Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him… Genesis 37:3-4

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Proverbs 14:30

Are you prone to jealousy?

You look at another person who is, perhaps, more attractive than you, or more gifted and successful, or someone who has had better breaks in life, and you feel a mixture of anger and self-pity: “That should have been me!” “Why don’t I have what they have?” Or, like a child in the playground, “It’s not fair!”

I suspect that few human feelings are more common than jealousy, or its close cousin, envy: as the proverb says, “If envy were a fever, all the world would be ill.”

The Bible never tackles the theme directly, but there is no doubt that it sees it as a harmful, vicious thing. Jesus includes it in his list of ugly inner “evils” which make a person “unclean” (Mark 7:20-23); Paul likewise in his list of things which arise out of “the sinful nature” rather than grow out of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19-21). And, of course, it’s right there in the Ten Commandments, in the guise of “covetousness” (Exodus 20:17).

There are various Bible stories which illustrate jealousy.

Cain was jealous of his brother Abel because Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God and his wasn’t (Genesis 4). Result? The first murder. Joseph’s brothers (in the verse above) were jealous of him because their father favoured him over them. All right, neither Israel (that is, Jacob) nor Joseph acted well, but that doesn’t excuse the brothers, who allowed their jealousy to congeal into hatred. Result? A cruel and spiteful act. King Saul was overwhelmed with jealousy of the young man David (1 Samuel 18:5-9). Result? The disintegration of his personality and the loss of his God-given calling.

Enough! There are plenty of examples also in literature outside the Bible that drive home the same truth: jealousy is an evil. (We’re not talking, of course, about God’s jealousy, which is his perfect and holy yearning for the children he loves.)

But all this leaves us with the question: How should I deal with jealousy when it rears up in my mind?

Here are a few suggestions.

First, recognise that it is a self-destructive thing: your jealousy only hurts yourself. After all, that person you are jealous of may well be blissfully unaware of how you feel. Indeed, if they do become aware, they may very well quite enjoy it. To allow jealousy to grow is like taking a slow poison. “Envy rots the bones” (your bones!), says Proverbs 14:30. Another proverb: “Envy eats nothing but its own heart.”

Second, recognise that jealous feelings are only a start; once they take root, as the various stories I have mentioned make clear, they lead to sinful acts. Jealousy is not a one-off thing; it is the start of a process – and you cannot predict where that process will end. Shakespeare’s Othello, to his own horror, ended up killing the wife he dearly loved.

Third, of course, pray. Like any other sin or problem, jealousy can be brought openly and humbly to God. Confess it. Get it off your chest. Ask God to set you free. It may take time, but that freedom will come.

And don’t just pray about that person you’re jealous of; pray for them. Pray to see them through God’s loving eyes. Though it may go against the grain, thank God for their success or whatever it is you are jealous of. Take pleasure in their pleasure. Wish them well.

Fourth, don’t only wish them well, act well towards them too. Do them practical good. I’ve no idea who George Porter is, or was, but I found a quote of his which, I think, puts it perfectly: “As to the green-eyed monster jealousy… set on him at once and poison him with extra doses of kindness to the person he wants to turn you against.”

Yes! The poison of jealousy can itself be “poisoned” to death by those “extra doses of kindness” that you show the other person. Again, this goes against the grain, certainly; it requires determination and will-power. But by God’s grace it can be done.

And the result this time? You will be more free to discover, to use and to enjoy the various gifts you have yourself, because you’re not bothering about anyone else’s. You will be happier and more at peace. That’s a promise!

Loving Father, forgive me my envious heart. Holy Spirit, burn out of me every trace of jealousy. Lord Jesus Christ, give me victory in this battle. Amen.

When hope dawns

Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23

Have you read the book of Lamentations recently? I suspect I could go further and ask, Have you read the Book of Lamentations ever?

I remember the first time I did. I ended up amazed that so little is made of this short book. And I decided that chapter 3 in general and these verses in particular are among the most beautiful and moving in the whole Bible. If you don’t read another word of this post, I hope saying just this might encourage you to have a look.

The book’s title tells us what it’s about – a lament, even a dirge, over unimaginably terrible events. Tradition says it was written by the prophet Jeremiah after the most dreadful catastrophe in the history of the people of Israel: the fall of Jerusalem (God’s earthly “capital city”!) and the destruction of the temple (God’s earthly seat!) to the cruel Babylonians about six hundred years before Christ. How could such a thing be! Where is God?

The first twenty verses of chapter 3 are sheer unmitigated gloom: darkness, bitterness, death, despair, you name it. It is the most intensely personal part of the book, which is why it can connect so directly with our experience all these centuries later.

But (how important that little word can be in the Bible!) suddenly at verse 21 the mood changes: wonderful, transforming hope appears. It’s as if leaden, steel-grey skies have parted and the sunlight pours down. God’s “compassions”, we are told, “never fail”; they are “new every morning”. Every dawn is a little miracle of creation, fresh, clean, full of possibilities; and that’s what God’s compassions are like. Great indeed is his faithfulness!

Let me pick out one or two highlights from the following verses.

First, there is a call for patience (verse 24): “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Yes, there are times in life when God seems to be completely absent (didn’t even Jesus cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) but such times will come to an end. “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (verse 26). Is “quiet waiting” a skill you need to learn?

Second, there is a word of encouragement for the young, those who are likely to be the most idealistic and therefore all the more shattered by the destruction of their dreams: “It is good for one to bear the yoke while one is young… for men are not cast off by the Lord for ever” (verses 27, 31). Many people would testify that severe hardships in childhood and youth have helped shape their adult selves into something strong and good. Pain in early life may well be traumatic; but it can make us as well as break us.

Third, there is a recognition of God’s lordship over all things: yes, he does indeed “bring grief”, but that grief does not cancel out his “unfailing love” (verse 32). When terrible things happen they are hard to bear, and it is tempting and understandable to blame God, even to shake a fist at him (and his shoulders are big enough to take it, by the way). But “he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (verse 33). There are things which God actively makes happen; and there are things which he, in sadness, allows to happen for reasons only he knows – even though they bring pain to the men and women he loves.

Fourth, there is a call to repentance. Sometimes our misfortunes are just, as it seems to us, bad luck (see, for example, John 9:1-3 or Luke 13:1-5). But sometimes they are the result of our own sin and rebellion. This was certainly the case with Israel at this time. And so it may be that a radical change of heart is needed: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (verse 40). Is this a word to some of us?

I could go on; but hopefully I have said enough to whet your appetite. I find it hard to imagine any of us not hearing some word from God through this most moving of Bible chapters. May God bless us all as we read.

Loving Father, thank you that you never willingly afflict pain, and that when pain does come it can be turned to good. Help me, please, to “trace the rainbow through the rain, /And feel the promise is not vain /That morn shall tearless be”. Amen.

Angry with someone?

Barnabas wanted to take John (also called Mark) with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia… They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Acts 15:37-39

Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. 2 Timothy 4:11

“Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me…”

So writes Paul to his sidekick Timothy. He is in prison, and he is asking Timothy to do various practical things for him. Bringing Mark to see him is just one.

I like those little parts of Paul’s letters where he talks about his friends and fellow-missionaries, or about his personal needs – in this instance he wants some books and also (perhaps the nights were getting a bit chilly) an old cloak. These passages make him seem very human, not just a Christian leader who wrote profound theology.

But it’s his desire to have Mark with him that is specially touching. Why? Because he and Mark have, as they say, a bit of previous. Relations have not been good.

The “back-story” is found in Acts…

Acts 13:13 tells us that on an earlier missionary journey Mark had left Paul and his friend Barnabas in the lurch and scuttled off back home. And Acts 15:37-39 tells us that, when it came to planning a future journey, Paul and Barnabas “had a sharp disagreement” over whether or not Timothy should be included in the party: Barnabas wanted him, Paul did not. (The Greek word for their falling out is the one from which we get “paroxysm”, suggesting a pretty heated exchange of views, to put it mildly.) Result: Paul and Barnabas go their separate ways.

So it’s very heartening to hear Paul saying here, some years later, that he really would like to have Timothy with him in the loneliness of his imprisonment. We know that Paul and Barnabas settled their differences, but this verse make it clear that Paul and Mark also are fully reconciled.

Various thoughts jump out of the story.

First, Christians can and do fall out. All right, no doubt they shouldn’t, and in a perfect church they wouldn’t. But as the wall-poster says, “Be patient! God hasn’t finished with me yet.” Christians are, or should be, people of strong convictions, so there are bound to be times when they see things differently, and that can lead to tensions; none of us has it right all the time.

Second, Christians should aim to resolve their differences in a Christ-like way. The proper response to a falling-out is neither a wail of despair – “How can we be real Christians if we fall out like this!” – nor a simmering anger and resentment – “Right! I’ve had it with him!” No; the proper response is a serious determination to put it right. What matters most is not the falling-out, but the way we respond to it and handle it.

We can only guess how Paul and Mark were reconciled. Perhaps Mark felt bad and offered Paul an apology – “I’m really sorry about what happened in Pamphylia.” It could be that Paul approached Mark with something along the lines of “Perhaps I acted rather hastily over the new journey – it’s just that I was rather disappointed when you left us.”

(It could even be, of course, that Mark was blissfully unaware of the problem; the rift, after all, was between Paul and Barnabas, and he the unwitting cause. Perhaps Paul allowed his anger to cool and simply made nothing of it when he next met Mark.)

Whatever, it leads to the third truth: damaged relationships can be healed!

In my ministry I have pastored just two churches, each for around twenty years. This has given me long enough in each church to be able to see such healings take place. Indeed, it has had an impact on me personally, for I can think of people I have not got on well with (no doubt usually my fault), only for a day to come when we were working, praying and worshipping happily together.

Has what I have said brought to your mind a bruised relationship in your life? Is it time to approach that other person and to hold out an olive branch? Or perhaps, through prayer, to bury once and for all that nasty sense of grievance? People, even those we have had a disagreement with, are rarely seriously bad people!

It’s not in the Bible, but it’s a good saying all the same: the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him into a friend. So how about it? And how about it today?

Father, forgive me for the people I have misjudged, undervalued or found fault with. Forgive my prejudices and my harbouring of grudges. Help me today, no matter where the fault may lie, to set about the business of rebuilding trust and restoring love. Amen.

A tale of two journeys

The Lord watches over the way of the righteous. Psalm 1:6

My older son Christopher was in his middle twenties when he spent a year back-packing round the world with his girl-friend. They had a great time visiting all sorts of exotic places – made me really green with envy, to be honest, as I thought about the bit of hitch-hiking I did in my student years. (Mind you, as I loftily reminded him, in my day we didn’t have mobile phones, computers, skype and all the rest; just a wad of crumpled travellers’ cheques and a few air-mail forms.)

Were we worried about them? Well, a bit concerned, of course; bad things can happen to such travellers, as we have been so sadly reminded in the past few days. But we knew there was no point in fretting.

It was rather different when he did his first big journey away from home without us…

I needed to post a letter one day, and that meant a walk of a couple of hundred yards down the road to the post-box. Christopher saw me heading off – and promptly decided that this was something he would do; and that he would do it without any company, thank you very much. I suppose he must have been about four.

I dithered, as you can imagine. Our road isn’t particularly busy, but the post-box is on the other side, and there are usually a few cars coming and going. But I knew he must have his way. So I explained very clearly how careful he must be, especially when crossing the road, and how he must come straight back.

And so began the epic journey. I, of course, stood in the doorway, craning to follow him all the way. Occasionally I lost sight of him, but then I would see his head bobbing along behind the parked cars. He reached the post-box, he stretched up to the slot, he dropped the letter in, he turned back, he stood to cross the road – look-left-look-right-look-left-look-right-look-left-look right, about ten times – and then he was back with me, his face aglow with triumph: “I did it! I did it all by my own!”

I’m sure he knew I would be watching him, but he knew nothing of what was going on in my heart. If something had gone wrong, well, of course I would have been down that road faster than Usain Bolt.

I learned that day just a tiny bit of what it must be like to be God. For as the psalmist tells us: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous”. All right, I don’t think of God as being anxious as he does this; but I did grasp just a hint of his tender love.

To say that life is a journey is a pretty tired cliché. But the thing about clichés is that they happen to be true (which is exactly how they become clichés, for what is a cliché but a truth repeated to the point of tedium?).

So let me ask: where are you on your journey today? Are you strolling pleasantly through green fields, or battling through a thunder-storm? Are you just setting out, full of hope and optimism, or getting close to the end, perhaps a little jaded, even cynical, feeling that while you are older you don’t seem that much wiser? Are you enjoying the journey, or are you full of pain and sadness for some reason personal to you?

What matters is that, wherever you are as a Christian, God loves you and is watching over you. Your journey at the moment may be the equivalent of a little boy padding down to the post-box, or of a young man like Christopher riding a huge turtle on the Galapagos Islands; or it may be shrunk to the point where your only contact with the outside world is a small window through which you can see the sky.

But as long as a new day of life is given there is a God-given purpose in that day, and there is an opportunity to feel and even enjoy the presence of God and to do his will.

I was hearing recently about a man who has been confined to his home for many years; yet such is the peace and radiance of his faith that people ask to be taken to see him to feel the love of God in him. He does good not by doing anything, but just by being. His journey remains satisfying to him and a blessing to others.

And one day – let’s not forget – there will be journey’s end, when “we shall be like [Christ], for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3). We’re heading for home.

Dear Father in heaven, thank you for watching over me step by step of my journey. Help me to trust you in all the circumstances of life, especially when the way is hard. Amen.

A reason for living

…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.   1 Corinthians 10:31.

A simple question: What are you living for?

When you plant your feet on the floor by your bed in the morning, what motivates you? Is it mainly a sense of duty and responsibility? The need to make money? The desire to enjoy yourself? Sheer habit? None of these things are necessarily bad. But should they be our top priority?

According to the Bible, we are called to live first and foremost “for the glory of God”.

Glory. That word is hard to pin down. It conjures up the idea of God’s majesty and power made known on earth – as when Moses saw him on Mount Sinai, or when the disciples saw the risen Christ at the transfiguration. That’s glory.

In the Old Testament glory has a root meaning of “weight”, “heaviness”. Heavy things often tend to be worth more than light things. My wife and I have a set of dinner plates given us as a wedding present – and they are heavy. You only have to pick one up to sense its quality. So the glory of God is to do with his worth, his value, his sheer importance.

In the New Testament glory also has the sense of “reputation”. This is a helpful way to understand what Paul is talking about in our verse from 1 Corinthians: whatever you do, he is saying, have in mind God’s reputation. How will what I am about to do reflect on God?

It may seem strange, but if you read the whole passage you find that Paul is talking about the most ordinary things you could imagine – food and drink. He is saying that Christians may have differing views on, say, being or not being a vegetarian, drinking or not drinking alcohol. They may disagree about what company it’s all right to keep for dinner parties. “But don’t get worked up about it!” he says. “Just make sure that whatever you eat and drink you do it to the glory of God.” In other words, in your attitude to this most ordinary thing, remember that God’s reputation is at stake.

The fact is that in all the everyday things of life we have a duty and responsibility to ensure that God’s reputation – his name – is unsullied. This means we need to ask ourselves a few questions…

Do I do my supermarket shopping to the glory of God? Am I polite to other customers? Do I exchange a friendly word with the person at the check-out? When I’m driving, do I drive my car to the glory of God? Am I courteous to other road users (not least pedestrians). Do I let the bus out first? Do I jump the lights? Do I keep to the speed limit? Do I do the house-hold chores to the glory of God? Cheerfully or grumblingly? Whole-heartedly or shoddily? And what about my day-time job, if I have one? Do I do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay? Do I try and get away with the bare minimum required, or really give of my best?

I could go on. I think it was CS Lewis who said that when he became a Christian he found that what changed wasn’t so much the things he did and didn’t do, but the spirit with which he did them.

The seventeenth century poet George Herbert put it like this:

Teach me, my God and King,

In all things Thee to see,

And what I do in anything

To do it as for Thee.


A servant with this clause

Makes drudgery divine

Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws

Makes that and the action fine.

Yes, we can even make drudgery divine if we have a truly God-glorifying attitude. Have you ever cleaned a toilet to the glory of God? (For discussion: What would it actually mean in practical terms to clean a toilet, or cut the grass, or do a tedious office job, or chair an awkward meeting for the glory of God?)

In fact (here’s a thought!) there’s only one thing in our lives which we can’t do to the glory of God. What’s that? Sin. A person who aims to do everything to the glory of God will make every effort to get rid of every trace of sin from his or her life. Putting it another way, if there’s anything we really can’t do for the glory of God, well, we shouldn’t be doing it at all.

If only we could maintain this attitude consistently day by day – it would make new people of us. And it would make a real impact on the people who know us. Go out this week and do all things – yes, literally all things – for the glory of God.

Father, forgive me that my life tends to be so me-centred. Through the power of your Holy Spirit please teach me to live for your glory, and your glory alone.  Amen.


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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Why bother with preaching?

Preach the word… 2 Timothy 4:2

I received a very kind email recently. It was from someone in a church where I had preached. He thanked me for my visit and added, “It was a very enjoyable service”. 

Well, we all like a bit of praise, me as much as anyone; so my first reaction was, I confess, a little preening. But then I found myself stubbing my toe, so to speak, against that word “enjoyable”. Are services supposed to be “enjoyable”? Are sermonssupposed to be “enjoyable”? I decided the answer was No with a capital N.

I don’t want to seem critical of that man. Very likely he hadn’t thought much about his choice of words, and “enjoyable” sprang to mind as a way of expressing general appreciation. But still it struck a jarring note. It made worship and preaching seem like a song or comedy turn or some other form of entertainment. 

It’s hard to imagine Jeremiah denouncing the waywardness of the people of Jerusalem, or John the Baptist dramatically calling people to repentance, or Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, accusing his hearers of killing Jesus – hard to imagine scenes like this, and people then turning to one another, smiling, and saying “That was an enjoyable message.” 

(I heard of an Anglican bishop who, reflecting on his ministry, asked ruefully why it was that “everywhere Paul went they had a riot; everywhere I go they make cups of tea.” Well, there are times when cups of teas are what is needed, so I hope he wasn’t too hard on himself. But I think he had his finger on a point that all of us, Anglican or otherwise, might take to heart.)

What word might be appropriate to express appreciation of preaching? Here are a few candidates: inspiring; challenging; uplifting; comforting; thought-provoking. I think I’d be more than happy with any of those. But enjoyable…?

Somebody said that the aim of preaching is “to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.” Neat! And not bad, I reckon. But it’s worth probing a little more deeply to try and tease out exactly what we think preaching is for – or, at least, what it should be for. 

I suggest three things.

First, preaching aims to instruct our minds.

Preaching, even with the various forms of visual aids we are increasingly used to, is essentially words, and words are primarily addressed to our minds. We are being given a message of some sort, and the way we process it is with our minds. A sermon which doesn’t tell me something I didn’t know before or (perhaps more likely) remind me of something I have forgotten, is a waste of time. 

I mentioned earlier Peter’s Pentecost Day sermon (Acts 2), and it is striking how much of it consists of factual information. Of course, to suggest that the gospel in particular and God’s word in general are nothing more than mere information would be well wide of the mark. But they certainly aren’t less.

This reminds us that we need teaching. Truth isn’t automatically acquired; it has to be listened to and digested. And this applies above all to the truth about God and so-called “spiritual” things.

Second, preaching aims to stir our hearts.

We are called to love God. True, love is more, a whole lot more, than simply emotion; but again, it isn’t less. The Bible encompasses a wide range of feelings – love, hate, hope, fear, doubt, compassion, yearning, anger, joy.

Even if our preaching is not especially emotional (think of the Welsh preacher’s sing-song hwl, or the African-Caribbean’s soaring rhetoric), something is missing if it doesn’t move us. This, I sometimes think, is an area where those of us preachers who are college-trained and book-learned can be lacking. God’s truth is heart-stirring truth, and our preaching should reflect that.

Third, preaching aims to shape our wills

Yet again, Christianity is certainly not just about right and wrong, but it is very lacking if morality and ethics don’t figure prominently. Loving our enemies, being strictly honest, maintaining moral purity, returning good for evil, seeking justice and peace, working day by day for God’s glory – all these commands call for the exercise of our wills, and in this sense preaching should be challenging.

Our wills take time to be reshaped in the likeness of Christ, and the process can only be effective by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is our ultimate vision. And so preaching that leaves us just as we were has to that extent failed.

In a nutshell, preaching is intended as a God-given agent of change. The change may be of that tiny incremental kind that we barely notice, like the daily physical growth of a child, but which is real nonetheless; or it may be of that great kind that we call “conversion”; or it may be anywhere in between. 
Paul says that we who follow Jesus are “being changed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). God wants us, ultimately, to be like him, and preaching is an important part of the means whereby this happens.

Well, as I said, I didn’t feel easy about being told my sermon was enjoyable. But I must confess that I took real pleasure (I hope not seriously sinful!) in a remark made by one of the “yoof” after a service one Sunday. This was at a time when (don’t ask me why or how) the word “wicked” had become a term of high praise. I went away glowing after being told, “Wicked sermon, Col.”

What he really meant, of course, was “Thank you, dear pastor, for a sermon which I have found edifying, challenging, uplifting, comforting and thoroughly helpful. It has truly instructed my mind, moved my heart and challenged my will.”

That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it…

Lord God, bless all those who preach and teach your word, that they will do so with power and integrity; and also all who hear, that their lives will be changed into the likeness of Jesus. Amen.

No compromise!

The man’s face fell. He went away sad… Mark 10:22

As Christians we naturally focus on things Jesus did – he calmed the storm, he healed the sick, he welcomed sinners, he opened blind eyes, he even raised the dead. 

But sometimes it’s worth reflecting too on things he didn’t do.

A young man comes and kneels before him. He wants to know how he can “inherit eternal life”. He is obviously genuine, for he risks humiliation by making this request in a very public way. Jesus responds with a really tough demand: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor… Then come and follow me…”

This is the point where we read that “his face fell and he went away sad.” Personally, I imagine a second or two of total silence as the man, shocked, digests what Jesus has said. If somebody was making a film of the scene, the camera would zoom in on his face – “No, surely not! Is he serious! Can I really do that! That’s just too much to ask!”

Everybody waits with bated breath. It’s a massive moment as he slowly turns and walks forlornly away. Can you see him, with his head down and his shoulders hunched?

And what is it that Jesus doesn’t do? He doesn’t shout after him, “Come back! Wait a minute. Perhaps we can talk it over.” He doesn’t negotiate. He doesn’t try to make it easier for him.


Well, we are living at a time when, according to the statistics, the churches in the main are shrinking. People are “leaving in droves” according to the rather dramatic expression sometimes used by the papers. Not entirely true, of course – some churches are experiencing encouraging growth. But close enough for discomfort.

A natural reflex to this situation is to do what Jesus didn’t do: to compromise, to make it easier for people, to water down our message. And also to “beat ourselves up” over the situation. “We’re failing! We’re no good! We’re driving people away.”

Certainly it can only be good to take a hard look at ourselves as Christians and church members and to ask where we may be going wrong. No doubt we are at fault in many ways, and there is no room for complacency.

But are we guilty sometimes of forgetting that people are also personally answerable for how they respond, or don’t respond, to God and to the gospel? Doesn’t some of the responsibility rest fairly and squarely on their shoulders? We may feel sad as they seem to turn away; but need we necessarily feel bad as well? Isn’t that how Jesus felt that day?

Is there an irony here? The young man in the story went away sad because the demands Jesus made were too high. But I wonder if today people sometimes turn away because the demands we make are too low. We are so anxious to draw them and then to keep them that we soft-pedal the call of Jesus to give our everything to him, indeed, to “take up the cross and follow him”. We allow people to think that they can meet Christ’s call with a shrug of the shoulders; we have turned it into a take-it-or-leave-it thing. 

Putting it bluntly, is it wrong to be so, well, niceall the time? Psychologists tell us, after all, that people are more likely to respond positively to a real challenge than to a milk-and-water suggestion. 

Some years ago I got to know a lady who came to church just occasionally. (To be fair, she had mobility problems, so getting along could be difficult.) I made it my business to visit her regularly; we used to talk and pray together, but there never seemed to be any response to the gospel.

It gradually dawned on me that the main reason she welcomed my visits was just to have a good chat. I don’t particularly blame her for that, of course, but it seemed that while she happily put up with the “spiritual” bits and the prayer they didn’t really mean anything to her. 

One day, while I was praying for her on my own, I felt God was telling me that these visits were not time well spent – ministers, believe it or not, are pretty busy people, and I had plenty of other calls on my time. I decided I needed to talk frankly to her. I told her that if ever there was a serious need she could call me and I would be round, but that otherwise I didn’t feel I would be able to continue my regular visits. I promised her my continuing prayers. And I reminded her of Jesus’ love and of his call on her life.

Well, within weeks she was getting to church pretty regularly. She asked for some basic Bible teaching in her home. And within a few months I had the privilege of baptising her into the body of Christ.

Was Jesus wrong to take a tough stance with that young man? Of course not. Was I wrong to take a tough stance with that woman? I dare to think not. 

Lord Jesus, thank you for your plain speech and your uncompromising demands. Help me to receive them for myself, and also to set them clearly before others. Amen.

Stop and give thanks

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:4-5

Do you “say grace” before meals? 

When I was converted, fifty years ago now, it was the normal thing among Christians. Every time you sat down to eat – your main meal, anyway – somebody would offer a short prayer of thanks for the food. Often this would be a set formula: “For these and all your mercies we give you thanks, O God”, or “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful”. Other times it would be extempore, though variations on such a limited theme were bound to be equally limited.

Saying grace, or “giving thanks” as perhaps we might call it today, can throw up some interesting situations. 

I remember a young people’s weekend away when, on the last evening, we decided to treat ourselves to a meal at a restaurant in the nearest town. After we had all piled into this unsuspecting place, about twenty scruffy teenagers plus equally scruffy leaders, one of my fellow-leaders (I could have cheerfully strangled her on the spot) brightly suggested “Why don’t we sing grace instead of just saying it?” To my horror and dismay (I am a pretty buttoned-up person!) everybody seemed to think this was a great idea, so a not terribly tuneful “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” rang out loudly across the restaurant.

And you know what? Initial surprise gave way to friendly smiles from the other customers. All right, they probably thought we were a bit loopy, but no one seemed to mind.

I remember too when our children were little and started to insist on saying grace. Mark, our younger son, didn’t like to miss anything out, so off he went: “Thank you, Jesus and God [his grasp of the doctrine of the trinity was somewhat limited at that stage], for the cars and the houses and the trees and the people…” I think he usually got round to the meal in the end, but not before we had been metaphorically drumming our impatient fingers on the table while the food got cold.

Well, my impression is that this custom is dying out, and I think it’s rather a shame. This isn’t just me being a hide-bound traditionalist; I don’t think Paul’s words about “receiving food with thanksgiving” necessarily imply a legalistic habit. But I think there are good reasons for obeying them at certain times.

For one thing, we read that Jesus gave thanks, as was the Jewish custom, before meals (John 6:11, Matthew 14:19, where the detail is added that he  “looked up to heaven”, 1 Corinthians 11:23-24). You might think that fact alone should be good enough for the rest of us.

Still more, isn’t there value in making space, however tiny, for focus on God in the busy-ness of our lives? He is very easily squeezed out, and as long as we don’t reduce “giving thanks” to a mere formula trotted out mechanically, why shouldn’t it be a moment of encounter with God?

Don’t forget that it is possible to be at least a little creative: “grace” doesn’t have to be exclusively about the food. You’ve heard of someone taken into hospital a couple of hours earlier? Well, why not say a prayer for them first? Someone’s starting a new job tomorrow? facing a difficult exam? worried about a child’s health? All right, this isn’t the moment for a full-blown prayer-meeting, but…

It can be a bit tricky, of course, when you have guests, especially if they aren’t Christians. You don’t want to embarrass people. But equally, this is your home, after all. My wife and I have adopted the practice of simply saying something like “We usually say a short prayer before we eat, so we hope you will bear with us for a moment”. If we’re in someone else’s home we’re happy, of course, to respect their customs.

Every prayer offered from the heart is precious to God, however brief. And any opportunity to bring God consciously into our lives is to be seized; in Jesus even the most “secular” moments are also “sacred”. He is always there, of course we know that. But why not make a point of acknowledging the fact?

Lord God, help us to recognise your holy presence even in the ordinary situations of everyday life, not least when we are receiving food from your generous hand. Amen.