Thursday, 29 December 2016

A prayer for the turning of the year

I pray that out of his glorious riches the Father may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. 

And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19

2016 is nearly over.

Time, then, for stock-taking – for reflecting on the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, of the past year. Time too to look ahead, not asking to know what is going to happen, because that is not possible, but aiming to set our sights high so that we make 2017 as good a year as lies with us.

I suggest that we offer a very serious prayer to God: a prayer based on the rich, remarkable and tightly packed words Paul offers to his Christian brothers and sisters in Ephesus.

It’s too condensed to be opened up in full detail, but one thing that stands out is that it rests on a particular belief: what the Christian church would later come to call the “Trinity” – the persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit within God. Let’s skim it on that basis…
  1. God the Father is “gloriously rich” (verse 16).
He is the maker of all things, and all that he makes and does is good. The whole universe is at his finger-tips – he owns everything, and nothing happens without his knowing. And he it is who one day will bring everything to a wonderful conclusion.

Our God is not some weak and feeble God. He is perfect, holy and infinite.
  1. God the Holy Spirit is at work “in our inner being” (verse 16).
This can only mean that if we are Christians then God actually lives within us, for the Holy Spirit is God. Our very bodies – yes, weak flesh and blood though they are – are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). And the Spirit means, among many other things, power.

The very energy of God himself is at our disposal.
  1. God the Son is infinitely loving (verses 17-19).
He too is said to “dwell in our hearts through faith”. Faith means not only a mental assent to God – “Yes, I believe in Jesus” – but a glad acceptance of Jesus, a belief that his death and rising were for us personally, and a willing submission to him.

But the emphasis falls on his love, which is mentioned three times…

First: as Christians we are to be “rooted and established” (verse 17) in that love, like a healthy plant or tree growing in fertile soil, or like a solidly built house on a strong foundation.

Second: it is so great that we can never measure it – it is “wide and long and high and deep” (verse 18) – though Paul does pray for the Ephesians to be able to “grasp” at least something of it.

And third: it is a love “that surpasses knowledge” (verse 19), unlike any love that we can ever know in our human relationships.

In short, the man Christ Jesus is God’s love bundled up in a package we can see and recognise: didn’t he himself utter the staggering words, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)?

So… if you want to know what God is like don’t stare up at the skies – no, look at the baby in the manger, look at the Galilean workman walking the roads of Palestine, look at the man who fed the hungry and healed the sick, who calmed the storm and raised the dead, look at the servant washing the feet of the disciples, look at the agonised man sweating and praying in Gethsemane, look at the God-forsaken criminal hanging on the cross.

And look at the risen Lord standing in the garden on the first resurrection morning and saying “Peace be with you” to those who saw him.

Where else will you find such love, such power, such authority? No wonder the preaching of these things changed the world for ever – and still changes lives today.

Paul ends his prayer with an even more breath-taking hope: “that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God.” I don’t know how to comment on those words – just trying somehow reduces them to the commonplace and ordinary. Each of us must close our eyes and make a real mental effort to grapple with them.

But there it is: just a skim – nothing more. But enough, I hope, to prompt us to ask a question: “How then should I pray as I look to the coming year?” Well, here’s a suggestion…

O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, forgive me that my vision of you is so small and shrivelled, and my faith in you so weak. Enlarge my mind and heart by the Holy Spirit, and fill me to over-flowing with that divine love which cannot be measured and which never ends. Amen.

Friday, 23 December 2016

'Tis the season to be grumpy?

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:33-35

... to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God... John 1:12

When it comes to Christmas I am not (please believe me!) the “Bah! Humbug!” type. Not at all. A spot of fun and laughter, some nice food and drink, a present or two, not to mention some crackers and silly hats - you can count me in, no problem.

But I must admit that there are one or two things that I get a bit fed up with.

One of them is an over-emphasis on family. Anyone would think that the whole point of Christmas is the big jolly get-together round a table heaving with food, with at least half-a-dozen generations represented. This image is projected on card after card, in advert after advert, and on television show after television show.

Fair enough, Christmas does have a bearing on families. The story in the Bible is precisely the story of one - the family of Jesus. And, fair enough again, there can be great joy in families coming together to share a special time.

But if it gets out of hand, this emphasis is simply wrong. And that’s exactly what often happens. Painful questions arise...

What about people who have no family? I know someone, now in old age, who has never had, so far as she is aware, a single relative. How do people like her feel?

What about families where there is a painful gap, an emptiness? - someone has gone away, or has to be in hospital, or simply has to be at work. Or, of course, someone has died...

What about the single, the divorced, the widowed? - rendered acutely aware of their solitude, their outsider status, in this merry atmosphere.

And what about families which are full of tension and even animosity? I knew a family once who had a door-mat with the message, not “Welcome to our home” or something similar, but “Oh no, not you again!” Only a joke, of course (they were lovely, welcoming people). But isn’t that exactly how many people feel as Christmas draws near and they face the prospect of having to be falsely nice to someone they really don’t like?

And, of course, reality never measures up to expectations. You eat and drink too much, so you get bloated, sluggish and tetchy, someone is felt to have taken the Scrabble game a touch too seriously, that bracing afternoon walk becomes a duty (insisted on by an infuriatingly bright uncle) rather than a pleasure - and the weather is cold and damp anyway. Oh dear...!

In the Bible, families are certainly important. But they are not all-important. Christianity is often mindlessly said to “uphold family values” (whatever they are). But is that really true? Not if we take the words of Jesus seriously - look back at the verses I have quoted from Mark 3. 

And what about the boy Jesus in the Jerusalem temple? He spoke about “my father’s house” - but it wasn’t Joseph he was referring to. Worst of all (so to speak) are his words in Luke 14:26 - I’ll leave you to look them up; but be warned, the word “hate” appears in the context of family. Family values?

Yes, families matter, marriages matter, parenting matters, the mingling of different generations - all these things matter. But the family the Bible mainly focuses on is of a different kind altogether. It is “the family of God”, to which all who love and trust in Jesus belong. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” as John 1:12 puts it. 

Those two words - received and believed - are key. Literally, indeed, they are the key which opens the door into God’s eternal kingdom, God’s family which know no bounds.

So... if you are part of an ordinary human family, I do of course wish you great joy this Christmas. But if your family is far from the kind of ideal portrayed on the cards and in the adverts (and, in fact, even if it is that perfect), I remind you that you have a loving Father in heaven. He wants you to be part of his great family here on earth - and he has sent his own Son to make that possible.

May you and all yours - yes, including the grumpy ones - know God’s love and peace this Christmastime. Amen!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Don't be over-spiritual!

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; rise and come to my aid... May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame... Psalm 35:1-3

Jesus cried out in a loud voice... “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34

I recently read an interview with a quite prominent Christian. He was asked, among other things, about his prayer life. To this he replied, “I never pray for myself; I only ever pray for other people.”

I wonder how that strikes you? My first reaction was to feel very small - I’m afraid I couldn’t make anything like the same claim! It led to a bit of soul-searching, a bit of self-questioning. Are my prayers in essence selfish? Do I need to rethink completely the way I pray?

But then I thought: hang on a minute! Is this man claiming to be better than many examples we find in both the Bible and in Christian history? Better, in fact, than Jesus? Is he right to never pray for himself?

In fact (look out! - confession coming up), I found myself starting to get a bit cross, even judgmental. Who does this sanctimonious, super-spiritual creep think he is (you can tell, just in case you don’t know me, that I’m not really a very nice person)? Isn’t saying “I never pray for myself” tantamount to claiming to be superior to us lesser mortals who do pray for ourselves?

And I thought of Psalm 35, and the words I have quoted. In the first three verses the words “me” or “my” occur five times (I’ll leave you to tot up how many more me’s and my’s there are in all twenty-eight verses). Psalm 35 is pretty much a random example - I could have gone for literally dozens of other places, not least Jesus’ prayer of agony on the cross.

The kernel of truth in what that man said is obvious enough: something is very wrong if we only, ever pray for ourselves. Of course! I hope none of us need to be told that. But let’s never be ashamed of the fact that we are in a deep, personal relationship with God, and at the heart of that relationship is conversation, dialogue, and dialogue means, among many things, talking to God about the things that excite or trouble or worry or puzzle us. How then can we not pray for ourselves? He is our father; we are his children.

I would sum it up like this: it is perfectly all right to pray for ourselves; but those prayers should not be selfish. How can that be? Here are two suggestions.

First, focus on holiness rather than happiness

We all want to be happy, of course: that’s natural. But none of us has a right to happiness. 

The top priority in the Christian life is to be made more like Jesus, and the fact is that in this slow, life-long, day-by-day process, one of God’s main tools is a dose, large or small, of unhappiness. The bumps, as they say, are what you grow on. If we pray only for our own happiness we are missing the point of life; and we will remain shallow (not to mention deeply unsatisfied) as people.

Second, focus on usefulness rather than personal fulfilment.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being keen, even ambitious, to make the most of the talents and gifts God has seen fit to give us (and these may be things which have nothing at all to do with “religion”). But if we are Christians our chief motive when it comes to “making something of my life” is to be of service to God. The nineteenth-century hymn puts it perfectly: “O use me, Lord, use even me,/ Just as thou wilt, and when, and where...” Amen!

One of the greatest things the New Testament says about Jesus is this: “Even though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God something to be taken advantage of, but made himself nothing (literally, emptied himself)” (Philippians 2:7). If we can boil that down and apply it to ourselves: you become somebody when you are happy to be nobody.

Holiness and usefulness... Aren’t these essentially what the Christian life is about? Other things certainly have a claim upon our prayers - health, work, money, family, you name it - but they find their rightful places if we keep these key priorities uppermost in our minds.

Father in heaven, thank you that you love me so much as to be concerned with all my worries and troubles, my joys and pleasures, and that I can talk to you about the biggest and the smallest. But help me always to put first the things that matter most, the heavenly and eternal things, and the needs of others. Amen.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Popularity - a mixed blessing?

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!” “I have found you,” he answered... 1 Kings 21:20

Jesus said, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you...” Luke 6:26

Probably all of us want to be popular. And why not? To feel that you’re liked, appreciated, valued - well, it’s important to your sense of self-esteem. 

You expect, of course, to be liked by your friends, but it’s good too to feel that your wider circle - people at work, casual acquaintances and the rest - also view you in a good light. We certainly don’t like to feel that anyone is our enemy, or that people are talking unkindly behind our back.

Yet Jesus said something which appears only here in the New Testament - something which, let’s put it this way, at least qualifies this. He warned, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you.” The Message Bible translates it (loosely but, I think, helpfully): “There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them.”

In a word, alarm bells should start ringing if we are universally popular: to follow Jesus is bound to attract a bit of dislike. If that doesn’t happen, it suggests we are not being entirely loyal to him. As he goes on to say: “For that is how their fathers treated the false prophets”.

Ah yes, the prophets! Read the history books of the Old Testament and you find the dreary story of a succession of largely corrupt kings and largely false prophets. Many of these prophets were virtually members of the royal court; and they became experts in telling the king what they knew he wanted to hear. Who cares about the truth?

But every now and then a prophet would come along who refused to tow the party line. And here in 1Kings 21 is a perfect example. King Ahab comes eyeball to eyeball with the prophet Elijah. He greets him with the charming words, “So you have found me, my enemy?” And Elijah nods his head gravely and says, Oh yes, I’ve found you; I’ve found you all right, king or no king...

You know the story... Ahab has been looking out of his palace window, and he notices a pleasant field in the adjoining property which would make a perfect vegetable patch. Yes, I quite fancy that, he says to himself. So off he goes to do a deal with the owner. To be fair to him, he starts by making a reasonable offer: either I’ll give you a good price, Naboth, or if you like I’ll give you a better field. Can’t say fairer than that, eh?

Just one problem: Naboth refuses to sell. What to Ahab is - well, just a field, is to him part of his family inheritance, handed down from father to son over many generations.

Cutting the story short... Ahab, in a fit of childish petulance, has a tantrum: “He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” Poor little petal. But his wife Jezebel eggs him on to take action, and within a short time Naboth is dead, stoned to death after a set-up trial.

A sadly typical story: the rich and powerful bullying the ordinary man or woman. Tyrants, dictators, big-money men, business tycoons, global enterprises: we mustn’t tar them all with the same brush, but we hear and read enough to know that the description seems to fit uncomfortably often.

And who cared, in Naboth’s case? Answer, it seems: nobody. Nobody, that is, except this strange fanatical figure from out in the desert: Elijah, the man who was prepared to risk his life not only for a small person crushed by power, but for a principle - the principle of truth, honesty and integrity. No wonder Ahab regarded him as his “enemy”.

The challenge for us is obvious. Do we have the courage to “speak truth to power”? Or are we go-with-the-flow types, mealy-mouthed, morally gutless?

Please don’t get me wrong. No way do I want us all to go and set out to make ourselves unpopular. Let’s be honest, sometimes we Christians do this not by speaking the truth (if only!) but by being a thorough pain in the neck to everyone in sight. We very likely fall under one of two criticisms: either hypocrisy (“Your life doesn’t live up to your words!”), or over-enthusiasm (“Will you please stop banging on at me about your religion!”). 

That’s not what Jesus is talking about here! - nor what the prophets were about.

No. If - when - we do have to be unpopular, let’s be very sure that it’s for a good reason: a reason which brings credit to Jesus.

Father, I like to be liked, and I thank you for those who do seem to like and respect me. But give me strength never to buy popularity at the cost of honesty, or of denying all that your son Jesus is about. Amen.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

A brother I never knew

So it is with Christ… we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 26

I read a couple of days ago about a Chinese Christian who had died in prison.

Nothing particularly new there, you might think. No indeed. But the news item struck me forcibly, because his name was Peng Ming, and over the last two years I have sent him occasional cards and letters, and prayed systematically for him.

I knew about him through a Christian organisation that lobbies for persecuted Christians (and others) in many parts of the world. It encourages us in the western world to make contact with people like Peng Ming in order to let them know that they are not forgotten.

He will never read my short note; I wrote it on November 28 and he died, it seems, on November 29. I don’t even know if earlier messages ever reached him; who knows what Chinese prison authorities do with prisoners’ mail?

But in a strange sort of way I feel that I almost knew him – even though my background, my upbringing, my language, just about everything about me in fact, are totally different from his.

Paul tells us that “we are all baptised by one Spirit into one body”. That truth immediately connects me, in England, with Peng Ming, in China. And with every other person too on the face of the earth who believes in the name of Jesus. This blog I write: it doesn’t get that many “hits” – but just in the last week or so there have been visits from Oman, from Ireland, from France, from Canada; even, in the more distant past, from Venezuela, from Russia, from Nigeria (and… yes, from China).

And so, a question: how wide is your understanding of that word “church”?

I am afraid that for many of us it means little more than the building we go to on Sundays, and the people we meet there. But this is hopelessly inadequate. The church is the world-wide body of Christ, and all who belong to it are brothers and sisters. Talk to any missionary you meet (they know far more about this than I do!) and they will tell you of the massive privilege they feel in actually working among, worshipping with, and laughing and crying with fellow-believers from the four corners of the earth.

And the church extends across time as well as place. I know, for example, that the old hymns from centuries gone by are well out of fashion now in many churches, but I still love to sing some of them.

There was a man called Bianco da Siena, about whom I know next to nothing (except that he died around 1400). He wrote a favourite of mine: “Come down, O love divine,/ Seek thou this soul of mine.” Translated in the nineteenth century, it contains the beautiful words: “Let holy charity/ Mine outward vesture be,/ And lowliness become mine inner clothing…” Archaic language perhaps – but isn’t that a prayer we can still pray today?

Bianco da Siena’s life will have been as remote from mine as Peng Ming’s; yet he too is a brother in Christ. We still need his voice and his testimony, along with the witness of the untold millions who have gone before us down through two thousand years. This is what is called, in the ancient creeds of the church, “the communion of saints” (yes, every Christian is a “saint”!). God forgive us if we let our perception of the church become so shrivelled, so parochial, so limited!

A little later in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes on to say that, if one part of that body suffers, “every part suffers with it.

Well, it would be ridiculous for me to claim to have suffered much with Peng Ming, but I certainly feel it was a privilege to know about him, and to try and do something, however tiny, to extend the hand of Christian friendship. The fact is that those of us who know virtually nothing about suffering for Jesus’ sake are in a small minority when set against the backdrop of the world-wide, centuries-spanning body of Jesus.

So why not take another look at John’s great vision in Revelation 7:9 – the “great multitude that no-one could count… standing before the throne”? That’s you, and me, and the whole universal church of Jesus Christ, God’s crucified, risen and ascended Son, who will one day return in glory.

Let’s lift up our eyes beyond our little local church, however important that certainly is, for we all need one another.

And why not visit the website of an organisation such as I have mentioned to get your vision widened, your prayers informed, your heart stirred – and your hands working?

Lord God, thank you for your universal church, the body of Christ, spanning all the centuries and stretching across all the continents. Help me to be more worthy to be part of it, until that day when I stand in that countless crowd before the throne of the Lamb. Amen.