Michael's Missives

The Wide-mouthed Jar

“In fact, he taught only by illustrations (parables) in his public teaching. (Mark 4:34 – TLB). Thus was the ministry of Jesus. “The word parable signifies in general a comparison, or a parallel, by which one thing is used to illustrate another. It is a likeness taken from the sphere of real, or sensible, or earthly incidents, in order to convey an ideal, or spiritual, or heavenly meaning.” “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). It is taking simple or common objects to cast light on spirituality or religion. It has been well said of the parable that “truth embodied in a tale shall enter in at lowly doors.” It abounds in events and daily figures and is connected with two words the root meaning of which is “likeness.”

I was once worshipping on the front row of the church and saw two things connected with the platform and projector. These could be called parables. The first – an access hatch on the platform adjacent to the pulpit which covered the baptistery had been recently lifted and reset and the carpet nap was in the wrong direction and therefore showed darker than its surroundings. I asked two of the male singers to lift it for me and replace it the right way and sure enough it blended into the uniform colour of the platform carpet. The lord said to me, “It was in the right position but was facing in the wrong direction, like some leadership,” who are in the rightful setting but their vision can be in the wrong direction.

The second instance – as I looked at the two screens to read the worship words I noticed that one was out of focus – you could clearly read the words but the picture was elongated as it pushed past the edge of the screen. Again I sensed God speaking to me to the effect that “Vision should not only be clearly seen like the worship words, but also have boundaries, it should not over-sail like the songs on the screen.” Thus, vision must have a boundary lest it becomes fanaticism. It acts as a limitation that keeps it within focus and a fact of possibility.

Here is one parable which I think has great significance in today’s frenetic world. “One day, an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration (parable) those students will never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz” and he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouth jar and set it on the table in front of him. He also produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class yelled, “Yes.” He replied, “Really?”

He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks. He then asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. He reached for a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in the jar and it went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel.

Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?” “No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good.” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!”No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point.

The truth of this allegory is, ‘If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.’ What are the ‘big rocks’ in your life, time with loved ones, your faith, your education, your dreams, a worthy cause, teaching or mentoring others? Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first or you’ll never get them in at all. Therefore, ask yourself this question, “What are the ‘big rocks’ in my life?” Then, put those in your jar first.

Michael's Missives

Real Happiness

Britain’s war years sponsored a frontline song favourite, which was eventually adopted and adapted by the world system “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile.” Hide your problems and pretend to be happy. Look at the positives, ignore the negatives and so make it buoyantly through life. Don’t be sad, try never to be too serious, and only mourn if you have to. Unfortunately the same philosophy is often applied to sin. Gloss it over and it’ll be okay!

The structure of most human living – whether by the primitive or sophisticated, the wealthy or the poor, the educated or the uneducated – is based on the seemingly incontrovertible principle that the way to happiness is having things go your own way.

The world system believes that sidestepping negatives is necessary before the other things can bring cheerfulness. Throughout history a basic proverb of the world has been that favourable things bring happiness, whereas unfavourable things bring unhappiness. The principle seems so self-evident that most people would not bother to debate it.

Yet, godly mourning brings godly happiness, which no amount of human effort or optimistic pretence, based on possibility thinking, can produce. In the routine of ordinary day-by-day living, the idea of mourning to get happiness seems absurd, but Jesus steps in and confuses their maxim.

The epitome of His teaching is paradoxical – seemingly contradictory.   What he promises from what he says seems incongruous or inappropriate and certainly upside down in the eyes of the natural man. The assumed inconsistency of the second Biblical beatitude is obvious – (for ‘beatitude’ read blessedness or happiness). What could be more self-contradictory than the idea that the path to happiness is through sadness and that the way to rejoicing is in mourning? “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” How can I be happy when the chances are against me?

When we face great sorrow, disappointment, disillusionment, tragedy or failure, we wish that we could escape it as we escape a thunderstorm by running inside, but comfort from the troubles of life is much harder to find than shelter from rain. The deeper the sorrow, the harder the pressure and the worse the despair, the more elusive comfort seems to be. Avoiding pain, trouble, frustration, hardships, and other problems, in the estimation of many, will bring happiness.

The average Christian in this modern age fights against a false sense of assumed piety, which gives the impression that to be religious is to be miserable – how sad and weird! There is also the co-joined error that to attract people we must be deliberately upbeat and jolly.   It is this apparent superficiality and slickness that works against us because it is unintelligent and certainly illusory. Perhaps that is the reason the church is so unimpressive because in today’s climate of spirituality everything must be kept at a level that fails to produce seriousness and concern over real issues.

The love of God is offered as the answer; He is depicted as one who would never in any way harm us and that is basically true. It is thought therefore that everything should work for our benefit, and so it does, but not in the way we think. As an Arab proverb says: “All sunshine makes a desert.” There are certain things that only rain will produce otherwise the land becomes arid and dry. California seems to have an ideal climate but it is brown for many months.

The real meaning of what Jesus is saying is simply this: “Blessed [happy] is the person who is desperately sorry for their own sin and their own unworthiness.” That is the meaning of Biblical mourning, and the comfort that comes from that tearful confession is the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding . . . [which will] guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7).  Another interpretation says: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” [1]  (Matthew 5:4). God helps us lose things that are counterproductive to our spiritual ascent.

[1] The Message by Eugene Peterson

Michael's Missives


Recent polls tell us that we no longer know what love is; we don’t recognise it and cannot work out what it is for.  We are “fearful of its complications, perplexed by its obligations, and wish it would simply go away.”  In spite of that mournful response the amount of money spent on February 14th on cards, flowers and chocolates, makes it the most expensive celebration next to Christmas.

The history of Valentine’s Day suggests it revolves around Bishop Valentine, a Roman priest who assisted the martyrs during the persecution and who suffered under the rule of Claudius II. The emperor found it difficult to recruit the male populace into joining his military leagues, believing that Roman men were averse to leaving their loved ones or their families. He therefore cancelled all marriages and engagements within the City of Rome.

However Valentine and Saint Marius continued to perform wedding ceremonies in secret. When it was discovered that they were defying the emperor’s decree, Bishop Valentine was apprehended and dispatched by Claudius to the Prefect of Rome who, being unable to force the saint to renounce Christianity, ordered that he be clubbed, stoned and then beheaded.

Some scholars say that during his stay in prison Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s  blind daughter (whose name may have been Julia), who used to bring him flowers and notes from children. It is said that the day before his execution on February 14th 269 AD, Valentine prayed for his sweetheart and she regained her eyesight. He also wrote a farewell note to her and signed it “From Your Valentine.” Clearly this phrase has become popular amongst lovers and is still very much in vogue.

Hundreds of years ago in England, many children dressed up as adults on Valentine’s Day. They went singing from home to home. One verse they sang was:

Good morning to you, valentine;

Curl your locks as I do mine —

Two before and three behind.
Good morning to you, valentine.

In Wales wooden love spoons were carved and given as gifts on that day. Hearts, keys and keyholes were favourite decorations on the spoons. The decoration meant, “You unlock my heart!”

In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their valentine would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week. To wear your heart on your sleeve now means that it is easy for other people to know how you are feeling.

Some people used to believe that if a woman saw a robin flying overhead on Valentine’s Day; it meant she would marry a sailor. If she saw a sparrow, she would marry a poor man and be very happy. If she saw a goldfinch, she would marry a millionaire.

Some time ago a survey revealed that British males are the most miserable in Europe with 35% expressing unhappiness with their lives.  The romantic side of their lives is especially highlighted. Nearly half of those males attributed their singleness to a lack of confidence – 40%, to fussiness – 29%, to not being attractive enough – 31%. They thought women expected too much of them and weren’t really interested in forming serious relationships. It seems that they need the spirit of Valentine as never before!

They say that the bones of Valentine were returned to Terni, and that that church receives 50,000 letters a year mostly on relationship problems, but the greatest problem solver is the Holy Spirit who can match-make to perfection.  For those who are willing to take His guidance they will find that he chooses the one who both complements and fulfils our natural desires and needs. It is very rare that relationships in marriage are without some strife, but the growing war of the sexes has highlighted the differences and depleted the likenesses to their own loss.

Singleness is escalating as people become bewildered and picky, looking for that mysterious perfect partner only to find they don’t actually exist. People leave it so long now to tie the knot that they are too set in their ways to change, and are encouraged to take that independence to limits that prohibit life-long union. It takes courage, maturity and tolerance to be married. Perhaps these qualities are no longer encouraged in young people as they grow towards adulthood?

Michael's Missives


My first dog was a Doberman, which by definition was teeth on legs, and a wonderful creature. We sold him to a hotel in Solihull to get rid of awkward customers, and replaced him with two miniature Schnauzers who shared a large basket with Cadbury, our Chocolate Point Siamese cat. She used to sneak up and climb in as they settled down to sleep. The three were clearly friends and when Schweppes died Fritz her brother searched the garden, under every bush and tree trying to find her. He clearly missed her and became pensive at her disappearance – but she was not buried in the garden! Eventually all those animals died and we bought another dog called Schmitz, and this is how it happened.

God so arranges things that are remarkable, even in the most seemingly mundane experiences.  My first wife was in the Sunday evening service and went from praise to worship and then into The Presence. When you get there you can ask what you will and God will answer. Our penultimate dog had died and she was particularly upset and simply said to God, “I’m not saying I need a dog but if you think it’s good for me you’ll have to do it for we do not have the finance to buy one.”  The service ended and we went home and prepared the supper, took it into the lounge to watch Antiques Roadshow, and as we sat eating, the phone rang. At that time of night it was usually for her, and as she talked I realised it was. She suddenly put her head through the serving hatch and said “we’ve got another dog.” Not do we want one or shall we have one, but “we’ve got one.” It was clear the deal was done!  Someone who was ignorant of her prayer [as I was] rang to give her £300 for another dog.

We checked breeding kennels and found two in the Cotswolds so off we went to explore what was available, but neither one presented possibilities for a suitable pet. We stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast in Broadway and next morning after breakfast causally walked up the main street before we left for home. As we strolled along approaching us was a man with a miniature black schnauzer, the kind of dog we were looking for.  After talking to him we found he had bought his from a kennel near London where we lived; we spent no delay in visiting it on the way home and bought one of the pups.

The mother had been an America Champion and her owner had put an embargo on any of her offspring being shown thereby reducing the price from £450 to £300. Do you think God was ignorant of that when he caused someone to offer that sum to Patricia?  He is sovereign in small and large things and events. It was no accident that the three wise men brought gifts that Joseph and Mary could sell for their upkeep as they migrated to an embalming country. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. God planned well. He always does.

Schmitz, our last dog, was with us for about 12 years and gave great fun and loyalty. When Patricia asked God why he gave him so miraculously, he said quite simply “to put a smile on your face.” That was important to God. She had suffered much over many years, and any smile was a bonus. He touched her where she needed and provided over and above expectation. Our life together was paean of praise to His almighty forethought and supply. Thus we are sure that because of the past supply there will be current and future miracles. He changes not, He is constant in His love and care for us.