Monday, 25 March 2013

Standing Together

I have been watching the news over the last several weeks with great interest as Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby take up office in their respective churches. Is it a coincidence that they should do so now and so close together? Is this God at work through his Spirit as he seeks the renewal of his Church and people? I can't say I agree with everything the Roman Catholic Church stands for and nor can I say I am entirely happy with the way the Anglican Church has been moving in recent years. But it is not what I think that matters but what God thinks. Giving the continuing crisis in the world, further recession, rising tensions in Asia and the continuing slide into a soulless secularism in Europe can we really afford to quarrel over historical arguments and differences? Are we doing what Jesus once accused the Pharisees and religious leaders of "straining on gnats while swallowing camels"? (Matthew 23:24) Isn't there a greater need than ever to take a united stand with Christians of other denominations emphasizing what unites us rather than squabbling about the things we beg to differ on?

There is a story about Philip II of Macedon who as a young man was kidnapped and held as a hostage in Greece.  There he remained for several years.  During this time he received a military education.  Then he returned to his homeland, which had conceded many defeats and had lost much land.  Within five years he had become king.

As King Philip desperately needed his army to stand firm.  He is remembered for two major innovations.  First is the sarissa, a very long spear.  Second is the re-development of a rectangular military formation used by ancient armies (known as a phalanx).  A core of highly-trained infantrymen armed with Philip’s longer spears stood shoulder to shoulder in files normally eight men deep.

As long as they stood firm and did not break rank they were virtually invincible and struck fear into the hearts of their enemies.  Using this tactic, Philip united the city-states of Greece and took the city of Philippi (which is named after him) in 356 BC.

Commenting on this Nicky Gumbel writes:

Sometimes, it seems that the Christian life is like facing a powerful enemy.  It feels like an intense struggle in which another team is attempting to push us back and break down our ranks.  If we don’t stand firm, we fall on our backs and slide in the mud in the wrong direction.  We have seen how Jeremiah warned the people many times against backsliding (Jeremiah 2:19, 3:22, 5:6, 14:7, 15:6).

It is not a matter of us standing firm on our own.  We are part of a community.  Paul uses this image of the phalanx with which Philip II of Macedonia once conquered the city of Philippi (Philippians 1:27).  Shoulder to shoulder, the church can stand firm (one of many occasions that Paul exhorts the church to ‘stand firm’ (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

I believe that the Holy Spirit is slowly breaking down the barriers that divide Christian from Christian and calling us to work closer together. The devil's stratagem is to divide and conquer, breaking through our divided ranks and pick us off one at a time. It is time to make a stand. It is time to fight back. Together we can do it.

The right thing to do

Two weeks ago I was wrestling with come difficult decisions and conflicted about what was the right thing and what was the pastoral thing to do ( a regular occurrence in the ministry) with regards to important decisions in my church.  I came across the following helpful excerpt taken from Bible in One Year by Nicky Gumbel as he reflects on 2 Thessalonians 3:13 "Never tire of doing what is right." :

Martin Luther King said, ‘On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?”  Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?”  But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?”’

The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of convenience, but where they stand in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.

When faced with a difficult situation it is sometimes tempting to start by asking, ‘What is the easiest option?’  ‘Which course of action is most likely to succeed?’  Or, ‘How will this be perceived by others?’  But the first question we should always ask is, ‘What is the right thing to do?’

Doing what is right in difficult situations in the workplace is a huge challenge.  In the chapter, ‘Tough Decisions’ in his book, ‘God at Work’, Ken Costa writes, ‘There are right and wrong choices ... all the invented terms such as “inappropriate” and “counter-productive” are efforts to avoid the simple ethical fact that there is a right and wrong course of action.’

When facing a difficult pastoral situation those of us in the leadership of the church try to remind ourselves that the first question we have to ask is, ‘What is the right thing to do?’  And then move to the second question, ‘What is the most pastoral way to do it?’

Of course, none of us get it right all the time.  We all make mistakes.  As Ken Costa writes, ‘We don’t always get it right ... we are human and not divine.  And yes, we rejoice in getting judgements right, but let us not forget that we cannot gain experience without making mistakes and taking wrong decisions ... we only grow in wisdom if we learn from our mistakes.  Siegmund Warburg [Ken’s first boss] said on this subject: “Some name it disappointment and become poorer, others name it experience and become richer.” ’

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Prayer and God's presence

Sometimes you come across a quote that just seems to scratch where you itch. Here is one such quote. I have no idea where it comes from:

"To pray is to expand God's presence in our lives."

For years, on and off, I have struggled with prayer swinging from elation to condemnation in equal measures. I started praying with any conviction after my conversion. I was told that that would help sustain my relationship with God and would help me grow as a Christian. Initially it was exciting as God seemed to answer so many of my prayers. Then, just as quickly as it started, the excitement faded and things got tougher. My prayers bounced back at me as soon as I prayed them and it seemed as if God had taken a leave of absence. I kept praying - because that's what I was told to do - but my prayer times became erratic and I found it hard to reach any kind of consistency in the regularity of my quiet times. Condemnation began to creep in and the more I let prayer go the more guilt-ridden I became and therefore the less I prayed.

I did from time to time try to re-ignite my prayer-life as I hopped like a frog from one book of prayer to another. What was the key to a good prayer life? What pattern or shape should I use? When I went to Theological College I said the office - i.e. recited Morning and Evening Prayer plus Compline every day with the rest of the community -  and valued at least the regularity and the discipline of doing so. To this day Compline remains one of my favourite offices usually prayed before sleep. But the formality of using these forms only soon lapsed into a dry recital of words and as the head spoke the words the heart shrivelled up and went into a kind of hibernation.

I did discover the Jesus Prayer during my time there and once again this did kick start my praying for a period of time. The words "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner" seemed to capture my heart's cry for more and I still use it from time to time today. But the busyness of life, children, ministry etc. quietly relegated prayer to the background and it was the same up and down experience I had had from the beginning.

In latter years something has changed.
First, I relaxed a bit more. Occasionally not praying, I discovered, was not a sin. I am a son of my Father and there is now, therefore "no condemnation for all those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1) and I live under grace not under law (Romans 6:14).

Second, I saw that to reduce prayer to a single slot during the day was to risk the danger of making it more of a duty or daily chore than a conversation with the Father. Sure the daily discipline of a regular time with God is a very good thing in the sense that routines and patterns ensure that we continue to do the right or beneficial thing. But once we miss one for whatever reason, to get into guilt or condemnation then renders what we are trying to do as more Law than grace and turns God into a stern taskmaster demanding an audience with his subjugated subject rather than a Father longing to spend time with his son or daughter.

Third, I saw prayer as a much larger thing than a 30 minute slot with Bible study, confession, praise etc.. I noticed that as I drove from one place to another I would turn the radio off and ask God something. Before a funeral service or taking a local assembly I asked God to guide me or inspire me to speak for him. I said grace at meals or offered a quick 'thank you' when I found a parking place or enjoyed some experience. In other words prayer expanded throughout the day and with it a sense of God's presence.

Which is where our quote comes in: "To pray is to expand God's presence in our live." It's true. As prayer passes from a duty into a delight, from a once daily into an all day occurrence, then we realise the truth of God as our constant companion rather than a booked appointment with a doctor.

I must add that I still strive for a quiet time at both ends of the day. But if the morning is only 10-15 minutes and the evening only "Thanks and goodnight God" then that's now okay as there is plenty of time in between to connect with the God who is always near.

So prayer is about enjoying being in the presence of the Father and engaging with him in conversation at every opportunity. And as we do so his presence expands to cover the whole of our lives and not just the 'Sunday slot' first thing in the morning or last thing at night.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Unstoppable Jesus

What is it about getting older that you (by which I mean I) seem to appreciate and listen to children more? If you do you discover that they come up with some wonderfully profound things sometimes. Take  the email I recently received from a grandmother friend of mine who was talking to her 7 year old grandson Charlie. She was looking at his note book where he had drawn a cross with a matchstick man on it with arms outstretches and two short vertical lines through the where the hands would be. So she asked him about it and he said with all the nonchalance in the world. "That's Jesus on the Cross. Do you know Grandma, I didn't realise Jesus was unstoppable"

What a great line! Well done Charlie. That is a great summary of the Easter story. Jesus was going to finish his work and nothing would stop him. Not the cross, the shame, the suffering or the most powerful nation on earth nor the devil and all his angels.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Christians give

What makes the Dead Sea dead? Because it is all the time receiving, never giving out anything. Why is it that many Christians are cold? Because they are all the time receiving, never giving out anything.

Not dead but alive

Used the following today at the funeral of a Christian lady from my last parish:

Moody once said to a friend, "Someday you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody of Northfield is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. "At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone higher, that is all--out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal, a body that sin cannot touch, that sin cannot taint, a body fashioned like His glorious body. I was born in the flesh in 1837; I was born of the Spirit in 1856. That which is born of the flesh may die; that which is born of the Spirit will live forever."

Friday, 15 March 2013

Grace alone

"The humble following of Christ, and the power of His grace alone can transform our lives, for if you rely on your own reasoning and ability rather than on the transforming power of Jesus Christ, you will seldom and only slowly attain wisdom. For God wills that we become perfectly obedient to Him, and that we rise above cold reason on the wings of a burning love or Him."
Thomas a Kempis: Imitation of Christ page 15

Unanswered Prayer

Books have been written about why God does not answer prayer, or why He answers some prayers and not others. The best response I have read however is this one sentence from St. Isaac the Syrian:

'If God is slow in answering your request, or if you ask but do not promptly receive anything, do not be upset, for you are not wiser than God.'
(Wisdom of St Isaac the Syrian, 5; ed. S. Brock, p. 1.)

Easter Thought for the Day

I have recently been asked to provide a short Easter message to be recorded for the Talking Book for the Blind. So here, for what it's worth, it is:

As we have just recently learnt of the election of a new pope—Pope Francis 1st—I thought it appropriate to quote one of his predecessors Pope John Paul II. He once said:

“Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are the Easter people and allelujah is our song.”

What Pope John Paul II is talking about here is summed up in one simple word. 'Hope'. What would we do without it? Fiodr Dostoevsky the great 19th century Russian novelist agreed and wrote that “to live without hope is to cease to live.” But where do we find hope in the world today?

Certainly the great financial institutions which once promised us much—and lent us still more—now demonstrate all too accurately the truthfulness of Jesus’ teaching where he warned that if we store up treasures on earth then there’s is always the danger that they will get eaten away whether by “moth or rust” - or this case the deep dark hole which is the current recession.

And what about successive governments and political promises? All too often these are as empty as so many bank accounts here and elsewhere.

No. Hope must rest on something more substantial, more trustworthy, more enduring and less self-serving. Enter Jesus. He once said: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

As words on a page it is easy to consign them to the past. To the days where those feet did in ancient time walk upon the earth. In the flesh they perhaps made more sense for there was Jesus—larger than life, gentle, caring and compassionate, with a love that left no-one out of its embrace. And a presence that said all these things and more. But now? All that is surely gone? Snuffed out and ended before it really got going. And if he stayed dead—then his word and his promises would indeed be as empty as the cross from which his blood stained body was lifted and laid gently and reverently in a borrowed tomb.

But now we have Easter and the Christian message that you can’t keep a good man down—still less the Son of God. For on the third day he rose again and appeared to some weeping women. And then a group of his disciples and finally, according to Paul, to 500 brethren all at one time.

So the Jesus of the past has now become the Jesus of the present. And through his resurrection he is with us now.

So whenever we feel the creeping despair of living in a time when the ground seems no longer safe beneath our feet, remember Jesus. And put your hope in him.

“Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are the Easter people and allelujah is our song.”

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Erasing Hell

Toning down the Gospel

As I reread the Gospel passages, Jesus' words are much harsher than I remember. There's a tone in some of the things that he said that are really difficult to stomach, and he says things in a way that I would not have. Because we in America read certain passages over and over to the neglect of others, we start to believe that Jesus had a friendly tone all the time. And that there isn't any wrath or anger or judgment. When you read it all like you are reading it for the first time, you walk away going, "Wow, he was pretty hardcore."

Here's what I had to repent of: I had felt the need to soften a lot of Jesus' statements, because in my arrogance I think, "Okay Jesus, I'm not going to say that like that. Trust me, people will like you more and be more willing to accept you if I say it like this." Obviously I've never said that to God. But that's the attitude I've taken, and it made me sick. Who in the heck do I think I am? To think that I can make God more palatable or attractive if I try and change the tone in which he says some things. I know people say, "Well it's just cultural this or that." That's garbage. People back then had a much deeper reverence for God than we do. Especially the religious community. Yet it's to those people whom he speaks so harshly.What in the world would he say to us today? I don't think it'd be a softer message.
Francis Chan in an interview about his book Erasing Hell


The following is another interview, this time with Nicky Gumbel himself where he talks about evangelism.

Living the questions

The following is a fascinating interview with Professor Ravi Zacharias at Holy Trinity, Bromton Anglican Church in London by Nicky Gumbel, the Vicar there. In it Ravi and Nicky address many important issues facing the Christian Church today, not least the challenge of the New Atheists.

Contemplative Prayer

I am a great believer in the riches of the Christian Church when it comes to the different forms of prayer that are available to us. From silence to vocal prayer, contemplation to biblical meditation, keeping a spiritual journal to the Jesus Prayer there are so many tried and tested ways into prayer. Here part of a post from a Roman catholic website about contemplative prayer:

"Instead of motivational talks or even a wardrobe overhaul, contemplative prayer is the sure-fire cure to insecurity, says a Carmelite nun. “Young people today are very insecure. If you do silent prayer, you will become [secure] little by little… You find very deep peace,” Sr. Mary Niere, OCD said in a talk to Couples for Christ leaders last February 10.

She talked about her own personal experiences of struggles with anxiety and the need for appreciation, which surfaced even more after entering the Carmelite convent in Zamboanga City at 18. “I was bi-polar… I wanted to commit suicide, but I would go to contemplative prayer. That was the only thing that saved me,” Sr. Mary explained. The more insecure a person is, the more “God can fill [the person] up.”

The prevailing drug problem among young people is a testament to the mounting insecurities of an entire generation, Sr. Mary explained. “That is why they are taking drugs. When they go back to reality, they are lost,” she said. Far from being complicated, conjuring up images of levitating nuns and monks, Christian contemplation can be done by anyone. According to Sr. Mary, anyone with the time and the willingness to keep still can do contemplative prayer.

Here are some easy steps for beginners to contemplation outlined by Sr. Mary:

A person starts by sitting upright with the back straight.

With closed eyes, the person listens to sounds around them, without analyzing them.

They then focus of their breathing.

As they breathe in and out, they repeat the word “Jesus” in their mind.

When they notice being distracted by thoughts about work or what needs doing praying, just go back to the word “Jesus”.

A beginner can do this initially for 5 minutes everyday, then 10 minutes, 30 minutes and so on, after a certain regularity of the prayer time is established.

It is at this time of quiet prayer that God addresses and “processes” a person’s deep-seated issues that even they may not be aware of, Sr. Mary said.

Pope Gregory I (c. 540 – 12 March 604)

The following was written and delivered yesterday morning before the announcement that Pope Francis 1 was to become the next Pope.

Pope Gregory is known in English as Gregory the Great He was pope from 3 September 590 until his death in 604. Throughout the Middle Ages he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his
extended revision of Church’s worship of his day. (Note: changing the church services is something that has gone on from the beginning—it's not new!)

He was the first of the popes to come from a monastic background and is considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, and some Lutheran churches. Immediately after his death, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim. The Protestant reformer John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope. He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.

Gregory’s name in Latin means “watchful” and his biographers say that from his earliest days he “was very diligent (watchful of) in God’s commandments” and with a deep respect for the monastic life. On his father's death, he converted his family villa into a monastery dedicated to the apostle Saint Andrew.  In his life of contemplation, Gregory concluded that:

 “in that silence of the heart, while we keep watch within through contemplation, we are as if asleep to all things that are without."

This does not mean that contemplation is an escape from the world - those who are truly contemplative are usually the most active in helping the poor etc - but that they are most alert to God and most dead to sin.

In 579, Pope Pelagius II chose Gregory as his ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. It was a difficult role to play given the political situation at the time and after six years in service Gregory left Constantinople for Rome in 585, returning to his monastery.  He was elected by popular acclamation to succeed Pelagius II in 590, when the latter died of the plague spreading through the city.

Gregory very unwillingly accepted. He wanted to return to monastic life but was forced back into a world that, although he loved it, he no longer wanted to be a part of. He bemoaned the burden of office and mourned the loss of the undisturbed life of prayer he had once enjoyed as a monk. When he became Pope in 590, among his first acts was writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the monks.

But as soon as he became pope he went to work and mission was one of his priorities. In the midst of all his burdens and anxieties, it seems that Gregory had never forgotten the English slaves whom he had once seen in the Roman Forum and described as having the appearance of "angels not angles". Pope Gregory had strong convictions on missions. He once wrote:

"Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects. And this we find to be the case with the British over whom you have been appointed to rule, that through the blessings bestowed on you the blessings of heaven might be bestowed on your people also.”

Gregory was credited with re-energizing the Church's missionary work among the non-Christian peoples of northern Europe. He is most famous for sending a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew's where he had perhaps succeeded Gregory, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The preaching of the faith was a major priority for Gregory and remained a central focus of his pontificate. He was declared a saint immediately after his death again by "popular acclamation".

In his liturgical revisions he introduced Western plainchant—later called Gregorian chant—into the services. He is the only Pope between the 5th and 11th centuries whose writings have survived in large numbers including sermons, a commentary on Job and some 854 letters.

He was well known for his concern and provision for the poor in Rome and his many good deeds earned him the love and devotion of his people.

As we wait for the election of a new Pope to lead the 1.5 Billion Roman Catholics there are a few important features in Gregory's ministry and emphasis that need to be reflected in the new pope:

1. Humility—like Jesus Gregory saw himself as a servant of others. He coined the phrase: "Servant of the Servants of God" (servus servorum Dei) as a papal title and it is a practice that has been followed by most subsequent popes. But it is not the wording that is important but the attitude that goes with it.  Will the new pope be a humble man?
2. Bible—Gregory once wrote: "For the love of ...(God) I do not spare myself from His Word." Integral to the life of any monastic is reading and reflection (meditation) on the Word, the Bible. Gregory displayed a deep understanding and love of the Scriptures and encouraged others to do so. It is mainly through the Scriptures that we encounter God and, to quote St. Jerome, "Ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of God." How can you love someone if you ignore what they say?
3. Mission and evangelism— sharing the message of the Gospel by any and every means. As we saw earlier Gregory had a heart for mission. If the Gospel is Good News then keeping it to oneself is utter selfishness and an act of dangerous disobedience. Jesus' last words to the disciples was for them to "Go, and make disciples of all nations...." (Matthew 28:19ff). Jesus died for the sins of the world and calls His church to preach a "message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins" based on his death and resurrection, to whoever will listen (Luke 24:47ff).
4. Communication - Gregory saw the value not only in words and music in communicating the faith but once wrote: “Illiterate men can contemplate in the lines of a picture what they cannot learn by means of the written word." As the Church begins to interact with the society in which we live it needs to embrace the more positive aspects of technology and be unafraid to use modern media - PowerPoint, social networking etc - to try and get its message across.

So Pope Gregory is a wonderful model for the new pope to follow. Let's pray that he is up to the task.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Fully Alive

I was struck by the following poem which is a call to action - to seize the day. As someone once said "Faith is spelled R.I.S.K, which is what Abraham did when he left Harran and set out for the Promised Land.

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

fully alive - dawna markova
© Dawna Markova

Reflections on Luke 24:45-49

Here are some of my recent reflections on Luke 24:45-49 which build upon my other recent posts on the Holy Spirit. I hope they may be of interest of others who are looking for answers to the current crisis facing Christianity in the UK in general and in Wales in particular.

First a fascinating quote from an article in The Times on Saturday 9th March given by Professor Mona Siddiqui, the first Muslim professor in Islamic and Interreligious Studies in Edinburgh. She quotes a line of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke in her advice to her 18-year old son:

"Live the questions." And added: "People are in such a rush to get the answers we don't live the questions. We don't dwell, we don't linger, we don't think."

It's a superb quote which really sums up today's Christian culture where we are so worried about decline and so concerned to find the answer that we are rushing headlong without pausing to consider what questions are being raised by the situation we are in, and possibly, what God Himself is asking. If pain is God's megaphone  to a deaf world - to quote C.S.Lewis - then maybe decline is God's megaphone to a deaf Church?

So it is in the interests of trying to "live the questions" that I want to look at Luke 24:45-53 and some of the final words and instructions of Jesus delivered to his disciples before his ascension back into heaven.

I came across this quote the other day given by Nicky Gumbel in a sermon which really struck me and has stayed with me ever since and which open up the passage from Luke 24 for us. He said:
“In the Holy Spirit you have all you need to change the world.”

That may well be the predominant thought that lies behind Jesus’ words in Luke 24:45-53 where he prepares them for the arrival of the Spirit - which he has described as the helper in John 14:16.
Here is what is written:

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Here are a few of my reflections on the passage:

1. Note verse 45 (and 25-27) “He opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures”.
Two things struck me here:
First, there is a level of understanding of the scriptures that requires supernatural assistance if we are to grasp what they say about the things of God. We all know that from 1 Corinthians 2:6ff. Here Paul talks about God’s “secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden”  (verse 7)  and which requires the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to reveal them to us. In verse 14: “The person without the Spirit does not accept” them “because they are spiritually discerned”.
Second, this opening is God’s sovereign action. “he opened their minds so they could understand”. That initiative seems to come from Jesus. Without his action here and on the road to Emmaus the disciples would have remained ignorant.
Third, does this mean there is nothing on our part that either we can do or is present which God looks for as he decides to help us understand?

This is where an obscure and difficult passage of the Old Testament may be of help in asking the question. It concerns Pharoah at the time of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt: "But the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses."(Exodus 9:12)

I have often wondered about the unfairness of that action by God when I read somewhere that it wasn't God taking a soft heart and hardening it, but rather God taking an already hardened heart, one that was already closed to God, and hardening it still more in order to achieve his purposes. How accurate that is - and it certainly makes sense to me - it can perhaps help us to understand Jesus' actions in verse 45. It was not that the minds of the disciples were closed and God had to force them open. It was that their minds were already open a little and Jesus opened them more so that they fully understand what the Scriptures said.!

2. verse 47 “...repentance and forgiveness of sins (based on Jesus’ death and resurrection) will be preached in his (Christ’s name) to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” 

The message is almost a one-liner and we find it reoccurring with monotonous regularity in Acts 2:22-38, 3:11-24; 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 10:34-43 and so on and later in Romans, 1 Corinthians 2:1-4 etc..

Is that where we are maybe dumbing down the message of the Gospel by playing too much to the 'audience'? In our anxiety to be accessible, relevant and up to date are we selling out what Jesus did and wants us to share?

Now don't get me wrong I believe that the Bible is always relevant and has something to say to every culture, but there is a whole lot of difference in 'translating' it into a language and culture which communicates and changing the message to suit the culture and the context. We are to preach a repentance and forgiveness of sins that is very much glued to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Any other context and we are stepping outside our remit.

Starting at Jerusalem. Why? Several possible reasons:
First, because that is where they were. You can only start where you are not where you think you should be. I am as guilty of anyone else thinking “if only we had a better well-heated church, better seating, more Christians, a better Sunday school etc.. But that is not where we are. We are 'here' - with all the various shortcomings that make a church welcoming and comfortable etc - not 'there' where all those things are not issues..
Second, that is what they were most familiar with. The people, language, surroundings etc.. You can learn to swim at the deep end but you can also get used to the water first and slide in gently. Jesus was asking them to start in familiar surroundings before striking off into the 'deep' of world mission.
Third, perhaps the most important thing of all. Jesus told them to "stay in the city” (verse 49)  As followers of Jesus obedience was/is paramount. And so is trust. It was not the time to ask questions - although the disciples did (Acts 1:6). Jesus had his reasons. Besides you can serve while waiting and refraining from the sort of hyperactivity that is surely a sign of a Church that has totally lost its confident and is fooling itself into thinking that doing something is always a sign of 'life'.

In fact I sense that this is somehow really important. It's one of those things that you feel is an essential part of what God is saying here but I can't yet formulate or discern why. It's like trying to recall a half-remembered phrase of a tune or folding your mind around a glimpse of a memory.

When I was considering the ministry and was fed up waiting all the time my Vicar Rev David Jenkins wisely quoted the blind poet Milton to me: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Was Milton thinking of Pentecost or this passage? Is it possible that there is real danger in our busy world that we only see “doing” and “activity” as godly work. Or does waiting—as with silence—have as much to teach us about going forward as actual work? Is it in stopping - as in questioning - that God is really able to work in us?

3. verse 48 “You are witnesses of these things”.  The word witness is ‘martyr’ and is someone who has seen something and is not afraid to tell the truth even if it means losing his/her life or reputation. That is an interesting idea as the thing Jesus has asked us to bear witness too is, to the world with its scientists and philosophers, “foolish” or nonsensical. (Paul’s encounter with philosophers in Athens Acts 17:16-34).

The phrase "these things" surely refers back to verse 46 Jesus' death and resurrection. But how can we be witnesses of "these things" today? First, I think, as an act of solidarity with the first Christians. Their truth is our truth and the tradition of their experience has been handed down to us over the years and is not made any less credible or truthful by the intervening centuries. Truth is truth. Second, Jesus' death and resurrection become, by faith, real to our own experience. Isn't that what Paul is referring to here in 1 Corinthians 4:10:
"We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body." And here in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." It's interesting to note therefore that the authenticity of Paul's witness to "these things" was never questioned either by believer or non-believer.

4. “stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  (verse 49)
Why "clothed with power" and not filled with the Holy Spirit? (See Ephesians 5:17-18 (3:19) Here is where a little Greek - and I don't mean Stavros- will help. The word for "clothed" or "endued" means
literally “sinking into a garment”. That is wearing clothes that you know are there—because you experience them—but also are so comfortable that they are part of you. I may be carrying this a little far but it seems to me that the idea is of being given something that will be part and parcel of everyday living - like the clothes you wear - rather than a once off occurrence. This is in contrast to the Old Testament prophets etc who were given the Spirit for one-off tasks like prophecy or creative work. Here Jesus is referring to the clothing of the Spirit as a daily experience which will become part of our normal living, day to day experience and will be as essential and necessary as clothing.

I am sure I have just touched the tip of the iceberg here and there is, no doubt, much more that could be said. However the upshot is the question: "How near are we to what Jesus commanded us to do and led us to expect to receive? Now that is one question we need to live for a little while.

Faith and Weakness

John Stott was one of the great Christian leaders of the twentieth century.  On one occasion he was speaking at a university mission in Sydney, Australia.  On the last night of the mission he was thinking of pulling out of speaking since, as a result of an infection, he had virtually lost his voice.

Eventually, he was persuaded to speak nevertheless.  Waiting in the side room beforehand, he whispered a request that the words of the ‘thorn in the flesh’ verses from 2 Corinthians 12 be read to him.  The conversation between Jesus and Paul came alive.

Paul: ‘I beg you to take it away from me.’
Jesus: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’
Paul: ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me … for when I am weak, then I am strong.’

John Stott records what happened: ‘When the time came for the address, all I can say is that I croaked the gospel through the microphone in a monotone.  I was utterly unable to modulate my voice or exert my personality in any way.  But all the while I was crying to the Lord to fulfil his promise to perfect his power through my weakness.’

He went back to Australia seven or eight times after that, and on every occasion somebody came up to him and said, ‘Do you remember that final service in the University Great Hall, when you had lost your voice?  I came to Christ that night.’

Friday, 8 March 2013

How Chesterton says Jesus regarded children

One of my favourite writers is the Roman Catholic writer G.K.Chesterton (1874-1936). Here is a short piece about his love for children taken from the blog "Anglican Curmudgeon" (click here):

All his life he showed a love for children and the joys of childhood. Although he and his wife Frances were unable to have any of their own, they regularly entertained neighbours' and friends' children. Frances wrote poems and plays (especially Christmas plays) for them to read and to perform, which are still delightful today. G.K. wrote poems and made drawings of fantastical creatures for them, and loved to get down on his knees and play with them, as well. (One enthusiastic child startled his parents afterward with this report: "You should have been there to see Mister C. catch buns in his mouth!")

The foregoing serves as background and an introduction to a remarkable observation which G. K. Chesterton makes about Jesus' attitude towards children, as notably described in each of the three synoptic Gospels, for instance, in Mark chapter 10:10:13 Now people were bringing little children to him for him to touch, but the disciples scolded those who brought them. 10:14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 10:15 I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” 10:16 After he took the children in his arms, he placed his hands on them and blessed them. (See also Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17.)

Chesterton, like no earlier commentator of whom I am aware, points out just how remarkable these sentiments were for Jesus' time and place. No one in the first century would have understood, or even have been capable of imagining, how children could possibly be superior to adults -- especially in matters of religion. In chapter 3 of Part II of The Everlasting Man, Chesterton writes:

The exaltation of childhood is something which we do really understand; but it was by no means a thing that was then in that sense understood. If we wanted an example of the originality of the Gospels we could hardly take a stronger or more startling one. Nearly two thousand years afterwards we happen to find ourselves in a mood that does really feel the mystical charm of the child; we express it in romances and regrets about childhood, in Peter Pan or The Child's Garden of Verses. And we can say of the words of Christ with so angry an anti-Christian as Swinburne:-

'No sign that ever was given
To faithful or faithless eyes
Showed ever beyond clouds riven
So clear a paradise.
Earth's creeds may be seventy times seven
And blood have defiled each creed,
But if such be the kingdom of heaven
It must be heaven indeed.'

But that paradise was not clear until Christianity had gradually cleared it. The pagan world, as such, would not have understood any such thing as a serious suggestion that a child is higher or holier than a man. It would have seemed like the suggestion that a tadpole is higher or holier than a frog. To the merely rationalistic mind, it would sound like saying that a bud must be more beautiful than a flower or that an unripe apple must be better than a ripe one. In other words, this modern feeling is an entirely mystical feeling. It is quite as mystical as the cult of virginity; in fact it is the cult of virginity. But pagan antiquity had much more idea of the holiness of the virgin than of the holiness of the child. For various reasons we have come nowadays to venerate children, perhaps partly because we envy children for still doing what men used to do; such as play simple games and enjoy fairy-tales. Over and above this, however, there is a great deal of real and subtle psychology in our appreciation of childhood; but if we turn it into a modern discovery, we must once more admit that the historical Jesus of Nazareth had already discovered it two thousand years too soon. There was certainly nothing in the world around him to help him to the discovery. Here Christ was indeed human; but more human than a human being was then likely to be. Peter Pan does not belong to the world of Pan but the world of Peter.

This is just one of the ways, Chesterton notes, in which Jesus spoke for all times, and not just as a man of his own time and place. And for just such a reason, he concludes, we may know that Jesus was (and is) "the way, the truth, and the life."

God forgives. And forgets

Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Catholic archbishop of Manila who played a key role in the People Power revolution there, liked to tell the story of a woman who attended his weekly audience to inform him she had a been having visions and conversations with the Virgin Mary. He brushed her off several times, but she kept coming back. Finally he said, ‘We Catholics have strict rules governing visions and message from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask the Virgin Mother to ask her son Jesus about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask Our Lady and she tells you the answer, I’ll know your vision is genuine.’

“The next week she returned and he quizzed her, a bit nervously, ‘Well, did you ask Our Lady to ask her Son about my sin?’ ‘I did’ she replied. ‘And did she answer?’ he asked.  ‘Yes’ she responded. ‘What did she say?’ ‘She said that Jesus said that he couldn't remember.’

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Selah - Pausing and Thinking

I'm sorry but I have had to change my blog title yet again as I discovered recently that the old one - like the ones before - was already in use. So to avoid confusion I have changed it - for what i hope will be the last time - to Selah - Pause and Think.

Why? Selah (Hebrew: סֶלָה‎, also transliterated as selāh) is a word used 74 times in the Hebrew Bible – 71 times in the Psalms and 3 times in Habakkuk – and is a difficult concept to translate. It is probably either a liturgico-musical mark or an instruction on the reading of the text, something like "stop and listen". Selah can also be used to indicate that there is to be a musical interlude at that point in the Psalm. The Amplified Bible translates selah as "pause, and think of that".

So the blog is me pausing and thinking of various things from a Christian perspective in the hope that others will join me too.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Led by the Spirit?

Following on - a little - from the last post and Roland Allen's observation that Paul had no preconceived plans and only went where the Spirit led has set me to thinking about our own present predicament in the Church.

First I think it is a mistake to look at the Bible as a book on how to do mission. Not that it does not contain valuable teaching and principles on the subject. Basically in regards to mission it may tell us how God did it then but not how to do it now. For that every generation has to go to God and ask that question again and again. If Jesus has given us his Spirit as the Father promised then we must not substitute what is past and from another time and context for going to that same Spirit ourselves and doing what He tells us.

Second, that was the whole point of Jesus telling the disciples to wait for the Spirit before they did anything. Not just because they needed the power, but because they needed the guidance. In fact in one of the key passages from John's Gospel (Chapter 14) where Jesus talks about the work of the Spirit, much of it is about him teaching, counselling or helping and representing Jesus (John 14:16-26) whom the disciples followed, literally, during his earthly ministry.

Third, in the Old Testament God tells us that:
“ thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Clearly there is a disparity between God's ways and our ways which, unless he reveals them to us, we will always be trying to do things our way rather than his.

Isn't that what the Church is trying to do when it tries to find ways of attracting people within its doors?

Fourth, even Jesus in his humanity relied on God showing him what to do. In John's Gospel he says:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me."  (John 5:19-20, 30)

Are we more capable than Jesus? Are we less needy? It appears so for we try and do things ourselves relying on our own human inventiveness and ingenuity. It is interesting to note too that Jesus' promise to do greater things than he is not greater miracles - we cannot rise form the dead - but greater in terms of scale and number. But that depends on whether we too, like him, express the same reliance on God.

The point I am trying to make is that we have not yet tried very hard to find out what God wants us to do other than in some general sense i.e. love everyone, preach the Gospel etc. We have not tried total reliance on God or throwing ourselves completely on his mercy. We have not tried inquiring of the Lord. We pray - certainly - but only asking God to bless what we have already come up with. We ask God for success but only for our schemes and ideas or our (biblical) educated guesses on how to grow a church or reach a difficult neighbourhood.  But has God actually showed us or told us how? And would we recognise if he did?
Clearly Jesus expected this to be the Church's course of action and the book of Acts is testimony to the fact that they very much relied on God telling them what to do or where to go. But over the centuries the Church lost the art of listening and when it became powerful and wielded influence and authority over the countries in which it operated, it stopped listening to God and relied on its own very human and very worldly resources. Which is why we find ourselves in a mess in the West today. We are reaping what we have longed sowed and as the Church slows down and begins to grind to a halt it is beginning to see the poverty of its past existence as the spiritual emptiness of its ceremonies and traditions etc becomes all too apparent. This is what happens when you substitute hard work for hard listening. When you do rather than pray. When you lead rather than be led.

Now I may be wrong and chasing shadows. Besides how can I prove that this line of thinking is right and my interpretation correct? One thing. It is hard. That is why I think I am right. If it was easy and a sort of short cut to instant success then I would be wary. It is because it is hard and I don't know how to do it - how can you actually find out what God wants you to specifically to do - that I believe that this is what God wants of us. It is the only way that makes sense of Jesus' insistence that nothing progresses until the Spirit comes to show the way. It is only way that resurrection can be so positively reinforced in the churches' life in relation to life rather than just to death and sin. It is the only way the Church can live and not die, grow and not shrink, give glory to God rather than grasp it all itself.

Roland Allen

I have been listening to a sermon by Nicky Gumbel, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton recently and in it he recommends a book he was reading called "Missionary Methods, St. Paul's or Ours" by Roland Allen an Anglican priest who served oversees in China and Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The premise of the book  - written in the early 1900's - is that we need to go back and look more closely at St. Paul's ministry and methods and learn the lessons he left us and which were so successful then. Allen conjectures that we have so overlaid mission with all kinds of institutional prerequisites, ceremonies and an imposed western understandings of church and Christianity that the failure to take into consideration the different context in which the Gospel was preached has led to a weak indigenous church and a poor model for further mission and growth.

In the introduction written by Henry Madras (a bishop from India?) he sums up St. Paul's methods and principles as follows:

1, He had no preconceived plan of campaign but went where the Spirit led, seeking for open doors and choosing the centres most suitable for the gathering of converts and the propagation of the faith. He definitely aimed at converting men and women.
2. Then he planted churches which rapidly became self-supporting and self-governing. In about 6 months he founded the church, taught the converts the necessary elements of the faith, ordained a ministry and made provision for the administration of baptism and Holy Communion before moving on.
3. In his teaching Paul was content to lay simple and strong foundations. There was no elaborate teaching. In terms of discipline he strove to inspire a spirit not to enforce a law.
4. Then lastly his ideal of unity was essentially spiritual and not based on organisation but on life. There is no centralized organization or expected obedience to a common authority but "by the power of one spirit and one life."

But what do we know of Allen himself? Here is a brief outline of his life:
He was born in Bristol, England, the son of an Anglican priest; but was orphaned early in life. He trained for ministry at Oxford and became a priest in 1893. He spent two periods in Northern China working for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The first from 1895 to 1900 ended due to the Boxer Rebellion. After a period back in England, he returned to North China in 1902, but was forced home due to illness. These ‘early experiences led him to a radical reassessment of his own vocation and the theology and missionary methods of the Western churches’.

Allen became an early advocate of establishing Churches which from the beginning would be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing, adapted to local conditions and not merely imitations of Western Christianity. These views were confirmed by a trip to India in 1910 and by later research in Canada and East Africa. It is with this background that Allen wrote his book Missionary Methods (above) which was first published in 1912.

Allen’s approach to Mission strategy for indigenous Churches is based on the study of Saint Paul’s missionary methods as he is convinced that in them can be found the solution to most of the difficulties of the day. He believed it was the recognition of the church as a local entity and trust in the Holy Spirit’s indwelling within the converts and churches which was the mark of Paul’s success. In contrast was Allen’s belief that the people of his day were unable to entrust their converts to the Holy Spirit and instead relied in His work through them.

His views became increasingly influential, though Allen himself became disillusioned with the established churches. He spent the last years of his life in Kenya. Near the end of his life Allen wrote The Family Rite. In this essay Allen advocates that the family again becomes the centre of the Christian church and its ministry. Allen died in Nairobi.

I note from this account several things of interest:
First his experience at the coal face where he saw what worked or more appropriately what did not work.
2. He, like Paul, believed that God is a missionary God and that our work is to follow where he leads rather than vice versa. The leading of the Spirit is key to this.
3. He became disillusioned with the established church. This last point is a pertinent one for me as I have heard recently of two fairly newly ordained priests who have left the Church in Wales, disillusioned with the confining and stultifying restrictions of the Church in Wales and its obsession with form and ceremony. In addition one other young priest of my acquaintance is suffering from the same degree of frustration. All he wants to do is preach and share the gospel but his church is singularly ill-equipped to do so and, worse, is so in love with High Church paraphernalia that it is killing faith, both its own and his.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Liturgy - friend or foe

I was clearing out the junk on my computer the other day and I came across an article I had written in the Parish Magazine from my previous parish. Clearly I was going through a rough patch there as I tried to change things in the liturgy (prescribed order of service) which I thought had become a little dry and stale. There were, as I remember, a few complaints from some members of the congregation and I was writing the article to try and explain the right place of the order of service. For what its worth - even if it is just to remind me - here it is:

"There’s an old saying which says that fire is a good servant but a bad master. Why? Because as long as it is under control fire warms,  cooks your food and heats your house. Out of control however we all know what destruction and devastation it can cause. The same can be said of liturgy i.e. the order of services we use for Holy Communion. There are those who think that you should not tamper with what is written but use it all from start to finish, from the opening: “In the name of the Father…” to the ending:
“go in peace to love and serve the Lord” and all the bits in between including the creed. But I want to argue that that is not really the function of liturgy. The function of the liturgy is a means to an end—the end being the worship of God—and not an end in itself. In other words the liturgy is meant to serve us as we worship God and NOT become an object of worship i.e. an idol, of itself. To borrow the above analogy, it is to be servant not master.

As a servant it can achieve great things for the people of God ensuring that God is the focus and not self, protecting us against the kind of self-indulgence which is the bane of so many non-liturgical churches. I see liturgy as the railway lines that keep the train (the faith) travelling in the right direction and the right way up! So as a tool in the hands of priest and people it can bring us closer to God and create a sense of awe and wonder, joy and praise. As the object of worship itself however it can damn us to a form of empty ritualism that is formal, dry and empty. It can just as easily lead us away from God as it can lead us to God. Worship becomes something that is done, making sure that all the boxes are ticked, rather than something that draws us into God’s presence, awakening our spiritual senses and touching and softening our hearts to love God.

A case in point is a service at St. Peter’s on July 10th (2011) where I preached about the Parable of the Sower. After the sermon closed with a prayer, the sense of God’s presence was, for me, palpable and so to break ‘the spell’ by introducing the Creed at that point would have been irresponsible and crass. So I went with the flow and straight into the prayers, taking advantage of the hush that had fallen on the church as God moved among us.

My role as minister/priest is not to make worship too mechanical or rigid. It is meant to be full of curves not straight lines. God is a person and to relate to him like a machine is irreverent and wrong and leads, as is quite clearly the case across Anglicanism today, to deadness and morbidity. I hope that those who think things should be done by the book will understand that my calling is not to just ‘say’ the whole service, but to try to lead worship in a way that is sensitive to the movement of the Spirit.

This requires a certain amount of trust between people and priest. Trust that the priest knows what he is doing, has a certain amount of experience in his area of expertise and training, and is thus able to lead worship as he thinks is right and appropriate to each individual occasion. Without that trust it is difficult, if not impossible, to function properly, as the very integrity of the priest is being called into question.

So next time part of the service is left out or we use other prayers, collects or a different service pattern, please understand that I am doing it for the right reasons, in order to keep things from getting stale, impersonal, cold and routine. Our expectation every service should be that we come to meet our Father. The liturgy—depending on how it is used—can either help or hinder that."

Since writing the above I back-peddled after a mini-rebellion by a small group of members made Sunday mornings a very uncomfortable experience and within a year I left for my present parish. Did that play a part in me leaving? Yes and no. A very definite 'no' because I believe that God called me to St. James and that was the only reason I left after 13 years. But there is a tiny bit of 'yes' too as leaving was made that bit easier knowing that I could not take them much further as evidenced by the opposition/resistance of the more vocal few.

More on conversion

Following on from my last post the idea - and necessity - of conversion is not new. First and foremost it is in the bible and secondly it comes from Jesus himself where he tells a startled religious teacher Nicodemus that unless he is "born again (from above)" (John 3:3) he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But it is also in the early church. Here is Basil of Caesarea a 4th century bishop and saint writing to baptism candidates (remember they were adults who came forward to be baptised). He writes:

"How then shall we become like him (Jesus) in his death? By having been buried with him through baptism. But how does this burial take place? What benefit has this initiation?

First of all one must break with one' life of the past. This is impossible, unless one is born again, as the Lord said. For regeneration, as is evident from the word itself, is the beginning of a second life. Consequently, before beginning this second life, we must bring the first to an end. As in the double course (where the competitors must run to the turning point and back to the start again) a halt, a brief respite separates the outward run and the return, so also for a change of life it seemed necessary that death intervene between the two lives, to make an end of all that went before and a beginning of all that follows."
St. Basil: On the Holy Spirit

We have lost this very important aspect of the Christian life where people are challenged to make a new beginning in life - symbolised by baptism - where they die to the past and begin a new life with Christ. I know the phrase "born-again" is much maligned, misused and misunderstood, but it belongs to Jesus who wants it to belong to us and the church. And he is pretty categorical about it too. For unless we are "born-again" we will miss out on something pretty important. Nothing less than the Kingdom of God.

Converted and know it?

My mind has been dwelling much on my own conversion recently and how far away I was from God beforehand even though I attended Church, had been baptised and confirmed, helped lead the Church Youth Club and was a Sunday School leader! Until the moment God became as real as those of my own family I was not the least use to Him. But once he stepped out of the shadows then my life changed. In the words of Archbishop William Temple: "Unless a man (or woman of course) is converted and knows it, he is not the slightest use to God." It was only as God became real in my life that I started to serve Him in whatever way I could.

It reminds me of the story of Charles Spurgeon who became one of our greatest preachers. Here it isSpurgeon was converted Jan., 1850, at the age of 15, at Colchester; gave his first Gospel address at Faversham when he was 16, and for thirty years declared almost weekly, to audiences numbering five or six thousand, the glorious Gospel of the blessed God; millions of his sermons have been scattered in all parts of the world. He quietly passed from Mentone to Heaven, Sunday, January 31, 1892. Here is his description of what happened in his own words:

"I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair now, had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning, when I was going to a place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a court and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there might be a dozen or fifteen people. The minister did not come that morning: snowed up, I suppose. A poor man, a shoemaker, a tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had nothing else to say. The text was, 'Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.' He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter.

"There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in the text. He began thus: 'My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, "Look." Now that does not take a deal of effort. It ain't lifting your foot or your finger; it is just "look." Well, a man need not go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man need not be worth a thousand a year to look. Anyone can look; a child can look. But this is what the text says. Then it says, "Look unto Me." 'Ay,' said he, in broad Essex, 'many of ye are looking to yourselves. No use looking there. You'll never find comfort in yourselves.' Then the good man followed up his text in this way: 'Look unto Me: I am sweating great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hanging on the Cross. Look: I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend; I am sitting at the Father's right hand. O, look to Me! Look to Me!' When he had got about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes, he was at the length of his tether.

"Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say  with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. He then said, 'Young man, you look very miserable.' Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made on my personal appearance from the pulpit before. However, it was a good blow struck. He continued: 'And you will always be miserable — miserable in life and miserable in death — if you do not obey my text. But if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.'

"Then he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist can, 'Young man, look to Jesus Christ.' There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that moment and sung with the most enthusiastic of them of the Precious Blood of Christ."

Pondering my own experience and Spurgeon's - and many others - the question naturally arises, "how many people in church are worshipping week in and week out and have never been truly converted to Christ?"  If it happened to me there is a good chance it is happening to others. Obviously you must not judge others on this as you may get it wrong, but I have been around people long enough and I know my own heart well enough to guess that there are fairly significant numbers.

Jesus knew something of this experience himself i.e. a preponderance of religious rather than true believers. He always said of his own ministry that he was sent first to the lost house of Israel, and for three years he preached and taught mostly within it, amongst the 'chosen people' of God. Why? Because there is no one so lost sometimes who thinks they are safe.

He also spoke about the presence of weeds among the wheat of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13:24-30). How many weeds are there in the church today? After three years of ministry however Jesus began to look further afield and the emphasis of his mission began to change. In his last command he ordered the disciples to go "make disciples of all nations". Although the work was to "begin in Jerusalem (and) all Judea"  (Acts 1:8) the time was coming when those outside would be more receptive than those inside who refused to come to Christ for salvation and life.

Maybe that time is coming again when the Church as we know it, has had enough of hearing the gospel and not responded so we need to take it somewhere else? Maybe - as Jesus instructed - the dust needs to be shaken off our feet and the message of the gospel taken out to more receptive listeners?

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Know the shepherd?

In our service this evening our lay-reader Gwen spoke about Psalm 23. It's one of the most loved and well-known of all the scriptures but although many know the Psalm how many, I wonder, know the Shepherd. the words are wonderful but they are meant to be appropriated. Until they are they are just that - nice words. Here is something Gwen quoted - I don't know its origin - but I include it here:

Many of us are discontented and empty even though we have long ago memorized this passage. Why? Because when we say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ we don’t really let Him be our shepherd. We don’t follow Him beside the ‘still waters’ and lie down in ‘green pastures’. Instead we want and want until our souls are dry and we have wandered from the paths of righteousness. We become fearful in the presence of evil and refuse the protection and rescue of His rod and staff. He sets His table before us, but we don’t eat. Is it any wonder, then, that our cup is more often empty than full? If we want goodness and mercy to follow us, we must let the Lord be our Shepherd.


I am the most impatient man I know. From my youngest days I have struggled with waiting for anything and this has carried over into my ministry making life - and prayer - harder than it needs to be. But some lessons are hitting home. I love this reminder by Tozer that:
“God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which he must work. Only to know this is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves.” (A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God).

In other words faith is often best expressed in waiting rather than action. And there are many promises and encouragements in the Scriptures to hang tight until God decides to act. For example in Isaiah 40:31:
"...they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagle; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."  Or: "Blessed are all who wait for him!" Isaiah 30:18
So God knows my impatience and I know his patience. Learning to live with that is the key to Christian discipleship and a life resting in God.

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...