Me, me, me!

You shall not covet…  Exodus 20:17

Do you ever covet things? I think that, in this very materialistic world in which we live, you would be extremely unusual if you didn’t.

To covet is to wish for things which we have no right to, especially things belonging to other people. There’s no end to the list of possibilities – their money, their health, their looks, their wife/husband, their marriage, their talents, their possessions, their success, their brains … you could go on for ever. I think that the whole advertising industry is designed to stir up covetousness within us. “You deserve it…” the adverts coo at us. And, fools that we are, we believe them.

Why exactly is it wrong to covet? Here are a few suggestions…

First, it’s essentially selfish, elevating what I want to the top of the list of priorities. It puts me and my needs before generosity, kindness and compassion. It’s all about getting rather than giving – and didn’t Jesus say that there is more joy in giving than receiving (Acts 20)?

Second, it suggests a failure to trust in God for his provision. God promises to look after those who trust themselves to him, so if we covet we are, in effect, saying to God, “Your provision isn’t good enough for me – I’m not really sure you will look after me”.

Third, it destroys peace of mind. The more focussed you are on other people and what they have, the more chewed up you will be inside because you don’t have them. Covetous people are rarely happy people; they’re driven, frowny, self-centred.

Fourth, it can lead to seriously damaging consequences. Some of the Old Testament’s most powerful stories are about covetousness – and in each case havoc results.

Eve coveted the fruit God said she and Adam shouldn’t touch (Genesis 3). Achan coveted the treasures of the Canaanites (Joshua 7). King David coveted another man’s wife (2 Samuel 11). King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). Why not re-read these stories – and see the carnage and pain that resulted in each case?

Summing it all up, covetousness is, in the end, a form of idolatry – putting something or someone in the place that only God should occupy.

By the same token, the person who has learned not to covet (and the learning process can be hard and painful – let’s face up to that) experiences real liberation.

Paul tells Timothy, “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). If we have reached the point where we can go along with Paul then we can shrug our shoulders at the world around us and just get on with the business of living a Christlike life. We’re free! And if somebody has something that we would like, something “better” than what we have – well, good for them! and may God bless them!

Other Christian leaders have expressed the same kind of thought. Here is Martin Luther: “Too many Christians envy the sinners their pleasure and the saints their joy, because they don’t have either”.

And, nearer to our own day, Billy Graham: “Envy takes the joy, happiness and contentment out of living”.

“Contentment” is a key word. It doesn’t mean we can’t be ambitious in a good sense – no, not at all, we should work hard to fulfil our God-given potential – but it does mean that we’re happy to leave our lot in this life in the hands of a God who is our heavenly Father, and who loves us more than we can know.

Dear Father, I am sorry that I sometimes allow the poison of discontent to corrode my soul. I promise now that, with your help, I will entrust myself wholeheartedly to you and let you lead me wherever you want me to go, and to give me whatever you want me to have. Amen.

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Let God do the judging

We will all stand before God’s judgment seat… Each of us will give an account of himself to God. Romans 14:10-12

Do you really believe in this statement by Paul? Do you ever think about the day, which must come, when you will stand before God and “give an account” of the life you have lived, the things you have done, and the person you have been?

I find the prospect quite frightening.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that in Christ my eternal destiny is secure: I am saved through my faith in his death on the cross. I take great comfort from Paul’s earlier statement that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:1). No condemnation! – how liberating is that wonderful expression!

But still… “frightening” fits pretty well how I feel about standing before God on judgment day.

Put it like this. In most of the trials of life we are accompanied by others: people to visit us when we are sick; a lawyer to represent us if we have done wrong; a friend to help and advise if we are confused or unhappy. But on the day of judgment we will be as alone as we have ever been or ever can be. It will be just… me and God. And God (in case we need the reminder) is holy, utterly perfect.

Yes, we need to take final judgment seriously!

While all this is true, we need to notice that Paul’s main purpose in teaching his readers these things is not, in fact, to “put the frighteners” on them. As with every Bible passage, we need to notice the context in which he is writing. So if you have your Bible to hand take a moment, please, to read Romans 14 in full…

Paul is talking about areas of the Christian life where equally sincere Christians may disagree with one another. Two examples seem to have been hot topics in the church in Rome: vegetarianism (is it all right for Christians to eat meat? – verses 1-4); and the observing of particular days as special (are certain days to be set apart as “holy”? – verses 5-6).

And the reason Paul says what he says in verses 10-12 is this: because you are ultimately accountable to God, you are not accountable to a fellow-Christian who may see fit to criticise you.

Take drink as an example. I grew up in a church where it was simply taken for granted that, if you were a Christian, you wouldn’t ever drink alcohol. Most of us accepted that without raising an eyebrow: you could say, if you like, that we toed the party-line.

But of course there were some – just a few – who saw things differently. “What’s wrong with responsible drinking?” they would say. Isn’t wine given by God “to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104)? Didn’t Jesus himself turn water into wine?

The tragedy was that such a difference of opinion could never remain purely hypothetical. Inevitably, it raised strong feelings; it gave rise to opposing “camps”, with people in both camps pointing an accusing finger at the other. “Oh, they’re just legalistic, petty and immature!” said the yes-to-alcohol camp. “What a terrible witness! How worldly!” said the no-to-alcohol camp.

Not good. Not good at all…

This is the kind of situation Paul is pleading with the Roman Christians to avoid. “On matters like these,” he is saying, “just respect and live with one another. If you’re in the yes-to-alcohol camp, don’t despise the other camp. And if you’re in the no-to-alcohol camp, don’t condemn the other camp.”  Why? Well, this brings us right back to our verses – it is to God that we are accountable, not to any other human being.

Of course, there are some things which are just plain right or wrong, end of story. I was once asked to prepare a young man for baptism. On our first chat I discovered that he saw nothing wrong with sex outside marriage (the photos adorning the walls of his flat suggested his very liberal view). As far as I was concerned his attitude was simply wrong, so, in as sensitive a way as I could, I told him so. No room for compromise there.

And there are plenty of other instances where God’s word is perfectly clear. Can you imagine somebody saying “Well, all right, you think murder is wrong, but personally I’m ok with it”? Of course not.

No, it’s those “grey” areas which, sadly, give rise to so much trouble – and they are a challenge to all of us.

So, here’s a question to finish with: Do you take a strong view in any area that doesn’t call for it? And another question: Do you take a weak view in any area that does?

Time for some rethinking perhaps…

Lord God, help me to be immovable on the things that really matter, but flexible on those that don’t – and the wisdom to know the difference! Amen.

Starting again – again

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 walk up to the local shops to get my paper, and that stroll is an ideal opportunity to spend a little time with God before the day gets going. It’s specially pleasant now that the light mornings have arrived; often the sky is blue and everything is still quiet and peaceful. There is a sense of things being unspoiled. Wouldn’t it be good to preserve that until bed-time!

Yes, there is something magical about the beginning of a new day.

And the writer of Lamentations (possibly the prophet Jeremiah, though it’s not certain) celebrates the fact that God’s “compassions”, his mercies, are “new every morning”. Sadly, though, we quickly allow them to get soiled and tainted by the busyness of the day.

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

Each day we can start the same way… “I’m not going to get impatient or lose my temper… I won’t be lazy or careless… I will resist the temptation to cut corners or allow bad thoughts to slide into my mind…” But by the time it gets to mid-day, 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 that 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 that purity of thought, word and deed through all the noises, tensions, frictions, stresses and difficulties? Going to bed at night knowing that you really do have nothing on your conscience?

An impossible ask? Perhaps. But shouldn’t that be our target? “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. Of course, if you were to ask them they would say “No! – if you only knew…” And yet I don’t think they are just good actors – let’s face it, most of us can spot pretence a mile off. No, they really do reflect that “beauty of Jesus”, even if not perfectly, which so easily eludes most of us.

The good news is that the mercies of God are not only “new every morning”, but new every minute of every day. The danger is that having blotted our copy book, as we put it, we then give up and say “Oh well, that’s it, I’ve made a mess of things, it’s not really worth bothering any more. Another failed day. I mean, I can’t be expected to make a new start every five minutes, can I?”

But that’s where we are seriously wrong. Yes, we can! All right, the morning only ever comes once a day; but the mercies of God are there for us every minute of every day, if only we will turn to him, make a clean breast of where we have gone wrong, and start all over again.

Suppose we keep falling down? Well, true, that’s not good. But the answer is simple (simple to say, that is, though not of course always simple to do): keep getting up. And that’s something that God, in his limitless patience, is always happy to help us do.

God loves new beginnings: a new morning; a new life; a new hope; a new you; a new me.

Be a new person today!

Lord Jesus, we read that you were in every way tempted as we are, yet without sin. Please help me to keep that high ideal before my eyes every minute of every day, 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.

How passionate are you?

Be filled with the spirit. Ephesians 5:18

Last Sunday being Whit Sunday, I wasn’t surprised to be challenged in church about the Holy Spirit. How eager am I to be “filled with the Spirit”? How much do I long for “the gifts of the Spirit”? Does my life bear “the fruit of the Spirit”?

All those questions are good and necessary. Surely every Christian should constantly want more of God’s Spirit.

But there was a word used that slightly jarred: “passionate”. As Christians, we were told, we should be passionate about the Holy Spirit.

My problem is twofold. First, I’m not really sure what that word actually means. And second, assuming what I suspect the preacher meant by it – a deep emotional intensity, a yearning that pretty well dominates and controls you – the fact is that, sorry, I’m just not really the passionate type. I just “don’t do passion”. Too English, perhaps, too buttoned up.

And the question is: Should I feel guilty about this? Is there something wrong with me?

Well, my wife and I chatted this over in the car as we came away from church, and what we came up with was something like this…

First, the whole idea of being passionate is strikingly absent from the Bible. What the Bible asks of us first and foremost is that we should be trusting of God and obedient to him, and those two words are much quieter – much more ordinary, if you like – than what generally comes to mind when we think of passion.

Second, we reflected that over the years we have known a number of Christians who you might describe as passionate – and the sad fact is that several of them seemed to burn out quickly. Some, certainly, continued to profess to be Christians, but they became mere shadows of their former selves. Others gave up claiming to be Christians at all.

I remember a young man who used to introduce worship songs before the official start of our services. Oh, he was passionate, all right! He used to “guilt” us, as somebody once put it: “Are you happy being a Christian? You don’t look much like it! Come on, aren’t we supposed to be joyful, us Christians? This is Sunday morning, isn’t it, the day Jesus rose from the dead! Isn’t anybody going to smile…?”

That young man, within a couple of years, gave up any pretence of being a Christian and dropped out of church altogether.

All right, that’s an extreme example, and I know very well that there are others in the same mould who last the course well. But it’s hard not to hear warning bells ring when the word passionate is being bandied around.

Third, we reflected that the Christians we had most appreciated and valued in our own lives were generally not the passionate types, but those quieter, solid types who just “keep on keeping on”. Their love of Jesus couldn’t be questioned, but they expressed it by their honest, reliable day-to-day living. They were the people you would turn to when you were in trouble, the people you instinctively trusted and respected.

My wife and I decided, in the end, that there are in fact two types of “passion”. We agreed that, yes of course, Christians should be passionate, in the sense of faithful and committed – and that we were certainly not as passionate as we ought to be. But we also concluded that that there is kind of suspect passion which might not unfairly be described as shallow, rootless and flaky.

That word “rootless” brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the sower. Yes! – isn’t it all there in that simple story? “The person who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the one who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time…” (Matthew 13:20-21). Lord, save us from rootlessness!

Am I overdoing this? Am I, in the end, simply quibbling about words? If the preacher on Sunday had talked about being “enthusiastic”, or “eager” or “keen” regarding the Holy Spirit I don’t think I would have had that negative reaction. And perhaps that, really, is all he in fact meant.

But perhaps I am right in thinking that certain inflated, overblown words need to be used with caution; they can be misunderstood. Remember what Paul said about “resounding gongs and clanging cymbals”! Remember that saying about “empty vessels”!

At the end of the day, to be “filled with the Spirit” is to be filled with Christ, isn’t it? – with love, with holiness, with truth, with humility. And don’t these things constitute the “righteousness” that Jesus says we are to “hunger and thirst for” (Matthew 5:6)?

Never mind “passionate”… Oh for more of this in my life!

Lord Jesus, help me to lead a life of glad, joyful obedience, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and wanting only to follow and please you. Amen.

The right word at the right time

There is joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word!

Congenial conversation – what a pleasure! The right word at the right time – beautiful! Proverbs 15:23 (NIV and The Message)

Last Sunday was hot, really hot, here in Nottingham, by far the hottest day of the year. So everyone was in shorts and short sleeves, and there was only one topic of conversation.

One member of the music group at church had obviously chosen his clothes that morning with special care: WINTER IS COMING declared his tee-shirt. Ha very ha.

Of course, you couldn’t fault James for accuracy: winter is coming, even if it is still (hopefully) some months away. But when it comes to aptness, or timeliness – “the right word at the right time” – well, that’s a rather different story.

I enjoyed James’s joke. It reminded me of the day we took our baby son to church for the first time. Everyone gathered round after the service to admire and go goo-goo-goo and all the other things you do over a new baby. Then a friend (Hi, Keith, if you’re reading this) drifted over, took a quick look, and said “Yes, okay, looks fairly standard issue – they’re all pretty much the same, really, aren’t they?…” or words to that effect. You couldn’t really argue with that, could you? – what, after all, could be more commonplace than a baby being born? I mean, it’s happening all the time.

The point is simple: a word that is true may not also be timely. And the writer of Proverbs is reminding us that a word that manages to be both is one of the pleasures of life: “a word in season”, as I think the King James Version puts it.

I think we often fail to recognise the great impact, for both good and ill, that our words can have, even if those words are quite trivial and insignificant.

Every morning around seven I walk up to the local shops to pick up a paper. It takes twenty minutes or so, and I usually fall in with one or more of the local dog-walkers. I never cease to be struck by the difference it makes when a friendly greeting is exchanged (plus probably a remark about, yes, the weather). That little display of cheerfulness somehow helps to set you up for the day.

Just occasionally somebody goes by with a stony face and downcast eyes – and of course, why not, why shouldn’t they, nobody is under an obligation to be sociable? Quite possibly they’re just shy. But somehow it seems, well, a shame – an opportunity missed.

All this is particularly true of course when it comes to more serious things. It might be a little bit of helpful advice, or a word of commiseration at a difficult time, or a warning, or a snippet of little-known information that was just what we needed.

And what about those times when a brief chat develops into something significant? A half-hour conversation can have the effect of taking a relationship to a whole new level: you find yourself thinking you know that person in a way you never did before. Such a conversation can even have a life-changing impact; it can be as nourishing, mentally and spiritually, as a slap-up meal is physically. I can still remember things people said to me twenty or thirty years ago: “the right word at the right time” indeed.

(Note to self: Don’t despise “small talk” – you never know when it might become big talk…!)

Let’s not bother today with the sad side of this – the damage that can be done by the wrong word. James (I mean New Testament James, not tee-shirt James) can sort us out on that – see James 3. Perhaps it’s enough to repeat one of those things that was said to me when I was a child and which I have never forgotten… “Before you say anything, ask yourself three questions: Is true? (tick?). Is it kind? (tick?). Is it necessary? (tick?). How much trouble and pain would be saved if we all did that!

No, let’s focus on the positive – a timely word from you or me today could have a massive positive impact on somebody’s life. Even more, it could actually change somebody’s life. Yes, such is the power of words. Let’s make sure we use them wisely and well.

Father God, thank you for the wise and memorable things which have been said to me down through the years of my life. Help me, by your Holy Spirit, to use well the power of my tongue. Amen.

The Christian agnostic

His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand… 2 Peter 3:16

Last time, I wrote about a conversation I had had with a man who described himself as an agnostic. I mentioned that he had thanked me for admitting that there were plenty of things I didn’t understand, or wasn’t sure of.

My story seems to have stimulated some little interest. In particular, I had a message from a long-time Christian friend – as rock-solid a Christian as you could wish to find – who tells me that he too is very “agnostic” on various aspects of the Christian faith. Don’t worry, he is entirely orthodox on the basic teachings; but he frankly admits that he just doesn’t know what to think on some of the less central matters.

I was grateful for his honesty – it was refreshing. It brought to mind to the comment of Peter about his fellow-apostle Paul: his letters “contain some things that are hard to understand…” Peter goes on to say how Paul’s teachings can end up being “distorted by ignorant and unstable people”. Perhaps Peter felt that he was a bit like that himself – an impulsive and uneducated Galilean fisherman, in comparison with the learned Paul.

Whatever, Peter’s comment makes one thing clear: the Christian faith does indeed contain elements which are open to misunderstanding and which can be perplexing and even quite baffling.

And this doesn’t just apply to Paul, of course. Is there anyone out there reading this who would claim to have a full understanding of the trinity? or of predestination and free will? or of the precise process of creation? or of the mystery of prayer? or of exactly how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us from our sins? or of why God allows such appalling suffering in his creation? or of…? But I think you get the point.

It was this kind of thing that I had in mind when I admitted to my agnostic friend that the things I didn’t know far outweighed the ones I did.

Thinking like this prompts the question: How much “agnosticism” can a Christian be happy to live with? Who, exactly, is a Christian? Who “qualifies” (if I can use that word) to bear that great name?

A big question! My rough-and-ready answer would be something like this: Anyone who, first, believes in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, especially the perfect life, the atoning death, the victorious resurrection, and the final return in glory, of Jesus the son of God; and who, second, loves, trusts and seeks to obey that same Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

Any good? I think that will do for me!

Which means, of course, that there are plenty of people around who are true Christians even though they may be wrong on various issues (hey, maybe I’m even one myself…!). An ounce of true faith in Jesus weighs more than ten tons of muddled or imperfect thought. Yes?

Don’t get me wrong. Doctrine (which basically means true teaching in systematic form) matters, and we should want to get it right. But given that none of us in reality does “get it right”, not perfectly so anyway, and given that nobody ever has “got it right” over the two thousand years the church has existed, perhaps we can afford to be a little relaxed when it comes to matters of doctrinal orthodoxy or “soundness”. We might in fact find doing so quite liberating. Having all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed isn’t what it’s all about; what it is all about is loving and trusting Jesus.

Over my years as a preacher and pastor I have learned to say, quite frankly, “Sorry, I’m really not sure about that”, when asked a question which I’m – well, really not sure about. I’ll always offer to go away and do some more thinking, reading and exploring, hoping to come back with a better answer. But in the end honesty is not just the best policy; it’s more than that – it’s the morally right policy, the only policy which is honouring to God.

How much harm and damage is done by well-meaning Christians who just aren’t willing to say “Sorry, I don’t know”? – and even more by Christian block-heads who think they know everything and drive honest enquirers away by what can only be called ignorant certainty? I dare to hope that my agnostic friend was drawn a little closer to Christian faith by my honest admission, than if I had got the doctrinal tool-bag out and started putting him right on the spot.

You don’t know something? – well, say so! You will very likely be respected for doing so, and bring credit to the Christian faith.

And never forget the words of the Christian wit (G K Chesterton? – can somebody help me out?) who, when asked if he was worried by the things in the Bible he couldn’t understand, replied, “No! The things in the Bible that worry me are the things I can understand…”

Father, thank you that your servant Peter recognised the limits of his own understanding. Help me to do the same – to glory in the things I do know, but not to be embarrassed or ashamed by the rest. Amen.

(PS. Why not join me in offering a prayer for my agnostic friend “Ted”?)

A conversion in the making…?

God has set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what he has done from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11.

After preaching recently in a church I had never been to before I was button-holed by a member of the congregation. I’ll call him Ted: an older man, genial and cheerful, he wanted me to know in no uncertain terms that he was an agnostic.

Well, this is different, I thought to myself. Interesting…!

“So why are you an agnostic?” I asked. “Because of your God,” he replied, quick as a flash, with just a touch of aggressive emphasis on the word “your”.

Ah… As you will probably have guessed, it was the existence of evil and suffering that was Ted’s stumbling block. He felt that God, if he existed, had got the arranging of the universe seriously wrong.

Well, I did my best to give him some kind of reply along the lines that Christians have taken down through the centuries – while gladly recognising, of course, that I most certainly didn’t have all the answers. He seemed to appreciate an admission that in certain respects I too was an agnostic – the things I don’t know far outweigh the ones I do!

We didn’t have long to talk, but it seemed natural to ask Ted what he was doing in church that morning. Was this a one-off visit, or did he come regularly? What brought him, given that he didn’t believe in the God who was worshipped there? It transpired that at least three factors had combined to bring him.

First, the simple witness of a Christian person.

Ted runs a small shop, and one day he had got talking with a customer who belonged to the church we were in. This man’s conversation and manner impressed him, so when he invited him along to church he decided to give it a go. Why not? Nothing to lose.

Well, that was thirteen years ago, and he proudly informed me that in that time he had missed only half a dozen morning services – “I’m far more regular than most of these Christians!”  (This information was cheerfully vouched for by a woman who picked up on our conversation as she bustled by.)

Second, the impact of the church itself.

This was a good church, no doubt about that, but in essence what you would call simply a lively, local, evangelistic congregation. Not massive numerically, but with a healthy cross-section of ages (plenty of children running around) and a good balance of male and female. Warm and friendly. Ted had clearly been made welcome – fully accepted in spite of his agnosticism. You could tell that from the banter and cheery insults flying around.

I don’t think I can sum it up better than by saying the love of Jesus was in that place.

And then the third thing, and this is far more difficult to describe or express.

I’ve quoted Ecclesiastes 3:11 to try and sum it up: “God has set eternity in the hearts of human beings…” The precise meaning of those words is debated – the various translations reflect the uncertainty – but what seems clear enough is that we men and women have a deep-down hankering after something – or someone – outside and above ourselves.

We ask questions. We wonder about the mystery of life. We reflect on the passing of time, and on its inevitable consequence, death. Cats and porpoises, elephants and ruffed lemurs, ants and antelopes are no doubt endowed with a real intelligence, but they cannot store knowledge or debate questions, they do not wake up in the morning and meditate on the meaning of the new day. We can. And we do.

Ted told me he never prayed – yet he found what he called a “spiritual” lift in the services and the music. He was quite strong on that word “spiritual”; it was obviously important and meaningful to him. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore a little what he really meant by it.

Reflecting on our five-minute conversation, it suggested to me lessons that apply to all of us.

For one thing, can there be any doubt that here are plenty of Teds in all our everyday lives? Even that person at work whose only topic of conversation is last night’s telly, or the football, and who has those wearily second-hand opinions on to brexit or not to brexit – yes, even that man or woman may very well harbour deep thoughts. And God has placed us there to respond to them when the right time comes.

And neither we nor our church needs to be particularly special or “charismatic” or whatever-other-label- you- fancy: just natural, easy, humble, loving, kind, welcoming. Just Christlike, really.

Lord God, thank you for putting in all of us that yearning after eternal and heavenly things. Thank you that they have drawn me to yourself. Help me to have eyes to see the Teds I meet day by day, and to show them the wonderful, simple love of Jesus. Amen.