Monday, 27 October 2014

Advance warning!

Dear everyone.

I'm planning a shift of blog sites. As from now I'm making my main site For the time being I'll still put my posts on this site (, but if you wish to continue reading my stuff, please look at the new address. 

Away for a few days tomorrow - back towards the weekend.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Character and charisma

“... dwelling on visions...” Colossians 2:18 (NRSV)

Over forty-plus years in ministry you collect a fair number of memories. Let me share just two.

First, a baptismal service early on in my ministerial life. The church involved didn’t have a minister, so they asked me to stand in. I was very happy to do this, of course, though it meant that I didn’t get to know the people being baptised all that well.

Anyway, my most vivid memory is of a married middle-aged woman. Why? Because she had a vision as she came out of the baptismal pool. Streaming with water as I helped her up the steps, she suddenly threw her arms in the air, gazed up at the ceiling in a kind of rapture and shouted “I can see Jesus!” I didn’t really know how to react, so I don’t think I did, not very much anyway.

I’m sure I must have talked with her about it afterwards, but I have no recollection of what we said, and subsequently I rather lost touch as I went back to my own church. But the next thing I heard, perhaps eighteen months later, was that that woman had disappeared from the church and run off with someone else’s husband. 

Food for thought there, I thought...

My second memory is of a conversation with an elderly member of my own church. He was one of those people who is loved and respected by everyone, both within and outside the church: “a true Christian gentleman” I heard him called, and that description fitted perfectly. He was quiet, gracious, courteous, generous, kind, hospitable, you name it. He had been in leadership positions in the church; never missed a service or prayer-meeting. I know it’s a rather out of fashion word, but “godly” sums him up well.

But when he came to see me he was troubled. I ought to say that this was in the early 1970s, the time when the charismatic movement was just kicking off, and we were all having to come to terms with these strange new things happening in Christian circles: tongues and prophecy, new songs and hymns, lively, spontaneous worship, the need to be “baptised with the Holy Spirit”.

“Colin,” he said to me, “is there something wrong with me? I’ve been a Christian nearly all my life, but I’ve never experienced anything like what these people are experiencing. It’s really got me worried.”

I assured him that as far as I could see there was nothing wrong with him at all. As long as he was always open to God and to what God might want to do in him - and I had no doubt on that score - he really shouldn’t be troubled. 

More food for thought in that conversation...

I don’t share these experiences because I want in any way to rubbish the charismatic movement, or visions and other “supernatural” experiences. Far from it. My whole ministry over all these years has been heavily coloured by this movement, which has radically changed the Christian church of nearly all denominations - and, in my judgment, largely for the better. But they came to mind as I was thinking about these words of Paul from Colossians 2:18.

The precise translation is uncertain, but Paul was obviously unhappy about dubious things happening in the church at Colosse, especially regarding certain people who were, among other things, “dwelling on visions”, as the NRSV puts it. The church was apparently being infiltrated by people who had an unhealthy spirituality, what I can only describe as a slightly odd mix of legalism on the one hand and super-spiritual ecstasy on the other. 

Paul himself, of course, was no stranger to visions and various charismatic experiences; indeed, he even tells us (2 Corinthians 12) that on one occasion he was “caught up to the third heaven” and saw and heard things he wouldn’t dare to try and express. So he can hardly be called an enemy of such experiences. But he understood - if I can sum it up at risk of over-simplification - that character outweighs charisma

That excited lady I baptised certainly had an experience, for what it was worth; but it was that godly man who had the depth, the spiritual stature, the sheer holiness.

I said I would share two experiences from my time as a minister. But perhaps I can add a third.

While still extremely young and inexperienced I became part of a local ministers’ fellowship. We met regularly to talk, pray and enjoy one anothers’ company. On one occasion we were asked the question “What do you really look for most in members of your church? What qualities do you most want to see?” 

We went round the circle, everyone chipping in, and came to a Pentecostal minister who had probably the largest and most thriving church in the town. I was very interested to hear how he would answer the question. Would he be looking for visionaries? tongues-speakers? miracle-workers? prophets? 

His answer was very simple: “I hope for people who can be relied on.”

Food for thought there?

Father, please help me to be wise in weighing up special and unusual experiences of your Spirit. Help me to be neither sceptical nor gullible. But help me to value most of all the development of a Christ-like character. Amen.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Must I really hate my family?

Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple”. Luke 14:26

I’ve long felt that “hate” must be just about the ugliest word in the English language; it’s somehow so horribly naked and uncompromising. I once heard a top snooker player on television talking about his chief rival (somebody who usually beat him, as it happens): “I hate him,” he said, and it seemed almost worse than an obscenity.

Which makes it all the more difficult to swallow Jesus’ words here. We recoil in distaste at the very thought of “hating” our nearest and dearest.

Yet here it is. And if we believe in the authority of scripture we don’t have the option of dismissing it out of hand. We have to grapple with it. So: what sense can we make of it if we want to take it seriously and not water it down?

First, a bit of technical background is helpful (scholars, by the way, aren’t just out-of-touch egg-heads tucked away in their universities!). GB Caird was an authority on the biblical languages, and he wrote: “The semitic mind is comfortable only with extremes - light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate - primary colours with no half-shades of compromise in between. The semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that’.” I think that helps a lot.

It’s worth noticing that Matthew, in his gospel, gives the same truth as Luke, but in this softer form: “Anyone who loves his father or mother... his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me...” (Matthew 10:37).

Second, it is vital to take this saying (along with everything we read in the Bible, of course) in the context of the whole. Did Jesus himself literally hate his own father and mother? Well, the tender way he treated Mary while hanging in torture on the cross would certainly suggest otherwise. He took the trouble to commit her to the care of “the beloved disciple” (John 19:26-27).

Still more, Jesus teaches us to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). Wouldn’t it seriously stretch credibility, then, if we were at the same time commanded to literally hate our loved ones? And still more again, didn’t Jesus himself show love even to those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them...” (Luke 23:34)? If Jesus had really meant “hate” in that ugly, naked sense that it has for us today, well, he certainly wasn’t true to his own teaching! In fact, wouldn’t he be a hypocrite, teaching something he didn’t himself practice?

The essential truth behind Jesus’ words is simple: “I come first. Loyalty to me outweighs loyalty to any other person or cause. If you decide to come after me, good, but be prepared to make some hard decisions.” 

And this, of course, is a truth which many Christians are called to act on today. Think of the couple called to missionary service far away from home. Think, even more, of the Muslim who opts to follow Jesus at the agonising cost of being disowned by their family. And think of Jesus’ further sobering words to all of us that we must “take up the cross” in order to follow him. 

Christian discipleship is no joke, no hobby, no pastime. It is a serious business - and this passage makes that clear even after we have allowed for the factors I have mentioned.

This prompts a further reflection. We live in a culture that is very keen, in theory at least, on “family values”. I mustn’t get too cynical here, but it always irritates me when I hear politicians in particular (not least prime ministers) telling us that they may not be Christians in any strict doctrinal sense, but that they do “believe passionately” in the Christian emphasis on family values. 

I find myself wondering if they have ever read these sobering words of Jesus. They are, in effect, making themselves more “Christian” than Christ. “Family values”? The plain fact is that allegiance to Jesus can give rise to deep and painful divisions in families. 

Yes, let’s value all the positive things the Bible says about husbands and wives, sons and daughters; but let’s also be true to Jesus himself and not duck his blunt warnings to us about “counting the cost” of following him.

Ultimately the only family that matters is the family of God our heavenly Father.

Father, I thank you that family is your invention, to be cherished and valued. But I pray too that my loyalty to you will always be my top priority. And I offer a special prayer for those many people today whose hearts are breaking because they have heard the call to put Jesus first. Amen.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Fight the good fight

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. Psalm 20:7

Have you seen the Steven Spielberg film Warhorse, all about the 1914-18 war? The central character is Joey, the beautiful thoroughbred horse which gets drawn into the war. The film is about the adventures of his young owner Albert as he first loses him and then gets re-united with him. Quite a tear-jerker, really.

If nothing else the film brings home the sheer vileness of war. The weaponry of those days was far less sophisticated than what we are used to today, but even then the damage, misery, pain and death it inflicted were truly horrific. Oh for a world free of war!

In the world of Old Testament Israel, war was also a regular occurrence. In 2 Samuel 11:1 we read about “the spring, the time when kings go off to war”, as if it was just part of the normal cycle of life, like the hop-picking season or the summer holidays. It seems that for God's people to become established in a dog-eat-dog world they found themselves having to wage war like every other nation, which meant that they too had to develop weapons of destruction. 

But in their best days they never forgot what the Psalmist says here: ultimately success depends on trust in God. Oh yes, they still had their horses and chariots, but they knew that in the last resort that wasn’t what really mattered. When they forgot this, they found themselves in deep trouble. 

Read, for example, about the battle of Ai in Joshua 7, when they assumed that their superior manpower was bound to see them through - only to be given a rude awakening. Or the folly of King Ahab in 1 Kings 22, who thought that he could make himself safe on the battle-field by resorting to a very human trick - and came seriously unstuck.

The lesson is simple, and still applicable all these centuries later: you can't fight God's battles with the world's weapons. You can try, of course; but you are bound to fail. “Put your sword away!” Jesus told the loyal but misguided Simon Peter at the moment of his arrest. (How sad that so often throughout its two thousand year history the church has failed to heed those words.)

Well, no-one these days urges us Christians to go literally to war in Christ’s name. So what might this teaching mean for us in 2014? There are two great passages from Paul which can help us if we put them together.

First: "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Corinthians 10:4). Second: "Put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground..." (Ephesians 6:11). And if we ask what this "armour of God" consists of, Paul goes on to itemise it: truth... righteousness... the gospel... faith... salvation... the Holy Spirit... the word of God... above all, prayer.

The church is easily tempted into aping the ways of the world. It may adopt plans, schemes and strategies which have brought success in the world of business, politics or sport. And, yes, sometimes we Christians can derive insights from these areas - we have to be practical, down to earth, "savvy". 

But to imagine that they are bound to "deliver success" in the spiritual realm is sheer folly. Beware books which promise you, for example, “six steps to victory in the spiritual warfare”! - as if all you have to do is learn certain techniques and put them into practice. It just isn’t like that. No, spiritual warfare requires spiritual weapons. I once heard an anonymous little rhyme which sums this up: "Satan trembles when he sees/ Christian saints upon their knees".

Are you aware of being involved in spiritual warfare? I hope you are - because every Christian is, whether he or she realises it or not. But if that is so, the key question becomes: what are the weapons you are fighting it with? Are you aping the world? Or following the leading of the Spirit?

Oh God, the forces of unbelief, falsehood and evil sometimes seem so powerful, and I feel overwhelmed. Help me to do battle in Jesus' name - and to do it only with his holy methods. Amen.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A man of faith - and failure

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing... and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram left... Genesis 12:1-4

I wonder exactly how Abram heard these momentous words spoken to him by God? Did he receive an angelic messenger? Was it an irresistible inner voice? Or perhaps an audible voice from some unseen visitor?

We aren’t told. But what we know is that they were words which transformed not only his own life, but the very course of human history.

What has been going on? In essence, God is looking in sadness on the ruin of the beautiful world he has made. The first human pair has fallen into sin. The first murder has been committed. Male/female relationships have become twisted. Corruption has set in - so much so that God has seen fit to “de-create” the world by means of the flood. A new, clean start is needed.

But things get no better. The building of the tower of Babel, a monument to human arrogance and self-glory, sets in train hundreds of years of decline.

So what is God to do? Wash his hands of the whole human project? That would seem reasonable. But he has, if I can put it this way, a problem: he loves the world he has made, and the people he has put on it. How then can he destroy everything?

So he decides on a rescue mission for planet earth... He will bring into being a nation of people who will be, so to speak, his representatives on earth. He will make known to them something of his character. He will give them laws to live by. They will be “a light to lighten the nations”. They will be, in effect, the light of the world.

But how can even God bring such a people into being without a founding father? He has to find someone to fill this role. 

Step forward... Abram.

And so the long and bumpy journey begins which leads ultimately to Jesus, the supreme light of the world; to Acts 2 and the day of Pentecost, when representatives of the various nations hear God’s good news in their own languages; and to Revelation 7, where we find “a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the lamb...”

There is so much that could be said about Abram. I’ll stick to just two things.

First, God didn’t choose him because he was particularly good. He wasn’t. Go to the second half of Genesis 12 and you find him involved in a grubby, squalid little scheme to save his own skin, even at the expense of his wife Sarai’s honour. The faith that caused him to leave Haran and set off into the unknown has shrivelled and withered away. 

Read further in Genesis and you find that his descendants could be not much better - especially the sneaky, cheating Jacob, the man whose name is actually changed to “Israel”. Oh yes, later we do find further displays of faith and obedience; but the overall picture is really pretty mixed.

So? If nothing else this reminds us that all human beings are sinful, and that God’s blessing and salvation really do arise from his grace alone. If God is going to work through human beings, then he has to work with some pretty rough material - think Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Elijah the quitter, Simon Peter the denier.

But doesn’t this also mean that there is hope for you and me? We, no doubt, have plenty in our lives that we feel ashamed of; but God loves us, and wants to change us and use us. No excuses for bad behaviour, of course. But if we come to God humbly, just as we are, there is no limit to what he might do with us. Let’s get that great truth into our heads!

Second, God didn’t choose Abram only in order to bless him, but, much more, to make him a blessing to others. Sadly, this is what his descendants over the next two thousand years so often forgot - and this is what broke Jesus’ heart. And this is why we - all who claim to love and trust Christ - have inherited that role of “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). 

Which all leads to a searching question: when we pray, are we more likely to pray “Lord, bless me” or to pray “Lord, make me a blessing”? There’s a massive difference! It’s not wrong to ask God’s blessing on ourselves, not at all; but it should come well down our list of priorities. 

And let’s never forget- it’s in blessing others that we find our own truest blessing. Yes, really!

Lord God, thank you that you choose to work through deeply flawed human material. That description fits me - so use me, Lord, use even me, just as you will, and when, and where. Amen.