Saturday, 25 February 2017

Good news! Your minister loves you!

I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy... 2 Corinthians 11:2

Good news! Your minister loves you. 

Or should do anyway, if they’re anything like what a true minister should be. They pray for you. They long to see you growing in Christ. They feel for your hardships and pains. You matter to them.

And because this is so, they can get jealous over you.

Hold on a minute! Isn’t jealousy a bad thing? Doesn’t the Bible tell us it is something we should stamp on the moment it rears its ugly head in our lives? 

Yes, that’s true. Indeed, the very person who told the Christians of Corinth that he was “jealous for them” tells them in the next chapter that he doesn’t want to find among them any trace of “discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20). Jealousy figures there in a list of seriously nasty things, doesn’t it? (The same thing happens in Romans 13:13, if you feel like looking it up.)

But the thing to notice is that Paul slips in another little word here: the jealousy he is talking about is “a godly jealousy”. Ah! That makes all the difference. In fact, that phrase could almost be translated “the jealousy of God”. There is, it seems, a right kind of jealousy - a jealousy which is in fact a truly divine thing.

Godly jealousy is the jealousy that springs from true, deep love. And the Bible is very happy to ascribe it to God. Right there in the ten commandments we read: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). Even more startling, perhaps, is Exodus 34:14: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous (!), is a jealous God”. If you would like a graphic description of what God’s jealousy is like (and if you have a fairly strong stomach) I suggest you turn to Ezekiel 16 - yes, all sixty-three verses of it.

Here’s a fact of life: if you truly love, there may be times when you are jealous. Suppose you are the parent of a teenager being drawn into a bad circle of friends - drink, drugs, sex and all the rest. Wouldn’t there be something wrong with you - something lacking in your love - if you didn’t feel jealousy? Or you lead a youth group, and you see some of the teenagers influenced by some culty sect? 

That’s the kind of thing Paul is talking about here. The Christians in Corinth were his spiritual children. He was instrumental in them coming to Christ. Humanly speaking, he was the person who founded their church. He loves them dearly. 

But now what does he see? “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the snake’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (verse 3). There are, it seems, false apostles and false preachers hovering around the Corinth church. Exactly what they were teaching isn’t absolutely clear - but Paul is in no doubt that they were bad news! The Corinth church was in danger.

There was a time when the father of the bride would “give the bride away” to the groom in the wedding service. This doesn’t always happen today, of course, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the greater independence of women. But Paul sees himself in that role: “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (verse 2). Christ is the heavenly bridegroom, the church in Corinth is the bride, and Paul is the proud father. But now all that is in jeopardy. 

So... going back to where we started: this is how your minister (hopefully!) feels about you. Anything that threatens to derail your walk with God will cause him or her acute pain: the pain of jealousy. And in this respect he or she resembles not only Paul, but God himself.

Now, you may look at your minister and find this hard to believe. Perhaps they don’t exactly come across as “jealous for you with a godly jealousy”. No doubt they have plenty of faults and failings. Possibly they sometimes irritate you to bits.

But I encourage you to see them through fresh eyes. Pray for them. Try to be supportive, co-operative and helpful. You may even like to have a fresh read of Hebrews 13:7 and 17... See them as “those who must give an account”. Be the kind of church member who ensures that “their work may be a joy and not a burden”.

Who knows? You might even find them improving! 

A choice of two prayers!...

Loving Father, thank you for those set over me in spiritual leadership. Help me to value them, to pray for them, and to do all I can to encourage them in their ministry. Amen. 

Loving Father, thank you for calling me to the role of leadership in your church. Help me to love, even with a godly jealousy, the people you have entrusted to my care. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The darkness and the light

Jesus said, “No-one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known... Luke 8:16-17

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5

I remember, as a child, visiting a house with my parents where there was a wall-plaque just inside the front-door. It read: “God is the head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.”

I remember feeling slightly nervous. This was long before I read Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, but famous words from that novel seem appropriate: Big Brother is watching you. Did I glance uneasily over my shoulder...? Spooky!

Jesus said that “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known.” When it comes to God, it seems, there is simply and literally no such thing as a “secret”. He knows our hearts, our minds, our every thought. 

Did Jesus say this to “put the frighteners” on us?

It certainly seems rather like that. But, taken in context, I think his words are intended, in fact, as words of challenge and even encouragement. How so?

Well, he has just told the parable of the sower, which, he says, people other than the twelve “will see, but not see, will hear, but not understand”. The truth of the gospel, in other words, will be hidden - at least for the time being. 

But that is going to change! Referring, presumably, to the church’s preaching after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the message of the gospel will be blazoned forth to the whole world. 

In a nutshell, Jesus is talking about the contrast between darkness and light. He is saying that what at that time was still shrouded in darkness will one day be exposed to God’s glorious light. 

Light and darkness don’t mix: that’s the key point. Either the darkness will be so strong that it blots out the light, or the light so powerful that it chases away the darkness. In the Bible God is regularly described in terms of light - “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” says John (1 John 1:5). And sin and evil are described in terms of darkness: “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

So, says Jesus, be encouraged. Yes, this world is indeed full of darkness, but one day the light which you have received from me will overcome all darkness. Good will triumph, evil will be overcome.

I think this a word we need very much today as we look at the appalling things happening in so many parts of the world. It’s easy to get depressed, but that is a temptation we need to resist.

But - wait a minute! - there is a point where what I said earlier about Jesus “putting the frighteners” on us does sneak back in. As I said, I don’t think that was his main intention. But of course it’s easy to talk about the appalling things happening in our world - but what about the appalling things we see as we look into the murky depths of our own hearts? The sobering fact is that darkness is not only around us, but also within us.

So Jesus’s words certainly serve as a serious warning to us. What “dark secrets” do you and I have? There may be somebody reading this who is being unfaithful to their husband or wife. Somebody who has a pornography problem. Somebody who is involved in underhand financial dealings. Somebody who is harbouring jealousy or anger or hatred towards somebody else. Somebody who is, deep down, jealous, or who is lazy, or greedy, or vengeful, or angry, or arrogant, or hypocritical, or... (feel free to extend the list). 

When Jesus said that the light of God will ultimately put all darkness to flight, that included the darkness still within even those who claim him as Saviour and Lord.

So... the frighteners? All right, perhaps not. But a warning? 

Yes! Yes, why not? I suspect that all of us need to pray with the psalmist (Psalm 139)...

Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Plain sailing? No!

We don’t want you to be uninformed… about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 2 Corinthians 1:8

Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?… the darkness is my closest friend. Psalm 88: 14, 18

A preacher I heard recently asked us to compare our spiritual lives to a boat. In essence (I’ve tweaked his sermon a bit) we might fit into one of five categories.

First, we might be sailing. We aren’t having to work too hard – our sails are up, the breeze is blowing, and we’re forging ahead. Great!

Second, we might be rowing. This isn’t so easy – we’re having to bend our backs to the oars and work steadily and energetically. But we are making progress.

Third, we might be drifting. Either there’s no wind, or we have taken the sails down without picking up the oars, so we’re at the mercy of the waves and the currents. Not good!

Fourth, we might be struggling. The wind is howling, the waves are choppy, and it looks as if we might be about to go down. It’s hard – but we’re keeping going.

Fifth, we might be sinking. Disaster looms…

Do you see yourself anywhere there?

For a moment I was a little worried about where the preacher was taking us. There are Christians who believe that every day of the Christian life we should be in category one: sailing serenely along. Hitch your sails to the wind of the Spirit! Let go and let God! Lie back and enjoy the sunshine and the blue sky!

And I knew that wasn’t me – no, not by a long way.

But soon my mind was set at rest. The majority of us, said the preacher, are in category two: rowing. Sometimes it’s quite tough, and often not remotely exciting. But as far as we can judge we’re moving on with God. Yes, perhaps there are times when it is, as the saying goes, “all plain sailing”, but those times are the exception rather than the rule. The Christian life, generally speaking, is not easy!

Perhaps you feel you’re in category three: drifting. Look out! This is the most dangerous place to be, because what it usually means is that we have become lazy and careless; we have allowed the world’s temptations to get a hold on us. The warning bells are ringing – but we’re not hearing them. The lights are flashing – but we’re not seeing them. As Jesus puts it to the church in Ephesus, we have “lost our first love” (Revelation 2:4).

Wake up! Stir yourself! Get a grip! A boat that drifts may be fine for a time – but it could end up anywhere: on rocks, in quicksands, over a waterfall, far out to sea…

Categories four and five are the ones that made me think hardest: struggling and sinking. They brought to mind the two striking passages at the head of this article.

First, there is Paul, the great man of God – preacher, apostle, evangelist, church-planter, missionary, letter-writer, fund-raiser – telling us about a time when he was struggling, and even fearing he might be sinking. He talks about being “under great pressure”, about barely being able to “endure”; he even hints at “despairing of life”. “Despair” isn’t a word I naturally associate with Paul! – but there it is.

And then Psalm 88… How glad I am that this terrible psalm is in the Bible. How thankful I am for the honesty of God’s word.

Am I right to call it a “terrible psalm”? Well, read it for yourself. Can you imagine a more terrible last line than “the darkness is my closest friend”? Throughout all eighteen verses there is not the faintest glimmer of light.

The writer is conscious of sin; he clearly has a sensitive conscience. But he doesn’t really know why God should plunge him into darkness like this: “Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?”

And couldn’t that be the cry of any of us? – the person struggling with depression, perhaps, or overwhelmed by tragic and heart-breaking circumstances.

However bleak the words of Paul and the psalmist may be, I have to put them in the “struggling” rather than the “sinking” category. The very fact that they cried out to God shows that they weren’t going under completely. Even to hang on by your finger nails is an act of faith. God sees it, and he will honour it.

Even though their circumstances were clearly desperate, the person I worry about far more than them is the drifter: that’s where the real danger lies.

So… where would you say you are on the sea of life?

Lord God, my life is not easy, my circumstances far from straightforward. Please help me hold on to you by faith, remembering the sufferings of many of my fellow-Christians, and of the Lord Jesus himself. And so bring me to calmer waters and perfect peace. Amen.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Tongues-speaking revisited

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Acts 10:30

I was a very young and inexperienced minister when the whole question of “speaking in tongues” burst on the church. I had long had a close friend who worshipped in a Pentecostal church, so I wasn’t completely unaware of it. But it was (we imagined!) something safely tucked away in those strange “Penty” circles, so it wasn’t something we more mainstream Christians needed to bother with.

We imagined wrong! Once the “charismatic movement” kicked off, complete with tongues, prophecy, miracles and the rest, we all had to come to terms with it and try to make some sense of it.

All that was nearly half a century ago, and the issue has never completely gone away. And in the last couple of weeks it has popped its head up again in my life.

First, I was at a ministers’ conference where one of the speakers spoke as if we were all tongues-speakers (though I’m pretty sure he knew we weren’t!). Second, I received a message from a lady called Kathryn who reads this blog and who was interested, not so much in the teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, but in instances where new converts suddenly find themselves speaking in tongues.

In other words, she is interested in tongues as what might be called an “initiation gift” rather than tongues as a gift granted to individuals in the church.

So… what can we say? Let’s do a bit of digging…

The Book of Acts records three examples of this kind of tongues-speaking.

Acts 2, of course, describes the Day of Pentecost, when the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues…” Then there is Acts 10, which I have quoted above, the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius, his family and friends.

And then Acts 19:1-6: this is an unusual story, concerning a group of about twelve “disciples” who seem to have got stuck, if I can put it that way, between John the Baptist and Jesus. Their baptism in water was John’s, rather than Jesus’s, and their knowledge of Jesus was obviously very limited. But after full “Christian” baptism, “Paul placed his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…”

I’m pretty sure that we can add one more to these three instances: Acts 8:14-17, where we read about the first Samaritan converts. True, tongues isn’t specifically mentioned, but we are told that “Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” – a fact recognised by the pagan magician Simon. Presumably there was some clear sign of their receiving the Spirit, and it seems likely that that would have been tongues.

So then, certainly three, and probably four, examples in Acts of tongues as an “initiation gift”.

I think it’s worth noticing two points.

First, each of these was a group experience. Pentecost involved the twelve apostles; Acts 8 involved “all the people of Samaria”; Acts 10 involved Cornelius and “his relatives and close friends”; and Acts 19 involved that group of men who had accepted John the Baptist’s message.

So? Well, while I’m sure God can and sometimes does give the gift of tongues to individuals at the time of their conversion – their initiation into the church – this isn’t a pattern we find in Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament. So we should be careful not to treat it as an absolute “must” for new converts.

Second, in all four cases the gift of tongues had what we might call a validating role in demonstrating that the Holy Spirit is no longer confined to the Jews.

Acts 2 demonstrates that the prophecy of Joel 2 is fulfilled: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people”; Acts 8 demonstrates that even the detested Samaritans can receive the Spirit and become part of God’s kingdom; Acts 10 demonstrates that the good news of Jesus is for gentiles as well as Jews; and Acts 19 demonstrates that a group that could possibly have developed into an early sect (the “John the Baptist believers”?) was gathered into the true church.

And so it may be that in today’s world such initiation gifts of tongues have that same validating effect – to demonstrate that, yes, God has gathered these people too into his kingdom!

A bit speculative? Perhaps so; but perfectly plausible. But let me finish on a more practical note.

Do you have the gift of tongues? Yes? Well, that’s fine. Use it, of course, as the Spirit leads you. But please, please, don’t imagine it means you are some sort of “superior” Christian! It doesn’t. Look at the Christians of Corinth. They had “spiritual gifts” in abundance, no mistake about that. But their church was a shambles, in certain respects a disgrace to God.

You don’t have the gift of tongues? That’s fine too. Just get on with living the Christian life, seeking to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and focussing on Christlike love, which renders tongues and all the other gifts relatively unimportant and possibly meaningless (see 1 Corinthians 13:1).

And please, please, don’t let anyone persuade you that you are somehow an inferior Christian or that you are “missing out”.

It used to bother me that I didn’t speak in tongues. Then I understood that lack of love should bother me much more! My suggestion is simple: if you really want something to bother about, let it be that!

Lord Jesus Christ, fill me day by day with your Holy Spirit – whatever that may mean in my situation. Amen.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

How can I be like Jesus?

Jesus said…
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (NIV)

“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behaviour: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! (The Message)  Luke 6:31

Great words! Great words!

But hang on a minute… What would I like others to do for me? How do I want others to act towards me? There’s not a lot of point in reading this verse if we don’t ask ourselves that question, is there?

I’ve pondered it and boiled it down to four things – I suspect that if you were to do the same you would probably come up with much the same list. So… What do I want from others?…
  1. Forgiveness when I’ve done wrong.
This must come top. We are all sinners. That means that as well as displeasing God, we also displease one another. We hurt one another, we speak ugly words, we act spitefully, selfishly, cruelly. That’s human nature, fallen and sinful. So how grateful we are when that other person extends forgiveness!

Am I quick to extend forgiveness?
  1. Patience when I act stupidly, thoughtlessly or insensitively.
There are times when we honestly don’t mean any ill, but we just rub the other person up the wrong way. Perhaps our wonderful, side-splitting, rolling-about-on-the-floor sense of humour isn’t quite as brilliant as we thought. Perhaps we let them down without meaning to. Perhaps an attempt to be helpful or smart rather backfires. So how grateful we are when they show us patience!

Am I patient with others, or do I just get irritable and cross?
  1. Help when I need it.
We all need help: none of us can cope alone. Perhaps, like me, you’re pretty clueless when it comes to computers, so how grateful you are when that friend gives up valuable time to advise you. Perhaps you’re short of money, and someone helps you out a bit. Perhaps you’re lonely and sad, and they come and spend time with you or give you a call. Perhaps… oh, I could go on for ever couldn’t I?

Am I quick to help, to support, to encourage?
  1. Correction when I’m losing my way.
Ah, this is rather different. Do I really want others to correct me when I have gone wrong? Knee-jerk answer, if I’m being honest: no. And yet if I stop to think about it I can see that this is indeed a true mark of friendship. It may not be easy to receive a rebuke – but, boy, it’s a whole lot harder to deliver one!

This, of course, is why it so rarely happens – in my experience, anyway. As I look back over my life I can think of hardly any times when some kind friend has taken me to task for something I’m doing or some danger I’m sliding into.

I’m not blaming them, of course. They didn’t want to risk hurting me, or perhaps jeopardising our relationship. But I can’t help wondering how much better a person I might have been if they had (assuming, of course, that I would have been humble enough to take it). “He that won’t be counselled can’t be helped,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, the eighteenth century American statesman and scholar. And that’s very true. But by the same token we might also say, “He that won’t offer counsel is denying help.”

Do I have the courage, the concern – oh, let’s call it plainly what it is, the love – to offer counsel even if it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done?

There’s my list, then: Forgiveness, patience, help, correction. No doubt I could easily extend it; but I think that covers most of what this is about. And when you stop and think, don’t these four words pretty much sum up the way God deals with me? Don’t they boil down in essence to the greatest word of all: love?

I’ve picked just one tiny verse out of Luke 6. The next thing to do, I suggest, is to flesh it out by reading – very slowly, thoughtfully and prayerfully – the rest of the passage, verses 27-42.

What kind of person would I be if I took these words seriously? What kind of world would this be if we all did so?

Lord Jesus, help me always to treat others the way I would like them to treat me. Amen.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Run, run, run!

Therefore... let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus... Hebrews 12:1-2

Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. 1 Corinthians 9:24-25

I wonder if the name Roger Bannister means anything to you? If you are remotely interested in sport I’m sure it will. Bannister was the man who broke a record many thought could never be broken: he was the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes.

I recently picked up a book he originally wrote in 1955, the year after he broke that record. I was just a small boy at the time (picture me with short grey trousers and Brylcreemed hair), but I still remember the fuss and excitement. It was a bit like when Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay became the first men to reach the top of Everest.

In his book Bannister talks about his compulsion to run, and the thrill he got from it. 

Well, I can’t pretend to have any kind of similar compulsion. Running has never much interested me, though I do appreciate its beauty. I remember a boy at school - I even remember his name: Farthing - who ran like the wind, all smoothness, focus and fluency. I can see him right now, flowing down the track. But I’m afraid that I was one of those who, when it came to the annual cross-country run, reckoned to hide away for a few laps and hope no-one would notice.

In the world of the New Testament they didn’t have the kind of complicated and sophisticated games we have today - no football or tennis or cricket. But what they did have was athletics, and especially that most basic and primitive of all sports, running.

So it’s no surprise that the writer to the Hebrews (and Paul too in 1 Corinthians) compares the Christian life to the running of a race. It’s clear that he has in mind long distance, not a sprint (think Mo Farah or Paula Radcliffe), because he talks about “running with perseverance”. Even an unfit person can put on a bit of speed for a hundred yards or so, though perhaps at risk of a heart attack. But running a marathon, say, is a rather different matter. You need to be supremely fit and totally dedicated. And exactly the same thing applies to the spiritual race.

You have to get rid of any excess baggage. The writer picks out two sorts.

First, “everything that hinders”. There’s not much point running a race in your wellies or eating a bacon sandwich, is there? All of us have things in our lives which are not at all wrong in themselves but which trip us up - hinder us - through having an over-important place in our priorities. Do I, say, watch too much television, or read too many novels, or eat too many donuts, or (this is me) play too much chess?

Perhaps, looking at your life, you can think of a bit of pruning that needs to be done, a few tough decisions that need to be made. How about it?

Second “the sin that so easily entangles” - things or attitudes, motives or ambitions, which are quite clearly wrong, no ifs no buts, but which we have got comfortably used to. Things which have become part of the furniture of our lives. But things which are offensive to a pure and holy God. 

A sinking ship may need to jettison its cargo, and that must be very hard to do. But if the cargo consists of outright sins on the one hand and distracting habits or hobbies on the other, sorry, it’s got to go.

The kind of fitness and dedication the writer is talking about calls for one very simple thing: “let us fix our eyes on Jesus”.

Doesn’t that little expression sum up perfectly the heart and soul of Christianity? Every minute of every day we are to be Christ-centred men and women. Fix your eyes. An occasional glance is no good. Nor even a weekly stare, most likely on a Sunday morning. No, our eyes must be focussed on him twenty-four seven, as they say.

The next stretch of the race lies before us. Are you a true athlete for Christ?

Father, help me to be the kind of runner the Bible speaks of, remembering that one day I will receive a prize that can never be taken away. Amen.