Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A warning to the half-hearted



“Consider carefully what you hear,” Jesus continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you - and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” Mark 4:24-25


Since I retired four years ago I have tried to develop one or two new skills, or to brush up one or two old ones.


I have joined a poetry-reading group where each member brings a poem to share on a chosen topic. And a French conversation group (which, I don’t mind telling you, is a bit of a stretch for someone who last studied French over fifty years ago). And my wife even bought me a ukulele (I kid you not) for Christmas (perhaps I’ll be able to make a start on that when I have succeeded in tuning the thing...).


My progress in these areas, as you may have gathered, is limited. But never mind! I’m just enjoying myself, keeping my tinsy little brain at least slightly active, meeting some interesting new people, and having a bit of fun.


Of course, if I wanted to make proper progress I would need to enrol in a proper French class or get a proper music teacher or whatever. But steady on! - I’m not that serious about it.


The point is simple: in any area of life you only get out what you put in - if your investment is meagre, don’t expect much by way of a return. 


And that is pretty much what Jesus seems to be saying in these verses. 


True, the same saying about “the measure you use” appears in different settings in various parts of the Gospels. It also serves, for example, as an encouragement to be generous: the more you give, ultimately the more you will get. Or as
a warning about being judgmental: be harsh about others and God will be harsh with you. 


But here, what comes across is a warning to the half-hearted.


How do I make that out? Well, Jesus isn’t of course talking about some sort of casual hobby or skill like discovering new poetry, but to the vital business of hearing God’s word: he is challenging his disciples to take very seriously the importance of listening to, and responding to, God: “Consider carefully what you hear...”


There are Christian people (and, please believe me, I am talking to myself here as much as to anybody else) who are little more than dabblers, triflers, when it comes to the things of God.


Oh yes, they will turn up to church, from time to time at least - but start talking about commitment and they disappear in a cloud of dust. Oh yes, they have their favourite Bible passages - perhaps Psalm 23, The Prodigal Son, and 1 Corinthians 13 - but suggest that they get their teeth into Numbers, say, or the Letter to the Hebrews and, er, no thanks.


And the result? They never grow or make progress. And, of course, if you don’t go forwards the fact is that you don’t simply stand still, you go backwards. Isn’t that what Jesus means when he says that “even what they have will be taken from them”? The spiritual dabbler ends up losing whatever little enthusiasm he or she originally had. It just fizzles out. (I’m reminded of the man who, looking back over his life, lamented the time when “I had just enough Christianity to make me miserable, but not enough to make me happy.”)


But the good news is that Jesus also says: “Whoever has will be given more”. Does that sound unfair? No, he’s just stating another fact of life - the person who puts heart and soul into something ultimately harvests satisfaction and fulfilment.


So... do you (like me) see in yourself any of the marks of the spiritual dabbler? If so, here’s the stark truth: we will end up (a) disappointing to God, (b) dissatisfied with ourselves, and (c) not much use to the unbelieving world. Putting it another way: if we’re going to be Christians, well, let’s be Christians; if we’re going to follow Jesus, well, let’s really follow him.


I’ve no idea what thoughts will pass through my mind as I lie on my death-bed. But one thing I’m entirely sure of: it won’t be, “Oh dear, I do wish I had given more time and effort to learning to play that ukulele”. But I fear it could just be: “Oh dear, I do wish I had loved, trusted and served Jesus with all my heart and soul and mind and strength.” 


How about you?


Lord Jesus, you gave your everything for me when you suffered and died on the cross. Help me, by your Spirit, to give my everything for you. Amen.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Gifts of God - really



In the church God has appointed... those with gifts of administration... 1 Corinthians 12:28

Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. 1 Corinthians 14:40

The dots in the first quotation indicate that I have left parts out - quite important parts in fact. I’ve done so because I think that often in church life we don’t value highly enough the faithful people who simply “keep the show on the road”, so to speak. I’m talking about the organisers, the administrators, the number-crunchers, the rota-arrangers, the practical sleeves-rolled-up people. 

When Paul speaks about people “with gifts of administration”, that’s not the only possible, or even the best, translation. The word he uses conjures up the idea of a helmsman, the person who guides the ship with their hand on the tiller. But I personally like the translation we have, because it draws attention to that army of people without whom the church simply couldn’t function. Another translation speaks of “organisational gifts”.

Why is this on my mind? Because in my own Bible reading at the moment I’m working my way through Leviticus and Numbers. If you have ever done this, and you are anything like me, there are times when you find yourself thinking “Why on earth did God see fit to preserve all these obscure details in his word?”

Numbers 1, for example, has a string of short paragraphs, each about one of the tribes of Israel, which are virtually identical. They all have just under fifty words, and the only differences are, first, the name of the particular tribe being spoken about, and, second, the number it contained of “men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army”.

And you think, Why? Why do I today need to know about all this?

In chapter 2 we learn about the precise arrangement, when camped, of the tribes around the “tent of meeting” (that was where the ark of the covenant was kept, and was the nearest equivalent the Israelites had to a shrine or temple at that time). We learn too the precise order in which the tribes set off on the march.

In chapter 3 we learn about the work of the Levites, the men who did the donkey-work, the heavy lifting, when Israel was on the march, and who generally were responsible for looking after the enormous amount of “stuff” that needed to be carried around while Israel was in the wilderness. 

Yes, not only the altars and the ark, the sacred table and the lamp-stand, but also the poles and posts, the curtains and other hangings, the ropes and tent-pegs - all these items and a whole lot more needed to be taken care of. And chapter 3 tells us exactly who did what. Everyone knew what their particular responsibility was.

So again: Why? Why all this detail?

One reason, I think, is to give us a flavour, a feel, of what the camp of the Israelites must have been like in those exciting early days. Even the strange names and the precise numbers stir our imaginations (if we let them), and we can somehow “see” in our minds this vision of God’s holy pilgrim people on the move. Orderly, disciplined, controlled. 

Well, it’s a long leap from Israel in the wilderness to the church in first-century Corinth; an even longer leap from there to us today. But certain things don’t change, and the need for order and discipline is among them. And that is why “those with gifts of administration” are so important. In the church of Christ, even in these very relaxed and informal days in which we live, things should be done “in a fitting and orderly way”, as Paul puts it in chapter 14.

So here’s a suggestion. When you go to church next Sunday, by all means say thank you to those who lead and read and pray and preach. Don’t forget to say thank you too to those who teach the children and look after the babies. Not to mention those who set things up at the start, those who make the coffee, and those who do the washing up.

But why not also go up to the secretary, or the treasurer, or the administrator - whatever name you call these background people by - and give them a great big sloppy kiss on the cheek. They too are exercising “gifts of the Spirit”.

They might get quite a surprise...

Thank you, Lord Jesus, that in your church there is a place for everyone, and everyone has their place. Help me to find my particular place, and to fulfil to the best of my ability the work you wish me to do, so that your church operates in an orderly and efficient way. Amen.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Are you properly dressed?

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3

I was chatting with someone recently after a service where I was the preacher. We hit on a topic where we didn’t see eye to eye – nothing serious, just a genuine difference of opinion. But it prompted him to suggest a reason why I thought as I did: “Oh, that’ll be because you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist!”

Well, that had me nicely pigeon-holed, didn’t it?

I didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed. I had only met this man five or six times before, and yet he had clearly got me well sussed – well sussed, that is, to his satisfaction. 

It was only later, as I thought about it, that annoyance (anger would be too strong a word) set in. How dare he pass such an ignorant and superficial judgment on me! (a) I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist (harrumph!), and (b) What’s a dyed-in -the-wool Baptist anyway? Grrr.

Well, I wasn’t going to waste more than five minutes being irritated, so I just passed it off for what I think it was: a silly remark.

But then something else this man had said earlier in the conversation came back to me: he wasn’t, it seemed, too thrilled with the state of the church he belonged to, and one of the reasons was that “the leaders aren’t Spirit-filled”.

Which struck me as a very different matter from me being a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist: not just a silly remark at all. By what right does any Christian presume to pass such a serious judgment on someone else? (And what, in his eyes, did a “Spirit-filled” person look like anyway?)

Even more serious, if you dismiss someone else as not Spirit-filled, then presumably you are making a claim that you are. And once you start making that kind of claim, even if only by implication, you really are on dodgy ground.

Paul tells us to “consider others better than ourselves.” That seems a very simple statement – a statement about humility – but the more you think about it the more thought-provoking it becomes.

For one thing, it flies right in the face of the Greek culture and society in which Paul lived. The Greeks of Paul’s day were renowned for their learning. They were one of the most intellectually gifted nations in history, and humility was something they not only didn’t value, but which they actually despised (they might well regard it as “servile weakness” and “obsequious grovelling” says one commentator).

(I have a feeling that our twenty-first century western world – so brash, so vulgar, so sure of itself, so look-at-me – isn’t a lot different, and could do with a strong dose of Paul’s quite revolutionary remark.)

Still more, Paul speaks of humility as a chief characteristic of Jesus himself: “he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Pride is, very simply, the polar opposite of all that Jesus is about (your mind probably flies to that remarkable event of the washing of the disciples’ feet).

The obvious question can’t be avoided: how do I view my fellow-Christians, my fellow-church members? From a lofty height? Or from a lowly stool?

What troubles me is the suspicion that often we are, putting it bluntly, two-faced. Oh yes, we are skilled at putting on a humble and gracious manner – but how often, at the same time, are we despising that other person in our heart? Perhaps they aren’t as clever, or as gifted, or as successful, or as popular as we are, so we tolerate or patronise them; deep down, the thought of “considering them better (!) than ourselves” just doesn’t come into it.

Lord, what hypocrites we can be!

It strikes me in fact that, just by writing about that man in the way I have, I myself have perhaps been guilty. I can’t feel it was wrong to react to his comments as I did – but how is it possible to do that and, at the same time, to consider him “better than myself”? (Help!)

Well, questions like that can only be left to the judgment of God, who knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. All I know is that the challenge of humility is the challenge of Christ-likeness – and mustn’t be shirked.

So while I go away and scratch my head, let’s leave the last word with the apostle Peter…

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility” (1 Peter 5:5).

How well clothed are you?

Lord God, give me the grace I need to never look down on another human being, Christian or otherwise. Amen.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Jesus, children and prayer



Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; don’t hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these...” Matthew 19:14-15

I was eighteen, and it was my last Sunday at church before heading off to university for the first time. An elderly lady came up to me to wish me well. I don’t think I had ever spoken to her before, and I didn’t know her name - when you’re a bolshie teenager the “older people” are just a grey mass really, aren’t they, not actual people? - even, I’m fraid, the butt of a few jokes.

Anyway, I thanked her a little awkwardly for her kind words; and she then said, “Ever since you were a little boy in Sunday School I have prayed for you regularly.”

I’ll leave you to imagine how I felt: embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, moved - yes, all of that, and more besides. Above all, perhaps, humbled.

That happened over half a century ago. Who could ever calculate the impact of that woman’s prayers on my life?

Our minister recently challenged us to take on a responsibility. He asked us all to pick one child from the church’s children’s work and “adopt” that child for systematic prayer. Just that; nothing more - in the privacy of our own prayer lives, to remember that particular child on a regular basis. I couldn’t help being reminded of that old lady from all those years ago.

Two strands of thought come together in my mind.

The first strand, of course, is children, and how precious they are to God. Hence that beautiful story from Matthew 19 (it’s also found In Mark and Luke) about Jesus welcoming the children and praying for them.

One of the great joys of church life is the gift of children. I remember receiving a message from the secretary of a church I was due to preach in which said, “There won’t be any need for an all-age talk as, sadly, we don’t have any children at the moment.” Sad, indeed!

A joy, yes; but children are also, of course, a great responsibility. Thank God for those who teach and lead them, who give up many hours in thought and preparation! Thank God for those who give them attention and take them seriously! Thank God for those who pray for them! (Should you be thinking about getting involved in ministry to children?)

The second strand is prayer

When Jesus tells us to “ask”, “seek” and “knock” it’s prayer that he’s talking about, and one type of prayer in particular: what you might call soaking prayer. The English translations don’t convey this, but you could translate his words as “ask - and go on asking; seek - and go on seeking; knock - and go on knocking.” In other words, he’s not talking about one-off prayers, though obviously there are times when that’s what’s needed. 

(He says pretty much the same thing in Luke 11:5-8, the story of the man who pesters his neighbour and gets him out of bed; and in Luke 18:1-8, the story of the needy widow who won’t let the judge rest till he does what she asks. I knew someone once who referred to Christians as “God-botherers” - it sounded a bit disrespectful, but perhaps she was onto something!)

Anyway, this is why “soaking prayers” is a good way of describing what Jesus is talking about - simply taking a person, a problem or a situation and soaking it in prayer on a regular basis. That woman who prayed for me didn’t see many “results” for her prayers (apart, of course, from my baptism when I was fifteen - I mustn’t forget that!) but she simply made it her business to “soak” me in disciplined, persevering prayer. 

This type of prayer can, of course, be difficult. It can lose any feeling of freshness, because it’s bound to involve repetition. It isn’t easy to find new words to express what’s on our hearts, so it can seem little more than a duty (though what’s wrong with duty?). It isn’t particularly emotional most of the time, so it can seem a bit flat, even rather dull.

But who cares? We all know that it’s hard to fathom how prayer “works”. But the message is simple: don’t try to understand it; just do it...

Lord God, even when I have prayed for someone or something a thousand times, please help me to keep on keeping on. Amen.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A 24-7 faith

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…  Deuteronomy 6:6-7

The first time I visited France, in my early twenties, I remember being amazed and impressed at the wonderful ease with which even small children spoke French. I mean, here was I, who had spent several years at school struggling to master French grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with only limited success, and here were these children prattling away perfectly without the slightest effort.

My amazement lasted only a second, of course. Dense though I no doubt am, it didn’t take me long to figure out that this great skill came from the fact that these children hadn’t, in fact, “learned” French at all in the way I had tried to do. No: it was second nature to them. It was all they knew, because it was their native tongue, just as English was mine. They had absorbed it, as the saying goes, with their mother’s milk.

And that, says God to his people in Deuteronomy 6, is how children in Israel should learn the essentials of their faith: “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…”

What applies to Israel applies also to Christians. And what applies to children applies also to adults. Our faith in Jesus should not be a thing apart from ordinary life, something bolted on, so to speak, but something in the very air we breathe day by day and minute by minute.

Sadly, our Christianity can easily become something we “do” only at special times – probably on a Sunday morning – and only in special places – probably a building which we call a “church”. This is a pale reflection of true, red-blooded Christianity.

With the genuine article, even our homes can be – should be – miniature “churches”, where God is honoured and the Spirit lives. Even the most routine tasks – the washing up, changing the baby’s nappy, cooking meals and hoovering round – can be done as an act of worship to God.

The distinction between the “sacred” parts of life – worship, prayer, reading the Bible and so on – and the “secular” parts – like the things I’ve just mentioned – is dissolved. It is all one: as the Bible tells us, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). And “whatever” means whatever! Yes, including sitting in your favourite armchair, strolling down the road, getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.

There is, of course, a place – and it’s an important place – for special times to focus on God with our wider Christian family, and probably that will usually be on a Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. And there is also a place for buildings set aside to make such gatherings possible, and there is nothing wrong with calling them “churches”, as long as we remember that churches are in fact families of God’s people, and don’t absolutely need such buildings.

These times and places are matters of convenience and practicality: the real time and place for “practicing our faith” is – putting it simply – anywhere and everywhere. If Jesus is Lord of our lives, then every moment of every day is “sacred”.

You sometimes hear it said of, say, football fans, that they “eat, sleep and breathe football”. And it’s not far off the truth. Their team’s success is everything to them; it completely dominates their lives. This, of course, is why they’re called “fans” – fanatics. It can be unhealthy and dangerous.

Well, I’m not suggesting that Christians should be fanatical. When it comes to “religious” matters, that word conjures up all sorts of ugliness – bigotry, intolerance, even violence – as we see only too often in our troubled world.

But there is a sense in which we too “eat, sleep and breath” the grace and goodness of God, the daily, minute-by-minute presence of Jesus and the peace and love which flow from him. He is everything to us, directing our thoughts, words and decisions, motivating us at the very heart of our lives.

So… What about our faith in Jesus? Something apart? Something bolted on? Something kept in a convenient little pigeon-hole? Or something that saturates everything about us, everything we do, the very people that we are? Make no mistake, that’s the way of peace, fulfilment and happiness!

Lord God, help me to truly love you with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind and all my strength, and to love others as I love myself. Amen.