Wednesday, 29 June 2016

When the foundations are shaking

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Psalm 42:5

The trouble with so called rhetorical questions is that they invite answers, whether that’s intended or not.

The psalmist is talking to himself, questioning himself. Why indeed is he “downcast”? Why is his soul “so disturbed” within him? No doubt he could think of plenty of possible answers.

And so no doubt can we if we find ourselves asking the same kind of questions…

“Well, here in the UK we have just had a referendum about our membership of the European Union, and it’s ended with a whole load of bitterness, hatred, division and anger. Already there have been reports of racial attacks and other nastiness in different parts of the country. Could we be heading for serious violence in the streets…?”

“Oh, and our main political parties are in a state of disarray, one of them certainly and the other very likely soon to be looking for a new leader. All right, I wasn’t that keen on the leaders we had before, but the new possibilities leave me seriously worried…”

“And then there’s the American presidential election…”

Depending on what part of the world you live in, you may be overwhelmed by other horrors which make the things I’ve mentioned seem quite tame: hunger; war; terrorism; grinding poverty; social injustice which just gets worse and worse, never better.

Why wouldn’t our souls be downcast within us!

I’ve lived quite a long time now, and I have to say that I can’t remember a time when the fixed points in life, the things one feels able to take for granted, have seemed so shaky.

As a child at school I remember vaguely picking up something of the fear and anxiety surrounding the Bay of Pigs episode and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1961 and 1962) between America and the Soviet Union, when nuclear war seemed a distinct possibility. Was it possible the human race could actually self-destruct? And the answer seemed to be: Well, actually, yes…

The prophet Isaiah spoke of “the shaking of the foundations of the earth” (24:18). All security taken away; dark uncertainties louring over us. And isn’t it a little like that today?

Is this how you’re feeling? Well, if it is, be thankful for the honesty of the Bible. Remember not only psalmist here, but also Jesus himself: “Now my heart is troubled…” (John 12:27); “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). There is no dark place we can enter where he has not been before.

When the very foundations seem to be shaking, what are we to do?

Well, the psalmist gives the answer to his own question: “Put your hope in God…” (Psalm 42:5 and 11, Psalm 43:5).

And a little further on, in Psalm 46, quite possibly the same psalmist expands further on this theme: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea… though the mountains quake…” (that shaking of the foundations again!).

He even dares to put words – but what wonderful words – into the mouth of God: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations (that’s a promise!), I will be exalted in the earth (so trust me!)” (Psalm 46:10).

Yes, it seems it’s possible to be “still” even when the very earth is shaking.

But let’s not forget that there are different kinds of stillness. 
There is the stillness of inactivity and even despair, where we slump, shrug our shoulders, fold our arms and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do, is there?” That is not the kind of stillness the psalmist is talking about.

No, he is talking – though it’s a paradox – about an active stillness, a stillness that looks squarely into the face of insecurity and fear and, by faith, takes it head-on. This is a stillness that sets out to confront evil with good, to replace anger with calm, to show love where there is hate, to encourage unity where there is division.

It’s the stillness that Jesus showed before those who hated him and crucified him.

Pray to have that kind of stillness – because, who knows, as tempers rise and people lose control it might be needed in your local high street or pub… or perhaps outside your local mosque or temple or synagogue.

Lord God, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love; where there is injury, your pardon, Lord, and where there’s doubt, true faith in you.

Make me a channel of your peace. Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope, where there is darkness, only light , and where there’s sadness, ever joy.

Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, in giving to all men that we receive, and in dying that we’re born to eternal life.

Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul. 

Make me a channel of your peace…  Amen. Amen!

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Trusting God through gritted teeth

16 I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. 

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. Habakkuk 3:16-19

It’s about 600 years before Jesus, and the prophet Habakkuk is deeply afraid.

The little nation of Judah - God’s special people - is threatened with destruction, annihilation, by the mighty and cruel Babylonians.

“What’s going on, Lord?” Habakkuk cries out to God. “What’s going to become of us? All right, we haven’t been faithful to you as we should have been - but surely we are nothing like as bad as the Babylonians! Are you really going to use them to punish us?- you, a pure and holy God?”

Well, God gives him some answers to his frightened questions (you can read about them in chapters 1-2). And then he takes him on a journey. 

It’s a journey you may very well have travelled in your own personal experience. It’s outlined in the last four verses of chapter 3, and it’s well worth focussing on, especially at times when we are afraid, or feel that the bottom has fallen out of our world.

If I were to give it a title (and if you will forgive the naff rhyme), it would be From hopeless despair to dancing on air. It falls into four stages, each of which prompts a question...

Stage 1: This is the hopeless despair part, in verse 16a. Habakkuk says his heart is pounding uncontrollably, his lips are quivering, and his legs are like jelly. That’s how scared he is. You know that feeling?

To his credit, he doesn’t try to pretend he’s all right; no, he is completely honest and open - rather like Jesus in Gethsemane, you could say.

Are you the stiff-upper-lip type? In some ways that’s very admirable. But is it always right? God doesn’t expect it of us, and it’s often better to pour things out and get them off our chest.

Question: Are you due for such an unburdening session?

Stage 2: This is where Habakkuk gets a grip on himself and takes himself in hand: “I will wait patiently,” he says, to see what God is going to do (verse 16b).

“Keep calm and carry on” say the signs and the coffee-mugs. Easier said than done! But there are times we need to make the effort, bringing our emotions under control and focussing our attention not on our problems but on God’s power.

Question: Do you need, today, to take a deep, calming breath and take yourself in hand?

Stage 3: This is where Habakkuk is inspired to utter one of the Bible’s greatest declarations (verses17-18). Three times he repeats the word “though” - though everything seems to be going to wrack and ruin, and though the future is so uncertain... But then he follows it up with that wonderful little word “yet”: “yet I will rejoice in the Lord”.

It’s as if, by a sheer act of will, he has mustered every scrap of faith he has and hurled it defiantly in the face of his doubts and fears. “I won’t allow myself to be defeated!” he cries, “I refuse to be crushed. I’m going to carry on doing what I’ve been doing all my life - I’m going to trust and even rejoice in my God...”

Is this just bravado, “the power of positive thinking”, the kind of thing any strong-minded person might be capable of? No, I don’t think so, because it flows from the fact that Habakkuk has his gaze fixed on God himself.

Question: Is it time you took your eyes off your circumstances and turned them on God?

Stage 4: This is the “dancing on air” part (verse 19). He says he’s like a mountain-deer springing up the crags of the rocks - in rather the same way that his fellow-prophet Isaiah spoke of “soaring on wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). This is exhilaration, joy, a glorious lightness of spirit. This is life, this is hope, this is victory.

See the journey Habakkuk has travelled? See the truly amazing contrast between verse 16 and verse 19?

This is what God can do when we focus on him. And though we may presently be in stage one or stage two, this is what he one day will do. An unspeakable joy awaits God’s faithful people. 

So... whatever your circumstances or feelings are like today, be like Habakkuk and hang on in there!

Lord God, I do get frightened and worried sometimes, when I look around me at the world, or at my own problems and difficulties, when there seem to be so many questions and so few answers. Please help me to be like Habakkuk - to trust you with all my heart, and indeed to rejoice in your love and care. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Holy churches in an unholy world

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

How shockable are you?

We in the western world live in a culture where there is a pressure not to be shocked by anything. A “celebrity”, say, gets into the headlines for wild behaviour and is described, seemingly with admiration, as “a larger than life character” - by which is meant that he is, putting it bluntly, a drunkard, a lecher and no doubt a whole lot more besides.

Any show of shock or distaste is dismissed as hopelessly dated and pathetically old-fashioned. We are a mature, grown-up society! We are not bound by the prejudices and petty-minded views of previous generations! Drop these silly ideas of right and wrong!

This loosening of traditional morality goes back at least to the birth of the “permissive society” some fifty years ago. And we need to say that it wasn’t an entirely bad thing. It waved goodbye to intolerant, censorious and judgmental attitudes which cramped and clouded many people’s lives. We probably wouldn’t want to go back to those days.

But... Is it in fact an entirely healthy development? Is it really a sign of maturity? Or could it be a sign also of a rottenness eating away at the heart of our life together?

Well, way back in the early years of Christianity, things were going on even within the life of the church which caused Paul deep shock. And he wasn’t afraid to say so. 

What shocked him was, first, that these scandalous things were happening at all; second, that they were things that even pagans (and they were no prudes!) were scandalised by; and third, that the Corinth church apparently thought it was all fine; they seem to have been unshockable. 

What’s going on!

It seems that a member of the church was in a sexual relationship with a woman who was, probably, his step-mother (Paul says nothing about her, which suggests that she wasn’t a Christian). And Paul is absolutely adamant that this needs to be sorted out pretty quickly.

And so, in our verses, he lays down the procedure he wants the church to follow. He wants them to have a meeting when he is “with them in spirit” - which presumably means when they are aware of his feeling on the matter - and in which they make a solemn decision to “hand this man over to Satan”.

What can that possibly mean? 

The most likely understanding is that the church is to eject the man from their fellowship, to refuse to have anything to do with him. The church is the sphere of Christ, while the unbelieving world outside is the sphere of Satan, the enemy of God - so let him be thrust back out into the realm where such behaviour belongs.

What Paul intends is not (please notice this!) that the man should be given up as eternally lost, but that, by being expelled in this way, “his sinful nature may be destroyed but his spirit saved on the day of the Lord”.

Paul’s recommended procedure is, so to speak, to bring the man to his senses. True, he seems to think that he could suffer physically as a result - “the sinful nature” is, literally, “the flesh” - but his ultimate aim is “the salvation of the spirit”.

In short, strange though it might seem, Paul is motivated by love and by a pastoral concern to see this man return to his true standing in Christ.

And he is motivated by something else as well: a fierce determination to ensure the moral purity of the church, the body of Christ. The thought that pagan outsiders might be able to point an accusing finger at the local Christians horrified and appalled him; it was as if Christ himself was being dragged in the dirt, and this was simply intolerable.

How might Paul’s attitude apply to us today?

Well, let’s stress first that there must be no witch-hunts; Paul didn’t go looking for bad things, like a blood-hound eager to sniff them out. Far from it. And neither must we.

But at the same time the church is called to be an earthly model of the heavenly kingdom of God, and this means that any serious taint of corruption cannot be tolerated.

It can be a tricky and painful thing to deal with - especially in days when a strong emphasis is placed on God’s “unconditional love”, and on the need for the church to be completely “inclusive”. But big issues are at stake...

Here’s a relatively trivial example you might like to think about. I knew a church once where it turned out that one of the leaders, a taxi-driver, had been fiddling his fare-clock and thus fleecing his passengers. The local paper made a head-line of it, and the reputation of the church was damaged.

How should the church have reacted to this situation? I would be interested to hear your thoughts...

Lord God, help us to build churches that are uncompromisingly holy, truly inclusive, and overflowing with the forgiving love of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Words to jolt us into action

Jesus said, Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, don’t ask for it back. Luke 6:30

There was a time some years ago when I used to go down to central London fairly often. I travelled on the tube, and this meant passing the beggars sitting on the ground as you left the station. It was hard not to think of these words of Jesus as I went by.

Did I give every time? No. Should I have given every time? Well, what do you think?

Jesus’ words are pretty clear: “Give to everyone who asks you...” No ifs, no buts. Yet the fact is that I never seriously thought that I should obey those words literally, nor did I feel guilty about it.

Was I right? Was I wrong?

On a practical level it’s easy to see how taking those words literally would quickly lead to chaos. One writer makes the point that the world would end up with just two groups of people: dirt-poor followers of Jesus (dirt-poor because they’ve given it all away), and rich idlers and thieves (rich because they know there will always be some sucker coming along to bail them out). Where would be the sense in that?

And yet... Jesus said it! So how should we understand it?

To help us, we need to think a bit about language, and the way language works.

Every day of our lives we use language which, strictly speaking, is nonsense. Have you ever picked up a small child you haven’t seen for a bit and said “My! You weigh a ton!”? Yes? Did the parents step in to correct you: “Er, actually, he’s only three stone”? Of course not. They knew exactly what you meant, and just smiled.

“I’m frozen stiff!” (No, you’re not.) “I could eat a horse!” (Really? - hooves and all?) “It’s raining cats and dogs” (I can’t see them.)

I heard a football commentator once say how the striker “took the pass in the penalty area, smoked a cigar, and stuck the ball in the net”. (I think he wanted us to know how much time the player had.)

I knew someone who, if you asked if he’d like a drink, would say “Yes please! - I could murder a cup of coffee”. (Quick, call the police!)

We call it exaggeration. The fancy name the language experts use is hyperbole, which literally means “throwing beyond” - stating something which goes further than the actual facts. We do it all the time. We don’t intend to mislead or deceive - it’s just a vivid way of saying what we want to say.

And the point is this: the Bible too does it all the time. 

The Promised Land was “a land flowing with milk and honey” - does that  mean the people got their feet sticky as they walked? In Psalm 108 God says: “Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal”. Does God need a washbasin? Does God wear sandals? I could multiply examples all day long...

And still more to the point: Jesus does it.
Look, for example, at Matthew 17:20-21. Jesus said that faith as tiny as a mustard-seed can move a mountain - meaning that even such minimal faith can bring about massive changes in our lives and in the world. 

Or at Matthew 5:27-30. He tells us that if our wandering right eye leads us into trouble we should gouge it out and throw it away (but what then about our left eye?). If our right hand gets us into trouble, we should cut it off and throw it away (ditto).

Jesus uses hyperbole. 

And Luke 6:30 is a clear example. It’s Jesus’ dramatic way of saying: “Look, as sinful human beings you are hard-wired to want to get and get and get. You want money in the bank and in your pockets and purses, the more the better. 

“But that’s now changing! I’m offering you a revolution in your whole attitude and mentality. From now on it’s give, give, give! Why? Because the Kingdom of God has arrived, and glad, cheerful, extravagant generosity is a hall-mark of that Kingdom.

“From now on, you will be happy giving people, not mean-spirited, tight-fisted getting people. You will be set free from the dreary rat-race that this world has enslaved you with. Everything will be new, fresh, exciting. The world will be a better place - and you will be happier people...”

In a word... Jesus didn’t come to give a new rule-book, he came to build a new world. He didn’t come to load new obligations upon us, he came to make us new people with fresh new attitudes.

I said at the start that I didn’t feel guilty at not giving every time to those people begging at the tube station. But, boy, it’s hard not to feel guilty when you stop and think about the deeper, far bigger truth he was driving at!

Do you have that wonderful, free, generous, fresh, extravagant spirit of Jesus? Do I?

Lord Jesus, you gave and gave and gave, not counting the cost. Please forgive my mean, shrivelled, cramped spirit, and teach me your wonderful  generosity. Amen.

I am grateful to my friend Karen for suggesting this as a topic for a blog. It has certainly made me think! If there is a passage or topic you would like me to tackle, please let me know. No promises, but I’ll do my best!