Friday, 2 November 2018

To end all wars

(Poppies by Laura Goodsell on Unsplash)
This month sees the culmination of the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Falling on a Sunday, it means that there will be a special note to Remembrance Sunday across the country. One question that everyone asks at some time is why God doesn’t stop wars. We don’t seem to learn and regularly repeat the mistakes of the past. Just look at the First World War. When it ended it was known as “The Great War”, but we now know it as “The First World War” because there was a second one just 21 years later. The generation that fought in that first conflict hoped it would be “the war to end all wars”, but their hopes were cruelly dashed in a more terrible conflict. And we don’t have to look far around the world to see that current generations haven’t learned, either.  So why doesn’t God just step in and stop the fighting?

A place to begin to answer that question is to discover why there is fighting in the first place, and to do that the best thing to do is look into your own heart. What you see there is conflict, jealousy, greed, mistrust or even hatred of others, and self-centredness that pushes others away, to name but a few. Those are the ingredients that start wars and they are right there in your own heart. A war is just a larger version of what you and I are capable of as individuals. Wars start because sinful people take their sinful desires to extremes. So if God is going to stop wars he has to stop us all from sinning, and how is he going to do that?

One option for God would be to stop all sinful actions before they take place. Just think of the level of control that would involve—if you have seen the film “Minority Report” you will know how crushing that is. Alternatively, God could turn us into mindless robots who obey him unquestioningly. That would work; at least, there would be no wars!

But God’s method is to change the human heart. In the gospel of Jesus we learn that Jesus died for sins, not merely to remove sin’s guilt before God, but also to overcome sin’s power. When someone believes in Jesus they are given a new nature. The sinful flesh dies with Christ and a new person rises with Christ. This does not mean that we are immune to sin; it is still there with us. But we have a new nature, motivation and power to resist sin and live the way God wants. And because our hearts are being renewed, we look ahead to a day when we no longer want to sin, when our hearts have been completely renewed. And we long to see the place where we see God and there is no more death, mourning, crying or pain, and where nation no longer takes up arms against nation. That’s heaven. You don’t need me to tell you that we are not there yet. Conflict and wars will sadly continue until that day, but the day is coming when God will reign, peace will break out and wars will end.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.
(Isaiah 2:4)

Thursday, 4 October 2018

How can you be sure love wins?

Carrie Underwood has a single out at the moment called “Love Wins”. It’s one of those anthems that has a catchy tune and is full of noble sentiments—telling us that even though life is terrible at times, a day is coming when love will win, so we should reach out and care for each other. Well, you can’t disagree with that. It almost sounds Christian, although she makes no mention of God. But my question is, how can you be sure love will win?

The reason I ask is because the prevailing belief system most people live with provides no reassurance that that will happen at all. Listen to Richard Dawkins as he writes about the universe he believes we live in:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
There you have it: no justice, just pitiless indifference. That gives no guarantee that love will win at all and effectively removes any reason even to show love. And that makes Carrie Underwood’s song look like an empty and sentimental hope that we are powerless to bring about, rather like building a sandcastle to live in and hoping that the tide doesn’t come in. Love can’t win, because the selfish gene has to reproduce.

But, of course, Carrie Underwood is basically right, even if it is for the wrong reason. For a start, the universe is not driven by blind physical forces, but by the wisdom and sovereign power of God. This means that, in the face of all the evils the world throws up (and did you notice that Dawkins says there is no evil or good?) God will bring justice. More than this, truth will triumph, wrong will be defeated, and love will win. And we know this because we have seen how love has already won.

We see the victory of love in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was both love and justice that sent Jesus to the cross. Justice demanded that we should face the penalty of our sins and that we should be punished and separated from God. Love drove Jesus to be the one who would pay that penalty for us, enduring separation from God and dying in our place. But Jesus then rose from the dead, defeating death and showing that love’s offering had been accepted and justice was satisfied. And this victory 2,000 years ago assures us that that God’s love will conquer the world in the end. We will see people from every nation finding their place under his love.

So how should we live in the light of this? If we know love has already won, then sacrificial love must be our answer, since that is what the Saviour has modelled for us.  Dawkins’ empty philosophy strips away any hope for the future, purpose for life, and reason to be loving, but we are not following him. We follow the God who is love, has loved us from eternity, sent his Son in love to redeem us, and now calls us to imitate him in living a life of love. We have no excuse for withholding love, acting selfishly, or turning away from people in need. It’s what it means to be salt and light, so let’s make sure we find ways of making a loving impact on our world and our community.

Monday, 10 September 2018

When community life declines

John Harris wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian recently, lamenting the progressive loss of shared spaces and the slow fracturing of our society into groups of people who never really meet each other. The shared spaces he has in mind are things like pubs (approximately 18 close every week), nightclubs (down from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733 in 2015) music venues (down 35% in 10 years), drop-in centres, youth centres (down by 600 since 2010) and libraries, to name but a few. His point is that the decline of these joint community spaces, where people mix and meet others they would not otherwise encounter, encourages society to fragment further. Technology already plays a part in dividing people from each other – think of the amount of time children spend in front of screens as opposed to playing outside together; or how much shopping is done online, rather than in the company of others. This just adds to that and pushes people further apart physically, and that can only have detrimental effect on our understanding of each other.

He is not unaware that churches have seen declining numbers, too, while certain denominations have experienced significant numbers of closures. But he does not really comment any further on what role churches might have in providing an answer to this loss of shared spaces, except to acknowledge with gratitude that the youth club he went to as a lad was staffed by people from the local Methodist church. What he does not talk about is that there are churches up and down the country who run youth clubs and young people’s Bible clubs for all ages, never mind those that let out their premises for Scouts, Guides and the like. Churches are usually at the front of providing community facilities that bring people of all walks and backgrounds together. Churches provide shared space facilities for groups from the oldest to the youngest, feeding people, teaching and advising, supporting, giving comfort and shelter, and usually at their own expense. 

I think sometimes Christians look back to what they think were the golden days for the church when there was nothing in the average town or village except the church and pub around the green. There were no other distractions so the church was inevitably the hub around which community life revolved. We mistakenly lament this loss of status and moan that people are never going to get our influence in society back again. Certainly, we will never get the same unrivalled influence back; there are always going to be other distractions around. But it would be a huge mistake to think that we cannot still be a force for good. (and for God)

As people in society become more and more cut off from each other, places which bring people together will be a huge benefit. Groups which emphasize the good of the community and do so self-sacrificially will stand out. Their lights will shine in the darkness and people will notice. I think of evangelical churches I encountered in Spain when I worked for European Christian Mission and the national recognition they have gained for working with drug addicts. No one else takes this on in such a way as evangelicals have done, and it has gained them, and the gospel, a deal of respect in a country which is still deeply suspicious of cults and sects outside the church. Just apply that to everything that the church might do in a lonely society and you will see that the church can still be a force for good.

Of course, we don’t do this merely to gain recognition, or just to bring people together. The gospel of Jesus aims at reconciling people to God first of all, and then in the strength of that to bring them together. When Paul talks about the “wall of separation” being removed he is talking, sure enough, about that barrier that existed between Jew and Gentile. Communities that were opposed to each other are joined as one. But the context is that both Jew and Gentile had found their peace in Christ, so that both of them together are able to approach God. What this means for us is that shared spaces are good, in as far as they go. But if we want communities to be reconciled and at one what we really need is the gospel of Jesus. It is that which really breaks down barriers, unites people so that we have a true diversity, and provides the glue that holds communities together because its members stand as equals before God, redeemed and accepted by him. That’s what churches represent, because that is what salvation in Jesus brings. So while other shared spaces may close down, church doors – whether house churches, cathedrals, or worship spaces in schools and cinemas – will always be open to everyone

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Without hope and without God

There have been examples recently in the news that should remind us of how relevant and important the Christian message is for our society today. Firstly, there was a programme on television about the fact that the biggest cause of death among young men aged 18-45 is suicide. That’s a shocking piece of news that should stir us to prayer. Other news revealed that a quarter of young women have self-harmed because of the pressures they feel that come from social media and the insecurities they feel on questions about body image or facing online bullying. That should cause us similar grief and lead us to compassionate concern and action.

Think what these statistics mean. We live in one of the richest countries in the world. We have the best education and health care. Life is generally safe: our roads are among the safest in the world; workplace accidents are minimised because health and safety policies are usually strictly enforced; and modern medicine protects us against the killer diseases that used to sweep away many when they were young. There is little to threaten us directly today, so why is it that people are so disturbed?

One broad answer that can be given is that people are attempting to live without God in their world, and that means that they do not have hope. Jim Packer once wrote about this and he said that the situation in the West is that people have pushed God out of the way and arrogantly claimed that they can manage without him. His response has been to stand back and say, “Go ahead then. See how you get on.” And the sadness we see at the moment in our young people is the result.

We are not designed to manage without God. On the contrary, we are created to know God, serve him, love him and be loved by him. Push him away and we are denying the very heart of our being. When Jesus was tested in the desert he responded to one of the devil’s temptations by saying, “Man shall not live on bread alone , but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” If we live without reference to God and his word, we are effectively starving ourselves.

So it is tragically not surprising that our young men and women are fainting under the pressure they feel. They have no ultimate hope to sustain them, so we should be grieved and moved for them. Compassion and love should stir us to action for them, not least of which will be that we pray for them, that they come to know the hope that there is in Jesus. Paul, when writing to believers in Ephesus, says that they once lived “without hope and without God in the world”. But they came to know Jesus and discovered him to be their peace. He took them, though they were far from God, and brought them near. He welcomed them into his presence and gave them a new identity as members of his household. Surely there is security and well-being in those gifts that our hurting younger generations are longing for.

The outworking of this for those of us who are Christians is that we must be outward-focused and reaching out to those around us. We need a combination of caring for those who are hurting, inviting people to join us, and going out to find those who are lost. Why not make a short list for the autumn of those you know who are outside of the kingdom, who need to know the hope that there is in Jesus. You might be the only person in their friendship circle who will do this for them. Then pray that you might be able to sit alongside them in their need, speak about Jesus to them in their darkness, and be the instrument in God’s hands to bring them near so that they find their true and everlasting hope in him.

(First published in Salway Evangelical Church blog)

Thursday, 23 August 2018

The vilest offender

Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash
Most people believe that God accepts us on the basis of what we do. So even if our lives are not perfect, if they contain some good, he will accept us and welcome us into heaven. But there are some people he will never accept; their deeds are just too wicked. There is no way he will ever forgive them. That is how recent news about Rose West “finding God” has been greeted. Called a “deluded monster” in an article in The Mirror online, her professed conversion is mocked and her faith doubted. Fellow inmates were reported as being cynical about her new-found interest in religion, feeling that her regular attendance at chapel services was just a way of making life in prison more favourable. And family members of those she murdered were quoted as saying “if Rose thinks that asking God to forgive her will in some way make up for what she’s done then that’s not a god that I would understand.”

Of course, Rose West can never make up to the families of the victims for what she and her husband Fred did. The two of them killed, dismembered and buried young women and children in Gloucester between 1967 and 1987, and Rose’s own daughter Heather was among the victims. While awaiting trial for 12 murders Fred West hanged himself in jail on New Year’s Day 1995. Rose was convicted in 1995 and received a whole life tariff. So she will die in prison, because she can never fully pay her debt to society for what she did. But if she is saying that God will forgive her, is that because she has found a way of making things up to him? The answer there is no.

Rose West can never pay her debt to God any more than she can repay the families of her victims, but the Christian gospel doesn’t ask us to. God sees our sins and is angry about them; they offend him far more than they offend other people, and we rightly deserve God’s judgment because of them. But we cannot cancel them out, as Rose West’s victims’ families observe. No amount of good deeds will remove the stain of guilt for the wrong we have done. But the message that Jesus announced is that he came to pay for the price of those sins by his death on the cross. Jesus had no sin and, as the innocent victim, takes our sins and the death they bring upon himself. He tells us to repent of our sins and have faith in him, that he will forgive our sins and receive us into heaven.

This is the heart of the gospel of Jesus, that he will forgive anyone who comes to him, who repents of sin and trusts in him as Saviour. Even the very worst. As the hymn in the title says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Of course, it is possible that Rose West is just faking her faith in Jesus to get an easy ride in prison. She may not be sincere in her belief; I simply cannot tell from where I sit. But it is safe to say that God knows; she can’t fool him. But the gospel says that if she has truly believed then God has forgiven her, and she will be in heaven. That is the reason for hope in the gospel: there is hope for anyone! The apostle Paul confesses that he was a persecutor and a violent man. He was responsible for the death of many Christians and calls himself “the worst of sinners”. But he tells us that he, too, found forgiveness because “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And his example encourages us to believe that anyone else can be saved, too.

But secondly, we should note that this route to God’s forgiveness – belief in Jesus – is one that all of us must take, not just the Rose Wests of the world. I think one reason people object to the idea that an outwardly evil person can find forgiveness is because they think that they are better. But Jesus knocks that on the head when he says that the problem lies in all of us. Our hearts are corrupt and produce one form of evil after another. So no good deed we do can rub out the bad ones. We all need the sacrifice of Jesus to wash away the evil. None of us deserves to be forgiven. No one can say that they are good enough. The gospel of Jesus is a great leveller when it tells us that we are all sinners. But the good news – the great news! – is that Jesus came for sinners like you and me, and that is open to everyone, too.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Being light in the darkness

A recent survey has shown that people in Europe are becoming less and less religious, and young people in particular are moving away from all expressions of faith. An article in The Guardian announces it with the heading “Christianity as default is gone” and summarises the findings as:
70% of young people (ie 16-29 year olds)  in the UK identify with ‘no religion’
59% of young people never attend a religious service
Nearly two-thirds never pray
    This is sad reading, but not surprising, and nor is it surprising that it applies to much of the rest of Europe as well. It is perfectly true that Christianity is no longer the default religion right across the continent—in fact, in several countries the percentage of believers is swollen by the fact that migrants or immigrants are more likely to go to church than the locals. So things don’t look good. But what are we going to do?

    One is not to believe the propaganda that God is dead. The decline of Christianity in the West is very real, but in every other continent the church is mushrooming. What we are experiencing is difficult for us, but if you read your Old Testament you will see that on many occasions faith in God waned. Most of the prophets continued their ministry in times of decline and unbelief, but that unbelief did not stop them affirming that God is on the throne. He still is today.

    Secondly, we pray earnestly for those around us who do not know the hope that is found in Jesus Christ. It should grieve us and even cause heartfelt pain that people are slogging through life without any real hope. Read the words of Jeremiah or Ezekiel to understand the pain and sadness they felt for a people who had rejected the truth and were clutching at anything that would give them hope. That pain is illustrated in the life of Jesus who was moved to compassion at seeing people as “sheep without a Shepherd”, and who wept over Jerusalem when it would not turn to him and be healed. If you feel something of that—perhaps for members of your own family, as much as anyone else—then turn it to prayer.

    And don’t give up. There is a story of a shoe company that sent a salesman to a poor country in the hope of establishing a new shop, but he soon returned, defeated. “We can’t do anything,” he lamented. “No-one has any shoes.” So they sent another rep who saw the same situation, but looked at it completely differently. “Send shoes!” he said. “No-one has any shoes!” I suggest that we adopt the second salesman’s attitude. Very few people go to church, which means that the market is wide open! I know that people are very cynical about Christianity, but in reality most have no idea what it is actually about. We have a unique opportunity to show what faith in Jesus involves, because relatively few people are trying to follow him.

    And that brings us back to being Salt and Light. We are going to stand out among those we work with, in our neighbourhoods, and perhaps in our families, too. So let’s pray for ways in which we can live out the faith before a sceptical society and speak of his love, new life and peace to those who need it. After all, we have shoes and those around us do not!

Friday, 3 November 2017

Deadly Boring

John Humphreys has made the news by saying he thinks the Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ is “deeply, deeply boring.” Apparently contributors have nothing more to say than “be nice to each other” or, as Justin Webb pointed out, “if everyone was nicer to everyone else, it would be fine” and the world would be such a better place. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for that 3 minute slot among the presenters for well-meaning religious moralism, so why bother with it?

We have to begin by acknowledging that it is quite possible that some of these short talks might really be boring. If they are that predictable then they probably will be. And if they are that boring then John Humphreys has a point when he asks they have to interrupt an interesting discussion for a dose of religious mush.

But my first question is whether he, or the BBC, actually want something more than religious mush? They say they do, but is that really true? Giles Fraser in his column in The Guardian says that there is a bias against all religion at the Beeb. One way I think this operates is that the BBC, along with other broadcasters, operate a kind of censorship scheme on what can or can’t be said, what is acceptable as opposed to what is unacceptable. I don’t know how active that scheme is – for instance, I am not party to information about whether a contributor’s talk is censored before they broadcast it. Do they have to send the script the day before? Or is it scanned the morning they arrive for non-approved phrases? I don’t know what happens there, but the controversial elements of the Christian message are certainly filtered out of BBC content. Whether it is on the grounds of unpopularity, bigotry, offensiveness or unbelievability you don’t hear much about repentance, sin, the exclusive claims of Jesus, the stats that demonstrate that marriage (one man, one woman) promotes health, the way that children and the poor pay the price of the sexual revolution, or our absolute need for God’s grace because we are so twisted by sin that we cannot save ourselves.

I bet those elements of Christian faith would be too much for them. Dare I say it, I suspect that list would simply be too interesting for Radio 4. So once those and other controversial elements have been removed, what is left that can be broadcast? Well, it is nothing more than the religious moralism that John Humphreys so despises. It makes all religions sound the same, which is what the secular mindset insists is that case anyway. And it makes them all sound boring, because moralism is boring. Just telling people “Do this, don’t do that” is tedious and ineffective. One of the Church of England Bishops (I don’t know which, but I remember the quote), faced with religious decline, moral collapse, and social upheaval in the early 1700s said, “We have preached morality until the people are sick of morality!” Society was desperately corrupt and no amount of urging people to become better had any effect.

So it is a self-fulfilling prophecy if Radio 4’s religious slot is boring. It is never going to be much more than what it already is because two key elements of the faith have been stripped away. The first is what Paul calls the “offence of the cross”. That this has been lost is not surprising; people were trying to remove it in Paul’s day. The cross is a huge scandal and offence because it tells men and women that they are sinners, rebels under God’s judgment and deserving eternal separation from God for their sins. The good news about the death of Jesus on the cross is that it tells us he has paid that price for us, in our place. He died our death before God, taking our sins so that we might live. But the offence lies in the verdict it pronounces on us: we are powerless to change ourselves at heart, unable to win God’s favour and utterly dependent upon his mercy for our salvation. That message does not chime well with the self-sufficient, self-righteous, and self-centred. It never has.

And the second element that is lost in the religious mush is the power of the cross. On the cross Jesus puts to death our sinful nature and renews those who trust in him. Receiving Christ by faith means we also receive the gift of the Spirit who empowers his followers to live like him. Moralising cannot produce this power. All it can do is tell people to try harder. But the cross gives both an incentive for godly living (you have been saved) and a boost (in the form of help from above). ‘Thought for the Day’ does not (ever?) allow its contributors to broach controversial matter like that. That is too much for the secular gatekeepers to let pass. It is much safer to stick with what they’ve got.

Friday, 27 October 2017

The God who knows

Embed from Getty Images

At what point do we begin to realise that we can lie and get away with it because other people don’t know what we have done? It’s at quite early age, really, seen in children as young as 42 months. Various experiments have tested this out, one of which put children in a room with an object behind them. When an adult briefly left the room they were asked not to peek at the object, but in most cases the children did. When the adult returned they were asked if they had peeked and in most cases the children lied and said that they hadn’t. It seems that one factor in the lying process is a growing awareness in the children that they are individuals in their own right. They unconsciously conclude that since on one else is around, then they can say what they like and no one can contradict them. In this case, the children were rumbled because there was a hidden camera watching them.

Now the experiment was fairly harmless, but you see the same pattern in adults who commit crimes and then brazenly deny any knowledge of what has happened until CCTV footage identifies them. They hold out up to that point because they think no one else knows. The increasing use of dash cam footage in car accident insurance claims demonstrates this principle in action from another angle. People might be tempted to lie about whose fault it was until the recording shows what really happened.

It is interesting, then, that Hannah tells us that “the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.” This phrase comes as a part of her exuberant prayer at the birth of her son, Samuel, who was born after years of childlessness and anguish. It is a prayer which outlines her deep-seated trust in God in all situations in life (including her years of grief at being childless) and an overwhelming joy in his help and deliverance. God is the Rock upon whom she stands, unshaken and confident, and this vantage point gives her a unique outlook.

The first things that she says cannot remain are arrogance and pride: “Do not keep talking proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance.” Perhaps she is thinking of the taunting of her rival, her husband’s other wife, and the pain caused by this other woman’s mockery. But it extends to all forms of human pride because “the Lord is a God who knows.” There is nothing that escapes him; there are no mysteries to him. And we are not just talking about him knowing what went on, why it happened, and so on; we are talking about his knowledge of us. There are no mysterious people for him, no hidden traits of character. We often say about people, “I don’t know what they keep doing this…” or “What possessed them to do that…?” But God understands the hidden depths of our personalities, both what we do and why we do it. There is no mystery for him in what we are.

The Bible’s conviction is that we live our lives under the gaze of one who saw us and knew us before we we born, and from whom we cannot hide. It tells us that there is nothing that is hidden from God; everything is laid bare before him. And “by him deeds are weighed.” So that gaze extends not merely to what we have done, but it looks at our hearts and assesses our motives in those deeds. How do you think your deeds will look when placed under that searching light? When they are weighed by the God who knows? At the very least you will see that pride simply cannot exist alongside such knowledge; arrogant talk must cease.

Such knowledge is threatening to those who do not want their lives exposed, rather like the criminals who skulk in the shadows to avoid detection:

Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
But for us who follow Jesus that exposure is, ironically, deeply reassuring, because we discover that God knows us perfectly and yet does not reject us. He knows us with all our sins and failures, but provides the salvation from those sins in Jesus Christ. He knows all our deeply flawed attempts to follow him, yet works to mould us into the likeness of his Son. As John says, “we walk in the light”, under the spotlight of God’s knowledge of us. There is no hiding or fooling God. But that really is the best place to be.

Friday, 20 October 2017

In me you may have peace

If we are honest we all have certain expectations when it comes to experiencing peace. Perhaps we think of sitting on a sun lounger by the pool, a cool drink in hand. Or maybe it is watching a sunset on a quiet evening. Whatever the image in mind, it is usually something calming that is also distinguished by an absence of trouble or disturbance. The peace by the pool, for instance, would shattered if there were other noisy tourists with out of control children. We usually cannot think of finding peace alongside trouble. Trouble normally has to be absent. And yet Jesus is clear that the two can, indeed must, co-exist.

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33)

They way that he expresses it there tells us that there is one certainty in life and one possibility. The certainty is that “in this world you will have trouble.” His peace, by contrast, is the possibility. If we are to know peace, we have to find it in the face of trouble, not because trouble has been taken away. What form that trouble takes is not specified. Jesus was speaking to his disciples in the upper room the night before his betrayal and death, so he has mentioned the trauma that would be caused by those events. He also talked about them experiencing hatred and facing persecution in future, so these would be on his mind, too. But his basic assertion is that, whatever form it takes, troubles come our way. Living as a disciple of Jesus in the world will entail tribulations, struggles, testing, pain, even suffering. It is an inescapable reality. We know that God may answer prayer to help us through particular difficulties. He may remove certain problems and trials. But he has not made any absolute promise to smooth over everything for us. Just the opposite. “In this world you will have trouble.”

This should not surprise us. When the Bible talks about the world it frequently means our collective rejection of God and his rule. The world is implacable in its opposition to God and everything he wants. It stands in defiant and angry rebellion against God – “cosmic treason” is the phrase I came across recently, that also describes sin’s effects. The whole of creation is brought down by our sin. The entire cosmos is out of sorts and longing for the day when it will be restored. And what this means, therefore, is that we have no right to expect God to strew our path to heaven with rose petals.

So we have to find the peace that he offers in the shadow of that reality. When the apostle John wrote about “being in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” and meeting with the risen Lord Jesus, he was exiled on the island of Patmos, doing time “because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” When the visions ended he was still breaking rocks. And when Paul wrote to the church in Philippi he observed “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry.” It is interesting that Paul says that it is a secret that has to be learned, because we all know that it does not come instantly. Little by little it has to be grown, strengthening and building through one difficult situation after another. We learn that Jesus is our peace, that he has made our way open to God, and that we will find freedom from fear as we look to him. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” Jesus says to us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Several years ago I met a Cambodian Christian who had spent several years in prison for his faith. During that time he had seen tremendous blessing, with scores of fellow inmates coming to faith in Jesus. I wonder if the authorities who put him there saw the irony, but he testified quite openly he didn’t see the opportunity at first and that it took him three months to come to terms with his imprisonment. He initially questioned the Lord angrily about why he was in jail. He was in deep depression and completely lacking in peace, but then he changed. He didn’t say what it was that altered his outlook, just that he came to accept that God had put him there for a purpose and that he could serve him there just as well as on the outside. I was amazed that it had only taken him three months to see that, but I think the secret lay in accepting the assurances in Jesus' words. We find our ultimate peace in him, Jesus says, not in the world around us. That world will only bring us trouble. But “Take heart,” says Jesus. “I have overcome the world.”

Friday, 13 October 2017

Keep going

It can be hard to keep going. In July 1952 Florence Chadwick set off from Santa Catalina Island to swim the 24 miles or so to the Califormia shoreline. She had already done a similar distance in swimming the English Channel, but this proved more difficult. A thick fog descended that obscured visibility to the point that she could hardly see the boats accompanying her, but it was her inability to see the coastline that proved more damaging. She swam for more than 15 hours before giving up, exhausted. But once in the boat she discovered that she was just a mile short of her destination. If only she had been able to see the coastline, that would have made all the difference.

There is a lesson in that for many situations, not least for what it means to keep going in the Christian faith. It can sometimes seem just like we are swimming in the fog, buffeted by the waves, isolated from others around us, and unable to see where we are going. It can feel like we are just swimming for the sake of it, and all because we have lost sight of our ultimate destination.

John Bunyan understood this clearly when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. He portrayed Christian resting en route at the Delectable Mountains. He still had a long way to go to the Celestial City, but the lofty vantage point in the mountains afforded a view of the City, a glimpse of the goal before the next stage of the journey. Christian didn’t know it at the time, but he was going to need that preview very soon. When he left the mountain top his path quickly descended and wound its way through the Valley of the Shadow.  There in the gloom he felt himself alone, with no view of his route ahead and certainly no sight of the heavenly City. And so it was only with great difficulty that he struggled through.

The Christian faith is very much future oriented, and we need this view of our future more than we realise. Like Abraham we are looking forward, beyond the insecurity of a nomadic life, to the heavenly city with its eternal foundations. There were times when it looked like the promise could never be fulfilled. But Abraham, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, saw this city with the eye of faith, and that vision was what sustained him. And like Moses, we persevere because we see the one who is invisible and are looking ahead to our reward. The way ahead may be tough. Perhaps there is hostility and persecution to be faced, as there was for Moses. But the knowledge of the the heavenly reward gives extra resolve to push on through to the end. If, however, we forget the heavenly reward, we cut off a main source of strength for the journey. And the Bible writers would not be surprised to learn that we have then lost motivation for living as a disciple of Jesus.

An important part of Christian discipleship, therefore, must be to “set our minds on things above.” We have to make sure we look long and hard at the eternal future we are promised so that it is imprinted on our consciousness. Like Christian in Valley of the Shadow, there will be times when we cannot really see that future clearly, but what we have taken in earlier will be there to sustain us. Above all, we must “fix our eyes on Jesus.” He, after all, is the great goal to which God has called us. He is the prize. Not so much the location (if that is a good way of describing it), nor the peace, nor the presence of loved ones, great blessings though they may be. It is that we shall be with him. “They shall see his face” is what John says in breathless wonder as he contemplates heaven. It is the vision of Jesus and all the blessings that flow out of his death and resurrection that will sustain us. That higher perspective is what will keep you going.

Two months after her initial failure Florence Chadwick made another attempt to swim the strait. Once again the fog came down, but this time she swam the distance successfully. She is reported to have said afterwards that she had a picture of the shoreline in her mind all the way.