As Iron Sharpens Iron


As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.
(Proverbs 27:17 NIV)

There is something fundamentally true in this statement. Indeed I think it can be stretched our further.

Every day we are making the people around us better or worse.

We make each other better by :

• Affirming good actions,
• Affirming good choices,
• Congratulating on the development of new competencies.
• Deprecating bad actions,
• Pointing our poor choices,
• Indicating areas where improvement is possible.

These are not things strangers can generally do for each other.

To be criticised is a painful existential experience.

To have some part of yourself held up to scrutiny and exposed at weak and wrong, can only be borne when the person doing so has earned the right to do so. A right they can only earn through proving consistently and convincingly their esteem for us. In which case their motives can at least be hoped to be pure – that they want our best – rather than being unworthy.

This process transforms not only individuals but their communities and societies.

When this process is absent, we make no forward progress in becoming a nobler, better person, in fulfilling our human potential and, at best, individuals and communities stay as bad as they are.

In the worst case scenario, in the presence of negative character reinforcement – applauding that which is base and poor and deprecating the good – we quickly take each other and our community into the deepest experience of hell.

So how do we choose to live?

Will we establish ‘sharpening’ relationships, invite mutually close observation and truth telling, in the hope of growth and advancement in character?

Or will we avoid the pain, difficulty and discomfort and accept the status quo?

Or will we embrace a pathology of mutual negative reinforcement that will take us all to hell?

The choice and the consequences are ours.


Between Womb and Worm


The book of Job is about a righteous and an innocent man, who lives through an absolute nightmare. Every disaster that can happen to a man is falls upon Job. In quick succession he loses his wealth, his family, and his status within his community.

To compound his misery his ‘friends’ then tell him that all this is happening because he has been evil and God is punishing him.

Job cannot and will not believe this. He knows that he is not perfect, but he also knows that he is not a monster to be punished in such a way.

He believes, like his friends, that God does enact justice on each human being, but he knows that this process is neither mechanical nor sufficiently formulaic to be predictable. God remains a mystery to humankind, and His ways of working will always remain outside human comprehension.

Yet Job expresses his faith that ultimately, there will be justice for all.

In spite of all he is living through he still believes that ultimately the wicked will be punished for their wickedness and the righteous rewarded for their good conduct.

When he thinks about the wicked Job expresses their fate in the following startling words;

As heat and drought snatch away the melted snow, so the grave snatches away those who have sinned.

The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them;

the wicked are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree.[1]

Human life is described, somewhat shockingly, as a journey between womb and worm.

For those who choose to live an evil life, their wickedness erases their own existence; makes it nothing, like water vapour under the hot sun, their lives disappear with no trace left behind.

Their wickedness erases their own existence

The unexpressed contrast is with those who choose to live life well – to live lives characterised by goodness, kindness, love and compassion, and holiness before God.

Their good lives are affirmed by each act of goodness, made more real, underscored, and concretised.

Each positive action – no matter how small – affirms and makes more real their existence. Something Jesus Himself expressed when he said;

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.’[2]

As you have to be alive in order to receive a reward, this verse hints at the continued existence after death of those who have chosen to live well and do well.

So as we each make our journey between womb and worm we are presented with the opportunity to either affirm, to make more real, to validate, and to concretise our existence by acts of goodness;

or we can gradually erase our own existence by acts of wickedness.

Choose this day…


[1] Job 24 :19-20 NIVUK

[2] Matthew 10 :42 NIVUK

Quick, Slow, Slow – The Discipleship Rhythm



I remember vaguely being told that the waltz rhythm could be described as ‘Quick, Quick, Slow’. How this was meant to help me dance I don’t know; it didn’t. But I digress.

Today I came across a verse that described the rhythm of discipleship as ‘Quick, Slow, Slow’.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:

everyone should be quick to listen,

slow to speak

and slow to become angry[1]

Why does James, perhaps the practical of the New Testament writers, describe the rhythm of discipleship in this way?

Being quick to listen and slow to speak is about relating to others. It is about valuing the other person and believing that they have something interesting and valuable to share.

The great danger in the life of a disciple of Jesus is that as we learn more through our study and experience, we know quite rightly that we have more and more ‘good stuff’ in our heads that we can share with others which might actually be a blessing and a help to them.

Indeed, it would not be kind nor Christian to refuse to share the good things we have received from God.

But our sharing is only valuable and useful to the degree that it speaks into the situation and needs of our friends and that is something that can only be determined through listening.

So there is a paradox here; the more you have to share, the more listening and not speaking becomes important.

We need to explore by active listening where our friend is, what they are going through, where God may be working in their lives, and it is only when we have developed an understanding of them and their situation, that we can start to think about what might be helpful and appropriate for us to share with them.

So if we can understand why we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak, what about being slow to become angry?

We know that anger is a valid emotion sometimes, we are right to get angry at some things. Jesus Himself got angry on occasion. Perhaps the most famous example of that was when he visited the temple at Jerusalem and found that the Court of the Gentiles – the only space in the temple to which women and non-Jews had access – far from being a quiet and holy place for prayer, had become a noisy marketplace where unscrupulous traders short-changed pilgrims. Jesus was so angry about this that he overturned the stalls and chased the traders out with a whip.

So if anger can be valid and appropriate why does James say we should be slow to become angry?

Perhaps it is because anger can have very many causes, and for many of us most of the time our feelings of anger will have little to do with righteousness.

James indicates his rationale about anger in the next verse when he goes on to say;

because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires[2].

James reminds us that anger often leads to conduct that we later regret. We shout, we swear, we insult, we demean, we wound with our words, or even our fists. None of which is helpful in building up a Christian community.

Perhaps it is here the greatest danger in anger – it often destroys relationships. Once we get angry with someone – for whatever reason – it can create a barrier in our relationship with them and it can be a long and very slow path back to mutual forgiveness and restoration.

For this reason anger is a dangerous emotion within a Christian community and we should reflect very carefully on the reason for our anger, and whether it is justified and righteous, or merely the expression of our human frailty and imperfection. Slowness in getting angry will save us a lot of heartache and prevent a lot of harm.

So I think we should all learn to dance the discipleship dance – Quick, Slow, Slow.

God help us all.







[1] James 1 :19, NIVUK

[2] James 1 :20 NIVUK

Lessons from the dram


I had a holiday in Edinburgh recently, which was wonderful, although somewhat bizarre, as I once worked there every day for about 3 years! But you approach a place very differently when you are in holiday mode rather than work mode.

I discovered many things that I had never seen before. I hadn’t even known that you could climb to the top of the Scott Monument – which is awesome, if a little claustrophobic getting to the top and then vertigo inducing once you’re there!

I discovered Saint Margaret’s chapel, inside Edinburgh castle – a small place of worship dating back 900 years.

During our few days’ stay we did lots of stuff and one of them was to visit ‘The Scotch Whisky Experience’. Which was fun and informative and explained the whole process of whisky production and included a guided tasting of a single malt.

As I reflected on the process of whisky making synapses started to fire and I realized that there are many parallels with spiritual growth. You might say that;

increasing the spirit content of a dram

and increasing the Spirit content of a man are analogous.

The first thing that I noticed is that increasing the spirit content of a dram does not diminish the differences between the whiskies, rather it augments them. As with beer and bread, two other ‘simple’ recipes with only a very few ingredients, an infinite variety of taste, texture and aroma seem possible.

As the spirit content of the dram increases, this is expressed in a character that is completely original and dependent upon a large variety of factors – the ingredients themselves, the peat used to toast the grain, the processing and brewing, the shape of the still, the skills of those involved in the process and the qualities of the barrels used to age the whisky etc. etc.

In a similar way, as a man opens himself up more and more to the Spirit of God, an utterly unique character will be expressed. A man does not ‘lose’ himself in becoming Christ-like, rather he finds his true, unique self.

The second thing I noticed was that making a dram takes time. Three years at the very minimum and most good whiskies takes at least 12 years to reach their full potential. They wait, in obscurity, quietly developing their character, until the day when they are sent out into the world.

Spiritual growth in a man is also a slow, time-consuming process; where it often feels like nothing is happening and that God has forgotten about you. You are just quietly soldiering on, doing the right things, living the right way and imperceptibly your character is growing. One day, when the time is right, God will release you into your service in His world.

The third resonance that I noticed was something we were told during the guided whisky tasting. Our guide said that whisky should be experienced through colour, nose, body, and taste. He said that in the ‘nose’ phase people often make the mistake of sticking their nose right into the glass in order to appreciate the whisky’s aroma. This in counter productive as whisky is a strong spirit, and all this does is to ‘burn’ their nose, to overpower the nose’s capacity to discern the complex nature of the whisky. Rather you should hold the glass at a hand’s distance below your nose and swirl the whisky, this will release the vapours in a less overpowering way, allowing a fuller appreciation.

It is here that the analogy between ‘growth in the spirit’ and ‘growth in the Spirit’ break down. For it is precisely at the moment when a man feels himself about to be overpowered by the Spirit that he should not draw back, but rather totally let go and abandon himself, in his entirety, to God. It is a wonderful adventure but to embrace it you have to grab it with both hands, you must jump off the cliff if you would experience the wonder of flight.

I love a fine single malt scotch whisky, and I really enjoyed the Scotch Whisky Experience, which has further developed my appreciation of this good gift of God; but I had not expected that it would inspire me in my own Spiritual growth too.

Remembering that you have forgotten.


There is a fantastic film called Memento. In it the central character is seeking to avenge his murdered girlfriend – so far, so formulaic. The twist in this film is that the man suffers from short-term memory loss, so every time he wakes up he has forgotten everything that happened the day before.

His strategy for coping with this handicap is the use of a notebook, Polaroid photographs and tattoos. When he awakes he looks at the marks on his body which re-tell his story, he looks through his Polaroids and his notes and he works out where he is in his quest and then seeks to move forward.

The plot gets even more complex as things go on, but suffice to say, it is one of those films you need to watch again and again, it is such a brilliantly clever film.

As I thought about this film, and it does make you think, it struck me that there are many resonances between this film and the life of Christian discipleship.

Like the character in the film we are on a quest – not for vengeance but for the re-establishment of the rule of the rightful King over His Creation; we are fifth columnists fighting against an evil usurper, working for his overthrow and the coming of the King.

Unfortunately, like the character in the film, we all too apt to forget about our quest.

I wrote in one of my recent running blogs about how a two word greeting, ‘How do’, triggered a whole flood of memories about my beloved and long-departed grandad. Such unlooked for ‘memory triggers’ are a grace, and quite rare.

If we are not to forget the quest that is the meaning of our lives, we need – like the character in Memento – a strategy to help us remember.

It strikes me that the first stage in remembering is the realization that there is something that you’ve forgotten.

The classic ruse of tying a piece of string around your finger will probably work for helping you remember simple things, like to buy a loaf of bread on the way home from work. However, more complex memories such as the meaning of the universe, your place in it and your task and engagement in the work of deposing the usurper and re-establishing the rightful King on his throne, require a more complex system.

It is for this reason that gathering together is a vital part of Christian discipleship. At these times we help each other remember the meaning of our lives by telling each other the story so far, re-stating the goal of our quest, recounting past battles won and lost, the deeds done.

At our times of gathering the King Himself walks amongst us, dispensing words here and there of encouragement, exhortation, rebuke, challenge, and appreciation. In a real and physical way we meet Him and are strengthened by His presence.

Our King has also left us a manuscript in which He sets out his goals and His means, His battle plan. Our duty as faithful warriors, who want to be as prepared as they can to fight well, is to read and study this text- it is our Bushido text (The Way of the Warrior).

Our King has also given us a system of instantaneous and unlimited communication, through which we have unfiltered and unrestricted access to Him. We can turn to Him at any and every moment, during our communication with Him we attune our thoughts and priorities to His, we attune ourselves to Him.

It is through these three activities of gathering, study and communication that our King is able to enthuse us with His Spirit and to embolden us for the fight.

No successful conclusion to our life of quest will be possible without the disciplined use of these three helps.

I need bigger pants


I‘m not a natural athlete. I can run, but it is hard work and it is not pretty to watch.

Out for an early morning run today I met several dog-walkers along my route. Some of the dogs were running too. It was amazing to see how fast they can run.

It doesn’t look like it is hard work, or an effort for them. It looks more like a joyous expression of their nature – the Franciscan in me would say that it was a physical hymn to their Creator.

As I contemplated this it struck me that in nature animals get good at the things that keep them alive. Dogs can run because this was essential to their ability to catch food, to survive.

Of course man has interfered with this ability somewhat. We now have dogs that have been bred to have certain bizarre physical characteristics. There are dogs with short legs which are able to go down rabbit holes and badger setts. I saw a corgi the other day – a dog with 2 inch legs. A dog for whom an inch of snow is a deeply unpleasant experience – especially for male corgis – no wonder they tend to be bad tempered, I think I would be too.

But dogs in the wild can run and run fast – for that is what enables them to survive.

Meditating in this direction I was suddenly struck by an insight into Psalm 42:1

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.

The reason the deer pants is because it has just been running for its life. Its ability to run is the only thing that keeps it alive. At the limit of exhaustion and endurance it seeks the water it needs to enable it to continue, to survive.

It is only when we understand the nature of our spiritual life in this way, that we will really seek God with the kind of earnestness that is appropriate, as something vital in our life. Only then will we understand our relationship with God for what it truly it – a survival issue.

Formerly Ordinary

Don and Sancho

I love the Don Quixote books by Miguel de Cervantes.

The author himself was almost more amazing than his fictional creation. Having lost the use of his left hand in a military battle, he simply recovered and re-enlisted! Only having one hand was not going to stop him fighting!

He was later captured in battle and spent five years in captivity being held for ransom. He led an escape with his fellow prisoners but after a few weeks hiding out whilst trying to send for help, they were betrayed and re-captured.

His family finally paid the ransom, which left Cervantes enormously indebted.

He tried to write his way out of debt but was only intermittently successful.

Hs book Don Quixote, is the last book of the medieval age. In it Cervantes looks over his shoulder wistfully at the glories of the medieval age – valour, chivalry, duty, romance (in the fullest medieval sense of the word).

The world Europe was becoming – a world of lace-draped courtiers, hangers-on, flunkeys, sniping gossip merchants fighting for courtly favour and advancement – was anathema to Cervantes, the man of action.

Don Quixote is a love poem to an age that is fading, whose glories are passing, a red-blooded age which is being replaced by something pitifully anaemic and colourless.

There are many things that I find inspirational in Cervantes’ book. One in particular is the name of his horse. It is a rather bedraggled, knock-kneed beast, past its prime. Yet on embarking on his quest Quixote gives his faithful old nag a new name. He calls it “Rocinante”. It is a play on words for in Spanish “Rocin” means “an ordinary horse” – nothing special, no qualities that would give it value or significance –  the suffix “ante” means “formerly”. So “Rocinante” means “Formerly, an ordinary horse”.

There is something in this that deeply moves me.

There is the idea of anticipation, of hope, the conviction that whatever the quest may bring, even the mere fact of engaging on it is, in itself, somehow decisive, honourable, and glorious.

What the horse used to be counts for nought, it is on its way to becoming something new, as yet unknown, its qualities and capabilities are about to be revealed.

Of course, you can see the resonance that I find here with the Christian faith.

Once we engage with Christ we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), we set on a journey that has our total transformation as its goal (2 Corinthians 2:18).

What we were, the old limits, failings, weaknesses no longer apply. It is Christ’s own life in us that is determinative of what we shall become. As we cooperate with Him there is no limit to what the divine life, flowing through, us can achieve.

Interestingly, the Bible also speaks of us being given a new name, a secret name, a name only known to us and to God but which will perfectly express the essence of our identity. This name is not given at the start of our adventure, but at the end. As such it is not so much the hope but rather the reward, the concrete expression of all that God has worked in us.

“To the one who is victorious … I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” Rev 2:17 NIV

Maybe for someone, that name might just be “Formerly an ordinary man”.