Sunday, 31 May 2015

Praise in prison

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.  Acts 16:25

Well, what's so special about that? OK, perhaps the timing - midnight - is a little unusual for a time of worship, but as long as they weren't annoying the neighbours, why not?

We need to read back a few verses. Does this make any difference...?

Paul and Silas have been "stripped" and "beaten", they have been "severely flogged" and "thrown into prison", they are in "the inner cell" (sounds nastily like a dungeon), and their feet are "fastened in the stocks". Mmm.

Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn't spell out any more details. But I'm sure he could have mentioned the gloomy darkness, the cold, the damp, the smells (I rather doubt if there were en suite washing facilities and other hygienic provisions), the rats. And just the sheer pain and discomfort. Not nice.

And yet they are singing and praising God. The obvious question arises: Would you - would I - have been doing the same? I can only say, speaking for myself, that I have my doubts.

The message is easy to understand but hard to put into practice: faith in Christ should enable us to be unwaveringly cheerful and positive even in the hardest of circumstances.

I’m sure that Paul and Silas will have consoled themselves with the thought that God's hand was somehow in this turn of events (God does indeed "move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform") and that good would ultimately come of it.

And if you read on you find that that was exactly what happened. An earthquake strikes and everyone is in fear of their lives. The jailer, probably a semi-retired Roman centurion, hard-bitten and used to violence, is converted to Christ. An impromptu baptismal service takes place in the early hours of the morning.

Paul and Silas are released (with apologies from the authorities) but, being sensible men, they feel it prudent to move on from Philippi - but they leave behind them an embryonic church. Paul wrote them a letter some time later. Have you recently read the beautiful little Letter to the Philippians? - I like to think of it being read out to the congregation, with the jailer and his family listening and thinking about the night their lives changed for ever.

(I wonder, by the way, how they got on with their fellow church-member, the business woman Lydia? Read about her in verses 13-15.)

I love the detail Luke gives us about the other prisoners. He explicitly tells us that while Paul and Silas were having their prayer and praise session "the other prisoners were listening to them". They probably couldn’t see them in the murk, but they could hear them all right. Oh yes!

I wonder what they thought? Had such a sound - strange, haunting and beautiful - ever been heard before in that horrible place? Cries of pain, yes. Shouts of rage, fury, frustration, perhaps. Sobs of despair, I suspect. But hymn-singing! Praying! This must have deeply stirred their hearts. Perhaps this helps to explain why, when “the doors flew open”, none of the prisoners attempted to escape - they sensed that something very wonderful was taking place.

The way of Christ is the way of the cross. So as far as Paul and Silas were concerned what happened in Philippi was par for the course.

May God help us too to maintain our faith and positive spirits in all the circumstances that come our way. And may he hear our prayers as we remember that even today there are many of God's people in similarly horrible situations all around the world. 

Dear Father, forgive us when our faith fails us and we allow ourselves to be crushed under the weight of our circumstances. Help us to learn from the example of Paul and Silas. And please show mercy today to all who are suffering in our world for conscience' sake. Amen.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Taking prayer seriously

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.  Colossians 4:2
I wonder how many times the New Testament tells us to pray? I've never counted them, but I'm sure there's plenty.

I find that encouraging, because it suggests that prayer isn't always easy. After all, you don't have to be told to do something which comes naturally to you, do you? You don't need someone to issue an order “eat that bar of chocolate”, or “don’t forget your favourite television programme”, or “enjoy your break from work”.

No: orders are given to remind us of things which are important but which we would naturally tend to skip. Hard things, things that are not immediately appealing. Remember when you were a child? "Don't forget to brush your teeth..!" "It's time you tidied your bedroom!" "Get on with your homework now!"

Well, here is Paul writing to the Christians of Colosse. And he tells them "Devote yourselves to prayer". All right, perhaps it isn’t strictly an order, but it’s certainly a strong pastoral suggestion: "devote" is a no-nonsense word.

It means really taking prayer seriously, not just dabbling in it. It means giving prayer that "quality time" we hear so much about these days, that concentration and perseverance that require effort. It means not praying just when you happen to feel like it, or when you can't think of anything else to do, or when a particular need or problem arises. Paul is saying that prayer is something we need to roll up our sleeves for, so to speak.

Of course, prayer should be as natural to us as breathing. But, let's be honest, that often isn't the case. Why is this? I can think of various reasons.

First, this world in which we live provides us with all sorts of other ways of spending our time, many of which seem much more enjoyable: “distractions”, we usually call them (though they may be perfectly good in themselves).

Second, we all know that prayer is often not answered immediately, so there's a temptation to listen to the devil’s voice, "This is a waste of time. Why bother?"

Third, not all of us are good with words, so we struggle to express our thoughts to God - perhaps forgetting that as far as he is concerned cries, sighs and even groans are just as good as polished speech.

Fourth, we tend to let God drift out of our lives, perhaps even sliding into sin, so talking to him somehow feels unreal.

If those are some of the reasons we tend to slip in prayer, what things can we can do to help us pray more effectively? Let me rattle some off.

1. Don't waffle! Be silent before you start and think for a moment what you want to say to God. Then say it, in crisp, concise terms. God isn’t interested in lots of words.

2. Leave it with God. Once you have prayed, don't take your need away with you. Say to yourself "Right! I've left that matter with God, so I won't let it keep running around in my mind." Get on with life.

3. Don't be afraid to use written prayers if you find them helpful. Prayer doesn't always have to be off the cuff - didn't Jesus himself give us a pattern prayer? There are some excellent books of prayers you can use to strengthen your prayer life. Why not have a browse in one or two and buy one that suits you?

4. Explore the pleasure and encouragement (and I really mean those two words!) of praying with other people. If you are married to a Christian, make sure to pray together. And get into a prayer group or house-group where you can share and pray together. Prayer can be particularly hard if you only ever do it on your own.

5. Every time you start to pray, remind yourself of the need for faith. Never pray just as a matter of form - such prayers are empty and pointless. And even if you feel your faith is weak - well, what was that that Jesus said about faith as tiny as a grain of mustard-seed?

6. Experiment with different types of prayer - sometimes part of a fixed discipline, sometimes spontaneous; sometimes short and business-like, other times more leisurely and conversational; sometimes perhaps simply enjoying silence in God's presence.

Above all, always pray from the heart and not just from the mouth, and keep in mind that God is your loving heavenly Father. He loves to hear you pray: yes, really! And he promises that he will answer, though not necessarily according to our time-scale.

Prayer is all about relationship - your relationship with God. Yes, it can sometimes seem like hard work. But how else are we going to build that relationship? And remember, it doesn't take all that much for a duty to become a joy...

Lord Jesus, your first disciples asked you, "Teach us to pray". Please teach me too. Amen!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Trouble in the church

In those days, when the number of the disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews... complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Acts 6:1

Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers. Matthew 5:9

Oh dear! - factions, grumbles and complaints in the body of the church. Sound familiar, by any chance?

We don't need to go into the details about who exactly the "Grecian" and "Hebraic" Jews were, but obviously they were all Christian Jews (though the word “Christian” had not yet been coined) and there was a group who felt their interests weren't being properly taken care of. "It's not fair!"

It's a familiar story, I'm afraid. Divisions, stresses and tensions aren't anything new. In our day we are used to differences between the various denominations and groupings - what form of baptism is correct? how should churches be governed? should worship be planned or “Spirit-led”? - things like that. But there are also differences within denominations and, of course, within individual churches. Very sad.

What’s specially sad is that often when these things happen it is among very good and genuine Christians, people who would never set out to cause trouble. I suspect that the “Hebraic Jews” were blissfully unaware of the hurt felt by the “Grecian Jews”. And the same is probably true in your circles and mine.

In a funny sort of way, though, Luke's words here can be an encouragement to us. For one thing, this happened at a time of exciting growth: “the number of the disciples was increasing”. If Satan is on the move, that suggests that he is worried - which is good news!

But also, they remind us that there was never a time when the church was perfect. We sometimes imagine that there was a golden period way back in the beginning. But that is simply wrong. After all, many of the New Testament letters, especially those of Paul, were written to put wrong situations right.

If you read the first few chapters of Acts, you see that at this point of friction the church was still in its very infancy. Many of the people doing the grumbling will have experienced the thrill and excitement of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost. All of them were newly-baptised. Yet already these difficulties are arising.

So let’s never allow ourselves to imagine that our problems are anything new.

Why do these things happen? Basically, because however Spirit-filled we are (and I hope we are) we aren't yet perfect. Human nature remains flawed and faulty even after conversion. We act wrongly. We speak stupidly. We can be prejudiced, selfish, stubborn, blinkered in our opinions. We take offence. We cause offence. There's a million and one things waiting to go wrong in the life of any church. Every Christian is a work in progress, and some of us still have a long way to go...

And this is why Paul, in Ephesians 4:3, tells his readers to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (which, to be fair to the apostles, is exactly what they tried to do after hearing these grumbles). How well do you - do I - measure up to that demand?

We are living at a time when unbelief - and beliefs other than Christianity, particularly Islam - are on the rise. How vital it is, then, that we who call ourselves "brothers and sisters" in Christ should indeed be united and loving. I hate to think what non-Christians think of us when they see us in our little groups and factions. No wonder people sometimes say, "Well, Jesus I can respect and relate to. But the church - no way, include me out!"

Those words from Ephesians 4 are translated by Eugene Peterson, "be alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences". I think that's good. Any differences among us we should be noticing? - and putting right? Any fences need mending?

Jesus said “Blessed are the peace-makers”. Perhaps that says all we need to know?

Lord, forgive us that we so easily lose the love of Jesus and the harmony of the Spirit. Please bless your church world-wide - every grouping, every denomination, every label - and help us never to disagree unless we really must. Amen.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

God loves to forgive

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.

Here's a question that calls for painful honesty by way of reply: Do you ever harbour grudges? Carry chips on your shoulder? Do you allow things people have done to you, or perhaps said about you, to rankle months or even years after they happened?

I suspect that even the most easy-going of us might have to say yes in reply. Even if we don't allow our grievance to eat us up inside, deep down it is still there, working its poison. Yes, it's very easy to "keep a record of sins".

The good news is that this is something God doesn't do. I suppose that if anyone was entitled to, it would be him. But the Psalmist glories in the fact that the opposite is true. "With you there is forgiveness," he says. How we need to drive this great truth into our thick skulls - our God is a God who delights to forgive. Got it? Really?

There are at least three things we need to do following on from this.

First, accept God's forgiveness with pleasure and delight.

Don't go on for ever carrying that burden of guilt. Bring it to God, lay it at his feet, tell him from the bottom of your heart how truly sorry you are... and you are free! Don't keep returning to your guilt and picking over it like an old scab that is never allowed to heal. If God has blotted it out of his mind, well, why shouldn't you do the same?

Second, move on from your failure with a new determination never to fail again.

I think this is partly what the Psalmist means by "...therefore you are feared". In some ways it seems a little odd to fear a God who loves us so much as to forgive us.

But sin and guilt are serious matters, so our reverence and respect for such a God should instil in us a deeply serious attitude towards life and how we live it. A person who has had a massive debt wiped out should be all the more determined never to get into such a position again.

Third, extend to others the same forgiveness God has extended to you.

The forgiven person must become the forgiving person. Isn't it hypocritical to receive forgiveness from God only then to withhold it from someone else? Remember how we pray in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive others the wrongs they have done to us." That second part is absolutely crucial.

Hatred breeds hatred. Vengeance breeds vengeance. Violence breeds violence. That is the sorry story of our world. But, thank God, the opposite is also true: love breeds love, and forgiveness breeds forgiveness.

Suppose God was in the business of totting up all our misdeeds? As I look at my own life, I can only imagine him sitting there in heaven licking his pencil, so to speak, and adding yet another item to the grim catalogue. I can only say that by this time in my life he would need a pretty long piece of paper... As the Psalmist puts, who indeed could stand? But that is exactly the way it isn't.

Here are two other Bible verses that drive home the same wonderful truth. First, "You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19).

I love those verbs, don’t you? God will tread our sins underfoot. Can you see him - stomp, stomp, stomp? And he will hurl them into the depths of the sea. Can you see him, like a discus thrower, and our sins disappearing over the horizon?

Second, and rather more prosaically, he also says: "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). Thank God for his long-term memory loss!

Don't - please! - spend too long thinking about those verses. Just grab them in both hands and run with them.

Lord God, the tally of my sins would be massive by now - it would need a computer to add them all up. So thank you for the free grace of your wonderful forgiveness. Help me to live every day in the joy of that forgiveness. Amen.