Jesus, our children and us

Start children off in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4

Professor Richard Dawkins is a top biologist, but is probably better known as a militant atheist. (The word “atheist”, of course, means “a person who doesn’t believe in God”, and is not to be confused with “agnostic”, who is “a person who doesn’t know or claim to know”.)

Most atheists are happy to get on with their unbelieving lives, and to leave “religious” people to get on with theirs, sadly deluded though they think we are.

But not Professor Dawkins. For several years now he has been on a high-profile war-path against religion (one of his best-known books is called The God Delusion). And he is now hoping to publish a picture-book for children in which all forms of religion, and Christianity in particular, are attacked. “I have long felt it wrong that children are brought up to believe the same things as their parents,” he says.

To be fair to Prof Dawkins, he isn’t trying to “convert” anyone to atheism; if he were, he would be no “better” than us Christians. No, his aim, he insists, is to encourage children to “think for themselves” rather than simply accept what parents or grandparents, schools or churches might teach them. “I think indoctrinating children is wicked…” he says.

Well, I don’t know about you, but when I read that remark I felt like responding, “Actually, Prof Dawkins, so do I”. And I think that many Christians and other religious people will feel exactly the same. The very word “indoctrination” has a bad, ugly, sinister feel to it – it conjures up notions of brain-washing, of strong people manipulating weaker ones psychologically.

The dictionary defines it as: “The process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” The key word there, of course, is “uncritically”, which means “without thinking for themselves”. Surely we would all agree that that is wrong.

Well, we must leave Prof Dawkins to the judgement of the God he doesn’t believe in. But his views do challenge us about our attitude as Christians towards the children for whom we are responsible, either as parents ourselves or corporately as churches.

I think we can sum it up with a question: At what point might “sharing our faith” cross a line and become “indoctrination”? For – let’s look facts in the face – there are people of various religious views who do seem to cross that line: you think of extremist Islamic sects who instill repugnant views into the minds of children – and also, I’m afraid, of fundamentalist Christians who are not much better.

There’s a narrow line to be trod. How can you possibly be a Christian without wanting to share Jesus with your children? Even if those Bible verses from Proverbs 22 and Ephesians 6 weren’t there, surely you must want to pass on to your children the most precious thing in your life? You want them to become followers of Jesus! Of course you do!

But you also (I hope) want them to become thoughtful and mature adults. You want them to develop the kind of faith that will stand them in good stead if they are attacked at school, or tossed into the crazy whirlpool of beliefs they are bound to meet if they go on to higher education. We’ve probably all known youngsters brought up in a sheltered spiritual environment who simply couldn’t cope with “the real world” when the moment arrived.

I’m suggesting questions here, not offering easy answers – I speak as a very far from perfect parent.

But one thing stands out a mile from both my experience and my observations: it is folly to try and protect children from hard questions, and wrong to present them with only the very simple aspects of our faith. And it is vital to discuss sensitively and respectfully with them whatever issues may arise.

Apart from questions to do with the Bible or Christian belief, there may very well be practical issues: how to handle the day when a child decides he or she doesn’t want to come to church any more (ever seen a sullen teenager in church?) – or when some sports activity they are keen on is scheduled for Sunday mornings.

My impression is that most Christian parents in evangelical circles do indeed respond to such turning points in a wise and gracious way. But there’s no doubt that confusion and uncertainty can arise – and it can be very painful.

The key, perhaps, is just this: to pray for wisdom (of course) – and never to forget the great truth that, even if our children lose their way spiritually, God loves them even more than we do.

Heavenly Father, thank you for all the precious children who figure in my life. Help me, in all I do or say, only ever to point them lovingly to the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Here’s an extra prayer you might like to join me in…

Lord God, you know perfectly the heart and mind of Richard Dawkins. Just as you met with Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and turned him round, please meet today with Professor Dawkins and flood him with the light of Jesus. Amen.

Why hold back from commitment to Jesus?

Then John’s disciples came and asked Jesus, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Matthew 9:14

Do you have friends who might be described as “half-Christians”? Impossible, of course. But you know what I mean: people who are genuinely interested in spiritual things, perhaps regular in church, but who somehow hold back from declaring full commitment to Jesus.

Probably we all do. In which case it’s interesting to find people in the New Testament who could perhaps be described that way.

I have to admit that I had probably read Matthew 9:14, and other similar verses, hundreds of time before it dawned on me how strange it was to come across “disciples of John the Baptist” during Jesus’ ministry.

Surely John had pointed people to Jesus! Surely he had declared himself to be nothing and Jesus to be everything! So how come that, well after Jesus was launched into his ministry, there were people who, apparently, still identified themselves with him rather than with Jesus? Hadn’t they all immediately transferred their allegiance to Jesus?

Apparently not.

This isn’t just a one-off verse. According to Matthew 11:2, when John was in prison and experiencing doubts about whether Jesus really was the promised Messiah, “he sent his disciples” to question him. Following his execution he was buried by his own “disciples” (Matthew 14:12).

You could very well say, “Yes, but these were still early days, still within the first year of Jesus’ ministry – things hadn’t yet settled down.” True enough.

But what then are we to make of Apollos in Acts 18, who “taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John” (how strange is that!)? Or, even more puzzling, the twelve “disciples” in Ephesus (of all places!), who likewise knew only of John’s baptism and needed to be baptised again “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:1-7)?

These events took place twenty or more years after the resurrection!

It really does seem that around the world of the New Testament there were pockets of “disciples” who still owed some kind of allegiance to John rather than Jesus – the “half-Christians” we began with.

Well, I don’t think there are simple answers to these questions. But I do think we can find in these puzzling passages both a challenge and an encouragement.

First, the challenge.

Let’s ask the question: What might have prevented these disciples of John the Baptist from committing themselves fully to Jesus?

We aren’t told, but it seems most likely that they had doubts that Jesus was the “right” kind of Messiah. Unlike the austere John on the one hand and the hyper-religious Pharisees on the other, could it be that Jesus simply wasn’t “religious” enough to meet their expectations? He enjoyed his food and drink (whereas they were more interested in fasting), and he kept shockingly disreputable company. Even John himself – the prophet who had proclaimed Jesus as the King! – experienced doubts (Matthew 11:1-3).

We can’t be sure. But perhaps this can challenge us to ask why those friends I mentioned earlier might settle for a halfway house; and, more to the point, if we might be partly responsible.

Not many, I think, are put off because we are too austere and severe! So could it be that sometimes we smother them in teaching that is beyond their present capacity to digest and understand – giving them what Paul would call “solid food” when what they need is good nourishing “milk” (1 Corinthians 3:2)? Or do we perhaps disappoint them by failing (as they see it) to live up to how Christians ought to behave?

There are various possibilities. Whatever, a little self-examination on our part might not come amiss – God forbid that we should ever be responsible for acting as a turn-off.

Second, the encouragement.

These passages remind us that in the early church (which, by the way, was anything but perfect!) not everything was cut and dried or black and white. There were various streams and strands of Christianity – conservative Jewish Christians who were still wedded to traditional customs; liberal Jewish Christians, like Paul, who sat very light to their ancestral traditions; these “disciples of John the Baptist”; and, of course, gentile Christians who were fresh and new to it all. And within these streams there were no doubt many lesser shades of opinion.

So… when we see our friends or contacts seemingly neither one thing nor the other, somehow unable to make that great step of faith, let’s not be too disappointed. Our business is to make sure that the seed of the gospel has been well sown, and then to pray, support and encourage as best we can.

People must come to Christ in their own way, and we mustn’t try and press them into our mould. And if, after they have come, they still have one or two quirky, even wacky, ideas, let’s have the faith to believe that little by little the Holy Spirit will sort them out!

Father, I think today of those people in my life who seem open to the Christian faith, but somehow unable to declare confidently that “Jesus is Lord”. Help me to witness to them sensitively and wisely – and never to do, say or be anything that might make it more difficult for them. Amen.

Living the truth – or living a lie

I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. 1Chronicles 29:17

How important is it to you to impress other people?

Do you ever find yourself, even if only subconsciously, acting in a certain way, expressing certain opinions, even dressing in a certain style, not because these things represent what you’re really like, but because you hope somebody else will think better of you as a result?

I suspect we all do it, at least from time to time. Certainly, I would have to plead guilty.

Only later do I find myself thinking, Why oh why did I do that! Why should I bother what that person thinks of me? Am I my own person or not? Better still, Am I Christ’s person or not?

The question is, at root, about honesty. But it’s not only about being honest in the sense of being truthful in our words and deeds, but being honest in the very way we are as people, honest through and through. A good word to sum it up is integrity.

Before King David died he made plans for the building of Israel’s first temple, plans which were to be brought to reality by his son Solomon. Right at the end he brought the people together for prayer, and in his prayer he contrasted the greatness of God with the frailty of humankind. He revealed an understanding of God’s holy character with the words: “I know… that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.”

To pretend to be something you’re not is to lack integrity. And it’s a habit we need to root ruthlessly out of our personalities. One thing is for sure: we can’t fool God for a second.

I don’t know if the boy David heard the great words of the prophet Samuel on the day he, David, was anointed as king – “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) – but it was a truth which he certainly absorbed. Even at his worst moments, perhaps when he had flagrantly disobeyed God, a humble honesty in confessing his sins came to his rescue; it’s a big part of what makes him such an attractive character.

Around the time of Jesus – some 250 BC to 250 AD – there was a school of thinkers who became known as “Stoics”. Their views have a lot in common with what today is called “mindfulness” – taking each moment calmly as it comes, refusing to get too excited by success or too cast down by failure, doing your best to ensure that, as a general rule, your head rules your heart, and not the other way. And a lot of what they say chimes in with Christianity.

A leading Stoic called Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) said this: “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.” Another, Epictetus (50 AD-135 AD), wrote: “If ever you should turn your will to things outside your control in order to impress someone, be sure that you have wrecked your whole purpose in life.”

That’s strongly put!  But it is true – for you have ceased to be authentically yourself and have put on a mask which tries to project a false you. Is it too much to say, quite plainly, that you have become a liar?

I said earlier that we can’t fool God. But the fact is that we don’t fool most other people either. They see through us; they aren’t in the least bit impressed by us; on the contrary, they just despise us. And how pathetic, indeed how stupid, is that? As somebody has said, it’s like “buying things we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t like.”

This doesn’t mean that we should just not care what people think of us – no, the Bible tells us that if we are God’s people we should aim to have a good reputation among outsiders (see 1Timothy 3:7). Of course. But a “bad” reputation earned by being scrupulously honest is far better than a “good” reputation earned by living a lie.

To go back to where we started: it’s all about integrity. If you found those quotes from ancient Rome a bit heavy, try this one for size: “Live so that the preacher can tell the truth at your funeral” (K Beckstrom).

I’ve heard it said that the whole of Christian living can be summed up in two simple rules… (1) Be like Christ. And (2) Be yourself.

Not bad for starters, I’d say! – as long, of course, as we get them in the right order…

Heavenly Father, your word tells us that the devil is a liar and the father of lies, but that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. As I seek to follow him, help me to live a life of rock-solid integrity, regardless of what others might think. Amen.

Death in life – and life in death

6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 2 Corinthians 4:6-12

A rather longer passage than usual today – but I don’t apologise. (In fact, I would have liked to print out the whole of 2 Corinthians 4, but perhaps that would have been a bit much.)

Here’s a suggestion: some time when no-one’s in earshot (you don’t want your family or friends to think you’re going crazy), stand up and read this chapter in a big loud voice; pretend you’re an actor on the stage. Or a preacher in a pulpit – I suspect that nowhere in Paul do we come closer to Paul the preacher than in these verses. There is an almost poetic, rhetorical rhythm to his words – especially in those repeated “but not”s. This is powerful, dramatic stuff!

Strictly speaking, the “we” Paul is talking about here is himself and his fellow-apostles, not Christians in general – verse 12 makes that clear. But I think he would agree that the things he is spelling out can in fact be applied more generally to any Christian who is serious about sharing their faith – and that, I hope, includes you and me.

So… what are the things he is spelling out? I think we can sum it up under the word privilege. The Christian is privileged in all sorts of ways, of course; but in these verses two privileges in particular are highlighted.

First, the privilege of basking in the divine light of Jesus.

Verse 6 is all about light: God has “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God displayed in the face of Christ.”

It used sometimes to be said of a new convert that they had “seen the light.” If the person speaking was a cynical non-Christian that probably meant something like, “Oh no! – he’s become one of those religious nutters.” But never mind, it’s a good expression. In fact, the new believer hasn’t only “seen the light” but has received it – that light has “shone in our hearts”, it’s become part of our very inner being and identity.

Is this how you see yourself? – that you have moved from the darkness of sin, ignorance and superstition into the glorious light that comes through Jesus? You are a new, light-flooded person! Everything has changed!

If that isn’t a privilege, I don’t know what is.

Second, there is the privilege of sharing in the “dyingness” of Jesus.

Before you jump on me and shout “dyingness? What’s that! There’s no such word!” (well, there is now!), let me explain.

There is a common Greek word (thanatos) for “death”, and in his letters Paul uses it some forty-five times. But just twice, including here in verse 10, he uses a different word (nekrosis) which means not simply death as such, but the whole process of dying. So verse 10 could be translated “We always carry around in our body the dying of Jesus” – one commentator suggests “the killing of Jesus”, another “the deadness of Jesus”.

Sorry if that’s a bit technical, but it helps to explain what Paul means by that rather strange expression, “carrying around in our bodies the death of Jesus”.

The life Jesus lived was, from beginning to end, a dying life, geared towards death from the word go. Right at the start Herod set out to kill him; right at the end he hung upon a cross. And in between, it was marked by weakness, suffering, persecution and pain.

And, says Paul, that is the kind of life to which we also are called: Jesus has set a pattern for us, and while of course we are not called to suffer in precisely the same way, that pattern should be seen also in us. (We are called, after all, to “take up our cross” in order to follow him.)

That is why he says that the wonderful treasure we have received is contained “in jars of clay” – yes, our bodies are no more lasting than an old earthenware pot. And that is why he gives us that string of hardships before the “but not”s: “hard pressed…, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

And the wonderful thing is that as we live out this kind of “dying life”, his life – beautiful, holy, divine – is “revealed in our mortal bodies.” Isn’t that too a privilege?

So… if you feel weak, feeble and ineffective, be encouraged! Jesus, remember, was “despised and rejected by men”; so why should it be any different for us? No “triumphalism”, please (ugh!). No “prosperity gospel” (ugh again!).

No: just the way of the cross – always confident that a glorious resurrection awaits us, as it did him.

Father God, thank you for the willing humiliation and suffering of Jesus, and for his wonderful submission to death on a cross. Help me to gladly accept that same pattern of life, so that one day I will share in his glorious resurrection. Amen.

A crisis at the tech desk

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Psalm 29:2

Now, did I dream this, or did it really happen?…  A church cancelled one of its regular services because there was nobody available to man the tech desk.

Whatever, I certainly had a conversation after a service recently with the young woman who had been carrying out that duty. “Nearly everybody’s away next Sunday,” she lamented, “and I really don’t know what we’re going to do.” (This in a small church, and in the middle of the holiday period.)

Her anxiety triggered two thoughts. First, a mini-explosion of (friendly) exasperation – “Oh, for goodness’ sake, the church has existed for two thousand years without all this techy stuff! Is this really such a crisis?” Second, and more seriously, a question; what exactly does a church need in order to share in an act of worship?

Thinking about that question, a little list began to form itself in my mind…

Not all the techy stuff, that’s for sure, if only for the reason I’ve just mentioned. Well, what about a printed notice sheet? Or a printed order of service? Ditto, surely. A musician? Well, that’s certainly helpful – but is it absolutely essential? No, not really – though hopefully there’ll be somebody around who can pitch a tune. A dedicated building? No, of course not – more and more churches are meeting in schools and other secular buildings (hey, if we’re not careful we’ll start to resemble the New Testament church!).

A recognised preacher? Mmm… I do think the church needs properly trained, qualified and gifted speakers; but I’m not sure that the absence of one on any given occasion necessarily renders a time of worship impossible.

I decided in the end that in fact precious little is required – though it is important that the church should be part of some nationally recognised denomination or movement, for otherwise it is accountable to nobody and likely to go off the rails (and, anyway, pop-up churches have a tendency to very quickly pop down again).

But given that, is anything more needed than a group of people who love and trust Jesus, who believe in the Bible as the word of God, and who want to worship and pray together and to enjoy the presence of God?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not against any of those things that I put on my list, including the technology – they can be very helpful, that’s for sure. But helpful is one thing – essential is quite another.

Allowing my mind to follow this track, I found myself thinking about the atmosphere in which we come together for our main worship services.

Many years ago – and still, no doubt, in some churches – Christians used to gather with what C S Lewis described as “all that regimen of tiptoe tread and lowered voice”. And that is not to be despised; the Bible does encourage us, after all, to approach him with awe and reverence. But for many of us those days are long gone, and I think on balance that’s a good thing.

But I find that today our worship services are often prefaced by what I can only call bustle – activity, noise and lots of moving around.

And I have come to the conclusion that there are two types of bustle…

First, there is holy bustle.

Ideally, this means the happy sound of friends in Christ greeting one another, catching up on news and enjoying the pleasure of being together. There are children skittering around; there are babies, some crying, some not; there are teenagers, some moody, some not; there’s quite a bit of hugging going on; there’s banter and friendly insults being exchanged (with or without the coffee and doughnuts). We are, after all, family, brothers and sisters.

But… there is also unholy bustle – and this brings me back to that woman on the tech desk.

Musicians busily setting up their instruments… plugs being shoved in or pulled out… last minute songs being added to the stuff that’s going to go on the screen… furrowed brows and anxious face… whispered conversations between the leaders.

The atmosphere, in a word, is “not conducive to worship”.

The psalmist tells us, with lovely, profound simplicity, to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2), and that is something we should constantly remind ourselves of.

There are in our world churches where the worshippers don’t even have Bibles – they are dependent on memorised passages plus perhaps tattered pages torn out of Bibles that have had to be divided between many people. No buildings. No written songs. Just a love of God and his word and a dependence on the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps churches like that have something to teach us in our technology-fixated world.

What do you think?

Lord God, help me to worship you very simply in the beauty of holiness – whether in the privacy of my home or gathered with others. Help me to safeguard the essentials and to sit light to the rest. Amen.

Don’t live with vain regrets!

In his distress Manasseh sought the favour of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors. 2 Chronicles 33:12

Last time we looked at four of Judah’s best kings, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah, and saw how, sadly, each of them blotted their copybook (or “messed up”, if you prefer) towards the end of their reigns.

From which the main lesson was: keep going till the end. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint, and we should aim to end well.

But then something else occurred to me… Just possibly you may be saying, “My problem isn’t so much ‘Will I end well?’ No, my problem is the bitter regret that it took me so long to get started. Oh those wasted years! If only I could turn the clock back!

Is that you? If so, there is here in the stories of the kings not only a big warning, but also a massive encouragement.

Step forward, King Manasseh!

If ever there was a bad king, Manasseh was that man. (And, to make matters worse, he reigned for a hefty fifty-five years.) Just skim through 2 Kings 21, and it’s all there: child sacrifice, idolatry, occultism, sacrilegious worship, you name it. Bad, bad, bad.

But now turn to 2 Chronicles 33:10-17 and – hey, what’s this? Towards the end “he sought the favour of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors.” God “was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea.” Isn’t that just great?

Be encouraged, then, if you feel troubled about those “wasted” years – you’re in good (or should I say bad!) company. God is a gracious, merciful and forgiving God to those who truly repent – right up to the very end.

Two thoughts strike me…

First, godly parents don’t guarantee godly children.

As we saw last time, Manasseh’s father Hezekiah is one of the most heart-warming figures in the Old Testament : he “trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no-one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord…” (2 Kings 18:5-6). High praise indeed!

So, you might ask, how on earth did he come to have a son like Manasseh? What went wrong? Was he in fact a bad parent? Answer: we just don’t know. But that’s the way it was.

And that’s the way it can be for us too. We probably all know those perfect-seeming families where all the children become solid Christians themselves. And thank God for such families. But I imagine we also know other families where the children have rejected the Christian faith, and in some cases gone right off the rails.

This is a word for all us parents. If our children don’t choose to follow Jesus, we are bound to be sad. And, yes, we may very well feel that we “could have done better” in the parenting department. (The big trouble with parenting is that you don’t get a dummy-run at it to prepare for the reality!)

But in spite of all that, we shouldn’t feel unduly guilty. Look! – didn’t even God himself have the same problem? – “For the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me’” (Isaiah 1:2).

All right, there were things we got wrong – but so were there also, no doubt, in the lives of those “perfect” families we mentioned earlier.

Hezekiah never lived to see the sheer vileness of Manasseh’s adult life – he died when Manasseh was just twelve. But I am sure he must have prayed for him in his early years – and surely that wonderful transformation recorded in 2 Chronicles 33 was an answer to his prayers.

So… Let’s keep praying for our children – even if, as with Hezekiah, it turns out that we are long dead by the time those prayers are answered.

Second, we are told that Manasseh made a genuine attempt to put right all that he had got wrong in those earlier years. After a later period of captivity and then his return to Jerusalem, he “got rid of the foreign gods and removed the images from the temple of the Lord…” (2 Chronicles 33:15-16).

Fact: we can’t turn the clock back; we can’t undo what is done. But we can grab hold of every minute God gives us to serve and  please him.

Manasseh’s change of heart came at a painful cost. At some point – we aren’t told when – along came the king of Assyria who “put a hook in his nose (ouch, nasty!), bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon” (2 Chronicles 33:11).

But I’m sure he felt it was worthwhile – any price is worth paying to find forgiveness and peace with God.

All right, you may feel deep regret that you wasted those earlier years. But be encouraged! As long as you have a day of life, God can – and will – use and bless you.

The time that remains can still be fruitful.

Thank you, Lord, that every day of life you give me is also an opportunity to love, trust and enjoy you – and to be used by you. So help me to put the failures of the past behind me, and to look confidently to the future. Amen.

Don’t lose your way!

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Hebrews 12:1-2

Calling all you keen Bible-readers…

What do these four names have in common: Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah?

Easy, eh? They’re all kings we meet in the Old Testament.

Very good. Anything else? Well, they’re all kings of Judah, the southern part of God’s ancient people, as opposed to Israel, from whom Judah split after the death of Solomon.

Excellent. And? They’re all good kings, praised in the four books of Kings and Chronicles for upholding the worship of God and attempting to lead their people in his ways.

Very good again. Anything else?

Sadly, yes. To a greater or lesser extent, they all lost their way towards the end of their long reigns.

You could have an interesting hour’s Bible-study some time by following the fortunes of these kings through the books of Kings and Chronicles – there are too many relevant passages for me to refer to them all here. Why not try it?

One interesting thing is that whoever wrote Kings is even more admiring of them than whoever wrote Chronicles. The books of Kings, while they don’t portray them as perfect, have very little to say about them that’s bad. The books of Chronicles, on the other hand, while certainly recognising their godliness and their different achievements, don’t shrink from drawing attention to their lapses.

Here’s just a sample. Asa was undoubtedly a great and courageous man of God. But 2 Chronicles 16 tells us that when he was rebuked by the prophet Hanani “he was so enraged that he put him in prison.” And “at the same time he brutally oppressed some of the people.” Enraged…brutally oppressed: mmm… ugly words to be spoken of a man of God.

Or Hezekiah. Truly a spiritual giant, he has long been one of my favourite Bible characters. So I feel all the more sad when I read (in 2 Chronicles 32) that “his heart was proud” and “he did not respond to the kindness shown him”, so that “the Lord’s wrath was upon him and on Judah and Jerusalem”. It does seem, to be fair, that this lapse was only temporary; but it still leaves a nasty taste.

I’ll leave you to check up on Jehoshaphat and Josiah for yourselves: their faults were certainly less glaring, but what comes across is men who, under certain circumstances, trusted in their own wisdom rather than walking in step with God as they had previously done.

Where is this foray into Old Testament history leading us?

I suggest three important lessons.

First, we are reminded that the Bible is to be taken as a whole, not just in bits. Kings and Chronicles run parallel, but each provides something the other doesn’t – Kings gives us the history of Israel as well as Judah; and Chronicles, as we have seen, gives us the not-so-praiseworthy aspects of the lives of these good kings. Get to know the whole Bible!

Second, don’t expect perfection from anyone, even those you have come to respect most. If you put people on pedestals – and, let’s face it, we all have our “heroes” – you could be in for some big let-downs, for we all have “feet of clay”. Christ alone is our teacher, leader and example. Let’s “fix our eyes” on him and him alone, as the writer to the Hebrews suggests.

Third, let’s get it into our heads that it’s important to end well. We have probably heard it said many times that if the Christian life is a race, then it’s a marathon rather than a sprint. Anyone can make a start if they put their mind to it. But what about keeping right on to the end?

Thank God for those fellow-Christians who have reached old age still walking close to God after many years, and who bear the honourable scars of battle. Of course, they’re not perfect, any more than Asa and the rest. But they have demonstrated staying power; they’re not just shooting-stars who impress for a year or two and then fade into oblivion. (I imagine we’ve all met a few of those here-today-gone-tomorrow people in our lives as Christians.)

It’s not easy to decide why our quartet of kings had their lapses. Complacency, after years of success? Pride and self-satisfaction, forgetting that they were still totally dependent on God? Ignoring good advice? Whatever, they sadly lost their way.

And so may I. And so may you. It’s worth watching out for these things in our own lives.

Another thought occurs to me… But no, I’ve run out of space, so I’ll plan to come back to it next time…

Oh God, thank you for the honesty of your word, and the way it portrays great figures of faith with their warts and all. Help me to learn from them, and to be able to say with your servant Paul “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Help me, Lord, to end well. Amen.

Can you worship together apart?

And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another… Hebrews 10:24-25

A preacher I heard recently referred to one of those “drive-in” churches you get in America. You turn up in your car, you park in the car park, and you follow the whole service while sitting in your car. Everything is on a big screen. If it’s a communion service you are even issued with a personal communion set as you drive in (yes, really!).

Well of course we had a good old laugh at our transatlantic cousins – boy, those crazy Americans! – whatever next? (There were, however, I ought to say, one or two who saw merit in this kind of procedure: one particularly wicked member of our congregation (also known as Ms N Sedgwick) was heard to exclaim “Just think! – you can go to church without having to be nice to everybody”…).

But seriously… on reflection I found myself wondering if we are necessarily much better. The fact is that it’s possible to go to “meetings” without actually, er, meeting anyone. You might possibly shake somebody’s hand, or give them a curt nod if they happen to be sitting on the same row. You might even “pass the peace” or greet them in some other fashion as directed by the person up front; but have you actually had any meaningful contact with them?

All right, you aren’t sitting cocooned in your car – but you might as well be.

Well, I hope your church isn’t like that, and I hope that you aren’t that kind of church-attender.

The writer to the Hebrew tells his readers that they shouldn’t “give up meeting together.” And wherever you go in the New Testament letters or in Acts it is simply assumed that the first Christians lived lives which were closely and deeply intertwined with one another: far more, in fact, than simply “meeting”.

We are told to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15); to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26), or with a “kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). Not easy to do if you are keeping a frosty distance from everyone else.

It all goes back, of course, to the command of Jesus: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will now that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Love isn’t something you do at polite arms’ length.

All right, you may be shy, and that’s no sin. You may find close personal contact uncomfortable – not everyone is that jolly, huggy-feely type of person. (We are, after all, Brits, not like those Americans we started with.) But the test is what is going on in our hearts: do I really care about these other people? Or are they just vague shapes, objects I happen to find myself in close proximity to?

Putting together those passages I have mentioned, we find there are at least two motives (apart, of course, from worship) for regular meeting together.

According to Jesus, it’s an act of meaningful witness: “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples”. I can’t track it down, but there is well-known report of a Roman in the early days of the church exclaiming with amazed admiration, “See how these Christians love one another!” That is the way it should be.

But sadly the opposite has too often been the case – see how these Christians fight and bicker with one another! I read recently about a church council in Ephesus in 449, convened to sort out various disagreements, where a bunch of “aggressive Egyptian monks armed with staves” turned up (according to a much-respected professor of theology) and proceeded to rough up those who were of a different opinion to theirs. (The Bishop of Constantinople “died of his injuries”.)

All right, a grotesquely extreme example. But the fact is that the church’s track record on loving one another in spite of differences has not been good over the two thousand years it has existed. Why should unbelievers be drawn to Christ if they see us at loggerheads with one another? What sort of witness is that?

The other motive for “meeting together” is mutual encouragement. Those verses in Hebrews 10 tell us that it is in doing so that we can “spur one another onwards to love and good deeds”, and so “encourage one another”.

Which means, in plain terms: I need you – and you even need me. Putting it the other way round: if you’re not there, I will feel your absence – and if I’m not there, you may even feel mine. Yes, really!

So let’s heft ourselves out of our cars (so to speak) and really meet together!

Lord Jesus, thank you for making us a family, not just a group of strangers. Help me to love my fellow-believers, even the annoying ones, and to take real pleasure in being with them. Amen.

The sadness of… “too late”

Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24

I recently read a book where the writer described a serious falling-out he had with a colleague. They disagreed so furiously that the relationship between them effectively ended; for years they had no contact. Then one day he received a letter from the other man suggesting it would be good to get back in touch – a first step towards reconciliation, in effect.

He was struck, and humbled, by the way the other man had behaved. He immediately wrote back, offering an apology for his own attitude and agreeing to the suggestion of them meeting.

A story with a happy ending? Well, sort of – except for just one thing. Between the day he posted his letter and the day it arrived at his former colleague’s house… the colleague died. His wife-now-widow picked it up unopened from the door-mat.

How sad are those words… too late.

“There’s no time like the present,” goes the saying. And it’s true in all sorts of situations.

Jesus highlights it even in the context of worship. You want to go to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice? he says. Good! But suppose you’re right there, at the altar of sacrifice in the temple, and the priest is about to wield the knife, and you suddenly remember you are at loggerheads with someone… what then? I’ll tell you what then, says Jesus: “leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to them…”

In practical terms Jesus’s advice seems impossible. Suppose the other person lives twenty or thirty miles away? – you really can’t leave your live animal untended while you hurry off to do what’s necessary. The priest might well have objections! – and what if, having reached the other person’s house, you find they aren’t there anyway?

But the point Jesus is making is absolutely clear: nothing – not even an act of sacred worship – matters more than mending a broken relationship. Indeed, we might go further and say that all our praying and singing and Bible-reading are a complete waste of time if there is anger or bitterness in our hearts: they leave God stone-cold. See what he says to the outwardly devout but inwardly corrupt Israelites: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals: your assemblies are a stench to me… Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river…” (Amos 5:21-24). Hate… despise… stench… strong words, no?

I wonder if this a word to some of us? Any of us harbouring resentment? Any of us nursing grudges? The fact is that resentments can only fester the longer they are harboured, and grudges can only harden the longer they are nursed.

We may say, and quite rightly, “But he/she was more at fault than I was! It’s up to them to hold out the olive-branch!” But the way of Christ is to take the initiative ourselves, however innocent we may feel we are. It was, after all, “while we were still sinners” that Christ died for us – he didn’t wait for us to say sorry. No, it was what he did on the cross that brought us to repentance.

(Of course, if we take the initiative and the other person refuses to be reconciled, well, there’s not much more we can do except pray for them. But we have done the Christlike thing. Even God cannot force us to accept his grace. )

I said earlier that the saying “No time like the present” applies in all sorts of situations. Well, perhaps we aren’t in a poisoned relationship with someone. But what about a debt that we owe? Have we let it get long overdue? What about a need we have seen in someone’s life, and often said to ourselves, “I really ought to do something about that. I really must get round to it”?

I have to admit that I am a great putter-offer. My motto (if you wanted to be unkind – though, I’m afraid, probably honest) could very well be “Why do today something you can put off till tomorrow?”. Perhaps you’re a bit like that too.

The fact is that if there is a kind word to be spoken, the time to speak it is today, and if there is an act of kindness to be shown, the time to show it is now.

Or, as the man who wrote that book learned, it may just be too late.

Heavenly Father, forgive me my sins of omission – the good deeds delayed or not done at all, the words of truth not spoken, the responsibilities shirked, the opportunities missed. Please help me to walk daily in time to the beat of your drum. Amen.