May the words of my mouth…

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life… Proverbs 10:11

I knew someone many years ago who had a wonderful singing voice. She reminded me of the American folk singer Joan Baez; like her, she accompanied herself on the guitar. Everyone who ever heard her, in church or wherever, agreed that she was really used by God. There was only one problem – persuading her to get up and sing was hard work! For some reason I was never quite able to fathom – perhaps she was just too humble – she seemed reluctant to make use of her gift. It was really frustrating.

Gifts are there to be used, not sat on. Jesus told us to “let our light shine” before the world, not to hide it away – as long, of course, as our motive is to give glory to God. 

“Well,” you could say, “this is no doubt true, but it doesn’t really apply to me – I don’t have any particular gifts, and certainly my singing wouldn’t be a blessing to anybody!” Well, maybe (though the Bible does in fact tell us that we all have various God-given gifts). But this verse from Proverbs alerts us to one potentially massive gift that we all have – the tongue. Virtually all of us can talk.

You could paraphrase Proverbs 10:11 much more matter-of-factly: The way a true Christian speaks does real good to everyone who hears. But that’s pretty plodding, and the writer prefers to use the poetic image of the fountain. I’m glad he does. Of course we shouldn’t think of some ornamental fountain such as you find in the gardens of a big country house. No, this is a natural spring, clear and cold, invigorating and refreshing, that bubbles up from the ground in a dry, parched country. It’s not just nice to look at; it really could be the difference between life and death for some worn out traveller. 

Do you see your mouth, your tongue, in this way? Have you ever thought that when you go out to work, or wherever, you can make a big difference to people’s lives just by the way you speak? Truly, you can bring light, love, hope and peace to someone in trouble. Or perhaps a word of warning to someone in moral danger. Even a word of rebuke to someone acting wrongly. You could – and I mean this absolutely literally – be used to change someone’s life for ever.

Our world is awash with words. Many of them, sadly, are ugly and destructive. Angry. Harsh. Lying. Violent. Crude. Mocking. Critical. Vulgar. This is human nature, just one of the many forms sin takes in our fallen world. 

So what a difference it makes when someone comes along who guards his or her mouth, and aims that every word they ever speak should be under the lordship of God’s Holy Spirit. Words of truth and kindness, forgiveness and care, sensitivity and love, cheerfulness and good humour. No lies. No lashing out. No inappropriate humour. No snidy sarcasm or smart-alec comments. And why shouldn’t that “someone” be you or me?

Jesus’ brother James expands on this at length in chapter 3 of his letter in the New Testament. His emphasis is more negative than positive: how hard it is to control the tongue, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison”. It’s well worth thinking about – why not have a look at it? 

But I think Proverbs 10:11 isn’t too bad to be going on with. If it changes the way we open our mouths today it will have done some good.

Lord, forgive the often careless and sometimes sinful way I open my mouth. Please help me to grasp my tongue’s potential for great good. Please make it a real “fountain of life” today. Amen.

Joy and tears in Bangalore

Shortly before Christmas I visited Bangalore in south India with a small party from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). 

In case you don’t know, CSW is a human rights charity which seeks to promote religious freedom for all (primarily but not only Christians) who suffer violations of that right. Our party consisted of five people – two CSW staff plus three volunteers (including me) as observers and support people. Our week was in essence a fact-finding mission in a part of India, Karnataka state, where Christians are having a particularly hard time at the hands of extremist Hindu nationalists. 

In due course the visit will be written up as part of a larger report which will go to, among others, the British Parliament, the European Union, the United Nations, and Capitol Hill in Washington. In all probability nothing will change very quickly, but the prayer is that the long slow battle against human rights abuses will receive a significant boost.

Our week was taken up largely with interviews with various key people. Broadly speaking these fell into two groups. 

First, there were people working in government, education or the law – in other words, influential people who are seeking to make a difference. Discrimination on the grounds of religion or caste is, strictly speaking, illegal in India, but communal and sectarian tensions have a long history in South Asia (they were in fact encouraged and manipulated by the colonial powers) so that what we are seeing now is the fruit of many years. 

Widespread corruption means that many people are suffering unjust and cruel treatment. The legal people we spoke to were aiming, among other things, to make vulnerable groups – Dalits, Christians, Muslims – more aware of the various options open to them when subjected to ill-treatment: sadly, people often feel there is nothing that can be done and simply accept injustice.

The second group we met were Christians who had actually been victims of persecution. The motto of CSW is to be “a voice for the voiceless”, and these were precisely the kind of people it is aiming to help. Several people had come to Bangalore on a six or eight hour round trip to meet us, and some of the stories they told us were simply pitiful. One couple had been hounded out of their village and forced to live in a make-shift shelter in some kind of camp. Just before they came to see us their shelter had been demolished by local authorities – in pouring rain – and they were left “with nothing under the sky”. 

Stories of beatings, disruption of Christian meetings, and denial of basic rights were common. One pastor we met does his pastoral visiting by motor-bike, and it is routinely tampered with while he is with someone. This may seem pretty low-key opposition, but pushing a motor-bike home – for perhaps five or so miles – is no joke. 

The extremists involved in this kind of activity have a deep-seated hatred of Christianity and Islam, seeing them as a threat to their culture and way of life. Sadly, it must be acknowledged that some Christian ministries (very possibly from abroad) have been involved in aggressive and insensitive forms of evangelism, rendering this attitude, if not justifiable, at least understandable. It is important to say that CSW is scrupulous in not engaging in evangelistic activity; its only concern is for human rights. 

Our news broadcasts here in Britain remind us daily that extremist mindsets are dangerous right across the world and right across the religious and political spectrum. In India extremist Hindu nationalism represents in essence a calculated political position, rather than a strictly religious one, which manipulates religious identities for the sake of its own self-propagation. These attitudes have infiltrated deeply into high-up political circles and also into the police. If Christians do complain of ill-treatment they are likely to be told by the police to “stop worshipping this Jesus, then”. If they bring charges against their attackers they are likely to be hit with counter-charges – all completely fabricated – suggesting that they are the ones acting outside the law. 

Some of the stories were indeed heart-rending. And yet the church is growing in India, especially among the Dalits (the so-called “Untouchables”). The love of Jesus for all men and women equally is truly good news for these people. Please pray for them: their plight is terrible, yet their faith is radiant. At the beginning of one meeting about a dozen of them nearly raised the roof with their singing of a hymn to Jesus. I personally am not easily moved to tears, but I found it hard for those few minutes. Our Sunday worship was at a church founded by Operation Mobilisation, and it was massively heartening to see these people worshipping God and displaying great joy. 

Pray for India. Pray for the political situation: important elections are due in the next few months, and extremist Hindu nationalists could come to power. But most of all pray for your brothers and sisters in Jesus who are suffering for him on a daily basis. 

And pray that the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other agencies will be effective in bringing justice and hope. 

To find out more about CSW go to the blog archive and click on 2013, October (1). CSW is always happy to arrange a speaker for your church or group.

Living with vain regrets

Then Saul said, “I have sinned!… Surely I have been a fool and made a great mistake.”  1 Samuel 26:21

Regrets… Do you have any? I think you’d be either a very special person or a very foolish one if you were to say No. Don’t we all? As we look back on our lives there are bound to be things where we wish we could turn the clock back. Some of our regrets may be fairly trivial – a silly word which caused embarrassment, an opportunity which we missed to do something good, a petty weakness which we have never quite mastered. Trivial perhaps, yet they have left a bad taste in the mouth.

Other regrets are more serious. You did something that hurt someone badly. You took a disastrous career decision. You entered a completely wrong relationship. You got drawn into some kind of seriously bad behaviour. Whatever it was, it changed your life for ever – and now it’s too late to put it right. And so you can echo the words of King Saul: “I have sinned!… I have been a fool and made a great mistake”. (I’ll leave you to read for yourself what Saul had done to make him feel that way.) For us the question has to be, “What can I do about my regrets?”

We can of course try to bury them in the past – to pretend those things never happened. But we will not succeed; they will always be there, lurking uglily in our minds, poisoning our consciences and destroying our peace. Otherwise, we have two choices. Which is it to be?

First, we can slump into despair, perhaps into a really destructive bitterness. We can brood, going over and over in our minds our folly and stupidity. Some people, tragically, allow their lives to be ruined by vain regrets. In extreme cases it can even lead to suicide. This can only be a victory for the devil, who loves nothing more than to destroy us.

But there is another way. This is what the Bible calls repentance. We come to God and hold nothing back. We admit our wrongdoing. We recognise that there is nothing we can now do. We humble ourselves. Then, by an act of faith, we receive God’s forgiveness. And we discover that along with that forgiveness comes something wonderful – the chance to start all over again.

God loves to forgive, even where we cannot forget. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the wrong we have done and the hurt we have caused – he does, he cares very much, and he knows that a price has to be paid. But the good news is that that price has been paid – why else did Jesus die on the cross?

I wonder if anyone reading this is living with vain regrets? Can I remind you that our loving God is the master of the second chance, the new beginning? He always has a bright new future for those who are truly sorry. Moses was guilty of murder. David committed adultery. Peter denied Jesus. Paul persecuted  the church. But each went on to play a big part in God’s purposes. So why shouldn’t that be true for you too?

I don’t think we ever forget the wrongs we have done and the mistakes we have made. Nor would it be good if we did, especially if they caused pain to others. But repentance is all about that most wonderful gift of God – hope. So – Go forward! Go forward as a forgiven sinner, and let the hope of God fill your heart!

Dear Father, as I look back in my life there is much I feel ashamed of. But thank you that still you love me and want only good for me. I pray for the people I have hurt or damaged – if there is any kind of recompense I can make, then help me to make it. But thank you for a new start. Help me now to go forward, not always looking back, and to live from now on a life of Christlike holiness. Amen!

An army of ordinary people

Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Romans 16:14-16

There’s something I like about group photos. You know the sort of thing: a class of children sitting with their teacher, freshly scrubbed and on their best behaviour; a bunch of people attending a conference; a crowd at a wedding, all dressed up to the nines. There they all are, smiling cheesily into the camera. You can’t help but smile back. 

Well, they didn’t have cameras in Paul’s day; but wouldn’t it be great to see a group photo of the early church in Rome? Can you imagine what it would have been like? The nearest we get to it is the list of names Paul gives us in the last chapter of his letter to them. I’ve picked out just a few. Please don’t worry if you don’t know how to pronounce them (neither do I), or if you can’t think of anything you know about them. That’s the whole point – they are just very ordinary people, most of them otherwise completely unknown to history. Just like us, in fact.

Isn’t it good that after all the heavy-duty theology of Romans 1-15 we have this personal glimpse of the “army of ordinary people” who made up the church in the capital of the Roman empire? It alerts us to several important things.

First, the church is people, not buildings. At this point in history there was simply no such thing as a church building. In verse 5 Paul mentions the church that “meets at the house of Priscilla and Aquila”. That’s the way it was: in order to meet for worship and fellowship the early Christians gathered in homes or hired halls. I sometimes think that the church today would be a lot healthier if it had stayed that way. Buildings can be a curse as well as a blessing: the vast amounts of time and money they gobble up! the superstitious reverence they attract! the wrong image they can give to the non-Christian world!

Second, if the people Paul mentions here make up, say, about a quarter of the whole church – meeting in four or five locations around the city – then the church was really quite small, consisting of about 100 people. Again, much like many churches today. We must resist discouragement if our numbers are small: God can do massive things from truly tiny beginnings.

Third, the church was a community of workers. Do you notice the number of times Paul refers to people “working hard”? Yes, serving Christ and his church is often a matter of sweat and toil, rolled up sleeves and perseverance. The church isn’t a social gathering with religious trimmings! Are you a worker in the church of Christ? Is it time you became one?

Fourth, there is a strong sense of affection, indeed, of love. People have “risked their lives” for one another. They are “dear friends”; Rufus’s mother, it seems, “has been a mother” to Paul too. They were in the practice of kissing one another in greeting. This isn’t a group of relative strangers who shake hands on a Sunday morning, make a few minutes of polite conversation, and then head off home. Oh no: these are brothers and sisters, sharing their very lives with one another.

Fifth, they were a mixed group. There are about 24 mentioned by name, of whom a little less than half were probably women. And we can be sure that there were rich (some had homes big enough to host a meeting) and poor. Different talents, different aptitudes, different personalities. Paul doesn’t mention it here (though he certainly does elsewhere) but no doubt there were tensions too, differences of opinion, even personality clashes. Let’s not imagine the early church was perfect, any more than yours is today.

Why not take a few minutes to read your way – slowly and imaginatively, picturing these people with your mind’s eye – right through Romans 16? And keep in mind this thought: one of the greatest joys and privileges of being a Christian is that you are a member of the family of God, gathered together with others in a local congregation. 
Value the church! Value your church, whatever its faults may be! Love one another! Be a worker! Give of yourself and what you have cheerfully and gladly! Above all, remember that you are a saint (verse 2)!

Dear Father, I may never be a Simon Peter, or a John, or a Paul. I’m just a Patrobas or a Tryphena, an Epenetus or a Persis. But I am one of your children, joined with my brothers and sisters in the family of your church. I am a saint! Thank you. Thank you! Amen.

Just do it!

Jesus said, “When you pray…” Matthew 6:5

I like the way Jesus introduces his teaching on prayer. He doesn’t give a command: “Pray!” He doesn’t make a suggestion: “I think you would find it helpful to pray.” He doesn’t ask a question: “Have you thought about praying?” He doesn’t scold: “Why don’t you pray more!”

No. He makes an assumption: “When you pray…”

Of course, prayer was a basic part of the life of every Jew, so it was an assumption he could safely make. (Which raises the uncomfortable question, incidentally: Could he make the same assumption about you? About me? Are we serious pray-ers?) But still, his approach is strikingly low-key and matter-of-fact. And I think that’s something we modern Christians – most of us no doubt Gentiles – can learn from. We often tend to make heavy weather of prayer, and it’s as if he is saying, “Just get on with it; and here’s a brief outline of how to go about it.”

A quick digression… I enjoy reading the slogans people have on their tee-shirts – well, the ones that aren’t obscene, anyway. My all-time favourite is one I saw on a young man at the Oval watching the cricket: “Just give me treacle sponge and custard and nobody will get hurt.” Ah, I thought, a man after my own heart! I’ve got a bit bored with the “Keep calm…” ones, though I suppose “Keep calm and make a brew” on my son’s favourite mug isn’t too bad. 

But there is one which I must admit really irritates me. That man opposite me on the tube tapping away on his little gadget – what message is he actually wanting to convey with his slogan: “Just do it”? I’m quite a gentle person really, but I somehow get this compulsive urge to grab him by the throat and give him a good shaking: “Just do what? What a ridiculous, fatuous, empty, moronic, meaningless, clueless, asinine slogan to inflict on the rest of us! Pah!” Just do it, indeed! (I generally succeed in suppressing the urge, you will be pleased to know.)

And yet… perhaps, on reflection, I need to think again – for when it comes to the matter of prayer, it strikes me that “Just do it!” pretty much sums up what Jesus is implying here. He takes it for granted.

And when you come to the Lord’s Prayer, a few verses later, again, how very low-key and matter of fact it is. It’s short – you can say it slowly in about thirty seconds (I’ve just done it). In church, blink and you miss it. It’s terse, down to earth and practical. You might even say it’s quite flat and unemotional. Yet we tend to tie ourselves in knots when we try to pray: real prayer, we subconsciously imagine, should be lengthy and passionate, probably loud and repetitive, preferably accompanied by fasting. Otherwise, well, it won’t weigh with God, will it?

Please don’t get me wrong. Of course there is a place for fasting, for intensity, for long and emotional praying. Of course. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t there to tell us everything we need to know about prayer, or to be the only prayer we ever pray. Of course not. But recognising its sheer – what word should I use? – its sheer ordinariness could really help to liberate us from a few hang-ups. Why not relax and just get on with it? I suspect that the problem for many of us isn’t so much that we don’t pray in the right way, but that we don’t pray much at all. 

How seriously do you and I take the wonderful privilege and responsibility of prayer? Do we sometimes make it too hard for ourselves? Do we allow ourselves to be put off because we “don’t feel we’re doing it right”? Perhaps we can hear the voice of God even through that man’s annoying tee-shirt: “My dear child, just do it!”

O God, please help me to pray day by day, not only when it’s a joy, but also when it seems little more than a routine, not only when I’m in the mood, but also when I’m not, not only when my faith is bubbling, but also when my spirits are low. Amen.

Did I do wrong?

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m on the top deck of the 79 bus in Alperton, north-west London. The bus is full – people of all races and colours. I’m one of a handful of whites. We are all minding our own business, hoping the bus will be able to crawl its way at least reasonably quickly through the bottle-neck which is Wembley High Street.
A young black woman comes up the stairs. She starts preaching: in a very loud voice. “Is there anyone here who loves Jesus? Is there anyone here who reads the Bible?” We all, metaphorically at least, pull our coat collars up around our faces: whatever you do, no eye contact.  
She starts to read from John’s gospel. “‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John’. Does anyone here have a friend called John?” Silence. Squirming. Cringing. And I don’t think it’s only because we can’t see the relevance of the question. She carries on…
For the next ten minutes, until we get to my stop, I wrestle with a genuine spiritual, even a moral, dilemma. Am I wrong to keep my head resolutely under the parapet? Should I not give support to a fellow-Christian, however misguided she might be? Worst of all, am I guilty of disloyalty to Jesus? I satisfy myself with the thought that there is no reason why I should be rail-roaded into a discussion which I haven’t initiated, which I have not been invited into in an appropriate manner, and which I feel can only do damage to the witness of the church. That’s enough for my conscience – I think.
It’s a relief to get off the bus – she is still hard at it as I descend the stairs. I walk home mulling over in my mind the big question of cultural sensitivity in presenting the gospel. There’s no doubt that that young woman deserves ten out of ten for enthusiasm; but I would only grudgingly give her even one out of ten for wisdom. 
Well, I thought that was the end of the matter. But now something quite remarkable happens. I ought to say that this kind of preaching is something which I was completely unfamiliar with, even after more than twenty years in this part of London. I had never even heard of it, never mind encountered it. 
But the very next day, Sunday, we head for church, and it so happens that a close minister friend of mine is visiting and is invited to share his story with the congregation. He is from Nigeria, and when asked how he became a Christian he replies that it was through the ministry of – wait for it – “bus evangelism” back home. Yes, this practice that I and the other passengers on the number 79 found so excruciating was how he was brought to faith in Jesus. Even worse follows – apparently he also, in his early days as a Christian, was himself an enthusiastic bus evangelist. I decide I have some serious thinking to do. Is this sequence of events mere coincidence? Or is God saying something to me?
At house-group the following week I ask another friend, also from Nigeria, if this is a practice she is familiar with. “Oh yes,” she cheerfully replies, “I do it all the time when I’m back home. It really splits the bus in two! Half the passengers shout that I should sit down. The other half say ‘Keep it coming, sister!’”
I am left pondering various things.
First, the dilemma I mentioned earlier: was I guilty of being ashamed of Jesus? Or was I right to calm my conscience in the way I did?
Second, the question of cultural sensitivity. I decide that my initial dislike of what that young woman did was justified: even granted the massively multi-religious and multi-racial nature of the London Borough of Brent, it was clear that her intrusion into our privacy was unwelcome to all. 1 Peter 3:15 comes to mind – that bit about evangelising “with gentleness and respect”.
Third, can such a sequence of events – I mean now what happened on Sunday morning too – be dismissed as “mere coincidence”?
And fourth, the sense that it’s easy to get a bit pompous and high-and-mighty over such a thing, and that God was teaching me, if no-one else, a serious lesson in humility. No, I don’t think I can defend that young woman. But if I am completely honest with myself, I have to confess that my attitude towards her was wrong; I was, like Michal in 2 Samuel 6, “despising her in my heart”. I think of Bible characters – today they might be dismissed as cranks and weirdos – like Ezekiel and John the Baptist, and recognise that perhaps we should thank God for people who are prepared to violate conventions and step out in ways that may shock. Not look down on them. 
Perhaps we need to rewrite the opening lines of that old hymn: “God moves in sometimes wacky ways/ His wonders to perform…”
Any thoughts?