The Woman at the Well (Lent 1)

Whataboutery annoys me. It’s when someone responds to criticism, or an opposing view, by accusing someone else of similar or worse faults. Whataboutery is a shallow way of diverting attention away from yourself (often, but not always) when criticised. Irritating in children and pathetic in adults. You find it everywhere, in Facebook conversations, in politics, and in media interviews etc.

Often it’s simply trying to change the subject, at other times it’s trying to start a diversionary argument when the truth becomes too hot to handle. I think sometimes it comes out of instinct, a learned response, especially since it’s so prevalent today, not least in news media.

Equally, whataboutery is nothing new, it’s been around as long as humans have. In the third chapter of the first book of the Bible, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake! Genesis 3

When the Risen Jesus challenged Peter to follow him despite all the challenges, Peter pointed to another disciple and said, ‘Lord, what about him?’ John 21:21

But the Bible passage I have in mind is John 4:1-42, read it now and look for examples of whataboutery.

In this reading from John’s Gospel we see an act of kindness with enormous consequences, the fact that Jesus and the Samaritan woman even began a conversation. For centuries Jews and Samaritans had been hostile to one another. The safest way to live together was to keep their distance, live in their own little world and not notice the other’s presence.

Most people would have considered Jesus to have been very brave, or very foolish, to have been in Samaritan territory at all. And to stop at a well was double trouble, because that was where the women came to draw water, and in a society where the sexes were carefully separated it wasn’t the place for a man and woman to be found on their own.

The modern equivalent of a well is the water cooler, an opportunity for conversation. But far from getting off to a good start, it looks like the conversation will get bogged down in whataboutery, misunderstanding, and cross purposes.

I’m not going to go over what you can read for yourself, but a careful reading and re-reading of the passage will pay dividends.

You’ll notice how Jesus wisely refuses to become engaged in an argument, and how often we fail in this respect when we want to score points on social media, for example. He doesn’t take the opportunity to reinforce a partisan position, but rather he proposes that the true worship that God desires is worship in spirit and truth, not dependent on any particular place or shrine. He keeps a level head.

The story is about evangelism, and how it can start with a simple encounter and a conversation that broke down prejudices, and allowing entry into a new world shaped by God.

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:11-14

Here is the universal longing of the human condition, that our spiritually emptiness might be filled, and this thirst is something Jesus satisfies. Here is God’s continuing presence with his people, and he nourishes us day by day in our journey of faith.

Jesus said, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6), but he also demonstrated the perfect example in his response to whataboutery.

Note: This Sunday (21 February 2021) is the first Sunday in Lent. I’ve not mentioned Lent in this devotional, but you can click here for one of today’s Lectionary readings and find out more here.

Here at the Mayflower (2001)

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You might be surprised that I’m writing about a Barry Manilow album, which (believe it or not) one of my favourite albums of 2001. I’ve previously written about my eclectic musical taste, so actually you might not find it as strange as it first seems. I’m not one to shy away from a particular musician simply because some might consider that choice uncool.

Here at the Mayflower is a concept album, based on the Brooklyn apartment complex where Barry Manilow grew up. The album contains a mixture of musical styles, and some you not might expect. It’s very different from his work of the 1970s and 80s, and something of a hidden gem. Each song tells a story about the occupants of an apartment block. It’s a wonderful album.

Living Life in God’s Love

Love it or loathe it, you’ll know that today (14 February) is St Valentine’s Day. It’s a Christian festival, but also a huge marketing opportunity for shops and online retailers. While I was a corps officer and leading worship, it was always helpful when this day fell on a Sunday, and this year (2021) it does just that.

Although there was a Saint Valentine, there are several after whom the day may have been named. I’ll focus on the traditional attribution, but you can find out more here.

Legend has it that the emperor was dismayed that the men of Rome were not enlisting for the army, because they loved their wives and families too much to become soldiers. So he decreed that engagements and marriages were against the law. Valentine was a priest and doctor in Rome, and he refused to obey. He went on marrying young men and women because he believed that was God’s way. He got dragged before the authorities in Rome on 14 February 270 (actual date not known) and, having refused to change his ways, paid the price.

We’ll never know how true the legend is, but Saint Valentine has been associated with this lovers’ festival for many centuries. As Christians, the one love story that we especially celebrate is that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great love for us, he was prepared to sacrifice himself in life and on the cross.

Bible Reading: Ephesians 5:1-20

Paul wrote: […] live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God

The love expressed on Valentine’s Day might be deep and meaningful, it might just be shallow and expected, and it might even be it might be a joke or a bit of fun. But the one thing we can be sure of is that we are all loved with the very love of Jesus. No one deserves it and no one is left out.

None of us are perfect, none of us deserve this love, because we are all flawed human beings. Sometimes we don’t recognise our collective failings, thus making it difficult to cope with human weakness, both in ourselves and others. Sometimes we ascribe sinfulness to others and not to ourselves, it’s the oldest human failing.

Of course, there’s clearly goodness in individuals, but we are all flawed because of our basic humanity. This is a big subject, and the discussion of inherent evil or inherent good is for another time and place.

Christian teaching shows us that we are insignificant and worthless in relation to the universe, but significant and of infinite value to God, even though flawed and without any claim on grace.

Edward Norman has written: The supreme loveliness of the life of Christ exhibited the sacrifice of God himself for creatures who were undeserving. It was not because men and women were good that Christ died for them. How can it have been? On the hills of Galilee and in the desert places of Judea the Saviour had loved those whose lives encouraged no love and inspired no pity. Nothing in human nature has changed, and it is not going to. Jesus came into the world precisely because we were not good, and because we are not capable of self-correction. People today will begin to cope with the evils of existence if only they will bring themselves to accept that their own natures are inherently flawed. And the hand of God himself extends from the cross to lift and save those who reach out to him.

Accepting responsibility for our own sinfulness can open the floodgates of God’s mercy and love in Jesus, and we can be transformed. We can also better accept the sinfulness of others. Although we don’t deserve it, God offers us love through Jesus, and he challenges us to live a life of love in response, loving him, others, and ourselves.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:15-20

On this Valentine’s Day, do we need to give more of ourselves to God? Giving ourselves to him as a fragrant offering and sacrifice? As Rick Warren has written, let’s move from smelling the odour of waste to the bouquet of grace.

In our brokenness (Stephen Poxon)

I’ve just finished this devotional anthology by my author friend Stephen Poxon, who wrote a guest post for this blog a while back. You can find his books on Amazon by clicking here.

A Response to Grace is ‘a gathering of thoughts, jottings, poems and songs’, with the premise that God is present in the everyday things of life with its sometimes mundane circumstances and problems.

Grace is permanently concerned, available, widespread, willing, and reliable. Empowering grace is promised and indefatigable. Grace understands and meets us where we are.

In this anthology is all of life, its ups and downs, its best and worst, and all embraced, redeemed, and lifted up by grace. Here you will find drama and cabbages, heartache and Handel, politics and prayer, even marching in the rain – and that’s just the first five devotions! Here are heartfelt observations and reflections drawn from real life encounters, along with deeply personal insights that speak to the depths of our human condition.

I could have quoted from any of the pages, but I specifically chose this poem (which can be sung to the tune ‘Trust in God’) because it speaks to our humanity and (to some extent) our current circumstances in the coronavirus pandemic.

In our brokenness, we see the Saviour,
Gently holding lives now torn apart;
Consequence of sin and our behaviour
Chosen wrong that breaks the Father’s heart.
There we see, as well, the God of comfort,
Showing lame and weary how to dance,
Cradling innocents and weeping victims,
Those who never really stood a chance.

Through the moments of our greatest weakness
Runs a strand of pure sustaining grace;
When the stuff of life is fraught with burdens,
Then our gaze is turned to Jesus’ face;
And our God, all merciful and gracious,
Sweeps attendant evil all away,
And our hearts again are drawn to love him,
Lest those hearts should ever Love betray.

This is God, so gentle, kind and tender;
Pain of guilt removed, its stain erased;
This is God, so infinitely patient,
Hanging there, in every sinner’s place.
Every blemish covered by his mercy,
Every scar, by pity made to fade;
This is God, who knows our greatest sorrow,
This is God; our ransom wholly paid.

With a broken world, so marred and fractured,
Broken people share a God of love;
He whose charm our wayward lives has captured
We impart as manna from above;
Beggars sharing of our bread with others;
Calv’ry’s cross upright on level ground,
Where the heaviest burdens can be lifted,
Where a peace supernal can be found.

© Stephen Poxon (reproduced with permission)

Please Note: This book is only available from Stephen directly. If you would like to buy it, message him directly (or via myself if necessary). Ten per cent of all income from this book goes towards the Salvation Army’s Training College in Sri Lanka.

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

Chapter 2 contains one of the most profound passages in the New Testament (which may be an early Christian hymn). Paul’s purpose is to call the church to unity on the basis of the humility and servanthood of Jesus, and teach theology along the way. Take a few moments to read it through thoughtfully and prayerfully, maybe twice or more.

See below (or click on the link) Philippians 2:1-11

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is central to Christian belief and practice. To be ‘united with Christ’ goes to the very heart of salvation and what it means to be a Christian. It’s a relationship with Christ as Saviour and Lord, one which places on us the joy of following and the responsibility of living like Jesus. Loving God and loving others in Jesus’ name, with no discrimination or favouritism.

We should be like-minded with Christ, and like-minded with each other. We will (of course) have our differing likes and views, but because we are ‘united with Christ’ there is an expectation that we will respect each other and seek to serve the common good.

Is there a relationship you need to mend? Is there a bridge you need to build towards others in your community? How can you reach out to groups you might consider ‘different’ from you in some way?

Heavenly Father, help us to live our lives with humble hearts, reaching out to our neighbours in love, and ready to serve suffering humanity. Amen.

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

Honey For Wounds (Ego Ella May)

As the title suggests, this album is one to soothe troubled spirits in a challenging world, even when addressing tough issues in today’s society. It’s one of my favourite albums of 2020.

You can see all my favourite 2020 albums by clicking here.

Ego Ella May is a British songwriter and vocalist from South London. She has an all-encompassing love of music, which she channels into her own neo-soul and contemporary jazz compositions. She boasts a rich, mature sound, one that belies her years.

You can find the album on Bandcamp (and other streaming services) and an excellent review here.

Fragility (Kevin Buckland)

This remarkable album by my friend Kevin Buckland is one of my favourites of 2020. Kevin provides very little information on the album’s Bandcamp page, other than it was recorded live to cassette tape.

The album has a lo-fi sound, and it simply oozes fragility and vulnerability. I can quite imagine the album as a film soundtrack to create a particular mood. Although released before the coronavirus pandemic, it reflects powerfully the uncertain times in which we live.

You can see all my favourite 2020 albums by clicking here.

Only love (Ian McEwan)

Only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against their murderers. Ian McEwan.

Tuesday 11 September 2001 (or 9/11 as it has become known) is a day permanently etched into all of our memories, and much has been written about the terrorist attacks on that day.

I’m not going to attempt to add my thoughts on this anniversary, but simply to point you to one of the best pieces written about it then or since.

This article by Ian McEwan was published in The Guardian on Saturday 15 September 2001.

Reasons to Stay Alive (Matt Haig)

I’m keeping a record of the books I read in my retirement and blogging about them. This is the second one, you can read about the first one here. You can find me on Goodreads (click the link), and see all my 2020 books here.

I can’t remember how this excellent book by Matt Haig came to be on my reading list, but I’m really glad it was. Reasons to Stay Alive is a genre-straddling book; partly an overview of depression and anxiety, partly a self-help resource, but (uniquely) a deeply personal memoir that is totally open and honest. It describes how Matt Haig came through crisis, triumphed over a mental illness that almost destroyed him and learned to live again (back cover).

This is a book for everyone, it overflows with the joys of living and making the most of your time on earth. It oozes humanity from every page and adds impetus to the current trend for removing the societal stigma attached to mental illness. In Matt’s willing vulnerability comes his strength.

Note: Matt shares lots of valuable insights on Twitter and you can follow him here. Other books by Matt Haig are available.