Hello!  My name is Colin Sedgwick, and for 40 years I have been a Baptist minister.  I have also done a fair bit of writing for various papers and periodicals, both Christian and secular.  My wife is a teacher and I have two large sons.  I hope you might find something interesting in my blog – I aim to provide regular Bible-based thoughts with a short prayer at the end. Perhaps you can use them to “top up” your own Bible-study and sermon-listening.

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Thinking about marriage

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church… Ephesians 5:22-25

I suspect I wasn’t the only person, nor the only Christian, to feel sad about the break-up of the marriage of Bill and Melinda Gates.

As far as I am aware, they don’t profess to be Christians; but somehow, in a moral environment where divorce has become almost routine, where, indeed, marriage itself has begun to look seriously outdated, they gave an impression of stability in an increasingly unstable world.

Not Christians, perhaps; but, to use an old-fashioned word, they came across as wholesome, living a solid family life and devoting a lot of time and energy – not to mention money, of course – to worthwhile causes. And then – oh dear! – it all turned out to be hollow and blighted.

The thought that came to my mind was this: If such an event has the effect of causing millions of people to shake their heads in sadness, how much power does a solid, truly durable Christian marriage have in order to be a blessing and encouragement to many people who barely know the couple involved?

I hesitate to write this, because I know that talk of marriage can be very painful – for people who aren’t married but wish they were, or who are married but wish they weren’t, or have been married but are now on their own, for whatever reason. I’m directing these thoughts, really, to those of us who have been blessed with happy marriages (though not by any means perfect, of course!).

Putting it another way, the Gates break-up made me very aware that a marriage doesn’t exist just for the couple themselves and their families, but for the wider community to which they belong.

The book I used to use when conducting a wedding has a paragraph which describes “the purpose of marriage” in fairly conventional terms, starting off, naturally enough, with the bride and groom. But it finishes with this sentence: “It was ordained for companionship, health and strength between husband and wife and for the welfare of society as a whole”.

“The welfare of society as a whole…” Really? I wonder how seriously we take that? Can our marriage really be a blessing to the people down the road that we hardly know? To the people at my work-place? To people with whom I share an interest through a club or society?

Answer: Yes! Yes, it can. For this world in which we live is unstable – politically, economically, socially – often quite frighteningly so. To borrow the words of the prophet Isaiah, the very foundations often seem to be shaking (Isaiah 24:18). And people who convey a sense of stability and calm bring reassurance to those around them. (So, of course, can unmarried people – I’m not forgetting that; but the married couple does so in a very special way.)

There are various ways this might happen. Couples (or singles) uncertain about their future, or troubled by problems, might feel moved to seek advice as well as example. The gift of hospitality, whether a full-on meal or just a coffee, can be massively helpful – my wife, as a stroppy teenager, remained in her local church largely because of couples who opened their homes to the young people; never mind that it was the biscuits and coffee rather than anything else (nothing “spiritual”! – oh no) that kept her going, the fact was that they were happy homes, and that meant a lot to her.

And, of course, the solid couple who have weathered a few storms and gained a few battle-scars (let’s be honest!) will have much to offer to those just starting out who are struggling with what seems like a major crisis. And as for the horrors – sorry, joys – of child-rearing…

You sometimes hear it said of a couple that “they just live for one another” or “they always do everything together”. Which sounds wonderful. But I’m not sure it is. Just as a church which is mainly inward-looking is unhealthy and likely to shrivel, so a marriage that is all about just “us” is heading for trouble. It needs a purpose beyond itself.

My wife and I aren’t particularly romantic, but after forty years of marriage we tend to hold hands if we’re out for a walk. A few years ago we were on holiday, strolling through a west country village. An old chap on an elderly bike went by. As he passed he shouted out to us with a cheery smile, “I wish I had somebody to hold hands with!”

And we realised afresh that in our marriage, which has certainly been far from perfect, we have something wonderfully precious. Precious for us, of course; but hopefully, too, precious for other people we may or may not know.

How each couple chooses to interpret the words from Ephesians – controversial words in today’s world – that I’ve put at the top, well, that’s for each couple to decide under God.

But whatever, it can only be healthy if we make up our minds afresh that, whatever our marriage is about, it isn’t just “us”!

Heavenly Father, whether I am single or married, widowed or divorced, please help me to live my life in such a way as to shine something of the light of Jesus to others, and so to make this hurting world a better place. Amen.

Thinking about mirrors

Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

Most of us use a mirror several times a day without so much as thinking about it; it’s just part of everyday life. But if we do think about it, we realise that it really is a very clever invention. You can hold up this piece of glass and see a near-perfect reflection of your own face (though, of course, you may prefer not to!). Amazing!

Well, I don’t know when such glass mirrors were invented, but I’m pretty sure that generations of human beings would have been amazed to see such a thing.

In New Testament times mirrors would have been made of polished brass or some other metal, which would leave you peering a little awkwardly to get even a half-good view of yourself. And it’s that kind of mirror Paul is talking about in this verse. He’s not talking about seeing ourselves physically, of course, but of how we “see” life in general, including God and matters of “religion” – and saying that our view is at best clouded and partial.

To be honest, I don’t think the NIV Bible, from which I have quoted, is quite right, because the words Paul uses – literally, “through a mirror, in a riddle” – convey the essential idea of something that’s obscure and unsatisfactory. The old King James Bible says we see “through a glass, darkly” (I still like that!); N T Wright talks about seeing “puzzling reflections in a mirror”: the Good News Bible has “a dim image in a mirror”; and The Message paraphrase goes the whole hog and chooses to alter the metaphor altogether: “We don’t yet see things clearly; we’re squinting in a fog, peering in a mist” (I like that too!).

Whatever, what Paul is saying is that our understanding of things – even biblical, Christian things – is a long, long, long way from being perfect.

But – not for ever!Now”, he goes on to say, we see in this very unsatisfactory way; but “then” we shall see “face to face”. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. “Now”… and “then” – the difference between the two will be beyond description.

In a nutshell, Christian, you’re heading for perfection, but you aren’t there yet!

If this is so, it should stir up at least two feelings in our hearts – and, as it happens, they both begin with h.

First, hope.

Last time, under the heading Waiting for God, I wrote about the fact that God often keeps his people waiting. We thought about Martha and Mary of Bethany (John 11), following the death of their brother Lazarus. After sending for Jesus, he delayed two whole days before coming to them, which must have seemed an age. And every Christian knows the experience of praying – and praying – and praying – and…

Paul’s words here remind us that this applies too to the whole big picture of God’s dealings with the human race, and not least with us, his people. Here we are, living two thousand years after the earthly life of Jesus – and still he hasn’t come back!

But if Christianity is about anything, it’s about hope. The Bible repeatedly assures us that God is going to wind up the affairs of this troubled world and bring it to a perfect and glorious climax, when all sin and evil, pain and sorrow, will be finally banished. Just soak your mind in the last two chapters of Revelation, at the end of the Bible, and you can’t be in any doubt about that…

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21: 4). Words I love to read at a funeral; but words that are perfect for every ordinary day as well.

May God help us to live as men and women of hope and optimism, rejoicing each day in the wonderful future to which we can look!

But now the second h… humility.

If our grasp of spiritual things really is as obscure as Paul suggests, we’d better be careful not to be too sure of ourselves. No arrogance, please.

Yes, we have God’s word in the Bible – but much of that is difficult to understand (as the Bible itself recognises: 2 Peter 3:16). And yes, we have the Holy Spirit living within us – but the sin that still clouds our souls also has the effect of clouding our vision. Yes, we perhaps have a good church, good preachers and teachers, good Christian books to read.

Yes. Good. But even if all this is true, the fact remains that our understanding is extremely limited, and we know only a millionth part of what there is to know.

So… humility is called for! We could be wrong, even on the things we’re most sure of. That wonderfully convincing author or preacher could be wrong.

Stick to the essentials – Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and one day coming back. For the rest, let’s temper strong convictions with humble teachability. And let’s look forward to the day when that cloudy mirror will be gone, and we shall see Jesus face to face!

Heavenly Father, please keep me hoping, even when the waiting seems long. And please keep me humble, even when I’m most sure I’m right. Amen.

Waiting for God

A man named Lazarus was ill… Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days… John 11:1-6

Hang on a minute! Isn’t there something wrong with that bit of scripture? Hasn’t somebody made a mess of the translation? Surely that word “So” should be “But” or “Yet”?

Yes, indeed! If “so” is right, we would expect John to finish the sentence  something like this: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he immediately sent a message: ‘Tell them I’m on my way…!’ and started on the journey”.

But no: Jesus “stayed where he was two more days”! How very strange.

The translation is correct. True, some Bible versions do have “but” or “yet”, but the best experts are all agreed that they are mistaken: John wrote “So” because… he meant “So”. Which means that he leaves us to figure out for ourselves why Jesus should act in such a peculiar way. If he really loved Mary and Martha, why would he subject them to such a cruel wait?

We can only speculate. It can’t have been because of any doubt or uncertainty on his part about what would happen – he had, after all, raised people from death before, sometimes even from a distance.

Was he testing their faith? Hardly; they had already demonstrated their faith by calling for him in the first place, so what more might he expect?

He knew, of course, that his own death was now very close, so perhaps he wanted the miracle of Lazarus’ rising to be a preparation for the even greater thing that was to come: a message to people that “Yes, this man Jesus really does have power over death itself!”.

Certainly, the lengthy interval between Lazarus’ death and his re-emergence from the tomb (four days, according to verse 17) would thwart any danger of people suggesting that he was never really dead at all. No: what happened with Lazarus was no hoax or trick but sheer, unadulterated miracle. But Martha and Mary were asked to pay a heavy price in terms of grief and wretchedness – “Why, oh why, doesn’t he come!”

Perhaps there isn’t a lot more we can say.

But there is a truth here which Christians have proved again and again down the centuries: God does often seem to keep his people waiting. And if that is so, it isn’t out of indifference or cruelty, but for some good reason.

The more we stop and think about it, the more we realise that waiting is in fact a very important part of Christian faith: as one writer puts it, Christians are by nature “people-in-waiting”. Paul often stresses this: to give just one example, in 1 Corinthians 1:7 he says that we “eagerly await for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed”. It’s part of the essence of Christianity.

I said that I didn’t think Jesus was simply testing the faith of Martha and Mary. But sometimes, for us, testing may be one of the reasons why waiting is called for: do we have sufficient faith to trust in Jesus through gritted teeth, or are we just “fair weather Christians”? And, of course, in a period of waiting we often learn important lessons that otherwise we might miss. Just ask any mature Christian of many years’ standing! Perhaps just look back over your own experience!

The trouble with waiting, of course, is simple: it can be so hard, so agonisingly hard. Mary isn’t afraid to reproach Jesus for his delay: “Lord… if you had been here my brother would not have died” (verse 21). And at other times – waiting for news of a loved one, waiting for the birth of a baby, waiting for the result of a job interview, even just sitting in a traffic jam or waiting for a delivery to come – we can feel driven to distraction.

But whether we think of such personal circumstances or the big picture Paul is talking about, the Lazarus story assures us that the wait is for a reason, and one day we will see it as worthwhile.

I’ve quoted Paul. But he isn’t alone in the New Testament to have this very forward-looking, future-oriented attitude. Here is John (I John 3:2) “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”.

And here is a beautiful line from a hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800): “The bud may have a bitter taste,/ But sweet will be the flower”.

Or, as an American president once assured the world: now that he was in charge, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.

A sentiment there that I think Martha and Mary would have identified with… So, Christian, hang on in there – truly, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Father God, I confess that there are times I am simply unable to understand the mystery of your timing, and especially why you seem to keep us waiting. But help me to keep trusting and believing, and so bring me to that place, like Martha and Mary, of breath-taking amazement and joy. Amen.

Healthy – in body, mind and soul?

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distanceand called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

“Are you better?” you say to a friend. And they reply “Well, better than I was”, implying, “Not fully well, but at least improved”.

Whether or not we’re “well” covers a vast range – from desperately ill to bursting with health and vitality; and you might be anywhere on that spectrum.

We’ve been reflecting on the story of the ten men with leprosy who were healed by Jesus. Its main theme is gratitude – only one of the ten (and he a Samaritan!) stopped to give thanks to God, and Jesus is disappointed.

But there’s another point of interest. Luke, like the whole of the New Testament, is written in Greek. And even though the story is only nine verses long, about 135 words, three different Greek words are used to describe what happened to those men. I’ve underlined them in order to pick them out.

In verses 14 and 17 they are described as “cleansed” – which, given the nature of leprosy, is understandable: a leprous skin, while not necessarily dirty, might certainly look in need of cleansing. Then, in verse 15, the word is “healed”, a general word meaning pretty much the same as “cured”. And then, in verse 19, Jesus tells the Samarian that his faith has “made him well”. Three different words to describe the same thing.

So what, you yawn. And yes, it could be that there is no particular significance in this use of different words. But then again…

The really interesting one is the one in verse 19. Most Bible translations, like the NIV that I have used, give it as “your faith has made you well”. But the word used by Luke occurs elsewhere in the New Testament to mean “saved”. In fact, it is the standard word to describe what Jesus came to earth to achieve – in John 3:17, for example, we are told that God sent his Son “to save the world through him”; in Ephesians 2:5 Paul tells us that “it is by grace that we are saved”.

In that sense, to be saved means to be made not just physically well, but to be put right with God, to have your sins forgiven.

So… when Jesus told the grateful Samaritan that he was “saved”, was he suggesting that, unlike the other nine, he was not only “healed” or “cleansed” or “cured”, but also in a right relationship with God? (The Message Bible hedges its bets – if you’ll pardon the expression – by translating “your faith has healed and saved you”.)

Well, we’ll never know. I suppose that just conceivably when we get to heaven we might be able to button-hole Luke and ask him outright what was in his mind when he recorded Jesus’ words in this particular way. (Though I somehow doubt it: we will have weightier matters on our minds…)

Forgive me if all this has got a bit technical. But there is a serious and very practical point behind it.

We belong to a society which is preoccupied with physical health. I read once about a very rich man who got angry with his doctor when told, “I’m afraid there is nothing more we can do for you”. “What do you mean?” he protested. “I can pay you whatever you ask! I’ve hired you because you are the top person in your field. Of course you can cure me…!” But, sadly, he was wrong.

Physical well-being is, of course, a wonderful, precious thing; mental well-being perhaps even more so. But you may be as fit as the proverbial fiddle – yet what is the good of that if you are a stranger to God, living under the cloud of darkness and sin? What is the good of that if you still need to be saved?

By the way, while we’re being a bit technical, Luke 17:19 contains another word which can mean more than one thing. When Jesus told the Samaritan to “Rise and go”, that word “rise” is related to the word used in the New Testament for… the resurrection.

So… Could it be that Luke wanted his readers to understand that Jesus, on that wonderful day, called that man not only to be physically healed, and not only to be “saved”, but also to rise up to a whole new life at peace with Almighty God? After all, the Bible describes anyone who trusts in Christ as already “raised” (Colossians 3:1).

Again, we don’t know. But what we do know is that Jesus calls each one of us to do just that: to trust and follow him, and in so doing to rise up to eternal life.

Have you done that yet? If not, why not today?

Heavenly Father, thank you for the measure of physical and mental well-being I enjoy; please help me to cherish and safeguard it. But thank you even more that in Jesus I am saved and raised up to eternal life; please help me to live as one raised from the dead! Amen.

“Jesus, master, have pity on us!”

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distanceand called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

Last time I shared two reflections which the little story of Jesus and the men with leprosy brought to my mind: first, the claims of the desperate and needy, to which we so often turn blind eyes and against which we so often harden our hearts; second, the sheer power of Jesus, with the reminder that through the Holy Spirit something of that power should belong to us.

But the more you think about the story the more it stirs up. So here are three further reflections.

Third, the beauty of simple faith.

Preachers, I think, often hold the solitary Samaritan up for praise, and shake their heads disapprovingly at the nine who failed to give thanks. But perhaps that isn’t entirely fair – for, after all, all ten showed enough faith to obey Jesus’ command to “Go!” and visit the priests. (The priests formed a kind of inspectorate of health; only they could officially declare the men “clean”.)

Jesus didn’t come close to them; he didn’t touch them; but, never mind, off they went like a shot – “and as they went, they were cleansed”. That’s fairly impressive faith, I would say!

There is a strong link between childlike faith and implicit obedience. As when we talked about our sharing in Jesus’ awesome power, there is a mystery here, for we know that often people of great faith – fine, rock-solid Christians – don’t in fact see answers to their pleas. There is no easy explanation for that – though both scripture and experience warn us against people who say, “The reason you aren’t healed is because you don’t have enough faith”. (Such people should be avoided!)

No, often the best demonstration of faith is to go on trusting precisely when we don’t see an answer. But that needn’t stop us praying for the gift of child-like faith.

Fourth, the beauty of gratitude.

The poet George Herbert (1593-1633), many of whose poems got turned into hymns, prayed a simple prayer: “Thou hast given so much to me… Give me one thing more: a grateful heart”.

The Samaritan in the story certainly had that, didn’t he! There was no stinting on his thanks: he “came back, praising God in a loud voice” and “threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him”. Can you see him? Can you hear him!

Have you ever noticed that people who are quick to give thanks – both to God and to other people – tend to be positive, cheerful, happy people? Why? Because they appreciate life; they don’t take it for granted; they have no sense of automatic entitlement.

We all know too how much a simple word of thanks can mean to other people: it brings sunshine into a gloomy day – or hope into the middle of a pandemic. We don’t ask for it; we certainly don’t do a good deed because we expect it. But oh the difference it makes! And even God himself enjoys our gratitude.

Fifth, the sadness of prejudice.

Why did Luke choose to add those four words at the end of verse 16: “…he was a Samaritan”? There must surely have been many fellow-Jews of Jesus who also had grateful hearts; so why pick out this particular detail about this particular man? It can’t have been by accident.

The experts tell us that there was bitter enmity between Jews and Samaritans (go to the Bible-encyclopaedias if you want to find out why – and perhaps take a look at Luke 9:51-56). Jesus referred to the man in the story as “this foreigner” (verse 18) – and if even that sounds a little off-hand, let’s not forget that one of his own greatest stories features “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus warmed to this man rather than his fellow-Jews; that’s the point.

All over the world there are groups of people with what you can only call hatred for other groups; sometime this has a religious basis, others times political; often a mix of both. Even supporters of different football teams can hate opposing fans.

Jesus would have none of that: he was for all people. And the good news he proclaimed held out the hope that one day all such enmities would be ended. Just see what the apostle John saw: “After this I looked, and there before me wasa great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the lamb…” (Revelation 7:9). (Where the word “every” actually means “every”!)

One touching aspect of the story is that the ten lepers seem to have had a good relationship with each other; they were united in their misery, whether Jew or Samaritan. Yes, in the face of terrible suffering, who cares about such differences!

But the question remains for us: What nasty shards of prejudice disfigure my heart? If I call myself a follower of Jesus, they’ve just got to go. No ifs, no buts… They’ve got to go!

Heavenly Father, grant me as I walk with Jesus a compassionate heart, generous hands, a childlike faith, a powerful spirit, and deep love for you and for all my fellow-men and women. Amen.

Who cares?

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

This little story runs to just nine verses, not much more than a hundred words. Yet it conjures up a whole world, if only we will read it slowly, and use our imaginations. (Why not take a minute do that right now…?)

Jesus, with his disciples, is heading for Jerusalem, where he knows he will die. Suddenly he hears his name being shouted out: “Jesus, master, have pity on us!” Lepers! – standing at a distance, as the law required them to do, but determined that he would notice them.

And notice them he does! And so a wonderful miracle story unfolds…

These nine verses speak to us of many things. Here are a few that came to my mind…

First, the claims of the needy.

That huddle of men with leprosy, wretched, bedraggled and ragged, cry out for pity –and there were few people in the world where Jesus lived who were more truly pitiful.

Leprosy was probably not the same disease then as the one known by that name today. But whatever precise form it took, it was pretty much a living death: because of its infectious nature, sufferers had to bid farewell to their families and the only communities they had ever known, and survive as best they could on their own or in the kind of groups we read about in this story. They depended on the kindness of others, quite possibly strangers, to leave them food. Talk about “social distancing”!

In the western world today such sights are mercifully rare, though from my many years in London I can’t help thinking of the beggars sitting outside the tube stations pleading for a few coins. Pitiful is indeed the word. In other parts of the world, sadly, this is common.

But even in the prosperous parts of the world the needy cry out to us for pity, and we see them vividly on our television screens and in the charity literature which drops through our letter-boxes or into our inboxes.

Which raises the question: Jesus noticed them and responded to their cry. Jesus cared. So what about me?

On the Day of Judgment our lives will be scrutinised by God. We need have no fear for our salvation if our trust is in Jesus for, as Paul puts it, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). But as we recall not just the many bad things that we did, but, even more, the many good things we didn’t do, I wonder how we will feel? – the stretched out hands of the needy which we never noticed, or which we noticed but ignored? the cries of the suffering to which we turned deaf ears?

O Lord, give us compassionate hearts! Amen.

Second, the power of Jesus.

Sometimes, when he healed, Jesus made physical contact with the sick person – he put mud on the eyes of the blind; he even touched those with leprosy. But other times a shout of command was enough, as here: “‘Go, show yourselves to the priests’. And as they went, they were cleansed”.

We marvel at the sheer power of his word. It reminds us of the beginning of creation, when Almighty God spoke the very universe into existence: “‘Let there be light!’ And there was light” (Genesis 1:1). It reminds us too of that electrifying moment when Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and called him back from the dead: “‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man came out…” (John 11:43-44).

Power! How Jesus had it! And how sadly we lack it. Yet he tells his followers a little later that they were destined to be channels of that very power: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater works than these (!)… I will do whatever you ask in my name…” (John 14:12-13).

After a lifetime of reading the Bible I still have no clear idea of exactly what he meant. But I do know that the apostles in Acts were empowered to do amazing things, and that we stand in the same line, for have we too not received the gift of the Holy Spirit? And doesn’t the same promise belong to us as to them: “You will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes on you…”? (Acts 1:8).

I suspect that sometimes we subconsciously expect to be ineffective, weak and defeated – yes, we who are called to be “more than conquerors” (not just ordinary, bog-standard conquerors, note!) through him who loves us” (Romans 8:37). Do we need a complete re-think of our expectations…?

Lord Jesus Christ, give us, we pray, just a little of your awesome power! Amen.

I’ve shared two of the thoughts that reflecting on this story brought to my mind. But there’s still more! So please join me again next time…

Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart,/ To feel your compassion,/ To weep with your tears;/ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart. Amen.

Graham Kendrick

Whatever happened to the Lord’s Prayer?

Jesus said, “This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” Matthew 6:9

Perhaps it’s just me, and the very limited circles I move in, but over the last year or two I have found myself asking more and more: What has happened to the Lord’s prayer?

There was a time when it figured in just about any service you ever went to. But not any more. And I find myself asking why. Matthew’s Gospel, after all, tells us that Jesus introduced it with the words, “This is how you should pray…”

I understand, of course, that that doesn’t mean it’s the only prayer Christians should ever pray – that would be absurd. Nor that is has to be prayed in any and every gathering. That, I suppose, is what happened in various traditions – with the result that it easily became routine and mechanical, what used to be called “vain repetition”.

Yes. In the same passage in Matthew Jesus warns his followers against “babbling like pagans”, and I for one can remember times when that seemed to be exactly what was going on. Repetition, which we all need to some extent when we pray, can easily become “paganish”, even superstitious (think of the way we frequently tag on “in Jesus’ name” before we say “Amen”, as if without it it’s somehow not a “proper” prayer).

That’s all fine. But Jesus did, presumably, expect his followers to adopt this form of words as a staple of prayer. And he seems to have intended it to be used in corporate gatherings, not just in our private prayers: it’s a “we” prayer, not an “I” prayer. God is “our Father”; we pray that he will “give us today our daily bread” and that he will “forgive us our debts” – and so on. It often used to be introduced as “the prayer Jesus taught us to pray”, or “the family prayer”, both of which can be justified.

So… while I fully agree with a move away from any kind of ritualism, I find all this genuinely puzzling, this shift from “virtually always” the Lord’s prayer to “hardly ever” the Lord’s prayer.

I do have a theory, though, which may of course be completely wrong (please let me know if you think so)…

Some churches, I suspect, are simply unhappy with any hint of planning and preparation. I spoke to a man once whose church was very much in the charismatic mould, and he told me that the worship there was “Spirit-led”. By which he meant: no particular individual controlled what went on.

I enquired if that meant that a carefully prepared sermon or prayer could not also be Spirit-led? May the Spirit not be at work in the person with the task of preparing the worship in advance?

In a word, is it right to equate “Spirit-led” with “spontaneous”? Surely this is a mistake?

He got my point (or was he just being polite?) and conceded that his use of the expression Spirit-led was loose and careless.

We must all agree, surely, that Spirit-led spontaneity is a great thing (with Whitsun, the celebration of the Holy Spirit, just round the corner, oh for a bit more of it!). But too often, I fear, what it amounts to in practice is little more than a free-for-all for anyone who feels inclined to take advantage of the liberty that’s on offer. Sometimes when I hear people pray spontaneously – including myself of course – I wonder if God is up there in heaven thinking, “I do love these dear people, but, oh dear, they really do prattle on…!”

Jesus gave us a clear, structured (and very short! – let’s notice that) prayer. And he warned us about thinking we might be heard “because of our many words” (Matthew 6:7).

It’s not just prayer but worship in general. The fact is that something  concise, structured and well-crafted can add dignity and gravity to the proceedings: it enhances that sense of worshipping the Lord “in the beauty of holiness”, and often captures in a few words a mood or sense we all have but find it hard to articulate.

So, a few suggestions…

Use the Lord’s prayer thoughtfully and frequently, but not as a mechanical routine.

Use a modern translation (there’s no reason why the King James version has to be clung to for just this one bit of the Bible!).

Invite the congregation to pray it slowly, and set an appropriate lead.

Introduce it with a reminder of its basic meaning: get people to focus on the words.

At the end, don’t rush on to whatever comes next, but give it time to “breathe”, with a few moments of silence.

And (here’s a thought that’s only just occurred to me!) why not pause for an “Amen” at the end of each clause…

Our Father in heaven, may your holy name be honoured… Amen! May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as in heaven… Amen. Give us today the food we need… Amen. Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs others have done to us… Amen. Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the evil one… Amen. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory… Amen. Amen. And Amen!

Singing with a mouth full of toothpaste…

… speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs … Ephesians 5:19

O joy! O bliss!…

I’m in the bathroom brushing my teeth. As usual, I flick the radio on – and what do I hear? People singing! Of course, it’s the regular Sunday morning service! And what gives me such delight are the words…

Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts,/ Thou fount of life, Thou light of men;/ From the best bliss that earth imparts,/ We turn unfilled to Thee again.

I know it well. It dates from the twelfth century, and was originally written in Latin, possibly by Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk of the Cistercian order. It was translated into English in the nineteenth century.

There are five verses, and they just get better and better, finishing with this beautiful prayer…

O Jesus, ever with us stay,/ Make all our moments calm and bright,/ Chase the dark night of sin away,/ Shed o’er the world Thy holy light.

I find myself asking “How long is it since I last sung that hymn?” I’ve no idea, but it must be many years. And I can’t help thinking, “What a loss that is! How sad that is!” True, the language is archaic, even in translation. True, there are plenty of Thee’s and Thou’s. True, there’s a reference to “men” in a way that jars in 2021.

But even given all that, I find it hard to imagine any Christian person whose heart would not be stirred by these ancient words.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not about to launch into an older person’s diatribe against modern Christian music. Far from it. No: over the years I’ve done my share of strumming (how pleased I was with the half-dozen chords I learned to play! – and how glad you should be that I didn’t keep it up).

But that moment, toothbrush in hand and mouth sputtering froth, I was acutely aware of how richly some of these old hymns had fed into my life as I grew as a Christian. And how I miss them now, even though they are still part of my spiritual DNA.

Paul tells the Christians of Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs…”, to “sing and make music from your hearts to the Lord…”

It’s interesting that he lists three different types of sung worship. Quite likely, of course, “psalms” refers to the Old Testament psalms – we know from various parts of the New Testament that the first Christians made good use of them in praising Jesus. But who knows what the difference was between “hymns” and “spiritual songs”?

Of course it doesn’t matter. But what it certainly suggests is that Paul expected a variety of idioms to be used. And if that is so, why should any type of material be regarded as not usable? (Didn’t William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, ask the question, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”) Yet experience of various churches suggests to me that the range of material has become sadly narrow.

There are churches where nothing is used but stuff that has stood the test of time: decades if not centuries. That’s not good. But in others, it is purely modern stuff – I attended a service once where nothing at all was sung but what had been produced “in house”, which had the effect of guaranteeing that outsiders were familiar with precisely nothing. (It was a church rich in very gifted musicians; but, hey, there was a congregation present, not just an audience.)

I suppose what I’m writing is in effect an appeal to anyone who has responsibility for choosing worship material. Give us breadth! Give us variety! Long hymns and short songs. Happy songs and sad songs. Bouncy tunes and peaceful tunes. Ancient hymns and modern.

Give us stuff that connects us with history long-past, like the one they were singing on the radio that day. Christianity existed before 2000! Christianity even existed before the Reformation!

I would add too – not too many “me” songs and hymns, please. There is certainly a place for what you might call “personal testimony” songs; but give us also plenty of stuff which focuses on the greatness of God himself and not just what has happened to me.

To limit the range too narrowly is to impoverish the modern church, and to deprive new Christians of what should be their birthright – like taking an urn of rich, nourishing milk, skimming a bit off the top and tipping the rest down the drain. What a waste!

If you decide to take up my suggestion, I would add another plea: Please don’t do so in order to “keep the older people happy”.

No! No! That would be patronising, and would completely miss the point anyway. No; if you decide to broaden the range, do it not in order to keep any group or faction happy; do it in order to keep the church as a whole healthy!

We taste Thee, O Thou living bread,/ And yearn to feast upon Thee still;/ We drink of Thee, the fountain-head,/ And thirst, our souls from Thee to fill… Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for the two thousand year history of your church. Please enlarge our vision and broaden our spiritual horizons by the moving of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A hand-me-down faith?

Many of the Samaritans from that town [Sychar] believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” John 4:39-42

I became a Christian while still very young – about 15 – but I didn’t “inherit” my faith from the family home. My parents were good people, but not explicitly Christian, and not church-goers.

Many of the Christians I have known over the years were what might be called “cradle-Christians”, born and brought up in the faith, and I have sometimes vaguely wondered who had the best of the bargain, if I may put it like that.

Certainly, to learn in your infancy about Jesus, to be introduced to church, to learn something of the Bible and something about prayer and worship, is a great thing, laying a foundation which can never be destroyed, even if you later drift away. But is there a danger that you end up rather coasting along with a second-hand faith? As I heard a preacher say once, “Hand-me-down clothes may be fine – but not hand-me-down faith!”

The people of Sychar, a town in Samaria, experienced a big shock one day. There was a woman in their town who was of decidedly dubious reputation – so much so that the other women didn’t mix with her. That, at least, is the most likely reason that she was collecting water alone from the village well when a tired and travel-weary Jesus came along; she knew she wouldn’t be welcome when the women went out as a group. It was probably the hottest part of the day and anybody who could be indoors at home would be.

She and Jesus get into a lengthy conversation. It looks as if she is impressed by at least four things: first, he is prepared to talk publicly to a woman, which broke the social conventions of the day; second, he is prepared to talk to a woman who is a Samaritan, a member of a people who were bitter enemies of the Jews; third, he has an uncanny and rather alarming knowledge of her personal life; fourth – and truly staggering, this – when they get to “religious” matters, he bluntly claims to be the one she refers to as “Messiah (called Christ)”.

If her fellow townspeople were indeed enjoying a mid-afternoon siesta, it seems they were rudely awakened. She suddenly appears (minus her water-jar, but red-faced and panting) and announces, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?

And – whatever their misgivings about her character and reputation – that’s exactly what they did; they “came out of the town and made their way towards him”.

They too are massively impressed – they even ask him (a Jew!) to stay in Sychar for a couple of days. During that period many other people hear the woman’s story and come to see Jesus for themselves. And what do they say to the woman? “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the saviour of the world”.

I do hope that they were more gracious to her than that might seem! But all credit to them for wanting to check Jesus out for themselves. No hand-me-down faith for them! “You told us,” they are saying, “and we’re grateful for that. But that isn’t enough! We wanted to find out about this Jesus ourselves”.

There is a sense, of course, in which all of us have a hand-me-down faith: the good news of Jesus crucified and risen again has been handed down for two thousand years in order to reach us. But the need is still there for each of us to take it from those who pass it on to us (and, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean family members) and make it our own.

I wonder if anyone reading this has still not done that? Oh yes, you know the story of Jesus; you have an understanding of the gospel; you respect and admire many of those you know as Christians; you have been challenged and inspired to try to live a good life. That is all good.

But you have never yet come to a point where you can say “Jesus is my Saviour and my Lord. I know him personally by faith, and following him to the best of my ability is now the mainspring of my life. My priorities and motivations are now decided by the teaching of scripture and the inner light of the Holy Spirit, not by the prevailing winds of opinion and fashion. Yes! I really am – how amazing! – a new person!”

There is a line to be crossed, a decision to be made. There is an invitation to be responded to: “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 35:8). Why put it off for a single minute?

Heavenly and holy God, in Jesus you have given yourself to us, not simply that we might believe in you, but that we might know, love, obey and enjoy you. Bring me to a place where I can truly say “My Lord and my God”. Amen.

The sabbath principle

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done. Genesis 2:2-3

There was, I suppose, a funny side to the story. It’s a week or so now since I read it in the paper, and I haven’t remembered all the details, but the gist was pretty clear.

A high-flying businessman was determined to keep everything going as much as possible during lockdown, so he was working pretty much round the clock, including Zoom-meeting after Zoom-meeting, hour after hour, long into the night. He knew he was overdoing things; he knew he was neglecting his family; he knew he was not getting enough rest or exercise. But, well, it was only for a limited period, wasn’t it?

But… then it happened. He was sitting as usual at his computer when he began to feel unwell; seriously unwell. The (sort of) funny thing was that instead of thinking “Whoa, this doesn’t feel good! Am I having a heart-attack?” and calling for help, his immediate thought was “Oh no! This really is inconvenient! I’ve got another meeting in twenty minutes – I simply can’t afford a heart-attack at the moment!”

Well, the fact that he was able to write an article for the paper shows that in time he recovered. But the essence of his article was how he felt he had been taught a lesson, and how from now on he was going to live his life differently. (I wonder if he will stick to that decision…)

The message is simple: we need rest.

The human body is not a machine that can be forced into ever greater activity – not, at least, without serious risk. Nor the human mind. And that is why God, according to the Bible, has built regular periods of rest into his pattern for human life.

The encouragement that we need to take this seriously is even built into the story of creation: twice in Genesis 2:2-3 we read that “God rested…” And it is included in the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses for his people Israel: Exodus 20:8-11 tells us that the seventh day is to be “holy”, which means “special” and “different”, a day when normal activities stop so that the people can focus on God.

Not, of course, that God needed rest! But hopefully we get the message: non-stop activity is foolish and even sinful. It puts unhealthy strain on our bodies and minds; it destroys the balanced life-style which God wants us to enjoy; it endangers our relationships with family, friends and work-mates.

If you know me personally you might feel I’ve got a bit of a nerve writing this, because you will know that I am well into my retirement. For one thing, I can’t claim that I have always practiced what I’m preaching here; and for another, what right does someone who is happily retired – given that (theoretically at least!) retirement is non-stop rest – have to offer advice to others who are still toiling at the coal-face?

That’s fair enough. But reading that article simply made me feel that this was an issue worth highlighting. After all, it’s not just that business-man’s experience we’re talking about; no, it’s an important theme in God’s word. I hope, and indeed believe, that just putting these thoughts into words might have the effect of saving someone’s life, or health, or marriage, or general well-being. Who knows. Just one person’s life would make it worthwhile.

I realise, of course, that your circumstances may be such that you have little control over your need for regular rest. But even so I hope this reminder might prompt you to make what small adjustments you can to your priorities: adjustments which will make a significant difference.

I wonder too if somebody reading this might be an employer, and thus responsible for the burden of work others are expected to bear. If so, recognising the need to be scrupulously fair, considerate and supportive in the way you treat your staff might be something you need to think about. All of us, one day, must stand before God’s scrutiny of the way we have lived our lives – and that includes how we have treated others.

The world into which the church was born was a world of masters and slaves, rather different (I hope!) from the world most of us live in. But passages like Colossians 4:1 can still be very relevant: “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a master in heaven”.

Whatever, let’s take seriously the vital principle of the sabbath rest; it could be a matter of life and death.

Heavenly Father, even though I do not remember the sabbath day in the same way as the people of Bible times, please help me to take the sabbath principle seriously, for the sake of my own well-being, that of those for whom I am responsible – and for the sake of your glory. Amen.