When you are in the dark

Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. Isaiah 50:10

We as a family went for a walk once in a large country park. There was a reservoir with paths circling it and it was tempting to see if we could get right round, even though it was four or five miles and some of the walk was heavily wooded.

Everything was fine until we noticed that the afternoon was wearing on and it was getting quite dark. Our boys were still very young, and the prospect of ending up lost and in darkness became a frighteningly real one. Well, here we are today, so you can see that we made it all right. But it was a little nerve-wracking for a time.

The prophet Isaiah speaks about the person who “walks in the dark”, who “has no light”. Remember that in his day there was no such thing as artificial light, beyond candles and oil-lamps: no electricity. So the experience of being “in the dark” was one he will have known about far better than us.

But of course he doesn’t mean it in a literal sense; he is speaking about people who are living their lives in spiritual and emotional darkness, people who are in danger of losing their way in life. And he has only one word of advice for them: trust in God. It sounds so simple, but it can be very hard.

You might say, But of course this doesn’t apply to us today. We have in Jesus the “light of the world”. But if you read the passage as a whole it is clear that the prophet here is not talking about people who don’t believe in God – he is addressing himself to his fellow-Israelites, fellow-believers, people who have received at least something of the light of God. It seems he is talking about people who, even though they belong to God, are in fact going through an experience of darkness.

And the same can be true of us. Yes, we do indeed have in Jesus the light of the world. But there are times when his light seems to be obscured for us. The fault may be ours: perhaps we have got out of touch with him through wilfulness, disobedience, sin.

But that isn’t necessarily the case. There are times when we feel ourselves “in the dark” in a particular situation for no reason that we can think of, even though we know in principle that Christ the light is with us. We find ourselves asking, How do I see my way through this particular dilemma? How can I make sense of what is happening in my life right now? All right, I do believe in Jesus – but I don’t seem to be receiving the guidance and help I need at the moment. I am, in effect, “in the dark”.

Isaiah’s answer all those centuries ago remains true for us at times like that: “trust in the name of the Lord and rely on your God”. Yes, I know it sounds all very general and rather vague. But there are times when faith simply has to trust in the face of the unknown.

Indeed, isn’t that very often what faith is – believing precisely when we cannot see? Isn’t that exactly what Paul means when he says in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that we “walk by faith, not by sight”? Isn’t that what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews means when he says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (11:1)? The fact is that if we weren’t “in the dark” sometimes then we would have no need of faith. Faith is the key.

As we move towards 2015 do you find yourself rather “in the dark”? I know it’s not an easy situation to be in – believe me, I’ve been there myself on many occasions. But I can only urge you to ponder Isaiah’s simple words – perhaps pray them, so to speak, into your own soul. The day will come when the light will shine again and the darkness will be a thing of the past.

Lord, I feel at the moment that I am stumbling in the darkness. As I struggle to put my trust in you, please keep me from falling and bring me out again into the light. Amen.

Just like us

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence… Hebrews 4:15-16

Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are”. I wonder if we have ever allowed the full impact of that statement to sink into our minds?

It means that, in principle if not of course in every detail, there is nowhere I may have to go where Jesus has not been before me. He experienced physical torture. He knew extreme hunger. He knew ferocious satanic attack. All these are spelled out in the gospels.

But presumably he knew also what it was to be subject to temptations suggested by the ten commandments; not to mention those we perhaps consider (wrongly?) to be fairly petty – jealousy, irritability, careless words, laziness, resentment, unjustified anger. But in all these situations he was “without sin”.

I have to admit that I find it hard to understand how all this can be. Reconciling the divine nature of Jesus with his human nature is something that has taxed theologians throughout the Christian period – how could one person be both perfectly divine and genuinely human? But I for one am happy to let the theologians puzzle it out; what matters is this clear statement of scripture, and what it means in practice for us weak human beings.

Which is what, exactly? Let’s spell a few things out.

First, it means that Jesus is a massive challenge to us.

His experience teaches us that temptation can be overcome – the story of his trial in the wilderness makes that clear. Many of us, I suspect, make do sometimes with a rather token resistance to sin. As long as we aren’t guilty of anything too glaring, we settle for an “Oh well, six out of ten isn’t too bad” attitude – overlooking the fact that God calls us to be “perfect”, “holy”. We settle for respectability rather than real godliness.

This wasn’t the way of Jesus, and it shouldn’t be our way either. Only the best!

But second, it means that Jesus is a massive comfort too.The writer uses expressions which can give us a tremendous boost.

One is that Jesus is “able to sympathise” – which doesn’t just mean “feel sorry for” but “to suffer alongside”. Jesus doesn’t talk down to us from a great height. No, he is right in the thick of things, just where we are. He doesn’t only offer advice or even a good example, though he does of course do that; no, he shares our troubles.

And this truth is reinforced by those other wonderfully comforting words, “just as we are”. Picture Jesus wearily wiping the sweat from his brow after a hard day out teaching the crowds. Picture him easing himself into bed, dog-tired. Picture him, acutely thirsty, asking the Samaritan woman for a drink from her bucket. Just like us.

Third, it gives us hope. The writer tells us we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence”. Come boldly into the presence of God!

Many religious leaders in history have been stern and forbidding. They have crushed and intimidated those who look to them by the severity of their demands, keeping them at arms’ length. But not Jesus. His arms, outstretched on the cross, form a posture of welcome. And that is exactly how God sees us: “Come!” he says, “come! I love you. I want you to be with me!”

I don’t know what your particular weaknesses and temptations are. They may be things you are so ashamed of that you can’t share them even with your best friend. They may have dominated and poisoned your life for many years. Well, if these verses mean anything, they mean that Jesus knows all about them yet still loves you.

For there is something else here we haven’t yet mentioned explicitly. Jesus isn’t only your friend who sympathises with you, your fellow-human who is just as you are; no, he is also your high priest who has acted on your behalf. He has offered a once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sin. Whatever your sins may be – however shameful, humiliating, disgusting, cruel, spiteful, degraded – his blood is sufficient to deal with them. Yes, really.

So why hold back? Why not “approach the throne of grace? Why not come? Why not come today?

Lord Jesus, thank you for loving me even in the worst of my sins and the hardest of my trials. Thank you for the perfect sacrifice of your blood shed on the cross. Thank you for ushering me into the presence of the all-holy God. Lord Jesus, I come, I come! Amen.

True and false religion

I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Isaiah 6:1

The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in flames of fire from within a bush. Exodus 3:2

We are often told that people are wide open to the idea of the “spiritual” – the “religious”, the “numinous”, call it what you like – but they have no time for “organised religion”. And so the churches are emptying while they pursue their quest elsewhere.

Well yes, organised religion (I detest that word with all its negative connotations, but sometimes you have to make do) can be a curse, no doubt about that. It can become a habit, almost a drug or a prison. I heard of a minister who, having conducted his last service before retirement, never entered the doors of a church again. His religion had, presumably, been operating on auto-pilot and when the plane eventually landed he couldn’t run away quickly enough.

But while recognising the dangers of such barren religiosity, it is worth asking what people who “have no time for organised religion” actually want. Unorganised religion? Disorganised religion?

I suspect that what they are in fact looking for is private religion – that is, religion they can practice with minimal interruption to their normal routine, and without having to bother about burdensome responsibilities. “I want the feelgood factor, but not the cost of commitment” – I hope I’m not judging too harshly, but that, in reality, is what such people are saying. Putting it even more bluntly, private religion is essentially selfish religion.

It is, after all, far easier to burn incense at home in a dimly lit room, or sit meditatively in an empty church, or scan the stars on a solitary hillside walk than it is to help with the washing-up at the end of a service, or play table-tennis with the local yoof on a Friday night after a hard week, or turn out on a cold evening for a difficult church meeting. But these things, in reality, are a large part not only of what organised religion is about, but, more to the point, of what true religion is about.

True religion is inescapably corporate and unashamedly down-to-earth. Yes, it starts in a personal, intimate encounter between the individual and God. But it never ends there. Christian baptism, for example, the sacrament of initiation, is initiation not only into Christ, but also into his community. You cannot become a Christian without becoming part of the body of Christ, the church: it’s part of the “package”. By choosing Christ you choose the church.

And the church is not some nebulous, mystical entity. No, it is people – and, very often, precisely those people you have to learn to love, even if you do not particularly like them: that man with the maddening habit of talking too much, that woman who never stops grumbling. And it is responsibility: working, serving, sacrificing.

This is not to dismiss the reality or the importance of the numinous: God forbid! There are indeed precious times of intimacy with God, even of awe and wonder. But it is to locate those times precisely where they belong – in the sheer ordinariness of life in general, and of religious observance in particular.

Moses had an encounter with God in a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed. A numinous experience if ever there was one. But where did he have it? Out in the fields while he was getting on with his day job of minding his father-in-law’s sheep. And what did it lead to? Work. Responsibility.

Isaiah had an awesome vision of God that changed his life for ever. Where did he have it? Well, it’s not made explicit, but mention of “the temple” suggests he was going about the normal business of worship. And what did it lead to? Work. Responsibility.

Luke 4:16 tells us that Jesus went to synagogue every Saturday, “as was his custom”. Perhaps he didn’t always feel like it; but he went, obeying the call of, yes, organised religion. In the days before he went to the cross he did plenty of praying and agonising; but we also find him kneeling down and washing the smelly, dirty feet of his disciples. Not much numinousness there.

“I want God, but I don’t want organised religion.” It sounds fine. Who, in their senses, wants to be like those poor saps on the leadership team of a church, with difficult people to deal with, tricky decisions to make and long agendas to work through?

But, sorry, you can’t have it that way; God is simply not available on those terms. True religion is about rolled up sleeves as much as about bended knees. Get used to it!

Almighty God, thank you that you meet with us in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Help me to rejoice in routine activities, whether explicitly “spiritual” or down-to-earth “practical”. Amen.

Let God pick up the pieces!

“…if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16

Esther finds herself in a tricky position. The Persian king, Xerxes, has rejected his wife, Queen Vashti, and Esther has been chosen to replace her. What Xerxes doesn’t know, and what Esther has no reason to tell, is that she is Jewish, and so belongs to a foreign community in the Persian empire.

Everything is fine until Haman, Xerxes’ right hand man, develops a vicious hatred of the Jews and persuades the King that they should be destroyed. The king foolishly agrees – not realising that this must inevitably involve his own senior queen.

Esther has a guardian, her uncle Mordecai. He becomes aware of what is going on and tells Esther she needs to act on behalf of her Jewish compatriots. “For all we know it was for just this time that you have come to be queen. Go and talk to the king!” (4:14) But there is a problem: in spite of her high position Esther cannot do this; she has to wait to be summoned.

But is she then just to sit around doing nothing? This seems absolutely intolerable, so she makes up her mind: “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” You can almost see her shrugging her shoulders.

The rest is history. Esther’s courageous decision turns out well, and her people are saved from destruction.

Our circumstances are, I imagine, totally different from Esther’s. But there is a principle here which can equally apply to us as Christians, even though in much less dramatic ways: there are times in our lives when we just have to take a deep breath, do what is right, and leave it to God to pick up the pieces. To do nothing is to do wrong.

An obvious example is that brave person we hear about from time to time, the “whistle-blower”. This is the person who sees something wrong going on in their place of work and who feels in conscience that they cannot remain silent. Yes, if they blow the whistle it could cost them their job, but they feel they cannot do anything else. And “If I perish, I perish.”

You can probably think of other possible scenarios in your own situation. What, for example, if the boss tells you to lie to someone on the phone?

Certainly our fellow-Christians in countries where the church is persecuted can face this kind of thing on an almost daily basis. There is the pastor who is forbidden to hold a service next Sunday… the mother who is told her child will be thrown out of the school if she doesn’t renounce her faith in Jesus… the employee, with his family totally dependent on his small pay, who is threatened with dismissal if he doesn’t convert to Islam. What are these people to do?

When I read the Esther story, and when I hear about these other harrowing situations, it prompts various thoughts in my mind.

First, that I will never criticise or condemn people who, under such pressure, end up doing what seems wrong. Not until I have stood in their shoes will I pass judgment.

Second, to pray that if ever I should find myself in such a situation I would have the courage to do what my Spirit-directed conscience tells me.

Third, to give all the support and prayer I possibly can to people, both Christians and others, who suffer for conscience’ sake. The writer to the Hebrews tells us: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).

If I perish, I perish… That’s pretty much what Daniel and his friends said to King Nebuchadnezzar when threatened with the furnace: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods…” (Daniel 3:17-18). Don’t you just love that “even if he does not…”!

And it’s also pretty much what Peter and his fellow-apostles said to the authorities who were trying to muzzle them (Acts 4:19-20): “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Don’t you just love that “we cannot help speaking…”!

And it’s pretty much what many Christians find themselves having to say today.

What price are you prepared to pay to keep your Christian conscience clean?

Lord God, in many parts of the world your people are risking their very lives to stay loyal to Jesus. Protect, comfort and keep them, I pray. And help me to give them whatever support I can. Amen.

Ambassadors for Christ

We are… ambassadors for Christ… 2 Corinthians 5:20

I remember once when I was at school the headmaster gave us a telling off in the assembly. Some of us apparently were behaving badly in the streets round about. “All right,” he said, “the school day may be over, but as long as you are wearing your uniform you are ambassadors for this school.” The reputation of the school was in our hands, he told us, and he made it very clear that he wasn’t happy that that reputation had been muddied by a handful of pupils.

Ambassadors… What does that word really mean? An ambassador is a person who officially represents a country and its government to another country. He or she will have an office in that country’s capital city, and his or her job is to speak on behalf of the government back home.

If the ambassador is dishonest, lazy, a drunkard or whatever, well, that won’t reflect very well on the country he represents. Every now and then, indeed, the news tells us about an ambassador who has been suddenly “recalled” because of some scandal or other. An ambassador has to be of the highest character and integrity.

Well, it’s interesting that Paul uses that word to describe us as Christians.

Strictly, in fact, he is speaking here about himself and his colleagues in their role as preachers and apostles; but I’m sure he would agree that every Christian is an ambassador in a wider sense in this world. We all represent Christ. We all speak for him. Yes, in a very real sense his reputation is in our hands.

The Christian who behaves badly invites the cynical comment from the non-Christian, “Well, if that’s what Christianity does for you, I’m happy to do without it, thank you very much.” My own father held out against Christianity until very late in his life; one of the reasons he gave was a man who worked in the same office who was a lay preacher on Sundays, but who told coarse jokes when at work.

But the Christian who models the goodness, strength and beauty of Jesus by life and word acts as a challenge and an inspiration to everyone he or she meets.

When we come together for worship and fellowship on Sundays we are (usually at least!) on our best behaviour. We are polite, smiling, friendly, helpful. But of course the time in the week that matters most is when we aren’t in church – when we are in our places of work or leisure, or just around where we live. What are we like then?

Indeed, let’s go even further and ask what are we like in the privacy of our homes, when only those closest to us can see us? What sort of ambassadors for Christ are we then? You occasionally hear disturbing stories of seemingly model church members – elders, teachers, leaders, preachers – who are exposed as monsters to their own family.

There’s one specially troubling thing about all this: the last people to recognise the flaws in our characters are likely to be – we ourselves. What is glaringly obvious to everyone who knows us even slightly is often something we’re blissfully unaware of. Can I suggest a few moments, perhaps right now, of prayerful reflection? “Lord, open my eyes to the blemishes in me that I just haven’t seen.”

It’s a frightening thought, but it’s true: the only Jesus some people will ever see is the Jesus in you and me. Most people don’t read the Bible or Christian books or listen to sermons. They don’t go to church. Their ideas of Jesus are just bits and pieces, some of them completely misleading, which they have picked up along the way. The fact is that if they don’t meet the real Jesus in you and me they may never meet him at all.

The business of the Christian ambassador is very simple: speak the truth as clearly and lovingly as you can; and live a life which is radiant with the love and goodness of Jesus and with the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, and only then, will you be a true ambassador.

Father, by your Holy Spirit burn the dross out of me, and help me this day, and every day, to be a worthy ambassador for Jesus. Amen.

Learning and unlearning

A tale of two books

If you move in Christian circles you may be familiar with the names of Richard Holloway and Philip Yancey. Both are prolific authors, and it so happened recently – I hadn’t planned it this way – that I read a book by each, one immediately after the other.

They are chalk and cheese. Holloway comes from the high Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, with its emphasis on vestments, liturgy and ritual, “all smells and bells” as it is sometimes characterised. Yancey comes from the extreme fundamentalist southern states of America, real redneck, hillbilly territory. Yes, theological poles apart indeed. I doubt very much if they have ever met; they may not even be aware of one another.

Yet they have one thing in particular very much in common, and this is why I found Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria and Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God so fascinating: they have both spent much of their lives sloughing off the early influences that did so much to shape them as people and also to form their understanding of the Christian faith. Yancey’s book is not, like Holloway’s, explicitly autobiographical, but plenty of his early years’ experience comes across.

Holloway was ordained into the Anglican priesthood and eventually retired as the Bishop of Edinburgh. Yancey has spent his life in Christian journalism, his books and articles often grappling with the hard questions which he feels the “angry fundamentalism” of his upbringing was unwilling to face.

In the church we usually – and, I am sure, rightly – emphasise the need to learn. Christians possess a Bible and an inherited body of teaching, or “doctrine” as it is more grandly called. To be a Christian in any meaningful sense involves gaining at least some mastery of these areas of knowledge. This learning is, of course, a life-time process.

But these two books threw up for my mind a rather different question: what about the need to unlearn? (I use that rather artificial word rather than “forget” because we are told that in reality we never really forget anything at all: it’s all stored away somewhere, like data on a hard disk.)

All of us adapt our thinking as we grow, probably most often in small, incremental ways, but sometimes in dramatic shifts. And as we do this it is inevitable that things which once seemed self-evident and above contradiction become open to serious question in our minds. Read Holloway’s and Yancey’s books and you will see that both of them have travelled an enormous distance from their respective beginnings.

The question, of course, is how we decide what we can and should hold on to, and what we need to throw overboard, to unlearn. Is there a danger of throwing away the baby with the bathwater? Both Holloway and Yancey reached a point in their understandings where they decided that early influences were not only untrue or unhelpful but actually pernicious. Their lives, they felt, had been poisoned.

Given that none of us are static in our thinking, how should we approach this question?

Christians can of course find their bearings in the twin pillars I mentioned earlier: scripture and tradition.

Scripture must come first. In evangelical circles such as the ones to which I have belonged throughout my Christian life, a high view of the authority of the Bible is vital, even if sometimes it raises difficult problems. But all Christians, of whatever stamp, believe in the inspiration of the Bible in some sense, so naturally it is an authority to which we instinctively return.

But the inherited doctrine of Christendom – the councils and creeds, the historic statements and the doctrinal classics – also has its place. It represents a body of teaching about which there is at least some significant measure of agreement throughout the church – God as trinity, the incarnation of Jesus the son of God, the atoning sacrifice of the cross, the bodily resurrection, the return of Christ in glory, final judgment, heaven and hell – however differing may be the precise interpretations of these truths. None of us starts from scratch, and we are foolish if we imagine we do.

So a combination of a belief in the authority of scripture on the one hand and a respect for Christian history on the other should keep us from going too far astray.

But reading books such as these is bound to prompt in our minds the question: how much of what I believe takes the form of vital, living conviction, and how much merely represents baggage I have unquestioningly carted along with me? Perhaps we would all benefit from spending time before God searching our hearts and looking in a fresh way at what we really believe. As long as we are ruthlessly honest and truly humble, can we have anything to fear from such an exercise?

Holloway’s book impressed me in many ways. He is obviously highly intelligent. He is an extremely gifted writer, and his knowledge of poetry, fiction and other arts suggests a well-rounded mind. He is also very open to all sorts of influences, even perhaps rather naive: I was surprised, for example, to read that someone as theologically liberal as he should open himself up to the charismatic movement when it burst on us all in the early 1970s – even to the point of tongues-speaking and seeking miraculous healing for the sick.

But it saddened me too. He himself raises the key question, “Was I in any recognisable sense still a Christian?” He speaks of “the God I no longer believed in.”

Doubt is a vital part of faith, and honesty concerning it is vital, but it doesn’t constitute a “religion” in its own right, and I ended up wondering if his faith (if that’s the right word!) amounted to much more. It is hard to resist the impression of a man with a permanently restless mind who never found a solid place to stand and who (if I may mix my metaphors) has eventually cut himself adrift from his Christian moorings. It seems immensely sad to seek the truth all your (long) life and get towards the end even less sure about it than at the beginning.

Yancey (as you might expect of me as an evangelical) struck me in a far more positive light. Questioning, probing, raising uncomfortable issues, yes; but emerging, it seems, with a bedrock faith which is orthodox in terms of Christian history, and also of a recognisably evangelical character.

Wherever we locate ourselves on the doctrinal spectrum, these two books are worth our attention. If nothing else they can teach us something about honesty. I am pretty confident that if ever Holloway and Yancey were to meet over a cup of coffee they would have plenty to talk about – and that they would do so with mutual respect.

And I dare to hope that over their conversation would hover, like one of those banners they used to have on old-fashioned parlour walls, the massively heartening words of Jesus: “Seek and you will find.” As long as the point is taken on board that seeking is not an end in itself…

Honest doubt is better than shallow faith, let that be granted. But deep, tested faith is best of all.


The fruit of the Spirit is… joy… Galatians 5:22

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4

Would you describe yourself as a joyful Christian?

That can be a hard question to answer, because joy isn’t something that comes naturally. Yes, some people seem to be born with a cheerful, sunny, optimistic disposition, and that’s good (just as others seem naturally glum and Eeyore-like, and still others suffer from depression and other psychological conditions). But that’s a different thing from joy.

Which, of course, is why Paul describes it as part of “the fruit of the Spirit“.

When the New Testament talks about joy, it’s talking about a supernatural thing. Left to our own moods, most of us probably swing every day from feeling pretty good and happy, to feeling dejected, worried and possibly quite miserable. But Paul’s words imply that if we are Spirit-filled people then joy should be part of our regular daily experience.

“Joy”, then, is different from “happiness”. There’s nothing wrong with happiness – of course not. But the problem with it is that it depends almost entirely on circumstances or temperament, both of which are to some extent outside your control. Your life is going well – you have a warm home, a full stomach, a fulfilling job, a settled family life, a good circle of friends, reasonable health… well, why wouldn’t you be happy!

But all that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with God or the Holy Spirit. Anyone can be happy when life is treating them kindly. But suddenly things begin to go wrong, and happiness has a habit of flying straight out of the window.

Remember the prodigal son? – I bet he was happy when he broke free from the shackles of home and headed off to the big city with his wallet stuffed with money: Wahay, world! – here I come! But once he’d run through all that money it was a very different story. It’s not easy, I imagine, to be happy in a pig-pen.

Joy comes from within us. Why? Because the Spirit is within us. However we may be feeling because of our external circumstances, nothing can alter the fact that we are children of God, that our sins are forgiven, that eternal life is secure, that our lives have a direction and purpose.

And nothing can alter the fact that even our problems and difficulties are within the will of a God who loves us more than we can ever know, and that he can turn them to our good if we consciously trust in him. The knowledge that God is our Father gives a stability, a foundation, to our daily lives.

In fact, joy is very closely related to peace, even that famous “peace of God that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Somebody said that peace is joy resting; joy is peace dancing. Good, yes?

What it all comes down to is that joy depends on the closeness of our relationship with God. If we drift from him we may well be “happy”, at least for a time, but we will never be joyful in the Christian sense. It’s no good sticking a plastic smile on our faces, so to speak – it’s about as convincing as a false moustache.

No, you can’t magic up joy; either you have it or you don’t. The challenge is to get ourselves into such a place with God that joy is just there. Are you in such a place? Am I?

Oh God our heavenly Father, as we seek to walk with you today, may the joy of the Lord fill our hearts – and overflow to others. Amen.

“More blessed to give…”?

Entirely of their own accord, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 2 Corinthians 8:4

I once heard a story – a true one, apparently – about a minister using a sermon to tell his congregation off about the level of their giving. So what’s new? you say. Isn’t this pretty normal? “Come on,” says the preacher, “we need to do more to bump up the church’s income!”

Only… it wasn’t like that. No – the preacher was telling his congregation off because they were giving too much. Yes, really. They were mainly quite poor people, but such was their love of God that they were giving so generously that there was a risk they would leave themselves seriously short. The Bible says that “God loves a cheerful giver”, of course – it’s better not to give at all than to give grudgingly or grumblingly. But perhaps a time had come in this case when the people were giving over-extravagantly, and the minster felt he should ask them to stop. Whatever next!

Something like this seems to have happened in Paul’s experience. The “they” he is speaking about in our verse were Christians in the Macedonian churches, probably Philippi and Thessalonica. He was keen to collect money from such Gentile churches in order to help the Jewish mother-church in Judea. The Jerusalem-based Christians had, for reasons we aren’t told, fallen on hard times and needed help.

And Paul was bowled over by the sheer generosity of the Macedonian churches. He didn’t need to beg them for money for this fund – no, they had begged him to be included in the project (even though they too were dirt poor).

A challenge to us all.

But, believe it or not, it’s not really money I’m thinking about, important though our financial giving is. I’m thinking more about our overall attitude towards service for God.

I have a little joke I’ve trotted out sometimes over the years. When there’s a job needing to be done in the life of the church, and we make the need known, I have sometimes said, “Please form an orderly queue at the end of the meeting” – knowing, of course, that that is extremely unlikely (to put it mildly) to happen. All right, not very funny really. But you get the point.

How wonderful it would be if there was a little queue of people volunteering to serve! “Yes, I’d just love to help out in Sunday School… the youth work… the music group… the stewarding… the grass-cutting… the coffee-making… the setting out of chairs… visiting the house-bound… I don’t know if I’m really qualified, of course, but I’m just delighted to offer myself…” (I even have this dream of finding people queuing up for the prayer-meeting – “There’s a prayer meeting tonight! – right, great, mustn’t be late!”)

Much more likely, I’m afraid, is the response Isaiah the prophet didn’t give when God asked him “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And what was that? “Here am I. Send him.”

I’m not saying this to pile guilt on us. Not at all. Of course, we’re living in days when everyone is frantically busy and often it’s desperately hard to do even the things we really like doing. But could it be that some of us have got into a wrong mentality? A mentality where our knee-jerk reaction is to say “Not me! Oh no, I couldn’t do that! That’s for someone else to do”? – without even pausing to think and pray. Could it in fact be that God is calling me to get involved?

Here are two great Bible principles.

First, it is a joy and privilege to serve God in the building of his kingdom. What greater use of our earthly lives could there be than doing work which results in the love of God being spread more widely?

Second, it is through service that we grow. Why are some Christians, even those of many years’ standing, spiritually flabby and slack? Often it’s because they have never rolled up their sleeves and taken on the discipline of some specific work for God.

Why not read the whole passage, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, and ask yourself the question: Is there any area (I stress again not necessarily to do with money) where I need to take a leaf out of the Macedonian Christians’ book? Is it time to discover the joy of giving?
Lord God, help me to be a cheerful giver in every area of my Christian discipleship, remembering how Jesus gave his all for me. Amen.

Words that need to die

The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Acts 11:26.

There are times I wish I could eliminate various words from the English language: they contain the “grrr”-factor – as in making me grind my teeth in irritation. This is usually because they have been emptied of any real meaning through constant careless use. Oh for a cosmic delete button!

A particular pet hate at the moment is “incredible” (not to mention its close cousin “fantastic”). Nothing these days is allowed to be just “good” or “excellent” or “outstanding”; it has to be incredible – a well-worked goal, a powerful bit of music, a slightly surprising piece of news. Incredible!

No! Incredible means defying belief, impossible to believe in. Suppose you switch on the television news one evening and hear the news-reader say, “Her Majesty the Queen was observed outside Buckingham Palace at three o’clock this morning dancing a highland jig to the accompaniment of the London Symphony Orchestra with One Direction”, or “Wayne Rooney has announced that he is giving up football in order to train as a ballet dancer” – then, yes, call that “incredible” by all means. But for things just a touch out of the ordinary, just a little bit special, no! Grrr!

Being a little more serious, there are a couple of words in the religious sphere which I wonder may have outlived their usefulness.

One is that word “religion” itself. I have come to detest it, because it conjures up in the minds of many people all sorts of negative images – old fusty buildings, people dressed up in strange outfits, weird forms of worship, incomprehensible language, not to mention hypocrisy and other nasties.

“Oh, you’re religious, aren’t you!” people have sometimes said to me when, perhaps, there’s a biblical clue in the crossword they can’t solve; and I feel like screaming “No! I’m not religious! I just try to follow Jesus.” The word “religion” has become a kind of rag-bag into which anything vaguely “spiritual” can be tossed.

Even more seriously, I sometimes wonder if the very word “Christian” is past its use-by date, especially in the supposedly Christian west.

This was brought home to me very forcibly many years ago in a conversation I had with a woman I had recently met. She was very interesting and open, and a point came when I felt able to inquire, very politely, “May I ask if you are a Christian?” She looked at me with an expression, first, of sheer incomprehension (I think she wondered if she had heard me right), quickly followed by one of affront: “Of course I’m a Christian!” as if I had deliberately insulted her. How dare I suggest otherwise!

I immediately saw where the problem lay.

To me, the question “Are you a Christian?” meant (though, don’t worry, I wouldn’t have put it like this), “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, that he lived a perfect life on earth, that he died an atoning death for our sins, that he rose bodily from the dead, and that he is one day going to return in glory?”

But to her the question meant “Are you a decent human being? Are you honest, kind, law-abiding?” No wonder she took offence.

To be a Christian is far more than to be a civilised human being. Plenty of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics – you name it – are civilised human beings, perhaps more so than many of us Christians. But they are not Christians.

A Roman Catholic theologian many years ago was troubled by his church’s teaching that “outside the church there is no salvation”. So he invented the idea of the “anonymous Christian”, by which he meant the vast numbers of outwardly good people who belong to some other religion or none. All right, they may carry the label of Hindu or Muslim or atheist or whatever; but really, in God’s eyes, they are “Christians”. Which sounded all very tolerant and enlightened.

But unfortunately for him some of these “anonymous Christians” got quite angry: “No, we are not Christians!” they said, “anonymous or otherwise.” They felt they were being patronised. And you can see their point of view.

I can’t imagine myself denying the word Christian; it is a vital part of my identity, and has been for fifty years. But I do sometimes wish we could do without it and all the misunderstandings it gives rise to. The word Luke uses in Acts 11:26 is invariably translated “Christians”, but it could just as easily be translated “Christ’s people” or “followers of Christ”, which is of course what Luke meant.

I don’t suppose my one-man war on “incredible”, “fantastic” or “religious” is likely to be successful. Oh well – at least it gives me something to be grumpy about. And I’m not sure I would really want to say goodbye to “Christian”. But the problem of words that need to die poses to us all the question: How am I seen by others? Merely as a “Christian”? Or truly as a “Christ person”?

Father God, thank you for the privilege of bearing the very name of Christ. Help me, day by day, to live worthy of that “name above all names”. Amen.

Getting to grips with God

Epaphras… is always wrestling in prayer for you… Colossians 4:12

When I was a youngster we didn’t have a television in our home – I used to feel quite envious of my friends. But sometimes on a Saturday afternoon my brother and I used to visit a friend’s house, and we’d be able to make up a bit for what we didn’t have at home.

And what were they showing on television? Often it was wrestling, and quite a grotesque spectacle it was: overweight, misshapen men in odd outfits grunting and sweating as they threw one another around the ring. Sometimes they would thump the floor in what seemed absolute agony – I really thought someone was going to end up dead.

I soon learned that a lot of it was fake. In fact, even the crowd didn’t seem to take it too seriously – everyone seemed to accept that it was just a show.

Real wrestling, I suspect, is a different matter altogether: two people pitting their raw strength against one another, no doubt using all sorts of skills and techniques to reduce their opponent to the bitter point of submission. It was a well-known sport in the ancient world.

Well, I don’t imagine that Paul often went to watch wrestling, but he obviously knew something about it. And one thing it reminded him of was – would you believe it? – prayer. Yes, Paul saw prayer as a kind of spiritual wrestling match. And he praises his friend Epaphras for being a keen wrestler. He tells the Christians of Colosse that Epaphras is “always wrestling in prayer for you”.

Which leads to a very obvious question. I assume that all of us, especially if we are Christians, pray (how can you be a Christian and not pray?). But how many of us know anything about wrestling in prayer? What do we know of getting into a no-holds-barred clinch with God himself?

You might say, “But surely God doesn’t need to be treated in this way!” Well, not always, of course: sometimes our praying might be quite calm and unemotional. In fact, if you turn back to verse 2 of this same chapter you find Paul using a much more gentle (but still challenging) expression: “Devote yourselves to prayer…”, implying perseverance rather than agonising.

But still, I find I can’t avoid that little word “always” in verse 12 – apparently this kind of praying was by no means unusual to Epaphras. So even if our praying shouldn’t necessarily be always of the wrestling kind, you can’t help wondering if it is something we should take seriously.

Two other Bible passages spring to mind.

First, the story of Jacob and the angel in Genesis 32.

Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau, whom he has treated appallingly in the past. Scared, and painfully aware of his bad behaviour, he is met by a mysterious stranger who engages him in a prolonged wrestling match. Somehow Jacob senses that his very life depends on it, and when the angel asks him to let him go he grits his teeth and says (wonderful words, these!) “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And the angel does just that. Jacob “struggled with God and overcame”. Quite a story!

The other passage is about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion (Luke 22:39-46).

Luke tells us that “being in anguish, Jesus prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”. (Note, by the way, that Luke doesn’t say that Jesus literally “sweated blood”: that word “like” is important.) The word Luke uses for “anguish” is the same as Paul uses for Epaphras “wrestling” in prayer; it’s the word we get our word “agony” from. Putting it another way, just as Jesus “agonised” in the garden, so Epaphras “agonised” in prayer.

I don’t think there’s any point in asking why a kind and fatherly God should want to bring us to such a pitch; no doubt there are various reasons. All I know is that these passages are there for our good. Of course, you can’t put on wrestling in prayer just to please God; what he wants is real pray-ers, not actors. But is it time, perhaps, that we – how shall I put it? – got to grips with God in a new way?

Father God, please forgive the shallowness of my praying. Take me to a new level – perhaps even to a new depth – so that I might experience the kind of victory you gave to Jacob, and for which Epaphras longed. Amen.