Alone in the garden

Jesus said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me”.  Matthew 26:38

 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. 1 Peter 2:24

Somebody once said, “Anything is bearable – as long as you don’t have to bear it alone”.

I have had a very easy life – I haven’t really had much to “bear”, for which I thank God. But I suspect there’s a lot of truth in those words.

I find the dreadfulness of the plane crash in the Alps almost impossible to imagine – the destruction, the loss, the grieving for the dead, the sheer numbness of trying to come to terms with something so awful.

But for the relatives hopefully there is at least a crumb of comfort in knowing that all around you others are in the same situation. So people can cling together – sometimes quite literally- for consolation, even if there is very little they can actually do. “Moral support” is not just an empty phrase.

Or suppose you’ve just had an operation. You come round from the anaesthetic and there is no-one near – all the staff are busy at that particular moment with other patients. You feel disoriented and helpless – and totally alone. But then you open your eyes and the first thing you see is a familiar face sitting in the bedside chair. You immediately feel comforted. I’m not forgotten! I’m not alone!

If this is so, it makes Jesus’ suffering before the crucifixion even more acute. His words to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane are really quite pitiful: “Stay here and keep watch with me…” In other words, “I need you now more than I have ever needed you before. I know there is nothing you can do to make this cup of suffering more drinkable, but… just be there for me. I want to be able to look up from my praying and see that you are with me…”

And what did he find? They were asleep.

The first time it happened he took Peter to task with a real note of reproach: “Couldn’t you keep watch with me for just one hour?” But the second time, Matthew tells us, “he left them and went away once more and prayed…” As if to say, “There’s no point in disturbing them again – the fact is that I’m not going to get any help from them in my time of struggle.” So he “went away” – can you see his bowed head, his drooping shoulders, all the body language of acute disappointment? – and prayed completely alone.

Of course, it was to get even worse. Being let down by your friends is one thing. But what was it Jesus cried out on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Throughout eternity Jesus had been in intimate relationship with his heavenly Father. But as death approaches that relationship is broken. This is an aloneness which we can only begin to imagine. And it is the price that had to be paid for our sins. The perfect holiness of God and the heavy weight of human sin cannot co-exist, so a massive wedge is driven between God the Father and God the Son.

As Peter puts it in that wonderfully concise sentence (with a glance back at Isaiah 53:12): “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”.

As we come towards Good Friday we would do well to pray for a fresh appreciation of what Jesus suffered. The old hymn asks the question, “Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?”

And the answer is Yes. Yes! “Amazing love! How can it be,/ That thou, my God, should die for me!”

Father, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is one I’ve known almost all my life. Please help me this week not only to relive it in my imagination, but to feel it afresh, as never before. And please also bring to my mind anyone who needs me to be with them today. Amen.

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When enthusiasm isn’t enough

Test everything… 1 Thessalonians 5:21

It was 1975 and I was a very young and inexperienced minister. A couple came to me with an idea that made me think hard – in a nutshell: “We feel God wants us to open a Christian bookshop in this town.”

The town in question was Scunthorpe in north Lincolnshire, famed for its steelworks. The husband was a shift-worker in the works, the wife a housewife and mother of small children. I don’t think they would be offended if I were to say that they knew very little about books, even Christian ones, and nothing at all about shops and how they are run.

Interesting!

Things like this, judging by my experience, do happen from time to time to ministers. People come to share a conviction that “the Lord has told me…”. Sound familiar?

I remember a group that was convinced God had called them to set up a hostel for people with addiction problems. They even knew the address of the house which God had in mind, and had gone and knocked on the door and told the poor unsuspecting owner that they would soon be buying his house for this purpose. I think he just dismissed them as “a bunch of religious nutters”, but it must have been unsettling.

Another couple were convinced not only that they were going to be missionaries at some unspecified date in the future, but exactly what country God was calling them to work in.

A blind Christian was visited by a healing group convinced that, after praying for her and laying on hands, her sight would be restored.

A minister arrived new in a town and announced that he believed his small, struggling church would become “the largest church in the town”.

And a more personal reflection: my wife and I lost what would have been our first child; it died in the womb. During the anxious period leading up to this we had lovely, well-meaning Christians assuring us that the baby would be fine. How did they know? – why, the Lord had told them, of course.

You can probably guess where I am heading… That hostel never got opened. That couple never went abroad as missionaries. That blind lady never saw (until she died and saw Jesus face to face in glory). That minister left within a year. And I’ve already said what happened to our baby.

So what about that Christian bookshop?

Well, a few weeks ago I received an invitation to a celebration party marking its fortieth anniversary.

Yes! It did get started; and, yes, it is still there. It’s in a slightly different location, it has a different name, and its ministry has expanded beyond only books. But it is still there, a quiet Christian presence in the heart of the town. And I can tell you that that party was one of the most moving and wonderful experiences I can remember.

When the work began, in the original location, a man came in who ran a rather disreputable shop next door. He had a look round and told my friends Ian and Mary “I’ll give you six months.” Well, he and his shop went out of business in no time at all; and if a period of forty years and counting doesn’t qualify as standing the test of time, I don’t know what does…

I don’t mean to criticise the good people I mentioned earlier who got it wrong – God bless them for their faith and enthusiasm. After all, Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire. Don’t treat prophecies with contempt.” Amen to that!

But then he adds something massively important: Test everything”. Yes, enthusiasm needs to be tempered with wisdom.

That’s exactly what happened with the shop – a vision, a conviction, a whole lot of prayer, of discussion, of research, not to mention sheer back-breaking hard work. And only then was a wonderful new ministry born.

It’s only right to say that there have been bumps along the way and periods of uncertainty. But is a true work of God ever easy and trouble-free? Not if the witness of Acts is to be believed!

So? I can only encourage us all to be men and women of deep faith, believing that with God all things really are possible. But never forget those two little words: Test everything.

Oh, and next time you find yourself in Scunthorpe (what do you mean, you don’t expect to?), get yourself along to the shop (details below). You can enjoy a coffee, perhaps pick up a bargain from the charity shop, perhaps even buy a book or two.

There’s one thing I can guarantee: you will meet some very beautiful Christian people working out a vision that, forty years ago, looked a mere pipe-dream.

And if, sadly, Scunthorpe isn’t on your “must visit” list, well, why not stop and offer a prayer right now – a prayer of thanks for past blessings and of intercession for blessings still to come.

Lord God, help me to be a Christian of both soaring vision and hard-headed realism. Amen.

The Well (previously King’s Christian Bookshop) 
74-78 Frodingham Road
Scunthorpe
North Lincolnshire DN15  7JW.

Telephone: 01724 865410

Email: thewell@xln.co.uk

Listen to me!

He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.  Proverbs 18:13

Do you think of yourself as a good listener?

Probably we all do, though I suspect that most of us are far better talkers.

I had an interview with a bank employee once – we needed to discuss a mortgage or something. As I explained our need I could see her eyes glancing down at the papers on her desk. She kept murmuring “Mmm”, “Yes, mmm”, “I see”, but I just knew she wasn’t actually listening to me. I wanted her to look at me and give me her full attention.

And what about those times you’re talking to someone in a crowded room, and you can see their eyes looking over your shoulder, obviously more interested in what’s going on behind you than in what you are saying. Oh, and doctors – I’m sure most of them are very good when it comes to relating to their patients, but occasionally you do hear the complaint “I never felt he really listened to what I was saying”.

(I won’t even start on those people who want you to think they are listening to you while they’re glancing at or tapping on their smart phone or whatever…)

To be fair, I should add that you sometimes hear it said of quite well-known, famous people, “When you’re talking to him/her you really feel you’re the only person in their world at that moment.” That’s a great tribute!

Well, I’m sure I am as guilty in this area as anyone else. So this verse in Proverbs is certainly a prod to me.

At the very lowest level, to listen carefully is just plain good manners.

But it’s also a way of saying “You matter to me. I see you as a real person, a human being, not just a shape filling a bit of space in my life”. To feel that someone has really listened to you is massively reassuring and encouraging; it makes you feel much better about yourself.

Why do we often find listening so difficult? Here’s a few possible reasons…

First, we are just too plain busy – we don’t have the time to stop and listen. But, make no mistake, we would happily make time if the other person was someone we valued.

Second, we are so full of ourselves that the only opinion that matters is mine; we don’t mean to ignore that other person, but subconsciously we just aren’t interested.

Third, we are afraid that what we hear might challenge some prejudice of ours; we are too lazy to do some serious thinking and perhaps adjust our views accordingly.

Fourth, we are afraid the other person might make some kind of demand of us. If we listen to what they say we might feel under an obligation to do something, and that would upset our comfortable life.

Fifth (let’s be totally honest), that other person is just so boring. Well, all right, perhaps they don’t have much sparkle to their conversation. But can you imagine Jesus stifling a yawn and turning away from some poor soul who rattled on a bit?

Listening to someone, then, is about respecting them, treating them as an equal.

But it may also be about doing ourselves a favour. Haven’t we all got something to learn? And haven’t we all sometimes come away from a conversation feeling enriched and stimulated by some whole new angle on things?

And is there anyone who has never said themselves “If only I had listened to what so-and-so said! It might have saved me from disaster”? No wonder Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” As a Sunday school teacher said to me many years ago, “It’s no accident that God has given us two ears and only one mouth…”

Not to listen is “a folly and a shame”. Shakespeare went even further, writing about “the disease of not listening”. It was said as a joke by the unpleasant Sir John Falstaff, but it was a disease he seems to have been quite proud of: see Henry the Fourth, Part Two, Act One, Scene 2. Truths can indeed be spoken in jest.

By the way, there’s something else the verse suggests, and I mustn’t finish without mentioning it: until you have listened, you are not qualified to speak.

Lord God, please forgive me for being so full of my little self that I fail to listen properly to others. Teach me to be a better listener – listening to you, listening to wise people, and, yes, even listening to those I find tiresome. Amen.

Barnabas’s brother

In the Lord I take refuge. How then can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to your mountain…”? Psalm 11:1

A favourite Bible character of mine is Barnabas, whom we meet mainly in the Acts of the Apostles. He isn’t one of the Bible’s “stars” – he isn’t up there with David or Moses or Paul or Peter. But he is an important person all the same; and the reason I like him is because of the nickname he earned in the early church: “Barnabas” means Encourager.

Encouragement… It’s one of the greatest things you can offer your fellow-Christians, indeed anyone. A simple word of thanks or praise can change someone’s whole day – yes, really! A little behind-the-scenes support of what someone is doing can mean the difference between success and failure. A positive, cheerful and optimistic spirit can lift a whole group – including a church.

Are you a Barnabas, I wonder?

You might give a long list of all the things you can’t do – teach children, play an instrument, lead a house-group, preach, visit the sick. Fine. But it’s hard to think why anyone is incapable of being an encourager. Yes, even you!

Sadly, though, Barnabas has a brother, even though he isn’t mentioned explicitly in the Bible. His name, as you might guess, is Discourager. He or she is the person who goes round spreading gloom and despondency, always seeing the worst rather than the best, for ever finding faults and problems, difficulties and impossibilities.

And here in Psalm 11, sure enough, is Barnabas’ brother.

The writer is obviously having problems with him: “How can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to your mountain’?” In other words, How can you tell me to run away? Oh yes, it’s something I really feel like doing. But what sort of faith in God would that show! How would it help? How can you urge me, in effect, to give up! Go away – leave me alone!

I imagine every one of us has felt from time to time the desire to run away, to stop fighting and trusting, to throw our hands in the air, to close our eyes, curl up into a ball and hope that next time we open them our problems will have gone away. Of course! We’re only human, after all.

But it isn’t the answer. Problems need to be confronted, difficulties overcome, with a combination of heart-felt prayer, hard work, simple faith and sheer perseverance. Spiritual stickability, I sometimes call it.

The Psalmist may well be wobbling a bit, but he has got the right idea. “In the Lord I take refuge,” he says – as if to say, I can curl up in God, thank you very much, so I don’t need to be running away. In verse 4 he declares, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne” – as if to say, I know it doesn’t seem particularly like it at the moment, but God is in control. So why should I give up? And how dare you tempt me to!

The plain fact is that the voice of Barnabas’s brother is the voice of the devil. He loves to discourage God’s people, whether individually or as a church. And the business of each of us, as followers of Jesus, is to send him packing.

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?

I’m sure Simon Peter meant well when Jesus grimly prophesied that he was going to be killed. He protested: “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22). This, surely, is the voice of a friend! Well, perhaps it is; but a misguided friend – and it doesn’t stop Jesus replying quite savagely: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Psalm 11 isn’t very long. Why not take a few minutes to read it right through and to ponder its message? And if you are feeling discouraged today – well, I hope everyone reading this will join in praying that God will send you a Barnabas.

Shall we all do that right now…?

Lord God, draw close right now to anyone feeling discouraged and low. And help me always to be a true encourager to everyone I meet. Amen.

Beware stereotypes!

Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road… he passed by on the other side. So, too, a Levite… passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan… took pity on him…” Luke 10:30-35

A friend needed to pop into the hospital for a few minutes to pick something up. The machine in the car park offered a twenty minute slot for fifty pence, which was ideal. But as she rummaged through her handbag it became frustratingly obvious that she didn’t have fifty pence in change. Grrr. At this point who should drive up but Mr White Van Man?

If you live in Britain you will know that “White Van Man” is a term of mild abuse for any self-employed workman, perhaps a plumber or builder, who tends to be aggressive, rude – and probably not too bothered about honesty.

“What do you need, love?” asked Mr White Van Man out of his window. “Fifty pence? Oh, I can help you there” – and promptly gave her a coin. She, being very British (and also very Christian), was a little embarrassed: “But I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay you back!” To which he replied “Oh, don’t worry about that!”

Then, as he drove off with a cheery wave, he shouted over his shoulder, “Mind you, any time you need your front drive done just give me a call and I’ll rip you off good and proper.”

A nice story. That man was playing up to the stereotype of White Van Man and turning it into a joke (perhaps I’m being a bit naive, but it’s hard to believe someone so good-natured would really “rip anybody off”).

And so my friend benefited in three distinct ways. First, she had the solution to a practical problem. Second, she had a smile on her face over the joke. And third, and by far the most important, she learned a lesson about stereotyping people (not that she needed it, I think, but a reminder is never a bad thing, is it?).

In Jesus’ day, if ever there was a person likely to be stereotyped by the Jews it was the Samaritans. It is no exaggeration to say that relations between the two peoples were poisonous and full of centuries-old hatred.

And this is the kick in Jesus’ story. The man talking with him has been reminded to “love his neighbour as himself.” Fine, he says, no problem. But then he digs a hole for himself by asking Jesus the question, “And who is my neighbour?” – assuming, no doubt, that it would turn out to be somebody who lived nearby or, by extension, any good, law-abiding Jew.

It must have been a severe shock to be told that the true neighbour was, in fact, a detested Samaritan. That man had, as they say, some serious thinking to do, some drastic rearranging to carry out of the long-settled furniture of his mind…

So the question is: Do you ever stereotype people? I’m afraid I do – only subconsciously, perhaps, but I don’t think that makes things any better.

You see a little old man with a stick walking along the road. And you think “Oh, he’s of no account – his opinion wouldn’t be worth hearing. Just an old man…” Careful! – for all you know he could be a university professor of nuclear thermodynamics… You see a young woman with a full-face head-covering and you think “Oh, another of those fanatical Muslims…” Careful! – she could belong to a group desperate to distance true Muslims from their violent fellow-Muslims and to foster good relations with the wider community.

Somebody comes into church one Sunday with an armload of tattoos and a face liberally decorated with bits of metal. And you think “Oh, what a thug!” Careful! – he could be… well, that’s the whole point, he could be almost anything. And you’ll never know who or what he is until you accept him as he is and get to know him.

The good news is that stereotypes can die on the strength of five minutes’ conversation. That’s all it might take.

Stereotypes are simply a convenient way of dismissing people as nonentities – people you really don’t need to bother with. And so to resort to stereotypes is lazy, wrong and completely unchristian.

Every time we come across someone who doesn’t quite fit our idea of how people should be, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a few vital truths… That person is made in the image of God… That person is infinitely precious to God… That person is someone Jesus died on the cross for… That person could be, if not now then at some point in the future, my brother or sister in Christ

God save us from stereotypes!

Father in heaven, you have loved and accepted me just as I am with all my faults and peculiarities. Help me to do for others what you have done for me. Amen.

How welcoming is your church?

Practise hospitality. Romans 12:13

There was a tiny country church which had a small but very faithful congregation; the regulars never missed turning up to worship. Jack in particular: he had been around longer than anyone could remember and was one of the leaders. If he wasn’t there you could be sure something had happened.

There was one exception to the general rule about numbers: harvest. This was the big event of the year. The whole village turned out, bearing with them their marrows and apples and cabbages and fancy loaves for the display. The place was always packed out – you could guarantee that.

Jack and a fellow church member were surveying the scene after the service one year when Jack’s friend commented, “Well, Jack, isn’t it great to see the place so full!” Jack thought for a moment, scratched his chin and replied “Ay, I suppose it is. But to be honest, I prefer it when it’s just us.”

I prefer it when it’s just us…

Now, for all I know, Jack was a good, kind man, and a sincere Christian too. But I’m afraid he had fallen into a mentality which is seriously wrong, and one he should have been ashamed of. The church had become, for him, a cosy club, a holy huddle, a clique. It had ceased to be a community eager to worship God and motivated by a heart for those who don’t yet know Christ.

Well, I doubt if most of us would express ourselves as bluntly as Jack, but – let’s make no mistake – that “just us” mentality can quietly, gradually, insidiously capture our minds too.

When Paul urged the Christians in Rome to “practise hospitality” he probably had in mind the hospitality of the home: we should be glad to welcome others into our homes. And this may well be a challenge some of us need to take from this verse today. Have you ever pondered the massive impact your hospitality could have on the lives of others? A welcoming home is a truly beautiful thing!

But I think the principle applies just as much to the church as a gathered community. We all like to think our churches are welcoming, but I wonder if that’s how it seems to the newcomer?

We were on holiday once when our two boys were still small, and wondered where we might go to worship on Sunday. We saw a poster or advert from one of the local churches declaring itself to be “your welcoming church”. Right, we thought, that’ll suit us just fine.

So we turned up on Sunday morning. And, beyond the formal handshake at the door, nobody spoke to us. Nobody. Oh yes, it was a busy, lively church. But nobody spoke to us. Nobody. Zilch.

Now, I’m quite sure that no-one in that church made a conscious decision, “Oh look, there’s a new family here this morning, but I’m certainly not going to speak to them.” Of course not.

But (a) they were all busy talking to their friends, and (b) they probably made the unconscious assumption that somebody else would talk to us.

Many, I suspect, were so preoccupied with what they were doing that they hardly even noticed us at all; we were just a vague presence in the corner of their eye. Perhaps on Wednesday morning the thought might have dawned, “Mmm, did I see some new people in church last Sunday?” We simply didn’t figure on their radar. Whatever, we went away feeling ignored, cold-shouldered.

Paul’s “practise hospitality” is three words in the Greek, and two of them are worth probing a little. Hospitality is literally “love for the outsider or foreigner”. And practise is literally “pursue”, with a sense of real purpose and definite intention.

So those three words could very well be translated “Make a serious point of noticing and welcoming the outsider.”

So, what about it? Let me offer a practical suggestion…

Close your eyes for two minutes and make a real effort of imagination to see your church through the eyes of the first-timer. What does that person see? A “just us” clique? Or an open, vibrant, truly loving community of the body of Christ?

Lord God, help me as an individual, and my church as a church, to practise truly Christlike hospitality. Amen.

God, you, and me

I rejoiced with those who said to me ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’. Psalm 122:1

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing. Heb 10:25

I’m sure you will see the connection between these two verses. The Old Testament psalmist is excited – “I rejoiced!” – at the prospect of meeting with his fellow-Israelites to worship God; while whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews is worried about people who are getting out of the habit.

Red-hot enthusiasm: cold indifference… probably most of us are somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, the thought of going to church and attending other meetings is one we are quite happy with, but probably we don’t actually “rejoice” over it. On the other hand, we wouldn’t feel at all happy to drop out altogether. Worship and fellowship are part of the very fabric of our lives.

Fact: from the earliest times God has invited, and expected, his people to come together at regular intervals: Christianity is never, ever, just a solitary faith. We’re in this together! None of this “I can worship God by walking in the country, or sitting in my bedroom or my back garden” nonsense!

But have you ever asked why it is that God wants us to meet together?

There are various reasons, but the most important is simply that we need special times to focus consciously on God, putting aside all the many things which normally clutter up our lives. Time to think, to pray, to worship, to absorb what God is saying to us – and then, of course, to head back into that busy world with our sleeves rolled up. (True worship is preparation more than escape.)

All right, you certainly can meet with God at home, or on that country walk, and so indeed you should. But it is never enough. God wants more for us: by being with others we gain encouragement through personal contact, we learn to love and care for one another, we develop in patience and Christlikeness, we grow through shouldering responsibility.

And coming together isn’t just a matter for Sundays. Small-group fellowship at other times is one of the great joys of being a Christian. It amazes – and, indeed, troubles – me that there are genuine Christian people who never go along to a home-group or prayer-meeting.

What good things they are missing! And how sad that they are denying their fellow-Christians the good things they themselves have to share! By getting together we are both a blessing to others and also blessed ourselves.

When it comes to “giving up meeting together”, people (setting aside those who just don’t believe anyway and so have no reason to do so) usually put forward one main reason. You’ve probably heard it a thousand times: “I’m too busy… I just don’t have the time”.

This, frankly, is a cop-out. If we are too busy for God, then we are just plain too busy full stop, and it’s time for a bit of reshuffling of our priorities.

Let’s be honest, we aren’t often too busy to make time for the things which are really important to us – even if it is only something as trivial as a favourite TV programme or a regular meal-time or making ourselves look nice in front of the mirror. The fact is that most of us have no problem at all in making time for what matters to us.

So if we don’t make time to meet with God and our fellow-believers – well, that can only mean one thing: whatever we might say, God isn’t really that important to us. Perhaps we need to come clean and face that fact and do some serious thinking.

Is this a word to you as you read this?

“Meeting together” is one of the main ways in which God makes known to us his love and grace. To neglect it is to sadden him, to imperil our own souls, and to impoverish our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Dear Father, forgive me that my heart is so lukewarm towards you, your word and your people. Send your Holy Spirit to set my heart on fire. And so may I, like the man in the psalm, know what it is to be excited to be in fellowship and worship with your people. Amen.

  • What steps should you take to reshuffle the priorities of your life and make room for what matters most?