How patient are you?

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love… Ephesians 4:2

I remember the day my father received an unexpected letter from the bank – it must have been some time in the 1970s. It made him very angry. Why? Well, the envelope contained his first ever credit card.

We probably find it hard to believe now – but at that time credit cards were new. If you wanted to buy something, you had to choose one of three methods: cash, cheque, or a negotiated loan. But now here were these new-fangled pieces of plastic which enabled you to get things without paying for them.

My father did quite a dramatic thing. He got hold of a pair of scissors, cut the card into pieces, put it in another envelope, and sent it straight back to the bank with a strong letter. He had never asked for credit in his life! And he didn’t want it now, thank you very much! He was seriously offended.

Well, I haven’t followed my father’s example, even though I admired it. Like you, I imagine, I have found credit cards very useful. But I could see his point, given his background – and that loaded word “credit”.

An advertising slogan for credit cards was “taking the waiting out of wanting”. Quite clever, that. Short, snappy – and, in its way, accurate. But also very misleading. Because, of course, you do have to pay for what you are buying – it’s just that the paying bit, the not-so-pleasant bit, is hidden away. What the credit card adverts didn’t tell you was that – don’t you worry! – that bill would come back to bite you in due course.

And so we have evolved a society where debt is part and parcel of most people’s lives, and where millions of people, even those with high-flying jobs and big pay packets, are enslaved to possibly massive, unrepayable debts – the kind of debts that keep them awake at night,  and that threaten nervous breakdowns, marital disputes and possibly ruined lives.

Paul writes “Be patient “. Elsewhere he tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience…” (Galatians 5). He tells his friends in Colosse to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility and patience…” (Colossians 3). He isn’t in fact talking mainly about money, but about how we relate to people we find difficult and annoying.

But the need for patience covers many areas of life. Another obvious example is sex. The Bible principle is that sex is God’s beautiful gift to those who have committed themselves to one another in marriage. But who these days wants to wait? You must be joking!

There’s an old saying that “the best things in life are free”. There’s truth in that. But it’s also true to say that the best things in life are worth waiting for. You can’t study for a worthwhile qualification in a fortnight. You can’t learn to play a musical instrument in a couple of lessons. You can’t master a foreign language by listening to a few CDs. No: quiet, disciplined, patient application is what’s needed.

Building relationships requires patience. So does the vital matter of prayer. Any fruitful area of Christian ministry is a long-term prospect. “Growing” a church needs patience. In our “I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now” world, we who seek to follow Jesus have an important witness to make about the way to fulfilment, peace and true, lasting achievement. God give us grace to buck the trend and to nurture the virtue of patience!

In calling us to be patient, the Bible is in effect calling us to be like God. Where would we be without his patience?

God showed patience with the killer Cain by giving him the protective “mark” (Genesis 4). He showed patience with a whole world gone bad with the sign of the rainbow (Genesis 9). He showed patience with sinful Nineveh through the preaching of Jonah. He showed patience with his people through repeated pleadings (eg, Jesus’ parable of the tenants in the vineyard, Mark 12). He is still showing patience today by delaying Christ’s return (2 Peter 3). And that list is just a tiny sample.

Non-Christian cultures also reflect the great importance of patience. Says a Chinese proverb: “One moment of patience may ward off great disaster, while one moment of impatience may ruin a whole life.”

I’m afraid I have no idea who Ulrike Ruffert is, or was. But I like his words: “Patience is the ability to put up with people you’d like to put down.”

So… Are you a patient person? Patient with life in general? And patient in the sense of “long-suffering” with people who vex and trouble you?

Dear Lord and Father, you have been infinitely patient with me, my shortcomings and frailties. Thank you! Help me in this life to be patient with those who I feel have acted badly towards me – and to be satisfied to build patiently only those things that will last. Amen.

Snakes, lions – and your soul

So if you think you’re standing firm, watch out that you don’t fall! 1 Corinthians 10:12

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8

I knew a man once who was a mature, solid Christian: a church leader in fact. He exercised a fruitful ministry, and was widely respected. He had been happily married for many years.

Then, out of nowhere, he fell victim to a sexual passion that completely overwhelmed him. Having long been a faithful husband, he suddenly found himself infatuated with another woman. His world turned upside down. His marriage came under massive strain. He couldn’t cope in his mind with what was happening to him. It was a dark time in his life.

Well, his crisis-time did in fact end well. Precisely because he had a strong Christian foundation to his life, he and his wife battled through the storm and ended up the stronger for it – albeit with immense pain.

Not all stories like that end well. And that is the point Paul wants his friends in Corinth to get hold of: “You think you’re all right? You think you’re safe from any risk of being overcome by temptation? Well, you’d better look out! You’re in danger!”

This isn’t just about sex, though that perhaps is the area where the danger is at its most obvious and dramatic. Corinth, at that time, was a particularly immoral and licentious place. Perhaps Paul’s strong feelings come from the fact that the Corinth Christians had been converted to Christ out of this background of rampant wickedness, and he fears that once the novelty of being in Christ has worn off a little, they might be tempted to go back to some of their former ways.

But whatever, the point is clear: however strong you may be as a believer, you are never more than a hair’s-breadth from the possibility of disaster. There is never a point in your life where you can rest on your laurels and say “I’m all right, a spiritual collapse could never happen to me.” Oh yes it could! Complacency is out.

In the Bible the devil is often portrayed as a snake. This, of course, suggests cunning and deception, a slithery, slimy, creepy infiltration of our lives before we’re even aware of the danger. And that is indeed often how it happens.

But Peter gives us another angle: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to gobble up.” If a snake suggests subtlety and guile, a lion suggests raw power and strength. A lion prowls quietly (oh yes, very quietly) for a while; but then it pounces. And it’s all over in a flash. This, I suspect, is what happened to the man I mentioned at the start.

Perhaps Peter sees it this way because of his own bitter experience. There was a time when he certainly thought he was “standing firm”, wasn’t there? – even to the point of putting Jesus right on one or two things: “Me betray you, Jesus? Me? Never! Even if all the others do, you can count on me! I’m right with you, if it comes to it, to the very death!” (Mark 14:27-31).

And then, within a matter of hours, deny Jesus is exactly what he does – three times (Mark 14:66-72). The devil pounces, and he just can’t cope. And so Matthew gives us one of the saddest verses in the Bible: “And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Can you see him?)

Let’s ram it home again: however long you have been a Christian, however strong and well-taught your faith, however regular you are in worship, prayer and Bible-reading, however faithfully you have served God over many years, however much people may praise and respect you, however truly, indeed, you love Christ… however much all these things are true, you are never safe until you arrive in heaven.

The Christian life is a one-day-at-a-time thing. Let yesterday’s victories be an encouragement, by all means. But – yesterday was yesterday, and today is today. Be confident, by all means: but never complacent. Let our confidence be purely in Jesus, never in ourselves.

Oh, there is something else… If, like Peter, we do fall, remember that Peter was forgiven and restored. What was true of him can be true too of you and me. Praise God for that!

Loving Father, please help me, by your Spirit, to resist every temptation to self-confidence or complacency. May my trust be in you and you alone, and may I never forget that there is an enemy who wants to bring me down. Amen.

Praying that spans the globe

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness… 1 Timothy 2:1-2

So… it’s happened. Donald Trump is the President of the USA.

I don’t know what your reaction is to that, and in a sense it’s not what I’m concerned about. All I’m thinking about is that as Christians we are called to pray for him, whether we love him or, er, don’t (I hesitate to use the word “loathe” in Christian company). Paul tells his protégé Timothy to ensure that, in the church he led, prayer should be offered “for everyone – for kings and those in authority…”

I remember many years ago offering a prayer for the British prime minister and cabinet in the course of a Sunday morning service. I was taken to task at the end by a member of the congregation: “I was surprised to hear you pray for that man…” Odd! This person seemed to have the idea that we should only pray for people that we like or approve of – that by praying for the prime minister I was in effect expressing support for him.

But no! On the contrary, surely, if we feel that a political leader is not someone we could have voted for, isn’t that all the more reason to pray for him or her?

Let me come clean. When I heard that Mr Trump had been elected I could hardly believe it. I am, thankfully, not prone to depression, but if I were I think I would have gone into a real tail-spin. It baffled me – and still does – that any Christian (not to mention any woman) could vote for someone so (in my judgment) grotesquely out of step with Christian principles.

But there, as they say, you go. It has happened, and there’s no going back. But if ever prayer was needed, surely it’s right now!

(Forgive me, please, if you see things differently. I know that there are many American Christians, including many evangelicals, who were in favour of Mr Trump. Well, so be it: ultimately, God alone can judge.)

This isn’t really just about the present situation: there is a much bigger and wider principle at stake here. The Christian church is called to intercede for all sorts of people and topics outside and beyond its own little world.

There are churches which, in their main Sunday services, have no prayers that could be called “prayers of intercession”. Or if they do, those prayers are only what you might call “in-house” prayers: people in the church who are sick, perhaps, or some particular aspect of the church’s life. The big wide world outside gets not the slightest mention.

Can this be good? True, there may well be smaller groups during the week where such things are mentioned; fair enough. But given that our main Sunday services are also, so to speak, the church’s “shop window” – the occasion when visitors and outsiders are likely to come – isn’t it important that the outside world should be reflected in them?

At the heart of the Christian faith is the great truth that individual men and women can find forgiveness and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Amen to that. But the Christian faith spreads and reaches out far beyond that. Our world is God’s world – created and loved by him. And this means that literally everything – the worlds of politics, finance, science, culture, sport, you name it – is of concern to him. Everything should be bathed in the prayers of God’s holy people.

Two things in particular are worth noticing from Paul’s advice to Timothy.

First, that word “everyone”. Just as “brexit means brexit” (to latch onto another present-day bone of contention) so too “everyone” means “everyone”. Is it time we expanded the scope of our praying?

Second, what Paul describes as the aim of our praying: “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Reflect, please, on that…

God wants peace on this earth. This is why Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven”. In a world torn apart by conflict and war, this is a message we need to be reminded of.

And God is concerned about “godliness and holiness”. In a world so disfigured by the exact opposites – by vulgarity and grossness, by materialism and self-centredness, by immorality and vice – isn’t the need for prayer all the more urgent?

Pray for, and about, Mr Trump! Pray for America! Pray for the world! Who knows what God might do?

Lord Jesus, you call your church to pray for the life of this world. Help me to be obedient to that call, whatever my personal opinions may be. Amen.

A warning to the half-hearted

“Consider carefully what you hear,” Jesus continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” Mark 4:24-25

Since I retired four years ago I have tried to develop one or two new skills, or to brush up one or two old ones.

I have joined a poetry-reading group where each member brings a poem to share on a chosen topic. And a French conversation group (which, I don’t mind telling you, is a bit of a stretch for someone who last studied French over fifty years ago). And my wife even bought me a ukulele (I kid you not) for Christmas (perhaps I’ll be able to make a start on that when I have succeeded in tuning the thing…).

My progress in these areas, as you may have gathered, is limited. But never mind! I’m just enjoying myself, keeping my tinsy little brain at least slightly active, meeting some interesting new people, and having a bit of fun.

Of course, if I wanted to make proper progress I would need to enrol in a proper French class or get a proper music teacher or whatever. But steady on! – I’m not that serious about it.

The point is simple: in any area of life you only get out what you put in – if your investment is meagre, don’t expect much by way of a return.

And that is pretty much what Jesus seems to be saying in these verses.

True, the same saying about “the measure you use” appears in different settings in various parts of the Gospels. It also serves, for example, as an encouragement to be generous: the more you give, ultimately the more you will get. Or as a warning about being judgmental: be harsh about others and God will be harsh with you.

But here, what comes across is a warning to the half-hearted.

How do I make that out? Well, Jesus isn’t of course talking about some sort of casual hobby or skill like discovering new poetry, but to the vital business of hearing God’s word: he is challenging his disciples to take very seriously the importance of listening to, and responding to, God: “Consider carefully what you hear…”.

There are Christian people (and, please believe me, I am talking to myself here as much as to anybody else) who are little more than dabblers, triflers, when it comes to the things of God.

Oh yes, they will turn up to church, from time to time at least – but start talking about commitment and they disappear in a cloud of dust. Oh yes, they have their favourite Bible passages – perhaps Psalm 23, The Prodigal Son, 1 Corinthians 13 – but suggest that they get their teeth into Numbers, say, or the Letter to the Hebrews and, er, no thanks.

And the result? They never grow or make progress. And, of course, if you don’t go forwards the fact is that you don’t simply stand still, you go backwards. Isn’t that what Jesus means when he says that “even what they have will be taken from them”? The spiritual dabbler ends up losing whatever little enthusiasm he or she originally had. It just fizzles out. (I’m reminded of the man who, looking back over his life, lamented the time when “I had just enough Christianity to make me miserable, but not enough to make me happy.”)

But the good news is that Jesus also says: “Whoever has will be given more”. Does that sound unfair? No, he’s just stating another fact of life – the person who puts heart and soul into something ultimately harvests satisfaction and fulfilment.

So… do you (like me) see in yourself any of the marks of the spiritual dabbler? If so, here’s the stark truth: we will end up (a) disappointing to God, (b) dissatisfied with ourselves, and (c) not much use to the unbelieving world. Putting it another way: if we’re going to be Christians, well, let’s be Christians; if we’re going to follow Jesus, well, let’s really follow him.

I’ve no idea what thoughts will pass through my mind as I lie on my death-bed. But one thing I’m entirely sure of: it won’t be, “Oh dear, I do wish I had given more time and effort to learning to play that ukulele”. But I fear it could just be: “Oh dear, I do wish I had loved, trusted and served Jesus with all my heart and soul and mind and strength.”

How about you?

Lord Jesus, you gave your everything for me when you suffered and died on the cross. Help me, by your Spirit, to give my everything for you. Amen.

Gifts from God – really

In the church God has appointed… those with gifts of administration 1 Corinthians 12:28

Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. 1 Corinthians 14:40

The dots in the first quotation indicate that I have left parts out – quite important parts in fact. I’ve done so because I think that often in church life we don’t value highly enough the faithful people who simply “keep the show on the road”, so to speak. I’m talking about the organisers, the administrators, the number-crunchers, the rota-arrangers, the practical sleeves-rolled-up people.

When Paul speaks about people “with gifts of administration”, that’s not the only possible, or even the best, translation. The word he uses conjures up the idea of a helmsman, the person who guides the ship with their hand on the tiller. But I personally like the translation we have, because it draws attention to that army of people without whom the church simply couldn’t function. Another translation speaks of “organisational gifts”.

Why is this on my mind? Because in my own Bible reading at the moment I’m working my way through Leviticus and Numbers. If you have ever done this, and you are anything like me, there are times when you find yourself thinking “Why on earth did God see fit to preserve all these obscure details in his word?”

Numbers 1, for example, has a string of short paragraphs, each about one of the tribes of Israel, which are virtually identical. They all have just under fifty words, and the only differences are, first, the name of the particular tribe being spoken about, and, second, the number it contained of “men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army”.

And you think, Why? Why do I today need to know about all this?

In chapter 2 we learn about the precise arrangement, when camped, of the tribes around the “tent of meeting” (that was where the ark of the covenant was kept, and was the nearest equivalent the Israelites had to a shrine or temple at that time). We learn too the precise order in which the tribes set off on the march.

In chapter 3 we learn about the work of the Levites, the men who did the donkey-work, the heavy lifting, when Israel was on the march, and who generally were responsible for looking after the enormous amount of “stuff” that needed to be carried around while Israel was in the wilderness.

Yes, not only the altars and the ark, the sacred table and the lamp-stand, but also the poles and posts, the curtains and other hangings, the ropes and tent-pegs – all these items and a whole lot more needed to be taken care of. And chapter 3 tells us exactly who did what. Everyone knew what their particular responsibility was.

So again: Why? Why all this detail?

One reason, I think, is to give us a flavour, a feel, of what the camp of the Israelites must have been like in those exciting early days. Even the strange names and the precise numbers stir our imaginations (if we let them), and we can somehow “see” in our minds this vision of God’s holy pilgrim people on the move. Orderly, disciplined, controlled.

Well, it’s a long leap from Israel in the wilderness to the church in first-century Corinth; an even longer leap from there to us today. But certain things don’t change, and the need for order and discipline is among them. And that is why “those with gifts of administration” are so important. In the church of Christ, even in these very relaxed and informal days in which we live, things should be done “in a fitting and orderly way”, as Paul puts it in chapter 14.

So here’s a suggestion. When you go to church next Sunday, by all means say thank you to those who lead and read and pray and preach. Don’t forget to say thank you too to those who teach the children and look after the babies. Not to mention those who set things up at the start, those who make the coffee, and those who do the washing up.

But why not also go up to the secretary, or the treasurer, or the administrator – whatever name you call these background people by – and give them a great big sloppy kiss on the cheek. They too are exercising “gifts of the Spirit”.

They might get quite a surprise…

Thank you, Lord Jesus, that in your church there is a place for everyone, and everyone has their place. Help me to find my particular place, and to fulfil to the best of my ability the work you wish me to do, so that your church operates in an orderly and efficient way. Amen.

Are you properly dressed?

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3

I was chatting with someone recently after a service where I was the preacher. We hit on a topic where we didn’t see eye to eye – nothing serious, just a genuine difference of opinion. But it prompted him to suggest a reason why I thought as I did: “Oh, that’ll be because you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist!”

Well, that had me nicely pigeon-holed, didn’t it?

I didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed. I had only met this man five or six times before, and yet he had clearly got me well sussed – well sussed, that is, to his satisfaction. It was only later, as I thought about it, that annoyance (anger would be too strong a word) set in. How dare he pass such an ignorant and superficial judgment on me! (a) I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist (harrumph!), and (b) What’s a dyed-in -the-wool Baptist anyway? Grrr.

Well, I wasn’t going to waste more than five minutes being irritated, so I just passed it off for what I think it was: a silly remark.

But then something else this man had said earlier in the conversation came back to me: he wasn’t, it seemed, too thrilled with the state of the church he belonged to, and one of the reasons was that “the leaders aren’t Spirit-filled”.

Which struck me as a very different matter from me being a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist: not just a silly remark at all. By what right does any Christian presume to pass such a serious judgment on someone else? (And what, in his eyes, did a “Spirit-filled” person look like anyway?)

Even more serious, if you dismiss someone else as not Spirit-filled, then presumably you are making a claim that you are. And once you start making that kind of claim, even if only by implication, you really are on dodgy ground.

Paul tells us to “consider others better than ourselves.” That seems a very simple statement – a statement about humility – but the more you think about it the more thought-provoking it becomes.

For one thing, it flies right in the face of the Greek culture and society in which Paul lived. The Greeks of Paul’s day were renowned for their learning. They were one of the most intellectually gifted nations in history, and humility was something they not only didn’t value, but which they actually despised (they might well regard it as “servile weakness” and “obsequious grovelling” says one commentator).

(I have a feeling that our twenty-first century western world – so brash, so vulgar, so sure of itself, so look-at-me – isn’t a lot different, and could do with a strong dose of Paul’s quite revolutionary remark.)

Still more, Paul speaks of humility as a chief characteristic of Jesus himself: “he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Pride is, very simply, the polar opposite of all that Jesus is about (your mind probably flies to that remarkable event of the washing of the disciples’ feet).

The obvious question can’t be avoided: how do I view my fellow-Christians, my fellow-church members? From a lofty height? Or from a lowly stool?

What troubles me is the suspicion that often we are, putting it bluntly, two-faced. Oh yes, we are skilled at putting on a humble and gracious manner – but how often, at the same time, are we despising that other person in our heart? Perhaps they aren’t as clever, or as gifted, or as successful, or as popular as we are, so we tolerate or patronise them; deep down, the thought of “considering them better (!) than ourselves” just doesn’t come into it.

Lord, what hypocrites we can be!

It strikes me in fact that, just by writing about that man in the way I have, I myself have perhaps been guilty. I can’t feel it was wrong to react to his comments as I did – but how is it possible to do that and, at the same time, to consider him “better than myself”? (Help!)

Well, questions like that can only be left to the judgment of God, who knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. All I know is that the challenge of humility is the challenge of Christ-likeness – and mustn’t be shirked.

So while I go away and scratch my head, let’s leave the last word with the apostle Peter…

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility” (1 Peter 5:5).

How well clothed are you?

Lord God, give me the grace I need to never look down on another human being, Christian or otherwise. Amen.

Jesus, children and prayer

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; don’t hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these…” Matthew 19:14-15

I was eighteen, and it was my last Sunday at church before heading off to university for the first time. An elderly lady came up to me to wish me well. I don’t think I had ever spoken to her before, and I didn’t know her name – when you’re a bolshie teenager the “older people” are just a grey mass really, aren’t they, not actual people? – even, I’m fraid, the butt of a few jokes.

Anyway, I thanked her a little awkwardly for her kind words; and she then said, “Ever since you were a little boy in Sunday School I have prayed for you regularly.”

I’ll leave you to imagine how I felt: embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, moved – yes, all of that, and more besides. Above all, perhaps, humbled.

That happened over half a century ago. Who could ever calculate the impact of that woman’s prayers on my life?

Our minister recently challenged us to take on a responsibility. He asked us all to pick one child from the church’s children’s work and “adopt” that child for systematic prayer. Just that; nothing more – in the privacy of our own prayer lives, to remember that particular child on a regular basis. I couldn’t help being reminded of that old lady from all those years ago.

Two strands of thought come together in my mind.

The first strand, of course, is children, and how precious they are to God. Hence that beautiful story from Matthew 19 (it’s also found In Mark and Luke) about Jesus welcoming the children and praying for them.

One of the great joys of church life is the gift of children. I remember receiving a message from the secretary of a church I was due to preach in which said, “There won’t be any need for an all-age talk as, sadly, we don’t have any children at the moment.” Sad, indeed!

A joy, yes; but children are also, of course, a great responsibility. Thank God for those who teach and lead them, who give up many hours in thought and preparation! Thank God for those who give them attention and take them seriously! Thank God for those who pray for them! (Should you be thinking about getting involved in ministry to children?)

The second strand is prayer.

When Jesus tells us to “ask”, “seek” and “knock” it’s prayer that he’s talking about, and one type of prayer in particular: what you might call soaking prayer. The English translations don’t convey this, but you could translate his words as “ask – and go on asking; seek – and go on seeking; knock – and go on knocking.” In other words, he’s not talking about one-off prayers, though obviously there are times when that’s what’s needed.

(He says pretty much the same thing in Luke 11:5-8, the story of the man who pesters his neighbour and gets him out of bed; and in Luke 18:1-8, the story of the needy widow who won’t let the judge rest till he does what she asks. I knew someone once who referred to Christians as “God-botherers” – it sounded a bit disrespectful, but perhaps she was onto something!)

Anyway, this is why “soaking prayers” is a good way of describing what Jesus is talking about – simply taking a person, a problem or a situation and soaking it in prayer on a regular basis. That woman who prayed for me didn’t see many “results” for her prayers (apart, of course, from my baptism when I was fifteen – I mustn’t forget that!) but she simply made it her business to “soak” me in disciplined, persevering prayer.

This type of prayer can, of course, be difficult. It can lose any feeling of freshness, because it’s bound to involve repetition. It isn’t easy to find new words to express what’s on our hearts, so it can seem little more than a duty (though what’s wrong with duty?). It isn’t particularly emotional most of the time, so it can seem a bit flat, even rather dull.

But who cares? We all know that it’s hard to fathom how prayer “works”. But the message is simple: don’t try to understand it; just do it…

Lord God, even when I have prayed for someone or something a thousand times, please help me to keep on keeping on. Amen.

A 24-7 faith

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…  Deuteronomy 6:6-7

The first time I visited France, in my early twenties, I remember being amazed and impressed at the wonderful ease with which even small children spoke French. I mean, here was I, who had spent several years at school struggling to master French grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with only limited success, and here were these children prattling away perfectly without the slightest effort.

My amazement lasted only a second, of course. Dense though I no doubt am, it didn’t take me long to figure out that this great skill came from the fact that these children hadn’t, in fact, “learned” French at all in the way I had tried to do. No: it was second nature to them. It was all they knew, because it was their native tongue, just as English was mine. They had absorbed it, as the saying goes, with their mother’s milk.

And that, says God to his people in Deuteronomy 6, is how children in Israel should learn the essentials of their faith: “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…”

What applies to Israel applies also to Christians. And what applies to children applies also to adults. Our faith in Jesus should not be a thing apart from ordinary life, something bolted on, so to speak, but something in the very air we breathe day by day and minute by minute.

Sadly, our Christianity can easily become something we “do” only at special times – probably on a Sunday morning – and only in special places – probably a building which we call a “church”. This is a pale reflection of true, red-blooded Christianity.

With the genuine article, even our homes can be – should be – miniature “churches”, where God is honoured and the Spirit lives. Even the most routine tasks – the washing up, changing the baby’s nappy, cooking meals and hoovering round – can be done as an act of worship to God.

The distinction between the “sacred” parts of life – worship, prayer, reading the Bible and so on – and the “secular” parts – like the things I’ve just mentioned – is dissolved. It is all one: as the Bible tells us, “Whatever you do , whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). And “whatever” means whatever! Yes, including sitting in your favourite armchair, strolling down the road, getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.

There is, of course, a place – and it’s an important place – for special times to focus on God with our wider Christian family, and probably that will usually be on a Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. And there is also a place for buildings set aside to make such gatherings possible, and there is nothing wrong with calling them “churches”, as long as we remember that churches are in fact families of God’s people, and don’t absolutely need such buildings.

These times and places are matters of convenience and practicality: the real time and place for “practicing our faith” is – putting it simply – anywhere and everywhere. If Jesus is Lord of our lives, then every moment of every day is “sacred”.

You sometimes hear it said of, say, football fans, that they “eat, sleep and breathe football”. And it’s not far off the truth. Their team’s success is everything to them; it completely dominates their lives. This, of course, is why they’re called “fans” – fanatics. It can be unhealthy and dangerous.

Well, I’m not suggesting that Christians should be fanatical. When it comes to “religious” matters, that word conjures up all sorts of ugliness – bigotry, intolerance, even violence – as we see only too often in our troubled world.

But there is a sense in which we too “eat, sleep and breath” the grace and goodness of God, the daily, minute-by-minute presence of Jesus and the peace and love which flow from him. He is everything to us, directing our thoughts, words and decisions, motivating us at the very heart of our lives.

So… What about our faith in Jesus? Something apart? Something bolted on? Something kept in a convenient little pigeon-hole? Or something that saturates everything about us, everything we do, the very people that we are? Make no mistake, that’s the way of peace, fulfilment and happiness!

Lord God, help me to truly love you with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind and all my strength, and to love others as I love myself. Amen.