Sunday, 29 March 2015

Alone in the garden

Jesus said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me".  Matthew 26:38

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. 1 Peter 2:24

Somebody once said, "Anything is bearable - as long as you don't have to bear it alone".

I have had a very easy life - I haven’t really had much to “bear”, for which I thank God. But I suspect there's a lot of truth in those words.

I find the dreadfulness of the plane crash in the Alps almost impossible to imagine - the destruction, the loss, the grieving for the dead, the sheer numbness of trying to come to terms with something so awful.

But for the relatives hopefully there is at least a crumb of comfort in knowing that all around you others are in the same situation. So people can cling together - sometimes quite literally- for consolation, even if there is very little they can actually do. "Moral support" is not just an empty phrase.

Or suppose you've just had an operation. You come round from the anaesthetic and there is no-one near - all the staff are busy at that particular moment with other patients. You feel disoriented and helpless - and totally alone. But then you open your eyes and the first thing you see is a familiar face sitting in the bedside chair. You immediately feel comforted. I'm not forgotten! I'm not alone!

If this is so, it makes Jesus' suffering before the crucifixion even more acute. His words to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane are really quite pitiful: "Stay here and keep watch with me..." In other words, "I need you now more than I have ever needed you before. I know there is nothing you can do to make this cup of suffering more drinkable, but... just be there for me. I want to be able to look up from my praying and see that you are with me..."

And what did he find? They were asleep.

The first time it happened he took Peter to task with a real note of reproach: "Couldn't you keep watch with me for just one hour?" But the second time, Matthew tells us, "he left them and went away once more and prayed..." As if to say, "There's no point in disturbing them again - the fact is that I'm not going to get any help from them in my time of struggle." So he "went away" - can you see his bowed head, his drooping shoulders, all the body language of acute disappointment? - and prayed completely alone.

Of course, it was to get even worse. Being let down by your friends is one thing. But what was it Jesus cried out on the cross? "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Throughout eternity Jesus had been in intimate relationship with his heavenly Father. But as death approaches that relationship is broken. This is an aloneness which we can only begin to imagine. And it is the price that had to be paid for our sins. The perfect holiness of God and the heavy weight of human sin cannot co-exist, so a massive wedge is driven between God the Father and God the Son.

As Peter puts it in that wonderfully concise sentence (with a glance back at Isaiah 53:12): “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”.

As we come towards Good Friday we would do well to pray for a fresh appreciation of what Jesus suffered. The old hymn asks the question, "Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?"

And the answer is Yes. Yes! "Amazing love! How can it be,/ That thou, my God, should die for me!"

Father, the story of Jesus' suffering and death is one I've known almost all my life. Please help me this week not only to relive it in my imagination, but to feel it afresh, as never before. And please also bring to my mind anyone who needs me to be with them today. Amen.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

When enthusiasm isn't enough

Test everything... 1 Thessalonians 5:21

It was 1975 and I was a very young and inexperienced minister. A couple came to me with an idea that made me think hard - in a nutshell: “We feel God wants us to open a Christian bookshop in this town.”

The town in question was Scunthorpe in north Lincolnshire, famed for its steelworks. The husband was a shift-worker in the works, the wife a housewife and mother of small children. I don’t think they would be offended if I were to say that they knew very little about books, even Christian ones, and nothing at all about shops and how they are run.


Things like this, judging by my experience, do happen from time to time to ministers. People come to share a conviction that “the Lord has told me...”. Sound familiar?

I remember a group that was convinced God had called them to set up a hostel for people with addiction problems. They even knew the address of the house which God had in mind, and had gone and knocked on the door and told the poor unsuspecting owner that they would soon be buying his house for this purpose. I think he just dismissed them as “a bunch of religious nutters”, but it must have been unsettling.

Another couple were convinced not only that they were going to be missionaries at some unspecified date in the future, but exactly what country God was calling them to work in.

A blind Christian was visited by a healing group convinced that, after praying for her and laying on hands, her sight would be restored.

A minister arrived new in a town and announced that he believed his small, struggling church would become “the largest church in the town”.

And a more personal reflection: my wife and I lost what would have been our first child; it died in the womb. During the anxious period leading up to this we had lovely, well-meaning Christians assuring us that the baby would be fine. How did they know? - why, the Lord had told them, of course.

You can probably guess where I am heading... That hostel never got opened. That couple never went abroad as missionaries. That blind lady never saw (until she died and saw Jesus face to face in glory). That minister left within a year. And I’ve already said what happened to our baby.

So what about that Christian bookshop?

Well, a few weeks ago I received an invitation to a celebration party marking its fortieth anniversary

Yes! It did get started; and, yes, it is still there. It’s in a slightly different location, it has a different name, and its ministry has expanded beyond only books. But it is still there, a quiet Christian presence in the heart of the town. And I can tell you that that party was one of the most moving and wonderful experiences I can remember.

When the work began, in the original location, a man came in who ran a rather disreputable shop next door. He had a look round and told my friends Ian and Mary “I’ll give you six months.” Well, he and his shop went out of business in no time at all; and if a period of forty years and counting doesn’t qualify as standing the test of time, I don’t know what does...

I don’t mean to criticise the good people I mentioned earlier who got it wrong - God bless them for their faith and enthusiasm. After all, Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire. Don’t treat prophecies with contempt.” Amen to that! 

But then he adds something massively important: Test everything”. Yes, enthusiasm needs to be tempered with wisdom.

That’s exactly what happened with the shop - a vision, a conviction, a whole lot of prayer, of discussion, of research, not to mention sheer back-breaking hard work. And only then was a wonderful new ministry born. 

It’s only right to say that there have been bumps along the way and periods of uncertainty. But is a true work of God ever easy and trouble-free? Not if the witness of Acts is to be believed!

So? I can only encourage us all to be men and women of deep faith, believing that with God all things really are possible. But never forget those two little words: Test everything.

Oh, and next time you find yourself in Scunthorpe (what do you mean, you don’t expect to?), get yourself along to the shop (details below). You can enjoy a coffee, perhaps pick up a bargain from the charity shop, perhaps even buy a book or two.

There’s one thing I can guarantee: you will meet some very beautiful Christian people working out a vision that, forty years ago, looked a mere pipe-dream. 

And if, sadly, Scunthorpe isn’t on your “must visit” list, well, why not stop and offer a prayer right now - a prayer of thanks for past blessings and of intercession for blessings still to come.

Lord God, help me to be a Christian of both soaring vision and hard-headed realism. Amen.

The Well (previously King’s Christian Bookshop) 
74-78 Frodingham Road
North Lincolnshire DN15  7JW.
Telephone: 01724 865410


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Listen to me!

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, though I suspect that most of us are far better talkers.

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

And what about those times you're talking to someone in a crowded room, 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. Oh, and doctors - I’m sure most of them are very good when it comes to relating to their patients, but occasionally you do hear the complaint "I never felt he really listened to what I was saying". 

(I won’t even start on those people who want you to think they are listening to you while they’re glancing at or tapping on their smart phone or whatever...)

To be fair, I should add that you sometimes hear it said of quite well-known, famous people, “When you’re talking to him/her you really feel you’re the only person in their world at that moment.” That’s a great tribute!

Well, I'm sure I am as guilty in this area as anyone else. So this verse in Proverbs is certainly a prod to me. 

At the very lowest level, to listen carefully is just plain good manners.

But it's also 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 space in my life". To feel that someone has really listened to you is massively reassuring and encouraging; it makes you feel much better about yourself.

Why do we often find listening so difficult? Here’s a few possible reasons... 

First, we are just too plain busy - we don't have the time to stop and listen. But, make no mistake, 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 that other person, but subconsciously we just aren't interested.

Third, we are afraid that what we hear might challenge some prejudice of ours; we are too lazy to do some serious thinking and perhaps adjust our views accordingly. 

Fourth, 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. 

Fifth (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?

Listening to someone, then, is about respecting them, treating them as an equal. 

But it may also be about doing ourselves a favour. Haven’t we all got something to learn? And haven’t we all sometimes come away from a conversation feeling enriched and stimulated by some whole new angle on things? 

And is there anyone who has never said 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." 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..."

Not to listen is “a folly and a shame”. Shakespeare went even further, writing about "the disease of not listening". It was said as a joke by the unpleasant Sir John Falstaff, but it was a disease he seems to have been quite proud of: see Henry the Fourth, Part Two, Act One, Scene 2. Truths can indeed be spoken in jest.

By the way, there’s something else the verse suggests, and I mustn’t finish without mentioning it: until you have listened, you are not qualified to speak.
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, 19 March 2015

Barnabas's brother

In the Lord I take refuge. How then can you say to me, "Flee like a bird to your mountain...”?  Psalm 11:1

A favourite Bible character of mine is Barnabas, whom we meet mainly in the Acts of the Apostles. He isn't one of the Bible's “stars” - he isn't up there with David or Moses or Paul or Peter. But he is an important person all the same; and the reason I like him is because of the nickname he earned in the early church: “Barnabas” means Encourager.
Encouragement... It’s one of the greatest things you can offer your fellow-Christians, indeed anyone. A simple word of thanks or praise can change someone's whole day - yes, really! A little behind-the-scenes support of what someone is doing can mean the difference between success and failure. A positive, cheerful and optimistic spirit can lift a whole group - including a church.
Are you a Barnabas, I wonder?
You might give a long list of all the things you can’t do - teach children, play an instrument, lead a house-group, preach, visit the sick. Fine. But it’s hard to think why anyone is incapable of being an encourager. Yes, even you!
Sadly, though, Barnabas has a brother, even though he isn’t mentioned explicitly in the Bible. His name, as you might guess, is Discourager. He or she is the person who goes round spreading gloom and despondency, always seeing the worst rather than the best, for ever finding faults and problems, difficulties and impossibilities.
And here in Psalm 11, sure enough, is Barnabas' brother.
The writer is obviously having problems with him: "How can you say to me, 'Flee like a bird to your mountain?' " In other words, How can you tell me to run away? Oh yes, it's something I really feel like doing. But what sort of faith in God would that show! How would it help? How can you urge me, in effect, to give up! Go away - leave me alone!
I imagine every one of us has felt from time to time the desire to run away, to stop fighting and trusting, to throw our hands in the air, to close our eyes, curl up into a ball and hope that next time we open them our problems will have gone away. Of course! We’re only human, after all.
But it isn't the answer. Problems need to be confronted, difficulties overcome, with a combination of heart-felt prayer, hard work, simple faith and sheer perseverance. Spiritual stickability, I sometimes call it.
The Psalmist may well be wobbling a bit, but he has got the right idea. "In the Lord I take refuge," he says - as if to say, I can curl up in God, thank you very much, so I don't need to be running away. In verse 4 he declares, "The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne" - as if to say, I know it doesn't seem particularly like it at the moment, but God is in control. So why should I give up? And how dare you tempt me to!
The plain fact is that the voice of Barnabas's brother is the voice of the devil. He loves to discourage God's people, whether individually or as a church. And the business of each of us, as followers of Jesus, is to send him packing.
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?
I’m sure Simon Peter meant well when Jesus grimly prophesied that he was going to be killed. He protested: “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22). This, surely, is the voice of a friend! Well, perhaps it is; but a misguided friend - and it doesn’t stop Jesus replying quite savagely: “Get behind me, Satan!"
Psalm 11 isn't very long. Why not take a few minutes to read it right through and to ponder its message? And if you are feeling discouraged today - well, I hope everyone reading this will join in praying that God will send you a Barnabas.
Shall we all do that right now...?

Lord God, draw close right now to anyone feeling discouraged and low. And help me always to be a true encourager to everyone I meet. Amen.