Sunday, 27 September 2015

You are strong when you are weak

... there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses... For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

When I was a small boy in Sunday School there was a song we used to sing: "Count your blessings! name them one by one./ Count your blessings! see what God has done./ Count your blessings! name them one by one,/ And it will surprise you what the Lord has done."

Today those words sound simplistic, even rather twee. But the more I think about them the more I feel that the message they are putting across is in fact good. Indeed, looking back over the years I can't help wishing I had counted my blessings more often than I have.

The point, of course, is that they teach us to be positive and optimistic - to put it in modern terms, to "accentuate the positive", to see that "every cloud has a silver lining". I think of the football coach who has just seen his team hammered 5-0 - only to insist that "There are pluses we can draw from this defeat." It is no doubt far easier said than done, especially when the going is tough. But the principle is sound.

It's a lesson Paul, apparently, had to learn. He was given - presumably by God - a "thorn in the flesh". No-one knows what that was - a sickness? a physical pain? an emotional struggle? a problem that he just couldn't solve? the fact of regular opposition? It doesn't matter. All that matters is that he found it extremely unwelcome. Indeed, it "tormented" him, to the point where three times he asked God to "take it away". "Lord, I've had enough of this!" You know that feeling?

And God said No. He told Paul, in effect, that he would have to live with it.

But - and this is what really matters - he didn't leave it at that. As well as that unwelcome message, he added words of encouragement: "My grace is sufficient for you..."

In other words: "Paul, with my help, which is constantly there for you, you will be able to accept this 'thorn', and even benefit from it. It will teach you to trust more fully in me. It will keep you humble. It will enable me to use you more effectively, because your own sense of how good and gifted you are will be destroyed, and you will depend more completely on me."

And so Paul finishes the paragraph with that wonderful paradox - "when I am weak, then I am strong". Isn’t that great?

Fact: there is no human life so happy that it doesn't contain some hard and unwelcome things. We all have our thorns in the flesh. What matters is how we deal with them.

In essence, two choices lie before us.

First, there is the negative option, a kind of grumbly, grousy resignation: "Oh well, I suppose I'll just have to lump it then. But it really isn't fair. Why me?"

And second, there is the positive option, a determined acceptance: "Well, I don't like this very much, and I really don't see why this should have happened to me. But never mind! If God has allowed it, he must have a reason for doing so. So I'll aim to learn from it, and become a better person, and a more effective Christian, as a result."

I think of the Christian woman stricken with spinal paralysis: “At first I was always asking ‘Why me?’But then I learned to ask ‘Why not me?’ And at that point everything changed.”

As I said, it isn't as easy in practice as it sounds. But this is the Christian way. Remember the cross! Whatever our particular thorns may be, may we learn the same lesson Paul had to grapple so painfully with.

Dear Father, as I look at my life I can see all sorts of things I wish were different. Sometimes I feel a bit hard done by, even resentful. But I do believe that my life is in your hands, and so I pray for strength to accept whatever life deals out to me with a trusting and teachable spirit. Amen.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Pride - the killer sin

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. Proverbs 17:14

The papers today are full of the spat at Chelsea Football Club. 

In case you don’t know, a few weeks ago the Chelsea head coach, Jose Mourinho, lost his temper with his club doctors after they ran onto the pitch to look after an injured player. Even though the referee had beckoned them on, he felt they did wrong because the player in question didn’t seem seriously injured. Worse, with the seconds ticking away to the final whistle, it reduced his team to nine players (there should be eleven and they were already one short).

The doctors were banned from the touchline and the training ground - in effect, seriously reduced in rank. Not to put too fine a point on it, humiliated.

And now one of them, Eva Carneiro, has decided she has finished at Chelsea, and is “considering her legal position”. 

I suspect that the great majority of people - total Mourinho fans apart - are firmly on her side. This is a story which, as they say, looks likely to run and run... 

A perfect illustration of how a relatively trivial incident can explode into something seriously damaging.

Well, as you would expect, all the football commentators have been weighing in with their two-pennorth of opinion. 

But I think the wisest words took about half a minute to say. Someone on television said: “If only Mourinho had made a statement as soon as the dust had settled and tempers cooled - ‘All right, I got this wrong and I’m sorry’ - it would have blown over in no time at all”.

“Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam” says the writer of Proverbs - a placid lake becomes, in a few moments, a deadly torrent. And how right he is! It happens every day, in offices, factories, workshops, schools, clubs, churches, you name it. People (perhaps I ought to say simply “we”) take offence and get hot under the collar; they say inflammatory things; even if deep down they know they’ve got things way out of proportion they refuse to back down. And it’s soon well out of hand. 

And the remedy? Back to Proverbs: “so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out”

Drop the matter. It sounds so simple. But the problem, of course, is what “dropping the matter” actually means in practice. In a word, apologising. Eating humble pie. Admitting we were wrong. Saying sorry. And who likes to do that?

I have some sympathy with Jose Mourinho - football, especially at the very highest level, is an extremely emotional business. Of course he was wrong to react as he did. But haven’t we all done exactly the same thing in different circumstances? His main fault lay not so much in losing his temper but in refusing to “drop the matter” immediately with a simple word of apology. 

The word for that refusal in most cases is one that blights all our lives: pride. Pride can destroy our relationships; we insist on our own rightness, our own superiority, and we simply can’t stomach the idea of saying “All right, I was wrong”. Pride separates friends, work colleagues, family members - tragically, it can even be perpetuated over several generations. 

On a higher level, Jesus has some thought-provoking things to say about this in Matthew 5:23-26: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother...

All right, we don’t literally “offer gifts at the altar”. But we do seek to bring our worship and praise to God. So Jesus is implying that a wrong relationship with a fellow human being has the effect of rendering our approach to God worthless.

I wonder, have you or I ever seriously thought about turning the car round on the way to church in order to make peace with someone we have offended? No? But what interest can God possibly have in receiving the worship and hearing the prayers of a pride-filled soul?

I invite us all to put to ourselves these two questions. First, how are my relationships with my fellow men and women? Am I long overdue for an apology? And second, how is my relationship with God? Have I faced the fact that I will never be at peace with him until I have taken a deep breath and said sorry?

Make no mistake, once we have learned to be truly sorry, there is no experience more liberating, more exhilarating, more life-transforming!

Dear God, forgive me the times I have wrecked relationships through stubbornness and pride. Give me the grace of true humility, and so help me to keep my relationship with you and with others strong and pure. Amen.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Mercy, forgiveness, love

The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" .  Luke 18:13

I wonder if you have anything on your conscience today? It may be something quite trivial - you snapped at someone, perhaps, or over-indulged yourself in some way last night. Or it could be something serious - a memory of something done many years ago, a dark memory that just won't go away but keeps jagging back like a nasty toothache.

Whatever, we all know that feeling of guilt and shame, that sense of having not just let ourselves down, but of hurting another person and grieving God.

The beautiful little story Jesus tells in this passage is perfect medicine for a hurting conscience. Perhaps it’s just what you need...?

The Pharisee - that is, the proud, self-righteous, religious person - prays a prayer full of himself. He informs God (who, I suspect, already knows) what a splendid person he is. He turns a condemning eye on the tax-collector standing near him in the temple, and thanks God that "I'm not like him ". If you met this man in the street you would probably be a little in awe of him; he is what we sometimes call a "pillar of society". But... he is proud, full of himself.

The tax-collector on the other hand may well have lived a pretty shady life. And he knows it. So when he comes into the temple to pray he really hasn't got any fine words to use. The best he can manage, apart from thumping his chest as a sign of remorse, is "God, have mercy on me, a sinner". End of prayer. (Note, by the way: sometimes the short prayers are the best prayers...)

And guess what happened? Well, let Jesus tell us in his own words: "...this man... went home justified before God".

To be "justified" means to be "in the right", acquitted, discharged from the court. When that man left the temple he went home with a light step, a straight back, and his head held high. This wasn't because he had done anything good. No, all he had done was admit his wretchedness and throw himself on the mercy of God. But his humble confession cut more ice with God than all the fine deeds of the Pharisee.

Now, I'm sure that in Jesus' day there were humble Pharisees and good tax-collectors - not everyone should be tarred with the same brush.

But the point is clear: there is nothing God loves more than to forgive someone who is truly sorry for what they have done and who they are. In fact, Jesus says elsewhere that "there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine good people who don't need to" (Luke 15:7).

Why does God want to forgive us in this way? Simple: because he loves us. Did you know that God loves you, even in spite of the bad things you have done?

Of course you did! If you go to church you hear it there (I hope! - if it’s a true church) pretty well every Sunday! You've may have known it since you were a child, especially if you grew up in a Christian home or went to Sunday School. And if none of those things applies to you, well, it’s my privilege to tell you for the very first time right now.

But let me ask the question another way. Assuming you do know theoretically that God loves you, have you taken this great truth to heart? Have you really "taken it on board", as they say? Have you ever sat down in a quiet, thoughtful, serious moment and said to yourself, "God loves me. God is waiting to forgive me "?

No? Well, why not today?

Lord God, when I look into my heart and soul, when I think about the past, I find many things that make me burn with shame. I find darkness. But thank you that still you love me, and that you delight to forgive. Help me to receive your forgiveness today, to rejoice in it, and to live the life of a sinner washed clean as snow. Amen.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

What makes a true conversion?

When Peter saw the disciple Jesus loved, he said to him, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus replied, “...what is that to you? You follow me!” John 21:21-22.

Do you ever feel a little envious when you hear other people’s conversion stories?

There are people who can put a precise date, even an exact time, to the moment they became a Christian. They may have had a vision or some other kind of supernatural experience. Perhaps they had a dramatic healing or a special touch of the Holy Spirit - “baptism” in or with the Spirit, or speaking in tongues.

And you? Well, you certainly reached a point in your life when you decided you believed in Jesus and wanted to follow him, and that was wonderful. But it was all very gradual and undramatic. And when you hear these powerful stories you are tempted to think “Mmm - why not me?”

The message is very simple: don’t feel that way! How you came to faith really doesn’t matter; only (a) that you did, and (b) that you are still “walking humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We preachers can sometimes cause problems here. 

Suppose we want to preach a really evangelistic sermon, making clear the wonder and joy of being born again. What do we do? 

Well, quite possibly we go to the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. There is surely no more dramatic conversion story in the New Testament than this! - a man violently opposed to the church... a supernatural encounter with the risen Christ... a voice from heaven... a falling to the ground... a literally blinding light... humiliation... a total transformation...

This is a wonderful story, and you’d need to be a pretty naff preacher to turn it into a dull sermon. But - and this is the point - it’s a serious problem if we fail to make very clear that this is anything but a typical conversion. Ninety-nine percent of conversions just aren’t like that. So we preachers are guilty of giving a very false impression if we encourage our hearers to think they are. 

When you stop to think about it, it’s striking that, though we meet plenty of Christians in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, we know next to nothing about how they were converted.

All right, there’s the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: converted in the middle of the desert by a strange man who appears out of nowhere and explains the Bible to him. Strange, certainly; but not remotely in the Paul-on-the-Damascus-road class. 

Likewise the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. Yes, he had a vision of an angel, but beyond that it was a case of having the facts of the gospel explained to him.

Then there’s the Philippian jailer in Acts 16: he experienced an earthquake in his personal life as shattering as the earthquake that brought his prison down around his ears. Yes again, that was certainly dramatic, but not remotely of the “supernatural” character of Acts 9. 

But what about Lydia, also in Acts 16? All we are told is that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”. What about Timothy, the young man destined to become Paul’s protégé and spiritual son? From the moment we first meet him he is simply described as “a disciple”: beyond learning that his mother was also a Christian, we are given no clue as to how he became one.

I could go on. How did Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus, become a believer? Or Ananias, Paul’s first mentor? Or dear Barnabas - “Mr Encouragement”? Or Silas, Paul’s missionary companion? Or husband and wife Aquila and Priscilla? Or Apollos? Or Philemon? Or Epaphroditus? Or Aristarchus? Or Euodia? Or Syntyche (I’m sure you remember those two)...?

I’m getting carried away! - but you get the point. 

In all these cases, along with plenty of others, we know nothing or next to nothing. Very likely their conversions were as ordinary, as low-key, as yours or mine. They heard the gospel. They believed. They were baptised and joined the church. And the rest is history.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to listen to conversion stories, to hear people’s testimonies. But when we do so we need to remind ourselves, “All right, so this is how Joe, or Mary, or Bill became a believer. Great. But I am not Joe or Mary or Bill. I am me. And God has dealt with me as he saw fit. And that’s all that matters.”

To repeat... the question is not “How did I become a Christian?” but “Am I, today, here and now, living a truly Christian life?”

Or, as I once heard it neatly put, what matters is not past conversion but present convertedness.


Dear Lord, thank you for that time in my life when I first came to follow Jesus - and thank you even more that you help me to follow him still today. Amen.