Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ… In Suffering

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Readings: Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12; II Corinthians 1: 1-7

During the Second World War, particularly in that period early in the War, which became known as the Blitz, the Queen Mother (she was actually Queen then) won the affection of large parts of the nation, which lasted right up to her death, 60+ years later, at the age of 101.

She had been given the opportunity to evacuate to Canada, but she refused. She thought her proper place was with the people. She even learned to use a revolver in case the enemy ever tried to kidnap her.

But she is probably most fondly remembered for her regular visits to the East End, which bore the brunt of the German bombing. There was always the danger from unexploded devices lying beneath the rubble, but she considered it her duty to be there with the people, keeping up the nation’s morale.

Her sense of solidarity with them deepened when Buckingham Palace itself was bombed. Because the Royal family chose to stay in London, the palace was naturally a lucrative target. In fact, during the Blitz, Buckingham Palace was bombed 16 times, suffering 9 direct hits. The first raid involved a particularly narrow escape for the King and Queen. But after that she said she could now “look the East End in the face”.

She knew what they were going through.

She knew something of their experience.

That deepened her connection with those who were suffering, as she was right there alongside them.

They were truly in it together.

My overarching theme in the preaching so far this year has been this idea of Knowing Christ. We are invited into a loving, intimate relationship with God, who has revealed himself to us most completely in Jesus Christ.

I began by speaking of knowing Christ in our minds, our imaginations, our heart. I spoke of the importance of memory in developing our relationship with Jesus.

More recently I have been looking at circumstances in which we are invited to come to know Christ. In loneliness, in anxiety…

At the Sunday Plus gathering a couple of weeks ago, I spoke of Knowing Christ in our doubts, particularly our self-doubts.

Today I turn our attention to perhaps one of the most difficult subjects…

Knowing Christ… in suffering.

I say difficult because all too often the experience of suffering drives people away from God. It is one of, if not the top question people ask of those who claim to have faith. If you’re God is all powerful and all loving, how come the world is as it is?

Let’s front up and be honest.

A few weeks ago I spoke of God’s hesed: a steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits. I spoke of that hesed running through all things like the wording on a stick of rock.

If anything should cause us to question that view of the world, it’s suffering. It is one of the biggest mysteries we face. I’m not saying believers experience it more acutely, nor that we are alone in fighting it. But it is a bigger challenge to how we see the world than for many other people.

I mean, if there is no God, there will still be pain…

…but you don’t have to explain it. It’s just how the world is. It’s an inevitable part of the evolutionary process.

But if there is a God, and if we are supposed to discern anything about this God by looking at God’s creation, it need not be obvious that God is good and loving. Yes, our world contains such beauty. But there is also so much suffering. If we only considered the worst experiences of life, you might come to the opposite conclusion.

There have been lots of attempts to resolve the tension between believing in a good, all loving creator and the suffering of the world. I’m not going to go into them this morning. There are plenty of places you can find that. Such arguments have their merits. Some are better than others.

But let’s be honest enough to admit that none of them answers it completely. We live with far more unknowing and mystery than we care to admit.

How then do we deal it? How do we resolve the contradiction between a cruel world and a loving God? Well, as Francis Spufford says in his fantastic book Unapologetic…

‘the short answer is that we don’t. We don’t even try to, mostly…. Cataclysmic experiences can pitch us back into it, but mostly they don’t… We take the cruelties of the world as a given… Instead of anguishing about why the world is at it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is.’ (Pages 104-5)

That doesn’t mean we don’t take it seriously, or dismiss it by saying ‘yes, it’s difficult now, but one fine day, in the sweet by and by, it’ll be ok.’

Quite the opposite. What kind of group takes an instrument of torture as its main symbol?

Only one which takes suffering very seriously indeed.

But we take it seriously by asking a slightly different set of questions. There’s a reason attempts to resolve the question of suffering never quite work.

When we suffer, we want answers because we think they will help us make sense of suffering. But they resolve far less than we think. No reason can ease sorrow.

There is one circumstance where it proves truly helpful.

When it tells us how we can stop it happening again.

But that gives us a clue to the deeper questions we face in the midst of suffering. More meaningful questions…

What now?

How do I go on?

Nothing is ever going to be the same, so how do I put one foot in front of the other and take the next step?

 Life consists of taking that next step, then the next, then the one after that. ‘Why’ questions have limited power to help us do that.

That’s why we move forward, not by asking for a creator to explain Himself. Instead, as Spufford says ‘We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair… the only comfort that can do anything… is the comfort of feeling loved. Given the cruel world, it’s the love song that we need, to help us bear what we must; and if we can, to go on loving.’ (Page 105)

We want to know we’re not alone.

In the face of suffering, the Christian hope is not in ‘having an argument that solves the cruel world’ but in the belief that in Christ we have a God who is not out there, remote, distant, detached, unfeeling, but our God is somehow or other present, right here with us, in the midst of whatever we face.

We don’t say ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world.’ Instead we can say ‘all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us.’ (Page 107)

That was the central theme of the passage Phil read for us from II Corinthians. It’s one of those passages that the main point is not that difficult to find. One word crops up again and again in the passage. The church (Good News) Bibles uses the word ‘help’.

All our help comes from God, who helps us in all our troubles, so we are able to help others, with the same help…

On and on it goes. That same word appears 10 times in the space of 5 verses (vv3-7). It sits alongside 3 mentions of trouble and another 4 of suffering. So it’s fairly easy to see what’s on Paul’s mind.

The word ‘help’ is a bit general. A better translation is comfort or consolation.’ But even that can sound a little weak, a bit touchy-feely, like a pat on the back saying ‘there, there.’

The word is much stronger than a translation like comfort might suggest. In fact we encountered it before. Just a few weeks ago. Jesus told his disciples he would not leave them as orphans, or like pupils without a master. He would send another ‘helper’ or ‘comforter.’ I mentioned a Greek word Παράκλητον. Parakletov, or Parakletos. The word translated ‘comfort’ or ‘help’ 10 times in that passage is a series of variations on that word. With the same range of meanings.

It can mean someone you call on to be with you, someone who will sit with you, someone who knows the right thing to say which can change the mood. It’s someone who encourages us, someone who cheers us on, reminds us that despite all the evidence to the contrary we can get through this, it doesn’t have to define us, whatever we’re facing doesn’t have to speak the final word. Someone who can offer a bit of direction, a bit of insight which can help you know what the next step to take might be. Someone who helps you see that there even is a possible next step.

I’m reminded of a particular instance from my time in another ministry. Because of the semi-rural nature of the area in which we were based, we were quite a long way from a number of the services like the council, citizens advice, benefits, support services and the like. But we were also in an area where a lot of people needed to access those services. At the church we had a coffee morning, which had a credit union collection point attached to it. We approached a number of different groups and said you want to come and use the church as a drop in you during that time, you would be welcome. We’d be open anyway, so there’d be no charge. A number accepted the offer.

In one of the first weeks a lady came in who had a number of different issues that needed to be sorted. She was very nervous, she wasn’t sure who to ask for, and I got chatting to her. Even from my layman’s perspective, I was able to identify a number of distinct situations, which would require her to speak to different people.

As I started to explain that to her I could see the tension rising in her. How was she going to get round all those people? She was envisaging all the journey’s she would have to take, all the buses, the cost…

Then I said ‘but all those people are here.. You can speak to them all before you leave here.

Her whole demeanour changed. The situations were exactly the same. Nothing had been resolved. But suddenly there was a glint of hope. There were steps she could take. In that moment I was acting as a parakletos.

That’s the kind of thing Paul is talking about here.

That’s the role the Spirit plays.

The God with whom we are invited to come into relationship through knowing Jesus is not an out there, distant, detached God, but one who is here in the midst of the mess with us. Paul describes him as a God of compassion. Compassion literally means suffers alongside us. This God shares the pain and the anguish. As The Message puts it… He’s the God who comes alongside us when we go through hard times.

Thing is, we might not instantly recognise him doing it. Because most of the time, it’s not in blinding flashes, but in the ordinary, like conversations over a cup of coffee in a small country chapel.

Paul highlights two ways in which God does it. But they both have something in common. They involve someone who has been there before us…

… and come out the other side.

In a sense I could be some to that woman . But it gains a whole new dimension if you’re the one who says ‘yes, I’ve been there too… and I’m still here.’

It might happen indirectly. You witness someone in the midst of pain and suffering drawing all sorts of comfort and it offers you encouragement. There is hope.

But more often, certainly more powerfully, is when someone who has been there before us is the one who draws alongside us. That experience qualifies us to deal sympathetically with others. It’s gives what you bring so much more authority. Sometimes it can be that moment when someone recognises your experience. That moment when they say ‘yes, that’s exactly how it feels’; or ‘yes, I remember that’; or even ‘yes, that’s a perfectly normal reaction.’

They’re the ones who can really encourage us we can get through this.

They’re the ones who can help us believe that there is life after this.

They’re the ones who through insight and experience help us find the next step and the next.

That’s how so often God brings his comfort to us. Through those who have been there before us.

But that’s not where God wants it to end. The Message translation is really helpful at this point. He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

God doesn’t comfort us purely for its own sake. Ultimately he longs for us to extend that comfort to others.

So often that’s how God works in the Bible. He tells Abraham he will bless him so that Abraham can be a blessing to others. Jesus speaks of forgiving others as we have been forgiven. What we experience from God, he wants us to hand on. And one of those things we experience is his comfort. However it comes to us.

I don’t believe for a moment that God brings suffering into our lives just so we can help others further down the line. Nor does it make what we experience any more ‘ok’ or even any less painful.

But that doesn’t mean God can’t use us to be the one by which he brings comfort to others. God so often does his best, most powerful and perhaps most surprising work through a particular kind of people.

The wounded healers.

Those who have been there, who have been wounded, and through their wounds they help others find healing.

And very often it helps with their own healing.

And that should not surprise us.

For it is how we encounter God in Christ. It’s how we are drawn into relationship with Christ through suffering. Because in Christ himself we have a wounded healer. In fact Christ as the wounded healer is probably the most important way in which those who first followed Jesus understood him.

It certainly resonated with the first Christians. Isaiah 53 wasn’t particularly written about Jesus. However that passage about the suffering servant is the Old Testament passage most frequently quoted in the New Testament to describe Jesus.

And it presents a picture of a God who understands what we go through because he has gone there ahead of us. In Christ are invited into a trusting relationship with One who can ‘look his creation in the face’ because he is in it with us. He has been there, he has lived our lives, he knows the experience, the good, the joyful…

…and the hell of it.

When God came amongst us, he didn’t come with the trappings of royalty. He came from humble beginnings, was easily overlooked, he could be easily dismissed. We could look on him and say God does not look like that.

There’s a series of novels called the Starbridge Novels by Susan Howatch. In the last of the novels, Absolute Truths, a bishop called Charles Ashworth loses everything that’s important to him, and in the midst of despair he finds himself in an odd, drunken conversation with someone whom he has never liked. The guy remarks that it’s an odd conversation to be having with a bishop. It feels like a dream. ‘It’s no dream,’ says Ashworth, ‘good to meet someone else who’s gone through hell lately.’

Isn’t it wonderful? the man responds. It makes all the difference to know there’s someone else screaming alongside you. And that’s the point of the incarnation. I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us.

 

That God’s surprising, though still mysterious answer, to the problem of evil. In Jesus God confronts the contradiction of the cruel world and the loving God.

In Jesus God comes into the world and screams alongside us.

This is God revealed at his most powerful. You might think that an odd thing to say.  I typed ‘God’s power’ into a picture search engine and it was a long way down before I came to any of the cross.

Yes, we believe this is the one through whom all things are created. It makes perfect sense to be wowed by that. But the Bible says ‘that? The work of his fingers. This is the work of his mighty arm.’

Who would have believed that?

As Rodney so rightly reminded us last week, ours is not a God who came into the world to condemn it, but to be its saviour.

And this is how he did it. It may not be the answer we expect or even necessarily want, but he hasn’t come to be either of those. He comes to be the answer we need.

He comes to us as a wounded healer, who knows what is necessary to deal with all our pain, all our sorrow and does not flinch from the path laid before him. His rescue was done vulnerably, caringly, at great cost and risk, in hurt and pain. He experiences the havoc that sin brings to human life. He voluntarily identifies with the worst of us, right to the end, as he hangs on the cross between two thieves in a manner of execution reserved for the lowest and the worst. He faces sorrow and rejection, and screams alongside us. He says ‘yes, I’ve been there.’

Yet in that broken body he carries the capacity to heal and restore. He becomes the channel by which our world begins to be healed, and by which we are brought back into relationship with God.

When in the midst of suffering we ask does God know what we go through, the cross is God’s way of looking us in the face and saying ‘I know how you feel. You are not alone.’

When we suffer, yes, we instinctively want answers. We want to make sense of it, to find meaning, cos we think it’ll bring us healing. But explanation has very limited healing power. Much more powerful at helping us begin to heal is the loving presence of someone. Someone standing in solidarity. Someone to say you are not alone. The power of the one who has been there.

That’s good as far as it goes. But if it ends there suffering still has the final word. Those whose presence will ultimately prove most powerful are those who have been there…

… and come out the other side.

But the story doesn’t end there. Not for Isaiah’s servant and not for Jesus. After suffering says Isaiah, he will again have joy. He will know that he did not suffer in vain.

And so with Jesus. A few days after the cross some women go to the tomb to find it empty, with the grave clothes carefully folded. Some run off, but Mary lingers by the tomb weeping. Then she hears her name.

Mary.

In that moment she learns… as Francis Spufford brilliantly puts it ‘far more can be mended than you know.’

In the cross we see the love of God. In the cross that God’s love will stop at nothing to reach us. There is no depth to which Jesus is not prepared to descend. There is none too wicked that Jesus will not identify with him. Nowhere are we outside the love of God.

But in the resurrection we see that there is nowhere we can go that he will not be able to reach us. We can trust that there is nothing we can face that God cannot bring us through because in Jesus we have one who has gone there before us.

Whoever we have been, need not define us.

Whatever we’ve done, has been done to us, need not speak the final world.

There is life after suffering.

That’s not to say suffering is not real, or can be ignored. We are invited to be part of God’s plan to bring an end to suffering in all its forms. Be it locally through the work of Foodbank, Firm Foundation, Street Pastors, and the quiet, loving, supportive conversations and kindnesses we experience or get involved with. We are invited to be the ones who bring God’s comfort, encouragement, and offer direction.

Suffering is real, but so are God’s promises.

However the resurrection declares our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with what God has prepared for us. In Christ we have one who has gone before us, has emerged through it all, and promises to do the same for us… if we’ll just let him. He is God’s surprising, mysterious response to the suffering of the world.

And with him, even where there seems to be no grounds for hope, he will not agree that hope is gone beyond recall. Wreckage may be written into the logic of the world, but he will not agree that it is all there is.

He says more can be mended that you fear.

Far more can be mended than you know.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ… in Self-Doubt

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Reading: Judges 6: 11-24

In the late 15th Century, the sculptor Agostino d’Antonio set to work on a huge block of marble, hoping to produce a spectacular sculpture. But it didn’t work out. After a few attempts he gave it up as worthless. The marble, he thought, had too many imperfections. Nothing could be made of it.

The block of marble lay idle for decades. Then a young artist called Michelangelo took an interest it. He spent a full two years working with it. But it was worth it. The end product is considered one of the most amazing pieces of artistic achievement.

It’s his statue of David.

Michelangelo was able to look beyond the unpromising raw material to see the beauty of what he could create out of it.

In the Christian life, I am convinced that that is so often how God is looking at us.

During the year, in the various settings in which I get to speak to you, we are looking at theme of Knowing Christ. For a few moments in this time together, I want to consider the theme of Knowing Christ… in self-doubt.

Different types of doubt can affect us as we seek to live in relationship with God. In a sense it’s perfectly normal. One of Paul’s descriptions of the life of the disciple is that we walk, or live, by faith, not by sight.

That is actually true in a lot of life. There is very little that matters in life that we can be absolutely sure about. I mean you can know 2+2=4 but that’s hardly going to change your life.

At times we can find ourselves having doubts about God.

Does God really care about us?

How come God did all that stuff back then, but doesn’t seem to be doing it now?

Can we really believe all the stuff we read in here?

Those kinds of doubts are there in the passage we shared together about the call of Gideon. When the messenger arrives and greets Gideon that’s pretty much Gideon’s first response…

 Have you ever said ‘good morning’ to someone, only to have them respond ‘what’s so good about it?’ There is something of that in this opening exchange between the messenger and Gideon.

 

Really? God’s with us you say? That’s interesting… Have you seen what’s going on here? I’m hiding what little bit of harvest I’ve got from the Midianites. I wouldn’t like to see what things were like if he wasn’t with us. I’ve heard all about the stuff this God, whom you say is with me, is supposed to have done in the past. All I’m saying is that we could do with a bit of that right now.

Those kind of doubts can be a real challenge to people. They are often the reason why people will claim they don’t have any faith, or turn from faith. Even for believers we can have a real struggle holding together our awareness of the world as it is, which can be wonderful and beautiful, yet at the same time so horrific, with that idea of the stick of rock I spoke about a couple of weeks ago; with the idea that running through everything is the story of God’s hesed, his steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

I will return to that kind of doubt later in this series.

But there’s another kind of doubt that occurs in this story and which can have a real impact when you try to follow Jesus.

Self-doubt.

However much faith we have (or not) in God, or what he has done for us in Jesus, we still have to get past this sense of ‘yeh, but I know me.’ 

Gideon goes through a bit of that in the story we shared together. Perhaps one of the reasons Gideon’s response was so curt is because the messenger struck a nerve. Greetings, mighty warrior.

And Gideon looked at himself and thought whoever this was, was mocking him.

There may be some irony in the statement. Gideon can become a deceptively simple Bible example, because he seems very ordinary. How can I save Israel? he says. My clan is the weakest in Manasseh and I am the least in my family. 

The way he describes himself suggests he is the lowest of the low.

A nobody.

And that might be true.

Maybe the mighty warrior thing is a bit of a joke.

Maybe the messenger was trying to get a reaction out of him.

It wouldn’t be the only place where we have that sort of discussion. There’s no reason to believe that Mary was anything special. She would have had good reason to wonder what was so ‘highly favoured’ about her.

But it’s also possible that Gideon is underselling himself. He talks about his clan’s place in the tribe, and his own place in the family. But there are actually 3 layers there and he skips a bit. He does not mention his family’s position in the clan.

If we had read on a little bit further we read of him taking 10 of his servants. If not ‘his 10 servants.’ It’s 10 of them. So he has more than 10.

And they’re not his father’s servants. They’re his.

That he has servants at all suggests he is not as low as he is making out. That he has more than 10 personal servants, certainly suggests that he is not as far down the pecking order as he might have convinced us.

Also the messengers words are telling. Go in the strength you have. It suggests Gideon does have the ability, whether he recognises and acknowledges it or not.

But it needs to be coaxed out of him. In fact he almost has to be dragged into it. If you read the whole story of Gideon, you’ll see he keeps pushing God for signs. He devises ever more elaborate things he requires God to do before he’ll believe him.

However whether we view this story as being about God working through someone who would be classed as the lowest of the low, or whether Gideon is selling himself short, it is a story in which God looks on him much as Michelangelo looked on the block of marble that others rejected and saw the potential.

Gideon is not the only character in the Bible to go through self-doubt when faced with the call of God. In fact it’s pretty much the norm, so far as I can see.

And it continues right down to the present day.

In part you might almost expect it from a tradition that views humility as a virtue. However often we can carry it too far, and we’re underselling ourselves. In part we might be like Gideon, in the ways in which we compare ourselves unfavourably with others.

We might think that because we don’t have the character of this person, or the skillset of that one, or we couldn’t do what the other one does, that we have no talents or gifts that God can’t use.

But God’s not wanting you to be any of those people.

There is no-one better at being you than you.

And God wants you to come to know him.

God wants a relationship with you,

as you.

God sees us differently to the way we see ourselves. When God looks on us, yes he sees us as we are, and knows us as we are,

but he also sees us as we can be in his hands.

God sees us good and bad, strengths and weakness. God can even see through our sins to the purer desires that lie in our hearts.

And that’s a kind of roundabout way of bringing me into what I want to do with you in this session.

I take you back to that comment I made a few minutes ago… the yeh, but I know me comment.

One of the reasons I feel we don’t discover the person God truly created us to be, is that we don’t know ourselves well enough. Also we learn the faith from others and in a sense we try to copy them. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the way I connect with God might be different to the way you do and so on.

And this is designed to help you think about ways in which you might best connect with God and come to know Christ better.

The first stage is I am going to give you a questionnaire. It looks a little long, but stick with it. You are being asked how strongly you agree or disagree with any of the statements. There are no right or wrong answers. They’re just about how you are.

Basically you’re being asked to score each of the statements on a range of 1-5.

5 being strongly agree, 1 being strongly disagree.

Don’t dwell on it.

Just go with your gut.

Try to avoid too many 3s. Opt for a 2 or 4 unless absolutely necessary.

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Source: Sacred Pathways; Gary Thomas; Zondervan

So what’s this all about?

Something I never tire of saying is that God likes diversity. He must do. He made a huge amount of it. And amongst the things which displays that diversity is us – people.

We are all different. We come from different backgrounds, different life experiences, different educations, we like different things, and we have different personalities.

And part of that includes the ways in which we connect with God. When I was at Regents we would have assessed services, where our peers would get to comment and discuss our service, what they found helpful, unhelpful and so on.

Yes, sometimes you get stuff totally wrong, that’s life.

One of the things I discovered then, which has stayed with me, is that if one person finds something really helpful, you can bet your life someone will find it equally unhelpful. And often it’s not that one of them is right and the other is wrong.

They’re just different.

And it the same in all kinds of worship. Some like their worship loud and can’t understand why others are so reserved. It might just be because that’s how they are, that’s how God made them. Some will delight in a great big theological tome, others will prefer to do something physical or creative. Some like to be alone, others hate to be alone for any length of time. Again it’s not necessarily wrong.

We’re just different. And that’s fine.

This year I have been focussing attention on the idea of Knowing Christ. That’s what this is all about. It’s about how we get to know Christ better, how we develop our relationship with him.

People will make a fortune out of books with titles like 6 steps to effective prayer or 7 ways to become a spiritual giant. They might have their place and I’m sure they do work for some people.

But just as we all have different personalities and temperaments, so we each gravitate towards unique ways to connect with God. Different things will refresh each of us. God has given us a variety of ways to connect with him.

That’s what the questionnaire is all about. The aim was to help you identify something of that in yourself. This is about giving you permission to be who you are in God, to develop the relationship God created you to have.

Once we know our spiritual temperament we can discover areas which we find helpful, without having to feel guilty that we don’t get anything from what others enjoy.

The questionnaire draws out 9 Spiritual types

N       Naturalists           Loving God out of Doors

S        Sensates              Loving God with the Senses

T        Traditionalists     Loving God Through Ritual and Symbol

AS     Ascetic                 Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity

AC     Activists               Loving God Through Seeking Justice and Repentance

CA     Caregivers           Loving God by Loving Others

E        Enthusiast            Loving God With Mystery and Celebration

CO     Contemplative     Loving God Through Adoration

I        Intellectual                   Loving God with the Mind

 No one of these is better than any other.

We are all different and they are all ways that we connect with God.

But what do we do it?

Well, first a few thoughts on what not to do with it.

One thing to avoid is judging others because they are different. Some might think ‘what’s the matter with those activists? Why don’t they pray like me!’ or ‘how can those enthusiasts sing those songs, when they should be helping the person next to them?’

Well, it’s partly because of who they are, how God made them.

Another thing to avoid is envying someone else’s pathway. You might be tempted to think ‘those activists are the real go-getters/achievers. I’ll always be second class to them. I can’t do anything. It’s much better to develop the person God made you to be. The purpose of this is to help you identify that.

Each of these types has a particular strength or gift to give to the body of Christ.

However, each of them come with dangers. And it’s important to recognise that. When I was a student minister, one of the members of my congregation had developed a management tool called Strengthfinder. She once told me that people will cause more damage by overusing their strengths than through their weaknesses. For example a person who is strong and persuasive, with great leadership skills needs to be careful lest they become a bully. An extreme would be Hitler, who was a very charismatic leader, but he used his skills to some terrible ends.

The same is true with these spiritual types. We will tend towards one or another. Most of us will tend towards a few. However, a balanced Christian life requires that we don’t overly rely on one. Naturalists might neglect coming together for worship. Caregivers might become reliant on feeling needed and rarely take time for solitude. If activists don’t keep a check on themselves they can burn out.

We are not like robots. Just because we tend towards one type doesn’t get us off the hook with others. We can’t say ‘the reason I didn’t help that person is because I am a contemplative or ascetic.’ Each of them will have dangers.

Something else to bear in mind is that at different times or different seasons in life this will change. So things aren’t fixed

I have some papers here with descriptions of the different types. What I invite you to do is take the relevant sheet for the top one or two categories.

You may want to discuss how to develop this further.

I would love to do that with you.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ… in anxiety (A Narrative Sermon)

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Reading: Isaiah 43: 1 – 7 (Message); John 6: (1 – 15) 16 – 21

The Gospel writer, John, reflects on the night Jesus came to them, in the storm, walking on the water…

Introduction… snippet of Shipping Forecast

Ah, a fine programme that Shipping Forecast. We could have done with something like that, back in the day when I was out on the water, I can tell you.

The Sea of Galilee wasn’t the biggest stretch of water. It was only 21 miles long and 13 miles wide at its longest and widest points. But it’s amazing just how unpredictable that little stretch of water could be.

Firstly, the Sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea. It’s a lake really. It lay a long way below sea level. There were large hills around it, particularly to the East, some of them maybe 2000 feet high. It could be fairly cool up there on those hills, certainly compared with the almost tropical warm, moist air at the level of the water.

Pressure and temperature changes meant that winds would funnel down from the mountains to the water: very quickly and very suddenly, causing great, unexpected storms. And because the water is quite shallow, the sea of Galilee can get whipped up quite easily. If you’re out on the water when that happens you find yourself in real trouble, really quickly. Particularly if you are on a small boat, such as the one we were on that evening.

And when that happened, it didn’t matter how experienced on the water you were.

That was a really frightening experience.

It didn’t matter who you were.

You got anxious.

Have you ever noticed that each one of us who wrote what you have come to know as your Gospels includes at least one story of a time when we were out on the water and a sudden storm blew up?

In part I suppose that’s because that idea of a ship on the storm-tossed waters of life, was one of the first images used for the church. Hardly surprising given how many of those first followers whom Jesus called were fishermen. But I sometimes wonder if it was more than that…

…maybe because it reminds us so much of what life can be like.

I mean we’d all love to get through life facing only calm weather, still waters and favourable winds. Wouldn’t we?

But you know as well as I do, that’s not how things work out, is it? All too often we find ourselves thrust into a storm without warning, and before we know it, we’re feeling battered. When that happens we feel we’re tossed about on the waves, straining at the oars, desperate just to find the safe refuge of land…

…just, as I recall we were that night, as we longed to reach Capernaum, that night when Jesus came walking to us on the water.

You might wonder why we’d gone out onto the water and left Jesus behind in the first place. Well, don’t think it was because we wanted to. We had gone under strict instruction. This isn’t like a Jonah story where we’re caught in the storm because we were trying to run away. We were out on that water, facing that storm, bearing that anxiety, despite, no because, we were doing what we’d been told.

Earlier that day Jesus had been speaking to a large crowd. It was around Passover time. Amongst them would have been plenty of pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem for the festivities. But whatever the reason, this was a large crowd, even for Jesus. There were thousands of them. They’d all come because they’d heard about or even seen Jesus do some remarkable healings. They were probably hoping to see something else, really special.

At first when Jesus led us up the hillside I assumed it was because he was trying to escape the crowds. If that is was his intention, it didn’t work. They followed him. Then Jesus said ‘where shall we buy bread for them all?’

We thought he was joking, but he wasn’t laughing.

Philip challenged him, saying, Jesus have you seen how many of them there are? It would take about a year’s wages just to give each of them a mouthful.

 That was when a small boy came forward and offered him his lunch. To say it wasn’t much was a massive understatement. Five small barley loaves and a couple of fish.

I mean you might want to encourage children and all…

… but what were we supposed to do with that?

It didn’t deter Jesus. He got us to sit the people down, took the loaves and fish, gave thanks and started to break them. He then sent us out to feed them. People took as much as they wanted.

We were amazed that the food just kept going.

In fact, when they were all finished he got us to pick up the leftovers and all 12 of us had a full basket each.

That was when things turned a bit ugly. One of the ways the Romans controlled us and stopped us rising up against them was to control our bread supply. So when Jesus was able to offer bread like that, you can see why they found the idea of making him their king so appealing. He certainly seemed preferable to a Roman puppet king like Herod.

So there and then they decided they were going to make Jesus into their king…

…whether he wanted it or not.

And this was not what Jesus wanted.

Having just fed the crowd, Jesus had to escape them. We wanted at least some of us to stay with him, but Jesus insisted. He told us to go to Capernaum, where he would catch up with us. I supposed it was because it would be easier for him to escape by himself.

Ok, I know that there would come a time when we all abandoned Jesus, but this was not it.

Anyway, that’s why we were out on the water. Night had fallen, and it was dark. The same could be said for our mood really. The speed with which the euphoria of the feeding miracle turned to having to escape the crowds had made us quite tense already. Even before the storm, we were snapping at each other.

It shouldn’t have been a long journey. It was probably only about 4 miles across the water from Bethsaida to Capernaum.

But before we knew it the wind began to gain strength, and suddenly we were caught in the midst of a storm. The waters grew incredibly rough. The boat began to be tossed around on the water.

We were straining on the oars, but getting nowhere. It felt like we had been rowing for miles, but land seemed nowhere in sight.

As I say, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, when you are out on that water, those storms are scary. You get anxious.

That was when we saw him…

…or at least saw something.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was Jesus…

…coming towards us…

… walking on the water.

If we were frightened before, that’s nothing compared with how we felt at that moment.

Jesus said ‘It’s me. Don’t be afraid.’ By now he was alongside us.

Then… the oddest thing.

We were about to take him into the boat, only we never got the chance. Before he could get on board, we discovered we were at the shore to which we were heading.

Over the years, I’ve often found myself reflecting on that night, out on the Sea of Galilee. How anxious we were in the storm. How we were being tossed about, getting nowhere, and how Jesus seemed so far away from us…

And there’s one thought I find myself needing to come back to again and again…

Even though Jesus was out of our sight, that night we were never out of his.

 

And how often have I found that to be true in my life? So often, feeling so alone, thinking I’m forgotten, getting anxious…

… and all the while I am never out of Jesus’ sight. Never out of his love and his care.

I was raised on scriptures which made great promises. Promises like we learned in the synagogue from the prophet Isaiah. I really like how one of your modern writers puts it…

          When you’re in over your head; I’ll be there with you

          When you’re in rough waters; you will not go down

          When you’re between a rock and a hard place;

          it won’t be a dead end.

 The people to whom those words were first said were in the midst of trouble…

…and there was more to come.

These words weren’t an assurance that they escape the trials of life. They weren’t the promise of a quick fix. Instead God promised them his presence throughout the whole journey. The God who had called them and journeyed with them this far was not finished with them.

The God who was with them in the stormy waters of life, was the same God who breathed over the chaotic waters at creation and brought forth new life. The struggles and chaos they faced would not speak the final word.

And although we never fully grasped it at the time, that night as Jesus walked upon the stormy waters, he was showing us that the same God was at work in him.

It would be a full year later when I would understand this in a whole new way; another Passover, this time in Jerusalem. Again it started with people wanting to make Jesus a king. They cheered and sang hosannas as he rode a donkey into the city. This time Jesus did not flee. He seemed to accept their cries.

But just as suddenly the storm clouds began to gather. Looking back, this time we should have known. We had received the forecast, as it were, often enough. Jesus had been warning us what would happen when we got to Jerusalem.

But we weren’t listening, not really. So when it came, to us it was as sudden as the storm on the Sea of Galilee And I’m sad to say this time we did abandon him. We did leave him on his own, when the guards came to arrest him.

The cheers of Sunday gave way to cries of ‘we have no king but Caesar’ as Jesus was arrested, tried, sentenced and crucified. He had followed all that God had wanted of him.

But in that moment, just when it seemed that Jesus was in over his head, it seemed God was nowhere to be found;

Jesus faced the rough waters, and it seemed he’d gone down.

He’d found himself between the rock and a hard place and it turned out to be a tomb.

We thought that was it.Yet just as with the promise to those who heard those words from Isaiah, the God who had sent Jesus into the world, the God who had journeyed with him all the way from the manger to the cross, that God was not finished.

The last word had not been spoken.

No, a few days later, a new word was spoken to some of the women who had travelled with us, in the garden where they had seen his body laid. They found his tomb empty; heard the words.

He is not here, he is risen.

The same God who breathed over the chaotic waters of creation breathed new life into this chaos.

We saw him several times over the next few weeks before he was taken up into heaven. His first word to us was peace. Amongst his last promises were that he would be with us always. Whatever we faced we would not be alone.

Much as we’d love plain sailing, following Jesus never meant we got an easier life. If only we could guarantee that if we just did what Jesus asked of us, we’d never face struggles. But Jesus never promised it would be easy. In fact he told us it wouldn’t be. He told us that some of the trials we would go through would be the result of sticking close to him, being his disciples. But he promised we would never be alone. His promise was not unlike that given to those people to whom Isaiah spoke. That

          When we’re in over your head; He’ll be there with us

          When we’re in rough waters; we will not go down

          When we’re between a rock and a hard place;

          it won’t be a dead end.

I’d love to tell you in those moments that I’ve always found it easy to believe the promises. That I’ve always been aware of God being with me and that that has been enough to quell my anxieties.

I’d love to tell you that over the years I’ve come to trust those promises more.

In my better moments, I guess I do.

But there are times, when troubles come, as they will to us all, and I find myself right as I did back then on that Sea of Galilee, tossed about, straining at the oars, making so little headway, and I feel like I’m fighting that battle by myself. And I am anxious.

I do feel like God is nowhere to be seen.

And sometimes when he comes in comes to help in ways I don’t I least expect, and I fail to recognise him.

Perhaps you sometimes feel that way too.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t there.

Just because he is out of my sight, doesn’t mean that I am out of his. Just because you can’t see him, doesn’t mean he has lost track of you. You are still in his love and care.

That night on the Sea of Galilee I could never have fully grasped how God could reach us wherever we are. It was Passover a year later that truly taught me that when we are in over our heads, when we’re in the rough waters, and when we’re between the rock and the hard place, even then we are not abandoned, even then we are not alone, even then we are not out of his sight. Even then the last word has not been spoken. In and through all things he is still breathing the word of peace and new life into our anxiety.

May the LORD, whom winds and seas obey,

Guide you through the watery way;

In the hollow of his hand

Hide, and bring you safe to land.

On  Jesus, let your faithful mind

Rest, on him alone reclined;

Every anxious thought repress,

Keep your souls in perfect peace.

May he save, till all these tempests end,

All who on his love depend;

Waft your happy spirits o’er;

Land you on the heavenly shore.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ… in loneliness

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Readings: I Kings 19: 1-18; John 14: 15-21; II Timothy 4: 9-18

Tuesday was Valentine’s Day and to mark the occasion BBC Radio 5 Live’s Wake Up To Money included an interview with a director of the on-line dating company e-harmony.

They were discussing trends in their business. He was, perhaps naturally, trying to outline what was different about his company compared with others in their market. We might say they were trying to put themselves out of a job. He said something like ‘our aim is to send you on your last first date.’ Their main market was those who want a meaningful relationship. They were trying to match you with your ‘happily ever after,’ rather than a fleeting romance.

It might surprise you to know what they have found good for business. November, he said, was normally a quiet time in their industry. But last year, right after the election of Donald Trump, they noticed a huge increase in the number of people signing up. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. They spotted a similar trend in the UK after the Brexit referendum. They previously noticed something similar after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

Why?

Well, it seems uncertainty increases our longing for relationship. When times get unpredictable we want relationship.

We want someone to be there.

Yet, for so many in our own country, that basic desire goes unfulfilled. Recently MPs launched a new ‘Commission on Loneliness’ in memory of the MP Jo Cox, who was murdered last year.

They are hoping to tackle what is considered a serious problem in our nation. Britain has been described Britain as the ‘loneliness capital of Europe.’ Research suggests we are less likely to know our neighbours or have strong friendships than people in other EU countries.

More than 1 in 10 people in Britain said they had no spouse, friend or relative to whom they could turn for support and advice if they faced a serious personal matter. That’s around 5 million adults.

Almost 40% of elderly people, surveyed by Age UK said that the television was their main source of company.

A number of factors have contributed to this.

Changes in technology have meant that so many of the companies we deal with have become more impersonal.

We’re more mobile now than perhaps even generation or two ago. Families are scattered further apart. So we see each other less.

Busier lifestyles mean many spend less time on social interaction. We’ve always had people who work long hours, but for more and more people work is no longer 9-5. And all the technology available, means many people continue working even at home.

Christian Guy of the director of the Centre for Social Justice think-tank said ‘it’s ironic [that we are becoming more lonely] because we are becoming ever more connected in the way we can communicate.’

In some ways we don’t help ourselves. Christian Guy added that there was something that was peculiar to the British that we like to deal with problems ourselves. Men are especially unlikely to share problems with others and try to sort things themselves.

It’s not just an ‘out there’, national problem. Our church and, I notice, my house are both  in the top 1/4 of lonely council wards in the country.

I’m not sure what comes into your mind when you hear of loneliness. Personal experience of one kind or another might offer us a little more insight. Most people probably link it with the elderly. And there is good reason for that.

But as a social problem it is wider than that. Feelings of loneliness are particularly common amongst 18-24 year olds. At that age there are a number of what are called ‘transitional events’ (big changes). They leave school, leave home, go to university, start a career, shift jobs, move house, settle in relationships, perhaps even become parents… That’s lots of starting in new environments, with new people. These all come on top of each other and each can increase that sense of loneliness, even if they appear to be surrounded by other people.

In our media loneliness in the UK has been described as an epidemic and, although they may sensationalise things, that’s not a bad word for it. For as well as the damage loneliness can cause to our emotional wellbeing it has been shown to increase blood pressure, increase stress and weaken our immune system. It’s reckoned to be a greater source of health worries than obesity and physical inactivity. It has been rated as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Is it any wonder that the first thing in the entire Bible that God says is not good is ‘that man should be alone?’

We are social beings. We’re made for community. Some are better at being alone than others, but we’re designed to be with others.

However loneliness is not just the experience of the few. In fact only 1 in 5 people of those surveyed by the Office of National Statistics said they never feel lonely.

I might be too much of a pessimist, but perhaps a lot of them just haven’t felt lonely yet. We all face circumstances which are uncertain and unpredictable. We all face times when we just want someone to be there.

People of faith can be as prone to it as anyone else.

We encounter it in several places in the Bible.

I’ll offer just couple of quite high profile examples.

In 1 Kings 19 Elijah is fresh from his victory in a competition with the prophets of Baal. He becomes a wanted man and flees for his life from Queen Jezebel. He’s basically exhausted.

Part of his problem is a sense of loneliness. He feels alone. The people have turned against God. They’ve killed the prophets and I’m the only one left, he says.

Yep, sometimes success can feel every bit as lonely as failure.

Another example is Paul, who wrote most of our New testament. We find some of the last words said to be written by him, in his second letter to his apprentice Timothy. He’s in prison awaiting his trial before Caesar. He urges Timothy to come to him quickly, and to try to bring Mark with him.

Why?

Because he is almost alone. Some of those alongside whom he’d worked are busy, engaged in other work. Some he has sent to other places. Some have deserted him. Others, he says quite openly, did him a lot of harm.

Then he adds some of the saddest words in the New Testament. At my first defence, no-one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.

I mention those two examples because they show something very important.

A sense of loneliness can come to even good people.

 Jesus was aware of that in the passage we read together this morning.

He’s about to have very personal experience of it. This is the of Jesus’ arrest. Piecing the different Gospels together they will leave the last supper and go the Garden of Gethsemane. He will tell the disciples to keep watch and to pray, then he will separate himself from them, whilst he prays to be spared what lies ahead of him. Mark tells us that Jesus was clearly very troubled, but when he returns to the disciples, he finds that they are fast asleep.

One of those to whom Jesus entrusted himself will betray him to those who want to kill him; another will deny even knowing him by dawn next morning; and the others will all desert him.

On the next day, from the cross, Jesus will pray the darkest words we read in the entire Bible: My God, My God why have forsaken me? There are lots of different ways of understanding those words. But however you take it, Jesus clearly felt it enough to take those words as his own.

I mention that because perhaps some might view it as a lack of faith if we ever feel this way. I’ve heard it said ‘if God feels far away, guess who moved.’ The implication is that if God feels far away it’s because you have drifted from him.

It sounds snappy, it sounds clever.

That doesn’t mean it’s true.

I’m not saying that is never true. One of the things we learn from the primal Eden stories is that when we fail to trust God, or when we disobey him, our inclination is to get away from God, or to hide. There are occasions when we do drift away from God, or we do even deliberately turn away from God. I’m aware in my own life of times when God has felt distant, and it has been me that moved.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always true. Yes, at times we might ask the question, but the trouble with sayings like this is that that they are not always, perhaps not even normally, true. And a sense of loneliness is bad enough without being made to feel unnecessarily guilty about it!

A sense of loneliness can come to even good people.

 

It has been the experience of many of those of who have sought to follow Jesus and live in relationship with God.

And Jesus warned those who followed him that it would be so.

It is important to point out that there is a difference between being alone and loneliness.

God can use solitude to good effect. One of the most important images the Bible uses for the people of God is the wilderness wanderings. Right after his baptism Jesus withdrew into the wilderness. Those were not empty, wasted times, they were times when Israel and Jesus were being formed for what lay ahead of them.

There are times in any close relationship when it is good to be alone with the other person. Often that will be because you choose it. But not always.

There were times when Jools and I were brought closer together by circumstances, such as when she had a knee operation and needed my help with a number of things. It wasn’t necessarily how we would have chosen to achieve that, but we were drawn closer together because of it.

There are occasions when the only way God can get through to us is through solitude. One of the problems with our modern age is that we make so little time for stillness and solitude. We live in a world of constant distraction.

A major reason why there is so much stress, is because many of us are never disconnected. Solitude can deprive us of those things that would distract us from focussing on what really matters. It gives space into which God can speak. We can hear the gentle knocking of Jesus at our hearts’ door, or the gentle whispering of the Spirit when we are in silence.

Solitude can be used positively.

God can sometimes use it to reach us in solitude, when other ways have or would fail.

Loneliness is different. It’s when, to go back to the Elijah story, the circumstances of life, symbolised by the earthquake, wind and fire overwhelm us, we feel powerless to deal with them, when life is unpredictable, and as the director of e-harmony would say we just what someone there…

But we feel so alone.

That’s the kind of experience of which Jesus was speaking to the disciples.

This is the night Jesus is arrested. Jesus knows what lies ahead. But the disciples do not.

The disciples are about to have their whole world torn apart as Jesus is arrested, tried, mocked, flogged, and killed by crucifixion. They’ve given up everything to follow Jesus and just like that it’s all about to be taken away.

So why at that moment should Jesus say ‘I will not leave you as orphans?’

Because that is precisely how they were going to feel. That kind of feeling would have made perfect sense.

The saying ‘I will not leave you as orphans’ doesn’t just mean the way we would understand it. It is the same as rabbis would say to their disciples. I won’t leave you as disciples without a teacher.

How often have I said to you that when you read the words ‘don’t be afraid’ in the Bible, they’ve had to be said because fear is a perfectly natural response?

The same is true here. The promise of his presence with us is necessary.

Why?

Because sometimes we will feel like we’re all alone. Sometimes we will struggle to sense God’s presence. There may be times when we feel lonely, alone.

But Jesus did not just say ‘I will not leave you as orphans.

He said ‘I will come to you.’

There are three ways in which Jesus kept that promise. One was on the Sunday, following the events of his crucifixion, when some women went to his tomb and found it empty. They were confused but were told ‘he is not here. He is risen.’ And over a period of 40 days Jesus appeared to them in a number of different settings.

He had kept his promise.

He had been taken from them, but he had come back.

He had not left them as orphans.

But that period came to an end. And it didn’t restart. We no longer see him as they did back then. But that is not the only, or even the main sense that Jesus meant it.

Jesus promised us his presence in another way. ‘I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper.

Last week we had a Hebrew word which didn’t have an exact tranlsation: hesed. Today we have a Greek one. Παράκλητον. Parakletov, or Parakletos. Like hesed it is tranlsated in lots of different ways. Some, like our church Bibles say helper. Some say advocate. Some say friend.

That’s because the word is used in lots of different ways. The basic idea is someone we can call in, when we need them. When I have a DIY problem at the manse I call on Beny. When the sound, screens and stuff weren’t working last week I called on David. When we have problems with the computers I call on Phil Chaney. As we look to deal with developers over problems on the site around us, we call on help from all sorts of different people. These people would all be Parakletoses.

It’s the word that used for someone defending you in court. Jesus also calls him the Spirit of Truth, because he guides us and can direct us as we negotiate life. Other words used are counsellor – one who gives wise advice. Comforter, either as one who consoles us when we are down, or one who strengthens us, or encourages us.

Someone with us when we need someone there.

So although at times we may experience loneliness,  we are never truly alone. For He will be with us always. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus promises to be with us always. When times become uncertain and unpredictable; when we long for relationship, and we long for someone to be there, Jesus promises that he will be with us.

He is there with us always, whether we feel his presence or not. Even when we lost sight of him or forget about him, we are constantly in his thoughts. He won’t forget us, because as I said earlier we are engraved in the palms of his hands. The nail marks the risen Christ bears are a reminder of his great steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, and never quits.

He’s a God who understands us, because he has come amongst us and lived our life, experienced what we face. He’s a God who has shown himself committed to us, through all he went through on the cross, to bring us into relationship with himself. And it is this God who has promised to be with us always.

At times it does take faith to believe it. Paul, even as he spoke of all those who had left him was able to add ‘but the Lord was with me.’ However sometimes it is hard to see. God needed to remind Elijah that even though he could be distracted by earthquake, wind and fire, the still small voice, the sound of sheer silence was still there.

God needed to patiently remind Elijah that he was not the only prophet left, and also that with God, he was never alone. We may need to learn the same. But God is patient and will work with us, if we let him.

Just as a trained astronomer is able to see more in the night sky than most of us; just as a good botanist will see more in a hedgerow than just greenery; so it is possible to become more aware of the presence of God. If we ask him and truly seek him, and open ourselves to him, we can begin to notice those times he is with us.

That’s not to say we’ll always be able to sense his presence.

That’s not to say we’ll never feel forsaken.

That’s not to say we’ll never feel lonely.

But when we open ourselves to Christ, when we come to know him, we will never be truly alone. He has promised to be with us always.

But there is one final sense in which Jesus said he would come to them. That is when, as Jesus promised to those who put their trust in him, we are with him forever.

The John who wrote the Gospel passage we shared together this morning was responsible for the book of Revelation. John was the last one to survive. Others had been martyred. But John was exiled to the island of Patmos. He was cut off from all those he loved.

Towards the end of that book he speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Of God making his home amongst us. And he includes one odd little phrase.

There was no sea.

Why should that be relevant?

Because the sea was a symbol of the loneliness which at times John must have felt.

Part of God’s promise is that there will come a day when all sources of sorrow will be overcome and every tear wiped away.

And part of that is our sense of loneliness.

But we don’t have to wait until then. For now we can accept as part of our mission the longing that we long to let others know they need not be alone.

Some of you are already working in areas like our coffee mornings, where people who would otherwise be alone get the chance of some company.

I was speaking this week with a lady who has been unable to get to church for years. She was telling me how much the present she received via Penny at Christmas meant to her.

Some of you are out there visiting others.

Some of you spend time talking with those who would otherwise be lonely.

In the near future we will have a new neighbourhood on our doorstep and one of the things we will need to be thinking of is how we connect with people, many of whom I suspect will be away from families on Monday to Friday.

All of those things and so many more can be signals in a world and a community where loneliness is an epidemic that God longs for us not to be alone. We become the means by which he shows them they need not be alone. That with God there is someone who is there for us. That he is reaching out to us always, he is there always, and we can know him, even in the midst of loneliness. He may reach us in our loneliness in ways he otherwise never could.

Even though we may feel loneliness, though we may be distracted and feel overwhelmed by the earthquakes, winds and fires, the still small voice is still there. We are never truly alone.

He will not leave us as orphans.

He will be waiting to catch us.

Whatever we face, however uncertain and unpredictable he will always be there for us.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ: The Importance of Memory

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Reading: Psalm 136

We’ve just sung Faithful One, so unchanging. We’ve sung…

You’re my rock in times of trouble

The image of God as our rock is one that appears quite a few times in the Bible?

What do you think they meant when they described God in that way? What comes into your mind?

Sometimes I feel a little critical of modern worship. It is good that they use the Bible, but I would love it if they came up with some original images for describing God.

Believe it or not, 15 Psalms describe God as a rock. That’s 1 in 10.

Psalm 136 is not one of them.

However, we have another type of rock, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t in the minds of the Psalmist. It’s the kind of rock we buy at the seaside (see picture at top).

And as I reflected on Psalm 136, I found myself thinking of how in this Psalm we see God is like that kind of rock.  

Psalm 136 in Jewish tradition was called The Great Hallel. It was recited in the temple during Passover, apparently when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed.

The leader of the hymn would call out to the gathered pilgrim crowd. He would urge them to praise God, they would respond ‘his love endures forever.’ The leader went on to expand on all sorts of reasons why they should praise their God.

Each time the people would respond with that same line. ‘His love endures forever.’

It’s likely that several of our Psalms had a similar structure. When they found the Dead Sea Scrolls, one had Psalm 145 had a similar type of chorus after each line.

However Psalm 136 is one of the few places this structure has remained in our Bibles.

Popular as it was in Judaism,  it doubtful Psalm 136, with its constant repetition of the same words, would have been popular with many Baptists. I’m conscious sometimes when I lead us in a responsive prayer not to have too many responses.  I am aware if I try to get you to do too many responses, what starts as a good loud response, after about 3 or 4 responses can drop to a murmur. If we did the whole thing by the time we’d repeated the phrase ‘his love endures forever’ 26 times, we might be forgiven for wondering whether Psalm 136 is going to do the same!

I have to admit, as I was reading it in preparation, I found myself gliding past the refrain. Trying to keep my train of thought.

Yet, I’m reminded of one of my tutors at college, who told me that when we are with someone who constantly tells the same stories over and over, we have a tendency to switch off.

We think we’ve heard it before.

But he said, when that happens, listen for the differences.

Often when people te-tell the same story again and again there are subtle differences in the way they tell it. That can give you more of a hint of what is going on within them.

Those variations aren’t necessarily within the Psalms, but they’re noticeable different translations. Each week I check a number of versions of the Bible as I prepare sermons, and they all translate this refrain slightly differently.

Our church Bibles reads his love is eternal. (Good News)

Another says his love endures forever. (NIV)

Another said for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

Still another says his mercy endures forever. (NKJV)

Yet another says God’s love never fails. (CEV)

My personal favourite is from the Message: His love never quits.

It’s rare to find that much variation in what is a fairly simple phrase. That’s because they’re all trying to translate a single Hebrew word for which there is no real English equivalent.

Hesed.

Steadfast love is probably as close as we get to it.

A committed love.

A love that will be there for you through good times and the bad.

A love you can rely on.

And the reason I believe Psalm 136 offers the image of God being like a stick of seaside rock, is that wherever you cut him, wherever you cut his story, that one word will be running through everything.

Hesed.

We’re spending a bit of time over the next few months on the subject of Knowing Christ.

Last week we did a meditation and I invited you to place yourself in the Biblical scene and allow yourself to encounter Christ through the power of your imagination.

Before that we spoke of Knowing Christ in our minds. I spoke of being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I spoke of how Jesus invites us to see the world differently, to step into a new story. That’s the fuller meaning of the Gospel word ‘repent.’

Part of that, I suggested, was that Jesus challenged us to think again about how we view God.

Well, if there is one word which best describes the God we’re invited to come to know through Jesus, it’s this one.

Hesed.

A steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

Thing is, even if we might find enthusiasm waning with each repetition, maybe they had good reason to repeat it so much.

Perhaps we should repeat it more often.

Because we are so prone to forget.

Remembering is hard work.

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of that characteristic of God. Yes there are times when God feels so close, we can see how good he is, we can feel his presence, we can see how he has helped us in a particular situation, even if we only realise it after the event.

But there are other times when we feel God is far from us, or we are far from him. There are times when that faithfulness seems hidden from us. There are times when tragic events make us wonder if there is a good, loving God who is taking his world forward towards the good future he has prepared for us.

In those moments we are need to stop and remember.

We’re reliant on our memory.

There are times we all need to be reminded of or remind ourselves of God’s love and care for all that he has created.

Of God’s hesed.

To be reminded we are loved with a steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

If we are to allow Christ to transform us by the renewing of our minds, if we are to step into that new story, something that will play an important part of that is memory.

One of the most repeated and important commands in the Bible: Remember.

Remember who you are.

Remember how you got here.

Remember what God has said and done.

God was constantly reminding the Israelites who he was and who they were. He began the 10 commandments by reminding them he was the God who rescued them from Egypt and was bringing them to the Promised Land.

One of the almost comic features of the story of the Israelites moving from Egypt to the Promised Land is that no matter how often God helps them, next time they run into trouble they get themselves into a panic.

Before they entered the land, Moses retold them the story of who they were and how they got there. We find what he had to say in the book of Deuteronomy. He constantly reminded them when they settled in the new land and were enjoying the plenty it produced not to forget their slavery and their rescue.

They were to remember that they had what they had because God had patiently led them there.

That command to remember occurred at least a dozen times.

Sadly the people forgot.

The same idea occurs in the New Testament. For example, in Corinthians Paul tells them to remember what they were before they were called. That not many were wise, powerful and noble. None of the things that impress us.

Then he asked them to remember the story of how their church came to be. That he had come in fear and trembling, had brought nothing except the story of a crucified Jesus, not the kind of powerful, persuasive rhetoric those around them so admired.

A few weeks back when Ruth Gouldbourne was here she spoke of people saying we need to get back to being like the New Testament church. Trust me, from what I read of Corinth, they were a right mess. Most of their problems stemmed from forgetting who they were and how they had come to be.

Jesus was constantly having to remind his disciples of stuff he had done, because they wondered how they were going to manage the next thing.

Contrary to what we might sometimes think, very little of what we do as Christians is directly traced all the way to Jesus. Apart from the Lord’s Prayer the only things he left us were communion and baptism – visual reminders of the story we are part of.

And it’s there in the Psalm, not just in the events it describes, but right from the off. Our Bibles read Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. But Give Thanks is not the most precise meaning. The word might be better translated ‘consider’ ‘acknowledge’ ‘ponder’ ‘bring to mind’ ‘recollect’ ‘remember’ all the ways that the LORD is good.

The focus of the Psalm is not so much on the events themselves, great as they are. Some of them relate to creation, some of them relate to the Exodus, some of them relate to settling in the land.

But all of them have one thing in common.

They are all reminders of God’s hesed.

That all things were shot through with a steadfast, committed, reliable love which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

That refrain doesn’t always fit into the most logical of places,

but they are reminded that the way God works in the world is like a stick of seaside rock. No matter where you break it, the same message can be read throughout. His love endures forever.

God loves us with a steadfast, committed, reliable love which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

The Psalm reminds us that God doesn’t just tell us that. Actions speak louder than words. We can know of God’s hesed because of how God has acted in history. In his creation, in the Exodus, in his provision.

But it’s more than just remembering what he did back then. We’re remembering it’s the same God who was with us now. It’s the same God, with the same hesed. It’s the same God who loves us with a steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

In a world which can so often be so uncertain and in which we face all kinds of trials which might cause us to doubt whether God is with us, remembering those times he has been with us, when he has helped us, what he has done in the past. They can drop out of our minds.

That’s why I like that one of the others words for remember is recollect. Because that is the purpose of our memory. To help us to go back, to re-collect, to re-gather those memories we may have dropped. Remembering what God has done in the past, gathering them back togetherm can help us to anticipate what he will do in the future.

For it’s the same God, bearing the same message through all things.

The message of his hesed which endures forever.

The message of his steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

There are two levels in which our memories might help us to keep faith in Jesus and be drawn into relationship with God.

One is the bigger picture, the bigger story we are part of.

The story of the God we encounter in the scriptures and his great love for us.

This is the God who created the world, because of that love. But he’s not a God who creates then leaves the world to his own devices. He’s a god who throughout history has been showing his steadfast, committed love, in his actions. He’s a God who has walked with his creation through its story.

For those hearing the Psalm, they were reminded of creation and the Exodus. And yes, they are part of our story too. But because of Jesus we have even more reason to believe in God’s hesed, of God’s steadfast, committed love.

The same idea is put forward in every similar ways in two parts of the New Testament.

I John 4: 9-10:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

and

Romans 5: 8

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us

As we consider, acknowledge, ponder, remember, re-collect and re-gather what God has done for us in Christ, we’re reminded that God loves us with a steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

It’s there in the big story

But there is another, more personal way that memory can serve to help draw us into relationship with Christ. It’s when we take time to consider, reflect, ponder what God has done for us.

It’s there in the Psalm. Not only do they remember how God acted in the big things of history. The same God who did all those things in history remembered us when we were at our lowest, he rescued us in times of trouble, he is looking after his world, all because of his hesed which endures forever. His steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits. Cut through all things like the stick of seaside rock.

Earlier this week up in the office Rosalie had a plastic wallet with some cards with Bible promises on them. She offered me to pick one out at random. It contained the se wordsfrom Isaiah 40:

Those who wait on the LORD will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles.

Maybe it was knowing what I was talking about this week that prompted it. But I was taken back to the time when this was one of the first Bible verses I had to learn off by heart.

I was about 5 years old.

And as I reflect, I have actually found these words to be true through all of life.

I found myself thinking of how in so many ways, ways in which I never noticed, even at times when I was far from God and he was the last thing on my mind, God was never far from me. So many things have helped me in what I have to do as a minister, even things I did with very different intentions. Nothing was wasted. God worked through the whole story. Even though I often ignored him, God was watching over me with a steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on me, even when I would have, and never quits.

Perhaps you can think of ways in which God has been like that with you.

It may not be in the events themselves. Good, bad, downright horrible comes to all of us. It is right to name them as such and not belittle them.

So maybe it’s not in the events themselves.

But those moments when you wondered if you were ever going to get through this but somehow found the strength.

Those moments when someone just said the right word at just the right time.

Those moments when you discovered you were not the first person to go through this. Someone had been through what you were going through, and survived it.

Those moments when anexperience you have gone through, horrible as it was at the time, became an experience that you were able to reach out to someone else.

Allowing you to become a channel of God’s steadfast, reliable, committed love.

We can feel like the person in the footsteps poem who looks back and sees those times when we were walking with God and there were two sets of footprints in the sand. However at the times when things were toughest, there were only one.

And we fail to recognise that those were the moments we were being carried.

It is so easy to lose sight of that love, to wonder if God really cares. It has always been so with those who have sought relationship with God.

There have been times when he seems hidden, times when we face struggle and wonder if he’s there. It is not always easy and we need to remember the hesed running through all things like the wording on a stick of seaside rock.

But if we take time to remember the God we are with, to consider, acknowledge, ponder the God who has acted for us in Jesus, the God who by his Spirit we have been accompanied and brought thus far on our journey, that can help reinforce our trust in him in the present. We need to go back and re-collect and re-gather the parts of the bigger story. It can help us trust him for our futures.

For in so many ways he has demonstrated his love towards us, his hesed. Running through all things like the words on a stick of seaside rock.

May you know in all things you are loved.

Loved with a steadfast, committed, reliable love, which never fails, never gives up on us, a love that never quits.

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ … in our hearts

jesus-in-my-heart-1

Reading: Ephesians 3: 14-21

A criticism that’s sometimes levelled against our education system is that students are tested so much, they are constantly being trained for exams, rather than having space for true learning. I cannot say whether that is the case, but I do admit that  I was one of those annoying people who were suited to exams. I did better under exam conditions. I could cram and retain stuff just long enough to get me through the two/three hours of the exam…

…  but it rarely lasted much longer.

Some of my studies have managed to sustain a lasting interest, but by no means all or even most. That’s true even of classes in which I got really good grades.

Much of it never really took root.

However, I cam across a story in Word by Word by Marilyn McEntyre. At one stage she was a university lecturer and she tells of how contributing to discussions in seminars was supposed to help go towards her students final grade.

But one day she ran into a former student, who, as Marilyn recalled, had sat at the back of the class, head buried over her notes, and rarely said anything. Her written work was certainly of a high standard, but Marilyn thought that was simply because she was a good writer, rather than anything she was being taught.

However all those years later the student spoke of how Marilyn’s class had helped her realise her gifts and her studies had taken a completely different turn after that course.

Whilst Marilyn had been looking for one kind of response, she says the student had been listening intently to the conversations, taking it to heart, and allowing it to change her.

Over the first few months of 2017, I plan, in my sermons and reflections at deacons’ and church meetings centre around the idea of Knowing Christ and this evening I want to think for a few moments about the importance of Knowing Christ in our hearts.

The idea of having Christ ‘in my heart’ was an important part of the spirituality of my childhood. We were invited to ask Jesus ‘into our heart.’ We sang songs like

There’s a flag flying high

o’er the castle in my heart,

for the King is in residence there!

That’s not quite how Paul uses the image in Ephesians 3.

I find Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians quite interesting. Paul prays for them to be strengthened within with power through the Holy Spirit.

But it’s the reason Paul wants them to have power that interests me. Paul’s longing is that they, together with all God’s people, might grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and that they may go on discovering more and more of it.

He wants them to know they’ll never fully be able to grasp that love, but that throughout all of life there is more and more to come to know, to discover.

This passage marks a transition in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The opening chapters include some really quite deep theology about all that God has done and intends to in Christ. After this Paul gives a great deal of instruction about what this means for their day to day lives; how they should live out their calling in their world.

But before he gets there he wants them to know how much they are loved. He wants them to be rooted and established in love. That love is to be like the roots from which they draw their life, like the foundation on which they build their lives.

Paul is calling for them to have the sort of knowledge that Marilyn McEntyre’s student was acquiring in her seminars, which took root and stayed with her long after the classes and exams were over; rather than the kind of knowledge I was gaining in Economics  101, which was just passing through.

But why do they need strengthened to do that?

Because, quite simply, we struggle to believe it.

It requires experience and it requires trust.

It’s not dissimilar to how Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount. Whether it’s the pagans or the Pharisees, Jesus constant refrain is don’t be like them. And the reason he kept saying that is because the God of whom Jesus was speaking was a good god.

God knew them  and cared about them intimately.

God knew their needs even before they asked.

God cared for them and provided for them, good and bad.

In the hands of such a God they had no need to be anxious.

They were secure, they were safe.

They didn’t have to earn God’s love and blessing. They already had it.

That knowledge was to shape how they live.

Paul is saying much the same here. For both of Paul and Jesus, at the very centre of the Christian is coming into relationship with God, growing in the knowledge of God as an all-loving, all-powerful Father.

Paul wants them to really come to know just how loved they are.

He wants that to be the source of how they live, and we live.

It’s like one of Jesus’ most famous parables, the sower. The seed falls on all sorts of different ground, yielding different results.

Sometimes we encounter God’s love and we simply fail to notice.

Sometimes we get distracted, turn our attentions elsewhere and it fails to take notice.

Other times the cares and struggles of life cause us to lose sight of it.

Or perhaps we would truly want to know God, but struggle to believe God would be interested in us for whatever reason.

Or we can intellectually appreciate that God’s love is true, yet somehow that truth never penetrates out hearts. it, but it fail to make it to our hearts.

We can struggle to grasp why or how God would love us.

But Paul reminds us that nowhere are we outside the love of God.

His love is broad enough to encompass anyone who comes to him

His love is long enough to last into all eternity.

His love reaches deep enough to reach us when we are at our lowest

And his love is high enough to draw us to himself. *

But if that love of God is to make a difference to us, to empower us to live the life God created us to live, it needs time to germinate, to develop, to take root deep within us. It needs time to settle. When Paul speaks about Christ dwelling in our hearts the word he uses has a sense of taking up permanent residence, we might say ‘putting down roots.’

Truly discovering it is, the work of a lifetime and it’s mysterious.

It’s a work of grace.

It’s something we do together, in that we see God at work in each other’s lives, or we discover God reaching out to us by the love of others.

But we can co-operate with it.

Because God won’t force an anything onto us. As the Message puts it God works not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit moving deeply and gently within us.

There will always be more to discover, always be room for growth. Let’s not settle for what we’ve already discovered, but let the knowledge and the experience of God’s unfailing love take deeper and deeper root within us. May we make room for God to work in us immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power at work in us.

This was a reflection given at our deacons’ meeting on Monday 6 February 2017.
*borrowed from John  Stott’s BST commentary on this passage.
Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ … in Our Imaginations

left_vs_right_brain

Audio

Reading: Mark 5: 21-34

Until fairly recently brain specialists used to talk of differences between the left side of the brain and the right side. The left side was used for logic, reasoning, factual stuff. The right side was associated with more arty, creative, emotional type thinking.

So, the thinking ran, the type of person we were was based on whether we were right or left-brained people. Which side of our brain was stronger, dominant, or did we use or rely on more.

We’ve since discovered that it’s not really that simple. It may not be entirely wrong. The two sides do function differently, but not in nice easily defined ways. The two halves of our brain work more closely together than this would suggest.

Some even suggest that when it comes to storytelling the left part of the brain which is the more inventive/interpreting side, whereas the right is more truthful and literal, which would seem to be the logical opposite of that.

However one reason why the whole left brain/right brain thing remains so attractive is that we know we are all different.

Some like to deal with concepts and arguments, others are more moved by stories. Both are good. And we should not be surprised if different people’s spiritualities work the same way.

Today as we continue our series about Knowing Christ, I want to consider the idea of coming to know more of Jesus and be drawn into relationship with him through our imaginations.

Throughout the Bible we are encouraged to use imagination to help develop our relationship with God and understand what he means to us. God is described as a rock, or a fortress, a shield or a hiding place. When we read of God as a rock no-one thinks he is a lump of stone. We’re to use our imaginations and ask in what way is God like a rock.

John the Baptist described Jesus as the Lamb of God.

Jesus described himself as the Bread of Life, or the Good Shepherd, or the true vine.

He told stories and invited his hearers to place themselves in those stories and try to come to know more of God.

Our songs this morning were designed with the idea of using our imagination. Whether it’s forest glades, the cross or the second coming, How Great thou Art invited us to consider how those situations make us feel. We need to imagine ourselves there.

Later we’ll sing about hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered. When we survey the wondrous Cross we’re invited to see from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down. At the table we will share later we reflect on a body broken and blood that was shed. We’re taken back to the last supper, or to the events of Golgotha. The bread and wine are images of something else.

Our faith encourages us to use our imaginations.

Something Christians have done down through the centuries is to listen to the stories of Jesus and to use their imaginations to enter into the story. To imagine the events, to hear the sounds, to see what’s going on, to imagine how they would feel.

We’re going to do a bit of that this morning. We are going to read the story together.

You might find it helpful to have the story in front of you, you might not. If not, just ignore the sheet with the reading.

You might find the picture on the screen helpful, you might not.

You might find it helpful to close your eyes. Here’s your chance. If you fall asleep I will imagine you are simply being reflective.

As you hear the story one, but not the only good place to begin, is to ask which character you identify with.

And why?

But above all we’re asking ‘what does God have to say to me through this?

Or what does it make me want to say to God?

The meditation can be found here

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ… in your mind

neuroplasticity

Readings: Mark 1: 14-15; Romans 12: 1-8

On September 11 2001 Marissa Panigrosso was on the 98th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, when an aeroplane crashed into the North Tower.

Marissa ‘felt the explosion as much as heard it. A blast of hot air hot her face, as if an oven door had just been opened. A wave of anxiety swept through the office. Marissa Panigrosso didn’t pause to turn off her computer, or even pick up her purse. She walked to the nearest emergency exit and left the building.’

Which, you’ll probably acknowledge, was the right or sensible thing to do.

But what struck Marissa as odd was that so many in that building, including a number in Marissa’s own office, behaved very differently. They heard the fire alarm. They could see what was happening 50 yards from them. Yet many just kept on doing what they were doing. Some even went into a meeting. One went part of the way down the stairs with Marissa, then went back for her baby photos. Marissa never saw any of them again.

I came across Marissa’s story in a book by a psychoanalyst called Stephen Grosz. It’s called The Examined Life (Pages 121-4). It’s a fascinating read. One of the best books I read last year.

Yet Stephen Grosz says his experience suggests Marissa’s action was the odd one, rather than that of her colleagues. When a fire alarm sounds, people don’t act immediately.

They talk amongst themselves.

They try to work out what’s going on.

They’ll wait for more clues, like ‘is there smoke?’

They’ll wait for advice from someone they trust.

Even then, research shows that many refuse won’t move.

And when they do, they will almost always try to exit through the same door they entered, the one they always use, whether that is the right thing to do or not.

Apparently we do not trust emergency exits.

Stephen Grosz says ‘after twenty-five years as a psychoanalyst, I can’t say that surprises me. We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening that ignoring a dangerous situation. We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know the new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We won’t take an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to lead us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency.’

Both Jesus and Paul would have recognised truth in Grosz’s words.

We’re starting a new series this morning called Knowing Christ. This morning I want to begin with the importance of knowing Christ in our minds.

Of course there are different ways to interpret that title.

You might assume that when I say Knowing Christ ‘in the mind’ I’m talking about the intellectual side of faith. You might think I’ll talk about getting to know your Bible, get to learn more about God through what is revealed in the scriptures.

I hope you’re not surprised to know that I do really value that approach to faith. Getting to know the story of Jesus and all that God has done for us in Christ is vitally important in the Christian journey. We are thinking beings, designed to try and make sense of our world. God gave us a brain and the gift of understanding. God wants and expects us to use them.

When Jesus was asked what God thought was the most important thing of all he responded that we were to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

One day Jesus asked his disciples ‘who do people say I am?’ They gave him all sorts of answers then he asked them a question he could equally pose to each one of us…

‘what about you? who do you say that I am?’

In other words ‘never mind them, what do you think?’

Each of us is challenged to make up our own minds.

Following Jesus means we should be students, learners.

Disciples.

Some parts of the church are suspicious of theological training.

Me? I’m suspicious of anyone who is suspicious of learning.

The church is blessed when it has those who help us make sense of our faith and who are gifted in applying it and connecting it to other fields, current events and so on.

However those of us with an intellectual bent do need to be careful that knowing about Christ does not take the place of relationship with him. We can study the Bible to satisfy our curiosity and be able to handle tough questions, without it necessarily touching our lives.

As a child I used to love fact files on the top footballers of the day. I can still name the Arsenal team that won the FA Cup Final against Man Utd in 1979. But at one time I could also have told you their height, weight, previous clubs, favourite food…

I knew a lot about them.

But I didn’t know any of them.

When Julie and I were getting married we had to visit a registrar who asked us a series of questions about each other. It’s not unreasonable to assume that if we were about to commit ourselves to each other ’til death do us part’ we would know such things.

But I hope our relationship is more than just facts about one another.

And the same is true in our relationship with God. Knowing Christ in our minds is about so much more than head knowledge.

Reason is good, important, but we can value it too highly. We need to recognise that there will be limits to what we can know. Sometimes the limits lie in us, rather than what we are trying to understand. Just because we can’t prove or understand something, doesn’t make it less true.

In our readings this morning we see entering into a relationship where we come to know Christ is more akin to what Stephen Grosz is talking about.

Are we prepared to have our view of the world challenged or changed?

Will we commit to the challenge and the change Jesus calls us to?

Will we take the exit, even if we can’t fully grasp where it will lead?

Or will we cling to what we think we know, even if we come to see that what Jesus says makes sense, no matter what that might cost?

The language was slightly different but Jesus and Paul were expressing the same idea.

Both our readings are about  knowing Christ in our mind.

It was reasonably obvious in the reading from Romans. In verse 2 we read Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.

However, even before that in the reading there is another hint of this idea of knowing Christ in your mind, which we probably wouldn’t immediately pick up in many of our English translation. Paul writes about the ‘true’ worship we should offer. Some translations use the word ‘reasonable’ instead of true. But the word Paul uses is λογικὴν (logiken) and you don’t need to be a Greek expert to guess which word we get from that…

…logical.

In Mark’s Gospel, close to the start, we are offered a summary of what Jesus preached in the area of Galilee, after the arrest of John the Baptist. In some ways it’s quite 2017. Mark could have fitted his summary into a single tweet on Twitter 108 characters, including spaces (in our church Bibles anyway).

The right time has come, and the Kingdom of God is near!

Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News! 

Most translations use a different, what we might consider a more traditionally religious word for ‘turn away from your sins.’

Repent.

In some ways repentance is quite a loaded word. It comes with lots of religious baggage. It sounds especially threatening in a Belfast accent.

But actually it wasn’t even a particularly religious word. We get a sense of how those who heard Jesus preach would have understood him from the writings of a first century Jewish historian called Josephus. In AD 66, as Jewish Palestine descended into the war which would lead to the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus met with a Galilean terrorist group intent on overthrowing the Romans.

They were keen, ready, up for the fight…

…and absolutely no chance. If they went ahead with their plans they would be slaughtered.

So Josephus tried to persuade them that their way would lead to disaster but that he had an alternative, better strategy that they should follow.

His precise message was ‘Repent and trust in me.’

                    (Source: The Lost Message of Jesus, by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann)

It wasn’t a religious message

Josephus wasn’t claiming to be any kind of Messiah.

He certainly wasn’t claiming to be divine.

He was simply saying that he had a better way and that they should give up their way and follow his.

That’s what repentance is.

In our tradition ‘repentance’ has almost merged with confession. That is certainly part of it, but repentance is much bigger than that. Growing up, if I did something wrong and it was discovered I would be faced with my mother. Trying to prevent the clip round the ear that was surely on the way I might cry out ‘I’m sorry!’ and she might ask another question…

‘are you sorry you did it?

Or sorry you got caught??!’

In confession you might say you’re sorry, but really just it’s because you got caught, or you’re sorry about the consequences that are going to follow your actions. It might mean that if you had the chance again you would do things differently…

…but it might not!

The Greek word for repent is μετανοεῖτε which means ‘change your mind.’ The closest word the Hebrews had for this phrase was shubh which is  about ‘coming to your senses.’

Repentance is not just about feeling sorry for what you’ve done. It’s not even realising that there is another way to live, or even knowing that way is better. As Stephen Grosz has come to see in his 25 years of psychoanalysis, we can know all of that and still cling to that same old worldview, still cling to what we know.

Repentance is about stepping out of the old story into the new one, even when you don’t know where that exit is taking you.

It’s interesting that people of faith are sometimes considered to be ‘closed-minded’ because repentance actually means think bigger. It means to go beyond the mind you have. It’s about enlarging the scope of what you think is possible. It’s about waking up to a new reality, to the realisation things don’t have to be as they are.

They can be different.

There is an exit.

Paul describes it as a ‘renewing of your mind.’ The word he uses is nous. It describes our mindset, our worldview, the way in which we think. What Stephen Grosz might call our story.

We are all, whether we realising it or not, telling ourselves a story and that story is shaping how we live. Some of those stories might be good, helpful, positive.

But often they’re not. Often they’re quite destructive.

When Jesus invites us to repent he invites us to trust him and step into a different story, to see God, ourselves, our world differently. Paul says don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world. Don’t be trapped into thinking this is how it is and always has to be. Be transformed by a renewal of your mind. Be transformed because you are coming to see differently.

You are learning to listen to a new story.

In his book How to be a Bad Christian Anglican priest Dave Tomlinson describes Jesus clicking his fingers in front of people saying ‘Wake up! This is your life. Stop sleepwalking through it.’

Jesus was constantly trying to get people to rethink what they thought they knew. How many times in the last few months, when we read the Sermon on the Mount did we hear him say ‘you have heard it said, but I tell you…’

Why did Jesus describe God in word pictures and parables, some of which were quite frankly shocking?

To help them see differently.

Jesus was constantly trying to alert people to new possibilities for their life, for their community, for their world. That was what made him a number of very surprising friends.

It was also what made him his enemies.

But why do we find it so difficult? Change is frightening, even when we know it’s for our good. We cling vehemently to our worldview, the story we’ve been listening to.

Even when we honestly recognise that our way isn’t working, we find it hard to trust the exit.

When it comes to knowing Christ in our mind, it is good to grasp the story of what God is like and what he has done for us in Christ. But it’s more than that. It’s got to make the journey from head to heart.

Which can be a very long journey.

Allowing him to shift our worldview requires intention. Without intention it can be so easy to drift through life so mindlessly, absorbing all that we are fed by the culture around us. And what you believe will start to shape how you live. We need to wake up.

But it also requires trust. Notice the next phrase Jesus uses right after ‘repent.’ Repent and believe the good news. Or as Paul puts it ‘in view of God’s mercy, don’t be conformed but be transformed by the renewing of your mindset, your worldview.

Right at the outset of this journey perhaps one of the things of which we need to repent, to shift our worldview about, to have renewed or see differently is how we view God himself.

Philip Yancey writes about a priest who was asked about the most common problems he had encountered in 20 years of hearing confession. His answer, without hesitation was ‘God.’

He said very few people behave as if God is a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, not as someone like Jesus, worthy of our trust.

I would say he is right. Some of the ways I have heard people describe their God, some of the things they believe about him, I wouldn’t want to worship him. Their God is a monster.

But I’m also aware that this view of God is more common than we think. It’s the story I grew up with. Sometimes that god still lurks in the background.

The story you’re telling yourself will affect how you live. On the surface you might live a good life out of fear for what God will do to you if you don’t.

But the quality of your life will be very different if you come to know you are loved unconditionally by God. That God is merciful.

In fact the only way we can live anything like Paul describes in verses 3-8 of our reading this morning is when we come to know just how much we are truly loved and embraced by God whatever.

When that is the source of our value, rather than what we think we have achieved then we are free to give generously, lead diligently and show mercy cheerfully.

That’s when it becomes the ‘logical’ or natural outworking of what is going on within us.

Philip Yancey also speaks of a woman pouring her heart out about living in absolute fear of a God who was always watching her, always waiting to punish her for messing up, and the spiritual director said to her ‘why don’t you just sack that God?’

Some of us may need to sack that God.

For he’s not the one revealed in Jesus.

A former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said ‘God is Christlike and in him is so unChristlikeness at all.’

It sounds big and profound. But really he’s just saying if you really want to know what God’s like, look at Jesus. If your God isn’t like Jesus, you’ve got the wrong God. And if you’ve got the wrong God, I suggest you sack him. He will make you miserable…

… and you can learn and live a different story.

I can’t tell you that is easy. if it was more people would take it.

But I can tell you it’s possible.

Science backs me up on that.

Until relatively recently it was believed that our brains were basically hardwired in childhood. By adulthood your brain has a certain number of neurons and they function in a certain way. The story that tells us is that we basically cannot change.

But we’ve since discovered that the brain is not like that at all. The brain is malleable and constantly changing. In particular we can deliberately create new neural networks. We can develop new qualities and new abilities. We can go beyond the mind we have. Our mind can be renewed. Real repentance is possible. We can step into a new story.

And you know what? We can do that even into old age. As George Eliot once said ‘it’s never too late to be what you might have been.’

It’s never too late to change the record.

It’s never too late to change the story.

In my first meeting with my spiritual director he asked me a question. ‘Do you think God likes you?’ I started giving all sorts of answers about the love of God, then he said ‘no, that’s not what I asked you. Do you think God likes you?’

How would you answer that question?

It’s a new story I’ve needed to learn.

And it does make a difference.

How do we do it?    Practise.

How do you strengthen muscles in your body? Exercise! We sometimes say ‘use it or lose it!’ We get better at what we practise.

It’s the same in the brain. If we constantly criticise ourselves, we develop the self-critical neural networks. The story becomes ingrained.

But we can develop new networks, through mental habits, things we commit to, and in time those responses become automatic.

We can learn a different story and allow that to shape us.

Our minds can be renewed.

Repentance is possible.

That’s why it is important to remind yourself of what God has done in Christ for you. For then you are reminded that you are loved, just because. That God knows us and loves us just as we are. Take time to remind yourself of it. Remember a while ago I told you, the brain needs slightly longer to install good news in the brain, than bad news?

You have good news to install, to believe. You have a God who loved us so much that he came amongst us, lived and died amongst us and was raised to new life. A God who is with us in all things. We can trust him to walk through the exit door to a new life. We can even trust him as we walk through life’s exit door, knowing we are held by one who has shown himself worthy of our trust.

You know what else help us? The stories of those who have been there before us and come out the other side. Not people who have handles it easily. But those who have struggled and come through. We journey together.

When we share our stories together our minds are enlarged.

We come to see more than what we thought was possible.

Repentance is possible.

Our minds can be renewed.

We can learn the new story.

It is safe to do so even if we don’t know where the exit is taking us. For we are with one who was gone there before us. And it’s something we can grasp ever more deeply, if we will live in the new story, as we come to know Christ more and more… in our minds.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ (Introductory Flyer)

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Reading: Philippians 3: 7-10

On Sunday 29 January, I beginning a new series with you. On the doors just behind where I preach, under the screen, you will see five words.

They’re from Philippians 3:10. They are ‘We want to know Christ.’

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that we are made for relationship with God. We have a God who lovingly created us and longs for relationship with us. It’s in relationship with this God that we discover our meaning and purpose in life.

The God we encounter in the pages of the Bible wants to be known. One of my favourite verses in the Bible is the opening of a book near the end of the Bible called Hebrews.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets. (Hebrews 1: 1-2)

This God has always been reaching out to us.

People like me go on about having this ‘personal relationship’ with God. We say things like ‘prayer is just talking to God like you’re talking to the person next to you.’

It’s all sounds so simple, so obvious.

But if we think about it and we’re honest, it’s not really, is it?

It’s not really like my relationship with any of you. I can see you for a start. I can generally sense of whether you’re listening to me. I can check whether you have heard and understood me. If I want information or help from you, I can ask and you can answer directly.

Very little of that is true of God, at least most of the time.

Even then I won’t always understand you.

Why do you like this?

Why did you do that?

I’m sure you sometimes wonder the same about me.

And if we can’t really know each other, how can we expect to come to know God? Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the 4th Century once said ‘if you can comprehend it, it’s not God.’

But then the writer in Hebrews adds something else…

But in these last days God has spoken to us through his Son.  

The point Hebrews is really making is that Jesus is the ultimate, or decisive, revelation of God.

If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

That’s the real meaning behind the saying of Jesus ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father, except through me.’ (John 14:6). Jesus is saying if you want to know what God is like, look at me.

To discover the kind of life we were created to live, look at Jesus.

If you want to know God and enter into relationship with him, get to know Jesus.

Thing is, as we progress in the Christian life, we can settle for what we already have. We stop seeking to learn, develop and grow. When there is always so much more to discover. We’re made to be drawn deeper and deeper into relationship with the living God. We discover more and more of our meaning and purpose, as we step deeper and deeper into that relationship.

And that possibility is open to all of us, however old we are, however far we think we’ve gone, however good or bad we think we are, or have been.

It should be our aim every time we come together to worship to get to know Christ better. (Actually that’s true of more than worship). But for the next few months I want to make that explicitly our aim. I hope you will explore with me and be blessed as we do so.

Grace and Peace.

Andrew

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ: An Introduction

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Reading: Philippians 3: 7-14

As a child I used to love football comics like Shoot and Roy of the Rovers. Even back then I was a bit of a stato/nerd. So I used to like the ‘fact files’ about the top players of the day. So, at 8 or 9 years old, I probably could have told you Pat Jennings’ favourite food, or Kenny Dalglish’s favourite film. I knew the height, weight, previous clubs of any number of the top players of the day. I knew a lot of facts.

I could have told you lots about them.

But I didn’t know any of them.

I had never met them.

I didn’t have a relationship with any of them.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that we are created to have a relationship with our creator God. But what does that mean?

Jesus calls us to be his disciples. The main part of being a disciple was to spend time with your master. To learn from him, not just by what he said, but by observing him, being with him, getting to know him. A popular image of the day was of the rabbi walking through the streets, closely followed by his disciples. As the rabbi walked along he would kick up dust. As a result a popular saying of the time was ‘may you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.’

But what does it mean to be a disciple of one whom you cannot see?

That’s why I am glad that these words are written by Paul, rather than, say Peter.

So there are a five words which Paul says in that short reading from Philippians which sum up the purpose of the Christian life. I want to know Christ.

And by extension, when you think about life as a church, as a body of followers of Jesus, you could say a primary objective should be to get to know Christ.

With that in mind I have chosen those words as a kind of text for the year, and certainly over the first half of the year they will be the background to a lot of my preaching on Sundays and the reflections I share at our church meetings.

But of course we use the word ‘know’ in lots of different ways. In the tradition in which I grew up we talked about a personal relationship with Jesus. But actually the way we approached faith ran the risk of being a little like the my knowledge of footballers at that time. We were very keen on what you believed and whether it was ‘sound.’

I’m not saying any of that is unimportant.

Truth matters.

But it came with its risks. Christianity can be reduced to ideas. Knowing the Bible can become a substitute for Knowing Christ.

It is a big hope to suggest that this will automatically turn into the kind of relationship Paul speaks of when he talks of knowing Christ, just like I never knew Pat Jennings.

It can become merely head knowledge without it ever making it to your heart.

Following Jesus is not just a series of propositions to accept or reject. Jesus is not an idea to be examined. He is a living person to get to know.

You might be able to explain the Trinity without ever coming into relationship with the Trinitarian God.

You might understand theories of atonement, without ever being reconciled to the atoning God.

Of course other ways of approaching the idea of knowing Christ which also have their risks. For some it is all about feelings, the religious experience. I encountered this a lot amongst Pentecostal friends. Many of them were great disciples. I was blessed in what I learned from them. But some put their trust in how their faith made them feel. Whilst seeking personal relationship, they were missing something very vital. It was all about how they felt. And feelings can be fickle and deceptive.

Still others develop a real loyalty to the faith, which is a wonderful thing. Any good relationship requires loyalty. But it’s possible to be loyal without really trusting someone. Fear can be a good motivator for loyalty.

I have met many people who live in fear of God. Their relationship has never really developed a warm, intimate, loving, trusting dimension.

Knowledge, experience, and fidelity all good things. But they are not the same thing as the kind of knowing Paul is talking about here.

Also, we are all very different people.

We were created for relationship with God and although that has a very important corporate dimension, the way we relate to God will be different for each one of us. Things I find really helpful you may not and vice versa.

If we are going to hear and get to know Christ, it should not surprise us that we have most chance of doing that if we are approaching God in a way which suits our temperament at any given season.

With that in mind, on top of the preaching material, during the year, I will invite the church to look at different types of spirituality. It is my hope to help people to discover something more of the kind of spiritual temperament they have and what kind of things are likely to be sustaining for them.

I would like 2017 to be a year when we seek to get to know Christ more and more. Not just in head knowledge, but in such a way as we find ourselves drawn deeper and deeper into relationship with him. A year when se start seeing him ever more clearly, loving him ever more dearly and following him more nearly.

The series is very loosely based on a book called Knowing Christ by Alister McGrath. At least I am borrowing his broad structure and chapter headings. The series begins properly on Sunday 29 January.