So many things we don’t need…

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15

We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1Timothy 6:8

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation… Philippians 4:12

The Greek philosopher Socrates is reported to have said, as he strolled through the market-place in Athens, “Who would have thought there could be so many things I can do without!”

Well said, Socrates!

Socrates died about 400 years before Jesus, but is a good reminder that while the Bible is full of truth and wisdom, it doesn’t have a monopoly on these things. Truth is God’s truth wherever we may find it!

I wonder what the market-place in ancient Athens was like?

I picture a large open area teeming with people – men and women, buyers and sellers, children and dogs – milling around hundreds of stalls. A place where you could buy all the basic necessities of life: food and clothing, of course, but no doubt also toiletries, kitchen utensils and precious items, not to mention trinkets and ornaments. A busy place; and I imagine that many of the people will have had worried looks on their faces – “Can I afford that? Will it be enough? Can I get it cheaper further down the aisle?…”

And I picture Socrates drifting around, an observer rather than a participant, with a wry smile on his face: “So many things I can do without!”

That scene is vastly different from our modern glitzy shopping malls. Yet very much the same too: so much stuff that we just don’t need!

Jesus told the powerful story of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). I’ve quoted the words with which he introduced it, but it’s the story itself that’s key: about the successful farmer whose business grew and grew until he decided he was entitled to a life of idleness: “Take life easy! Eat, drink and be merry”. Only too late did he hear the voice of his creator: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Who indeed? You can’t take it with you, Mr Rich Man!

Paul was well aware of this truth. Writing to his young protégé Timothy he spells out one of the great truisms of life, a truism quite independent of religion or philosophy: “For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:8). There are echoes there of that great Old Testament figure Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart” (Job 1:21). That’s a fact; let’s get used to it!

But sitting light to worldly possessions goes flat against the grain of human nature. And Paul knew this too. Writing while “in chains” (not a nice place to be) to the Christians of Philippi, he tells them that, whatever his circumstances, he has “learned the secret of being content… whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

There are two vital words in that statement.

First, “secret”… being content with what we have isn’t an obvious and easy thing; no, it’s a hidden thing. And therefore, second, it has to be “learned”… and the great teacher is, of course, experience – often painful, sometimes bitter.

I hardly need spell out the relevance of all this for us. When we think about the dangers of materialism it’s easy to shake our heads at the “filthy rich” – the tycoons, sports stars and film stars with luxury houses dotted around the world, and multi-million pound yachts bobbing in the harbour at Monte Carlo.

But no. This warning is for the rest of us as much as for them. We too need to look at all the wares on offer and ask the question: Do I really need this? Should I really be throwing that away? And when the adverts tell us that something is a “must have” product, to spit right in their eye (so to speak). “Must have”, indeed… Pah!

This is for our own good, of course: God isn’t just out to spoil our fun. An excess of these things will enslave us as they take over our lives. It will engender anxiety and fear, ruining our peace of mind. It will jeapordise our eternal destiny, like the man in Jesus’ story.

God wants us happy. I’m sure he doesn’t begrudge us enjoyment of the good things of life. Not at all. But he sounds the warning bell; and not to heed it is to be – to use Jesus’ word – a fool.

Here’s something else Socrates said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” That remark could have come straight out of the Bible – “examine yourselves,” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5. It covers each and every aspect of life.

And that certainly includes our attitude towards worldly goods.

Time for a bit of self-examination?

Save me, Lord God, from being seduced by money and material things. Teach me to be thankful for, and content with, what I have. Teach me, indeed, to be generous with what I have, remembering the words of Jesus: “There is more blessing in giving than receiving”. Amen.

Time for a dose of salt?

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

For some years now I have been careful about how much salt I eat – the medical people tell us, after all, that too much can cause serious illness, including things like strokes.

But we all need some salt, both for health and for the sheer enjoyment of food. Indeed, isn’t salt exactly what you need if you suffer from cramps?

In the ancient world salt was especially important, not something to be taken for granted. Roman soldiers received a part of their pay in the form of salt, or money to buy it with. (Our word “salary”, in fact, comes from the Latin “sal”, which means salt.)

So when Jesus told his followers that they were “the salt of the earth” they will have sat up and taken notice. Jesus was telling them that in a world that often seems grey, hard and rather dreary, they were to impart flavour, zest and taste. And like salt in the days before refrigeration, they were to help stop the rot in human society by the Christlike quality of their lives.

It’s especially sad, then, when we who call ourselves Christians “lose our saltiness”.

That might mean a lot of things. But in essence Jesus is talking about times when we act just like everybody else, following the habits and customs of the world around us. Not thinking – just “going with the flow”. (Have a look at Matthew 7:13-14 for a warning about that.)

Not that we are called to be different just for the sake of being different. Of course not. But our lives should demonstrate that in matters both large and small there is a better way, indeed a heavenly way, a happier, more joyful way.

To put it in a single word – Jesus is talking about holiness.

Some years ago there was a top cricketer who made no secret of his faith. In one innings he faintly touched the ball to the wicket-keeper (which means, in case you’re not familiar with cricket, that he was “out” – “caught behind”). But instead of heading for the pavilion he stayed where he was. In effect he was telling the umpire a lie: “I didn’t touch the ball”. (There are more ways of lying than by using words.) One of the opposing players looked at him and said, “I thought you were supposed to be a Christian”.

A case of the salt losing its saltiness?

A prominent politician, well known as a “committed Christian” and a “regular church-goer”, ends up in prison for fiddling his expenses. Another case of the salt losing its saltiness? You don’t have to look far for other examples.

Of course it’s very easy to point the finger at other people, especially when they’re in the public eye. But, as has been pointed out many times, every time you point a finger at someone else you point three at yourself. So the question that really matters is “How ‘salty’ is my life? Never mind him, her or them – have I lost my saltiness?

Jesus warns us that tasteless salt will be “thrown out and trampled underfoot”. The Message Bible translation puts Jesus’ words like this: “Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.” We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

Perhaps there’s another thing about Jesus’s parable that we can add, though he himself didn’t say it…

Even if salt that has gone rotten can never be good salt again, a Christian who has lost his or her way can be renewed, by God’s grace.

If we have a good honest look at our lives – perhaps using the prayer of Psalm 139: “Search me , O God and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” – if we do this, and decide that we really want to change, then our gracious God will enable us to do so. True, heart-felt repentance is an open door into renewal and inner purity.

And that means that there’s no danger of us wasting our lives and ultimately “ending up in the garbage”!

Loving Father, as I go about my business today, help me to make this fallen and troubled world a better, happier, purer place. In my words, deeds and thoughts, may I reflect the perfection of Jesus himself. Amen.

Don’t be a fool!

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. Proverbs 26:4-5

Anyone who takes the Bible seriously will know that sometimes you come across passages that seem to contradict one another.

Usually it needn’t bother us too much. The Bible, after all, is a big, baggy compendium of documents of many different types and from many different periods of history. So it’s not surprising if sometimes we find it hard to reconcile passage (a) with passage (b). There’s often a fairly straightforward explanation, and even if there isn’t, it’s probably something we can happily live with.

But what about when two verses right next to one another seem to be in direct conflict?

The first dozen verses of Proverbs 26 are united by a single theme: the “fool”. Given that the whole book is in essence about how to get wisdom, it’s not surprising that the writer – Solomon or whoever – offers some advice on how best to avoid folly and how best to deal with fools.

But here’s the puzzle… in verse 4 he tells us that we should “not answer a fool according to his folly”; and then, in verse 5, that we should… do precisely that! A straight contradiction?

Exactly what “answering a fool according to his folly” means isn’t clear. It could suggest sinking to the same level, perhaps adopting the same shallow, stupid tone, so that in effect he or she has dragged us away from wisdom and reason. And what good does that do? That certainly makes sense of verse 4.

But then what about verse 5? Perhaps here “answering a fool according to his folly” means something different: not only sinking to the same level, but giving him a real mouthful, a proper telling-off – not something you feel comfortable doing, but doing all the same on the grounds that it might at least bring him to his senses. If you don’t put him right in pretty plain terms, then “he will be wise in his own eyes”. In other words, just playing along with him will only confirm his stupidity.

I don’t know – I’m just speculating really. But at this point I’m happy enough to give up, rather wondering if the writer had a smile on his face as he wrote these two verses; as if to say, “You see? Life sometimes seems just a muddle, and in any given situation there may not always be a simple, clear solution. Sometimes you may need just to play it by ear, even at risk of going against what you did before in a similar situation.”

Whatever, this is a “contradiction” that I don’t think need keep us awake at night. (I suspect that’s a wise conclusion, don’t you?)

Perhaps we can probe a bit deeper by asking a much more important question: what does the Bible mean by a “fool” anyway?

It isn’t easy to pin down, but one thing’s for sure: the fool isn’t simply the person who is not particularly bright; oh no, there’s a big place among the people of God for honest but simple souls (just as well, eh?).

When Jesus chose his twelve disciples he didn’t ask about their academic qualifications. And later on, when Peter and John were in trouble with the authorities, it was noted that they were “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13).

No. In the Bible the word “fool” has a darker feel to it, almost a moral sense. Jesus says that calling someone “You fool!” puts you in danger of hell (Matthew 5:22). And throughout 2 Corinthians 11 and 12 Paul is obviously rather embarrassed at feeling the need to “make a fool of himself” (2 Corinthians 12:11).

No; the word fool suggests stubbornness – it’s a person who doesn’t just act foolishly, but one who persists in acting foolishly in spite of having been warned. The biblical fool isn’t simply rather dull, but obstinate with it; he or she refuses to be corrected – and that is a moral flaw, not just an intellectual one.

(Anyone, like me, beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable?)

Let’s go even further… Even “wise” people can be fools. You may have a whole string of qualifications – degrees, the lot – yet still fall into sinfully wrong ways. (Anyone else beginning to feel uncomfortable…?)

It’s worth remembering that this Book of Proverbs is associated with King Solomon (though exactly how much of it he wrote is open to question). Now, Solomon was wise. Oh yes, he was wise, all right! Just take a look at 1 Kings 4:29-34 and 1 Kings 10.

Yet… what a fool also! Turn over the page to 1 Kings 11. Such a fool that God became angry with him and saw fit to reject him, and his whole kingdom was plunged into ruin. If ever there was a “wise fool”, that person was surely Solomon.

So – however we make sense of Proverbs 26:4-5 – let’s be very sure that “the fool” isn’t also you, or me…

Lord God, your word tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. As I daily humble myself before you, and aim in all things to obey and follow you, may I steadily grow in true, Christlike wisdom. Amen.

Of burning bushes and quiet lives

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up’… ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground’Exodus 3:2-5

When you read Bible passages like this do you ever feel slightly envious? Do you ever think “How come things like that never happen to me?” Do you ever wonder if you’re missing out on something because your spiritual life seems to be so – well – ordinary in comparison?

That feeling might be made even worse when you meet a fellow-Christian whose life seems to be dotted with seemingly “supernatural” experiences, even if very different from Moses’ experience at the burning bush.

It’s an exaggeration to say that such experiences are common in the Bible. But they are certainly there… Isaiah seeing the Lord “high and exalted” in the temple (Isaiah 6); John’s vision of the risen Jesus (Revelation 1); Paul being “caught up to the third heaven” and hearing “inexpressible things” (2 Corinthians 12); Gideon visited by an angel who “sat down under an oak tree in Oprah” (Judges 6). I could go on.

It’s only human to sometimes feel “I wouldn’t mind a spiritual high like that now and then! What a boost it would give to my faith!”

But wait a minute. We need to notice several things if we are to get our thinking straight.

First, these experiences were not given because the people involved went looking for them.

Go back to Moses in Exodus 3. What was he doing when he saw the burning bush? Fasting and praying, as Jesus did in the wilderness? No: he was “tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro”.

Moses is a man on the run. He has killed an Egyptian whom he found beating a fellow-Israelite. (He can’t even claim that it was an impulse killing: Exodus specifically tells us that “he looked this way and that” first.) So he runs away, marries a Midianite girl, a daughter of a priest called Jethro, and earns his keep, presumably, by helping to look after Jethro’s sheep. How ordinary, how humdrum, can you get!

Exactly the same can be said of the other examples – they were just going about their normal business when God saw fit to break into their lives in these dramatic ways.

And so the message is?… If God chooses to give you some kind of spiritual “high”, great, be thankful – and build on it. But don’t go looking for it. Remember the words of Jesus: “It’s a wicked and adulterous generation that asks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39).

Second, these experiences were not given so that the recipients could feel good about themselves.

I suspect that many of us have that sign-seeking mentality lurking deep in our hearts. Simple faith in the God we cannot see isn’t enough; we’d like a bit of proof, please, Lord – especially when we meet those people I mentioned earlier, who claim the kind of dreams and visions we have never had.

But in fact, if you read again the Bible stories I mentioned, you find that Moses, John and the rest were left feeling anything but good about themselves! No, they were left shaken and overwhelmed; they certainly didn’t emerge from these encounters with a spring in their step and an elevated sense of their own importance or spiritual virtue. (One of them, indeed, Jacob, ended up with a physical disability (Genesis 32).)

And the message?… Be careful what you hanker after! You might get more than you bargained for!

This leads directly to…

Third, these experiences were given to usher their recipients into a new sphere of service, or to bring them to a new recognition of their weakness and sinfulness.

God had a job in mind for Moses: “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).

And Moses didn’t like the sound of this one little bit! In fact, if you read through Exodus 3 and 4 you find that he thinks up a number of reasons why – “Sorry, Lord! but I’m really not up to the task”. And when he can’t think of any more excuses he ends up with the oh-so-feeble request, “Please send someone else!” (4:13). I think that by now he is bitterly regretting ever having seen that wretched bush in the first place. Oh to get back to his sheep!

The fact is that, in the Bible, supernatural experiences of this kind are generally given to people who are being prepared for a life-changing, and even world-changing, ministry. And that ministry is likely to involve great sacrifice and real pain.

So be careful! – perhaps there is something to be said for the beautiful advice of the prophet Micah: just “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

And for the rest? – leave it to God.

Father God, forgive me if ever I fall prey to a sign-seeking mentality, or get envious of the experiences of others. Help me to want nothing but to love, obey and serve you with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And so bring me to that day when I will enjoy “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”. Amen.

Heaven on earth? Really?

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:6-9

Do you like animals? I’ve never really been a pet person (though we did have a budgie I was very fond of when I was small). But I certainly enjoy a stroll round a wild-life park when I get the chance.

However, there’s a little colony of cats that belong – more or less, anyway – to a neighbouring house. They’re all female, with ridiculously cute names, but my wife and I call them Klopp, Mourinho, Allardyce, Southgate and Pardew (you may possibly spot a theme there), depending largely on their colours; and we get great pleasure from observing their antics from our front window, and speculating about what goes on in the murky depths of their dark, mysterious cat-minds.

Domesticated animals, or animals in the security of a zoo or safari park, are one thing. But of course wild animals, when they are actually in the wild… well, that’s a different matter.

I read in the paper this morning about polar bears sniffing around people’s homes in a Russian town way up in the Arctic Circle. And we have long heard about wolves venturing into the suburbs of Berlin. There was the sad story too, last week, of two tigers being slowly introduced to one another in the hope that they would mate. No sooner had they been allowed into the same pen than the male mauled the female to death. No wonder the poet Tennyson wrote about “nature red in tooth and claw”.

How utterly glorious, then, is the vision of the prophet Isaiah! Picture this, please! … wolves and lambs happily co-habiting… leopards and goats enjoying a snooze together… calves and lions out for a stroll (and shepherded by a small child!)… lions eating grass like oxen… little children playing happily and safely in the habitats of poisonous snakes!

Is there any more beautiful passage in the whole of scripture?

Our natural response might be (to borrow the words a former tennis-player used to scream at umpires who displeased him), “You cannot be serious!” Surely this is just too good to be true?

Bu no: the prophet is absolutely serious.

Just as he was a little earlier when he predicted that weapons of war and killing would be transformed into implements of peace and prosperity: “they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). (“Hey, we don’t seem to need these spears any more! – why don’t we convert them into hooks for getting the fruit off the top branches?”)

And just as he will be a little later when he foresees a fantastic feast for anybody and everybody, and an end of death, weeping and sorrow: “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines… he will swallow up death for ever… [he] will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:6-8).

And just as he sums it up at the end of his book: “See [says the Lord], I will create a new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).

Putting it in a nutshell, the prophet has a vision of the Garden of Eden restored. Isn’t all this the way it could have been if Adam and Eve had never sinned?

And, of course, he gives a foretaste of what that other great visionary, John, would see hundreds of years later, in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus…

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’…” (Revelation 21:1-4).

We read these words and naturally find ourselves asking questions: When exactly will these things be? How literally are we to understand these visions? How do we square them with the darker side of the Bible’s message – judgment, wrath and hell?

These are fair questions, and they need asking.

But there are times, too, to let our imaginations run riot and simply luxuriate in the wonder of God’s promises. The essential truth we need to get hold of is this: Our God is a great, holy, just and loving God. He started this world in which we live – and he hasn’t finished with it yet!

How confident are you that you will have a seat at his great feast, a place of honour in his new heaven and new earth?

This, and nothing less, is the vision God holds out to all who trust in his son Jesus.

Thank you, Father, for the promise that a day is coming when paradise will be restored, when Jesus will reign supreme, and when all sin and sorrow will be done away. Help me to live my earthly life in anticipation of that day, and even to bring a little foretaste of heaven to everyone I meet. Amen.

Just do it!

Jesus said, Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:19-20

I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some. 1 Corinthians 9:22

“That’s a big ask,” we sometimes say, when a job looks pretty daunting.

Well, the words which Jesus spoke to his disciples before he ascended into heaven certainly qualify for that description. In the last two verses of Matthew’s Gospel we find him telling them to “make disciples of all nations”. What a vision! Yes, Jesus saw the tiny community which he was bringing into being – the church – as a community that would stretch across the face of the whole earth and exist for all time.

Given that they numbered precisely eleven men I think it would be fair to describe that as a big ask! – even taking into account also the other followers of Jesus who, with them, were soon to be baptised in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2).

A talk I heard recently, though, pointed out that along with the big ask came an equally big promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age…”

If the disciples felt alarmed and frightened by the enormity of the task Jesus was laying on their shoulders, they must surely also have been massively reassured by the sheer wonder of that promise – yes, the same Jesus who had taught them and showed them what the kingdom of God was like in little Palestine over those three years would always be with them, even if unseen.

There is a very obvious message here for us, the church of the twenty-first century. A two-fold message, in fact.

First, never lose sight of the big picture. God made the whole earth; it belongs to him; and it is his intention ultimately that it should acknowledge his lordship. These things will be!

So while, for most of us, our sphere of service is largely limited to our own locality, let’s keep in mind that we are just a tiny part of God’s intention to make himself known to the whole world, to every man, woman and child.

Second, never allow those words of Jesus – “surely I am with you always” – to be lost. We are not alone. We are accompanied, empowered and enabled by the very one who rose from the dead and who lives for evermore. We have within us the very energy and breath of almighty God – better known as the person of the Holy Spirit.

The message couldn’t be clearer: Christian, get a firm hold of both the big ask and the big promise.

But what was particularly striking about that talk I listened to wasn’t in fact either of those points. (Over my long Christian life I have, after all, heard many a sermon on “the great commission”, so while it was good to be reminded of these things, it wasn’t in principle anything new.)

No, what particularly struck me was what Jesus didn’t say: he didn’t give his disciples a set of detailed instructions. They are to “teach” and to “baptise” and so to “make disciples”, but there is nothing regarding the precise how of their ministry. True, they had had a three-year tutorial by simply being with Jesus during his earthly ministry and seeing him in action. But he left them no bulky instruction manual. “Just go and do it” seems to have been his word to them.

So – what?

The point to grasp is that, when it comes to serving God in our fallen world, there is no set formula for us to follow, no list of techniques or methods which we can or should apply in any and every situation.

We need this message, because it is very easy, both in our churches and in our personal lives, to get into a groove, to run, as it were, along tram lines.

And this where we need the example of Paul in the second passage I quoted (1 Corinthians 9:22). Ideally I would like to have quoted the whole section from verse 19, but that would have been too long.

But the essence of what Paul is saying is that he made himself infinitely adaptable in order to make the gospel message meaningful to whatever group of people he found himself among – “slaves”; “the Jews”; “people under the law”; people “not having the law”; “the weak”. The same message, of course, says Paul; but I turned myself into a different person, so to speak, in order to connect with whoever I was dealing with.

So… whether it’s formal preaching or informal chat; toddler club or messy church; Sunday school or quiz night; workplace discussion or neighbourhood door-knocking; street evangelism or traditional youth club; leafleting or street pastoring; or many other possibilities… just do it!

The seed of the gospel, faithfully sown, will bear fruit. And the day will come “when the earth will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea”.

Father, as I seek to make the gospel known in this fallen world, help me to hold fast to the unchanging message of Jesus crucified and risen from the dead, while at the same time sitting loose to methods and techniques. And so may I, like Paul, “by all means save some”. Amen.

A sorry story from the barber’s chair

Many will follow their depraved conduct, and will bring the way of truth into disrepute… 2 Peter 2:2

The man who cuts my hair really gives me aggro. Not nasty aggro, please don’t think that, but aggro nonetheless. As soon as I enter his shop it’s “Hello, do you still believe all that religion rubbish, then?” (though rubbish probably isn’t the exact word he uses). “Your friend (that’s his way of talking about God) isn’t doing a very good job at the moment, is he?” That may be a complaint about the weather, the political situation, or any one of a number of things that happen to be on his mind.

As far as he is concerned I am a poor deluded sucker. The reason I became a Christian is that I was bored and just swallowed everything I was told by other poor deluded suckers. (Given that I became a Christian when I was fifteen, a long time ago, and I’ve only known him a couple of years, it’s not entirely clear how he came by this information.)

I tell him that he’s cynical, ignorant, unthinking and prejudiced (not necessarily in quite those words), that I’m going to go on praying for him, and that I want him to tell me when he decides to become a Christian. He thinks that’s very funny, and has a good laugh at my expense.

This summary will give you a flavour of my relationship with the man who shapes my venerable grey locks and snips my luxuriant eyebrows. Blunt to the point of rudeness, but all with a smile on our faces; good knockabout stuff. Oh yes, we get on pretty well really.

My friend has had a few “vicars” in his shop over the years (“some of them even worse than you”) and claims not to have been very impressed.

He’s also had a bad experience of “Bible-bashers” away from his shop. And his last example, I’m afraid, took most of the humour out of our chat…

“I’ve got a flat which I rent out, and it was taken by a group of blokes who really were nutters. They were always leaving post-it notes around the place telling me that God loved me. I was really good to them – I used to run them to their meetings when they didn’t have transport. Then one day they just cleared off – owing me a thousand pounds in unpaid rent. I never saw them again.”

Ah. That rather took the wind out of my sails, as they say. There really wasn’t an answer, except to assure him that, of course, I was very sorry to hear this, and that I deplored that kind of behaviour just as much as he did. “Is that what’s made you so cynical about religion?” I asked. To which he replied: “No, not really – I’ve always felt this way. But it didn’t help.”

No, I don’t imagine it would, do you?

The apostle Peter speaks of those who “bring the way of truth into disrepute”, or, as The Message puts it, “give the way of truth a bad name” (2 Peter 2:2) – an apt description, I think, of those people.

Sadly, this kind of thing isn’t unusual. I chatted recently with a man who was involved in renting out a community centre to a variety of organisations – drop-in groups, children’s nurseries, seniors’ lunches etc. It was sad to hear him say that the only group they had trouble with was an informal, pop-up church – they (the Christians!) were the only group that didn’t pay their rent on time, and who failed to leave the building in a good condition. The secular organisations were fine.

Other examples are not far to find: “committed Christians” caught out in dishonest dealings or sexual immorality, or just having a reputation for being bad neighbours.

The slightly frightening conclusion we have to draw is a simple one: the reputation of God himself lies in the hands of people like you and me. It’s amazing that God should be prepared to let this happen; but that, it seems, is the way it is.

As I left the barber’s shop that day I was inwardly fuming at those “Bible-bashers” who had behaved so appallingly. But then it occurred to me that there have no doubt been times when I have been guilty of pretty much the same thing.

No, I have never walked off with somebody else’s money, or otherwise acted in grossly inappropriate ways (I hope not, anyway!). But I have no doubt that over the years there have been times when I have acted or spoken in ways that might have left people thinking “Well, if that’s Christianity, include me out!” or “And I thought he was supposed to be a Christian!”

Quite likely I didn’t even realise it at the time. It needn’t take a lot, after all: just a flash of temper, perhaps; or a display of pettiness; or a touch of bigotry; or something that isn’t quite honest; or a sharing in gossip; or some unguarded language…

A simple question arises: Are you – am I – a good advertisement for Jesus?

Time to pause for thought…?

Father, please forgive me for those times when I have given the way of truth a bad name. If there are opportunities to make amends, give me the humility to do so. And if not, give me a new determination to be the very best I can be for your glory. Amen.

What about speaking in tongues?

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,  to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

Did you pick up on the interview Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave last week? Among other things, he spoke about his practice of “speaking in different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10) during his daily prayer time.

There was a time (and I’m old enough to remember it) when such a thing would have been unheard of. “Speaking in tongues” was the preserve of those strange “Pentecostals” – who were decidedly suspect! You didn’t get it in the “mainline” churches, certainly not in the Anglican church, and certainly not with Archbishops of Canterbury! Goodness me, whatever next!

If nothing else, this shows how massively the church as a whole has changed over the last fifty or so years – along with musical idioms, Bible translations, dress codes, styles of worship, and all sorts of other things.

I was just beginning my ministry, aged twenty-four, when what became known as “the charismatic movement” burst upon us. And we had to do some rapid thinking. What were we to make of this strange new phenomenon? Dismiss it out of hand as a shallow fad? Or swallow it whole, hook, line and sinker?

Well, as the dust settled over the next few years, many of us found ourselves – surprise, surprise – adopting a middle course. And here we are today, half a century on, looking at a church landscape which, as I said, is completely transformed.

There is no way I can possibly cover every aspect of this in just a short blog. But a fifty-year time-span does lend a certain perspective that was impossible at the start. So I thought – for what it’s worth – that I might share a few conclusions I have come to.

First, there are no biblical grounds for believing that tongues and the other charismatic gifts ceased at the end of the New Testament period.

True, some people take 1 Corinthians 13:10 as foreseeing the completed Bible, and say that this renders tongues and the other gifts redundant. But this seems a very forced and unnatural interpretation. So tongues-speaking shouldn’t be automatically ruled out.

Second, it is not, of itself, a sign of “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”.

“Baptism of the Holy Spirit” is a very loaded expression, of course, and whole books have been written about it. My own understanding is that it refers to the events of the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and, by extension, to other similar dramatic events that occur from time to time throughout Christian history, and which may or may not be accompanied by tongues. (Such events have sometimes been called “revivals”.)

“Baptism of (or with, or in) the Holy Spirit” has, sadly, become something of a battle-ground. But we shouldn’t be afraid of it: no, it is right there in the Bible, and so claims the right to be studied thoughtfully and prayerfully. (Is this something you have ever done?)

Third, speaking in tongues is not, so to speak, a badge of superiority – a sign that somebody is numbered among some kind of spiritual elite. Absolutely not! Over the years I have known many fine Christians who have never exercised this gift – and other fine Christians who have. And I have known other Christians in both camps who turned out to be (oh dear, what word shall I use? – I really don’t want to be judgmental!) somewhat, er, flaky.

Fourth, the charismatic movement has brought with it much that is good – not least a new focus on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, new vibrancy in worship, new urgency in prayer, new initiatives in evangelism, new radical forms of social action – and I could go on. But it has also brought with it much that is damaging, misleading, divisive and even downright absurd. It has grown what might be called a “lunatic fringe”. And that’s not good.

Throughout it all, one very positive conviction has grown on me over the years: the church needs revival, not least in our materialistic western world. And how is revival to come except through the Holy Spirit, the powerful breath of God?

So, tongues or no tongues, I for one have no qualms at all about praying “Lord, baptise us afresh with your Holy Spirit!”, “Lord, send us a mini-Pentecost!” Why not? Seriously now, why not!

I don’t usually use this blog to tackle issues that divide Christians. (I blame it on this occasion on the Archbishop and the prod that interview gave!) I can only encourage us all to think and pray about it for ourselves. My only plea would be that when we look for guidance in the Bible, we do so with humble and teachable minds.

Is it time to throw open the windows and let some fresh biblical air blow through?

Meanwhile, please join me if you can in prayer…

Lord God, baptise your church afresh with your Holy Spirit! Give us a little Pentecost for our day and our time! Amen.

Come, Holy Spirit, to cleanse and renew us:/ Purge us of evil and fill us with power:/ So shall the waters of healing flow through us;/ So may revival be born in this hour. Amen.   RD Browne

Come, Lord Jesus, come, Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit we pray./ Come, Lord Jesus, come, Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit on us today. Amen!   Gerald Coates and Noel Richards