New every morning

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not destroyed, for his compassions never fail; they are new every morning. Lamentations 3:22-23

I like to get up quite early in the morning.

I go to my little study at the back of the house for a time with God before the day really gets going. It’s specially pleasant, of course, at this time of the year, because the mornings are light. It’s good to look out of the window, especially when the sky is blue and everything is still and peaceful.

There is a sense of things being unspoiled. It won’t be long before the traffic builds up, doors will be banging and that feeling of newness will be gone for another day. Wouldn’t it be good if we could preserve it until we went to bed at night!

Yes, there is something magical about the beginning of the new day. And the writer of Lamentations (possibly Jeremiah, though the experts aren’t sure) celebrates the fact that God’s “compassions”, his mercies, are “new every morning”. I think that’s a beautiful expression.

When I was a child one of the things I liked at school was getting a new exercise book. The cover wasn’t dog-eared, all the pages were pure white, everything was perfect. And I would think “Right! That’s the way it’s going to stay! – no scribblings or blottings, no doodles, no crossings-out – only the very best work…” And it lasted – well, for about two days.

Each day we can start the same way… “I’m not going to lose my temper… I won’t be lazy or slapdash… I will resist the temptation to cut corners or allow bad thoughts to slither into my mind…”

But by the time it gets to ten o’clock – and that’s ten o’clock in the morning – sadly it’s probably not like that any more. Of course, we can easily make excuses for ourselves – we are under pressure, the demands on us are too great – but deep down we know the fault is ours. We simply haven’t grown enough in – what shall I call them? – the Christlike graces.

Can you imagine living a perfect day? A day when you succeed in maintaining purity of thought, word and deed through all the noises, tensions and difficulties? Going to bed at night knowing that you really do have nothing on your conscience?

An impossible ask? Perhaps. But this should be our aim. “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” says the Bible. “Be holy…”

Over the course of my life I have known just a few people who seem to succeed in that high aim. How I thank God for them! Of course, if you were to ask them they would say “No, no! – if you only knew!” (They might refer you to their husband or wife, if they have one, for the true story.)

And yet I don’t think they are just good actors – let’s face it, you can spot pretence or hypocrisy a mile off. No, they really do reflect that “beauty of Jesus” that eludes most of us.

The good news is that the mercies of God are not just “new every morning”, but new every minute of every day. Our problem often is that having blotted our copybook, as we put it, we then give up and say “Oh well, that’s it, I’ve messed up again, so it really isn’t worth bothering any more. Another failed day. I mean, I can’t expect to make a new start every five minutes, can I?”

But that’s where we’re wrong, seriously wrong. Yes, we can! All right, the morning only comes once a day, but the tender love of God is there for us twenty-four seven. If only we will turn to him, make a clean breast of where we have gone wrong, and start all over again, he is there to wipe the slate clean.

Suppose we keep falling down? Well, that’s not good. But there’s a simple answer to keeping on falling down – keep on getting up. And that is something that God, in his limitless patience, is always happy to help us do.

The simple truth of Lamentations 3:22-23 is echoed in the New Testament in several places, and nowhere more beautifully than in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Yes!

Lord Jesus, we read that you were in every way tempted just as we are, yet without sin. Please help me to keep that high ideal before my eyes minute by minute, to refuse to settle for second-best, and to look to you again and again for the new strength you always delight to give. Amen.

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Faith facing death

To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Philippians 1:21

Can you imagine ever saying to a friend “Fancy popping down to the Death Cafe for an hour this evening?”

No, neither can I. But something rather like that is, apparently, becoming quite popular. An article in today’s Times by Rev Ian Bradley, a Church of Scotland minister, describes a growing movement of people who like to get together, to enjoy one another’s company, to eat cakes and drink tea and, yes, to talk about death. It’s reckoned there are some 1500 such gathering places around the world.

It all began in 2011 with a man called Jon Underwood, who opened his home in Hackney for just this reason. I get the feeling that calling these meeting-places “cafes” is probably going a bit far – I don’t think you’ll find one on your local high street. They’re more like what Christians might call house-groups, meeting at agreed intervals.

But as far as I can tell, they weren’t actually Christian at all in conception, though Christians have spotted their value and begun to start them.

No: they seem to be a general response to people’s need to be more open and realistic about death, a healthy reaction in fact to our culture’s tendency to treat death as the great unmentionable, the ultimate brush-it-under-the-carpet reality. They are not morbid, just honest.

If ever there is a subject where Christians have something to teach our wider society, death is surely it. As a minister I have had to confront this many times over the years. I think of myself walking into an old people’s home to visit an elderly lady, only to be greeted by the staff nurse with an unctuous smile and the whispered words, “I’m afraid she has got her wings” – she couldn’t bring herself to say simply “She has died.” (Although, to be fair, quite likely she was just wanting to protect me.)

I can picture myself sitting by the bed of a man who was dying, who knew perfectly well he was dying, and all of whose family, friends and neighbours knew perfectly well he was dying. It was toe-squirmingly awful to hear the procession of well-wishers reassuring him that “we’ll soon have you up and running about, old chap!” as, having done their duty, they departed with thinly disguised relief.

Paul put the Christian perspective perfectly in this powerful little verse from Philippians 1. If I may paraphrase: “As far as I am concerned, life is all about Jesus, and death can only mean something even better!”

Paul believed that in Jesus death was a defeated enemy – this, not in some symbolic “spiritual” sense only, but in the plain factual sense that on the first Easter morning this man who had died on Good Friday was really, actually and bodily alive again. And he would never die again (unlike poor Lazarus!). Death has been dealt a death-blow!

Come to think of it, perhaps the idea behind death cafes, Christian ones at any rate, is not that new.

You hear sometimes of people cheerfully planning their own funeral – they want it to genuinely reflect the people they are and the beliefs they hold. Even more, they want it to declare the message of eternal life through Christ.

I knew a woman once who, approaching death while still in her thirties, held occasional “getting ready for heaven” parties. She would gather friends around her and they would talk, sing, pray, eat, drink, laugh and cry together.

And one of my privileges as a minister is to conduct funerals where I can, without hypocrisy, send the dead person off with loudly proclaimed verses like John 14:2: Jesus said to his disciples, “I am going to my Father’s house to prepare a place for you”. Or Revelation 21:3-4 (my all-time favourite): “God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes (yay!). There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” It’s amazing how still and breathlessly attentive a council crematorium chapel can become as glorious words like those echo around the ceiling.

If Philippians 1:21 means anything at all, it’s this: life in Christ is wonderful; but death in Christ is even better. Can you say Amen to that?

Lord, I shrink from death because life in Christ is good and there is so much to enjoy. But please burn into my soul the truth that, though it may not seem like it, death in Christ is better still. Amen.

Compromise – courageous stand or cowardly defeat?

The brothers at Lystra spoke well of Timothy. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so they circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. Acts 16:2-3

Not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. Galatians 2:3

How good are you when it comes to compromise?

For some people compromise is almost a dirty word – once they’ve made up their mind on something, that’s it; they refuse to budge an inch. Others seem to belong to the “anything goes” school of thought. They are happy, as the Americans say, to bend every which way.

As usual with extremes, both are wrong. Compromise, you could say, is almost an art, and you need real wisdom and skill to know when to exercise it.

At first sight the two verses above, one from Luke’s account in Acts of Paul’s activities, the other by Paul himself in his letter to the Galatian churches, suggest that Paul was hopelessly inconsistent.

The background, very briefly. Please hold on tight…

In Acts 16 Paul, visiting the town of Lystra, meets a young Christian called Timothy, and is obviously impressed by him. He spots leadership potential and asks him to join his missionary party.

But there is a snag. Paul, of course, was a Jew, and he made it his practice to start his work, wherever he was, in the local Jewish synagogue. Fine. But… if you were a man, the sign of being a Jew was, of course, circumcision.

So? Well, the Jewish people that Paul and his party were preaching to would not be at all happy about receiving somebody who, although also a Jew, had never been circumcised; and this was Timothy’s situation. Yes, he was Jewish, because his mother was (that’s what qualified you); but he had never been circumcised, because his father wasn’t.

So Paul decided to do something which I’m pretty sure must have gone against his grain. His great doctrine, remember, was “justification by faith” – we are put right before God purely on the grounds of our trust in Christ, and things like circumcision just don’t matter any more.

But he decided that in this case it would be sensible, given that Timothy was a Jew anyway, to go ahead and make that status official, so to speak. Then there could be no quibbles, no distractions from what really mattered. In a word, Paul decided to compromise.

Go now to Galatians 2. Here Paul is talking about an occasion when he visited Jerusalem in the company of another young man, Titus. Now Titus was “a Greek” – that is, a non-Jew. And Paul, in tune with his conviction that circumcision was no longer necessary for salvation – and certainly wasn’t obligatory for non-Jewish converts! – explicitly spells out that “not even Titus… was compelled to be circumcised”. No compromise!

So… two young men… two roughly similar situations… yet in one case Paul acts one way, willing to bend, while in the other he acts the opposite way, digging his toes in.

Was he being inconsistent? Was he right to compromise in the case of Timothy: “Yes, we should do it to smooth the way” – but not in the case of Titus: “No! Titus is a Gentile, and he doesn’t need to become a Jew in order to follow Christ!”

You can make up your own mind. But the point of this long story is simple. Life is messy! Often you just can’t see clear blacks and whites. And so compromises sometimes have to be reached.

Compromise, certainly, can be seriously wrong. If it means sacrificing a vital principle, then of course it must be resisted. Paul found this to be true when he stood up against Peter in Galatia because Peter – Peter of all people! – had withdrawn from eating with gentiles (see Galatians 2:11-21).

But what work-place doesn’t require compromise that is good and wholesome? What school? What club or organisation? What home, what family? What marriage?

And – what church? It’s a happy church indeed where the members are mature and gracious enough to yield to one another in areas which are not of vital importance. As Samuel Johnson said, “Life cannot subsist in society but by reciprocal concessions.”

Are you in a situation where perhaps a “reciprocal concession” or two might be called for?

Lord God, help me to see the difference between essential principles on the one hand and things that are negotiable on the other, and to react accordingly. Amen.

Two quotations about compromise:
The person who never bends will break. Anon.
An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last. Winston Churchill.

Something nasty underneath

As it is written: There is no-one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God… Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips… Romans 3:10-13

Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others…” Matthew 5:13

Every time I read those first words (lifted, of course, straight out of the Book of Psalms), I feel like saying, “Hang on a minute, Paul, isn’t this a bit over the top! Surely human nature, even fallen human nature, isn’t that bad!”

But a recent experience has led me to be less sceptical. Let me introduce it with an illustration…

Do you remember, perhaps on holiday as a child, when you were playing on the beach?

The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the sea is murmuring quietly onto the shore. Everything is perfect. You notice a specially nice pebble, really big, smooth and flat. For no particular reason you lift it and turn it over, and – aaargh!

There’s a whole dark, damp, murky world down there, populated by all sort of nasty creepy-crawlies, who seem to be going busily about urgent, sinister business. You quickly slap that lovely pebble back down. And you never see that beach in quite the same way again.

Well, it’s been a bit like that for my wife and me. Why?

Because we have recently embarked on an activity which, you would think, must be one of the most innocent in the world: selling our house. Yes, we have entered the friendly, smiling, benign world of estate agents.

And we have discovered a busy under-side of dishonesty, sharp practice and cut-throat rivalry. Phone calls from agents we have never even heard of, wanting (of course) to know how you are, Mr Sedgwick, but then wanting us to know that they really would like to help us in the event of having difficulty selling. Phone calls which are repeated three or four times a week, in spite of us asking (with increasingly diminished politeness) to be left alone.

We are told that in our interests (of course) they feel it necessary to be “proactive” in approaching us in this way. The other day we had a business card through the letter-box with a scribbled message: “We have a buyer for your property.” Which was, as I knew very well as soon as I read it, simply an out-and-out lie.

Don’t worry, I don’t really have it in for estate agents! – many of whom, I am sure, are as honest as the day is long (like the ones we’re with). But my impression is that such are the exception rather than the rule.

And I am well aware too that the kind of nastiness we are experiencing is simply nothing compared to the abuses, the cruelties, the sheer horrors many people in our world are experiencing. But this experience has prompted the question, Does anybody today stick scrupulously to the truth? Are dodgy practices accepted as the norm?

A few other pebbles have been turned over recently, haven’t they? Doping in professional cycling… Newspapers involved in phone-hacking… MPs’ expenses… Horrible goings-on in the entertainment world… Betting syndicates controlling big-time cricket… Not to mention, sadly, corruption of various kinds in the church…

So where am I going with this? This isn’t (promise!) a case of grumpy-old-man-in-what’s-the-world-coming-to mode. No; something far more positive, I hope. And it’s this…

In a world awash with lies, what a perfect opportunity we have, as people committed to truth, to stand out as light in the darkness, as Jesus told us to. Not, of course, in a sanctimonious, self-righteous way; but quietly and consistently in our everyday living. The fact is that people respect integrity even when they’re not particular about practicing it themselves.

I could, of course, lift a pebble that gives a reasonably pleasant outside appearance to my own life and personality, and you’d see some pretty ugly stuff underneath. We all know what it’s like to take an honest look down into the dingy well of our own souls. But if it’s true that we are being daily transformed into the likeness of Christ, hopefully there are moments when that likeness will shine through.

Whatever area of life we move in – business, sport, politics, just routine daily existence, you name it – what a wonderful challenge it is: to be people of cast-iron, rock-solid, Christlike integrity! So may God be glorified even in us!

Lord God, help me to be a person of unshakeable honesty in every aspect of my life. Amen.

Panic – or peace?

This is what the Lord, the holy one of Israel, says: In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength… Isaiah 30:15

I remember a joke once made by a preacher. He was talking about how Christians should handle anxiety and fear, and said: “After all, why pray when you can always panic?” It took a couple of moments for it to sink in, but once it had, I think we got the point – it is so easy, in hard times, to lose sight of God and, well, if not actually panic, to become overwhelmed by fear.

This is pretty much what the prophet Isaiah is concerned about as he speaks to the people of Israel in this verse. He uses some powerful and beautiful words in order to put their thinking straight: repentancerestquietnesstrust… This, he says, is how God’s people should respond to crisis times.

What is going on? Why did the prophet feel the need to deliver what is, in effect, a rebuke to the people?

The clue is in verse 2: God’s people have been “going down to Egypt without consulting me, looking for help to Pharaoh’s protection…”

The great days of Israel, the days of Saul, David and Solomon, are long gone. The nation is weak and demoralised, surrounded by the super-powers on its borders. Its very survival is threatened. So what are they to do? The answer, according to some leading people, was apparently, “Let’s forge an alliance with our southern neighbours Egypt! They’re a big power – they’ll look after us!”

To which Isaiah says a resounding No! – “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength”. In other words, Trust in God, not in an alliance with a pagan nation, however strong.

All this happened some 700 years before Christ – nearly two thousand years from where we are today. But never could a truth be more appropriate all these years down the line. We, God’s people, still so quickly take our eyes off him, and turn to other solutions to our problems. And experience invariably shows that this is fatal – it always ends in tears.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be practical in working out our difficulties – Isaiah isn’t suggesting that we should just close our eyes, fold our arms, and wait for God to bail us out. No: as the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves”. But what it does mean is that our ultimate trust must always be in God himself, and we must never be so panicked as to resort to means or methods which are not within God’s will.

Earlier in their history Israel had panicked when, chased by (guess who!) the Egyptians, they found themselves trapped between the enemy army and the waters of the Red Sea (have a look at Exodus 14). Moses rallied them with the stirring words: “Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today… The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still”.

And what about that time Jesus’ disciples thought their boat was going to sink on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41)? “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” they cry. And Jesus shakes his head sadly and says: “Why are you so afraid? Do you have no faith?”

Psalm 46 puts it even more briefly: “Be still, and know that I am God.” A word to some of us today?

Is there some situation in your life where you have lost sight of God and are tempted to panic? Some area where you are resorting to methods and solutions which, deep in your heart, you know are wrong? Perhaps it’s time to listen to the voice of the ancient prophet.

Lord God, I am sorry that often when the going is tough I tend to cast around for some quick fix, some solution which depends on human wisdom rather than divine power. Help me to bring all my fears and longings in line with your will, and to trust patiently for your deliverance. Help me to be quiet and still in your love. Amen.

An army of ordinary people

Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Romans 16:14-16.

There’s something I like about group photos.

You know the sort of thing – a class of children sitting with their teacher, freshly scrubbed and on their best behaviour; a bunch of people attending a conference; a crowd at a wedding, all dressed up to the nines. There they all are, smiling cheesily into the camera. You can’t help but smile back.

Well, they didn’t have cameras in Paul’s day; but wouldn’t it be great to see a group photo of the early church in Rome? Can you imagine what it would have been like? The nearest we get to it is the list of names Paul gives us in the last chapter of his letter to them.

I’ve picked out just a few. Please don’t worry if you don’t know how to pronounce them (neither do I), or if you can’t think of anything you know about them. That’s the whole point – they are just very ordinary people, most of them otherwise completely unknown to history. Just like us, in fact.

Isn’t it good that after all the heavy-duty theology of Romans 1-15 we have this personal glimpse of the “army of ordinary people” who made up the church in the capital city of the Roman Empire? It alerts us to all sorts of important things.

(1) The church is people, not buildings. At this point in history there was simply no such thing as a church building. In verse 5 Paul mentions the church that “meets at the house of Priscilla and Aquila”. That’s the way it was: in order to meet for worship and fellowship the early Christians gathered in homes or hired halls. I sometimes think that the church today would be a lot healthier if it had stayed that way.

Buildings can be a curse as well as a blessing: the vast amounts of time and money they gobble up! the superstitious reverence they attract! the wrong image they can give to the non-Christian world!

(2) The church was really quite small, assuming that the people Paul mentions here make up, let’s say, roughly a quarter of the whole church. Again, much like many churches today. We must resist discouragement if our numbers are small: God can do massive things from truly tiny beginnings.

(3) The church was a community of workers. Do you notice the number of times Paul refers to people “working hard”? Yes, serving Christ and his church is often a matter of sweat and toil, rolled up sleeves and perseverance. The church isn’t a social gathering with religious trimmings!

Are you a worker in the church of Christ? Is it time you became one?

(4) There is a strong sense of affection, indeed, of love. People have “risked their lives” for one another. They are “dear friends”. Rufus’s mother, it seems, “has been a mother” to Paul too. They were in the practice of kissing one another in greeting.

This isn’t a group of relative strangers who shake hands on a Sunday morning, make a few minutes of polite conversation, and then head off home. Oh no: these are brothers and sisters, sharing their very lives with one another.

(5) They were a mixed group. There are about twenty-four people mentioned by name, of whom a little less than half were probably women. And we can be sure that there were rich (some had homes big enough to host a meeting) and poor.

Different talents, different aptitudes, different personalities. Paul doesn’t mention it here (though he certainly does elsewhere) but no doubt there were tensions too, differences of opinion, personality clashes. Let’s not imagine the early church was perfect, any more than yours is today.

Why not take a few minutes to read your way – slowly and imaginatively, picturing these people with your mind’s eye – right through Romans 16? And keep in mind this thought: one of the greatest joys and privileges of being a Christian is that you are a member of the family of God, gathered together with others in a local congregation.

So… Value the church! Value your church, whatever its faults may be! Love one another! Be a worker! Give of yourself and what you have cheerfully and gladly! Above all, remember that you are a saint (verse 2)!

Dear Father, I may never be a Simon Peter, or a John, or a Paul. I’m just a Patrobas or a Tryphena, an Epenetus or a Persis. But I am one of your children, joined with my brothers and sisters in the family of your church. I am a saint! Thank you. Thank you! Amen.

Happy? – or holy?

We rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4

Jesus said, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Matthew 5:6

In his book You can change Tim Chester tells a powerful story from the 1500s.

A Christian who had been imprisoned for his faith managed to escape. To get away he had to run across a frozen lake, but he was so weak with hunger that it seemed a chasing guard would catch him. But the ice broke under the guard and he fell into the freezing water. What did the prisoner do? He went back to pull him out – and so was re-arrested.

That story could have had a very different ending. I’ve a feeling that in nine cases out of ten (yours? mine?) it would have finished: “The prisoner punched the air with joy and got clean away.” But it didn’t.

That man did a truly Christlike thing. And he suffered for it.

The question arises, Why did he do what he did? Why did he react instinctively to what, after all, seemed a massive stroke of luck, with such a wonderful act of self-denial?

The answer lies in the word character. Because of his loyalty to Jesus over many years, that man had gradually developed good habits, and those good habits had hardened into solid character.

He had no doubt read many times the words of Jesus about loving your enemies and doing good to those who harm you. And he hadn’t only read those words – he had obviously also thought about them, stored them away in his mind and resolved to put them into practice in his own life.

This is pretty much what Paul is talking about in Romans 5. He calls that developing of good habits “perseverance”, by which he means a steady day-by-day exercise of self-discipline in matters large and small.

It’s worth pondering that every time we do a good thing, however small, it makes it easier the next time. And conversely, of course, every time we yield to the temptation to do a bad thing, it makes that yielding easier the next time.

The career criminal who commits crime almost without thinking probably started out with some really petty offence that cost him serious pangs of conscience. And the same goes for all of us, even if we never get into crime.

Dishonesty, immorality, laziness, gluttony, gossip, vengefulness, arrogance … all these ugly characteristics and many more besides grow little by little over the days and years until they have us in their grip. Jesus, not troubling to multiply words, tells us that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). There you have it.

Character is not the same as will-power. All of us can, at least sometimes, screw up our wills in order to resist a particular temptation. And that of course is good.

But what Paul is talking about is something even better, something much deeper: true Christlike character is something that grows organically within us as we allow our minds to be soaked in God’s word and moulded by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Even that thing I mentioned earlier – self-discipline, self-control – is itself part of the “fruit” or harvest of the Spirit that Paul itemises in Galatians 5:22-23.

Do you find yourself admiring that prisoner in the story? I hope you do. But I wonder if it will make any difference if I tell you how the story ended?… The guard the prisoner rescued wanted him to be freed. But the authorities thought otherwise.

They tortured him and burned him to death. Ah.

The way of Jesus is truly wonderful. But let none of us imagine it is easy. Let’s pray today for all those – the many millions – whose loyalty to Christ involves them in more than just a bit of inconvenience. And let’s be clear too about our own priority: to build, little by little and day by day, true Christlike character.

Lord God, bring me to the place where I value a holy character more than a happy life. Amen.