Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Is your church a turn-off?

So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who don’t understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are mad? 1 Corinthians 14:23

When Paul wrote these words, he wasn’t attacking the gift of tongues. Not at all: he states plainly that he himself is a prolific tongues-speaker (verse 18). No: he was drawing attention to the fact that when we as Christians meet for worship, it matters how we come across to the outsider, especially the unbeliever.

“Will they not say that you are mad?” he asks. Putting it bluntly, do we come across as a bunch of weirdos? 

I think I know how Paul felt. When in full-time ministry it was always a highlight of the week for me to stand up on a Sunday morning and see all those lovely familiar faces - dear brothers and sisters in Christ. It was good to sing songs and hymns, some old, some new, and to join together in prayer, to hear the Bible read and opened up. We were doing familiar things in a familiar place in the company of familiar people. We were comfortable. And nothing wrong with that.

But then the door opened and somebody new came in. And straight away my mind was off on a new tangent. Who were they? What had brought them? Were they Christians? Were they someone looking for God for the first time? Were they someone at a crisis point in their life?

And behind all those questions: Was the way we were doing things calculated to draw them in, or to drive them away?

All right, the topic Paul is particularly concerned about is tongues - and especially the way it can be abused. And given that this is a matter which even many Christians feel unsure about, how much more might that apply to the visitor?

But the general principle Paul is raising can apply to other things too. There are various ways our gatherings can be a turn-off...

I went to a meeting once in the company of some non-Christians when, halfway through, the congregation got up and danced a conga round the building. I can still see the look - part complete mystification, part utter contempt - on the face of one of the people I had brought.

Then there was the time I arrived a few minutes before the start to find the place in a lather of activity - musicians running around getting themselves organised, the technology nerds sorting out the PowerPoint. Oh, and someone busy hoovering the carpet. As I stood surveying the scene I couldn’t help thinking, “Suppose I had been a stranger?”

Or the time the person leading the service decided it would be a good idea to ask us all to turn to the person next to us and pray with them. There was in fact a newcomer that day: she was never seen again.

This problem doesn’t exist only for churches with an informal style of worship. What about churches where peculiar clothes are worn, strange processions enacted, archaic language used, and odd rituals carried out? How very peculiar it must all seem to the “unchurched”.

I know I must be careful saying this. For one thing, I am aware that I can be over-sensitive about it. “Relax!” I’ve said to myself - “far from seeming strange, the way we do things might in fact get through to outsiders in a way you would never have expected.” And sure enough, there was a service when the music was more than usually ear-splitting (this, I have to confess, is one of my bug-bears) and I was looking a little uneasily at a lady I didn’t know. Only to be rather taken aback after the service when she told me how much she “loved this loud music”. 

I remind myself too that it is not for us as Christians to allow the outside world to set our agenda for us. Do what you feel is right, and let God look after the consequences! Yes, by all means.

And yet... 

The fact is that as the years go by people are becoming more and more detached from church life: they aren’t necessarily against us and what we do; they just haven’t got a clue what it’s all about. And this means it’s vital that we shouldn’t do anything that might make things even harder for them.

Would it be a good idea to have an occasional discussion along the lines: How does the average man/woman in the street see us? Are we guilty of erecting unnecessary, unhelpful barriers? 

Tongues may not be the issue for us. But perhaps Paul’s troubled voice still speaks to us down the centuries.

Lord, my great desire is to be fully in tune with you. But help me too to be in tune with my non-Christian neighbours and friends - and never to put a stumbling-block in their way. Amen.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The fear of God

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:3-4

Do you find that word “feared” a little strange?

The psalmist has just been rejoicing that “with God there is forgiveness” - which, surely, is very good news. So you would think the next words might be “therefore you are loved - or trusted - or worshipped - or enjoyed...” Take your pick. But “feared”? Why would we fear a God who forgives us?

To be fair, most modern Bible translations don’t have “feared”; they substitute “worshipped” or “revered”. And I’m sure that’s right. The psalmist isn’t talking about a cringing, servile attitude towards God.

But he is talking about a very serious attitude, whereby God takes absolute first place in our lives, and whereby his lordship as well as his love shape and control our attitudes and our behaviour.

Perhaps you can sum it up like this: Forgiveness is certainly a free gift, and something to rejoice in - but it isn’t a freebie.

By “freebie” I mean something we probably accept with a casual wave of the hand - “Great, thanks for that”. And then get on with our lives with barely a further thought. We live in a world awash with freebies - the advertising industry uses them all the time, and the idea of something for nothing is very appealing.

But if ever we Christians start treating God’s forgiveness that way, we have lost all sense of divine authority and of “the beauty of holiness”.

I don’t know, of course, what led the psalmist to write these words. But I’ll make a pretty confident guess: he had woken up to the fact that, having basked in the sunshine of God’s forgiveness, from now on his life could never be the same. Look back for a moment at his story...

He has been in trouble, deep trouble: “Out of the depths I cry to you” (verse 1). The depths! Is he talking about sickness, or family worries, or money troubles? Possibly any of those. But there are some clues pointing us in a different direction.

First, his cry to God is for “mercy” (verse 2), suggesting a sense of guilt and shame. It seems he has something on his conscience, and it won’t let him rest. And then this impression is reinforced by his picture of God up in heaven holding a long, grim list of all his sins and wrong-doings: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” (verse 3). Who indeed!

He’s feeling pretty small. 

And it’s then that those beautiful, simple, gospel words come: “But with you there is forgiveness.” From the depths to the heights!

In my years as a hospital chaplain I sometimes met people who had been through grave illness, perhaps even close to death itself. But they had come through, and their sense of relief and gratitude was overwhelming. They used to tell me that, following this experience, their whole attitude towards life was going to be completely different: “I’ll never take a day of life for granted again!... My eyes have been opened to what life is really all about!”

How truly they stuck to these resolutions, of course, I couldn’t stay. But it was moving to sense the deep sincerity with which they spoke. Some experiences in life really do warrant that hackneyed expression “life-changing”.

Well, I reckon that’s how the psalmist felt as he wrote this psalm. How, after all, can anybody receive something as massive and momentous as God’s free, gracious forgiveness - and carry on just as before?

The New Testament is full of the joy of the Lord - people coming face to face with Jesus and being transformed as a result. But this serious side is there too. Writing to the church in Philippi, Paul encourages them to “work out their salvation with...” - with what? Joy? Happiness? Freedom? Excitement? 

I’m sure he would gladly say all those things. But the phrase he actually uses is - wait for it - “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). A challenge, surely, about how seriously we take our walk with God. Are we shallow, casual Christians, with trivial habits, aims, tastes and ambitions? Or do we give to God the devotion which is his due?

Here’s a question all of us might put to ourselves: What do I know about the fear of the Lord?

O God, thank you for being a forgiving God. Thank you that in Christ’s cross all my sins are dealt with once for all. May this great knowledge lead me to live my daily life in true fear of you. Amen.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Seeing God's hand in everything

Joseph said to his brothers… “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt. And now, don’t be distressed and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…” Genesis 45:4-5

These are wonderful words. As a boy Joseph was certainly foolish in the way he spoke to his parents and his brothers about the great future God had in store for him. But that could never excuse the cruelty and callousness with which his brothers treated him. He suffered enormously as a result. He lost years of his life – years that he could never get back.

Yet when eventually, in his splendour, he meets them again, he is able to speak these words of comfort and, implicitly, of forgiveness. No anger. No recriminations.

On the contrary, he is able to see a purpose – a divine purpose – in what has happened to him: “God sent me ahead of you…”

Shaving this morning, I idly put the radio on to help pass the time. I found myself listening to a woman who, around the age of fourteen, was raped and tortured by two young men. She spoke about the struggle she has had in order to make some kind of recovery from this trauma; but, cutting the story short, she described how she has ended up as a psychiatrist specialising in helping people who have had similar traumatic experiences.

It was massively heartening to hear her story. I found two things she said specially striking.

First, when asked if she felt angry with the young men involved, she replied (using my own words): not so much angry as curious about what led them to act in this way. How can anybody – and especially anybody so young – be capable of such a thing? She didn’t suggest that such behaviour could be excused or condoned, but she felt determined to explore its roots. It was this that led her to become a mental health specialist.

Second, and this struck me even more forcibly, she described one of the main lessons she had learned. Here I am quoting her fairly accurately: What matters is not so much what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us.

In other words, she suggested that we can, if we so choose, make a decision to benefit even from horrors. At no point in the interview (not the part I heard, anyway) was there any mention of religious experience or conviction. But she could have been echoing Joseph: in effect, “I have become a better person, and done good I otherwise would never have done, as a result of what happened to me.”

Over my years as a minister there have been times I have tried to help people whose lives have been blighted by horrible experiences. I have found that, usually, I have little to offer except a willingness to listen, to speak a few (hopefully) healing words, to try and bring a biblical perspective to the situation, and of course to pray. I’ve never felt I’ve done much good.

But neither have I ever felt it right to say, as Joseph might have, and as the woman on the radio might have, “You can take control of your life, and your past, and turn them to good.” Why not? Because nothing seriously horrible has ever happened to me (how fortunate I have been!). It has never seemed right to tell others something which, yes, I do believe, and which, yes, in a very real way I feel I have learned from my own experience, but which, given their circumstances, they could only discover for themselves.

Which is why it was helpful to hear someone talking in this way who has indeed “been there, done that”.

The Bible has a lot to say about God’s “providence”.  This rather old-fashioned word simply means God working out a positive purpose in our lives in spite of all its ups and downs. The classic Bible verse is Romans 8:28: “… in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”.

This calls, of course, for faith in God and a determination to trace his purposes even in the darkness – to “trace the rainbow through the rain”, as an old hymn puts it. To pray – and, when we find this impossible, to ask others to pray for us. Never to despair. Never to shrug our shoulders and give up.

If the Joseph story is the classic story, and Romans 8:28 the classic text, perhaps the classic hymn, still popular after nearly three hundred years, is William Cowper’s “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”

Cowper – who knew a fair bit about suffering – has left to the church some magnificent words: “Behind a frowning providence/ [God] hides a smiling face.” And: “The bud may have a bitter taste,/ But sweet will be the flower”.

May that be the testimony of all of us!

Lord, help me by your grace to take authority even over the bad things that have happened to me, and to watch in faith as, slowly but surely, you turn them to good. Amen.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

For the person who knows everything

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me....” Peter replied, “Even if everyone else falls away, I never will... Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. Matthew 26:31-35

But, of course, they did.

Where were they in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed, after asking them to keep him company in his sorrow? Asleep.

Where were they at his trial before the Sanhedrin, being lied about, spat at and mocked? Anywhere but with him. All right, Peter was outside, but when challenged about his allegiance to Jesus he ended up cursing, swearing and dumping Jesus like a sack of rubbish: “I don’t know the man!”

Where were they at the trial before Pontius Pilate? Don’t ask. Where were they as the nails were hammered home? Skulking, presumably, in some corner. Where were they at the burial? Who knows?

It’s easy to shake your head and despise them, isn’t it? All belt and no trousers! All hat and no cattle! All talk and no action. But of course it’s impossible to avoid the question, Where would I have been if I had been in their shoes? A question I personally would rather not ask.

One of the pluses of getting older is that (hopefully, at least) it drains the over-confidence out of you. True, some younger people don’t need this process: they are humble and teachable right from the start. But I suspect that many of us go through a period when we know just about everything there is to know, are very happy to put everybody else right, and are blissfully sure of our capacity to face any situation. I know I did. I cringe now when I think of it.

And - let’s be brutally honest - some of us never entirely grow out of this mentality. There are some pretty arrogant oldies knocking around the place - perhaps I, and perhaps even you, among them.

It’s a great thing, even if also a painful one, to discover the truth about yourself. It means you can start at last to live the life you were intended for. Simon Peter certainly found this. 

When the cock crowed, signalling his betrayal, he “went outside and wept bitterly”. But the moment of brokenness was the moment of healing: John tells us that it was in that very brokenness that he was restored by the risen Jesus (John 21:15-20). His life at that point was given a whole new start, and the pathetic wretch of the first Good Friday becomes, by God’s grace, the heroic figure of Pentecost and those wonderful following days.

Over-confidence is a weed that grows out of the soil of cast-iron certainty. But this raises a question. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be certain?

Well, yes, of course. Certainly there is no room for any kind of fawning, foot-shuffling, hand-wringing humility - like the obnoxious Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Indeed, the truly humble person never feels the need to claim humility: Francis de Sales (1567- 1622) said that “true humility makes no pretence of being humble, and scarcely ever utters words of humility.” Who needs words of humility when it’s just, well, what you are?

But certainty about God, about Jesus, about his life, death and resurrection, certainty about the fact that I am a sinner saved by grace, certainty about eternal life and about a divine purpose for my life here on earth - certainty about all these things is a very different matter from certainty about my own knowledge, my own wisdom, my own strength and my own capabilities. A very different matter.

There can have been few figures in Christian history more certain about his faith than Paul. Yet he frankly reveals in his letters that there were times when his confidence was low. When he warned the Corinthian Christians “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12) I think he knew what he was talking about.

Indeed, his slightly puzzling admission in 1 Corinthians  9:27 is, to me, very revealing about his inner insecurities: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after having preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”. (Interesting...!)

The essential point is simple: as Christians “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). And wherever faith - believing where we cannot see - is key, there is bound to be also the possibility of doubt. Even those cast-iron certainties about God will sometimes seem somewhat less than certain.

I seem to have started this little reflection with over-confidence, and somehow worked our way to humility and faith. (Rather like Simon Peter, in fact.) I didn’t plan it that way, but perhaps it’s not a bad journey to have made, a journey that leads naturally to prayer...

Lord, empty me of all arrogance and over-confidence, and fill me with love, faith and genuine humility. Teach me to trust solidly in you, but only very cautiously in myself. Amen.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Rejoicing in the routine

Make it your ambition to live a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Here’s a little bit of good news: the Christian life is very often extremely ordinary, indeed quite dull. My hope is that that news might lift the pressure we sometimes mistakenly place upon ourselves.

Or so it should be, anyway, according to Paul here. “Live a quiet life... mind your own business... work with your hands... win the respect of outsiders.” Pretty commonplace, no?

But I thought it was all to do with really exciting things! Big meetings... miracles... tongues... healings... vibrant worship... conversions every week...  Are you really telling me, Paul, that I’ve got it wrong? 

Well, I’m sure Paul would be the last person to deny that, yes, exciting things do sometimes happen as we follow Jesus. Shipwrecks, floggings, lynchings, imprisonments, for a start... He certainly knew about such things, if Acts can be trusted. (Plus many other truly wonderful things, of course.)

But it seems that, when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica, it was the sheer daily routine, the mundaneness, of the Christian life that he wanted to get across to them - what the old hymn called “the trivial round, the common task”. Why was this?

Well, reading between the lines in the two letters that he wrote to this church, it seems that there was an unhealthy outbreak of excitability going on. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 he writes about people becoming “unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come.”

Strange rumours were spreading. That great day of Jesus’ return in glory - well, it’s happened already! All right, we haven’t actually noticed it yet, but don’t you be fooled - just you wait a little longer. The end is at hand! 

And people in the Thessalonian church were believing this nonsense. And one result was that some of them were giving up work and living lives of idleness as they waited for the big End-of-the-World show: “Well, if Jesus really is coming back in the next few weeks, what’s the point of going to work? Surely we just need to focus on getting ourselves prepared. (Thanks, all the same, for that fifty pounds you put through the letter-box last week, and the food-parcel you left the other day.)”

You see why Paul is concerned? What sort of witness is this?

And so he issues strong words: “...warn those who are idle...” (1 Thess 5:14); “...keep away from every brother who is idle...” (2 Thess 3:6); “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down (there’s that ordinariness again) and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thess 3:11-12).

History shows that every so often the church is subject to these bouts of excitability. It may be to do with the second coming, as in Thessalonica. It may be to do with strange and dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, as in certain aspects (not all!) of the fifty-year-old charismatic movement.

And, yes, as I said earlier, exciting and wonderful things do sometimes happen - indeed, oh for more of them! But we need to be very careful and discerning. If we get sucked into this kind of give-me-non-stop-excitement mentality there is a danger that we blow a fuse and end up in the psychiatric unit. The devil is a great deceiver...

The fact is that for most of us, for most of the time, being a follower of Jesus means getting up in the morning, praying to God for blessing on the day, having our breakfast, brushing our teeth, and then getting on with whatever our daily routine calls for - whether that’s sitting all day in front of a computer, chairing a high-powered meeting, toiling on the factory-floor, or wiping the baby’s bum.

Being a cheerful neighbour to the people in the same block or down the street... being a good colleague to the people at work... driving our cars sensibly, considerately and responsibly... paying our taxes and other dues... being courteous and pleasant to everyone we meet, including the woman at the supermarket till and the man in the petrol-station... minding our language... being scrupulously honest... playing fairly when we are enjoying ourselves... 

And, of course, in the midst of this humdrum activity, looking for opportunities to speak explicitly, but always appropriately, about our faith in Christ.

Will exciting moments come? Well, why not? There will be lovely answers to prayer. There may be significant outpourings of the Spirit. And one day, yes, Jesus will return. 

But until such times come, the message to all of us is very simple: Christian, roll up your sleeves, look life right in the eye - and just get on with it!

Father God, help me to see you in the everyday business of life, and to grasp every opportunity to make Jesus known, whether by deed or by word. Amen.