No excuse, no messing!


Pray continually.  1 Thessalonians 5:17


I remember somebody, just converted to Christ, who was so excited about her new-found faith that she told me she had become “a one-woman non-stop prayer-meeting”. Obviously she took Paul’s words here in a very literal sense. Pray continually.

Most Christians find that prayer can be both a great joy and a real problem. A joy because it opens up the whole world of our relationship with God, our heavenly Father. A problem because, once the initial novelty has worn off, it can become a discipline which is hard to maintain.

We are good at finding reasons not to pray. Here are perhaps the three most common. I wonder if they strike a chord with you?

First: I don’t have time. There is only one answer to that, and I’ll put it as gently and kindly as I can: Rubbish! Complete, total rubbish! The fact is that all of us find time – perhaps it would be better to say make time – for things we regard as important to us. I bet we all make time for our favourite tv programme, time to have our meals, time to brush our teeth, time to read our emails or whatever. Yes? So let’s not allow ourselves any of this nonsense about not having time to pray. Don’t find time; make time.

Second excuse: I don’t feel like it. That, perhaps, is more understandable. As human beings we can be very controlled by our moods. Somebody might tell a wonderful joke: but we are having a bit of an off day, so we can’t summon up a smile. Somebody is really enthusiastic to get cracking on a job that needs to be done: but we feel lethargic and would rather put our feet up. And that’s how it often is with prayer.

Fair enough. But we need to grasp that the Bible doesn’t urge us to pray only when we feel like it. Because we are still very “fleshly” in our natures – in other words, not really very “spiritual” at all – the chances are that we would probably hardly ever pray if we didn’t take ourselves in hand and make ourselves. 
Sometimes people tell us to pray only when we feel led by the Holy Spirit. That is bad advice because it means you will give in to the mood of the moment. The Holy Spirit has already given us very clear “leading” – precisely through verses like this and many others in the Bible. Don’t just pray when you feel like it or when you “feel led”; pray continually, mood or no mood.

Third excuse: it just doesn’t work. If we are really honest, this is the little voice that slithers, snake-like, into our minds. “I’m wasting my time… why bother?… I’ve tried it and nothing happens…” And yes, it’s a fact that there are many things we have prayed for perhaps over many years, and nothing yet seems to have happened.

How can we counter this voice? Well, perhaps we should start
simply by saying: “If prayer doesn’t work, then why would God have asked me to do it? Has God got it wrong?” Remember, we don’t pray mainly in order to get what we want from God, but in order to deepen our relationship with him. Often it’s in the barren times that that relationship grows stronger.

Perhaps we should then go on to say: “But over the course of the years I have known many answers to prayer! It just isn’t true to say that it ‘doesn’t work’ “. 
We will never know the effects of all those “unanswered” prayers.
We can’t get a real idea of the value of prayer until we try to imagine a life without prayer. What would that be like? Answer: unthinkable. There’s only one alternative to praying, and that is… er, not praying. And not praying would be tantamount to renouncing our faith altogether. From the beginning of time God’s people have been a praying people – read both the Old Testament and the New. Why should we be different?

And then – and this surely is the clincher – we can go on to say to ourselves: “Jesus prayed.” Jesus is our model and our ideal. If he needed to pray, can we seriously suggest we don’t? Are we better than him? Do we know better than him?

Learning to pray can be like learning to ride a bike. All right, you can take a bit of advice and accept a bit of help. Fine. But ultimately you’ve just got to get on and do it. The Bible says “Pray continually.” And you know what? It actually means it. So… no excuses, no messing. Why not turn yourself into a one-person non-stop prayer meeting?


Father, thank you for the beautiful gift of prayer – actually talking to you. Help me to take it seriously, even if often as a duty, trusting that the duty will become a joy. Amen.

Sympathy


I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none. Psalm 69:20

“Anything in life is bearable, if only you have somebody to bear it with you.” 

I don’t know who said that, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. To be utterly alone in your time of trouble must be the most bitter, desolating experience imaginable. But if there is someone on hand to share it with you, it makes all the difference in the world.

If you read Psalm 69 from the start you can find out what the writer is going through and what has brought him to write these heart-breaking words. But the key word is sympathy, which literally means “suffering with” somebody, and for which he looked with hopeless eyes. 

To sympathise is to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, so to speak, so that you can feel something of what they are feeling. Then, of course, you try to do something about it: you visit them, you sit with them, you ring them, you take any practical steps you can to make things better for them. If appropriate you pray not only forthem (that, I hope, goes without saying) but also with them.

There are plenty of true stories of the difference which such sympathy can make. I have a friend whose circumstances had brought him to the point of despair. He was alone, and thinking about taking his own life. But he felt he must talk to somebody first, so he rang an old friend who lived some distance away. After a couple of minutes the friend, realising how bad the situation was, said, “Put the phone down – I’ll be with you within the hour.”

And so he was. When he arrived there was in fact very little he could actually do: certainly, there was no way he could solve all my friend’s problems. But never mind – the very fact that he had dropped everything he was doing, that he came at all and then stayed for a bit, changed the situation completely. My friend feels, looking back, that that practical demonstration of sympathy saved his life.
 

There are stories of people going through the horrors of torture chambers and concentration camps who are given the heart to keep going by some little display of sympathy. I read somewhere about a man thrown into a solitary confinement cell in some vile, horrible prison. He pretty much lost the will to live; death seemed preferable.
One day he heard a tapping sound on the wall from the next cell. Was someone trying to get in touch with him? He tapped back and waited. Sure enough, the tapping came again. Over the coming weeks he and this neighbour – whom he never met or learned the name of – worked out a system whereby they were even able to communicate in a simple way. There was something to live for! That tapping on the wall became for him the difference between despair and hope, even death and life.

As a minister I always feel humbled and even slightly embarrassed when someone who has been through a specially hard time says “Thank you so much for everything you did.” Because, really, I did virtually nothing – just called, just listened, just prayed. You could even say, in fact, that I was “only doing my job”. And yet…

In the “Message” version of the Bible the psalmist’s words are translated: “I looked in vain for one friendly face. Not one. I couldn’t find one shoulder to cry on.”

Is God calling you today to be that “one friendly face”, that “one shoulder to cry on”? It’s no exaggeration to say you could change somebody’s life for ever. Paul tells us (Romans 15) to “weep with those who weep”. Is it time to do just that?

Lord, I pray for those who have sunk into the depths of despair, especially those who feel all alone. Help me to do whatever I can, however small it may be, to show them the love of Jesus, and so to give them the great gift of hope. Amen.

Great expectations?


In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. Psalm 5:3.

Not everyone is at their best in the morning. They take time to surface from sleep and get going. So the Psalmist’s words won’t sound immediately appealing – “Prayer? That’s the last thing I feel like doing when I get out of bed!”

Well, the Bible doesn’t suggest that morning is the onlytime to pray; of course not. But there is a lot to be said for starting the day focussed on God, even if only for a few minutes. It helps you get the coming hours into perspective: all that wonderful potential just waiting to be turned into reality!

But even though the psalmist mentions “morning” twice in this one verse, it’s the last word that catches my attention – “I wait in expectation.”  It challenges me with a question: When I pray, never mind what time of day or night, do I really expect God to answer? Or am I praying simply because I have been told I should, rather like brushing my teeth or getting my breakfast? Suppose we were writing this psalm, would we, in all honesty, have to write, “I lay my requests before you, then I forget all about you and get on with the daily routine”?

The call to be expectant is regular in the Bible. But it does of course create a problem: how can you stay expectant day after day and week after week? There are people and situations I have been praying for regularly for many years, and so far nothing (so far as I know) has happened. You may very well be the same. Let’s be realistic: you can’t “magic up” feelings of expectation by will-power alone.

I’m not sure I know the answer to the problem – I’d be glad to hear from anyone who can throw light on it. But here’s a suggestion that might just help a bit. 

Suppose we divide our prayers into two broad categories. First, there are the very specific prayers – for a healing, for someone’s conversion, for some special need. I think that often in these cases it’s our duty (and our joy) to keep plugging away, so to speak. A moment ago I said there are situations where nothing has changed after years of prayer – but then I felt I had to add the words so far as I know. Nothing is happening that I can see; but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. So have the faith to keep “knocking on heaven’s door”! (Remember Matthew 7:7-8.)

The second category of prayer is, if you like, more routine: “Lord, help me to keep close to you today… Give me an opportunity to share my faith… Help me to befriend Mary at work who’s going through a rough time… Help me to forgive Jack who said something hurtful last week… Help me to set a quiet example to my workmates without seeming self-righteous…” Perhaps it’s this kind of praying where we should be eagerly expectant. The most ordinary circumstances of daily life can throw up real opportunities to make known the love of God. Well, let’s look for those opportunities then!

A little footnote… If ever we feel guilty about our lack of expectancy in prayer, there is, I believe, a wonderful New Testament story to encourage us. Go to Acts 12…

Peter has been put in prison for preaching Jesus; he is chained to two soldiers. But, Luke tells us, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (verse 5). God sends an angel to deliver him from prison. He turns up at the house where they’re all praying, and knocks on the door. A servant girl goes to the door, but she’s so thrilled and excited that she forgets the little matter of actually opening it and letting him in. She runs back to the people praying: “Peter’s at the door!” And how do they reply? “Wonderful! Praise God! Thank you, Lord, for answering our prayer!” Er, no… “You’re out of your mind,” they tell her.

How does this slightly comical story help us? Well, it reminds us that even in those heady days of the early church the first followers of Jesus could be just as bad as us today. They prayed! They prayed “earnestly”! But did they expect God to answer their prayer? No!
I’m not suggesting we should follow their example, or allow it to make us complacent. But the fact is that God used these rather flaky Christians to change the world. Well, if he could use them, why not us too?

Keep praying! Keep expecting! God is at work, even when we can’t see it.

Lord God, please help me as I pray, today and every day, to maintain that buzz of expectancy over the little, routine things. Amen.

A real let-down?


Jesus said to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Mark 2:5
  
Over my years as a minister I’ve known sermons interrupted by various things – a baby starts to cry, someone is suddenly taken ill, a phone goes off, and yes, just occasionally, there’s the sound of gentle snoring. But somebody dismantling the roof to let down a man on a stretcher…? Not yet, I’m thankful to say.


Of course Jesus wasn’t in a church or synagogue – he was speaking in someone’s home. The house was packed, which is why the four men carrying their paralysed friend decided this was the only way they could get him to Jesus. The house probably had a flat roof where you could go up to enjoy the cool of the evening, and opening it up wasn’t too big a job. (I wonder – did they pay later to have it repaired?)

It must have been one of those hold-your-breath moments. Can you picture it? – there’s a scraping noise… everybody looks up to see what’s going on… a hole appears in the roof… someone’s face comes into view, sussing out the situation… the stretcher is slowly let down into the middle of the room. Can you see the crowd shuffling awkwardly backwards to make space? (“Hey, you’re treading on my toes!”) They quickly take in what’s happening – the paralysed man was probably well known in the locality, so they knew how desperate his need was.  
What will Jesus do?How will he handle this odd, slightly comical, situation? Total silence.

And then (roll of drums) Jesus speaks… “Get up! Take up your stretcher and walk…”

Well, no actually – that is exactly what Jesus doesn’t say. Not yet, anyway. He says what must have seemed the biggest let-down of all time: “Son, your sins are forgiven”. Oh.

I wonder if the man on the mat was tempted to put Jesus right? “Er, Jesus, it’s really nice of you to offer me forgiveness. Please don’t think me ungrateful. But actually that isn’t what I came for. You may not have noticed it, but (ahem) the fact is that my legs don’t work. To be honest, it was healing I had in mind… Forgive me for pointing it out…”

But of course Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and why. He knew, putting it simply, that the healing of the soul matters far more than the healing of the body. Oh yes, he spent a lot of time curing people’s physical ailments and diseases. But that was never his top priority. He came to deal with humanity’s big problem: sin, separation from God. That was why he suffered and died on the cross. 
And he promised that all who put their trust in him will indeed be perfected one day, even if not in this earthly life: sinless souls and brand new bodies fitted for eternal life in the kingdom of God.

“How are you?” we say to one another. “Oh, not so bad,” we answer (let’s face it, none of us are completely well). But the question that really matters is different altogether: How is your spiritual health? Can you say your sins have been forgiven? Are you at peace with God? If our answer is “Thank God, yes!” then our physical ailments, however serious they might be, fall into their rightful place.
The fact is that that man on the stretcher had a let-down that was anything but!

Lord, I confess that my aches and pains can get me down. I get frustrated that my body seems sometimes to be my enemy rather than my friend. But thank you for the promise of an eternity of perfect well-being. In the meantime, help me to bear with the frustrations, knowing that my sins are forgiven, and that my soul is in your loving hands. Amen.  

Money – blessing or curse?


Jesus said… I tell you, Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9

Jesus said many wonderful things, some of them challenging, some of them comforting. But I doubt if he ever said anything as downright puzzlingas this. It’s almost as if he is telling us to use our money to buy our way into the kingdom of heaven. How very strange! How out of tune with his teaching elsewhere, indeed with the teaching of the New Testament as a whole.

Of course this isn’t an isolated saying; we need to look at it in the context in which it’s set (as always when we read the Bible). Hopefully that will help us. 

Well, if we look at Luke 16 as a whole we find that its main theme is money. At the end of the chapter we have the story of the rich man and Lazarus – how the rich man refused to use his great wealth to help the poor man lying at his gate, and how he suffered as a result. And here we have the story of the “shrewd manager”, the rich man’s property-steward who found himself in trouble with his boss and resorted to some pretty cunning tactics to save his skin.

I don’t imagine for a moment that Jesus intended to praise the man for any kind of dishonest dealings. But he does seem (taking verse 8 into account) to be suggesting that we who belong to him could sometimes learn lessons from the non-Christian world about using a bit of – what word shall I use? – know-how or ingenuity, especially when the spiritual temperature is hotting up a bit: “Hard times are coming for you, my people, so dump all the petty inessentials and use your wits to focus on the things that really matter.”

That may be a right way of looking at the story and at Jesus’ strange remark. But it rather smacks of “spiritualising” a more down-to-earth message: the chapter is, after all, as I said, essentially about money.

So I wonder if there is a clue in the other story, the one at the end of the chapter. Could it be that Jesus intended these two stories to be read as companion pieces, so to speak? Bear with me please as I imagine that that story took a rather different course. I’ll put the bits I’ve changed in italics…

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate lay a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Every day the rich man sent a servant to give Lazarus a meal. When the sores began to appear he paid for his doctor to treat them. In the end things got so bad that he found Lazarus a room in his house and had him looked after full time. And he used to visit him personally every day to see how he was getting on. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died, and as he too was brought to Abraham’s side… there was Lazarus greeting him with a smile. ‘Welcome home, my brother!’ he said…

Sadly, that isn’t the way Jesus’ story ended. But it could have been! The point is that the rich man in the second story failed to do with his money what the shrewd manager in the first story did with his.

No, we can’t buy our way into heaven. That can only be by faith in Christ. But what we can and should – do is to use the wealth we have to demonstrate that faith in practical ways: to do others good and to make them happy. And, who knows, perhaps the smiling faces of those we have blessed will be there to greet us as we are finally ushered into the eternal kingdom of God.

Does that retelling of Jesus’ story make sense of verse 9? Or am I talking nonsense? Let me know what you think!

Father, thank you for the material prosperity I enjoy. Teach me to use it not for my own pleasure or gratification, but for the good of others, to make them my friends, and so, at the end, to share with them in glory. Amen.

Feeling a failure?


Samuel told Eli everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.” 1 Samuel 3:18

Eli – you can read his story in a few minutes in 1 Samuel 1-4 – must be one of the saddest people in the whole Bible. He was the man called by God to be the priest of Israel – to be, in effect, the spiritual leader of the nation. 

But he is also the man who sees Hannah pouring out her heart in prayer – and assumes she must be drunk. He is the man whose two sons become priests like him – and who fails completely to rein in their wicked, immoral excesses. He is the man who teaches the boy Samuel the things of God – and who fails to realise that God is speaking to Samuel that wonderful night in the temple at Shiloh. He is the man who values the ark of the Lord above all things – and who (we must assume) allows it to be taken into battle against the Philistines as if it were some kind of magic charm. Only for it to be lost, the greatest disaster imaginable to the people of Israel.

Poor Eli. No doubt there were good times also, but we don’t hear about them. His life seems to have been a catalogue of failures.

What makes the story all the more tragic is that he seems to have been basically a genuine and sincere man. He recognises his mistake over Hannah, and treats her with respect. He does at least try to reprimand his sons, even if his efforts are pathetically feeble. When God pronounces his judgment on him, he accepts it humbly, even though he suffers the humiliation of having it delivered by a child. And when he hears that the ark really is lost – well, his horror is such that it effectively kills him.

It is easy to criticise Eli. But of course his story raises in every Christian the tormenting question, “Am I a bit of an Eli? When my life is over, will people remember me with a sad shake of the head and think not so much of what was as of what might have been?”

Eli’s tragedy was twofold.

First, he seems somehow to have lost his spiritual vision, just as he lost his physical sight. We can only imagine that somewhere along the way his hand had slipped out of the hand of God. True, he was living at a time of spiritual chaos – the period of the judges was Israel’s dark ages – but still his task was to lead the nation with integrity, courage  and conviction. This he failed to do. 

Do you recognise yourself in this respect? Are you in daily touch with God, or has your vision also become dimmed?

Second, he was weak, lacking in backbone. It seems he had genuine principles, but not the strength of character to stand up for them. You can almost picture him wringing his hands helplessly as things disintegrate around him. Do you recognise yourself here?

Well, we need to have the humility to learn from this sad life. But before leaving Eli it is important to add a footnote to his story. I am worried that someone reading this, perhaps an older person, might sink into despair: “Yes, this could be me; I am an Eli; my Christian life has been just one failure after another.”

I can only say, Please don’t do that! There’s a saying – you won’t find it in the Bible but it’s wonderfully true: “It’s never too late to mend.” If you feel you have made a mess of things, don’t just shrug your shoulders and give up. Come back to God now, make a clean breast of things, and he will give you a new beginning. Remember the thief with Jesus on the cross…

All right, even God can’t turn the clock back and undo the failures, but somehow (to quote a later prophet) he can and does “repay us for the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2). He will still bless you. He can still use you. And – who knows? – he might even do more through you in the relatively short time that remains than many people have achieved in a whole life-time. 

God is a specialist in new beginnings – yes, even if you are in the twilight of a disappointing life. Look up – look up with hope!

Thank you, Lord, for the warnings in the story of Eli. Please help me never to lose my way, but to walk with you day by day until I meet you in glory. Amen.