Little links in a long chain

When Jesus saw that he [a teacher of the law] answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. Mark 12:34

“Well, I’m not a Muslim any more.”

So said the young man who was cutting my hair. I had been going to him and his friends for a number of years; they ran a little hairdressers’ business near where we lived.

A barber’s chair isn’t a bad place to have a friendly chat (as long, of course, as his name isn’t Sweeney Todd). Occasionally barbers say hardly a word except to ask you how you want your hair; but usually I find them to be friendly and quite chatty.

An obvious topic of conversation is what job you do; so, for me, that’s a wide open door for witness, because I can simply say “I’m a minister in the church”. The young men I went to were all, I think, Iraqi Kurds, and very open to talking about religion. And, of course, they were Muslims.

Over the years I had had good conversations with one particular young man. To my shame I can’t now remember his name, but I think it may have been Hassan, so I’ll call him that.

When we first talked he was a loyal though not particularly devout Muslim, but he took a serious interest in what I believed. On one occasion I asked if he had ever read the New Testament. The answer was no, because he couldn’t read English. Would he like me to get him a Kurdish New Testament? Yes, he said. So, with the help of the Bible Society, I did just that – with a friendly finger-wagging: “You will read it, won’t you?” He assured me he would, and every time I saw him after that he told me he was continuing to do so.

Then one day he told me this would be the last time he would be cutting my hair – he had decided to head back to Iraq so as to be closer to his aging, widowed mother. I told him how sorry I was and assured him of my prayers. Then, taking the bull by the horns, I asked him straight out if he had yet decided to become a Christian.

Which was when he said what I started with: “Well, I’m not a Muslim any more.” Which meant, of course, that he was on the move

That was the last time I saw him, and I have occasionally wondered what became of him. Especially, did he ever make the decision to follow Jesus? Did he ever link up with a church in Iraq? Had he kept up reading that Bible? Had he reverted to Islam?

I don’t know. And I suppose I never will, not at least in this life. But I’m glad of the contact I had with him.

Why am I telling this story? Not, please be assured, to show myself up as some sort of super-evangelist. Far from it! We all know how difficult it can be to introduce the topic of “religion” without coming across clumsy or embarrassing. But people like me – people in “full-time ministry” – have an easy head-start. If somebody, while clipping your eyebrows, asks you what you do, well, it’s difficult not to be a witness, isn’t it?

No. My experience simply reminds us that in day-to-day evangelism each of us may very well be just a very small link in a very long chain.

The experience of American evangelist Tony Campolo is extremely rare. As he was strapping himself into his seat on board a plane, the man sitting next to him, a total stranger, turned to him and declared in troubled tones, “Mister, I need God!” As Campolo drily remarked “I could have wished for something a little more direct, but there you go…”

We would all love to be used by God to bring people to Christ in one fell swoop. But that just isn’t the way it is: conversion is almost always a process rather than a one-off event.

Remember how Jesus treated the “teacher of the law” who questioned him about the commandments of God, and which one is “the most important” (Mark 12:28-34). He doesn’t say anything particularly startling or original, but he clearly strikes a chord with Jesus, who tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. “Not far”: like Hassan, he was on the move.

People are on a journey, and God alone knows the exact point they have reached. Our role, therefore, is simply to say or do something – perhaps just to be something – that might nudge them a little further along.

I hope I may have done that with Hassan: as I put it earlier, be a link in a chain. I can only pray that someone in Iraq will have the joy of bringing him openly to full-blown faith in Christ. Will you join me in praying for him?

And will you look out daily for the Hassans in your life?

Lord Jesus, as I go about my daily business please help me to be a link in the chain of somebody’s life, a sower of seed in somebody’s heart. Amen.

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“Is it right for you to be angry?”

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry… But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah 4:1-4

Do you get angry easily? Are you angry about something right now, while you’re reading this? If so, is your anger justified?

There’s no doubt that in the Bible anger is generally regarded as bad. Jesus, memorably, warns us about it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22).

But that isn’t always the case. There is, after all, such a thing as the wrath, or anger, of God – and that, surely, can’t be bad. One of the most famous incidents in Jesus’ life is when he threw the money-changers out of the Jerusalem temple and accused them of turning the most holy place on earth into “a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13).

There are times, surely, when it is wrong for us not to be angry. Perhaps it wouldn’t do us any harm to reflect for a bit on times when we sin by not being angry – that is, by being lazy, cold or indifferent when confronted by a clear wrong.

Whatever…

I think the wonderful little story of Jonah can be summed up as The angry prophet and the gracious God.

Jonah gets angry with God for being merciful to the wicked people of Nineveh (“to Jonah this seemed very wrong”, 4:1). Then he gets angry (“so angry I wish I were dead”, 4:9) because God deprives him of the shelter of a leafy plant that was protecting him from the sun. He is like a petulant, peevish, self-pitying child. (Do any of us, I wonder, recognise ourselves there…?)

And the wonderful thing is how mild and gentle God is with him. If ever anyone was entitled to be angry, surely it’s here; you would think God would give Jonah an absolute roasting for his disobedience and stupidity.

Jonah, after all, has shown a total disregard for God’s commands. When first called to preach God’s word to Nineveh he ups and runs away (as if you can escape God!). Quite apart from anything else, this endangers the lives of the sailors in the ship he boards. And then when God rescues him from drowning by providing the “huge fish” (1:17), giving him a second chance, and blessing his preaching with remarkable success, he just gets even more grumpy and tetchy.

And how does God respond to this? With a gently probing question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4, 4:9). No fireworks, no “hair-dryer treatment”: just a kind and wonderful mildness.

This is how God loves to act towards his people, however wayward they may be. It makes me think of Simon Peter, when he denied Jesus before the crucifixion. After the resurrection Jesus was entitled, surely, to let rip at him – to make him squirm with shame and guilt: “I told you this would happen! You really are pathetic”.

But no: as with Jonah, he gently probes with questions – and then restores him to his place, honouring him with a major responsibility: “Take care of my sheep”. Yes: this failure, this wretched loser, is made the human head of the church.

When we fail, we should feel bad: no doubt about that. But let’s never forget that our God is a God who loves to forgive and restore.

Perhaps you need to feed on that wonderful graciousness right now…?

But there’s something else here – something equally vital. This isn’t only how God feels about his own people. No, the story of Jonah is also about God’s desire to show mercy and compassion to his enemies, even those whose “wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).

Jonah is very happy to put God in his place, to tell him just where he’s going wrong: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

How ironic! Jonah knows his theology all right! He is quoting straight out of the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 34: 6). But he just doesn’t get it, does he? He just doesn’t see that those beautiful words apply even to God’s enemies. Having received, himself, such mercy from God, he begrudges that same mercy to the lost Ninevites.

Isn’t that something we too need to take notice of?

The New Testament tells us that God “wants all people to be saved” (1Timothy 2:4), that “he doesn’t want anyone to perish” (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus, looking at the crowds of people, “had compassion on them, because they were… like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

I have heard preachers talk about how the lost are “heading straight for hell” with little more, it seemed, than a regretful shrug of the shoulders. All right, perhaps not quite as bad as angry, hard-hearted Jonah; but not far off it.

I suggest a prayer…

Lord Jesus, help me to see the lost with your tender, loving and compassionate eyes, and use me to make known your love by word and deed. Amen.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8

Every mountain range has a highest point, a summit. There’s something special about getting to that point and being able to look down on the world below, even if you’ve only climbed a fairly modest hill.

Chris Bonington, the veteran British mountaineer, wrote about the exhilaration he felt after getting to the top of Everest, knowing that he was, for those few minutes, the highest human being on the face of the earth. As another mountaineer said when asked why he climbed mountains: “Because they’re there.” Summits exist to be reached!

Jesus gave his disciples that list of “Blesseds” which are often called “The Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:3-10). They’re all wonderful, in spite of being so brief, and as Christians we should reflect on them regularly: blessed (which means happy) are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted because of righteousness

Plenty to ponder and be challenged by there!

But I have always felt that the most deeply thought-provoking is the one that sits in the middle of the list: “Blessed are the pure in heart” (verse 8). For me, this is the summit of the Beatitudes, perhaps even the Everest of the whole New Testament.

I love that little word “pure”. It’s a simple enough word, of course; it just means “clean”. But it conjures up for me various quietly satisfying images: washing, fresh out of the machine, hanging on the line; a carpet of snow you wake up to in the morning, before people’s shoes and car tyres start to muddy it; even, dare I say it (don’t picture this), myself emerging from a warm soapy shower after being hot, sticky, stinky and dirty. Luvverly.

But Jesus, of course, is talking about purity of heart: the inner you and me, the real you and me.

Unless we’re medical people, we tend to think of the heart as the seat of our emotions, rather than as a muscle pumping blood around our bodies. But to the Jews of Jesus’ day it was neither of those things: they thought of it as the seat of will and thought. The state of your heart was what dictated the kind of person you were; it’s what made you, well, you.

And so to ask ourselves if our hearts are “pure” is extremely challenging.

Oh, anyone, with just a little bit of effort, can make themselves reasonably good on the outside, no problem: some neat clothes, a tidy hair-cut, a whiff of something nice, perhaps, coupled with a ready smile and a friendly manner – sorted. What more can be expected?

Answer: a whole lot more!

God calls us to have an inner being which matches that outward appearance. Here is the psalmist in Psalm 24: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart…” Or in Psalm 73: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”

We may be inclined to link purity of heart largely with sexual purity, and of course that is an important part of it. But only a part. Purity is in fact to do with literally everything that goes on in that part of me that only I (and God) know: honesty and integrity, humility and sincerity, motivation and true desires.

The big question, of course, is How can I achieve purity of heart? Well, it’s a life-time’s work and a daily – indeed hourly – battle. But I don’t think it’s over-simple to say that we have a two-fold resource which will help us if we really mean business: the example of Jesus; and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The example of Jesus is what we find outwardly, in the Bible; so read, reflect, digest, obey! The power of the Spirit is what we find inwardly, for he lives inside us; so pray, and be open to his promptings!

And we have too a wonderful incentive. For see how Jesus completes this beatitude: “…for they will see God.” To see God is not just to enjoy a panoramic view from a mountain-top, however glorious that might be. No: this is something else altogether. The apostle John puts it like this: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

If that isn’t enough to keep us climbing towards that summit, then I don’t know what is. And if there’s any other summit more worth climbing, then I don’t know what that is either.

Summits are there to be reached: Matthew 5:8 above all.

Purify my heart,/ Let me be as gold/ And precious silver./ Purify my heart,/ Let me be as gold,/ Pure gold… Purify my heart,/ Cleanse me from within/ And make me holy./ Purify my heart,/ Cleanse me from my sin,/ Deep within. Amen!

(Brian Doerksen)

Blest are the pure in heart,/ For they shall see their God;/ The secret of the Lord is theirs;/ Their soul is Christ’s abode.

(John Keble and William John Hall)

Let the Bible speak!

…I give you this charge: preach the word… 2 Timothy 4:2

A friend and I went, many years ago, to hear a well-known preacher. He was famous for his Bible-teaching, and my friend was a big fan. I think I may still have been a teenager, only converted three or four years earlier.

As we came away my friend enthused: “See how much truth Mr X extracts from scripture!” And certainly, you couldn’t have wished for a message more soaked in the Bible.

I still remember how that expression – “extracts from scripture” – struck me. Very immature though I was, it seemed somehow slightly odd. It suggested that the Bible was like a mine or quarry, and that the preacher’s task was to tackle it with the spiritual equivalent of picks, drills and shovels and dig out of it the precious things it contained.

To this day, over fifty years later, it still buzzes around in my head, and I have increasingly wondered if it really is a fitting metaphor for preaching – or, indeed, for Bible-reading in general, whether by preachers or not.

My friend was talking, of course, about doctrine, and the preacher he was so keen on was famous for his very doctrinal preaching.

Two questions come to mind.

First, what exactly is this thing called “doctrine”?

Answer: really it’s just a rather fancy word for the “teaching” or “instruction” of the truth, with that truth couched in a systematic, structured form.

Second, how important is doctrine?

Answer: very. Just a few lines after Paul has urged his protégé Timothy to “preach the word”, he goes on to warn him about future trouble-makers, and describes them as people who “will not put up with sound doctrine.” He obviously sees such people as a danger. (As should we.) Doctrine matters!

But there comes a point where we need to be careful. The Bible itself, after all, is not a systematic, doctrinal account of God’s truth – it is, rather, a big, baggy compendium of books of various shapes and sizes: history, poetry, prayers, parables, proverbs, prophecies, letters, visions and more.

Throughout Christian history various theologians have done their best to distil its teaching into a doctrinal “system”. In the middle ages a monk called Thomas Aquinas produced his Summa Theologica, which means something like “a complete account of theology”. The great protestant reformer John Calvin wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion (isn’t that word “institutes” a bit of a give-away!). Last century the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth wrote his massive Church Dogmatics. (I had to read just one chapter of it once, which I assumed would be a doddle – until I discovered that it ran to 500-plus pages, some of it in tiny print.)

The human mind seems to have this need to pin things down, to dot every i and cross every t. Which no doubt is a good thing if you’re talking about science, where precision is everything.

But divine truth isn’t like that; you might as well try to pin down a beautiful fragrance as pin down the mysteries of God – matters such as predestination and free will, or the mystery of the Trinity, or exactly how Christ’s sacrifice on the cross works for our salvation.

And while I’m sure there is value in such books as those I have mentioned, I’m mightily glad (aren’t you?) that God didn’t choose to give us his word in that form. Isn’t the sheer messiness of the Bible (if I may use such a term; you know I mean no disrespect!) something to delight in? It somehow matches the kind of minds that most of us have.

I’ve come at this topic from the angle of those of us who preach – Paul, after all, was himself a preacher addressing another preacher, Timothy. But it applies to anyone who takes the Bible seriously – which I hope includes you.

The message is simple: let’s not squeeze the life out of the Bible by putting it in a strait-jacket! Let’s allow it to speak to us with its own voice, not as we would like it to: to inform, to sing, to provoke, to puzzle, to inspire, to rebuke, to soar, to… I could go on.

At risk of over-simplifying, you could say that God has given us his word for four basic reasons: to instruct our minds; to stir our hearts; to bend our wills; and to fire our imaginations.

Instructing our minds comes first, because the Christian faith is primarily to do with hard, historic facts – the facts about Jesus the Son of God who lived, died, rose again and will one day return. That’s where “doctrine” is so vital. But the other three are needed too for a rounded rather than a stunted faith.

Going back to us preachers… Perhaps it can be summed up like this: preach the word, and let the doctrine look after itself!

Lord God, thank you for giving us your Word – the living Word, your Son Jesus Christ, and the written Word, the Bible. Teach me, by your Holy Spirit, how to listen, how to read, how to understand, and above all how to obey. Amen.

With friends like that…

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do it with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15

A group of us were sitting around chatting while we waited for a meeting to start; my wife and I were, as far as we knew, the only Christians. One of the others decided to amuse us by telling us about an experience he had just had.

“I got ambushed by the God squad on the way here,” he said, with a big grin on his face. “Down in the town centre. They were asking me what I thought of the state of the world – wasn’t it absolutely terrible? Wanted to give me some booklets. Trust this to happen to me! – it always does. In fact, my wife tells me that I’m a bit of a magnet for religious nutters. Can’t think why…”

There are no prizes for guessing who the “religious nutters” were. But that’s not what matters. We all joined in the fun, shaking our heads in disbelief at the misguided methods some people will adopt in order to spread their beliefs.

I felt it right after a bit to let it be known that my wife and I, as orthodox (note the small o!) Christians, might also be considered by some as religious nutters; whereupon someone else said much the same, as a Roman Catholic. Which put a slightly different complexion on the conversation…

But I’m getting off the point… Where is this taking us?

The main thing is obvious: we do God and his kingdom no favours if we share our faith in such a way as to make religion in general and Christianity in particular a laughing-stock. As Christians we must of course expect sometimes to be mocked and derided. But that’s no reason to invite derision by crass and inappropriate methods.

(At a conference once I overheard a minister colleague attempting to “witness for Christ” to the cleaning staff in a way that made my toes curl with embarrassment. I’ll never forget their giggling response to his efforts once he was out of earshot: “What do they put in their tea…?”)

I suspect that not many people reading this would fall into this trap. To be honest, I suspect in fact that most of us go too far the other way and are too reticent about sharing our faith.

But it reminded my wife and me of the urgency of evangelism – of the fact that we do have a message to share with our troubled world – it’s called the gospel, or the good news – and that we need to find appropriate ways of getting it across.

And that in turn brought to mind the words of Peter in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you. But do it with gentleness and respect…”

Boiling it down, that very packed command suggests three main questions we can test ourselves with.

First, are we ready?

I fear (speaking here mainly for myself, of course) that very often we go right through a day without it even dawning on us that there might be opportunities to share the love of Jesus. But Peter says we are to be “always prepared”. Here’s a prayer we might pray: “Lord, help me to see every person I ever meet as a potential convert, a follower one day of Jesus.”

Why not? Seriously, why not?

Second, do we know our stuff?

Peter says we need to be able to “give a reason for the hope that we have.” All right, we may not all be great intellectuals or theologians (just as well, actually, I think), but we do need to be able to explain why we are Christians, what being a Christian means to us, how we ourselves became Christians, and what basic Christianity is all about, in clear, understandable and convincing terms.

Third, do we have a Christlike winsomeness?

Winsome is an old-fashioned word, but a beautiful one. According to one dictionary, it means “attractive or appealing in a fresh and innocent way.” I think it sums up well what Peter means when he tells us to evangelise “with gentleness and respect.”

One other thing worth noticing: Peter takes for granted that, in general, our evangelism should be in response to the other person’s initiative: “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you…” We don’t go stomping in in out hob-nail boots!

No. We must first listen to the other person’s voice if we want our voice to be heard. We must first meet people on their ground if we want them to move onto ours.

Obvious, really, when you think about it…

Lord God, help me never to bring your gospel into disrepute by unwise or inappropriate methods of witnessing, but to learn the skill of making Christ known in winsome, Christlike ways. Amen.

Can you decide to be cheerful?

Serve the Lord with gladness. Psalm100:2

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7

My wife and I reckon to go swimming every week, she twice and I once (the other time I play table-tennis – just in case you think I’m slacking).

When people discover this they sometimes say, “So you enjoy swimming, do you?” I’m never quite sure how to answer, so I usually end up saying, “Well, I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoy swimming – but I do enjoy having swum.” A big difference there, no?

Swimming has several not-so-good aspects… You have to travel to the leisure centre. You have the hassle of getting changed. You have to get wet (eek! – why doesn’t somebody invent dry swimming?). You have to get into water. Cold water. (I’m an inch-at-a-time man; so given that I’m over six feet tall, it’s a pretty lengthy operation.) The swimming itself is hard work. And, to be honest (I’m whispering now), it’s actually quite boring.

The moment I get into the water my only thought is “How long before I can complete my half-mile-and-a-bit (I hope you’re impressed?) and head for the luxury of a hot shower?”

Oh dear. That’s me, I’m afraid.

But of course many things we routinely do in life are similar – they are, if you like, duties (whether or not self-imposed) and you just have to get on with them. Getting up in the morning isn’t a bad example. Brushing your teeth. Putting in a good shift at work. Changing the baby’s nappy. The satisfaction comes afterwards.

This even applies to living out the Christian life. I’m not sure it should really be that way – if we truly love God and have a deep relationship with him, shouldn’t we want nothing more than to be in his presence and to do his will? But we might as well be realistic. After all, we aren’t quite perfect yet…

How often would we pray if we didn’t view it, partly at least, as a duty? How often do we go to church without really feeling like it, but knowing we ought to? Do we always find it a joy to give up time, effort and convenience to do some Christlike act of kindness? To prepare that Sunday School lesson? (Somebody tell me, please, that this isn’t just me!)

Thinking about this, and trying to be honest with myself, is one reason I find myself turning to that little line in Psalm 100:2: “Serve the Lord with gladness.”

Those words imply that it is possible to serve the Lord without gladness – ie, grudgingly, or resentfully. So when it comes to serving the Lord, we have a choice to make: a choice about our own attitude.

Have you ever sat in a church meeting where a volunteer is being sought for a particular task? And let’s just say that people aren’t exactly rushing to form an orderly queue to offer themselves… No: they seem to have developed a sudden interest in their shoes or their finger-nails.

But then a voice is heard. This is – well, let’s call him Mike the Martyr. He heaves a big, deep sigh; and then: “Well, I suppose if nobody else is prepared to take this on (heavy emphasis here), I could perhaps just about manage to fit it in…” Another big, deep sigh. Everybody is relieved and grateful, though perhaps also a touch guilty and troubled in mind.

All credit to Mike the Martyr of course; but perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea if he reflected on the words of this psalm, or of Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “God loves a cheerful giver”, and grasped that giving applies to a lot more than just money.

Sometimes, of course, the voice you hear isn’t Mike the Martyr but Sue the Saint: “Yes, that’s something I’d be glad to do; leave it with me.” And this time it’s you breathing a sigh and thinking, “Bless you, Sue!”

“Cheerfulness” is a very ordinary word – but isn’t it also a lovely word? What a difference the cheerful person makes! He or she lights up a room and transforms a mood.

And being determined to be cheerful doesn’t only do others good, but also yourself: as Proverbs 17:22 puts it, it’s “good medicine”. Charles Dickens went so far as to say that “Cheerfulness and content are great beautifiers (!), and are famous preservers of good looks.” (I read somewhere, in fact, that if you smile, even when you’re not particularly feeling like it, you quickly feel a boost.)

I’ve talked about what we call “duties” and what we call “joys”. What these Bible verses suggest is that we have it in our own power to turn duties into joys. It’s all a question of attitude.

Why don’t we try it and see if it works?

Father, thank you that, even in the routine things of life, a glad and cheerful spirit can turn duties into joys. Help me to learn to do it better! Amen.