As I was pondering prayerfully what to write I had two ideas floating around in my mind. Now that I start writing I am unsure how they might relate, but I am determined to explore this further. The first idea relates to the word Mizpah, which you can find in Genesis 31. The second idea relates to pretentiousness and affectation.
Mizpah is an oft-misunderstood word. I have seen it in ornate plaques or carved in wood in the homes of Christians and in churches, usually accompanied with the words that immediately follow in the text: “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.” (Gen 31:49) It sounds like a wonderful blessing, but it was actually a solemn warning.
Jacob had fled to save himself from the wrath of his brother, Esau, from whom he had first purchased his birthright for a pot of stew, and then, by claiming to be Esau, Jacob had tricked his father Isaac into giving the blessing that would have been given to Esau. I’m not sure who was the more devious and manipulative, was it Jacob or his colluding mother? But in seeking refuge with his uncle Laban, Jacob found himself at the mercy of a man who seems more devious than himself!
Twenty years later, having been tricked into marrying Leah, and then marrying Rachel, all the time working for his uncle who had been disingenuous regarding wages, Jacob leads his household and livestock out secretly, and headed back home. Laban was not best pleased and made a pretence of wanting to give them a party, and claimed to have had a revelation from God. The ensuing argument between Jacob and Laban ends with a memorial heap being built and an uneasy peace agreement being made. It is then that Laban names the place of this truce, ‘Mizpah’.
It means ‘watchtower’. When he declares, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.” He is not giving a blessing. He is giving a warning. Remember, God is watching you so you had better behave yourself!
There is no doubting that Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel, and the experiences he had been through, had resulted in a changed man. But both Laban and Jacob had history of deceit, manipulation, self-seeking and deviousness. It is therefore ironic that the parting of the ways should be marked with the reminder that God sees them as they are and will judge them on the basis of what he sees and knows.
Some thirty years ago I found myself deeply moved to pray, “From affectation and sermonising, dear Lord, deliver me”. I cannot remember why I was so moved at the time, but it has remained a continuing prayer over the years, and as chastening a motto for me as the words of Laban would have been for Jacob.
Might it have been that I had fallen into the folly of being more concerned with my image and what other people thought of me, rather than what God knew about me? Had I been crafting sermons for persuasive effect, rather than telling the truth plainly and allowing the Holy Spirit to do what God intended? Whatever might have prompted the prayer, I have done my best to be comfortable with being the real me in the pulpit, and telling the story as simply as possible.
I have long suspected that Nicodemus was rather pretentious at the start of his meeting with Jesus one night. He certainly wanted to give the impression of being more spiritual than he was. The same charge could have been made against King David as he dispensed justice for a poor man whose only lamb had been taken by a rich man to feed a guest. How chilling must have been hearing the words, “You are the man!” (Click to read the story).
During my management studied I was introduced to the concept of ‘power dressing’, and I might have practised it for a while. My own Christian tradition has an aversion towards clerical clothes. However, there are more ways of being pretentious in the pulpit than putting on a robe. I have also worshipped and worked alongside many robed colleagues who have not been the least bit pretentious. Sadly, far too many of those of us who stand at the front in church are guilty of various degrees of affectation. We need to remember that the God who sees us in the pulpit also sees us in the bath!
I knew a man who was a marvellous pastor and preacher, as a licensed Lay Reader in the Church of England. He was subsequently one of the first to become a Locally Ordained Priest. The wonderful man and godly servant I had come to know was immediately subsumed by a new persona he seemed to put on with his clerical collar. Intriguingly, several of the most unpretentious clerics I have met have been Roman Catholic Priests, while the most seemingly pretentious was a Minister in a Free Church denomination.
But it isn’t only the clergy who are at risk of becoming pretentious and wanting to impress people with our oratory. Any of us are capable of being deceived by our own ego, and projecting a persona that is not entirely honest when we go to church. What we choose to wear, how we speak and act can be far too easily about the impression we wish to create. We prefer to be thought of as better than we are and, sometimes, better than others. For those of us who preach, a little less time polishing and a little more time praying might be helpful. Will you join me in prayer, please?
“From affectation and sermonising dear Lord, deliver us” Amen? Mizpah.
From the Diary
Wonderful to welcome a new Anglican chaplain to the team at HMP Gartree. The Revd Eric Rew had his licensing service last Thursday.
It was a joy to officiate at the wedding of Catherine and Mark today. I had the joy of baptising Catherine a few years ago.
I have had several video meetings for Rural Mission Solutions during the week, and also been busy writing a paper for a forthcoming Pastoral Care Board Meeting for the Congregational Federation.
On Monday 22nd I have a meeting with a colleague in the URC in London as we plan a talk we shall share towards the end of September. We have a lovely opportunity but need wisdom as to what we include in the talk.
Tuesday 23rd – regular meeting at HMP Gartree.
Wednesday 24th – administration and possibly some work with the Mission and Society Board of the Congregational Federation.
Thursday 25th – afternoon Chaplaincy Team Meeting.
Friday 26th – Provisional rehearsal for Saturday.
Saturday 27th – 9.00 The Rural Mission Webinar (online seminar) on suggestions for mission during the autumn. Gordon Banks and I have prepared an interesting programme that, among other things, reflects on missional responses to the start of the academic year, harvest thanksgivings, Halloween, bonfire night and Remembrance. We are encouraged by the numbers already booked but we still have space for a few more. If you can spare 45 minutes from 9.00 next Saturday morning I encourage you to attend. You can do this from home or anywhere with internet connection. You can use a computer, tablet or smart phone. It is free but highly valuable. If you have never attended a Rural Mission Solutions Webinar before why not give it a try? You might discover something of value. Registration in advance is essential. To register CLICK HERE.
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