You need never walk alone

Enoch walked with God.  Genesis 5:22.

It’s not a bad way to go down in history, is it? – he walked with God. Enoch was obviously a special person – the same words are repeated in verse 24.Could they, I wonder, be engraved on your tombstone?

The Bible has many ways of describing our relationship with God: loving him, trusting him, obeying him, fearing him. And they are all important.

But it is quite fond of this metaphor of walking with him. Much the same is said of Noah (Genesis 6:9) and Abraham. Micah the prophet tells us to “walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). And Paul tells us to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, though the NIV puts “live” instead of “walk”).

Think of “walking with God” as a parcel of ideas – what comes tumbling out if we unpack it?

First, companionship. To walk with someone suggests friendship, conversation; it is an act of sharing. I suspect some of the most precious moments in our relationships with other people have occurred while we have been walking.

Never let anything – sin, carelessness, laziness, distractions – jeopardise your minute-by-minute companionship with God.

Second, progress. People who are walking are moving, not static – Genesis doesn’t say Enoch “sat in an armchair” at God’s feet (though no doubt there is a place for that). The Christian life is a journey: “from the old unto the new, keep me travelling along with you”, as the song puts it.

Are any of us stagnating a bit? Have we decided we have reached the limit of our potential? Have we stopped exploring, growing, learning, developing? Think of each new day as an adventure in moving on with God.

Third, protection. There’s safety in numbers, the saying goes, and that was specially so in the ancient world. As Jesus’ story of the man who fell among robbers shows, the lone traveller is specially vulnerable. (This, of course, is one reason why Jesus draws his people into churches, communities – the Bible knows nothing of the solitary Christian.)

Well, if we walk with God how can we be anything but safe? Of course, that doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen to God’s people. They do. But in the ultimate sense we have perfect security in the hands of our loving heavenly Father.

Fourth, effort. Even a pleasant stroll involves an element of exertion. And if you decide on a ten-mile hill walk, well, you’re going to know you’ve done it. In the Christian life the way is sometimes relatively easy – good health, a positive work situation, a happy family life: the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the ground is level.

But at other times the going is tough – sickness, disappointments, set-backs, even heartbreaks: dark clouds, ferocious winds and soaking rain. That’s when we need to cling especially tightly to God’s hand. Let no-one imagine that the Christian life is always a doddle!

Fifth, a destination. Of course, we may sometimes chose to stroll around somewhere just for the sake of it – something I must admit I quite like to do if I am in a place, especially abroad, where I have never been before.

But generally we walk in order to get somewhere. That’s why it’s all the more satisfying when, after quite a tough time, we can take it easy and put our feet up.

Well, I don’t want to give the impression that in heaven we are just going to lounge around. But the fact is that we are promised “rest” when our earthly toil is done (the letter to the Hebrews especially speaks about this, in chapters 3 and 4). Jesus said, “I am going to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

This world in which we presently live is not all there is. There is something above and beyond us which is infinitely, unimaginably greater. And that’s where we’re headed.

And so, especially as we stand on the brink of a new year, the message is clear – keep walking!

Dear Father in heaven, please help me to walk with you minute by minute and day by day, until that day comes when my walk is done and I enter my heavenly rest. Amen.

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One day at a time…

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Matthew 16:24

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Mark 8:34

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”. Luke 9:23

Hallo! – is this man Colin Sedgwick losing his grip? He’s typed out the same verse three times! All right, he’s taken it once from Matthew, once from Mark and once from Luke, but still, it’s the same words. Oh dear! – poor chap.

Did you think something like that when you opened this blog? Well, it’s understandable if you did. But in fact – sorry, you were wrong. Please read again…

See it now? Yes, just one little word: daily. Luke has it, but Matthew and Mark don’t. Matthew and Mark make it seem that “taking up your cross” might be just a once-for-all event. But Luke explicitly makes it an everyday occurrence.

Well, I don’t think we need to choose between the different gospel writers, because they are all correct, and we need them all. (It does remind us, by the way, that they saw themselves as editors as well as reporters, happy to put a different slant on what they were reporting, according to the emphasis they wanted to bring out).

So…?

2016 is almost with us, and people everywhere will be making their New Year resolutions. It’s strange, really, that they do so, because you constantly hear them confessing with a rueful smile that those resolutions probably won’t last beyond the end of January.

But I think that at this time of the year it’s Luke’s slant, with that word “daily”, that most of us probably need most.

Certainly, yes, taking up your cross to follow Jesus is a once-for-all event, even if you can’t pin it down to a precise date. Many of us can look back and remember that event with great gladness. For me, it was when I was baptised as a fifteen-year-old boy. For you, it might have been your confirmation, or simply the day in your life when you “committed your life to Christ” or “made a decision to follow Jesus”, or “were born again”, or however it was expressed in your particular circles. Such memories can only be precious to any Christian.

But let’s be clear: that great, life-changing decision to follow Jesus must never be only a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No, as Luke’s account makes clear, it is a decision for every new day.

CS Lewis wrote somewhere that as Christians we must start every day as if it were from scratch. We can benefit from the past, of course, and hopefully we all do, but we can’t live on its capital. Like the people of Israel in the desert, yesterday’s manna is no good to us.

(This, incidentally, is why “words of testimony” in a meeting can be unhelpful. We’ve probably all heard people recalling their conversion-experience. But very often it’s ten, twenty or thirty years ago, and as you listen you find yourself thinking, “OK, this is great – but what about today, what about yesterday, what about now?”)

I can pretty well guarantee that if you make a New Year resolution along the lines “In 2016 I will be a far better, more committed Christian!” then you will fail. And then you will end up feeling guilty and depressed, like the drinker or gambler who vows to break their habit for the next year and then can’t keep it up.

No: the thing to do is to renew your commitment – to “take up your cross”, as Jesus puts it – each and every day, perhaps even every hour. If our Christian experience isn’t fresh and up-to-date, then it’s nothing.

There’s an old hymn (like the CS Lewis quote, I can’t place it now: perhaps you can help me?) that contained these words: “High heaven that heard the solemn vow, /That vow renewed shall daily hear…”

Yes! Let’s make that our aim.

So… What about New Year resolutions? Well yes, by all means make them if you really feel they can help you – at least it shows good intentions, and that can’t be bad. But here’s something far, far better – New Day resolutions. Less dramatic, certainly; less exciting, that too. But far more realistic. And, ultimately, far more satisfying and fulfilling.

One day at a time, Lord Jesus, one day at a time – help me to aim for nothing more, and to expect nothing less. Amen.

The key to a happy Christmas

Jesus said: You’re far happier giving than getting. Acts 20:35 (The Message)

Christmas was coming, and I was feeling pretty fed up.

My problem was this: I was still single at the time (this was many years ago!) and I was planning to go to my recently widowed mother’s for a few days. I had it worked out in my mind – we would go to church on Christmas morning, come back home, exchange presents, have a good dinner, probably watch a bit of television, perhaps go for a walk – and no doubt do a bit of pretty serious snoozing.

Sorted. I had been working really hard, and the thought of such an easy, relaxing day was perfect.

But then my mother rang. “Colin, I hope you don’t mind, but we’re doing a special Christmas day lunch at church for the older people, and I’ve offered to help out. Will that be all right by you?”

Well, there wasn’t much I could say, was there? Of course I couldn’t back out of the visit altogether, and nor would I want to. But neither could I head off to Mum’s flat after the service and leave them to it. No, I would have to be in there too, being all bright and jolly with a load of elderly people I didn’t know.

Bang went my nice lazy Christmas Day. Thanks a bunch, Mum.

I won’t say I went to church that Christmas morning with a resentful spirit; no, I prayed that God would help me to be generous-spirited and cheerful, and I think he did. But I can’t pretend I was looking forward to the event all that much. It was a case, really, of “Oh well…” (sigh).

And what happened? It was one of the best, happiest, most enjoyable and most rewarding Christmas days I can ever remember.

It was hard work, mind you. I was just a general dogsbody, helping wherever needed. This was the days before churches routinely had dish-washers, so I seemed to spend until early evening up to my elbows in the washing up bowl.

But the laughter, the fun, the banter, the silliness, not to mention one or two serious conversations… I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And don’t worry – when serious-snooze time came around, we were well ready for it.

The lesson was clear. While we fallen human beings are hard wired to think first of our own pleasure and enjoyment, it really is true that putting others first yields a greater and deeper satisfaction.

At this time of the year we hear a lot in sermons and elsewhere about “the true meaning of Christmas”. That phrase covers a lot – above all, about God’s great love for humankind shown in the sending of Christ to be our teacher, our friend, our example, our sacrifice, our saviour, our lord.

And part of his example is his willingness to “spend and be spent” for our sakes, to give of himself to the very uttermost. I sometimes think there is a sense in which “the baby of Bethlehem” gets in the way of what really matters. Yes, he was born as a baby – after all, how else could he have been? But he grew to be a man. And it’s what happened then that really counts.

Paul puts it like this: “…though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Whereas it is so natural for us to think only or mainly of ourselves – what we like, what we want – he thought only of us, even to the extent of giving his very life for us. Here’s Paul again: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Yes, I thought my mothers’ plans for me that Christmas day were for my loss. But I learned that they were in fact for my gain. Even my slightly grudging service for others made me happy – as well, I hope, as doing some real good for people who are precious in God’s eyes.

Well, I don’t know what kind of Christmas you are anticipating this week. But I offer my little reminiscence in the hope that it might just possibly give you, as it did me, a new perspective on where happiness really comes from.

What is joy? – Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. Yes?

Happy Christmas!

Father, thank you for the great love you showed at the first Christmas in giving Jesus to live, die and rise again for sinful people. Help me not only to enjoy that love myself, but, still more, to share it with others. Amen.

Heading for the garbage pile?

Jesus said, You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  Matthew 5:13

For some years now I have been careful about the amount of salt I eat – after all, the medical people tell us that too much salt can cause serious disease, even things like strokes. But we all need some salt, both for health and for the sheer enjoyment of food.

In the ancient world salt was especially important, not something to be taken for granted. Roman soldiers received a certain amount of their income, their salary, in the form of salt, or in money to buy salt with. (Have you ever wondered where the word “salary” comes from? – the Latin word for salt is “sal”.)

Well, Jesus tells his followers that we are “the salt of the earth”. That means that we impart to this often dreary, grey, hard world flavour, zest and taste. And like salt before the days of refrigeration, we also help to stop the rot in society by living Christlike lives.

So it’s especially sad when Christian people “lose their saltiness”, as Jesus puts it here. That can mean a lot of things, with all sorts of application.

But in essence Jesus is talking about times when we act just like everybody else, following the habits and practices of the world around us. Not that we are called to be different just for the sake of being different, but our lives should demonstrate that in matters both large and small there is a better way, a heavenly way.

Some years ago there was a top cricketer who was known as a Christian. In one innings he touched the ball to the wicket-keeper – which means (in case cricket isn’t your thing) that he was out, “caught behind”. But he stayed where he was, not actually saying anything but, in effect, lying to the umpire: “I didn’t touch the ball”. One of the opposing players looked at him and said, “I thought you were supposed to be a Christian.” A case of the salt losing its saltiness?

A prominent politician found himself in court a few years ago and ended up in prison for fiddling his expenses. He too was known as a Christian. Another case of the salt losing its saltiness?

A well-known church leader is found guilty of sexually abusing children… Sadly, I could go on.

Of course it’s easy to point the finger at other people, especially the sort of people who are prominent enough to get into the papers. But, as has often been pointed out, every time you point a finger at someone else you are also pointing three at yourself (try it! – it’s a fact).

And this raises the challenging question, “How ‘salty’ is my life?”

Jesus says that tasteless salt is fit only to be be “thrown out and trampled underfoot”. The Message version of the Bible puts it in pretty down-to-earth language: “Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.” Mmm!

What Jesus doesn’t mention here is two bits of good news.

First, if we realise how far we have fallen, and how tainted we have become, and if we are truly sorry, and are determined to change, then our saltiness can in fact be restored. But we do need to mean business – and we need to accept that change can be painful. Are we prepared for that?

But let’s be clear, none of us needs to “end up in the garbage”!

Second, the process does of course work the other way round too. How often have you heard someone talk in this sort of way about how they became a Christian: “Well, there was this man in my office, and I didn’t really know what it was about him, but somehow he made a real impression on me. I suppose I found myself wanting whatever it was he had…”

And what was it he had? Well, what else but the “salt and light factor” Jesus is talking about here?
Lord, you don’t ask us to be different just for the sake of being different, but to show the world that there is a better, more satisfying, and more fulfilling way of being human than people realise. Please show me by your Holy Spirit if there is any area of my life where I have lost my saltiness. Amen.

Open your eyes!

I urge, then… that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority… 1 Timothy 2:1-2

It’s that part about “kings and those in authority” that I want to focus on.

How good are you at obeying Paul’s “urging” to pray for such people? Or do your prayers tend to be very centred on yourself and your own immediate circle?

The problem, in my experience at least, is that praying for such big, vague categories of people often seems unsatisfying. Even if we try to make it a little more personal – actually naming a prime minister or a president, say – it’s much more difficult than praying for someone we actually know, and whose circumstances we are familiar with.

This applies not only to prominent leaders but also to other wider concerns. My wife and I attended a service a few days after the terrible 2004 tsunami – and to judge by that service the tsunami might very well have never happened. I suspect we may have prayed about Jack’s ingrown toe-nails, and possibly Mrs Brown’s missing cat. But the thousands who died, or were missing, or were left bereft, stranded, homeless and despairing – no, not so much as a mention.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly good to pray for Jack’s toe-nails and Mrs Brown’s cat: we Christians are, after all, a family – God’s family – and in families even relatively trivial things can matter very much. But our eyes should be taking in the bigger picture too, for we are also part of the world – God’s world – and that too should be reflected in our praying.

Perhaps we subconsciously think, “But with prayers like that you can never know if your prayers are doing any good – you never see any clear-cut answers.”

Well, no, you don’t. But isn’t that where faith comes in? We pray for these things simply because God has called us to – and as to the “results”, well, we leave them, in faith, with God.

I don’t remember much now of what the college principal said when I was training for the ministry. But one thing sticks vividly in my mind. He must have been speaking on just this theme, because at one point he became quite animated and said something along these lines: “I don’t claim to know how prayer works, but I truly believe that when I pray about some situation in China, something happens in China.” That, surely, was absolutely right.

So a question for all of us, certainly me included: Is it time we broadened our prayers and widened our vision to take account of the big issues in our world?

Here’s a practical suggestion. If you don’t do this already, why not make a point each day, after praying for needs close to home, of praying for other categories of need? To do this effectively you will need to use some of the printed or on-line material which is available in such quantity.

I would suggest three possible categories.

First, a missionary concern. For me, as a Baptist minister, this tends to be the Baptist Missionary Society. But there is no shortage of missionary organisations, denominational or not, that we can take a prayerful interest in.

Second, a relief or development agency. Again, for me this tends to be Tear Fund, but here too the options are many and varied.

Third, an advocacy organisation, focusing on the needs of people (not only Christians) who are persecuted for conscience’ sake. I personally rely on Christian Solidarity Worldwide, for whom I have worked as a volunteer, but there are plenty of others to choose from.

This kind of praying calls for discipline – it’s no good starting up for a week or two, and then gradually letting it fizzle out. No: we need to keep plugging away, trusting that God has each and every prayer safely filed away (so to speak) waiting for the moment when an answer is appropriate – even though we may never ourselves see that answer.

A beautiful thing happened to me this morning – I received a Christmas card from some people in Pakistan. Now, I have never been to Pakistan, and I know virtually no Pakistani Christians, but for many months now I have been praying systematically for persecuted Christians around the world, and Pakistan comes round regularly in the material I use.

For all I knew my prayers were disappearing into thin air. But occasionally I back up those prayers with a post-card, and write a short message on it. And sure enough…!

Only God knows the value of our prayers, so let’s get down to it, whether in our personal prayers or in church (a word here to those of us who lead worship!).

Jesus told his disciples to “open your eyes and look at the fields.” Might he not be saying to us today “Open your eyes and look at the world”?

Lord God, thank you that you care about even the smallest things that trouble and concern me. But please help me to remember that this hurting world also belongs to you, and to take its needs seriously.

Why do bad things happen?

“Let both grow together until the harvest…” Matthew 13:30.

Why does a good God allow bad things to happen?

Why is it that, along with all the love, beauty and kindness in our world, there is also the evil, the darkness, the sheer wickedness? “Come on, God!” we feel like saying. “Do something!” But… he simply doesn’t, or so it seems.

For centuries great minds, both Christian and otherwise, have wrestled with “the problem of evil”, what theologians and philosophers call “theodicy”.

Well, I certainly can’t claim to have much wisdom to offer on this tricky question, certainly nothing original. But the Bible suggests in a number of places that it fundamentally comes down to the question of God’s patience; if I can put it this way, in his dealings with his creation, God is playing a long game.

Jesus’ story of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) bears this out… A man sows good seed in his field. An enemy comes and sows weeds. To their dismay, the man’s servants see the good and bad growing together. They go to their master and ask what they should do: “Do you want us to go and pull the weeds up?” They seem keen to get on with the job!

But their master says no: “Let them both grow together until the harvest” – and then there will be a great separation, the wheat into barns, the weeds into the furnace.

Jesus provides his own explanation for the story in verses 36-43: the field is the world; the sower is God, more specifically “the Son of Man”; the good seed is the children of God’s kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the final judgment; the harvesters are the angels.

And the point is this: painful though it might be, good and bad in our world must live together until the time of God’s choosing.

Various truths emerge from this.

First, God is a good God, and while he permits evil, he doesn’t want it or condone it. He has, it seems, seen fit to limit his own omnipotence, at least for a time. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden illustrates this.

Second, there is an “enemy”. The Bible calls him by various names: the devil, Satan, the evil one. Over the centuries the church has understood the reality of the evil one in various ways, but all that really matters is that he exists, he is malevolent, and he is powerful. We ignore him at our peril.

Third, a day of reckoning will come. One day all wrongs will be righted and all evil will be destroyed. This is where the image of fire comes in – it is essentially a metaphor for destruction, and so Gehenna, or hell, is in effect a cosmic incinerator.

We need to take seriously the idea of the day of judgment, and Jesus’ warnings about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for those who have left it too late. Yes, God may permit evil for a time, but ultimately he would simply not be God, and certainly not an all-good and all-powerful God, if he did not finally act in judgment.

Where the pain is most acute, of course, is when we think of the people who suffer most while God is exercising his patience. I am writing this in a pleasant house, in a study surrounded by books, with the liberty to come and go as I please, and with a full stomach and good health. It is, so to speak, all very well for me.

But what about those who suffer persecution, cruelty, injustice, poverty, ill-health, broken relationships?

Well, only God himself can answer that question – and if ever we feel inclined to take him to task over it I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong in that. God’s shoulders are big enough to take it, as Job and many of the psalms suggest. God prefers an indignant, even an angry, disciple to an indifferent one. Don’t be afraid to get it off your chest.

But one other thing strikes me. We tend to speak of good and evil as things, and there is of course truth in that.

But that isn’t how Jesus sees it here. The weeds are not bad “things”, but “the children of the evil one”. People. And the wheat, likewise, is not the good and beautiful “things”, but “the children of God’s kingdom”. Again, people.

In other words, Jesus makes it personal. The reality of good and evil is about – you – and me. Whose side am I on? Where do I stand?

Yes, lots of questions cause us to wrack our brains. But these are questions to which each of us needs to provide a clear, unambiguous answer.

Lord God, help me to be only, ever, a force for love, truth and goodness in this troubled world. Amen.

What’s in a name? Lots!

I have called you by name – you are mine. Isaiah 43:1

Isn’t it wonderful when you succeed in making somebody happy? It’s even better when you do it without meaning to. This happened to me not long ago, and I went home feeling really good.

So what was this wonderful thing I did? The answer is short and simple: I called somebody by their name.

I didn’t have any official pastoral responsibility for Myfanwy; she is an elderly lady I have got to know through visiting in a local nursing home. I don’t think she gets all that many visitors, but she is always cheerful and determined to be positive about life. We have become friendly over the months and she appreciates a brief prayer after we have talked.

It was during one of those prayers that (with her permission) I prayed for her by name – whereupon she dissolved into tears: “Thank you so much! It’s so long since somebody called me by my proper name.” How sad is that!

Since moving into the home, some two or three years previously, Myfanwy has become known as “Fanna”. I don’t entirely blame the staff for that; most of them don’t speak English as their first language, and I can well imagine that some names  –  especially unusual Welsh ones  –  are a bit of a challenge.

And, to be fair, Myfanwy isn’t actually that bothered. Rather than complain, she has shrugged her shoulders, so to speak, and accepted “Fanna” as a fact of life. But her tearful response to me made clear that I had touched something deep down within her.

Which raises the question: how good are we at paying people the respect they are entitled to by addressing them properly?

Perhaps I have a particular feeling about this because of my own mother-in-law. She was an Armenian, her name Khatoun – “Kh” as in “loch” or “Bach”. As a young woman she married a British man and came to live in a small town in England. She was, I ought to say, quite kindly received by the locals, but they did struggle with her name, and eventually settled for “Kitty”. Which she hated (no disrespect to real Kittys, but it just isn’t her name). But, like Myfanwy, she learned to put up with it. It wasn’t worth making a fuss.

In her case I feel slightly less sympathetic towards the neighbours. Was Khatoun, even with that top-of-the-throat, back-of-the-mouth Kh, really so very difficult? Was it really too much trouble to make that minuscule effort for her sake? I find it hard to believe. Even “Hatoon”, though not perfect, would have at least been some sort of gesture. Perhaps they just felt embarrassed.

We all know how important names are in the Bible. They have clear meanings. Even though it is different for us today, they still have an emotional impact. Your name captures, somehow, the “you-ness” of you, your very identity.

I remember once being addressed as “Chris”, and even though it mattered not a scrap – it was just the understandable mistake of a kind person I hardly knew – I nonetheless felt, just for a split second, quite affronted: “Hey, my name’s Colin, if you don’t mind!”

This experience, combined with my mother-in-law’s, led me to try, every time I meet someone new, to give them their proper name. Not that I always succeed, of course.

God respects our names. “I have called you by name; you are mine” he says. Jesus thought names important enough to rename some of his disciples: Simon becomes Peter; James and John, no doubt humorously, are nicknamed Sons of Thunder. And there is that strange passage in Revelation 2:17 where the “overcoming” believer is promised “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it”.

Names, in other words, are extremely personal things, which no doubt is why Myfanwy broke down on hearing hers that day. Certainly it can be overdone – cold-callers on the phone presuming on a friendship that doesn’t exist, politicians being over-matey with the broadcaster interviewing them.

But the fact remains that, in normal everyday life, to take the trouble to learn correctly, pronounce accurately and then use consistently somebody’s proper name is a way of saying, “You matter to me. You aren’t just an object in my life. You are a person, utterly unique and infinitely precious, and I want to treat you as such.”

Thank you, O God, that you see and know me as a person, unique and precious in your eyes. Please help me to treat others the way you have treated me. Amen.