Wednesday, 30 November 2016

No turning back!

That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! ... Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt”. Numbers 14:1-4

Here’s a question that calls (please) for a strictly honest answer: Have you ever wished you had never become a Christian?

It may not have been for long; maybe just a brief phase. But you thought to yourself: “Hey, this Christian life is pretty tough going! When I first got converted it was all so exciting, so new, so fresh! But today...” 

Perhaps you thought of all those prayers faithfully prayed, but which never seem to have been answered. Or the meetings you went to on dark, rainy evenings, when hardly anyone else bothered to turn up. Or the tensions and disagreements which flared up from time to time. You might even have thought of all the money you had given over the years to the church and other good causes - boy, tot all that up and perhaps you could have had the same sort of car as sits on your neighbour’s drive...

And you looked back and remembered the things you enjoyed in your pre-Christian days, but which you chose to sacrifice for Jesus’ sake. Were they really so wrong? You looked at your non-Christian friends and family and thought, “They seem to get on perfectly well without God.” Mmm.

It happens. It happened in the early church. The whole of the Letter to the Hebrews is concerned with this very thing. Didn’t Jesus talk about it in the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13:18-23)?

So if your answer to my question was “Well, yes, to be honest I have sometimes felt that way”, you can at least take some comfort from the fact that you are in good (or perhaps I should say bad!) company.
And here it is, tucked away also in the Book of Numbers. Remember the story... 

God’s chosen people have been slaves in Egypt, but, under Moses and Aaron, God has given them a dramatic and miraculous liberation: the cruel tyrant Pharaoh has been humbled; the very sea opened up before them to give them a route out! They head into the desert with the faith that God will lead them to a wonderful new homeland, truly a “promised land”.

But... it won’t be quite yet. No, there will be a period of journeying in the desert, and that won’t be easy. 

And guess what? They get disappointed and disillusioned. 
And that leads to grumbling and discontent. And that, in turn, leads to outright rebellion.

You can read about the grumbling in (among other places) Numbers 11:4-6. Influenced by “the rabble” (presumably hangers-on who had joined Israel to get out of Egypt), they hanker after those lovely cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they enjoyed in Egypt. They get fed up with that boring, tasteless manna stuff (heavenly bread, in fact) which God sent to feed them. “Give us meat and fish!” they cry. 

The rebellion is described here in chapter 14. This Moses is rubbish! Why don’t we just die right here in the desert (don’t worry - that’s exactly what they will do)? And then these shocking words: “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.

What? What! They’ve witnessed the plagues in Egypt, from which they were protected by God. They saw with their own eyes the waters open up for them. They have rejoiced in the miraculous bread from heaven. They’ve met with God in truly awesome fashion at Mount Sinai. They’ve seen demonstrations of both God’s mercy and his severe judgment. And yet they can say, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt”. Can you believe it?

Suppose for a moment they had gone back to Egypt, tails between their legs, humbling themselves before Pharaoh. I can’t really imagine what life would have been like. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: it wouldn’t have been long before they were grumbling again. After all, they’ve got plenty of “previous” when it comes to that: see, for example, Exodus 15:24).

For us Christians, the issues are generally two-fold when we are tempted to “go back to Egypt”. It’s either the seductions of this corrupt world; or it’s the sheer hardship of the cross-bearing business of following Jesus. (We’re not talking here about intellectual difficulties regarding our faith, or about the kind of spiritual crisis that sometimes happens: they’re a different matter altogether.)

I can only say: if that temptation does rear its head, the thing to do is sit down with a cool, clear mind, to pray with an honest heart, to remember the emptiness of the time before you followed Jesus, to remember too the many blessings you have received. And then to - once more - pick up your cross. You won’t regret it.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the day you changed my life as I came to believe in Jesus and follow him. However hard the way may sometimes be, help me to remain faithful to him until that day I enter the promised land of your eternal kingdom. Amen.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

A big fat false god

We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that... Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God... Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share... 1 Timothy 6:7-8, 17-18.

Aren’t some things just so annoying!

I’m writing on “Black Friday”, and my inbox this morning was loaded with adverts telling me to take advantage of this great opportunity to get something cheap. This, half-price! Twenty per cent off that! Your last chance! Only twenty-four hours to go! Hurry, hurry! 


Black Friday? What’s that anyway? What indeed! I hadn’t even heard of it till a few weeks ago. But of course it’s the latest import from across the Atlantic (I live in England), joining Halloween as a major annual event. It’s the day after Thanksgiving Day when people in America are still off work and thus free to do some more than usually crazy shopping.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not a complete kill-joy - I like a good, honest bargain as much as anyone. But that really isn’t what all this is about, is it?

Now, if you happen to be reading this in America, please don’t take offence! I am the first to recognise the many good and admirable things about your country, mainly on the basis of the delightful Americans I know and three brief but memorable visits. But...

What on earth are we in Britain doing celebrating something that belongs to you over there? What fools we are! How can we fail to see that it’s all about making money?

There was an article in the paper this morning saying that half the bargains people buy on Black Friday end up in the rubbish (or should I say garbage?) bin. We buy things, it seems, not because we need them or possibly even particularly want them - but because they are there, and we really must go with the flow. Bah!!!

And so to the words of Paul, all wisdom, sanity and common sense... “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” He urges Timothy to preach that one sign of a child of God is contentment with the basic needs of life (remembering too, of course, that there are millions in this world who lack even these).

The Bible tells us in many places to stop worshipping in the temple of the great god mammon (mammon means money, or material things in general). Jesus told the famous story of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). Having devoted his time and energy to getting richer and richer, he decides to stop, put his feet up, and enjoy the fruits of his labour. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” 

Death makes the billionaire and the beggar totally equal with one another.

Going back to 1 Timothy, it’s typical of the Bible not only to tell us what we shouldn’t do - the negative side of things - but also to outline what we need to replace it with: “Command [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”

To be personal for a moment, I must confess that I don’t really think of myself as rich. I’ve never earned much money, but I’ve got along pretty well and never lacked for anything I seriously needed. But if I am completely honest I have to face the fact that in the context of the world’s population I am rich. Very likely you are too.

So these words apply to me and you. The Bible is telling us: Be a giver, not a getter! Cultivate a generous heart and an open hand! As Jesus put it, “don’t store up treasures on earth”, where they are prey to decay and death, but “store up treasures in heaven” - where nothing passes away, because it is only good (Matthew 6:19-20). 

So it’s not enough to keep clear of Black Friday and all the nonsense that goes with it. That’s only a start. Our business is to look at what wealth we have and say, “Now, Lord, what good can I do with this? How can I turn these pounds/dollars into blessing for someone else?”

Jesus tells us that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20: 35). And you know what? He actually meant it. Let’s prove it true!

Heavenly Father, thank you for the word of Jesus, “You can’t serve God and Mammon.” Forgive me if I have been trying to do that, and help me to make you lord and master of all I own. Amen.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

When sex gets corrupted

Jesus said... Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8

Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Hebrews 13:4

Finally... whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about these things. Philippians 4:8

I’m sure you can see a link between these very challenging and very beautiful verses. They’re all about purity.

They’ve been rattling around in my mind for a week or so, since I attended a Christian seminar on the theme of pornography. Purity, of course, isn’t only about sex - it covers all of our living, speaking and thinking. But certainly sex has a big place, and absorbing the facts and figures from this seminar was a salutary business. I don’t think I learned a lot that, in principle, I didn’t already know. But it was good to get it all spelled out in an hour or two.

First, though, a working definition of pornography: “Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.” 

I don’t want to bombard you with loads of statistics, but just a few will help us to get our minds focussed...

One porn site boasted 18.5 billion views in 2014 - that’s 2.1 million visits per hour or 35 thousand per minute.

79% of men and 76% of women (this isn’t only a male problem!) aged 18-30 said they watched porn at least once a month. (They wouldn’t call it porn, probably, but some stupid euphemism like “adult material”.)

95% of people who would call themselves evangelical Christians say they have viewed porn.

Even more alarming are the stats that relate to children and young people. For example, 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn on line, usually while doing their homework. A third of 3-10 year olds have viewed porn on line.

Two words kept cropping up with depressing regularity.

One was availability. There was a time when people looking for porn would resort to seedy clubs in back streets - or even just the top shelf in the newsagents. But today, with all the phones, laptops and other devices, it really is a case of “any time, anywhere”.

The other word was normalisation. Sexual explicitness would once be greeted with a sharp intake of breath and a solemn shaking of the head. But a point has been reached where it is regarded as entirely normal. I know a teacher who told me that in her primary school class there were children who routinely watched porn with their parents. Once the unthinkable becomes thinkable, it’s not long before the thinkable becomes do-able...

Given that regular use can physically change the brain (it’s all to do with a brain chemical called dopamine), it can lead to an addiction similar to tobacco, alcohol and drug addiction; and given that children’s brains are naturally more vulnerable to change than adults’, this is sobering indeed. There are reports of boys and young men who are physically incapable of truly “normal” sexual activity because they have become dependent on the kind of stimulus provided by porn. 

I’m not sharing this experience of the seminar just in order to get us all shaking our heads with a what’s-the-world-coming-to? frown, or in order to be alarmist, but in order to put us on our toes - me as much as anyone else. Let’s finish with a word to three categories of people.

First, let’s all of us resolve, by God’s grace, to keep our sexual lives (such a precious gift from God!) scrupulously pure.

Second, to those of us in leadership of any kind, let’s not only be aware of the situation ourselves, but also set out to make sure others are too. One simple way of doing this might be to include the various organisations that seek to combat this evil in Sunday morning prayers of intercession. Doing this will flag up to the congregation that the church is aware, and that this is something that can be talked about - and also perhaps encourage those who struggle in this area to share their problem with someone who will counsel them in a loving, sensitive and accepting way.

Third, to anyone reading this who has fallen into the grip of porn, especially if you’re feeling helpless or despairing... the positive thing that came out of the seminar was that change is possible, and a healthy and wholesome sex life can be achieved. Even (I quote) “the damage to the brain can be undone when someone gets away from unhealthy behaviours.” It’s time to share your problem and get help!

God doesn’t only call us to be pure; by his Holy Spirit he really can make that possible.

Lord God, thank you for your call to purity of thought, word and deed. I know I can’t achieve this by my own will power, but I humbly pray now that by your grace, and with the support of others, I will find victory. Amen.

The seminar drew heavily on the work of two Christian organisations. Why not explore further?

CARE (Care for the family): Click on “our causes”.

The Naked Truth:

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Never take revenge!

David and Abishai went to the army by night, and there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground… Abishai said to David, ‘Today God has given your enemy into your hands! Now let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of my spear; I won’t strike twice.’ But David said to Abishai, ‘Don’t destroy him!…’ 1 Samuel 26:7-9

If anyone hurts or upsets us, I suspect most of us feel the wish to get our own back. We probably wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but the thought is there, gnarling away at our insides.

Revenge… it can be a powerful motivation. You hear of people who nurse it for years, allowing it to dominate their whole lives. “Vengeance is sweet,” goes the saying; well, so it may be. But it leaves a bad and bitter after-taste.

Saul, king of Israel, is obsessively jealous of the young man David. He senses that David will succeed him as king, and he is determined not to let that happen. So he gets his soldiers together and starts hunting him to death. David and his men are forced to run away into the wilderness.

There comes a day when David creeps into Saul’s camp and finds the king and his bodyguard fast asleep. What an opportunity to get his own back! His lieutenant Abishai gets really excited: “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for! God has delivered Saul into your hands! Just say the word and I’ll pin him to the ground with one stroke of my spear!”

And David says… “No – don’t do it.”

This is impressive. Saul and David lived in a world where life was cheap, and where showing mercy to your enemies was out of the question. To let Abishai carry out his wish must have been massively tempting, and there were few people who would have blamed him if he had done so – even though Saul was God’s anointed king (verses 9-11).

But no – he prefers to try and win Saul’s respect and love. A similar thing has already happened (look back at chapter 24). Saul was deeply moved then: “… he wept aloud. ‘You are more righteous than I… You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly’”. But sadly it didn’t last. But that doesn’t stop David from giving it another try.

Of course, if we found we had an “enemy” at our mercy, so to speak, we wouldn’t (I hope!) be tempted to treat them with violence – certainly not to stick a spear into them.

But there are all sorts of ways we might get our own back: a snidey remark, perhaps, seemingly innocent but guaranteed to cause pain or embarrassment; a morsel of spiteful gossip dropped in someone else’s ear; using a bit of influence we have in order to prevent them achieving some aim.

Oh yes, let’s be honest, if you’re cunning enough (I nearly wrote “if you’re nasty enough”), there are plenty of ways of putting the boot in even with a big friendly smile on your face. What horrible hypocrites we can be!

David lived roughly one thousand years before Jesus spoke those wonderful words, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Wonderful words indeed – and also staggeringly revolutionary, in our day as much as in his.

They trip easily off our tongues, as if they were the most ordinary words in the world. Perhaps the only way we can really appreciate them is if we think what Jesus might have said, but didn’t…

He might have said, “Avoid your enemies” – just keep out of their way, and hope that they’ll keep out of yours. In time the whole business will be forgotten and life can go on. But no: bad and ugly thoughts can’t be tossed in the rubbish and wheeled away by the bin-men. Their poison lingers.

He might have said, “Tolerate your enemies” – all right, put up with them, give them a frosty smile if you happen to meet them, be civil, shake their hand if you have to. But no: that might be quite good in this world’s eyes, but something infinitely better is expected of Jesus’ people.

No – love them! Love them! Wish them well. Look for opportunities to do them good. Pray for them. Be prepared to suffer for their sakes. Do for them what David did for Saul. Do for them… what Jesus did for you, and for the whole world.

Picture the scene: Saul lies snoring on the ground; David and Abishai stand looking down on him; Abishai pleads with David to grab his revenge; and David shakes his head, actually loving the enemy helpless at his feet. One thousand years before Christ; yet surely here was the true spirit of Christ.

Well, what about us – two thousand years later?

Lord Jesus Christ, by your Holy Spirit please drain my soul of every drop of spite, malice, jealousy and revenge, even towards those who have hurt me badly. Teach me to love, as you have first loved me. Amen.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The mystery of the millstone

Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves…” Luke 17:1-3

I recently read a novel, set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, about a wealthy merchant who was found guilty of the sexual abuse of a young man. The climax of this grim story is how, before a large crowd of people (many of them pillars of the local protestant churches), he is thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck.

For a short time (being my usual dense self – I can be embarrassingly slow on the uptake) I was puzzled about the way his execution was carried out. Why drowning? Why a millstone? It was only a little later that it dawned on me… Of course (ping!): The people who did this believed they were acting in obedience to Jesus!

It’s hard to imagine how those righteous religious leaders can possibly have imagined that Jesus was actually advocating the death sentence, even if for an appalling crime. But that’s the way it was. (And things like that don’t only happen in novels…)

Surely all Jesus intended was something like: “It’s a deeply serious matter if you set a bad example or actively lead a younger, more impressionable person to go off the rails. In fact, it’s so serious that you would be better off dead.” (No suggestion of sexual sin, incidentally, though of course that would be covered by it.)

Who are “these little ones” that Jesus mentions? It isn’t entirely clear. In the parallel passage in Mark, the words “who believe in me” are added (Mark 9:42). So, putting the two passages together, Jesus could be referring either to children (and vulnerable people in general), or to adult converts who are new and, presumably, lacking in confidence.

But it doesn’t really matter. The solemn, sobering point is that doing or saying anything that “causes people to sin” is something to avoid at all costs.

Yet again we are reminded that it is a serious mistake to take isolated Bible sayings out of context or over-literally: try doing that with Mark 9:43-47 (or, better still, don’t try doing that with Mark 9:43-47!).

But the fact that a saying is not intended literally doesn’t mean it’s not true and important. And this where all of us, especially those who are fairly mature and experienced in the Christian life, need to take a good hard look at ourselves. Jesus’ brother James warns us that “not many of you should presume to be teachers… because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Mmm.

The question we need to put to ourselves is this: Is there anything about my behaviour, my life-style, my habits, my manner of speaking, my humour, my ambitions, my very “me-ness” that could lead another person astray? We could be talking here about something that is not actually wrong in and of itself, but which sets a confusing example. Beware!

Paul picks up a similar theme in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth. He, of course, is a strong Christian with a robust conscience, so it doesn’t bother him in the least where the meat he buys in the market comes from – for all he knows, it might be the surplus from an idol temple. It is, after all, just meat. But, he says, “not everyone knows this…” And they might think such meat is somehow contaminated by association. So what will they think when they see him tucking in quite happily? So then… “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again…” (1 Corinthians 8:7-13).

The principle is clear. In Christ we have liberty, freedom from petty restrictions and regulations, and that liberty is a precious thing. But it is sometimes good and right to curtail or suspend that liberty out of respect for the weaker Christian – or an impressionable child.

Somebody said to me recently, “I remember something you said a couple of years ago…” When they told me what it was, I shook my head: I had no recollection of ever having said it. But it seems it had seriously affected their way of thinking and even their behaviour. I found that rather frightening. Suppose what I had said had been bad or misleading?

The stark fact is that we can impact somebody else’s life at a deep level without even realising we’re doing it.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to Luke 17:1-3…

Lord God, forgive me for times I may have set a bad example or encouraged bad behaviour in those who might look up to me. Help me, by your Spirit, to be scrupulously careful in the way I speak, act and live. Amen.