The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to a town called Nazareth in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to a man named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Luke 1:26-28

It’s hard to imagine any Bible character whose experience is further removed from ours than Mary. What could be more utterly unique than to be chosen as the mother of the Son of God! We, surely, have nothing in common with her?

It might seem like that. And yet, if we survey the whole sweep of her life as the New Testament gives it to us, there are in fact a number of points where we can identify quite closely with her. With Mothers’ Day just round the corner, what better time to reflect on the extraordinary experience of this very ordinary woman?

The New Testament suggests five major landmarks…

First, Mary had a life-changing experience.

Just a young girl, she receives a visit from an angel. This person announces that, though still a virgin, she is to “conceive and give birth to a son”, who will be called “Jesus”.

I suspect you may know the rest of the story…

In the details, of course, we can’t remotely identify with Mary here. But isn’t it true of every Christian, nonetheless, that we too have had our lives changed for ever?

Do you remember the time of your conversion? It may have been a long time ago. It may have happened suddenly and dramatically; or if may have been quite a long, gentle process, such that you can’t put a date to it. But the fact is that you have never been the same since; by the grace of God you became a child of God. And… well, here you are today.

Is it time to give thanks again for that momentous event in your life? Is it time perhaps to refresh the vows you took when you got baptised?

Second, Mary grew through questioning and puzzling.

Fast-forward to the time when Jesus is a twelve-year-old boy (Luke 2:41-52). Mary and Joseph have gone up to Jerusalem with him to worship God with the Passover crowds. And – every parent’s worst nightmare – he goes missing.

It’s three days before they find him. And what is he doing? He is “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” They share their anxiety with him, with an understandable hint of reproach: “Son, why have you treated us like this…?” To which he gives the puzzling – and I imagine very painful – reply, “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (The father he was referring to wasn’t Joseph…)

Luke then tells us that Mary “stored all these things in her heart” as the days and months went by.

You bet she did! Now a young woman rather than just a girl, with the memory of Jesus’ birth receding into the distance, she must have done a lot of thinking, praying and puzzling.

I mustn’t pretend to speak for you, of course. But when I first became a Christian (probably at much the same age as Mary, as it happens), I knew it all. Oh yes! Everything was totally clear, completely black and white. I’m afraid that back at school I must have been a complete pain in the neck, so complete was my conviction – and so tactless my evangelising.

But time changed that – plus the need to confront problems and questions, and to learn that there are shades of grey as well as blacks and whites.

No conversion experience, however dramatic and remarkable, lasts for ever – and it is folly to cling to it as if it does. As one wise writer once put it (quoting here from memory): “Ultimately what matters is not past conversion but present convertedness.” Worth thinking about, that.

No; like Mary we grow and mature by having to grapple with things which are hard to understand – and which are sometimes also hard to accept. You don’t “store things up in your heart” just to let them sit there doing nothing, like fruit going bad. I hope not, anyway. No; you pray and probe, you ponder and search. Things can look very different for us, as they did for Mary, with the passing of a few years.

Are you a thoughtful, reflective Christian? Has your prayer life deepened over the years? Is your faith today stronger but also more (what’s the word?) weathered, more seasoned, than in those heady early days? In our shallow and shabby world there is a great need for followers of Jesus who have a depth the world knows nothing of. Is that you? Is it me?

I said I wanted to highlight five landmarks in Mary’s life, but I’ve already run out of space. So rejoin me, please, as we revisit her next week.

In the meantime, I wish you, whatever your circumstances may be, a happy Mother’s Day.

Thank you, Lord, for Mary – her ordinariness, her humility, her obedience, her honesty. Help me to learn from her – and, in learning from her, to become even more like her Son. Amen.

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Thinking about cow-dung

In my vision at night I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and… was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom will never be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14

I watched in fascination as cow-dung was turned into cooking-gas for the tiny one-room house next door.

If you are remotely science-minded you will probably think I was very naive – this kind of simple, basic technology has been around for years. But I am woefully ignorant when it comes to science, so for me it was a genuine eye-opener.

I was on a trip to one of the world’s poorest countries, working alongside a group of missionaries who promoted this kind of initiative.

They also ran a “micro-loan” scheme, providing relatively small sums of money to help people set up in mini-businesses. There was, for example, a man who proudly showed us his gleaming new three-wheeler rickshaw-taxi (pedal power only!) which enabled him to earn enough money to send his children to school; and a little group of women who had been able to buy elderly sewing-machines by which they increased the family income (and also gained for themselves a sense of worth and dignity). There were also educational and health-care projects.

To see this kind of thing going on was humbling and heart-warming.

You may be surprised to know that I am prompted to share these memories with you by a recent series of sermons I have heard (very good sermons, by the way) on the book of the prophet Daniel.

Daniel contains memorable stories – the lions’ den, the burning fiery furnace, the writing on the wall – and also a string of strange dreams and prophecies. It isn’t always easy to understand. But one basic message keeps coming through: God is in control.

In chapter 7 we are shown the vision I quoted at the beginning: the person “like a son of man” who receives from “the Ancient of Days” supreme and never-ending dominion.

Christians, of course, see the ultimate fulfilment of this prophecy in Christ; he is that “Son of Man”, a title he applied to himself. And so, as Paul puts it, “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:10). Great stuff.

So… where does the cow-dung come in?

Just here: someone raised the question, “If God is indeed so totally in control, and if we can be sure that Jesus is ultimately Lord, does that mean that as Christians we needn’t bother about ‘social action’? – about food banks, about street pastoring, about debt counselling, about climate change and other ecological issues, about (dare I mention it?) Brexit, about politics in general?”

Is there, to put it another way, a danger that our conviction that Jesus is Lord can lead us to a kind of fatalism regarding the needs, pains and sorrows of our world? – “Oh, everything is going to be all right in the end, so let’s just concentrate on evangelism.”

There are Christians who take that view. Our business, they say, is to preach the gospel and to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) – to convert men and women to Christ, not cow-dung to bio-gas.

If ever I needed convincing that that attitude is wrong, that trip did the job. Those missionaries promoting “social action” projects were – don’t worry – also engaged in evangelism. They were all heavily involved in local churches, and the local people were in no doubt that the things they were doing were done in the name of Jesus. In the New Testament James tells us that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Well, that warning would not apply to the people I was privileged to work with.

Let’s spell it out: Christian mission is more than simply preaching the gospel.

This has in fact been recognised throughout Christian history. In Europe, for example, the first schools and hospitals were founded by Christians. In my last blog we thought about slavery, and it is a fact of history that the move to abolish this shocking practice was pioneered largely by Christians.

An example I particularly like is the great Victorian pastor and evangelist C H Spurgeon. He drew enormous crowds to hear him preach in London; that was certainly his priority. But it didn’t stop him also founding an orphanage to help the swarms of homeless and hungry children on the streets.

John Wesley too was an evangelist supreme. But he also addressed  these great words to his fellow-Christians: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Phew, that leaves you quite breathless!

Evangelism and social action are not an “either-or” but a “both-and”. And it doesn’t matter if we are thinking of little things we do personally on a day to day basis, or things done corporately by churches or other agencies.

Doing good in the name of Jesus is what it’s all about. And if that means getting seriously into cow-dung (so to speak), so be it.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you fed the hungry and healed the sick, that you had compassion on the lost and the sad. Please help me to follow in your footsteps, whatever that may mean in practice. Amen.

Jesus and slavery

Jesus said: A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. Matthew 10:24-25

Perhaps the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was so that you might have him back for ever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Philemon 15-16

Have you ever felt puzzled that Jesus regularly uses slavery as a way of talking about our relationship with God?

Surely, if he came to usher in the perfect kingdom of God, he ought to have condemned slavery outright! Today, after all, anyone who regards themselves as remotely civilized – Christian or not – sees slavery as an outrage. The idea that anyone has the right to own another human being is simply scandalous.

Yet Jesus and the early church seem to have accepted slavery as a fact of life.

So the question arises: Why? Why didn’t Jesus condemn slavery?

The answer is simple: in the world in which he lived, slavery was a fact of life, and there was no way he or the group of people who became his followers could change that. Plus, of course, the fact that Jesus saw his mission in this world in far, far wider terms – not simply the righting of particular wrongs, important though that is, but the demonstration of a whole new God-centred way of life.

Slavery goes back into the mists of time; there was, apparently, no culture or society that didn’t practice it. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived over three hundred years before Jesus, slaves were not really human beings at all; he refers to them as “living tools” – with all that that implies (use them as you like, chuck them away when you’ve finished with them). The Roman empire in which Jesus lived was massively dependent on it.

To be fair, slavery in the ancient world was often nothing like as horrible and shocking as, say, the transatlantic slave trade so much nearer our own time. For many, slavery was a far better option than living on the streets; you almost became part of the wider family, with a recognised status.

Many slave owners treated their slaves kindly and with affection. Slaves could rise to positions of responsibility in their masters’ affairs – they may have worked as ships’ captains or farm managers. One writer tells us that “the familiarity of slaves towards their owners was a stock theme of comedy”, suggesting that the masters didn’t have it all their own way.

But these factors, of course, could never make slavery right.

And this was something that Jesus and the apostles did recognise. Their approach, in essence, was to undermine slavery from within, rather than pointlessly hit it head-on. Hence the various New Testament passages where Christian slave-owners are instructed to treat their slaves fairly and with dignity. Ephesians 6:9 is a good example.

Especially, we have the intriguing little letter of Paul to Philemon, where Paul pleads with his friend Philemon to show mercy and compassion to his runaway slave Onesimus.

Paul met Onesimus while he was imprisoned, and unashamedly calls him “my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains”. He is unwilling to insist that Philemon should be forgiving to Onesimus – that has to be according to Philemon’s own conscience – but he hopes that he will treat him “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (verse16).

I would like to have seen Philemon’s face when he read those words, wouldn’t you? – suddenly realising that he had, as they say, some serious thinking to do… (I wonder how the story ended – what did Philemon in fact do? I would love to know.)

What can we draw from this history lesson?

First, let’s be alert to the fact that, tragically, slavery is by no means gone from our modern world. It still happens, as we sometimes see on the news; and there might even be shameful examples of it among the people who, say, wash our cars, pick our fruit or lay our patios.

Second, to keep in mind that ultimately all such social distinctions will be done away for ever: in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This great truth should be reflected in the way we conduct all our relationships – no kowtowing to the supposedly high and mighty, no looking down upon the supposedly lowly. Jesus died for everyone; Jesus loves everyone.

Third, to keep doing in every area of life what the early church did regarding slavery: that is, undermining from within what we cannot transform from without.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could change the world! – if we could right all wrongs! But we can’t. But what we can do is (how can I put this?) inject a little bit of Jesus into every situation in which we find ourselves.

Or, as Jesus himself put it, be the yeast that “works its way through the dough” (Matthew 13:33).

Lord Jesus Christ,

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me bring your love.
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope;
Where there is darkness, only light;
And where there’s sadness, ever joy. Amen.

Francis of Assisi (?), c1182-1226

Honest doubt – or stubborn disbelief?

Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” John 20:27

Last time we thought about the sad mystery of why people “fall away” from faith in Jesus.

Our main focus was on people whose faith crumples because they never talk about, or seek help for, doubts and questionings that challenge their faith; and by the time they do, it’s too late. And I suggested that sometimes churches must bear a weight of responsibility for this, because they treat doubt almost as a sin, so that people feel too guilty to open up about it.

“But wait a minute,” somebody might say, “isn’t that being a bit soft on doubt? Didn’t Jesus tell ‘Doubting Thomas’ off for his doubt? ‘Stop doubting and believe’, he told him. And in other places don’t we find Jesus obviously very disappointed by people’s doubting?”

A fair question. But I think there is an answer.

First, a matter of translation…

Even though Doubting Thomas has gone down in history with that title, it isn’t quite correct. Strictly speaking, what Jesus said was “Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.” There are other words in Greek for “doubt”, but none of them are used here. Several Bible translations reflect this difference. The King James Version, for example, has “Be not faithless, but believing”; The New English Bible has “Be unbelieving no longer, but believe”.

So? Well, this suggests that Jesus wasn’t taking Thomas to task for honest doubt, but for stubborn disbelief.

Just think. Thomas had missed out on Jesus’s appearance to his fellow disciples (verses 19-23). But… never mind, he knew these men! He had lived intimately with them for over two years, as they walked and talked with Jesus. He knew that they were hard-headed men, not shallow and impressionable.

So when, as one man, they greeted him with the news “We have seen the Lord!” (verse 25), he should have believed them. If it was just one or two, fair enough – we could understand his inability to believe. But John gives a clear impression that, no, it was the whole group (just Judas missing, of course).

So Thomas was at fault, not for doubting, but for refusing to believe, in the teeth of good evidence. There is a big difference.

Mind you, having said that, it’s important to point out too how gently and lovingly Jesus treats Thomas: a rebuke, yes, but a very tender rebuke (verses 27-29). He actually invites Thomas to prove to his satisfaction the very thing he has refused to believe: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side…”. No anger; no condemnation. Just disappointment – and love.

(It’s also worth noticing that Thomas had a bit of “previous” when it came to doubt. In John 14:5 he’s the disciple who flatly contradicts Jesus when Jesus talks about “the way”; and a little earlier, in John 11:16, he’s the one who cynically suggests that if their friend Lazarus really is dead, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” Not exactly a little ray of sunshine, our Thomas! – yet, again, how kind to him Jesus is. Is there a message there…?)

When I said that some people’s faith collapses because of a slow build-up of unspoken doubts – the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, if you like – I had in mind doubt in the sense of questioning. It’s not lacking faith; it’s wrestling with genuine puzzles and mysteries. And this is surely something we all do. (In this sense you could call Job the patron saint of doubt; and therefore the patron saint of all of us.)

Is it a sin, in the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque shootings, to wonder, “Why did God allow that to happen?” Or likewise, when there’s a terrible natural tragedy like the Mozambique cyclone, to reflect, “If God really is God, couldn’t he have prevented that from happening?”

I have on my shelves a book, written by a Christian, called Is God a moral monster? It grapples, among other things, with those Bible passages where God is portrayed as, in effect, ordering mass slaughter (Joshua 6 would be a prime example).

I’m not sure how successful the writer is – but ten out of ten for trying! Anyone who has read the Bible without puzzling over passages like these… well, all I can say is that they have never really read the Bible at all.

So, a question to finish with: Are you bottling up doubts in your mind? Yes? Then, please, find a wise and trusted Christian friend and unload them. It could make all the difference.

And for the rest of us, a tiny verse from the tiny Letter of Jude: “Be merciful to those who doubt” (verse 22). Or, as the New English Bible puts it, “There are some doubting souls who need your pity”. Or, as The Message puts it, “Go easy on those who hesitate in the faith.”

Yes? Yes! Amen!

Lord Jesus, please be gentle with me when my faith falls short. Please help me too to be completely honest when I find myself doubting. And help me too to “go easy on those who hesitate in the faith”. Amen.

Why do people fall away?

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. 2 Timothy 4:9-10

So what went wrong with Demas?

We know next to nothing about him, but in just two other places (Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24) Paul mentions him as a “fellow-worker” and, presumably, a friend. But here, in 2 Timothy 4, we get this sad little note that he has “deserted” Paul.

We can’t say for sure that Demas abandoned his Christian faith; perhaps he simply didn’t see eye to eye with Paul (he wouldn’t have been the only one, if Acts 15:36-41 is to be believed!). But Paul’s remark that he “loved this world” strongly suggests that, in his view at least, Demas has “fallen away”.

Last time we looked at Hebrews 6:4-6, a sombre passage suggesting that anyone who does what Demas did can never be restored to salvation. I suggested that it is wise not to be too dogmatic about exactly how to understand this passage – but also that we should certainly take on board the fact that “falling away” is a very serious matter. God is not to be trifled with.

But the question arises: Why do people fall away anyway?

No doubt there can be various reasons. Demas, for example, seems to have developed a greater love for “the world” than he did for Christ. And in his parable of the sower Jesus speaks of people who, though they received “the word”, are unable to cope with “trouble or persecution” or with “the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matthew 13:1-23). That suggests three main reasons for falling away: caving in to fear of persecution, getting snowed under with worries, or – Demas’ problem – succumbing to materialism.

In my time as a full-time minister I found pastoring those who seemed to be falling away by far the most difficult job I had to perform. Calling on someone and taking them to task – “Er, we don’t seem to have seen you much recently” – was usually horribly embarrassing: give me a visit to the dentist any time.

But it had to be done, and whether it involved the wagging finger or the arm around the shoulder (so to speak) it never got easier. And if things didn’t work out, I always felt guilty, that I had failed somehow. (We ministers can be plagued by insecurity, you know; delicate little petals we are; kindly keep that in mind for future reference…)

No doubt I had failed. But I tried to remind myself also that every person has a responsibility for their own soul, whatever my inadequacies.

In most cases people’s faith just dribbled away. Early enthusiasm waned and eventually died. Very rarely was it the hard pressures of life that did the damage – ill-health, family worries, job difficulties. On the contrary, these often seemed to have the effect of strengthening faith. No. As life went on it seemed that Jesus simply wasn’t in fact that important after all.

But recently I read an article in a Christian paper which suggested another problem, where perhaps the church does have to shoulder a fair amount of responsibility: situations where a person’s faith collapses under the weight of slowly built-up inner doubts and questionings.

There are churches (I hope yours isn’t like this!) where doubt is treated almost as a sin, and where questioning is not encouraged. There is a strong doctrinal “party-line” which you are expected to toe. Members accordingly become very docile and passive, and when they are struggling, for whatever reason, they are afraid to be honest about what’s going on in their hearts.

And so one day, possibly after many years, they find themselves suddenly thinking “I just don’t believe this any more!” And in no time at all word is going round: “Had you heard that Geoff has lost his faith!”

I find this kind of situation far, far sadder than the one where somebody just lets their faith peter out. The Geoffs of this world may simply be being honest, and a point comes when they can no longer endure wearing what has come to seem a mask. If only they had found a wise, mature Christian friend to talk to…!

It’s a healthy church that takes doubt seriously, that not only allows but even encourages questioning. A tree that can’t bend in the wind is likely to snap; and a faith which has no “give” in it is in danger of collapsing.

Please don’t get me wrong. A robust faith in Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day returning in glory is absolutely vital. This is the gospel.

But for the rest, let’s be open to doubts and sympathetic to honest questionings. When the man I’ve called Geoff comes back to God, as I trust he will, his faith will very likely be ten times stronger than that of those who (let’s be blunt about it) have never really thought at all.

Lord Jesus, thank you for being so patient with me in times of fear, doubt and questioning. Help me always to be honest about what’s going on in my heart, and to be sympathetic and sensitive to others who are feeling the rough winds of uncertainty. Amen.

Are you in danger of falling away?

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Hebrews 6:4-6

Mmm… this sounds a bit grim.

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews seems to be saying that if you have come to faith in Christ but then “fallen away”, there’s no way back: “It is impossible… to be brought back to repentance.” It’s that word “impossible” (not just “very difficult” or “very unlikely”) that seems so hard.

Why should it be impossible?

Is it because God has made it so? – as if he has said: “Sorry, but I’m afraid you’ve blown it. You had your chance, you took it, but then you went back on it. Now it’s too late…” Is God washing his hands of a person in this position?

That is hard to believe – it simply doesn’t chime in with the nature of God as we see it in the Bible as a whole, and above all in the love and mercy of Jesus.

All right. So is it impossible, then, in the sense that the person in question has, him or herself, made it impossible – that they have hardened their own heart to the point of no return, so that repentance is simply ruled out? As far as salvation goes, God has no Plan B – it’s either Jesus or nothing. So given that the person in question is, in effect, “crucifying the son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace”, what hope can there be?

That seems rather more plausible – and it could be borne out by Hebrews 10:26-27, where a similar point is made: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left…”. There is no Jesus Mark 2, no second Calvary.

But even there the question “Why so final?” won’t quite go away. However “far gone” a person may be, why shouldn’t a change of heart still be possible?

It’s a tricky one, and if you look up the various commentaries you find that the experts struggle to make sense of it, and to agree with one another. So it’s unwise, I think, to be too dogmatic.

One thing is clear, though. The writer isn’t talking about somebody who has had, if I can put it this way, just a brief, shallow flirtation with Christianity. No; they have “been enlightened”, they have “tasted the heavenly gift”, they have “shared in the Holy Spirit”, they have “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age”. It isn’t like when people turn up at our churches for, say, a few weeks, show a bit of interest, but then disappear again. No. The person in question has been pretty deeply into Christianity – so their “falling away” is all the more grave.

For many of us today the question of deciding to follow Jesus can seem terribly casual, even trivial – if, after a bit, you decide to change your mind, well, what’s the problem? Against that, bear in mind that the writer to the Hebrews was writing against a background of persecution, where many Christian people had paid a heavy price – even including death – in order to remain loyal to Jesus. (See, for example, Hebrews 10:32-35.)

And that, of course, is exactly how it still is for many Christians in many parts of the world.

So while perhaps we have to live with uncertainty about the precise interpretation of these verses, we can draw from them a clear lesson we still need to learn at regular intervals…

Putting it bluntly: Don’t trifle with God! He is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and the decision we make to obey, serve and love him is the most important we will make throughout our lives. To call ourselves “Christians”, and to proclaim “Jesus is Lord”, is a big, big thing. Christianity isn’t a pastime or hobby; it’s the very guiding star of our lives.

Is that how we see it? Or is it something we have “fallen away” from?

When Jesus was asked by some of the religious leaders of his day “which is the greatest commandment?” he went straight to the Old Testament and replied, first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (that, more or less, is Deuteronomy 6:5), and then, second, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (that’s part of Leviticus 19:18). See Mark 12:28-31.

There can be no half-measures in following Jesus. The people who received the Letter to the Hebrews needed to be reminded of that. Many Christians today, suffering appalling hardship, need no reminder.

So… What about us?

Lord God, please save me from becoming casual or shallow in my attitude to the gospel. Help me to grasp its seriousness and its sheer wonder, and so bring me to that day when the veil is torn aside and I will see Jesus, crucified, risen and ascended, and worship him as I should. Amen.

(This concern about “falling away” that we find several times in this letter prompts the question: Why does it happen? Why do Christians so often tend to fall away?

There’s no room now to tackle that. But I hope to come back to it next time – so, watch this space…)

Taking yourself in hand

I beat my body and make it my slave… 1 Corinthians 9:27

So here we are in Lent.

Had you noticed? Does Lent mean anything to you?

I must admit it’s not something I’ve ever taken very seriously – this period of forty days leading up to the Easter weekend, when many Christians make sacrifices or take on special times of prayer and devotion. There’s no mention of it in the New Testament, although it is of course derived from the forty days of fasting that Jesus endured before the start of his earthly ministry.

I think my luke-warm attitude probably comes from the idea that it’s a very “churchy” thing that can easily become an empty tradition, a token gesture (like “giving up chocolate for Lent”?), rather than a serious attempt to get to grips with God in a deeper way.

But who am I to say? I don’t know what other Christians make of Lent, do I, so it’s hardly for me to judge. And there are some people I know who find it extremely helpful.

Whatever. What I do know is that the apostle Paul was entirely serious about the business of “taking himself in hand”, as we might put it: “I beat my body and make it my slave…” (1 Corinthians 9:27). That’s pretty strong stuff, wouldn’t you say?

I’ve never understood the appeal of boxing (I leave that to my elder son – I’ve no idea where he got that enthusiasm from!). Why you might want to stand in a ring while someone else does their best to whack the living daylights out of you (an expression of my father) I really can’t imagine. Not my idea of fun. But, then again, what do I know?

But Paul seems to have had an even stranger habit: he didn’t just allow other people to beat him, but he “beat his own body”. How literally he meant that I don’t know; perhaps it was his metaphorical way of describing that “taking yourself in hand” process I mentioned. Clearly he was determined that his body should be his servant and not his master: “I make it my slave”.

Does this mean that the human body is, of itself, evil or wicked? No, not at all. It was, after all, designed by God, and God doesn’t make anything but what is good.

But it has potential for evil. If we let it become our master rather than our servant it will eventually run out of control and destroy us – think of people who allow themselves to become obese (I don’t of course mean people who have a medical condition), or addicted to various substances, or sexually unrestrained. The body is not evil in itself, but it can become an instrument of evil.

The universe is full of things like that. Fire is an obvious example: it’s a wonderful thing to warm us, or for us to cook with, or to destroy rubbish with. But think what it does when it gets out of control. The same with nuclear energy. Or even an everyday object like the car – a great way of getting from A to B, but a frightening thing when driven irresponsibly.

Was Paul a bit of a fanatic? It might seem so. But remember again the experience of Jesus himself – the horrendously harsh discipline of those forty days and nights in the desert. If Paul was “fanatical”, how much more Jesus? (Why not spend a few minutes reflecting again on Matthew 4:1-11?)

The season of Lent is intended to encourage us to examine ourselves for ingrained sin, ungodly habits and compromises in our way of living. However we may choose to observe it – giving up chocolate, giving our bodies a buffeting, or anything in between – can that be bad? Honest self-examination leading to determined change can, surely, only be good.

The playwright Oscar Wilder raised a laugh by declaring “I can resist anything but temptation!” In its way that’s not a bad joke. But in reality temptation is a deeply serious thing. We need to give thought to the state of our bodies – but even more to the state of our souls. If we take seriously the word of scripture – that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19) – we will want to do that. Yes, God himself lives within us!

Here’s a question for us to put to ourselves: Am I in control of my life (under God, of course), or is my life in control of me? If “observing Lent” helps us to get this right, why not go for it?

What’s not to like?

Father, as I head now towards Easter, please help me to get to grips with any sin, any bad habits, any laziness or carelessness in my walk with you. As I think of Jesus fasting in the wilderness, teach me the value of discipline, and so help me to become more like him. Amen.