good and doles out tea and sympathy. As Roger Walton puts it, following God in Jesus is 'active and intentional.’ God’s friendship, God’s relationship with us, is about doing more than being. We are formed, and our relationship with God is formed, in the doing and in the living. We don’t get to retire, and we don’t get made redundant or put out to grass.
Jacob wakes up and says, 'Surely God is in this place… How awesome! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’
A negative reading of this story would say that it’s only being told to justify the existence of the shrine at Bethel, which was one of the two great centres of worship in the northern kingdom of Israel, whereas people in the southern kingdom of Judah worshipped in Jerusalem. The story’s telling us that the shrine at Bethel is just as good as, just as sacred as, and in fact much older than, the Jerusalem temple.
Why do we think our churches are important? Is it because each one is none other than the house of God? Is it because they are an awesome place to be? Is it because they are a gateway into heavenly things? Or is it because our church is where we like to come to worship, just as people in northern Israel liked to go to Bethel rather than Jerusalem?
But a more positive reading of this passage points us to something else. Jacob laid down to sleep here unaware that God was already here too. His dream made him realize that God was close to him, God was with him, in that moment and in that place.
The Institute for Contemporary Christianity is fond of asking people, 'Where will you be tomorrow?’ The point of the question is to remind us that wherever we’ll be tomorrow, and whatever we’ll be doing, God will already be there with us. Wherever we are, it will be for us the gate of heaven. It will be none other than the house of God.
However we redesign our building, whatever happens here, whether it's worship that's going on or community work, this will be the gate of heaven. This will be none other than the house of God.
In response, Jacob makes a promise to God. If God's promise to him is activity based, Jacob’s promise to God is - to quote another piece of management jargon - a transactional promise. It's a bargain. ‘If you do something for me, I'll do something for you.’
Now Jacob was that kind of person through and through. He was a wheeler-dealer. 'If you will be with me and will watch over me on this journey…,’ he says, ‘Then you will be my God…, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.’
The positive way of spinning this is to see it as an expression of trust. Here is a marginalized person, a refugee. He's down and out. He's had a powerful dream; but it is just a dream. 'If God will be with me…’ is a big if. He puts his trust in the dream.
Are we trying to make a bargain with God? Are we saying, ‘If you're with us, make our dream, our vision, come true. Give us the promised  land, the land on which we are lying.’
Or, are we putting our trust in the dream, in the vision that we've been given, and then giving something back to God in return? Is dreaming the impossible dream part of what it means to look for God and listen for God's voice in every place and every situation?

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Singing Trees

Isaiah 55.6-13
In the Bible briars and thorns are a sign of God's judgement. They're the harvest we reap for being irresponsible and careless about the way we manage the Earth.
Trees that sing and clap are a sign of plenty and recovery, showing that the Earth is being well managed and is becoming fertile again. The trees celebrate and join in our praise to God whenever all is being put right with the world after a time of war or devastation.
We live in a society where most people are out of touch with nature. Many children don't know the names even of the most common trees, and many of us grown-ups wouldn't recognise most of them in the field if we looked at their shape or their leaves.
The idea of trees singing and clapping seems strange to us, but not to those who really know their trees. John Muir, an American conservationist who helped to set up America’s first national parks, said that as he listened to the sound of the wind in the tree canopies each one spoke to him in a different voice. ‘Each,’ he said, 'Has  its own song as it moves.’
The famous monk St Bernard of Clairvaux once said, ‘Believe me, you will find more lessons in the woods than in books.’ Perhaps the biggest lesson is that pollution and environmental damage are preventing our trees from singing.

Overcoming Chaos

Isaiah 27
Can chaos be undone? The legend of Leviathan is an ancient story which pre-dates the Bible. It was first written down in the ancient city of Ugarit in Syria, at least 1,000 years before the prophecies of Isaiah were assembled. It tells how God, or in the Ugarit version one of the gods, slew the chaos monster Leviathan, who lived in the primordial sea, so that the earth and the oceans could be separated and an ordered creation set in motion.
Isaiah imagines a world where the chaos monster got away somehow. It wasn’t slain after all, it only went into hiding, lurking in the depths, waiting for a chance to re-emerge. And re-emerge it did, which is why the prophet thinks the world is in such chaos now.
That’s why the ancient kingdom of Israel was broken up and its people dispersed. Chaos was at work. But a day will come when chaos will at last be banished. ‘The sea monster will squirm and try to escape, but the Lord will kill him.’
Isaiah uses another ancient story, in which Israel was depicted as a vineyard planted by God. He built a wall around it and a watch tower. He watered the young vines, and they might have flourished, but chaos Israel disobeyed God, and all his good work was undone. Instead of vines, the vineyard produced thorns. And then the wall was broken down and the watch tower abandoned. Wild animals roamed across the vineyard. It was a mess. Chaos reigned supreme. It’s a picturesque way of describing how Israel was defeated and destroyed, and her people marched away into exile.
But Isaiah subverts the story. He imagines chaos being undone. Now the Lord is no longer angry. He will protect the vineyard and always keep it watered. He will guard it day and night to keep it from harm. If it continues to depend on him for protection, instead of going its own way, he will become the vineyard’s friend and be at peace with it.
This time Israel will take root so strongly that her blossom and fruit shall no longer be confined to the vineyard but will spill out over the retaining wall and cover the earth, Scorching heat will chase away her troublesome enemies, the wild animals that might have eaten her tender shoots.
Meanwhile, the world as it is now is still ruled by chaos, and Isaiah describes what it looks like. Israel’s fortress cities have been left abandoned. Cattle walk through the ruins stripping the trees bare of their remaining leaves. Women gather the broken branches for firewood, but they are just the remnant of a once proud nation, collaborators and marginal people, semi-nomads perhaps, who the conquerors were happy to leave behind. Isaiah calls them stupid or ‘without understanding’. They’re not the antidote to chaos, they’re a symptom of it.
But the time is coming when the Lord will shake things down and as a result of the shaking, or sifting, his scattered people will be brought together again. It will be like threshing grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. The people of Israel, who were dragged away in chains, will return and worship God on his holy mountain - the visible proof that chaos has finally been banished.
It’s a pious hope, but of course the story never came true. Chaos cannot be undone, except by a Cross. It’s Jesus’ death which finally vanquishes Leviathan, and not with a cruel, sharp sword, but with the power of love.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Bible Mums and Dads

Mark 5.21-24 & 35-43
How like a Bible mum and dad are your mums and dads?
Have your mum or your dad ever lost you in a crowd?
When my elder son David was still in his pushchair we went with him and our daughter into British Home Stores. My wife Helen wanted to look at some clothes, but she also had something to return, which she gave to me. 'Take it to the returns’ desk,’ she said, 'Then come and find me.’
When I got back to her she said, Where's David?’ I said, 'I thought he was with you!’
When I got back to the returns’ desk he was still sitting in his pushchair, over to one side, blithely unaware that I had left him; a bit like Jesus - who got separated from his parents in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and was blithely unaware that they would be worrying about him!
Do your mum or your dad sometimes mix you up with your brothers and sisters?
Actually this is another of my failings. My elder grandaughter, Erin, looks so much like her mother did when she was the same age that I constantly call her Jenny, which is my daughter's name, by mistake.
That’s more or less what Isaac did; he was one of the ancestors of the people of Israel. He gave his blessing to the wrong son by mistake. He was supposed to bless the elder son but he blessed the younger one and caused a great deal of upset. Fortunately, when I call Erin ‘Jenny’, everyone just laughs!
Would you let your mum or your dad pick your clothes?
Actually, I think I'm not bad at this. But until I was about 18 my mother  chose most of my clothes, on the  principle that she knew more about clothes  than I did, and she was paying for them anyway. The result was that I was  never really 'on trend'.  Instead I looked more like a man of 40 than a boy of 14. The game was finally up when I got my own money and a girlfriend!
It's the same mistake that was made by Jacob, the father of Joseph - to whom he gave  the amazing technicolour dreamcoat. It’s one thing to wear a rainbow coloured coat on stage in a hit musical, and quite another thing to walk down the street in it! Joseph was the target of some serious bullying.
Do your mum and dad like your friends?
Actually my mum wasn't absolutely sure she liked my girlfriend, especially when she started choosing all my clothes, but we've been together since then for another 40 years. Quite soon my mother said Helen was the best thing that had happened to me.
Mary the mother of Jesus took a bit of persuading about his friends as well. One day she turned up with his brothers and sisters to try to get him away from his friends because she thought they were a bad influence. But in the end Jesus won her round and she, as well as two of his brothers, became part of his close circle of friends too.
[Prince Jonathan’s Dad, the first king of Israel seemed at first  to like his best friend David. He used to get David to play him soothing music when he was feeling a bit down, but then Dad changed his mind and hurled a spear at David so the two friends had to start meeting in secret.]
Are your mum or your dad to blame for your embarrassing nickname?
One of my sons and his wife decided to call their son ‘Ted’, which is also the name of my father-in-law, my son’s Grandad. So now we have Big Ted and Little  Ted. I hope Little Ted doesn't find that nickname embarrassing when he gets a little older!
James and John, two of Jesus’s closest friends, were nicknamed ‘The Sons of Thunder’. We don’t really know why but perhaps it’s because their dad had a very loud voice and was always shouting at them. Does that sound like anyone you know?
Finally, have your mum or your dad ever made a public spectacle of themselves - not by dad dancing or turning up at the school gates in pyjamas, but just because they were trying to help you out when you were in trouble?
When Jairus’s daughter was very ill he heard there was a new healer in town so he hurried to meet him. He fell at the healer’s feet and begged him - in front of a huge crowd of people - to come and heal his daughter.
Well OK, it’s not very likely your mum or dad has knelt down and begged someone to help you, although your dad might have knelt down in public and asked your mum to marry him. But have your mum or your dad ever put themselves out in a major way just to help you?
That’s the kind of mum and dad we all want, isn’t it? We’ll never have perfect mums and dads, and we can't ever be perfect mums and dads ourselves.
We can only wish for our mums and dads to be good enough to help us turn out alright, and to love us enough to put themselves out sometimes to help us. And then we can try to follow their example, and maybe learn from a few of their mistakes.
We often call God our Father, and sometimes our Mother too. It’s a reminder  that God puts himself out in a major way to help us. In Jesus he came himself to share our problems, and to save us from them when we were in trouble.