Watch your tongue!

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person… and is set on fire by hell. James 3:6

Did you ever smoke a secret cigarette when you were a teenager? Go on, admit it! You thought you were so grown up, so daring.

Well, I read some time ago of a 14-year old boy in the middle east who decided to smoke not a cigarette, but a hookah, one of those eastern water pipes. After getting it lit he absent-mindedly tossed the live coals he had used onto a patch of grass. All perfectly innocent, of course. And the result? 42 deaths, 10,000 acres of forest destroyed, 250 homes damaged, a bill for £50 million. The worst fire in his country’s history.

Every time we hear of a domestic house-fire we are reminded what a terrible thing fire can be. Properly tended and controlled, no problem, it’s a great force for good. But once out of control – well, its potential is appalling.

James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that each of us has a potential fire in our mouths. It’s called the tongue, and James tells us it can be nothing short of hellish…

What to us may seem a harmless and innocent remark can have repercussions far beyond anything we could have imagined. And so we are reminded to be very careful how we speak. No lies! No gossip! No backbiting! No rumour-mongering! None of that sniggering behind-the-hand “Hey, did you hear about…?”

When I was a child a teacher told me to apply three rules to anything I said. They came in the form of three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? I wish I could say that I have carefully observed those rules ever since. They would have saved me – and, more to the point, a lot of other people – much pain and unhappiness.

Of course, we live in days when there are all sorts of new ways of speaking. Any Twitterers out there? Any Facebook addicts? Be careful! Do you really want your careless thoughts to be read by, potentially, millions of people? And should you be putting them on line anyway? Should you even be thinking them in the first place? Are they worthy of a follower of Jesus?

Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fourth, part two, has a character called Rumour. He appears on stage wearing a robe “painted full of tongues”. And what is his business? “Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.” He proudly boasts of how much hurt and confusion he causes.

On a rather more down-to-earth level, there’s a saying I really like: “A Lie can run halfway round the world while Truth is pulling his boots on”. I don’t know how old that saying is, but couldn’t it have been written precisely for the internet age?

We are to use our tongues to speak truth; to bless; to encourage; to build people up, not to drag them down. Just as a wrong word can do untold harm, so a kind and loving word can do untold good. Is that how we aim to use our tongues?

I know that regarding that fire I mentioned all our sympathies must be with the victims and their families. But I can’t help feeling also some pity for the boy who started it all. I imagine that the memory of what he did will blight him until the day he dies. Poor child! In the same way, though, every one of us who speaks an unguarded word has much to answer for.

And let’s not forget, by the way, that listening to wrong talk is pretty much as bad as speaking it – rather as receiving stolen goods is as bad as stealing them in the first place.

Every now and then somebody comes up to me and says “I know I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but…” To which there should be only one reply: “You know you shouldn’t be telling me? Well, don’t tell me, then! Keep that mouth of yours firmly shut!”

Dear Father in heaven, thank you for the gift of the tongue. Thank you for the great good that we can do through words of truth and kindness. But forgive me, Lord, that there are times I use my tongue for wicked and destructive purposes, thus playing into the hands of the devil, who is the father of lies. Cleanse, Lord, my tongue! Cleanse, Lord, my heart! Amen.

Advertisements

Why did Jesus eat the fish?

They gave Jesus a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. Luke 24:42-43

I’ve no idea what relation “broiled” fish has to the delicious deep-fried, fat-packed, cholesterol-filled stuff we get from our local chippie. But I bet it was tasty.

Jesus spent much of his earthly life in a fishing community, and many of his first disciples earned their living that way – their clothes probably smelled permanently of fish. So why should it surprise us to read that they “gave him a piece of broiled fish”?

Well, the Jesus to whom they gave this food was the risen Jesus. The body into which he took it was his resurrection body. That, I think, makes you stop and ponder…

According to Luke it was the evening of the first Easter day when Jesus suddenly appeared to his disciples. They were completely bewildered, even though they had heard the wonderful news from some who had already seen him. In fact they wondered if it might be a ghost rather than the real Jesus. So, in order to convince them, he showed them his hands and feet, he invited them to touch him – and then he requested from them something to eat.

Showing them his hands and feet – yes, I can get that. Inviting them to touch him – yes, that too. But eating a piece of fish…? The more I think about it, the more odd and strange it seems. It raises all sorts of questions which prompt a little voice in my head saying (if you’ll pardon the cliché) “Don’t even go there!”

Did the resurrection body of Jesus need that food? Surely the answer must be no. All right. So what happened to that piece of fish? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but did the resurrection body of Jesus posses a digestive system which processed it in the normal human way – with all that that implies? Again, the answer must surely be no. So did the fish somehow dematerialise at some point?
This is where that voice – “Don’t go there” – becomes rather pressing, and I am tempted to give up! Perhaps, in fact, that is the right thing to do.

An easy way out, of course, is to dismiss the whole thing – even the very resurrection itself – as some kind of fable. But the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day raised again with a new body – indeed, a new kind of body – is so fundamental to the Christian story that that is an impossible route for a believing Christian to take. Take away the resurrection and there is simply no Christianity left.

So it seems we have to live with questions we can ask but never answer to our satisfaction.

The nature of Jesus’ resurrection body… I find myself wondering if I should even be pondering these mysteries: like Moses at the bush, we stand here on holy ground. But God has given us minds and imaginations, and presumably he wants us to use them, even when it comes to sacred things.

But in the end we have to hurry back, heads bowed, to the things we know, and the things which a story like this one suggests to us. And what are they?

First, the resurrection is not some tale made up to comfort the disciples in their sorrow at Jesus’ death, or in order to keep his memory alive in the world. No, it was a genuine physical event. Jesus ate the fish as a kind of graphic “visual aid” to help the disciples get the message. Death really has been overcome. A human being really has come back to life, never to die again. Hallelujah!

Second, when we die we do not become spooks or spirits, existing somehow without bodies. Read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, where he explains that here on this earth we possess earthly bodies fitted for our earthly existence. But when we are eternally raised we will be given new bodies – Paul calls them “spiritual bodies” – fitted for the new heaven and the new earth where we shall live forever, free of sin, pain, death, tears and sorrow.

In comparison with this solid, earthy earth on which we live, “heaven” may seem unreal, colourless, insubstantial. But Jesus wanted his disciples to know that in fact it is the real reality, if you know what I mean. Hallelujah again!

Will our new bodies eat? We can only speculate. But given that food is one of the God-given pleasures of this life, and given that heaven is described in the New Testament as a feast or banquet, I like to think that, in some newly-appropriate manner, yes we will.

Perhaps all we ultimately need to know is, in the wonderful, simple words of John, “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Hallelujah yet again!

Lord God, thank you for the wonderful mystery of Jesus crucified, risen and eternally alive. I don’t wish to pry into things too holy for me – but thrill my soul, I pray, with something of the sheer supernatural reality of these great truths. Amen.

A happiness worth dying for

A teacher of the law asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’…” Mark 12:28-31.

Do you ever think about your “religious duties”? Some people, of course, don’t believe there are any such things. But most of us probably feel that there are certain obligations laid on us by God.

But where do such duties begin and end? How can we know if we are measuring up to them? How important are they? And what happens if we don’t keep them?

The Jews of Jesus’ day used to debate this kind of question. Their scholars had counted up a total of 613 laws from the Old Testament, and if you were a good Jew you would aim to obey them all. Which was what today might be called a big ask…!

But when Jesus was challenged about which one came top of the list, what he came back with was, in reality, an even bigger ask – to love God with nothing less than your heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. You really can’t ask more than that, can you?

Not many people realise that when Jesus spoke these very daunting words he was in fact simply quoting, more or less exactly, the Old Testament – he is a faithful Jew quoting the Jewish scriptures. (You can look it up, if you like, in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18.)

What he is saying, in effect, is that any man or woman who tries to live their life according to these priorities won’t really have to bother too much about those 600-plus laws – they will automatically be covered, they will take care of themselves. He is saying, “Look, don’t let yourself get bogged down by all the weighty and detailed demands of the law – just focus on living your life centred on God and his love. Do that, and you can’t go wrong”.

Many people do in fact view religion as “Must do this, mustn’t do that…” Go to church. Say your prayers. Give to charity. Obey the Ten Commandments. Don’t be selfish. Don’t gossip and lie. And so on…

And yes, there are of course certain clear rights and wrongs. But this mentality can become crushing and demoralising. What Jesus wants us to understand – if I can sum it up in one word – is that God is to be enjoyed.

Is this a new idea to you? Well, please think about it… God isn’t a heavenly task-master or old-fashioned school-teacher standing over you with a big stick waiting to punish you the moment you step out of line. No: he is your heavenly Father who loves you more than you can ever know, and the reason he has laid down laws is not to make you miserable but to make you happy.

It’s the God-centred life that is the happy and fulfilled life. It’s when we look for our happiness elsewhere – in pleasure or money or success or sex or sport or art – that we get into trouble. Not that these things are necessarily wrong in themselves; but if they take first place then in effect they become our gods, and we have slipped into idolatry.

I used the word “daunting” to describe Jesus’ words here. But that was wrong, really. If we take these words seriously we will find them just the opposite – not daunting at all, but liberating, joy-giving, fulfilling. Let’s face it, half-heartedness never led to satisfaction in any aspect of life. Have you ever met a person who was both happy, fulfilled and up-beat on the one hand, and wishy-washy and lukewarm on the other? And so it is that a whole-hearted love of God is the only key to life as it is meant to be.

When I was a child in Sunday school I was taught that the meaning of joy – J-O-Y – is: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. What do you think?

O God, I confess that my love for you is so often lukewarm and feeble. Teach me the joy of giving my everything to you, so that I may be happy in myself, and also bring happiness to others. Amen.

Angels – fact or fiction?

“It must be his angel…!” Acts 12:15

Do you believe you have a guardian angel? Quite likely it’s not something you’ve ever really thought about. Almost certainly you won’t have heard much preaching or teaching about it.

I ask because a few blogs ago we were thinking about Peter’s miraculous release from prison in Acts 12. Remember that comical story: about the church praying for Peter… about him coming to the house where they were praying… about Rhoda the servant girl announcing that he was at the door – and about how they refused to believe her, saying “It must be his angel!”

Those first Christians obviously believed in angels, even if in this case they were completely wrong. And so the questions arise: Where did their belief come from, and why do we not seem to share it?

The answer to the first question is straightforward: angels appear quite frequently in the Old Testament, so their existence is simply a given of Jewish teaching. Their role is primarily as messengers of God; their dwelling place is heaven, but very often when they appear on earth they don’t look particularly “heavenly”.

And they are also more frequent in the New Testament than perhaps we imagine. They keep popping up in the Christmas story, where one of them, Gabriel, is even given a name. Likewise in the resurrection story, where they appear to the women on Easter morning. Indeed, the very story of Peter’s escape involves an angel appearing and removing his chains.

Jesus clearly believed in them. In Matthew 18:10, for example, he speaks about “their angels in heaven”, when referring to “these little ones” who follow him. So angels, “guardian” or otherwise, are a clear part of scripture.

So to the second question: Why do we modern Christians seem not to share their belief?

There are various possible answers. Most obviously, angels simply have never been part of the experience of most of us. Further, the world we live in is so materialistic and sceptical about anything remotely “supernatural” that, under its influence, we find it hard to take the idea of angels seriously.

Mind you, you do hear reports sometimes of Christians in hard or dangerous situations – persecuted Christians, missionaries in remote places – telling of mysterious individuals appearing virtually out of nowhere to help them.

The writer to the Hebrews (13:1) tells us that by showing hospitality it is possible to “entertain angels without realising it”. Which makes you think: is it possible that angels are around more often than we know? What about that interesting-seeming man opposite me on the tube today – the one who got off at Bond Street – is it possible he was an angel?

I have to confess that I don’t really know where I’m going with these speculations – just thinking aloud really. I certainly don’t intend to start looking all over the place in the hope of encountering angels!

But this train of thought, given its biblical foundation, prompts in my mind a couple of reminders that I know I need, and which I hope you may find useful too.

First, there is far more to the world we live in than we realise. As Hamlet put it to his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

No, I am sure we shouldn’t – indeed mustn’t – go around looking for angels; but perhaps it is not wrong to pray that God by his Spirit would give us a greater awareness of, and a greater sensitivity to, the eternal, the unseen, the “spiritual” world. Not in order to satisfy some kind of unhealthy curiosity, oh no, but to enable us to see more of God’s working in our world.

I think of the story of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6. The servant was frightened, feeling that he and his master were hopelessly outnumbered by the enemy, whereupon Elisha prayed “O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see.” And – guess what? – he did…!

Second, God has a deep personal, individual care for those who belong to him. That doesn’t mean that we can all expect to be bailed out of every difficult situation as Peter was on this occasion. After all, if Peter had an angel, so presumably did James the son of Zebedee, and remember what happened to him (Acts 12:2). But it does mean that God is always watching over us (a precious truth spelled out with beautiful simplicity in Psalm 121).

Have you ever felt the presence of an angel? I would love to hear from you if you have.

Lord God , I am so aware of the things I can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. Please grant me a greater awareness of the unseen and eternal things. Amen.

When you’re in two minds

Each person should be fully convinced in their own mind. Romans 14:5

I have a friend, a rock-solid Christian, who works in the world of finance. He comes from a predominantly Hindu part of the world and just recently was approached by a Hindu group which wanted to take over a redundant church building. They asked him if he would act on their behalf in organising the necessary finance.

What was my advice – should he or should he not accept this work?

The more I pondered it the more I felt you could see it in two distinct ways.

On the one hand… how could it possibly be right for a Christian to engage in any activity which in effect promoted the cause of a “rival” faith, and one which, from a Christian point of view, was false?

On the other hand… my friend is a businessman, the request was made from a purely business perspective, the work would be completely legal and above board – so why not? (Added to which, if he didn’t do it, it would only get done by somebody else – so wasn’t it in fact an opportunity to witness for Christ by the honesty and reliability he brought to the task?)

What do you think? Should he? Or shouldn’t he?

There is no place in the Bible which gives a clear answer to that precise question. But the verse I have quoted does give a clear statement of principle regarding “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1) – “grey areas”, as we sometimes call them: be “fully convinced in your own mind”. Or as it could be put: keep your conscience clear.

Paul is discussing various issues where the early Christians were tempted to fall out with one another – sabbath-keeping; meat-eating; drinking alcohol; accepting hospitality from a non-Christian friend who might have bought the lamb steaks from a shop which got them from the local pagan temple.

Not all of those are relevant to us today. But plenty of others are…

I have another friend who likes to bet – yes, really! He is very disciplined about it – he sets aside a certain amount of money, and when he has used it up, that’s it. I questioned him about it once, and he responded quite warmly. His background is very much working-class (he cheerfully refers to himself as “an old scumbag”) and he wanted to know if I would question the better off people who speculate on the stock market: and if not why not? “They’re gambling too, aren’t they?” He then – a bit of a clincher, this – told me that he always tithes his winnings for God’s work.

Mmm.

I dislike tattoos – I suppose I’m fairly conventional middle-class. A girl in the church came to me some time ago: “Hey, Colin, want to see my new tattoo?” “All right,” I said, smiling sweetly as I groaned inwardly, “show me.” Whereupon she pulled up her sleeve to reveal the words (wait for it) “Matthew 5:14-16” (look it up), these being the verses she was given when she was baptised. I have to ask myself, Is my dislike of tattoos a “spiritual” thing at all? – or just the result of my upbringing? Again, mmm.

I could go on. I have known Christians who think it wrong to enter a cinema or go to a football match. It’s good to raise money for some good cause by running a half-marathon – but what if that half-marathon takes place on a Sunday?

There’s a story about the great Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon. He got on a bus one day and found some young men from his church contentedly smoking their pipes. “Young men!” he said frowningly, “aren’t you ashamed to be seen smoking in this way?” Sheepishly, they put their pipes away. Whereupon Spurgeon took his pipe out of his pocket, lit up, and said, “I am not ashamed.” I think we get the point…

At least two things emerge from all this: an observation to keep in mind, and a command to impose on ourselves.

First, the observation: not all the things we puzzle over have clear-cut, black-white, right-wrong answers. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is!

I am sometimes approached by people who seem to think that because I am a minister I will be able to tell them the rights and wrongs in every situation. In effect, they want me to do their thinking for them.

But no: God has left various things for us to think through for ourselves. These people need to go back to Romans 14:5 and really digest it.

Second, the command: don’t criticise, condemn or look down on someone else because they see things differently from you! Provided they have reached their opinion thoughtfully and prayerfully, it is, if I may put it bluntly, none of your business.

So… what did my businessman friend do? Sorry, I’m not telling you! (Actually, I don’t know.) It’s between him and the Lord, after all, and therefore none of my business.

Lord God, help me to tell the difference between the things that are of the essence of the Christian faith and those that are matters of individual conscience. And help me to respect, and to accept, those who see things differently from me. Amen.

From despair to hope

Then Saul said, “I have sinned!… Surely I been a fool and gone badly wrong.” 1 Samuel 26:21

Regrets… Do you have any? I think you would be either a very special person or a very foolish one if you were to say No.

We all have regrets, surely. Who doesn’t look back sometimes and wish they could turn the clock back? Some of our regrets may be relatively trivial – a silly word which damaged a relationship, an opportunity which we missed to do some good, a petty weakness which we have never quite mastered. Trivial perhaps, yet they have left a cloud hanging over us.

Other regrets are more serious. You took a disastrous career decision, or entered a completely wrong relationship, or got drawn into some kind of seriously bad behaviour. You did something that hurt someone badly.

It changed your life for ever – and now it is too late to put it right. You shake your head and echo the words of King Saul: “I have sinned!… I have been a fool and gone badly wrong”.

I’ll leave you to read for yourself what Saul had done to make him feel that way. For us the question has to be, “Is there anything I can do about my regrets?”

In essence we have two choices.

We can, if we let ourselves, slump into a kind of despair, even a really destructive bitterness. We can brood over our folly and stupidity. We can let it blight our lives.

Some people, tragically, do this – and allow their lives to be totally ruined by vain regrets. At worst it might lead to hatred and malice towards themselves or others. In extreme cases it can even lead to suicide. This can only be described as a victory for the devil, who loves nothing more than to wreak havoc on us.

But there is another way – what the Bible calls repentance. We come to God and hold nothing back. We admit our foolishness. We recognise that there is nothing we can now do. We humble ourselves.

Then, by an act of faith, we receive God’s forgiveness. And we discover that along with that forgiveness comes something wonderful – the chance to start all over again.

God loves to forgive, even where we can’t forget. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the wrong we have done and the hurt we have caused – he does, he cares very much, and he knows that a price has to be paid. But the good news is that that price has been paid – why else did Jesus die on the cross?

I wonder if anyone reading this is living with vain regrets? Can I remind you that our loving God is the master of the second chance, the new beginning? He always has a bright new future for those who are truly sorry.

Just think – Moses was guilty of murder, David committed adultery, Peter denied Jesus. But each went on to play a big part in God’s purposes. So why shouldn’t there be a bright new future for you too?

I don’t think we ever forget the wrongs we have done and the mistakes we have made. And in fact it wouldn’t be good if we did, especially if they caused pain to others. But repentance is all about that most wonderful gift of God – hope.

Go forward from today as a forgiven sinner, and let the hope of God fill your heart!

Dear Father, as I look back in my life there is indeed much I feel ashamed of. But thank you that still you love me and want only good for me. I pray now for any people I have hurt or damaged – if there is any kind of recompense I can make, then help me to make it. But thank you for a new start. Help me now to go forward, not always looking back, and to live from now on a life of Christlike holiness. Amen!

Pointless praying

When Rhoda recognised Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that she ran back without opening the door and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” “You’re out of your mind,” they told her… Acts 12:14-15

It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me (and, if I’m to be honest, a bit of a disappointment) that the Bible contains so little humour. Of course it’s not for me to argue with God – no doubt he has his reasons (though if you have a theory why it should be so, given the great importance of humour to the human race, I would be very interested to hear from you).

There are, however, places here and there which do raise a smile, and this story in Acts 12 is one of them.

Remember what has happened. Simon Peter has been thrown in prison by Herod, who wishes to destroy the church. But in the middle of the night an angel comes to him and sets him free. He makes his way to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the church has gathered and is “earnestly praying to God for him”.

Pause for a moment, please, on that… The church is so troubled about Peter that it gathers for no other purpose than to pray for him. They obviously mean business. Good for them!

Yet what happens? When their prayer is miraculously answered they don’t believe it. The servant girl Rhoda goes to the door, recognises Peter’s voice, and is so flustered that instead of opening the door and letting him in, she runs in and announces “Peter is at the door!”

And what do they do? Do they praise God and say, “Amazing! Fantastic! Our prayer has been answered!” No, they don’t. They tell Rhoda – poor soul! – that she must be “out of her mind”. When she absolutely insists, they still don’t believe her: “It must be his angel”.

Two things raise a smile.

First, the behaviour of Rhoda. She gets herself into what is sometimes called a bit of tizz, and fails to do the obvious thing and open the door. I imagine we can all see ourselves in her – those times we have got so excited or confused about something that we just couldn’t think straight. Later, we smile at our foolishness.

And second, the behaviour of the church. They pray fervently for something, but when it actually happens they flatly refuse to believe it. Even worse, they go on to dream up a rational explanation – “It must be his angel” – for the miraculous answer to prayer. Anything, just anything, it seems, rather than believe that God really has heard and answered.

Don’t we recognise ourselves in that too? It’s only later on that we shake our heads, smile, and say, “Yes, that really was pretty stupid of me”.

The serious point behind the story is this. How easily we slip into the mentality: “Well, we know we must pray – and so of course we will. But deep down we don’t really expect anything to happen as a result”.

But if that is the case, why bother to pray in the first place? It’s just a waste of time. (I’m reminded of the vicar whose church was robbed of various valuable items. The following Sunday he asked the congregation to pray, and then added, “Mind you, I don’t suppose it’ll do any good as they’re probably miles away by now.” Now, just how ridiculous can you get?)

The Acts story is, on one level, a story about faith. The church had enough faith to pray – so let’s by all means give them credit for that – but not enough faith to believe it would make any difference. Perhaps we need to remember this next time we pray.

James, Jesus’ brother, puts it like this (James 1:6): when we ask, we must “believe and not doubt, because the person who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind”.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer – as long as that prayer is offered trustingly and humbly. Oh, and as long as we leave God alone to decide the how, the when and the where.

Lord, forgive us that we often pray out of obedience or duty, but with little real expectation. Sometimes, Lord, this is because we feel our expectations have been disappointed in the past. But inspire us by your Holy Spirit to persevere in prayer until we see the answers. Amen.