Welcome!

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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Eternal life – the real thing, or a pathetic imitation?

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Colossians 3:1

I really didn’t know how to react to what I was reading. With sympathy? – “Oh, how sad! How pathetic!” Or with contempt, even anger? – “How unutterably stupid! How could anyone even think of such a thing?”

I was reading about those mega-rich people who are planning – at enormous expense – to have their bodies deep-frozen when they die so they can be resuscitated at some future date.

The very idea seems grotesque, revolting. Assuming for a moment that it is actually possible, I try to imagine what it might be like to die in 2021 and then to wake up again in, say, 2121… Who am I? Where am I? What is this place that I find myself in? What am I supposed to do? Will I be for ever dependent on these tubes, these people sticking needles in me?

Anyone who has read Frankenstein will be aware of how one writer’s imagination pictured some of the horrors that might lie ahead. And all for what? Presumably, in order one day to die all over again.

Just as the people of Babel set out to build a tower “that reaches to the heavens” (Genesis 11) – an ambition that is still being pursued in many of the world’s enormous cities – so there has also been that goal of defeating death. As if human beings can ever out-god God!

If ever a project exposed the natural human fear of death, this surely is it. This, I suppose, is where the element of sympathy came into my thoughts. Has no-one ever told these deluded people that the thing that they are pursuing, at such great trouble and expense, has in fact already been achieved? Has no-one ever told them the Easter story?… “The women hurried away from the tomb, filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings’, he said…” (Matthew 28:8-9).

No laboratories. No scientific techniques. No monstrous refrigerators or brilliantly concocted chemicals. Nothing but the sheer almighty power of the God of all creation. A garden – but not, like Eden, with an angelic armed guard declaring “Strictly no entry” (Genesis 3:24). No, a garden with a tomb gaping wide open.

Truly a “new creation” has begun, and one which has no end.

We must make no mistake: without the resurrection there is no such thing as Christianity; with it, there is hope without end. Just read again the glowing words of 1 Corinthians 15!

Death is not an easy thing to come to terms with, even to the person of solid faith in Christ, and it’s not until our eyes open on that wonderful, final resurrection morning that the trouble and sadness will be finally gone.

Two poems spring to mind reflecting different attempts to come to terms with death. The first is Christian, though I would almost say it is slightly over-optimistic.

Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) wrote these words, which were later turned into a hymn…

And thou, most kind and gentle death,/ Waiting to hush our latest breath…/ Thou leadest home the child of God…

It’s true, of course – except for those words “kind and gentle”. Yes, “kindly” and “gently” may be how death takes some people; but they are, I suspect, a small minority. Even those who believed most strongly in Christ’s victory over death still described it as an enemy: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians15:26) – which implies that while death is defeated in Christ, it is yet to be finally destroyed.

So, what? Well, this reassures us that our shrinking from death is not a failure of faith, a sign of spiritual shallowness, but a natural part of our fallen nature. It’s no accident that after the shocking and premature death of Stephen, the first “Christian” to die (that word, of course, didn’t yet exist), he was “mourned deeply” by the infant church (Acts 8:2).

Let’s never be ashamed to grieve!

The other poem is by Dylan Thomas, who I assume was an unbeliever. He witnesses his father approaching death, and pleads with him…

Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It’s a moving and powerful poem. But that sentiment – “burn… rave… rage” – can never, surely, be the attitude of the believer in Christ. Mourn, yes; grieve, of course; but not that!

I can’t think of a better way to finish than with perhaps the Bible’s greatest word on death: here is Paul in Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

An enemy, yes; distressing, yes; perhaps painful, yes. But, in spite of all that, a gain. Christ is alive; and we are alive in him. And, without end, we will be more truly alive than ever we have been in the past.

Lord God, thank you for the victory over death that Jesus has won on our behalf. Thank you that, even when my faith is weak, and the sorrow of death threatens to overwhelm me, I share in that victory, and so have hope. Amen.

The inside you – the real you?

Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy. Proverbs 14:10 (NIV)

Your joy is your own; your bitterness is your own. No one can share them with you. Proverbs 14:10 (Good News)

One of the pleasures – and also the frustrations – of the Book of Proverbs is the way it sometimes dumps a comment in your lap, so to speak, and then just leaves you to get on with it: as if to say, “There you are; make of that what you like”. Proverbs 14:10 is a perfect example: it’s simply an observation, really.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with it. We all have secret selves, joys and sorrows which we carry about inside, and which no-one else knows about. But this verse leaves you feeling like replying to Solomon, or whoever wrote it, “Well, thanks for that pretty obvious observation; you’re right, of course. But what do you expect me to do about it?”

Usually the sayings in Proverbs leave us with a definite challenge, or perhaps a reassurance: “The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish” says the very next verse. And you think, “Well, that’s pretty no-nonsense; but yes, I’m glad that God is a holy and just God, and I take seriously his call to be righteous”. And a little further on, verse 21: “It is a sin to despise one’s neighbour, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy”. And you think to yourself, “Mmm, am I sometimes guilty of arrogance when I look at other people? And do I have a kind and generous heart?”

It’s this sort of unpredictability that makes Proverbs such a great dipping-in book. Have you dipped in recently?

Well, if verse 10 does rather leave us hanging, and it’s up to us to decide for ourselves what we can get out of it that’s of practical value, what can we come up with?

My own immediate reaction is to see it as a challenge to grow in compassion.

The fact is that we can never know more than a millionth part of what is going on in somebody else’s heart. That scowling, ill-mannered teenager – what if he is just beginning to discover unwelcome things about his developing sexuality, and is confused and frightened? That old woman who won’t catch your eye and say good morning – what if she has just come from the hospital and been told that her husband is unlikely to live more than a few weeks? That middle-aged couple who seem to have withdrawn from contact – what if their son and his wife have told them that their marriage is over, so they’ll have to get used to seeing them, not to mention their wonderful grandchildren, much less often? What then?

There’s a lot of sadness about in our world, isn’t there? Not to say sheer heartbreak. But we don’t walk around with a placard round our neck: “I’m very, very sad, so please make allowances for me”. We more likely bottle it up and “put on a brave face”.

Plain bad behaviour is not be excused, of course, and certainly we shouldn’t excuse ourselves. But how often is bad behaviour “plain”? If we knew the full “backstory” behind someone’s character traits and peculiarities, how differently would we treat them? I can’t imagine anyone attempting to excuse Adolf Hitler; but I do remember how I needed to put the book down and spend a couple of minutes looking at the wall-paper when I first read that when he was a little boy his father used to routinely beat him on getting home from work.

It’s a good job that when it comes to judging, God alone knows the full story, isn’t it? No doubt that’s one reason why Jesus stated so bluntly, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged…” (Matthew 7:1).

You could take Proverbs 14:10 as a reason for keeping well out of other people’s lives: if I really can’t know another person’s bitternesses and joys, well, I won’t take the trouble to try. But that surely would be wrong. “A problem shared is a problem halved”, they say, and there’s real truth there.

So another challenge arises: Am I the kind of person that other people feel able to confide in? Never intrusive or nosy, of course; but approachable, sympathetic, sensitive, simply kind (isn’t “kind” a lovely word!). Or am I too wrapped up in myself and my own concerns?

We might reply, But I have my own bitternesses too! Yes, indeed. Perhaps then I’m the person who needs to do the sharing…? Yes! Why not?

Whatever, Proverbs 14:10 suggests to me three basic rules of thumb. First: it’s better to make allowance than to pass judgment. Second: always think the best of the other person rather than the worst. Third: remember that even a smiling face may mask an aching heart.

Dear Father, thank you that you know me through and through, yet still love me. Please help me to be sensitive, kind and forgiving to everyone I meet, and to leave any judging to you. Amen.

Glorious nonentities

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. 2 Corinthians 6:3-10

I have to admit that I always find myself smiling when I read this passage. When we read Paul we usually expect the building-up of a cool, logical argument: Paul the theologian, in fact. But these verses aren’t like that. They are more like an outburst, quite emotional, where he piles one phrase on another almost as if at random – if you read it out loud you are likely to be quite breathless by the time you get to the end (why not try it?).

What’s it all about?

The key is the first part of verse 4: “… as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way”.

Paul wasn’t liked by everyone, and in the Corinth church in particular there were people who tried to discredit him. “Well”, he is saying, “you can criticise me as much as you like, but I won’t tolerate you discrediting my ministry” (verse 3). He wants them to be in no doubt that he is doing his work as an apostle in a truly Christlike spirit. So he hits them right between the eyes with this catalogue of nearly thirty punchy expressions.

They aren’t, in fact, as random as they might seem…

He starts in verses 4-5 with a list of negative things, things to do with outward circumstances: troubles, hardships, distresses; beatings, imprisonments, riots; hard work, sleepless nights, hunger.

Obviously for Paul the service of God wasn’t exactly a bundle of laughs! On the contrary, it involved suffering, and serious suffering at that.

But then in verses 6-7 he suddenly switches to all manner of positive, beautiful things, things to do with inner character: purity, understanding, patience, kindness; the Holy Spirit (that could be translated “a spirit of holiness”), sincere love, truthful speech, the power of God; weapons of righteousness.

And then in verses 8-10, as if despairing of making logical sense of these clashing opposites, he frankly gives up the attempt and puts them side by side: glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as imposters… (I’ll leave you to go back and read the rest).

It’s all contradictory, of course; but the point Paul is making is that it’s also true. This, he says, is exactly what Christian service is like – and you don’t need to be an apostle like him to be able to say, “Yes, that’s pretty much my experience too; that’s how it is for me as a youth worker, or church leader, or small-group leader, or food-bank organiser, or night-shelter manager, or…” well, you name it.

Anyone involved in any kind of true Christian ministry soon discovers that it’s thrilling – and depressing; exhilarating – and exhausting; joyful – and tearful. Beware of people who only talk enthusiastically about “the sheer joy of Christian service”! – because (whisper it very gently) they, ahem, don’t know what they’re talking about. This wasn’t how Paul found it, was it?

And, far more to the point, this wasn’t how Jesus found his ministry. Wonderful miracles – and squabbling disciples. Adoring listeners – and vicious opponents. Intimacy with his Father – and satanic attacks. Not to mention crucifixion.

Some years ago my wife and I were chatting about the state of our finances. Please be assured, this wasn’t an entirely serious conversation. But things were, shall we say, a bit tight; and perhaps it was also during one of those phases of ministry when things really weren’t very encouraging.

We found ourselves ruminating vaguely on the question: How different might things have been for us if we had never become Christians at all, but lived a completely “worldly” life? Or if, having become Christians, we hadn’t ended up as a minister and his wife?

Our financial giving to our own church and to different areas of Christian work has never been anything very remarkable – please don’t think that – but, well, it all builds up over the years, doesn’t it? And so we couldn’t help reflecting how much trouble and trial we might have been saved, even how much fatter our bank balance might have been. The holidays we might have had… the cars we might have been able to afford… the little treats we might have been able to enjoy…

At this point we smiled and asked: But would we want it to have been any different? To which, of course, there could only be one answer…

I feel slightly ashamed to talk about our tiny difficulties in the same breath as the things Paul is talking about – “light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17) indeed! But in our sinful humanity I would hazard a guess that everyone who genuinely aims to live a life in the service of God is tempted occasionally to feel, well, resentful, let’s put it no stronger than that. Could that be you?

The lesson of Paul’s dramatic catalogue is as simple as it could be… When things are going well, when your work seems satisfying and fruitful – great! But don’t take it for granted; it won’t always be that way; there will be troubles and pressures, disappointments and frustrations.

And when things are hard, a slog rather than soaring on wings, tiring, demanding and seemingly unrewarding – don’t lose heart! So it was for Paul. So it was for Jesus himself. Why not also for you and me?

As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain”.

Father God, thank you for the privilege of knowing you and, even more, of serving you. Please help me to rejoice in the good times and to hold fast in the hard ones, knowing that you have in store for me something wonderful beyond description. Amen.

All truth is God’s truth

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”. Romans 12:21

The philosopher Socrates lived over 400 years before Jesus. This puts him roughly into the same period as the biblical prophets Haggai and Zechariah, and the two nation-builders Ezra, priest and scribe, and Nehemiah, builder and administrator.

In other words, this is the time when the events recorded in the Old Testament are coming to an end – a time when, after the misery and humiliation of the “exile” in Babylon (catch a strong flavour of that in Psalm 137), God’s people are re-establishing themselves as a nation.

Socrates, then, knew nothing of Jesus. Presumably he will have known something of the Jews and their God, but as a Greek he was part of a great flowering of learning, philosophy and culture with which that nation is still associated. He never wrote a book, but his disciple Plato recorded many of his dialogues, and passed on his legacy.

Most of us – certainly me – know next to nothing about Socrates. And why should we, when we have Jesus as saviour, lord and teacher? Fair enough. But the fact that we acknowledge Jesus as Lord doesn’t mean that there aren’t other fascinating figures in human history, figures from whom we can learn and who might even point in a dim way towards Jesus.

Certainly, various opinions Socrates is remembered for could be taken as anticipating the teaching of Jesus. One of the best-known and simplest is this: it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it. It may not feel that way at the time; but could any of us, having thought about those words as Christians, possibly disagree with them?

And for Socrates they weren’t just empty words, for he himself died what might be called a martyr’s death.

He was condemned by the authorities in Athens. His crimes were “impiety” – that he didn’t believe in the city’s gods – and that he “corrupted the youth by his teaching” – this because he encouraged them to think things through for themselves and not just swallow whole the stories of the gods and heroes of the Greek legends, including their grossly immoral behaviour.

He was made to drink the poison hemlock, which he did with calm and dignity. The night before he died he was offered the chance to escape, but he turned it down, preferring to spend the time in discussion with his friends.

A man worthy of our attention, I would say.

I don’t know if Jesus ever heard of Socrates. But he certainly would have agreed with that saying – that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it. He put much the same thought in even more startling terms with his command: “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also” (Matthew 5: 39). He told his followers: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).

Paul sums it up perfectly when he writes “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

What a wonderful world this would be if everyone followed that command! It reminds us that those who follow Jesus are not just “ordinary” people – nice people tidied up a bit – but transformed people, people who are being made a little more like Jesus every day.

Is that how you see yourself? Truly a “new creation” in Christ? Again, Paul puts it perfectly in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “we all (note that “all”!) … are being transformed into his image from glory to glory”.

Christian, you are already glorious today! – and tomorrow you will be even more glorious. And one day…!

Why did I, a Christian, start this blog with Socrates? Because I want to put him on a par with Jesus? Of course not. To be honest, I just came across his name in something I was reading. But perhaps there were two reasons lurking at the back of my mind.

First, while of course the Bible is always our priority, we need to remember that this world presents us with all sorts of individuals who had fascinating things to say, and who, for better or worse, changed the course of human history. Socrates was not, as far as I know, a particularly “religious” man, but he had convictions, and he lived a particular kind of life, which fed into the flow of religious ideas.

It’s said that “everything is connected to everything else”. As long as Jesus is always at the centre, isn’t it good if we Christians have what I would call a hungry mind, eager to expand our knowledge?

More specifically, thinking about Socrates takes us to that “gap” period between the two testaments, between Malachi and Matthew. A lot happened in those years! – but we tend to be woefully ignorant of the main developments, the lead-up to Matthew’s compelling words, “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about…” (Matthew 1:18).

Is it time to plug a gap in our knowledge?

Father, you love the whole world and all its peoples, not only Israel in days gone by and your church today, but “all tribes, nations, peoples and tongues”. Give me a desire to learn about “all people that on earth do dwell”, and to see them in the light of Jesus. Amen.

There are many good books, both Christian and non-Christian, which help to fill in the gap between the testaments and generally to help us see how the Bible hangs together. My very warm recommendation would be the Lion Handbook to the Bible. True, it won’t tell you much about Socrates, but it is an absolute goldmine of information provided by well-qualified authors. Lots of colour pictures! Lots of maps, charts and other graphics too; and all in colour. The charts on pages 26-29 are a perfect starting-point for anyone interested in exploring the Christian faith in its wider world-wide context. Next time somebody asks you what you’d like for Christmas…

(And just in case you’re wondering… no, I’m not on commission from Lion.)

A woman, a man and a flock of sheep (2)

Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends? Song of Songs 1:7

Last time thought how important it is to appreciate what kind of literature we are reading when we come to different parts of the Bible. If we are not to misunderstand them, the various books have to be understood in their proper light and applied in their proper context.

To illustrate this principle I picked one of the Bible’s most puzzling books, the Song of Songs, and focussed pretty much at random on the verse above, asking what sense we can make of it. What sort of book is the Song? Why has God (who is never mentioned, by the way) seen fit to give it to us in his word? Is there something wrong with us if we find it almost hopelessly obscure?

It’s probably easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It isn’t law, like Leviticus or Deuteronomy. It isn’t history, like Kings or Chronicles or a Gospel. It isn’t a letter or a prophesy. It isn’t praise of God, like the Psalms. It isn’t visionary material – “apocalyptic” – like Ezekiel or Daniel or Revelation.

So… what is it?

Traditionally, it has been grouped with books referred to as “Wisdom” literature, along with Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These books are largely poetic, and they do their job more by creating impressions, thoughts and questions in our minds, and by stirring our imaginations, than by straight teaching. They very often deal with down-to-earth, everyday life, and challenge us about how we grapple with these issues. Its wisdom with its sleeves rolled up, not just intellectual cleverness.

Broadly speaking, the Song has been interpreted in two main ways throughout both Jewish and Christian history.

First, allegory.

An allegory is usually a simple enough story, but one which carries a second meaning for those with eyes to see. On the face of it the Narnia stories are tales about a magic land, a lion and four children. But the lion experiences death and returns to life to win freedom and joy for Narnia and the children. So no wonder Christians have seen the stories as being really about Jesus.

Jesus himself, in some of his parables, used allegories. The sower who goes out sowing his seed is the messenger of God spreading the good news of the kingdom. The different types of toil represent the people who hear and respond in different ways.

And likewise the Song portrays the relationship between God and his people Israel, or Jesus and his church, as a love relationship between a man and a woman. There is intense joy; there is pain; there is deep longing; there is ultimate fulfilment.

Convincing? To most Bible-readers this smacks more of wishful thinking than of realistic reading. True, Jesus is described in the New Testament as a shepherd, like the main male figure in the Song; and he is also pictured as the bridegroom of his bride, the church. But once you’ve said that, that’s about it, and it certainly isn’t an interpretation that hits you between the eyes!

Second, it’s exactly what it first appears to be: a love poem, or perhaps a sequence of love poems. And the reason God has given it to us in the Bible is to remind us of the sheer beauty of love between a man and a woman – yes, even along with some of the pains and hurts that such love brings. That understanding has the merit of being natural and literal.

It is frankly erotic – the very first line, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” reminds us that sex, properly used, is good. (It was, after all, invented by God (who else!?), and should be delighted in.)

The beauty of nature is also something to be enjoyed – the fragrances and fruits, the trees and the flowers, the wonder of the human body (not least the female body). We read about gazelles and does and stags as well as sheep, and are reminded of the teeming vitality, energy and fruitfulness of the animal kingdom. This could almost be a picture of Adam and Eve before the fall!

If you are determined to find a story in these eight chapters, you won’t be the first to try; there certainly are scraps of narrative along the way, but trying to piece them together is a lost cause. (One theory is that the woman is a simple country girl longing for her childhood sweetheart while King Solomon is on the prowl, wanting to add her to his harem. Convincing?)

A vital principle of Bible-reading is to take it in the most natural sense possible, unless there is very good reason. And for my money, that means that the Song of Songs is a poem designed to fire our imaginations and to cause us to delight in both the wonders of creation and, particularly, the beauty of human love. That’ll do for me!

Father in heaven, thank you for your greatest gift of all, the gift of love. Thank you for your love for us so clearly demonstrated in Jesus. But thank you too for human love, the love of man and woman, family love, friendship love, the love of nature, and sexual love. Teach me always to love with faithfulness, sacrifice and purity. Amen.

A woman, a man, and a flock of sheep

Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends? Song of Songs 1:7

One thing I felt I wasn’t too bad at as a minister was encouraging people to read the Bible. No problem there! “The Bible is the word of God, so aim to read it every day!” Simple.

But telling people to read the Bible is one thing, teaching them how to read it is very different; and in that respect I fear I fell short. And perhaps I’m not the only one.

You might say (especially if you want to be kind) “What’s your problem? All people have to do” (assuming they can read; I know not everyone can) “is open the Bible and read it. Again, simple”.

But wait a minute. Is it simple? Look at Song of Songs 1:7, which I have quoted at the top. Oh yes, anyone who is literate can read those words, parrot-fashion if necessary. But what’s the good of that if they simply baffle our understanding?

The speaker is a woman, and the person she is speaking to is the man she loves. It would appear that he is a shepherd. But what more do we know? She seems to be a bit aggrieved at the way he is treating her. But – who is she? And who is he? Why is she “veiled”? Or is she in fact veiled? What’s troubling her? And who are these “friends”?

“Oh, you have to look at the context”, someone will say. And quite right too. That’s a vital rule when it comes to reading the Bible. But it doesn’t really solve the problem here, for “the context” is in effect the whole book, all eight chapters. And even after you’ve read them right through, you may not be much the wiser.

For one thing, there’s no mention of God – nor, of course, of Jesus, this being in the Old Testament. To be honest, you might even find yourself wondering “What is this book doing in the Bible!” (I’ve picked out Song of Songs 1:7 pretty much at random, by the way; I could have chosen almost any verse to make the point – which is that reading the Bible is not a simple matter.)

I suspect most of us, if we read this little book at all, hurry through it out of a sense of duty, and then turn to a Psalm or a bit of a Gospel or a letter; what a relief! But is that really satisfactory? Aren’t we rather like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:31: when asked if he understood what he was reading in Isaiah he replied, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” How indeed?

Picture, please, a pile of books… a crime novel, a cookery book, a car maintenance manual, an anthology of poetry, and a fairy tale. All these have one thing in common – yes, they’re books! But pretty well nothing else. And – and this is the point – they all need to be read in different ways. Try and read a telephone directory the same way you read a novel and you’ll soon lose interest (no shortage of characters, but not much of a story-line).

We can draw a comparison with the Bible. It consists of what we call “books”, sixty-six of them, though some are little more than a page or two. And if you were to read, say, the Psalms the same way you read Revelation, or Mark’s Gospel the same way you read Isaiah, there’s only one result: confusion. Before we set out to read a book we need to be clear what kind of book it is, and then read it accordingly.

Because we believe the Bible is the word of God, we believe it is true. But even that little word isn’t quite as simple as we sometimes think. Take the Narnia stories: are they true? Answer: yes – and no.

On the one hand, no of course they’re not; they are stories, fantasies, the product of somebody’s imagination. No such place as Narnia has ever existed, no such lion as Aslan neither. But on the other hand, yes they are; Aslan stands for Jesus, dying and rising again; the White Witch stands for the devil. In these children’s stories C S Lewis retells the Christian story – the true story – in imaginative form.

You don’t hear it so much these days, but when I was a young Christian over fifty years ago, you heard people say things like “I don’t bother about all this interpretation stuff – I just take the Bible in its plain, simple, straightforward sense”.

Which sounds great: but what about when the meaning of a verse or passage just isn’t plain, or simple, or straightforward? What’s the plain, simple and straightforward sense of Song of Songs 1:7 – whether we pluck it out of context or try to see it in the book as a whole?

How then should we read the Song of Songs? How, indeed, should we read the Bible as a whole? We’ll have to come back to it next time…!

Thank you, Father, for the rich variety of your word, the Bible. Thank you for the largely simple parts which I can read and benefit from immediately. But thank you too for the challenging and puzzling parts which often only yield up their treasures after perseverance and determined reflection. Please help me by your Spirit to give those parts the time and patience they need. Amen.

Thinking about dying

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on’. Revelation 14:13

We had a chat recently about dying, my wife and I. Which of us would go first? In what form would it claim us? Would it be very painful and distressing, or would we be spared suffering?

I can’t remember now what prompted our conversation – perhaps the death of a friend, or the fact that we had chalked up 40 years of marriage. It wasn’t a long conversation, and in no way morbid; in fact we managed without any difficulty to find some aspects to laugh about. I think it was a healthy conversation to have – not trying to hide away from a topic that we all find unwelcome, but looking it fair and square in the face.

The New Testament is not just up-front about death, it positively shakes its fist at it: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?… Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). So exclaims the apostle Paul, quoting from Isaiah 25 and Hosea 13.

Even more striking, there is that moment when he plainly states that he has reached the point where death, for him, would be preferable to staying alive: “… to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). To die is gain! What a thing to say! Can he say it because he is so exceptionally “spiritual”? Or is he simply, after many years of suffering for Christ’s sake, his body battered and beaten, his mind worn down, simply – well, ready to go?

We don’t know. But what we do know is that he looked into the face of death with strong confidence. And if him, why not us too?

I don’t mean, of course, to make light of death – please don’t think that. Death is a horrible thing, and it’s entirely natural that for most of our lives we shrink from it. Paul may describe it as “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), but enemy is the word he uses! I’m conscious that there may be some reading this for whom death is a very present enemy, and certainly no laughing matter.

(I’ve never been quite comfortable with that verse of Francis of Assisi’s great hymn, “And thou, most kind and gentle death,/ Waiting to hush our latest breath”. For many, death comes as anything but “kind and gentle”. And I’m always grateful for the little detail Luke gives us in Acts 8:2, that after the stoning of Stephen, “Godly men buried him and mourned deeply for him”. They knew he had gone to be with Jesus, but that didn’t stop them feeling the bitterness of death – they didn’t cry “Praise the Lord!” and dance a jig.)

Death is best looked full in the face. Let me share three scenarios from my own experience…

First: a sitting room where an elderly man is rapidly approaching death, and some neighbours have come round to offer support. They’re kind, well-meaning people, but, I have to admit, I find myself getting more and more cross. “Oh, we’ll soon have you up and running around again, old chap!” – that’s the form their comfort takes. And I’m sitting there thinking “Oh, stop it! What’s the point of this? The dear man is dying. And he knows he’s dying. His wife and family know he’s dying. And you know he’s dying. Stop this pretence!” I don’t say it, but that’s the way I’m thinking. (Easy for me, of course.)

Second: another sitting room where a really elderly lady welcomes me. She hasn’t been out of the house for some years, and her body has pretty well closed down. We always pray for a few moments before I leave, and she says: “Oh, Colin, please pray that the Lord will take me!” Which, of course, I gladly do. And which, of course, he gladly does (though not quite immediately!).

Third: a young married woman has been fighting terminal illness for several years. She has received the best treatment available, and been loved and prayed for by her family, church and friends. But it’s clear the time is approaching.

So she and her husband arrange occasional “Getting ready for heaven” parties. I personally never attended one, so I can’t vouch for what went on. But I have a pretty good idea: nice food and drink; plenty of chat and laughter; plenty of prayer. And, I suspect, not a few tears.

What a difference Jesus makes!

No, death is never easy. But if we belong to Christ, the crucified and risen one, how can we not approach it with faith, however faltering, and with hope, however fragile?

May God help us to cling to the clear promise of his word: “He 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).

Thanks be to God!

Loving heavenly Father, thank you that Jesus conquered death, and that by faith in him I share in his victory. May that peace and hope fill my heart until the day when I see him face to face. Amen.

God’s new start (4) Samuel

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel’s word came to all Israel. 1 Samuel 3:19-4:1

We have followed the story of Hannah and her husband Elkanah, of Eli the tragic priest of Israel and his corrupt sons, and of Samuel, the baby born to Hannah as an answer to her prayers (his name sounds like “heard by God”.

And so God’s new start gets under way, and everything is fresh for the people of Israel.

Now it’s true, of course, that God doesn’t repeat himself in history; yet I think we can pick out of this story certain features of what has sometimes been called “revival”. If we pray again for God’s renewal in our own time there are various things we are likely to see…

  • It starts small.

The new start of 1 Samuel 3 had its origin in an ordinary Israelite family – an otherwise unknown woman in great emotional distress who cries out to God, and a husband who stands by her and tries hard to comfort her. We’re not talking here about great prophets or preachers or charismatic personalities (that comes later).

This is a pattern which is often repeated – think of Moses the baby left to drown in the River Nile, or David the last of Jesse’s sons, or Simon the Galilean fishermen. No blasts of trumpets or shouts of rejoicing; just God working his eternal purposes out through the most ordinary of people. Not to forget, of course, the baby born to a peasant girl and laid in a manger.

Any family – or individual – could be the starting-point of a new initiative of God. Could that be you or me?

  • It involves sacrifice.

How wonderful it must have been when Hannah found she was pregnant! Yes, indeed. But wait a minute: there was a heavy price to pay – that longed-for child was dedicated to the service of God in the temple at Shiloh, so her parents didn’t have the joy of seeing him grow up at home in those early days. Oh yes, they visited him, of course; but is that the same?

To be ambitious for the glory of God is a great thing. But let’s not be naïve. Read not only the Bible but also church history, and you see the sheer sufferings of men and women who were specially used by God. And again, read about Jesus and his cross.

  • It calls for deep personal holiness.

When Samuel first went to serve Eli at Shiloh he was still a child, in days when “the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1). But he heard the voice of God – “Samuel! Samuel!” – and responded to it; something he never stopped doing till the day he died.

It’s no coincidence that God called a child: all innocence and teachability. We easily become cynical and world-weary as we grow up – the very opposite of “pure in heart”, to use Jesus’ expression. And didn’t Jesus say plainly that, in order simply to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like little children? Do you still have a child-like faith? Do I?

  • It doesn’t happen all at once.

In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel is still a young boy; and we don’t meet him again until chapter 7, as a grown man. Of course, he needed to do some growing up before God could really use him!

It’s true that revivals sometimes burst right out of the blue – the Day of Pentecost and the baptising of the Holy Spirit is the classic example. But even very sudden revivals have been prepared by God quietly and unnoticed, perhaps for many years. So keep persevering in prayer.

The writer of 1 Samuel 3 does give us a brief progress report at the end of chapter 3: “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up… All Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognised that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord… And Samuel’s word came to all Israel.” God has his own sense of timing – and he can’t be hurried!

  • It is centred on God’s word.

The God of the Bible is a God who speaks; and his word has life and power. I love the little expression we find in 3:19: God “let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.” His words hit home; none of them were wasted or barren; they stirred people’s hearts and challenged their minds.

It was said of Jesus that “he taught as one that had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:29), and I think that the Old Testament writer means exactly the same thing of Samuel. No boring, tedious diatribes, but living words uttered in the fresh power of the Holy Spirit! Oh for more of that today!

So… a renewal begins: the old gives way to the new, and it won’t be long before David arrives on the scene.

But, sadly, we have to finish on an unhappy note. I invite you to fast-forward to chapter 8 and verses 1-3. It doesn’t seem as if Samuel’s sons were as bad as Eli’s, but…

Which serves to remind us that renewal is something we constantly need, never something we can take for granted or count on.

Living Lord God, please come on your church today in fresh power and vitality. And, if it is your will, please make me part of the process, however great the cost may be. Amen.

God’s new start (3) Eli and Ichabod

The man who brought the news replied, ‘Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured’. When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backwards off his chair. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and he was heavy. He had led Israel for forty years. 1 Samuel 4:17-18

The daughter-in-law of Israel’s priest Eli died giving birth to a baby boy. The last thing she did was to give him his name: Ichabod, which means “Glory gone!” (1 Samuel 4:19-22). Poor child! What must it have been like to live with such a name?

Her reason, though, was clear. Her husband, Phinehas, had been killed in battle against the Philistines; Eli, old and nearly blind, fell, broke his neck and died on hearing the news; and worst of all, God’s covenant box – the Ark – had been seized by the Philistines and installed in Ashdod in the temple of their god Dagon.

As far as she was concerned, if the Ark of the Covenant was gone, then God was gone. And if God was gone, then all the glory of Israel had also gone. It seems she died in despair.

Of course, God hadn’t gone; he still had plans for his special people, and they were all wrapped up in another child, Samuel, son of Hannah and Elkanah. (“Samuel” sounds like “Heard by God”.) But the unfolding of those plans still lay in the future, and Phinehas’ wife would never see them.

The early chapters of 1 Samuel are all about God’s decision that it was time to pass judgment on Eli and his family. Eli was 98 and had served as Israel’s leader for 40 years. His sons, who had succeeded him in the priesthood, had gone from bad to worse, profaning sacred acts of worship and wallowing in sexual immorality. Eli had tried to restrain them (2:12-25), but his efforts seem to have been pretty feeble, and had no effect. A new start was urgently needed, and God had Samuel lined up to lead it.

Forty years’ leadership! – and what to show for it? How sad is that!

Perhaps because of my own weaknesses and failings, I find it hard not to have some sympathy for Eli. I get the impression that his heart was sincere – as we sometimes say, “He meant well” – but things had just got beyond him.

On the plus side, he was quick to correct himself over thinking Hannah was drunk, and he pronounced a blessing on her (1:17). When she and Elkanah came to Shiloh to worship and to visit Samuel he prayed that she would have more children (2:18-21). He did at least try to restrain his sons, however ineffectively. When the bad news of God’s judgment fell he didn’t try to wriggle out of his responsibility, but accepted it honestly and humbly (3:17-18), even from the mouth of a child.

Perhaps most striking of all, his death seems to have been caused more by the shock of learning that the Ark was lost than by the news that his sons were dead. Yes, I think his heart was right.

But it’s hard not to see him as one of the Bible’s most pathetic failures. Of course it’s good to have a heart which is in the right place, but what’s the good of that if we aren’t in fact doing God’s will?

This can prompt a question in us, especially those of us who are no longer young: Have I maintained my spiritual fire as the years have gone by? This perhaps is the main battle of the Christian life: the pressures of life take their toll, and a red-hot spiritual zeal can easily cool, so how are we to avoid becoming a spent force, a “burnt-out case”?

The Bible nowhere gives us a detailed account of what we must do, though obviously drawing near to God day by day in prayer and scripture-reading, and sharing in regular worship and fellowship with other believers, is basic. But let’s face the fact that there are times when, though we know these things are vital, we just have no appetite for them.

Each of us must work out our own way of tackling this. But be in no doubt: it is possible – and it is important. Paul tells the Christians of Rome: “never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour”. And then he adds an important clue: “…serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). Yes, it’s when we drop out of committed service that the warning bells begin to ring – or should do, anyway.

So God saw fit to judge Eli. I don’t think, by the way, that that judgment had to do with his eternal salvation – the Old Testament in general has very little to say on that subject. No, he judged him as to his failure of service and ministry; you could compare this to Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.

But we would be wise to remember that we too will one day face God’s judgment – not as to our salvation, but as to the use to which we have put our lives and our gifts. And I doubt if that will be a comfortable experience for many of us.

Here’s a question we can put to ourselves: What will my epitaph be when my earthly life is over and done?

Will it be: “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Or will it be, like Eli, that saddest of words… Ichabod?

Father, I confess how low my spiritual light often burns, and how feeble is my faith and commitment. Help me to take to heart the warning of Eli’s story, and grant that, however weakly, something of the beauty of Jesus might shine from me each day. Amen.

A neglected duty?

I published this post exactly four years ago, when there was dangerous tension between the USA and North Korea. It has just popped up again in the “Memories” section of my Facebook page. Given the horrible events unfolding this last weekend in Afghanistan – not to mention the tragic earthquake in Haiti – it seemed appropriate to publish it again.

I wonder how many of our churches focussed prayer on these topics in yesterday’s services?

I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 1Timothy 2:1-2

I was at school in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis took place – a stand-off between the Soviet and American governments. I hadn’t a clue what it was all about, but I can still remember a real tension in the air. Was something truly terrible about to happen? Was the world about to be plunged into nuclear war? It went on for about a fortnight, until some kind of agreement was cobbled together which allowed both sides to save face. The world breathed a sigh of relief.

Some political writers think that something similar is happening today, this time between America and North Korea. Could North Korea’s threats to launch missiles into various American territories actually be carried out? And what might the Americans do in response? Could the unthinkable happen?

Most of us (certainly me, anyway) are in no position to express an opinion. But I can’t view the situation without being driven back to Paul’s words to Timothy: that it is the duty and responsibility of the Christian church to pray “for all people – for kings and all those in authority”.

Paul and his protégé Timothy lived under the rule of the pagan Roman Empire: which was in fact the cradle into which Christianity was born. Comparing the infant church with mighty, cruel, ruthless Rome is like comparing a mouse with a lion; it could be crushed in five seconds flat. And so Paul urges Pastor Timothy “first of all” to make sure that “kings and all those in authority” are soaked in the prayers of God’s people.

Nothing has changed in two thousand years. But the question arises: is this something that we Christians do today? Is this a command that we take seriously? The fact is that, if Paul’s words mean anything at all, we can have an influence on world affairs. And this is not only a privilege; no, it is much more – it is a duty.

Praying for ourselves, our personal needs, our families and friends, our churches and localities, is fine. But it’s not enough. Not if we want to be true to God.

There are other places in the Bible which highlight the entanglement of God’s people in the big events of their time. Two other letters, in fact, chime in with Paul’s letter to Timothy.

First, about six hundred years before Jesus…

The people of Israel are exiled in Babylon. Their beloved temple in Jerusalem has been knocked down and the bulk of the people carted off into captivity (you can get a feel of their misery if you read Psalm 137).

There is a danger that they might just wallow in self-pity. But then they receive a letter. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah, back home in Judah, and tells them to accept their fate for the foreseeable future and to make the best of it (Jeremiah 29:1-6). And then Jeremiah adds these words: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper” (verse 7).

The second letter is from an unlikely source – in fact, from a pagan king, Cyrus the Persian.

Cyrus has toppled the Babylonians and, amazingly, has given God’s captive people permission to return to their homeland, and, even more amazingly, to rebuild their temple. (Who says prayers aren’t answered! Who says miracles don’t happen!)

When God’s people (now referred to as “the Jews”) set about this task, they are given a hard time by local rulers who try to oppose Cyrus’ wishes. So Cyrus sends these rulers a severe letter. Don’t you dare try to stop the Jews in their rebuilding work! he says. No, give then all the help they need! And then this: “… so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons” (Ezra 6:1-12).

Cyrus had the wisdom to see that, although he himself didn’t believe in the God of the Jews, he needed the prayers of God’s people.

You see the link with Paul’s words to Timothy?

And you see the link with us today?

Paul’s words are directed, of course, to a fellow pastor, a church leader. So perhaps this message is especially for those of us in leadership. Let’s make sure that such prayers are reflected regularly in our public services of worship! Yes, pray for Theresa May, for Kim Jong-Un, for Donald Trump (whatever you may think of them).

Whether we are leaders or not, the essential fact stands out as clear as crystal: this troubled, hurting, dangerous world needs our prayers.

Let’s not fail it.

Lord God, you rule over this world and everything it. Be at work, we pray, in the minds and hearts of all those who occupy positions of power and influence. Bring to the fore men and women of honesty, integrity and courage to make the big decisions that affect all our lives, so that we might indeed “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. Amen.