Wednesday, 30 April 2014

A voice in your ear

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it". Isaiah 30:21

Sunday morning in church someone was blindfolded and asked to walk round the building - it meant negotiating plenty of chairs, turns, knees, baby-buggies, not to mention a step or two. But he did it, and with very little difficulty (he even seemed to know when he had reached the place to aim a friendly kick at his wife). How did he manage it? Simple: someone else was walking behind him and whispering instructions into his ear - "Left turn here, two steps forward, right foot up here, your wife's just to the left...".

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when the people of Zion - that is, Jerusalem - would hear the voice of God: "This is the way, walk in it".

I love the simplicity of those words. They apply, I believe, to every individual child of God, to you and to me. God has a way for each of us to go, and the secret of fulfilment in life is to listen carefully for his voice and to walk trustingly in his way.

I know it isn't always as easy in practice as it sounds. There are times when we genuinely don't know which way is God's way. We get puzzled and confused. At times like that we need to rely on four key things. 

First, scripture. If our minds are soaked in God's word then we are more likely to sense his leading at vital times. 

Second, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit lives within us, and we can ponder and reflect on his guidance given to us through prayer. 

Third, common sense. Christians shouldn't be afraid of applying this. Certainly, there are times when God asks a child of his to do something that seems pretty strange - I think of Noah being told to build a ship in the desert - but they are the exception rather than the rule. 

Fourth, the wisdom of others. If we bounce our uncertainties off a trusted and mature Christian friend, their advice is likely to help us.

Whatever, the fact is that if we are humble and genuine in our search for God's way, he will make it clear to us in time. Why wouldn't he? If he loves us, why would he want us to go wrong?

Jesus spoke of the wide gate and the broad road that "leads to destruction", and of the narrow gate and the narrow road that "leads to life" (Matthew 7). As if to say, "Don't just go with the crowd! Don't opt for the easy way, don't take the line of least resistance!" The narrow gate may be harder to find, and the narrow way more difficult to walk - but it really is the difference between life and death. How many lives have been ruined because someone decided to step outside God's chosen way? Sad, so sad.

Someone might say, "But this is too late for me. It's years ago now that I took a wrong turning and lost my way. There's no possibility of retracing my steps. My life is ruined."

But no. God has this wonderful knack of giving us a new start at any point in our lives, even right towards the very end, in our old age. He can even weave the follies and mistakes of the past into a new pattern which will turn out beautiful. So don't despair. True, the past can never be undone, but it can be reshaped  into a new purpose and meaning.

So let's be careful how we walk. To step out of God's way is to step into trouble, danger and sorrow. Has anyone reading this done just that? Is anyone reading this actually doing it at the moment...? But to walk with God is to walk towards the light. 

Listen out for that quiet, loving, caring voice: "This is the way; walk in it"?

Lord Jesus Christ, you said "I am the way". Help me to take that simple word seriously, and so help me to walk  with you every minute of every day, until that day comes when I will see you face to face. Amen.

Saturday, 26 April 2014


He who answers before listening - that is his folly and his shame.  Proverbs 18:13

Do you think of yourself as a good listener? Probably we all do - it may never have occurred to us that we're not. But I've a feeling that most of us are far better talkers.

I had an interview with a bank employee once - we needed to talk about a mortgage or something. As I explained our need I could see her eyes glancing down at various papers on her desk. She kept murmuring "Mmm", "Yes, mmm", "I see", "Of course", but I just knew she wasn't actually listening to me. I wanted her to look at me and give me her full attention. It made me quite angry. 

And what about those times you're talking to someone in a room full of people, and you can see their eyes looking over your shoulder, obviously more interested in what's going on behind you than in what you are saying. One of the biggest complaints about doctors, politicians and other influential people is "I never felt he really listened to what I was saying".

Well, I'm sure I am as guilty in this area as anyone else. So this verse in Proverbs is a good wake-up call. To concentrate seriously on what someone is saying is enormously important. At the very lowest level, it's just plain good manners. But, more to the point, it's a way of saying "You matter to me! I see you as a real person, a human being, not just a shape filling a bit of a space in my life". To feel that someone has really taken the trouble to listen to you is massively reassuring and encouraging; it enhances your sense of self-worth.

Listening to someone, then, is about respecting them, treating them as important, as an equal. So why do we often find it so difficult? There may be various reasons. 

First, we are just too plain busy - we don't have the time to stop and listen. But, let's not kid ourselves, we would happily make time if the other person was someone we valued. 

Second, we are so full of ourselves that the only opinion that matters is mine; we don't mean to ignore the other person, but subconsciously we just aren't interested. We are arrogant. That's why, as the writer says, we are tempted to answer before taking in what they are saying - as if to say "Now look, I've got this right, so will you please shut up and take it from me".

Third, perhaps we are afraid that what we hear might challenge some prejudice of ours; we are too lazy to do some serious thinking and adjust our views accordingly. Or we are afraid the other person might make some kind of demand of us. If we listen to what they say we might feel under an obligation to do something, and that would upset our comfortable life. 

Fourth (let's be totally honest), that other person is just so boring. Well, all right, perhaps they don't have much sparkle to their conversation. But can you imagine Jesus stifling a yawn and turning away from some poor soul who rattled on a bit?
These are all things it's good to think about. 

But there's something else here too. When we take care to listen there's a good chance that we will be doing ourselves a favour as well. Who has never said to themselves "If only I had listened to what so-and-so said! It might have saved me from disaster"? No wonder Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." And, as a Sunday school teacher said to me many years ago, "It's no accident that God has given us two ears and only one mouth..."

Is it time to cultivate the grace, the skill, of being a good listener?

Lord God, please forgive me for being so full of my little self that I fail to listen properly to others. Teach me to be a better listener - listening to you, listening to wise people, and, yes, even listening to those I find tiresome. Amen.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Despising others: a nasty habit

As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart. 2 Samuel 6:16

Be honest now. Have you ever “despised somebody in your heart”? If you can truthfully answer No, then all I can say is that you are a far better person than I am. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t go around looking for people to despise - God forbid! - but I would be a liar if I said it has never happened. So I think I can identify with Michal in this sad story.

Michal was David’s wife, though her father King Saul had earlier given her to a man called Paltiel (that’s rather how royal females were treated in those days: a bit like pass the parcel). But she had shown great loyalty to David, and 1 Samuel tells us more than once that “Michal loved David”. So it’s especially sad to read about this incident. 

What had David done wrong in her eyes? Answer: he had praised God - for the bringing of the ark, the sacred chest, to Jerusalem - by “leaping and dancing” in front of the crowds. Michal felt that this was way beneath his dignity, and told him so. David defended himself angrily. And that, it seems, was pretty much the end of their marriage.

That’s Michal and David: but why might we be tempted to despise others? Well, perhaps we just have a rather bloated opinion of ourselves: we think we are cleverer or more talented than someone else. Perhaps we have had a more privileged background, and so look down on those we consider to be “beneath us”. (I heard of a young man who wore a tee-shirt saying “It’s hard to be humble when you’ve been to Eton”.) But our story makes clear how this can happen over the matter of worship. David was adamant that his behaviour that day was in praise of God - so how dare Michal criticise him!

My work as a minister began in the early 1970s - just the time when what became known as the “charismatic movement” burst on the churches. Many of us found it quite bewildering. We were used to standing sedately in church singing time-honoured hymns to the accompaniment of the organ.

But suddenly now there were people lifting their hands up to worship God; they were playing guitars and singing new songs in a modern idiom; they were “speaking in tongues”; yes, there were even some who, so report had it, were actually dancing in church (I knew a vicar who changed the name of his evening service from "Evensong" to "Come dancing with Jesus": I kid you, as they say,
not.) I don’t think I was the only one who did a bit of despising in those days, though I hope that most of us have learned better since.

There is a key principle here that all Christians need to take seriously. It’s called humility. Paul sums it up well: “... in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). He tells the Thessalonian Christians not to "treat prophecies with contempt" (1 Thessalonians 5:20) - which would hardly be necessary if it were not a real temptation to some. 

Considering others better than oneself... it's easy to say, often hard to do. But sorry, there’s no getting round it. Even if we feel someone is making a fool of themselves, we are not to despise them, but, rather, to assume the best about them, not the worst. Who, after all, are we to judge what is going on in someone else's heart? How do we know they are not closer to God than we are?

True, this does need to be balanced with other factors. Paul also tells us that in worship “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40). And John tells us that we should be wise and discerning when it comes to things we might struggle to make sense of: “... do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). In other words, the fact that somebody seems to be making a fool of themselves doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not! Openness is one thing, gullibility quite another.

But humility is always called for. All right, perhaps David’s antics were a bit over the top. But wouldn’t Michal have done better, however disapproving, to shake her head with a smile, give him the benefit of the doubt, and have a quiet, loving word with him later?

Is there anybody in your life you need to revise your opinion of? anybody you are, in your heart, looking down on? Make no mistake: this is sin.

Lord God, help me to be discerning and wise - but also teachable and humble. Amen.

Monday, 21 April 2014

"God, wake up!"

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. Psalm 18:16

I think of them as turn-around psalms - that's my personal way of looking at them. There are quite a few of them in the Book of Psalms as a whole, but perhaps 18 is the most dramatic. You only have to read the early verses to see the crisis the writer was going through.

Why "turn-around"? Because each of these psalms begins with a situation of desperate trouble, either for the person writing, or for Israel as a nation. But then comes the change of fortunes - God steps in, acts with power and decision, and everything is different. It's as if dark storm clouds have rolled away, and the sun shines again. That's what verse 16 is about.

question: Are you desperate for a turn-around in your life? Well, please don't give up hope; what God has done for others he can do for you, if you cling to him and cry out to him like the psalmist. I have seen this on many occasions over my  years as a minister. I have seen people at rock-bottom, where any kind of change seemed quite impossible. And then I have seen those same people, some time later, at peace and happy, rejoicing in God's goodness.

Three great Bible turn-arounds come to my mind.

First, the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14). The people have come out of captivity in Egypt. This was a momentous event, truly a miracle. But the Egyptians come thundering after them in their chariots. The people arrive at the sea. What are they to do? What possible way of escape is there: the uncrossable sea before them, their ferocious enemies behind them? Just when there seems to be no hope, God acts, and all is well. Some turn-around!

Second, the return of Israel from the captivity in Babylon. The people have been languishing there for two whole generations - "We wept when we remembered Zion (that's Jerusalem)," they say (Psalm 137). They are
now under the thumb of the Persians, the new super-power of the time. Just when they were despairing of ever seeing their homeland again something truly amazing happens: the King of Persia, Cyrus, issues a decree giving them his express permission to go home, even commanding them to rebuild their temple (see 2 Chronicles 36). Cyrus, bear in mind, is a pagan king. Again, some turn-around!

The third example is, of course, the greatest one of all, and the one we have been celebrating at Easter-time: the resurrection of Jesus. We can hardly begin to imagine what his disciples felt on that terrible Friday of crucifixion. And what about the Saturday? Have you ever stopped to think what a long, miserable, dreary, dismal, cheerless day that must have been? But then on Easter morning - well, I don't need to tell you what happened.

The message is clear: we never know when God is going to act, or how. We haven't the remotest idea of the resources he has up his sleeve. True, our turn-arounds don't usually take the dramatic form of the ones I have mentioned. Often they are gradual and seem, with hindsight, quite routine. But they do happen - and God doesn't change, so why shouldn't they happen again?

Psalm 78 is another turn-around psalm, and it climaxes with the remarkable words: "Then the Lord woke as from sleep, as a man wakes from the stupor of wine" (verse 65). I love that! - the psalmist actually dares to compare God to a drunkard emerging from a drinking bout. He's bolder than I would like to be! - but his boldness can encourage us to pray "Lord, please wake up!" 

So... don't lose heart that there will be a turn-around for you - the Lord will draw you too "out of the deep waters".

Dear Father in heaven, I'm pretty desperate. I badly need a turn-around in my situation. Sometimes I find it hard to trust you or to see your hand in my life. Please help me to hold on to you. Yes, please help me! Amen.