Praise in prison

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Acts 16:25

Well, what’s so special about that? OK, perhaps the timing – midnight – is a little unusual for a time of worship, but as long as they weren’t annoying the neighbours, why not?

We need to read back a few verses. Does this make any difference…?

Paul and Silas have been “stripped” and “beaten”, they have been “severely flogged” and “thrown into prison”, they are in “the inner cell” (sounds nastily like a dungeon), and their feet are “fastened in the stocks”. Mmm.

Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t spell out any more details. But I’m sure he could have mentioned the gloomy darkness, the cold, the damp, the smells (I rather doubt if there were en suite washing facilities and other hygienic provisions), the rats. And just the sheer pain and discomfort. Not nice.

And yet they are singing and praising God. The obvious question arises: Would you – would I – have been doing the same? I can only say, speaking for myself, that I have my doubts.

The message is easy to understand but hard to put into practice: faith in Christ should enable us to be unwaveringly cheerful and positive even in the hardest of circumstances.

I’m sure that Paul and Silas will have consoled themselves with the thought that God’s hand was somehow in this turn of events (God does indeed “move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform”) and that good would ultimately come of it.

And if you read on you find that that was exactly what happened. An earthquake strikes and everyone is in fear of their lives. The jailer, probably a semi-retired Roman centurion, hard-bitten and used to violence, is converted to Christ. An impromptu baptismal service takes place in the early hours of the morning.

Paul and Silas are released (with apologies from the authorities) but, being sensible men, they feel it prudent to move on from Philippi – but they leave behind them an embryonic church. Paul wrote them a letter some time later. Have you recently read the beautiful little Letter to the Philippians? – I like to think of it being read out to the congregation, with the jailer and his family listening and thinking about the night their lives changed for ever.

(I wonder, by the way, how they got on with their fellow church-member, the business woman Lydia? Read about her in verses 13-15.)

I love the detail Luke gives us about the other prisoners. He explicitly tells us that while Paul and Silas were having their prayer and praise session “the other prisoners were listening to them”. They probably couldn’t see them in the murk, but they could hear them all right. Oh yes!

I wonder what they thought? Had such a sound – strange, haunting and beautiful – ever been heard before in that horrible place? Cries of pain, yes. Shouts of rage, fury, frustration, perhaps. Sobs of despair, I suspect. But hymn-singing! Praying! This must have deeply stirred their hearts. Perhaps this helps to explain why, when “the doors flew open”, none of the prisoners attempted to escape – they sensed that something very wonderful was taking place.

The way of Christ is the way of the cross. So as far as Paul and Silas were concerned what happened in Philippi was par for the course.

May God help us too to maintain our faith and positive spirits in all the circumstances that come our way. And may he hear our prayers as we remember that even today there are many of God’s people in similarly horrible situations all around the world.

Dear Father, forgive us when our faith fails us and we allow ourselves to be crushed under the weight of our circumstances. Help us to learn from the example of Paul and Silas. And please show mercy today to all who are suffering in our world for conscience’ sake. Amen.

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Serious about prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. Colossians 4:2

I wonder how many times the New Testament tells us to pray? I’ve never counted them, but I’m sure there’s plenty.

I find that encouraging, because it suggests that prayer isn’t always easy. After all, you don’t have to be told to do something which comes naturally to you, do you? You don’t need someone to issue an order “eat that bar of chocolate”, or “don’t forget your favourite television programme”, or “enjoy your break from work”.

No: orders are given to remind us of things which are important but which we would naturally tend to skip. Hard things, things that are not immediately appealing. Remember when you were a child? “Don’t forget to brush your teeth..!” “It’s time you tidied your bedroom!” “Get on with your homework now!”

Well, here is Paul writing to the Christians of Colosse. And he tells them “Devote yourselves to prayer”. All right, perhaps it isn’t strictly an order, but it’s certainly a strong pastoral suggestion: “devote” is a no-nonsense word.

It means really taking prayer seriously, not just dabbling in it. It means giving prayer that “quality time” we hear so much about these days, that concentration and perseverance that require effort. It means not praying just when you happen to feel like it, or when you can’t think of anything else to do, or when a particular need or problem arises. Paul is saying that prayer is something we need to roll up our sleeves for, so to speak.

Of course, prayer should be as natural to us as breathing. But, let’s be honest, that often isn’t the case. Why is this? I can think of various reasons.

First, this world in which we live provides us with all sorts of other ways of spending our time, many of which seem much more enjoyable: “distractions”, we usually call them (though they may be perfectly good in themselves).

Second, we all know that prayer is often not answered immediately, so there’s a temptation to listen to the devil’s voice, “This is a waste of time. Why bother?”

Third, not all of us are good with words, so we struggle to express our thoughts to God – perhaps forgetting that as far as he is concerned cries, sighs and even groans are just as good as polished speech.

Fourth, we tend to let God drift out of our lives, perhaps even sliding into sin, so talking to him somehow feels unreal.

If those are some of the reasons we tend to slip in prayer, what things can we can do to help us pray more effectively? Let me rattle some off.

1. Don’t waffle! Be silent before you start and think for a moment what you want to say to God. Then say it, in crisp, concise terms. God isn’t interested in lots of words.

2. Leave it with God. Once you have prayed, don’t take your need away with you. Say to yourself “Right! I’ve left that matter with God, so I won’t let it keep running around in my mind.” Get on with life.

3. Don’t be afraid to use written prayers if you find them helpful. Prayer doesn’t always have to be off the cuff – didn’t Jesus himself give us a pattern prayer? There are some excellent books of prayers you can use to strengthen your prayer life. Why not have a browse in one or two and buy one that suits you?

4. Explore the pleasure and encouragement (and I really mean those two words!) of praying with other people. If you are married to a Christian, make sure to pray together. And get into a prayer group or house-group where you can share and pray together. Prayer can be particularly hard if you only ever do it on your own.

5. Every time you start to pray, remind yourself of the need for faith. Never pray just as a matter of form – such prayers are empty and pointless. And even if you feel your faith is weak – well, what was that that Jesus said about faith as tiny as a grain of mustard-seed?

6. Experiment with different types of prayer – sometimes part of a fixed discipline, sometimes spontaneous; sometimes short and business-like, other times more leisurely and conversational; sometimes perhaps simply enjoying silence in God’s presence.

Above all, always pray from the heart and not just from the mouth, and keep in mind that God is your loving heavenly Father. He loves to hear you pray: yes, really! And he promises that he will answer, though not necessarily according to our time-scale.

Prayer is all about relationship – your relationship with God. Yes, it can sometimes seem like hard work. But how else are we going to build that relationship? And remember, it doesn’t take all that much for a duty to become a joy

Lord Jesus, your first disciples asked you, “Teach us to pray”. Please teach me too. Amen!

Triouble in the church

In those days, when the number of the disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews… complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Acts 6:1

Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers. Matthew 5:9

Oh dear! – factions, grumbles and complaints in the body of the church. Sound familiar, by any chance?

We don’t need to go into the details about who exactly the “Grecian” and “Hebraic” Jews were, but obviously they were all Christian Jews (though the word “Christian” had not yet been coined) and there was a group who felt their interests weren’t being properly taken care of. “It’s not fair!”

It’s a familiar story, I’m afraid. Divisions, stresses and tensions aren’t anything new. In our day we are used to differences between the various denominations and groupings – what form of baptism is correct? how should churches be governed? should worship be planned or “Spirit-led”? – things like that. But there are also differences within denominations and, of course, within individual churches. Very sad.

What’s specially sad is that often when these things happen it is among very good and genuine Christians, people who would never set out to cause trouble. I suspect that the “Hebraic Jews” were blissfully unaware of the hurt felt by the “Grecian Jews”. And the same is probably true in your circles and mine.

In a funny sort of way, though, Luke’s words here can be an encouragement to us. For one thing, this happened at a time of exciting growth: “the number of the disciples was increasing”. If Satan is on the move, that suggests that he is worried – which is good news!

But also, they remind us that there was never a time when the church was perfect. We sometimes imagine that there was a golden period way back in the beginning. But that is simply wrong. After all, many of the New Testament letters, especially those of Paul, were written to put wrong situations right.

If you read the first few chapters of Acts, you see that at this point of friction the church was still in its very infancy. Many of the people doing the grumbling will have experienced the thrill and excitement of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost. All of them were newly-baptised. Yet already these difficulties are arising.

So let’s never allow ourselves to imagine that our problems are anything new.

Why do these things happen? Basically, because however Spirit-filled we are (and I hope we are) we aren’t yet perfect. Human nature remains flawed and faulty even after conversion. We act wrongly. We speak stupidly. We can be prejudiced, selfish, stubborn, blinkered in our opinions. We take offence. We cause offence. There’s a million and one things waiting to go wrong in the life of any church. Every Christian is a work in progress, and some of us still have a long way to go…

And this is why Paul, in Ephesians 4:3, tells his readers to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (which, to be fair to the apostles, is exactly what they tried to do after hearing these grumbles). How well do you – do I – measure up to that demand?

We are living at a time when unbelief – and beliefs other than Christianity, particularly Islam – are on the rise. How vital it is, then, that we who call ourselves “brothers and sisters” in Christ should indeed be united and loving. I hate to think what non-Christians think of us when they see us in our little groups and factions. No wonder people sometimes say, “Well, Jesus I can respect and relate to. But the church – no way, include me out!”

Those words from Ephesians 4 are translated by Eugene Peterson, “be alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences”. I think that’s good. Any differences among us we should be noticing? – and putting right? Any fences need mending?

Jesus said “Blessed are the peace-makers”. Perhaps that says all we need to know?

Lord, forgive us that we so easily lose the love of Jesus and the harmony of the Spirit. Please bless your church world-wide – every grouping, every denomination, every label – and help us never to disagree unless we really must. Amen.

God loves to forgive

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:3-4.

Here’s a question that calls for painful honesty by way of reply: Do you ever harbour grudges? Carry chips on your shoulder? Do you allow things people have done to you, or perhaps said about you, to rankle months or even years after they happened?

I suspect that even the most easy-going of us might have to say yes in reply. Even if we don’t allow our grievance to eat us up inside, deep down it is still there, working its poison. Yes, it’s very easy to “keep a record of sins”.

The good news is that this is something God doesn’t do. I suppose that if anyone was entitled to, it would be him. But the Psalmist glories in the fact that the opposite is true. “With you there is forgiveness,” he says. How we need to drive this great truth into our thick skulls – our God is a God who delights to forgive. Got it? Really?

There are at least three things we need to do following on from this.

First, accept God’s forgiveness with pleasure and delight.

Don’t go on for ever carrying that burden of guilt. Bring it to God, lay it at his feet, tell him from the bottom of your heart how truly sorry you are… and you are free! Don’t keep returning to your guilt and picking over it like an old scab that is never allowed to heal. If God has blotted it out of his mind, well, why shouldn’t you do the same?

Second, move on from your failure with a new determination never to fail again.

I think this is partly what the Psalmist means by “…therefore you are feared”. In some ways it seems a little odd to fear a God who loves us so much as to forgive us.

But sin and guilt are serious matters, so our reverence and respect for such a God should instil in us a deeply serious attitude towards life and how we live it. A person who has had a massive debt wiped out should be all the more determined never to get into such a position again.

Third, extend to others the same forgiveness God has extended to you.

The forgiven person must become the forgiving person. Isn’t it hypocritical to receive forgiveness from God only then to withhold it from someone else? Remember how we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive others the wrongs they have done to us.” That second part is absolutely crucial.

Hatred breeds hatred. Vengeance breeds vengeance. Violence breeds violence. That is the sorry story of our world. But, thank God, the opposite is also true: love breeds love, and forgiveness breeds forgiveness.

Suppose God was in the business of totting up all our misdeeds? As I look at my own life, I can only imagine him sitting there in heaven licking his pencil, so to speak, and adding yet another item to the grim catalogue. I can only say that by this time in my life he would need a pretty long piece of paper… As the Psalmist puts, who indeed could stand? But that is exactly the way it isn’t.

Here are two other Bible verses that drive home the same wonderful truth. First, “You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

I love those verbs, don’t you? God will tread our sins underfoot. Can you see him – stomp, stomp, stomp? And he will hurl them into the depths of the sea. Can you see him, like a discus thrower, and our sins disappearing over the horizon?

Second, and rather more prosaically, he also says: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Thank God for his long-term memory loss!

Don’t – please! – spend too long thinking about those verses. Just grab them in both hands and run with them.

Lord God, the tally of my sins would be massive by now – it would need a computer to add them all up. So thank you for the free grace of your wonderful forgiveness. Help me to live every day in the joy of that forgiveness. Amen.

Body and soul

Jesus said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Matthew 16:26

Did you hear about the teenage girl who was doing her homework with the help of her dad when she received a text message from her mum? It was short and to the point: “What do you want from life?”

This rather startled both daughter and father. The mother/wife in question had not previously been noted for throwing around profound theological-cum-philosophical questions. Still, it triggered an interesting chat for the next half-hour, homework forgotten…

It was only later that they discovered that the message had got muddled, due to something called “predictive text” (which I confess I don’t know much about, but which my son has just explained to me). What the mother meant to ask her daughter, in fact, was “What do you want from Lidl?” – which, in case you don’t know, is a cut-price supermarket.

Well, read the gospels and you find that Jesus is much more interested in the wrong message than the right one, as the verse from Matthew 16 makes clear. Indeed, in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 6:31-33), he specifically tells us not to get too preoccupied with what we want from Lidl or wherever: “Don’t worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’… Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness…

Not that food, drink and clothing are unimportant – of course not. (I think of the millions who are actually starving; Jesus certainly doesn’t mean to disregard them.) But there are other things of far greater importance; and they are summed up in that little word “soul”.

Two questions arise. First, what is your soul? Second, what does it mean to “forfeit” it?

The word soul is not easy to pin down. In essence it means the complete you, body, mind and spirit. We often use it to distinguish our true or inner self from the physical part of us, the body. And so we imagine that when we die our soul continues to exist, while our body is destroyed: as someone once put it to me: “My body is just an envelope I will leave behind when I die”.

But that isn’t the way the Bible sees it. We human beings don’t just have bodies, we are bodies: body and soul are inseparable. Jesus himself, risen from the dead, wasn’t “pure soul” (whatever that might mean); no, he still had a body, though it was wonderfully different from the one he had had before his death.

And so will we. Go to 1 Corinthians 15:44, where Paul tells us, “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body”. Our present physical bodies fit us for our earthly existence; but when we eventually enter God’s eternal kingdom we will be given not just a new body, but a new kind of body, one that fits us for heavenly existence.

Your soul-and-body-together, then, is the real you, the person that makes you you: the true essence of you, if I can put it that way. So when Jesus speaks of the soul he is talking about your very life, and all that it means.

This helps us to answer our second question: what does it mean to “forfeit” our soul?

Well, if what I have just said is right, it must mean losing our essential identity, our true personhood.

Put it like this. We human beings are made not only by God, but also for him. He has designed us – “in his image and his likeness”, as Genesis 1:26 puts it – in order to have a relationship with him. And that relationship is intended to be one of trust and love. God made us to be his children.

And this means that if we focus too much on the purely material things of life – what we want from Lidl, so to speak – then we lose our true selves. We never become the people God intended us to be. We are lost, in effect enemies of the God who loves us, and therefore subject to his eternal judgment.

And this is why Jesus sounds this solemn warning about the frightening prospect of losing, or forfeiting, our souls.

Is this a warning some of us need today? Is your soul secure in the love of God? Have you yet discovered your true self through faith in Jesus? Or are you still too concerned about what you want from Lidl – or Tesco, or Sainsbury’s, or Waitrose or wherever?

It’s the eternal things that ultimately matter. Find your true, beautiful and authentic self – your very life – through the one who died and rose again! He longs to make you the you you were intended to be!

Lord God, open my eyes to see that life is more than the passing, material things, however real they may seem to be. Help me to find my very soul in finding Jesus. Amen.

He was taken up to heaven (2)

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1:9

In yesterday’s blog I encouraged us to think about the remarkable event we call the “ascension” – the moment, forty days after his resurrection, when Jesus was taken up into heaven. I suggested a couple of answers to the question, Why did Jesus give his disciples that strange forty day period?

But I had in mind another question too. So…

2 Why did he give them only forty days?

We reflected yesterday that Jesus might well have returned to heaven immediately after his resurrection – perhaps within the next few days. But of course it could have been the other way too. He gave them roughly six weeks. But why not six months? Why not a year? Obviously, the final answer can only be, Because that’s what was right in God’s eyes. But it’s true also to say that Jesus needed to embark on the next phase – the heavenly phase – of his work.

I have thought of five things he was in effect saying to his disciples as he took his leave in this very dramatic way.

First, “You must get used to being without me”.

On the cross as he was about to die Jesus cried out “It is finished”: the work of salvation was accomplished. And after his rising, forty days was presumably just the right time for him to demonstrate beyond doubt the reality of his resurrection, and to give some final teaching – the things we thought about yesterday.

But it was now important for the disciples to realise that they really had seen the last of him as an earthly figure. They loved him deeply, and must have been immensely sad at the thought of him no longer being there. But there must be no clinging to him!

God is always on the move, and while it is sometimes painful to let go of the past, it is something we as Christians must do. What possible sense can there be in standing still when God is on the move?

Is God calling you to move on in some area of your life?

Second, “I must make way for the Holy Spirit”.

Jesus had told his disciples earlier “Unless I go away, the Counsellor [that is, the Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

I have spoken about Jesus leaving them, of him no longer being there; but of course that is wrong really. Yes, he leaves them bodily, but he remains wonderfully with them through the Spirit.

It may seem strange, and I must admit I don’t fully understand it, but the disciples gained far more than they lost by the departure of Jesus: he says in John 14:12 that anyone who believes in him will do “even greater things” than he has done “because I am going to the Father”.

Is it time for you to recognise the presence of the Spirit in your life, and to claim his power?

Third, “I am going to prepare a place for you”.

In John 14:2 Jesus makes this wonderful promise: when our early lives are over we go not into some vague, gloomy after-life, but to a dwelling place, a resting place, which Jesus has personally made ready for us.

Is this a comfort you need today?

Fourth, “I have a ministry of prayer to exercise for you”.

This is another great truth that, I must confess, I understand only very slightly. But never mind! It’s right there in the New Testament: “Christ Jesus… is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). And the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus our great High Priest “always lives to intercede for” those who come to God through Jesus (Hebrews 7:25).

Why not pause for a moment to dwell on this thought: Jesus is even now in heaven praying for me!

Fifth, “I’m sending you out!”

It would be wrong to say that Jesus is telling his disciples “Right, off you go – you’re on your own!” No, he promises to be with them always, as we have said.

But there is a sense of the disciples being like young birds pushed out of the nest: “There is a work for you to do – so once the Spirit has come, get right out there and get on with it”. To put it once again in the words of Acts: “You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

Is it time you took Jesus at his word and plunged yourself headlong into the work of the Kingdom of God?

Heavenly Father, please help me not to hanker after the great days of the past but, like the first disciples, to throw myself into your work by the power of the Spirit. Amen.

He was taken up to heaven (1)

After he said this he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1:9

Tomorrow is Ascension Day, the day when the church remembers how the risen Christ was taken up into heaven forty days after his resurrection. Because it falls always on a Thursday there is no Sunday to mark it with – which is why many Christians are almost unaware of it. But it reminds us of an amazing event we shouldn’t ignore.

Those forty days between his rising from the dead and his ascent into heaven must have been very strange for the disciples. We read that he appeared to them from time to time – we don’t know how often. Sometimes he appeared to ones and twos, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25), other times he appeared to crowds (1 Corinthians 15:6).

It must have been wonderful when he came; and no doubt they were disappointed any day he didn’t. They must have wondered exactly what was going on. How long would this strange in-between time last? What were they supposed to do with themselves while it was going on?

And then came the day he appeared for the last time. He took them to a hill near Bethany, spent some time teaching them, and then disappeared into a cloud. They never saw him again on this earth.

It’s a story that brings out the cynic in many people – the idea of Jesus going up like a space-rocket to a heaven somewhere up in the sky!

But that is to take it too literally. Heaven isn’t, we know, up there above the clouds, and the event of the ascension is God’s way of signalling to the disciples – and, through them, to us – that Jesus’ work on earth is done. He has gone back to his rightful home, and will remain there until the time is right for him to return in glory.

Two questions occur to my mind: first, Why did Jesus give them those strange forty days? And second, Why did he give them only forty days?

1 Why did Jesus give them those strange forty days?

We take the forty day interlude for granted because we are so familiar with it. But it needn’t have been that way, need it? You could even say that it would have made more sense for Jesus to return to heaven immediately after his resurrection. He might have appeared to them over a couple of days, assuring them of his continuing presence with them, and then – off.

The New Testament suggests at least two reasons for this interlude.

Fist, he wanted to give clear proof of his resurrection. Luke tells us in verse 3 that he “gave many convincing proofs that he was alive”.

If he had gone immediately it would have raised the suspicion that they had seen some kind of hallucination, or that they were suffering from a delusion.

But many appearances over nearly six weeks – well, that’s a different matter. Six weeks is a long time. And, as I said earlier, the fact that on some occasions they involved large numbers of people knocks on the head the idea that this was some kind of hysteria in the heat, the immediate aftermath, of a remarkable event.

The New Testament is very keen that we should understand that the risen Jesus was no ghost or spook. No, he had a real body which could be touched (John 20:27) and which could even eat fish (Luke 24:41-42)! All right, it certainly wasn’t just the same body as he had had before the resurrection, but it was certainly no less a body. It was – is! – even more concrete, more real. And so will ours be on the day when we are raised to be with him.

Second, he still had some teaching to do. Luke says that during the forty day period he “spoke about the kingdom of God” (verse 3), and gave his disciples instructions about the coming days (verses 4-5 and 7-8).

If he had gone straight after the resurrection they would have been left confused and frightened. They needed those private tutorials – and now that they had seen him risen from the dead they would understand his words much better than they had in the days before the crucifixion. His teaching was designed to set them up for the great task, both daunting and exciting, that he was about to leave them with: “you will be my witnesses…” (verse 8).

So, there’s a couple of answers to the question, Why did Jesus give his disciples those forty days?

But I said there was a second question: Why did he give them only forty days?

Well, I’ve run out of room! So come back, please, tomorrow…

O God, thank you that your Son Jesus is the crucified, risen and ascended Lord, and that one day he is coming back. Give me a sense of deep wonder over these things, and make me more worthy to call him Lord. Amen.