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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Innocent as doves – and shrewd as snakes

We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord, but also in the eyes of man. 2 Corinthians 8:20-21

At one point in my ministry we employed a young man to work with us as assistant pastor and youth worker. He was as sincere and enthusiastic as you could wish to find, and threw himself whole-heartedly into his responsibilities. Both I and the church as a whole trusted him totally.

So I was a little embarrassed when he insisted, every week, on giving me a full account of what he had been doing and how he had been spending his time.

“You don’t need to do this!” I told him. “We trust you!” But he wouldn’t have it. As he saw it, he was paid by the church and also answerable to the church, so it was important to him not only to do what was right, but also to be seen to do what was right. Never once did I feel the need to check up on the information he gave me; but the point was that I could have done if need be.

I could only respect and admire him. And his attitude taught me an important lesson. You could sum it up in a single word, albeit a rather clumsy and not very exciting one: accountability. To be accountable is to be responsible and answerable; indeed, as the word implies, happy to give an account if required.

The apostle Paul was many things: preacher, teacher, missionary, church-planter, pastor, letter-writer, to name the main ones. But it’s easy to overlook another role he took very seriously: fund-raiser.

In Romans 15:25-29 he refers to a collection he is organising “for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem”. It seems that the church there (what we might call the “mother” church of Christianity) had fallen on hard times, and Paul wanted the churches he had founded to offer financial support.

This is the background to 2 Corinthians 8-9, where (without actually mentioning the word!) Paul talks about money and how it should be handled in the church. And what comes across in 8:20-22 is that he is very keen to be properly accountable: “We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift… we are taking pains to do what is right not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man”.

Among other things, this involved making use of respected delegates approved “by all the churches” (that’s Titus, verses 16-17, and two other unnamed “brothers”, verses 18 and 22) to be responsible for actually delivering to the Jerusalem church the cash collected.

That happened two thousand years ago. But it’s right up to date for us today, because the plain fact is that churches are not always what they should be when it comes to accountability.

This isn’t just about money – though we are all familiar, I’m sure, with those stories the papers love to print (and who can blame them?) about church treasurers who help themselves to the funds. And, of course, especially in recent years, it’s about sex – barely a week seems to go by without reports of some grim new scandal.

It’s relevant, in general terms, to questions of responsibility and leadership. Because a church is (or should be) a community of love and trust, there’s a tendency to not ask questions that sometimes need to be asked, to turn blind eyes rather than cause any embarrassment.

Those of us who occupy (or, in my case, who have occupied) leadership positions need to take notice. We are well used to the corny jokes when the hardships of work are being discussed: “Of course, you wouldn’t know what we’re talking about – after all, you only work one day a week” (ha-very-ha). But we need to recognise that sometimes “truth may be spoken in jest”.

Just occasionally some bold and cheery soul may come right out with it – “What do you actually do all week?” – but I suspect  it’s pretty rare. But why shouldn’t they? Certainly that youth worker I started with wouldn’t have had any objection.

The principle is simple: leaders need to be held to account, and this means that those who are led are perfectly entitled – and indeed right – to hold us to account. Do it, of course, with love, respect and humility (please!); but if you don’t do it, who will? And if you don’t do it, who knows what horrible unpleasantness or even scandal might be brewing a year or two down the line?

Ultimately, of course, it is to God himself that all of us are answerable. But, as Paul puts it with crystal clarity, we are “to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord, but also in the eyes of man”.

Doing things “properly” may sometimes be a bit boring, and may seem “worldly” or “unspiritual”. But it matters; it really does.

Lord God, help all of us in your church, whatever our position, to speak and act with total honesty, integrity and accountability – to be, as Jesus said, as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Amen.

How bad is bad language?

But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Colossians 3:8

Not long ago I received a Facebook message from a Christian friend which included “the f word”. I’m not sure if my friend had written the message himself, or was forwarding one which he himself had received. But there it was, and it troubled me.

Was I right to be troubled? After all, we live at a time when conventions of speech have changed enormously from, say, twenty-five years ago. Rock singers, sports stars, actors – well, yes, that’s to be expected now. But it’s also the politicians and journalists, and for all I know the doctors and teachers, who are happy to use language once considered “unacceptable” or “offensive”.

What should we as Christians think about this trend?

For one thing, we need to recognise that, like fashions in clothes, language changes; and also that what’s offensive to one person may be fine by somebody else.

Way back in the 1970s, when I was still a young minister, we once had a bit of a crisis. A Sunday School teacher, annoyed with a small girl who kept “jiffling about”, asked her to sit still. She protested, pointing to the boy next to her, “But he keeps pinching my bum.” The teacher, who you might describe as white, male, well-educated and middle-class, reprimanded her: “We don’t use language like that!”

Next thing we knew we had a stormy visit from the girl’s mother (not, I might say, either a particularly small or a particularly quiet woman), all jutting elbows and nostrils shooting flames: “What’s this about bum? What’s wrong with bum? We say bum all the time in our house…” (Oh dear: it was a time for deep breaths and calming words all round…)

I remember too the day I came across a poem by John Clare, who lived from 1793 to 1864 – right in the middle of that outwardly very strict and proper period known as “Victorian”. Describing affectionately the hardships of a young mother going about her household duties, Clare wrote of “when the baby’s all beshit”.

I was shocked; that certainly wasn’t an acceptable word in polite society! But I learned something important. Obviously in Clare’s day, and in the social climate in which he moved (Clare was the son of a farm labourer, not to mention a loyal member of the Church of England), the word “shit” was normal.

I can’t resist another story. Way back, again, in those early days of my ministry, we at the Baptist Church used to have occasional joint meetings with our Pentecostal neighbours after the Sunday evening service. There was good fellowship and sometimes quite (ahem) “lively” discussion. One evening a recently-baptised member of our church used the word “bloody”. There was a barely suppressed gasp of horror (mainly, I think, from our Penty friends) and then everyone studiously turned a deaf ear.

It later occurred to me that those people who gasped with horror might have uttered a cry of praise if they had any idea how that woman was likely to have spoken six months earlier, before she became a Christian: “bloody” represented progress!

These examples are, of course, very mild compared to some of the things we hear today. And we need to be careful of hypocrisy – which is better, a person who is known to swear a bit, but who is a genuine Christian, honest, kind, compassionate and loving; or a person who outwardly is a pillar of virtue, but who is a bully, not always strictly honest, and ill-tempered?

Well, each of us must make up our own minds when it comes to deciding what is and what isn’t acceptable. But let’s do so in a prayerful spirit – and with Paul’s words to the Colossian Christians in mind. He itemises two things in particular in the matter of speech, translated by the NIV as “slander and filthy language” (that could equally be “blasphemies and obscenities”). Those words cover a lot!

According to Jesus, we are called to be “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Only the best is good enough for him. That applies to our deeds and our thoughts – and also to our words. And if we’re in any doubt, let’s remember the time-honoured guideline: if we must err, let’s do so on the side of strictness, not of slackness.

Added to which… what a wonderful opportunity for witness, to be the one person around who keeps a pure and wholesome tongue in the midst of rising coarseness, vulgarity, obscenity and blasphemy. Not, of course, in a self-righteous manner; we don’t advertise it.

But I think it will make us stand out, don’t you?

Father, I pray in the words of the psalmist: “Set a guard over my mouth… keep watch over the door of my lips”. Help me too to remember that “Blessed are the pure in heart”. Amen.

The boy with the umbrella

Jesus said: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it”. John 14:13

I like the story of the church, located in an area plagued by drought, which agreed to come together to pray for rain. Just one of them, a young boy, turned up with an umbrella.

Beautiful! It makes you smile – and it makes a serious point.

The challenge it poses is simple: When I pray, do I do so with expectation? Or do I pray purely as a duty? Even if that duty is genuine, heart-felt, and carried out in loving obedience, shouldn’t it be offered  with real expectation?

The words of Jesus I have quoted, if taken absolutely literally, suggest that whenever we pray “in Jesus’ name” we can be totally confident that what we ask for will be given. It’s not the only place where we read this: it crops up again in this Gospel at 15:16 and 16:23-24. And something very similar is found in Matthew 18:19-20 and 21:21-22, and Mark 11:22-24. It seems it wasn’t simply an off-the-cuff remark (though even if it was, it’s still a saying of Jesus, and therefore not to be dismissed); no, the repetition of the same essential promise suggests that Jesus intends us to take it entirely seriously.

I find, though, that the more I think about it, the more puzzling it becomes: it simply doesn’t square with our experience.

There are, it’s true, a couple of what we might call “provisos”.

For one thing, Jesus makes it clear that faith is called for. No problem there, of course. But it does mean that if we don’t receive what we have asked for it’s tempting for us to condemn ourselves: “Oh well, I just don’t have enough faith!”

All right; that may be true. But then the question arises: How much faith is “enough” faith? After all, Jesus tells us in Matthew 17:20-21 that faith “as small as a mustard-seed” will move mountains. Surely even those of us with sadly limited faith should “qualify” under that condition! (More seriously, going back to those people who prayed for rain, I wonder how many millions of prayers have been offered for the people suffering the bush-fires in Australia. Were they all lacking in faith?)

Another proviso, as I said, is that we pray “in Jesus’ name”.

Again, all right. But then the question arises: What does it actually mean to pray “in Jesus’ name”? Some Christians routinely add those words as a little formula tagged onto the end of every prayer: “We ask this, Lord, in Jesus’ name”. But while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, surely that can’t be what Jesus means? “In Jesus’ name” isn’t a mantra which magically turns a prayer into a request-that-cannot-be-denied. To think that is not faith but superstition.

Christians who bravely insist on taking these verses strictly literally are likely to end up in a kind of spiritual fantasy world.

I worked once as a hospital chaplain, and one day I ran into a nurse who I knew to be a strong Christian. Just one look at her was enough to show that she had a rip-roaring, five-star mega-cold: runny nose, red eyes, the lot. I naturally sympathised: “My, you’ve got a nasty cold!” Whereupon she put me right straight away: “No! I had a cold, but God has taken it away. It’s just that he’s left me with the symptoms.” Now, how daft is that!

(If only I had had my wits about me. I might have suggested that on any future occasion she would do well, perhaps, to ask God to leave the cold and take away the symptoms…)

Where is this leading us? Well, I would certainly be grateful for any suggestions anyone might like to make to explain this puzzle – I’m keen to learn!

There’s a book of essays called Christian Reflections, in which C S Lewis tackles this very question; the chapter is called “Petitionary prayer: a problem without an answer” (it’s one of his more technical chapters, originally addressed to a clergy group, but worth wrestling with).

Whatever you think about Lewis, it’s not often that he, in effect, admits defeat on a particular matter. But in this case he does. He ends his talk not telling his hearers what he thinks but asking them (a little tongue in cheek, I suspect) what they think: “I come to you, reverend Fathers, for guidance. How am I to pray this very night?”

Weak soul that I am, I find that faintly encouraging. If someone like Lewis, with his great spiritual sensitivity and his extraordinarily acute mind, was baffled by this question, perhaps I just have to live with puzzlement.

And so that’s what I do.

But let’s not forget… Jesus obviously wants us to pray with expectation, not just with perseverance, vital though that is. So let’s ask for grace to do exactly that. Perhaps we will never receive an intellectually satisfying answer, but who knows when we will receive something far more wonderful: a true miracle in answer to our faltering prayers?

Whatever, next time you pray for rain, don’t forget to have your umbrella handy…

Father, please teach me what it means to pray with faith, to pray with perseverance, to pray in the name of Jesus – and to pray in keen expectation. Amen.

Talking about intentions

I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise. I will be careful to lead a blameless life – when will you come to me? I will conduct the affairs of my house with a blameless heart. I will not look with approval on anything that is vile. I hate what faithless people do; I will have no part in it. The perverse of heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with what is evil. Psalm 101:1-4

There’s a saying (not in the Bible, by the way): “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I’m not sure if that is sound theology! – but the point it’s making is clear enough: having good intentions is fine, but it’s no use if you don’t carry them out.

I’m sure all of us know the regret of intentions we have failed to fulfil. They come in many shapes and sizes…

On a fairly trivial level, we might start the day with a “to do list”, things we feel are important to us and which we look forward to ticking off one by one as the day goes on. But by the evening we find ourselves looking rather sadly at our list, aware that several items are still outstanding. Perhaps circumstances conspired against us; or we allowed ourselves to get side-tracked; or we genuinely tried but failed; or we just got weary and fed up. Whatever, we feel disappointed with ourselves and rather guilty.

Or it could be a big turning-point in our lives – we lapsed from our marriage or baptismal vows, we failed in our commitment to a new job or venture, we gave up on a new ambition. And now, perhaps many years later, we look back with mixed feelings and a sorry shake of the head.

Not to mention, of course, such matters as a determination to be patient, honest and kind, to not worry, to go the extra mile, to be on time: plus a million other things…

During my student years (1970 to be precise) I bought a new Bible. I wrote my name and the date in the flyleaf and then added four lines of poetry: “For my heart’s desire/ Unto Thine is bent:/ I aspire/ To a full consent.”

Those few words of George Herbert, in essence a simple but profound prayer, summed up perfectly the genuine intention of my heart at that time: an idealistic intention to be a whole-hearted follower of Jesus. Today, thank God, I remain a follower of Jesus: but… “a full consent”? a “heart’s desire” as strong now as it was then…?  Mmm, not so sure about that!

Which is worse – to have good intentions which you fail to keep perfectly? or not to have good intentions at all?

I think that question is what’s known as a “no-brainer”. Of course we should have good intentions! Not to do so is like giving up before we’ve even started. But, to put it mildly, realism is called for.

Psalm 101 is a real challenge when it comes to intentions. It’s just eight verses, yet the words “I will” or “I will not” occur no less than fifteen times: on average twice per verse. This is a man declaring his intentions, no doubt about that!

Here is just a selection of them: “I will be careful to lead a blameless life” (verse 2); “I will not look with approval on anything that is vile” (verse 3); “I will have nothing to do with what is evil” (verse 4).

The heading of this psalm associates it with David, and while these headings were not part of the original text, there seems no reason to doubt it in this case. Certainly it fits a man who is keen not only to live rightly but also to rule justly and fairly, to be truly kingly. Hence: “Whoever slanders their neighbour in secret I will put to silence” (verse 5); “Every morning I will put to silence all the wicked in the land” (verse 8).

Well, whether these are the words of a great king or just an ordinary person, they are bracing stuff. So the challenge is: How strong and clear am I with my “I will”s and “I will not”s? However sadly I sometimes fail, do I at least have that firm intention every day to do, say and think only what is good? Putting the same question in New Testament terms, am I determined to live a life of purity and holiness? A Christlike life?

Assuming David did write these words, I suppose you could say they also offer a kind of comfort to us, albeit of a rather ironic kind.

The fact is, putting it bluntly, that the man who wrote these words was a miserable failure! You only have to read the books of Samuel to see how, with all his undoubted greatness, there were many occasions when he glaringly failed to live up to his own intentions – both in national, “political” matters, and also in matters of personal morality.

Perhaps this is wrong of me, but I must admit that I find that sort-of comforting when I fail to live up to my intentions: “Oh well, at least I’m obviously in good company!”

But then, of course, I have to remind myself that while, yes, “none of us is perfect”, there is in fact only one person we should compare ourselves with…

Forget David! Look to “great David’s greater son”!

Dear Master, in whose life I see/ All that I long but fail to be,/ Let Thy clear light for ever shine,/ To shame and guide this life of mine./ Though what I dream and what I do/ In my poor days are always two,/ Help me, oppressed by things undone,/ O Thou whose deeds and dreams were one. Amen.

John Hunter, 1848-1917

Is “tech” ruining our worship?

Is “tech” ruining our worship?

In retirement my wife and I have joined a church which has many excellent features. One of them is that the “tech desk” generally works very well: the songs and hymns come up on screen as they should, as do sermon bullet points and other graphics.

But I am discovering as I go round preaching in various churches that this is in fact quite rare. Recently a congregation-member in a happy, quite lively church shared with me a frustration: “There’s never a Sunday when there isn’t some kind of glitch! It’s really annoying”.

I could only share his feeling. True, not all churches are that bad, but I’m afraid it’s far from uncommon. You’re happily singing a hymn and – oops – up pops up the wrong verse, or possibly no verse at all. An announcement is being made and – oops – up pops another announcement on a completely different subject. Sometimes the system suffers a complete nervous breakdown and – oops – up pops that wonderful message “no input detected”.

Cue embarrassed looks all round while somebody tries as unobtrusively as possible to correct what’s wrong. He (it’s usually a man with a wonky smile) doesn’t seem to realise that, sorry, but you just can’t be unobtrusive while tip-toeing around at the tech desk. The congregation battles stalwartly on – it’s not so bad if you know the words by heart – but I’m sorry to say that a few less than friendly looks are directed at the poor sap sitting at the desk (yes, even good, spiritually-minded Christians can get irritated…).

Of course, we all love one another as Christians should, so we make light of it and treat it as a joke. We are family, after all.

But it isn’t a joke: worship is a serious business, and calls for our full-minded attention and concentration. And this kind of thing is just so… distracting! What happens to any sense of the presence of God? What happens to a mood of prayerfulness and worship? What happens to any attempt to follow the thread of a song?

The big question: Why have churches become enslaved by this fashion to have this “tech” at all? Don’t quote me on this – it may just be a dark rumour – but I even heard of a church that cancelled one of its regular services because “we don’t have anyone to man the tech desk”. Once I had stopped spluttering with disbelief, rage and fury there were one or two questions I wanted to ask. In fact, I found myself playing through an imaginary conversation in my mind, a bit like a dream. It went something like this…

Me (grabbing hold of my helpless victim by the throat and banging his head vigorously against the nearest available wall – in Christian love, of course): Did I hear you say you have no-one to man the tech desk?

My helpless victim: Er, yes.

Me: And is that really such a problem?

My helpless victim: Well, all the best churches these days seem to have it. I mean, it wouldn’t be right to try and have a service without it, would it?

Me (continuing to tighten my grip – still in Christian love, of course): Why not?

My helpless victim: Er…

Me: May I ask if you have any Bibles about the place?

My helpless victim: Oh yes – they’re on a shelf near the door.

Me: And hymn or song books?

My helpless victim: Yes – they’re probably in a cupboard somewhere.

Me: But they could be got out?

My helpless victim: Well, yes, I suppose so…

Me: Do you have anyone who can speak on a Bible passage?

My helpless victim: Yes – we usually call him our minister, actually.

Me: Very good. And is the Holy Spirit known in this church?

My helpless victim (after a long pause): Oh, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that… Yes, I’m sure it (oh, sorry, he) is. But (ahem) we don’t mention it (oh, sorry, him) very often.

Me (kindly relaxing my grip just a touch): Mmm… Anyway, let’s be clear about this… You have Bibles, songbooks, a preacher – and the Holy Spirit?

My helpless victim: Er, I suppose so, now you put it like that.

Me: Well, may I respectfully suggest you reinstate your cancelled service? And that you cheerfully bin your tech, at least pro tem? And that now we sit down and have a nice friendly cup of tea (we are, after all, united in Christian love)…

At this point I wake up from my dream.

I started by asking if “tech” is ruining our worship. If you belong to a church where it runs well, the answer is probably No (though there may be other issues I haven’t touched on). But if not, I wonder if dumping the tech altogether could just possibly be the way ahead.

The Bible tells us, after all, to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” – not in a maddening, stressful lather of mouse-clicks and error-ridden screen displays.

Anyone with me?

Mean-spirited? – or generous-hearted?

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15

The American novelist Gore Vidal is supposed to have said, “Every time a friend succeeds, something in me dies”. (I say “is supposed” because that quote has been attributed to several others as well.)

I don’t know if it was meant as a sarcastic joke (Vidal was known, apparently, for his “epigrammatic wit”). But taken at face value it reflects intense rivalry, even downright, spiteful jealousy – “I want to be the best! I want to be praised and admired! I hate it when other people outshine me, even my own friends!”

Well, only Vidal himself knew his own heart. But however sad we might find those words, if we are honest I suspect that few of us are completely innocent of such mean-mindedness. Do you – do I – have a jealous streak deep down inside?

If we do, I can’t imagine a better antidote than Paul’s simple words in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice”.

We usually take these words in their most straightforward sense: “If someone else is happy, then be happy with them. Of course!”  And I’m sure that’s right.

Sometimes it’s easy enough – somebody has passed an exam, or got a new job, or had a baby, or got married, or come safely through an operation… In situations like those it’s a pleasure, surely, to share the happiness of others.

But wait a minute… What if that exam was one that we had failed? or if that job was one that we hoped we would get? or if the person that friend married was the person we had set our hearts on marrying? How sincere then is our “rejoicing”? Isn’t it tainted with jealousy, even bitterness?

There’s no point denying what we feel, and if we do feel jealous, that in itself isn’t wrong. Regarding that job, for example: it may be that we really were better qualified for it, and could have done it better. No, it’s not wrong to feel that very natural pang of hurt and jealousy.

What matters is what we do with that feeling.

Do we harbour it, brood on it, allow it to fester and engender in us feelings of anger or self-pity? Or do we deal with it by bringing it to God, and asking him to teach us, even in this sort of situation, to “rejoice with those who rejoice”?

If we do this, then by his Spirit he will bring us to a place where, for all the lingering hurt inside, we can look our fortunate friend right in the eye, congratulate them and wish them well with a genuine smile. And then get on with our lives (perhaps keeping in mind the times we have been the “lucky” ones).

What it all boils down to is the contrast between a mean and a generous spirit. If a person who doesn’t know God feels resentful and hard-done by, you might expect them to be mean-spirited. What motive might they have not to be so? But if a person knows God, and is conscious of how generous God has been with them, then don’t they have every incentive to copy that generous-spiritedness?

Fact: life just isn’t “fair”. So get used to it. But fact also: in God’s providence all wrongs will be righted and perfect justice will be done. Isn’t he the holy God who can do all things?

The Bible contains various examples of the destructive power of jealousy. The first murder happened because Cain’s offering was not accepted  by God, while his brother Abel’s was: so Cain “was very angry and his face was downcast… he attacked his brother and killed him” (Genesis 4:2-16). If only Cain had prayed for grace to feel pleased on Abel’s behalf!

The sorry story of the relationship between King Saul and the young David (1Samuel 18-30) is blighted by Saul’s inability – or should I say refusal? – to take pleasure in David’s great gifts and popularity: see especially 1 Samuel 18:1-9, with the sinister note that “Saul kept a close eye on David”.

The writer of Proverbs tells us, with beautiful bluntness, that “envy rots the bones” (14:30). All right, that may not be literally true – but I think we get the point! The stupid thing is this: if we allow ourselves to be jealous of someone else it doesn’t hurt them one scrap; but, make no mistake, it hurts us badly by poisoning and uglifying our personalities.

I don’t know if you are into new year resolutions; but whether you are or not, Paul’s simple words in Romans 12:15 are worth digesting and praying down deep into our hearts as we make our way through this troubled, dog-eat-dog world.

Happy new year!

Lord God please, by your Spirit, drain my inmost heart of all envy, jealousy, bitterness and self-pity, and teach me to delight in the good fortune of even those I find it difficult to like. Amen.

Do people ever get on your nerves?

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

A friend wrote recently: “There’s nothing quite like the city centre on the Friday before Christmas to make you long for the extinction of the human race…”

Ouch! Don’t worry – he’s a thoroughly nice chap really, if somewhat given to exaggeration.

And, of course, he has a point. People, especially in large numbers, can be intensely irritating. In fact, I tend to feel that a football match is probably even worse than the crowded town centre – all the cursing, swearing and ugly chanting; the selfish people who insist on standing up in front of your children so they just can’t see; the mindless passion channelled towards something that, ultimately, really just doesn’t matter. Ugh!

And then there’s the person who sits next to you on the bus eating smelly food or tormenting you with tinny earphones or loud phone calls or making no attempt to control their children. I could go on… Grrr!

Make no mistake, I’m just as annoyable as the next person; my patience can wear thin pretty quickly. (And, of course, I would never cause annoyance to others, would I?) So I have a lot of sympathy for my friend. Yes, this world would be a truly lovely place if it weren’t for all those other people.

But we have to live in it the way it is, not the way we would like it to be, so we might as well get used to it.

When I find myself feeling like my friend, I have a go-to Bible verse I try (not always successfully, I’m afraid) to bring to mind: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Isn’t that just beautiful? – he “had compassion on them”.

That’s a striking expression: the original Greek uses a word that refers to your “gut” or even your “bowels”. There are times, when we are experiencing some high or extreme emotion, when our very stomachs seem to churn over inside us. And Matthew seems to be suggesting that that’s how it was for Jesus on that occasion (and, of course, many others too).

At Christmas we focus very much on the sheer humanness of Jesus: born as a helpless baby. This humanness didn’t end as he grew up: no, as a man he could be weary and hungry, he knew tears, pain and anguish (yes, what pain! and what anguish!).

And this means there were times he felt impatient  with people, even those he loved. His disciples could be so dense! – why couldn’t they understand? When he went off once, presumably for a bit of peace and recuperation, he seems not to have been pleased to have someone disturb him, even treating her quite sharply (Matthew 15:21-28). But, of course, he never gave way to such a mood; his tenderness and compassion were limitless.

And so on this occasion in Matthew 9, part of a preaching and teaching tour around Galilee, we can picture him viewing the crowds thronging around for words and deeds of healing, with his heart sinking. He could have felt resentment or irritation. But no, whatever his tiredness… he “had compassion on them”.

So how can we make this beautiful little verse our own?

The answer, in principle, is simplicity itself: turn it into a prayer: “Lord Jesus, help me to see these people with your eyes, to feel for them your compassion. Help me to understand that they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Help me to pity rather than despise them…”

If I manage to breathe such a silent prayer (sometimes I fail) I find that it makes a difference straight away; oh, the people don’t change, but I do. And isn’t that what matters most?

This world is full of lost souls. I don’t mean “lost” in the sense of “heading straight for hell” (let’s leave that judgment to the God who knows all things), but in the sense of leaderless or rudderless, like children lost in a forest.

Putting it more accurately, they do have leaders – but leaders who lead them astray; and rudders – but rudders permanently jammed in the wrong position. What hope do they have but to be shown the right way, and led to the right leader, even Jesus himself.

And whose responsibility is it to do that if not yours and mine?

Lord Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd. So… 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)