Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: No! Part 2

does not computer

Reading: Habakkuk 1: 1 – 2: 4

A university lecturer was teaching a class one day but kept getting distracted by a bloke at the front. The guy wasn’t doing anything in particular. He was just wearing a t-shirt with a huge letter K on the front. What was bugging the professor was that he couldn’t work out what this K meant. He was pretty sure the guy’s name was Barry, he couldn’t think of any major designer who had a great big K logo. He tried to put it out of his mind but every time he looked up, there it was; this great big letter K. There was nothing for it, he decided. At the end of the lesson he’d just have to ask the student.

‘Tell me’ he said, casually as if it hadn’t been driving him nuts, ‘I couldn’t help but notice your t-shirt and wondered what the big K on the front meant.’ ‘Oh that?’ said the student, ‘it stands for confused.’

Naturally this threw the lecturer even more, so rather stating the obvious he said ‘but confused starts with a C, not K,’ to which the student responded ‘yeah, that just shows how confused I am!’

We’ve been taking time to think about different seasons or phases in a healthy spiritual life. Anyone who takes seriously relating to the God we encounter in the Bible, will sometimes find following Jesus bewildering or confusing. Contrary to what people might think, faith is not about having all the answers, or even thinking you have. At times you can be confused. Perhaps with a capital K

 

If you doubt that, look no further than Habakkuk. The man we encounter in the little book which bears his name had immense faith in God. But that didn’t mean he understood everything. Not only did he have three Ks in his name, but all 3 Ks could, have quite easily stood for confused.

One of the things I love about the Bible, and, as a result, one of the things I love about the God revealed in its pages, is that there is no attempt to hide from those awkward questions.

The Bible is often dismissed as a set of bronze age myths, which we have outgrown. We’re more sophisticated than that. But open these pages we see the questions which puzzle us have puzzled people down through the ages.

They have not only committed those questions to writing.

They’re recorded as scripture.

Their questions are not considered faithless.

They have come to viewed as sacred, every bit as much as God-breathed as the cries of praise and thanks.

Habakkuk, worked in the temple of Jerusalem, some 2600 years ago, at a time of great national uncertainty. Just a few years earlier, the king had been Josiah. Josiah one of very few kings in the Old Testament to get a good review. He had drawn the people back to what God required of them. He has acted justly, protected the poor and vulnerable.

But Josiah was killed, by the Egyptians, in a battle at Megiddo, from which we get the term Armageddon. Egypt installed Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, on the throne.

Jehoiakim possessed none of his father’s positive attributes. He had no concern for justice and mercy, the kingdom was run to suit his own ends. It seemed like the social fabric of their national life was unravelling.

Those further down the hierarchy followed Jehoiakim’s lead, so that there was widespread oppression and injustice. Even in days before advertising by ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers, Habakkuk’s society was highly litigious. The richer you were, the less likely you were to fall on the wrong side of the law. They looked after their own. And as for trying to do the right thing. That only seemed to get you trampled on.

 

And this society was violent. The opening sentences of his book could almost be lifted from the evening news. I’m not one for thinking our society is so much more violent from generations before. It just takes different guises. Violence has this nasty tendency to change its form and acquire different euphemisms to describe itself.

Does anyone want to have guess at how many wars are going on in the world at the moment? Wikipedia tells me it’s around 60. Even our 24 hour news coverage can only show a little of what is going on. Today we hear of gang violence, road rage, drunken mayhem.

2 women die each week at the hands of violent partners.

There have been 6 stabbings in our borough since the turn of the year.

Even so much of what is described as entertainment is really quite violent. The words of Salman Rushdie, in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, could describe so many ages in history, including our own. He said ‘Violence today is hot. It is what people want.’

 

It could also have described the age in which Habakkuk acted as a prophet.

Well, I say prophet…

…but most of the time we would probably think of a prophet as one who beings a message from God to us, who speaks from God to us.

What makes Habakkuk slightly different is that, he primarily speaks for us to God. When we turn to the book of Habakkuk, we encounter the prayer life of one individual within that society. Doubtless his words were echoed by others in his own day who sought to live as God intended.

It’s a short book, but it is packed with timeless questions which echo into our own age: like why God allows evil, the apparent pointlessness of prayer, God’s apparent silence in the midst of all manner of violence and injustice.

If you’ve ever thought ‘God, you don’t seem to make sense’ then you’ll find a companion in Habakkuk. He had great faith, but also dared to voice a feeling that I’m sure we all encounter at some point, that God didn’t know what he was doing.

We have been considering different seasons of phases of the spiritual life, each of which we have assigned one of the words on the screen. Most of Habakkuk’s book consists of a conversation with God. And, within our reading, we see him move between two of the words.

At first Hakakkuk seems to be in a When? season. What perplexed Habakkuk was not just the state of the nation but that God seemed silent, inactive, disinterested. ‘How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen. Or cry violence but you do not save.’

It’s not as if Habakkuk’s prayer was self-centred. This was no ‘Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedez Benz’ type prayer. Habakkuk could, in all sincerity say that he was praying in line with what God would have wanted. He knew what God wanted cos he probably worked in the temple.  The stuff about which he was praying was supposed to be the kind of things God cared about. If anything he might have thought this should be something that God deals with without the need of Habakkuk’s prayer.

Yet long as he prayed, there seemed no answer. So why the delay? How long, O Lord? How long should I keep praying this, when no-one appears to be listening?

Habakkuk was in a season of When?

Yet if Habakkuk was perplexed when he asked the question, that’s nothing compared to how he felt when the answer came.

Last week we started looking at this word and we asked is it ever ok to say No! to God? And I suggested there are few occasions in the Bible when the answer seems to be that it is! We’re going to look at a couple of examples over the next two weeks. God’s response to two No!s is slightly different. But in neither case is it anger. Habakkuk is one of these examples.

As Habakkuk moves into the second stage of the conversation he leaves behind the season of When? and enters a season of No!

Habakkuk raises his When? question. How long? he cries out. He’s about to get his answer.

But that doesn’t mean he’s going to like it. He’s told to look out and wait to be amazed or astonished. That could mean ‘look our for something amazing’ but that’s not the meaning here.

A slightly flippant way we could characterise God’s response to Habakkuk’s prayer is ‘if you think this is bad, wait til you see what’s coming. The Message has God tell Habakkuk to brace himself for a shock.’ For what follows is a description of a new super-power for whom violence is a way of life.

For the answer suggested that far from doing nothing, God was at work, in a group of people called the Chaldeans, stirring them up. Our Bibles calls them Babylonians, but more precisely they were Chaldeans. The difference is a bit like talking of the Welsh, Scottish, or Cornish, instead of British. Whatever we call them, God answer suggested he was about to act. He was going to deal with evil and injustice from which Habakkuk had cried out for deliverance. And he was going to do it through these Chaldeans.

What Habakkuk’s invited to look at and be astounded is probably the Chaldean defeat of Egypt at Carchemish. This would pave the way was for destruction of Judah about which Habakkuk had been praying.

Habakkuk has prayed and his answer has come. But Habakkuk could be forgiven if this answer left him confused with a capital K.

This solution poses more problems than it answers.

Habakkuk had longed for the evil to be overthrown, for evil to be dealt with. But this could hardly be presented as ‘good triumphing over evil.’ God wasn’t saying you lot have got it all wrong so I’m bringing in some good guys to clean this mess up.

God pulls no punches about the Babylonians. They’re described as ruthless looters and pillagers, hellbent on destruction, oppression and violence. They’re guilty of the very things from which Habakkuk had prayed for deliverance: and proud of it. In verse 11 God describes them as evil men whose own strength is their God.

 

And Habakkuk is not being invited to see this as just another random change in the world order, but to see that even in this God is sovereign and that God’s plan for his world is not being derailed, but still moving forward.

Habakkuk doesn’t get it. He still comes up with a massive ‘does not compute.’

So Habakkuk moves from When? to No!

God you can’t do that! He says God, you’re eternal, sovereign, pure. You’ve told us you cannot look on evil, and won’t tolerate wrong. So how come you’re using or appointing of ordaining that lot.

You know what they’re like. They’re worse than us and you’re watching on whilst they destroy us. You won’t tolerate our wrong, but you tolerate theirs.

You’ve left us helpless like fish in the sea that just get ripped up indiscriminately.

And God I can’t even really see what’s in it for you. These people, they’re not going to recognise you. When we lie ruined they’re just going to gloat and they won’t acknowledge you. We might not be living for your glory, but having this lot take over won’t change that. God, since when did two wrongs make a right.

Habakkuk challenges God to explain himself. And that first verse in chapter 2 is quite interesting. For it treads a fine tightrope between defiance and faith. Having posed his question about how God can use the Babylonians, he says ‘I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.’

At one level he says to God ‘Now there’s an argument for you. Let’s see what you’ll do with that one.’

 

But at the same time the question is asked in faith. He is prepared to wait and listen for the answer. Habakkuk was not the kind of person whose insistent demands on God ceased only when God appears to have finally realised that he was right all along. Habakkuk dares to challenge God, but he is also prepared to have God challenge him.

His question might seem quite clever, but it actually displays a trait not uncommon to even modern humanity and from which those who claim to know something about God are far from immune.

It’s the way we instinctively assume that we have the competence to be moral judges and compare ourselves with others around us and to try and claim the moral high ground. It’s this sense of ‘I know we’re not perfect, but hey, we’re not as bad as them!’

In Habakkuk’s case he goes from calling on God to judge his sinful nation and deal with the evil which surrounds him, but once he realises how that might happen, he decides this judgement might not be a good idea – especially if it comes through people worse than them.

In the process he almost whitewashes the people whom he’d been praying about beforehand. He forgets how bad they are.

We might think in terms of us and them, good and bad, but God is not keeping league tables. There aren’t certain people pushing for places in the Champions League of holiness and others languishing in the relegation zones of lower divisions. None of us are perfect. We are all a mix of good and bad, so what about the evil in us? or the evil from which we benefit, often without us even noticing it?

But flawed though Habakkuk’s reasoning might seem, God does answer. And he asks him to write it big, so that a runner might be able to read it. Make it big, like a motorway sign so that it’ll even attract the drivers attention.

Habakkuk would not have been alone in his desperation at the prevalence of violence and evil in his land. This message was intended to galvanise those paralysed by despair at that situation. They needed a word of true encouragement to keep trusting God in the future.

Habakkuk cried how long and I am sure it felt like an age. Yet as history judges, the glory of Babylon which looked so large in Habakkuk’s vision was shortlived and is barely a historical curiosity. In fact history is littered with the corpses of insatiable empires who sowed the seeds of their own destruction. If we had read the rest of chapter 2, those words could easily be the epitaph of any number of empires, national, business or personal.

In contrast Habakkuk says three Hebrew words which not only became the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, but which many Jewish scholars would say contain the whole message of the Bible, the righteous shall live by faith.

Habakkuk made the mistake of assuming that God was doing nothing simply because he couldn’t see any sign of it. And even when he did start to catch a glimpse of it, it must have been difficult to get his head around.

Faith doesn’t mean things always make sense. There may be times when we can say we feel confused with a capital K. And God did not condemn Habakkuk for his No! It was part of his journey of faith. He honestly faced the challenging questions his faith brought him.

And it will be part of ours. Next week I will look at a different response to our No! But for this morning the response is ‘give it time.’

Something I believe will always be a struggle is why for now God allows evil to exist and it seems so powerful.

Ours is not a God who removes suffering from us. He’s a God who enters into suffering with us, indeed goes ahead of us into it, so that he might bring us through.

Our God understands our confusion all too well. One night in a garden, as he was about to fall into the hands of evil men, he sweat great drops of blood and prayed a prayer not entirely dissimilar to that of Habakkuk.

He begged for any way he could be spared what lay ahead of him. But no alternative way came. The pathway to all that God had planned for him took him through, not round, the heart of the evil and suffering of the world. Like Habakkuk, in the midst of it he felt God was silent – even absent, as he cried My God, My God why have you forsaken me.

But he remained faithful and God was waiting to meet him and bring him through in triumphant resurrection.

The problem of evil in the midst of a world in which God reigns is not going to give a neat, logical solution. Things aren’t fully resolved, questions aren’t always completely answered. That is part of the human condition. And next time we’ll see that sometimes God requires our No! to answer our prayer.

But sometimes our journey towards understanding will take us through ‘no!’ Sometimes God needs our anger.

If we ever doubt God’s commitment to us and his world, or should we ever doubt what God can work through to fulfil his purposes, we need look no further than the cross, on which Jesus bears all the filth and darkness and our enmity to God. Yet somehow it was the means by which God was buying our deliverance. But on the third day Jesus rose triumphant from the grave, and, in his resurrection he declared that nothing could separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. Nothing can stop God fulfilling his plan.

For now, we wait, perhaps not that patiently, for God to finish what he started in Christ. Peter reminds us that God is not slow in acting as we think it. But for now, we still might find ourselves asking ‘how long.’ For now we might, from our limited perspective, fail to see where God is at work in our world – but that is not the same thing as God being inactive. For now we might have in mind the way we want God to answer our prayers, but that does not mean God is limited by what we expect. Sometimes God will hear our No!

But for now the way in which God acts in the world, will remain a mystery.

For now we know in part, and see in part. But though we might cry out and our Spirits might groan within us, saying ‘how long’ his Spirit whispers alongside us, reminding us we are his children, inviting look to the cross where God expresses his bloodstained commitment to put right all that is wrong and broken in his world, and to look to an empty tomb where he displays his power to deliver on what he has promised.

Advertisements
Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: No! Part 1 (A Very Personal Story)

No! PicReadings: Matthew 21: 28-32; John 12: 23-25

I opened by showing pictures of Jesus from around the world. They came from a set called The Christ We Share a pack by the Church Missionary Society.

This morning I want to do something different.

We’ve been working our way through the seasons of phases of a life lived in relationship with God. Today we are turning to a new word. And, in a sense, this is quite a controversial word. Over the next few weeks I am going to be considering the word ‘No!’

And I want to look at it from a couple of different angles…

Is it ever ok to say ‘No!’ to God?

Can we say ‘No! to God?

 

Before I go on, I’m not talking about disobedience. We often look at stories like the story of Jonah and see Jonah being told by God to do one thing, and doing the other, running in the opposite direction. And that doesn’t end well.

I have no doubt there will be times in our lives when that kind of ‘no!’ does form part of our relationship with God. I’m pretty sure it happens in my own life often enough.

I have no doubt that God can use that just as he did with Jonah – it’ll be part of what I share this morning.

But that’s not really what I’m talking about.

Are there times when ‘No!’ forms part of a healthy spirituality?

I want to suggest to you that it can.

We have encountered something like this in recent sermons. In the story of Abraham praying for Sodom. God tells Abraham his plans and Abraham challenges God… You can’t do that! And so begins Abraham’s ‘what if there are 50, 45, 40… righteous people in the city. Abraham challenges God on his own reputation. Will not the judge of the earth do right?

 

This is not the only time we encounter this in the Bible. In Exodus 32 there is a story where we have something similar. Moses is up the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Whilst he is up there, the people are getting a bit nervous and decide to build the Golden Calf to worship. God says to Moses ‘leave me alone, I’m going to destroy this people and start again with you.’

But Moses says ‘no!’ you can’t do that!’ He appeals to God’s reputation. What would the Egyptians think? They’ll say you rescued them, brought them out into a desert and destroyed them. What would that say about you and all the promises you made in the past.

And God changes his mind.

Moses said ‘No!’

What’s going on there?

In the next couple of weeks I want to look at a couple of stories where people said a similar type of ‘No!’ And not only was God not angry with their No!

He welcomed it.

However there is another kind of No!

One where we are not saying ‘no’ to God as such. It’s where we’re saying ‘no’ to a particular understanding or vision of God.

And that is part of our growing process.

That’s why I began with those pictures. A number of you will have seen them in at least one format or other before. They are images of Jesus, as he is depicted in art from around the world.

Normally when I do that I ask people to pick out images to which they are particularly drawn or images which they strongly dislike or perhaps even find offensive.

And there can be all sorts of reasons for that.

 

But amongst them will be the image we have of God. I’ve spoken before about how in Philip Yancey’s book on prayer, a Catholic priest who was asked about the most common problem 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.

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?’

William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during part of the Second World War once said if you have a false idea of God, the more religious you are, the worse it is for you. It were better for you to be an atheist.

In a healthy spiritual life there may come a time when of the things we have to say No! to, is a particular image of God. Jesus says unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot produce a good harvest. Maybe one of the things that needs to die, for a healthy, fruitful spirituality is a particular image of God.

 And that’s what I want to talk about this morning. But I want to do that in a particular way. I want to share something of my own personal story about my own faith journey. And how this word No! has been a big part of that.

 

Please don’t hear this as me saying I am better or worse a believer or a human being because of this. It’s possible when you move away from a particular understanding of something to be a bit of a jerk about people who haven’t made that journey. You can also go too far. Even when you move on, where you have been is part of your story. And there were and are good things in that. You need to remember those, be grateful for them, and for those who brought it to you, often through hard work and sacrifice.

So this just my story, from my perspective…

…nothing more, nothing less…

Went to church

Went to Sunday School

Went to church

Went to bed

This could have been the entry for my diary of any given Sunday throughout my early years. (I might have added ‘had a nice dinner’).

Jackson’s went to church.

It’s what we did.

I was raised in Belfast in a conservative, you might even say fundamentalist background. Our church was Baptist and on top of Sunday worship I was a member of a uniformed youth organisation called the Campaigners. In fact my father set up the Campaigners in our church. As a child I also attended a children’s meeting on a Friday evening.

There has never been a time when God has not figured in my thinking. From an early age I was taught scripture. I could recite John 3: 16 before I knew what most of the words meant. Likewise with Isaiah 40: 30 and 31…

…In King James English.

One slightly strange thing was that although I went to church more than the vast majority of my peers, I was probably one of the last to learn and know the Lord’s Prayer. Even today, amongst the bread, trespasses and deliverance, I can get a bit lost. It just wasn’t part of what we did.

Something which has strongly influenced or coloured my life was my father’s death in a climbing accident when I was 16 months old. He had been a highly respected figure, influential in the church and a gifted sportsman.

Things were not easy for my mother. At 34, she was a widow with four kids, ranging for aged 12 down to one. My father had been the chief breadwinner. However her faith was vital to her. My mother took to heart the promise that God would be father of orphans and a protector of widows (Psalm 68: 5) and looking back I can see all sorts of ways God has protected me down through the years and brought key people alongside me at key moments.

We weren’t always the most overtly demonstrative family, but love and sacrifice do form parts of my early experience.

There are some things for which I am really thankful in that background. People with strict, conservative religious or moral backgrounds have something solid on which to build. I would say that was true for me. Being the youngest may have also allowed me a little more freedom to explore than the others too.

 

Which was important, for there were some things to which I needed to say No!

I wouldn’t say my image of God was especially positive. Whatever I turned my hand to, there would be someone who would tell me how my father was really good at that. Don’t get me wrong. They meant well. But over time, there was this sense of never being quite good enough… And that did spill into other areas of my life. Including my spiritual life.

 

The God of my childhood was quite exclusive. Our church had a long and detailed statement of faith, and you needed to believe all of it in order to be received into membership. We could be quite dismissive of people who didn’t believe all this. The political and religious background of Northern Ireland was hardly ecumenical, especially within the Baptist tradition.

And that was just other Christians.

Northern Ireland, even in Belfast, was not particularly multicultural when I was growing up. I did not have much encounters with people of other faiths.

God was one to be feared. I was very conscious as a child, of God being able to see what I was doing, wherever I was. He wasn’t quite the Gary Larson character in the Far Side cartoon with his finger on the smite button, but he could be pretty angry.

We were also taught the idea of the secret rapture, when Christians would be whisked off to heaven and unbelievers left behind. This could happen at any time. I was taught this with such a sense of imminence that if my mum was late home I would fear being left alone.

Overall the Gospel was very much about the next life. Asking Jesus into your life before you died.

I did this for the first time when I was 3 years old. However, for many years I was never sure I’d meant it and still lived in fear of the rapture. I do remember making a commitment to Jesus in April 1982, when I was 11 years old. I was baptised on New Year’s Day 1984.

 

But that process of saying ‘no!’ really began in my teenage years, as I began to question much of the faith and understandings of God I had inherited.

This happened in two quite divergent ways. Firstly I explored the charismatic movement. A good friend, who was a bit of a wild child came to faith when I was about 14 and started attending a local Pentecostal church. To try to encourage him in his faith, I started to go to their youth club with him. Over a few years I got more involved in it. (In part, admittedly, cos of the potential girlfriends). That helped develop an emotional, warmer, more spiritual or emotional dimension to my faith, which up until then had been dominated by the head.

But the 80s was also the Live Aid era and I grew more and more interested in justice type issues. And none of my church experience really connected faith to the social and political dimensions of life. At least not in especially helpful ways.

I wondered how a country with so many people in church every week be blowing the living daylights out of each other. And my church life didn’t really seem to have a lot to say about things like poverty, hunger, bigotry, racism, nuclear power and the like.

In 1988 I attended a world Baptist Youth Congress in Glasgow. I came across people like Tony Campolo at that Conference. I also encountered a number of black South African Christians, who were given platforms to speak powerfully about the Gospel and racial justice in ways I had never heard. Slowly I was becoming more aware of a God who was interested in the here and now.

Arguably one of the most influential periods of my life was when I really had very little to do with church at all. I decided not to go to university when I left school. That was probably a smart move. But I spent 4 years wishing I had. So, in 1993 I decided to go to University in St Andrews.

That was a period when I really gained some belief in myself. I developed a number of skills which turned out to be really useful in later life, even though I had no inclination of ministry in church.

It’s funny looking back, but those extra 4 years seemed to give me this air of experience, maturity, wisdom. My rooms in halls was constantly frequented by students pouring out their woes to me. I edited a student newspaper and served as the Vice President of the Students’ Association.

I briefly attended the Church of Scotland and dated a girl who was a Quaker. I was very attracted to the Quaker silence. But for the most part laziness kept me from church.

 

At one level it seemed as if I was saying No! to God full stop. But that wasn’t how things unfolded.

Although my degree was in Economics, the Scottish university system meant I needed to fill out my timetable with some other subjects. So for two years I did some Biblical Studies modules and, in my second year, a module on the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

As those two years ended, and I had to settle on my final degree. I was asked if I would consider changing to a theology degree, as my Biblical Studies marks were more consistent than my Economics ones. (I did enjoy it). However at the time I could not see what possible use it would be to me in later life!

These helped greatly to expand the way I viewed Jesus and understood faith. It opened me up to greater breadth of understanding, tradition, spirituality, theology, to which I had never previously had access. I was discovering how even when we disagreed, there was still so much to learn from one another. I was recognizing that truth was true, whoever had it.

My eyes were being opened in other ways too. During that time two of the men who were most helpful and influential to me were gay men, one of whom was a firm atheist, but yet was living more generously than almost any Christian I knew. Looking back, I was learning how God is at work in all sorts of people, whether they believed in him or not. God was turning up in all sorts of unexpected places and people.

A few years after leaving university I almost inexplicably began to explore my faith once more. After a few false starts I began to attend a church just outside Birmingham in Alvechurch. Alvechurch introduced me to Celtic spirituality, which I have found deeply enriching. For a long time I used the Northumbria Daily Office in my prayer life. Mark Woods, who was then minister there, was massively helpful in helping me understand a God who had a vastly wider mercy than I had ever known.

I attended an Alpha course and, after the Holy Spirit day, I began to feel I was being called to something. By this stage Julie and I were dating. I would say Julie and I probably know each other better than we know ourselves. We are often ahead of the other in what is going on in the other’s life.

Julie suggested God might be calling me to ministry, I said God was smarter than that. But not long afterwards, Mark Woods left to take up his post at the Baptist Times, and a number of possibilities for me to serve in the church, I began to question that myself.

I began to explore ministry, most of the time half-hoping I would be turned down. Our ‘consolation’ prize if I got turned down was a holiday of a lifetime in New Zealand. But I wasn’t and I spent three years studying at Regents’ Park College.

And because of how Baptists do stuff, I found myself sole minister of a church from day one of training without having previously spending a single day in any form of formal church leadership. People from other traditions think we’re crazy. It could have gone disastrously wrong. But my student ministry, in Radford Semele was a time of great blessing. They were a small church, a kind people, who were happy to give things a go and not be afraid of failure. From there we moved to Somerset, then onto here.

And there have been many blessings along the way. I do still feel very blessed to be here amongst you.

But the time of real growth were the darker times. Amongst the lowest points was a spell around two years ago when I started to suffer from stress and panic attacks. I had been working fairly hard, but really it felt like everything was falling apart and I was just making a mess of things. I can struggle with a potent mix of Protestant work ethic and Catholic guilt. Like a lot of ministers I do have a bit of a Messiah complex and do have to be reminded that there is a redeemer… and it’s not me.

However this was a time from which I emerged greatly changed. The day I broke down I happened to have a meeting with my then Spiritual Director. He encouraged me first a foremost for a few weeks to do absolutely nothing. But then he told me to start thinking of strategies which were going to help me not let this happen again.

My approaches to prayer were a big part of that. I started to explore Christian dimensions of mindfulness, to incorporate more silence into my prayer. Centering prayer, meditation, contemplative reading and silence became a much greater part of my prayer life, rather than words. Words still form an important part of my prayer life, however I make more time for listening.

I began to see the real power in noticing and naming emotions and feelings, noticing what makes me feel alive and what drains me. And amongst those things I was noticing were the things I needed to say no to. The slave driver who filled me with ‘performance angst’ and would great every success with ways it could have been better. The One before whom I was never ‘good enough.’ Instead I was offered the chance to say ‘yes’ to One who loved me regardless and whose mercy was wide enough to cover any wrong steps I take.

 

My story is one of the son who at first seemed to say no to being part of what God wanted, before later saying yes. And in part that was because of what had to die. What I had to say No! to. The God I was saying no to was the exclusive, judging God before whom I had to cower but one whose grace and mercy just grows wider than I can get my head around.

 

It’s been said God comes to us disguised as our life.

One of the key things I have learned about the spiritual life is that pretty much everything is spiritual. There is truth in all sorts of places just waiting to be unearthed. There is no aspect of life that God is not interested in, no part of life he cannot work through. And God is much bigger, wider, more inclusive than I can normally get my head around. I’ve not always found it easy to apply that mercy to myself, but it has got better. In part because of what I am learning to let go of. The God I am having to say no to, that I might say Yes to and encounter the real One, who wants to give me life.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: When III

parable-wheat-taresReading: Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43

Bob Newhart Stop it sketch

I first saw that video a minister’s conference when the presenter joking about pastoral encounters going a bit like that. Somebody comes to us saying they’re struggling with some sin temptation, addiction or destructive tendency, and we think just saying ‘stop it’ solves everything.

But if we’re really honest, we know it’s not always quite so easy as that. Some stuff in our lives is really deep-rooted. Some things have been part of our lives for so long that we don’t even realise they are affecting us. It’s just normal to us.

How many of you have had people say really hurtful words to you, or done something which hurt you, perhaps many years ago, perhaps even as far back as childhood, yet it still really affects how you feel about yourself and perhaps treat others? 

You might even know it’s not true. You’ve been told it often enough. But the longest journey sometimes can be the one between the head and heart. Between hearing something and truly receiving it. It would be great if you could just ‘stop it’ but uprooting it, allowing a new way of thinking to affect your life…

it’s possible…

…it’s desirable…

…it’s a good, healthy thing to do…

…but it can be a long process. Always be wary of anyone with the quick fix. It’s a narrow door, a narrow path…

…and frighteningly few find it.

If that is true of our lives, should we be surprised that the world is also like that. Yet many people treat God in much the same way as Bob Newhart’s doctor treats his patient. One of the most common faith questions people ask is if God is so powerful and so good and loving why is there so much evil and suffering in the world.

Why doesn’t God just ‘stop it?’

We’re continuing to consider different seasons or phases of the spiritual life. Each season is identified with one of the words on the screen. Recently we’ve been thinking of the season of When. It’s about those times when we struggle and things don’t get resolved neatly and quickly. When you pray and nothing seems to happen. God seems absent. When we find ourselves saying ‘how long, O Lord?’

Some of these words are harder than others. There are some seasons or phases we would prefer to find ourselves in. We might say knowing the presence and being aware of the blessings of God is preferable to, say, When.

However that doesn’t mean one season is better than another. Those in seasons of when are not necessarily less faithful than those who are on top of the world. The point is not somehow to get through the tougher words quickly to get to the good ones. God can encounter us in each of these seasons. God uses all of them to shape us into the people we were created to be.

But why should When be a season we experience?

Why doesn’t God just ‘stop it?’

In previous weeks I’ve not even tried to answer that. I’ve just let that question sit there. And there really is no complete answer. I’m not even going to claim to offer one.

But it does lie in the background of the parable Jesus told and explained in our reading this morning. A farmer sows some seed in a field, but in the middle of the night someone comes and sows other, ‘bad seed’ amongst the crop. Both crops start to grow, but over time it becomes apparent that not everything growing in the field is the wheat the sower wanted. The servants ask their master if he wants them to uproot the bad plants, but the master tells them to wait. It might damage the good plants. Leave it to harvest time, then you can do it properly.

In one sense it seems a strange story. Someone comes in and sows weeds. We might think ‘if only weeds were something you had to plant.’ 

But actually it’s not as odd a story as we might think. This is just not any sort of weed, like the dandelions that grow on my lawn, or even like the scilla plants I go to war with every spring and summer in the stones at the front of the house.

The weed talked about in the passage is called darnel. Sowing darnel in a wheat field was actually a thing. As an act revenge, it was a crime punishable under Roman law. The fact that they made a law about it suggests it was not that rare.

Darnel could be used as chicken feed, but was inedible for people. It could make them very ill. As it grew, it initially looked like wheat. Only later, as the plant matured and the heads began to form, did it become obvious that it was not wheat. But the problem was that as they grew the roots of the darnel were deeper and got tangled up with the wheat. If you tried to rip up one, you would also rip up the other. For the most part the people listening to Jesus held small plots of land and were grateful for any wheat it produced. You didn’t waste it.

But if you left it til harvest time separation was possible. It was slow and laborious certainly, but you could do it. So Jesus’ sower’s instruction would have made sense.

Jesus often taught people was through stories we call parables. He would start by saying ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’ and then he would launch into a story. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven he was talking about the way God works in the world. He says ‘the way God works in the world is like this…’

Stories can be a good way of helping people understand something. For one thing, stories stick in the memory more easily than concepts or straightforward facts.

But it’s a risky strategy. Most of Jesus’ stories didn’t include much detail. He didn’t tell us why God’s rule was like landowners hiring workers or a pearl merchant shopping in a market. Jesus makes us work it out for ourselves.

We might think we are hearing the same stories and think we understand them in the same way as each other or in the same way as Galileean Jews, but how we understand them varies according to who we are, where we come from, and the ideas we take into the story.

Maybe that should be less of a problem with today’s parable than others. In the second half of our reading Jesus spelt out what he meant.

The person who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, or Jesus himself.

The field is the world.

The good seed are the children of the Kingdom. We might call them Christians.

The enemy is the devil

The weeds are children of the devil. We might call them sinners.

The harvest is the end of the age or judgement day

The reapers are angels.

So, we might conclude, this is a story about how in the world there are those whose father is God and those whose father is the devil. They exist side by side for now but when judgement day comes one lot will burn and the others will rejoice.

But it’s not that simple. That interpretation or more accurately that interpretation of Jesus’ interpretation, doesn’t work.

When we hear phrases like ‘Sons of the Kingdom’ or ‘Sons of the Evil One’ we probably tend to think of parentage. I’m Samuel and Lila’s son, not John and Jean’s or Ruth and Kerry’s.

First century Jews used that expression to describe what people were like. In the Gospels James and John were called ‘Sons of Thunder’. They were stormy, tempestuous guys. In Acts, Barnabas is nicknamed ‘Son of Encouragement.’ Always getting alongside people, building them up.

So, when people are described as Sons of the Kingdom or Sons of the devil, Jesus isn’t really talking about people whose father is God or the devil, but those who act in ways which display God’s rule and those who act in ways that don’t.

This makes things a little more complicated. It would be great if it were so neat. If Christians were always wonderful people and non-Christians horrible, nasty people.

People have always tried to identify who are good guys, who are the bad. Who are the wheat, who are the weeds?

The trouble is, if we’re honest, we’re a mix of good and bad. Some parts of our lives are in tune with God and what he wants for us. Other parts, erm, well…

…let’s say we’re all ‘works in progress.’

 

One big problem is that the interpretation completely ignores the central chunk of the story: the conversation between the householder and the servant. That needs to be taken seriously because it’s a major part of the story people heard. Most of Jesus’ audience didn’t hear the interpretation. They only heard what we read the first half of this morning’s reading.

They were told that when God rules it’s like someone sowing wheat in a field, only for an enemy to plant darnel which sprouted alongside the wheat. The householder knows full well what caused the weeds. His servants wanted to uproot the weeds straight away, but the master tells them to leave it. Ripping up the weeds could damage the wheat. Leave it til harvest time when we can separate them out properly.

We’re not told whether the servants did as they were told. We don’t know whether there was a good crop. We don’t even know if they ever did separate out the wheat and darnel.

So what were those with ears to hear in the crowd supposed to listen to?

What were they expected to hear?

In one sense this was a story of an occurrence on a piece of land. Those listening could look around and see wheat fields.

But there was another level to the story. The land, and what happened on it, had a great significance for the Jewish people. It was their most priceless possession, given by God when they were released from slavery. They belonged to it as much as it belonged to them.

The land came attached to promises. In Genesis one of the results of the fall is that the land will bear fruit only through hard toil, against weeds thorns and thistles. As Israel entered the Promised Land they were told that obedience to God would mean abundant harvests from the land. If they slid into idolatry and immorality and didn’t remember that the land was a gift from God, they’d have all sorts of problems; from being ravaged by enemies, to drought, locusts…

…and weeds

 

Jesus actively encourages people to look at this story on that second level. He didn’t just tell a story of something that happened on the land. He started by telling them ‘this is what God’s rule looks like.’

But what did this say about their relationship with God?

What would it have told them?

This was a people in a season of When. They were dominated by people who really didn’t care about their God. Mostly Romans and wealthy collaborators. They held most of the land. Ordinary people had tiny scraps of land and tried to eke out a living. They had to work really hard, and get lucky to get a decent harvest.

And they wondered how, if they were God’s chosen people why their enemies dominated them as they did?

Why didn’t God do something about it?

If God was so powerful why doesn’t he just stop it?

Did he not care?

When would be come to the rescue?

 

That’s a thought with which I am sure, at times, most of us can be sympathetic.

When we turn on the television, watch the news, what demands our attention?

Is it not dominated by bad news?

We can ask why does God stand back and allow some to cause such suffering for others?

Why does he not do something about such evil?

Why does he not stop it?

Why does he not root out or strike down those who commit such things?

Even in our own lives, what commands our attention?

Is it those areas where God’s grace is in operation?

Or is it our struggles against adverse circumstances, and fights against illnesses in mind, body and spirit?

And we ask, why doesn’t God just make it stop?

If God really cares when will he do something about it?

 

So what is Jesus encouraging them to see?

 

I think there are two things.

The first is that God knows what he is doing. We don’t like to wait. We want action and we want it now. If we had our way that’s what we would do.

But what would we destroy in the process?

What good would be undone?

We can be very selective about what kind of evil we want God to deal with. It’s the big stuff. Not our own stuff. Out stuff is trivial compared with that. But none of us is an island. We’re all more entangled than we realise.

And we might not pick out all the weeds. We think we have perfect vision, but that’s a big assumption and one that history has consistently proved wrong. We think we’re sorting one problem and all the while we’re creating another.

Until it had fully grown it wasn’t easy to tell the weeds from the darnel. Just because something seems good doesn’t mean it won’t ultimately be destructive. It’s the landowner who knows the wisest course of action.

Cast your mind back a few weeks, if you were here the week I spoke about Abraham praying for Sodom. What kind of God did Abraham encounter? In Abraham’s prayer we see a God who’s longing to protect the good, outweighs his desire to destroy the bad.

Is Jesus saying that evil doesn’t really matter?

No. It’s a picture of a God who takes evil seriously. Far more seriously than we do. Far more seriously than we’d like him to.

Is it just pie in the sky when you die? Does Jesus say God just leaves absolutely everything until the last day?

No. But it does contain the promise that one day it will be dealt with. That’s why faced with the problem of evil in our world the Biblical response is not just ‘why’ but ‘how long?’ The When question has an answer, even if we can’t see it.

 

But there is another point. Evil might be real. But it’s time is limited. It’s fate is sealed.

And it’s power is limited.

Even if the parable assumes there will be weeds, it also assumes that even in land dominated by weeds, there will be a harvest! Blessing will come.

At times we can live in a season of When. Following Jesus doesn’t mean we avoid times when life feels dark, difficult, and evil seems to thrive.

But if we look there are also signs that God is at work. It can be very easy not to notice, because the dark side of life screams for attention. That’s why it is good to take time to name things for which we are grateful.

The darnel can grow but it can’t stop wheat springing up. God’s promises and blessing are coming to fruition.

Is Jesus offering a complete picture of why bad things happen to good people?

No

Is Jesus saying that God or the landowner wants the weeds in place?

No.

 

The cross convinces me that God can bring good out of anything. It doesn’t mean he wants it and it doesn’t make evil or suffering a good thing in its own right.

There will be a right time when all the causes and sources of sin to be uprooted, separated out and destroyed forever – but God has the wisdom to do what’s ultimately right in the right time. God’s way of working might seem so slow, so laborious.

But God is more keen to preserve the good than destroy the wicked. And we should be thankful for that.

We have a God and a Gospel which takes sin and the brokenness resulting from the fall seriously. God hasn’t forgotten you. Yes, the troubles of this life remain. They’re still there. We might long for them to be gone. We might call out When? How Long?

But the one in whom we place our trust knows what he’s doing. In him lies the wisdom to deal with it when the time is right.

But even now, as we wait for the answer to the questions of When, if we dare, the signs of God’s blessing and provision may be seen breaking through. By faith, may we be able to see them.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: When II

Keeping-Faith-in-tough-times

Reading: Hebrews 11: 8-16, 32-40

If you’ve watched the news recently, you might have noticed the controversy surrounding advertising for recruits for the British Army. First the army decided to drop it’s Be the Best slogan, because market research had suggested it was considered ‘dated, elitist and non-inclusive.’ However these plans were halted by the Defence Secretary.

New adverts have focussed on the idea of ‘belonging’ and highlight aspects like emotional and physical support for new recruits. All the adverts are voiced by serving soldiers, with questions like…

  • What if I get emotional?
  • Can I practice my faith?
  • Can I be gay in the army?
  • Will I be listened to?
  • Do I have to be a superhero to join the army?

It hasn’t been entirely favourably received. A former commander of forces in Afghanistan said it was neglecting the main group of people who might be interested in joining the army. He claimed they aren’t worrying about whether they are going to be listened to or if there’s an emotional issue. They are worried about how they will face combat. In fact, they’ll be attracted by images of combat because that’s why people join in the first place.

I have no idea whether he’s right. He’d know more than me. But I found myself thinking about those ads, especially that last question, as I approached today’s reading from Hebrews.

For several months we’ve been considering different seasons or phases in the life of faith, and each phase has been linked with one of the words on the screen. A couple of weeks ago we started on a new word… When.

There are times when the life of faith is hard, when keeping on believing can be a struggle. You may be blessed with seasons of closeness, wonder and thankfulness, as we talked about in the first three words. There may also be times when that closeness makes you aware of your own need to change, your own need for help and hopefully it fills you with compassion for others, like the second three words.

 

When is more about those times when things aren’t neatly resolved. When, in fact nothing seems to happen. If anything things get worse rather than better.

They don’t get healed.

That relationship doesn’t improve.

Those times when God seems absent, or your prayers don’t seem to get past the ceiling, if you can pray at all. Those times when, if anything, believing and being faithful makes things harder rather than easier.

Those are times when church might feel difficult. When you find yourself wondering ‘do I really belong here?’ You might wonder if you have to be some kind of superhero to live the life of faith.

In one sense you might think a passage about people like Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samson, David and the like suggests the answer would be yes.

But the point of the passage we shared together is the opposite. It’s there to tell those in the season of When that yes, you do belong.

Hebrews was written to Jewish followers of Jesus who were in a season of When. They faced persecution on two fronts. From the Romans and from their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Hebrews was probably written around 63, 64 AD. This is before the Jewish war, in which Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Relations were never that good between the Jews and the Romans. The Romans just didn’t understand them, with their one god whom they couldn’t see. But they respected their history. They’d been around a long time and survived. They had heritage. And Romans loved a bit of heritage. So, on the whole, provided the Jews weren’t giving them any trouble, the Romans just let them get on with it.

 

Christians were different in one very significant way. They revered, even worshipped Jesus. Jesus was a man who in relatively recent history had been crucified. Crucifixion wasn’t something which just happened to anyone. It was reserved for slaves and for the worst type of criminals.

If you want to get a sense of how shocking this was for Romans, imagine what would happen if a British Muslim described Saddam Hussain or Osama Bin Laden as a hero.

From the perspective of a Roman, it would have been pretty much the same thing to even revere Jesus. That’s why it’s really important that our Gospels, at the cross, as Jesus dies, include the detail of someone declaring he was innocent, or that he was the son of God… and who says it?

A Roman centurion.

But Christians didn’t just revere Jesus. They greeted one another with the affirmation Jesus is Lord

…which was a title Romans reserved for Caesar and Caesar alone.

They said things like there is no other name under heaven, given amongst men, which can save us. Which, again, is what Romans said about Caesar.

So you can see why Romans were suspicious about Jesus. What about the Jews? Well, at this stage most followers of Jesus were still probably Jews. Christianity was seen as a branch of Judaism, certainly from a Roman point of view. Jesus himself was a Jew.

Rome didn’t have time for what they saw as an internal squabble in a religion in one tiny corner of their empire. So they started becoming stricter with Jews. So official Judaism sought to create distance between themselves and the Christians. It would eventually lead to Christians being forced out of synagogue communities. Families would be forced to cut ties with them.

The result was that these Christians struggled to keep the faith. They faced all this opposition, and no relief seemed to come. If anything things got worse. They were humiliated, cut off from communities, some of them put in prison, others killed. They were discouraged and demoralised. Many just gave up. It wasn’t worth it. Surely if God was with them, they wouldn’t have to go face all this.

Hebrews was written to a bunch of people in the season of When and one of it’s key themes is ‘hold on.’ Yes, a life of faith could be hard. But far from that being a sign that God had forgotten them, or that somehow they didn’t belong, this was normal! This is what the life of faith looks like.

But, even more importantly, through it all, God is faithful.

Even when it looks messed up.

And even when we get it wrong.

Hebrews 11 offers a broad sweep of the story of much of our Old Testament period, with a few hints at the period between Malachi and Matthew. The thread running through it is ‘this is what the life of faith looks like.’

There’s an old story about a girl in a Sunday School class who was asked what faith meant. She said ‘faith is believing things you know aren’t true.’

Whoever wrote Hebrews certainly didn’t think that. At the start of Hebrews 11 we read ‘Faith is being sure of things we hope for and assured of things we cannot see.’

 

We live in a world where people will often say seeing is believing. That you should only ever believe in something for which you have hard evidence. Stuff that can be measured, proven, seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted.

Thing is, no-one truly lives like that. We act by faith in things we cannot prove all the time.

I cannot prove Julie loves me. Nor can she prove that I love her. Yes, we can look back at things the other has said or done, but it can’t be proven. But our belief in the other’s love affects pretty much every aspect of our lives and most of the choices we make.

 

And that’s important for understanding what’s being said in this morning’s reading. The Christian faith is sometimes portrayed in terms of what we believe. It’s a set of ideas we say we agree with, maybe put in the form of a creed or a statement of faith. When people teach the Christian faith they will often talk about things like who Jesus was, why did Jesus go to the cross, did Jesus rise from the dead, is there a God even.

Those things are good and important, but it’s not the kind of faith Hebrews 11 talks about. Hebrews 11 is about how we act. How our faith affects the choices we make.

 

There are 3 aspects to the kind of faith Hebrews speaks of.

There is risk or uncertainty. It’s about believing in stuff you are hoping for, but don’t yet have, in things that are not obvious. Right through Hebrews 11, people are believing in a promise that has not yet been fulfilled. That’s a point both halves of the reading made.

A promise had been made, but they hadn’t received it yet.

 

But it’s not just blind faith. Scripture does not see credulity as a virtue. It is based on something. The assurance is based not on themselves or what they thought they could achieve. It was based on the God who had made the promise and who was capable of delivering what he had said.

And, just as I would be able to point you to things Julie has said and done which gives me ground to believe she loves me, so Hebrews would tell us to remember the times of blessing, of answered prayer, of closeness to God, of help he’s given, of things for which we are thankful.

It’s something I keep coming back to, cos it’s important. It takes that little bit more effort to spot and notice the good things in life. We can drift mindlessly through them. They don’t force us to stop.

But if we’re not careful, all we’ll really remember is the tough times. The bad stuff. Which is far easier to spot. It screams at us for attention in a way the good stuff in our lives doesn’t.

Knowing what God has done in the past can provide grounds for trusting in what he will do in the future. It can offer us the assurance we need whilst we wait for the promises to be fulfilled and enable us to live in the present, trusting in that future. That’s part of what is going on in Hebrews. Yes, Hebrews would want us to remember the good things in our own lives. But in Hebrews 11we’re reminded that we’re part of a bigger story, of people who have kept the faith and hung on in the past.

But there is a third thing besides uncertainty and assurance. There is waiting. There is the waiting between the promise and fulfilment. Those times when things don’t get resolved neatly, those times when as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we’re crying out ‘how long, O Lord.’ Those times when we feel forgotten and nothing seems to be happening.

And that might be the most substantial part of the life of faith. Yes there are times of decision. Yes there are times of achievement.

But there is also a lot of waiting.

 

Hebrews 11 would tell us all three of these things are part of the life of faith.

There are good moments. There are times when, ok, maybe looking back, but it becomes clear God was at work. We see plenty of these in the verses 32-35. He drops names of people, most of whom faced impossible odds to achieve great things. People like David, Gideon, Samson. Others he hints at.

Is it Joseph who administered kingdoms or rose to positions of power.? Maybe it’s Daniel. Perhaps it’s Esther.

He’s probably thinking of Daniel when he talks about stopping the mouths of lions

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego facing the fiery furnace.

Both Elijah and Elisha raised boys back from the dead. That’s probably what Hebrews refers to in verse 35.

But if we left it there we would not be telling the full story. And Hebrews 11 doesn’t end there. For then there were the others. Tortured, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two. Zechariah was stoned. If tradition is correct, Isaiah was sawn in two, Jeremiah was imprisoned…

This is the story we step into. Highs and lows. We may not, I pray we never do, face what so many of the others faced. There is no sense that these were any less faithful than those in the previous section. There was risk and uncertainty, there were highs and lows, there were times when the story seemed to be on track, and times when it looked like it was all over.

But all of them lived in the season of When.

None of them fully received what God had planned and promised. God wasn’t finished with any of them yet.

 

And something else was true. None of them were prefect. Some were better than others. But at some point they all messed up. They didn’t have to ‘be the best’ At their best they could be very good. But they were still a mix of good and bad.

 

All that was true of Abraham, who is the prime example of the man who lived by faith. The story of Abraham and Sarah can be summed up in a sentence.

A couple wait for a child.

And they wait a long time. For the most part it’s a When story.

Along the way Abraham receives a number of promises, which form the backbone of the Old Testament story. There is the promise of land, that he will become a great nation and that he will be blessed.

But the promises are slow to be fulfilled. Some 20, 25 years between the promise of a child and the birth of Isaac. Even then it seems completely lost when Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac, but is stopped in the process by God.

His story even ends in the period of When. In some senses it seems farther from fulfilment than at the start.

The aftermath of the story of Abraham and Isaac is somewhat tragic. Perhaps understandably so, but still tragic.

In Genesis 22, Abraham almost sacrifices Issac. In the very next chapter we read that Abraham wife Sarah dies in Hebron. Some rabbis connected those two events. Not entirely unreasonable.

But Abraham goes to mourn her. Where is Abraham? Well, after the binding of Isaac he settles in Beersheba. Sarah is at Hebron. At the time of Sarah’s death, they’re living 30 miles apart.

And what about Isaac? Well, in the next chapter Abraham asks his servant to find a wife for Isaac. Not Isaac. When he finds Isaac a wife he goes to Beer-lahoi-roi. Which is where Isaac is living Even further South.

 

This is a family fragmenting. They are to be a blessing to the whole earth, yet they are find it hard to bless one another. To even live in the same place. It’s a story where the tensions are unresolved.

It’s a story which begins with a promise of land, nation and blessing. But at the end of Genesis, several generations later, there is little sign of a nation and they’re not even in the right country.

It’s a story of the faith journey, but it’s also a story of when. There’s a promise, but it’s not yet fulfilled.

It’s a story with it’s highs and lows. It’s a story of risk. It’s a story of belief often against seemingly impossible odds, which seem to get longer, rather than shorter over time.

And it’s a story that involves a lot of waiting.

It’s a story where there are decisions made. It’s a story where things are achieved. But there are long stretches where nothing seems to be happening. It’s a When story, stretching between promise and fulfilment.

That’s the story of the life of faith. There is no sense that they see the big picture of what God plans for them. They just take the next decision in front of them, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong. That’s what the life of faith looks like. Not having it all mapped out. Just taking the next decision.

 

It has its highs and lows, it’s not easy. In Baptist circles we’re not fans of ‘saints’ as such, so I’ll say one of my favourite ‘historic Christians’ is Teresa of Avila. She was a nun who lived in the 16th century. She’s probably best known for that poem about Christ has no body but ours.

But my favourite story about her is the one where she was complaining to God about the struggles in her life. God said to her ‘this is how I treat all my friends’ to which Teresa responded ‘well, it’s no wonder you have so few then!’

The life of faith isn’t easy. But it’s not just for superheroes. All of the characters in these pages were flawed and messed up. Most of what God achieved through them was as much despite rather than because of them. But God was not ashamed of them, not because of what they achieved, but simply because they hung on and didn’t give up in the when seasons.

And the same is true for us. There are times when faith is difficult. When it involves risk and uncertainty. There will be times when we find ourselves in the When season. We will live in the tension between the promise and fulfilment. Thing’s won’t always be resolved quickly, or even as we hoped. And there will be times when we mess up and get it wrong.

But the same God who was faithful to them, will ultimately be faithful to us. He’s the God who brought creation out of chaos, and who is bringing forth new creation out of the seeming chaos we can find ourselves in. He’s the God who has expressed his commitment to us in Jesus, who went all the way to the cross for us, who trusted in God and to whom God proved faithful when he raised him from the dead.

We don’t yet have all that he has promised and we can’t always see how he is going to get there. The journey isn’t always easy, but as Adrian Plass says somewhere ‘he never promised us it would be easy. He just promised it would be worth it.’ God will finish what he has started.

There will be times when, in the journey of faith, we don’t know what the future holds. But much more important is to know who holds the future.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: When

when

Reading: Psalm 13

Tomorrow is an extremely important day. It’s not a religious festival, and we won’t get a bank holiday for it, although that might actually be a good thing. Can anyone tell me what it is?

Tomorrow is called Blue Monday.

Does anyone know what Blue Monday is?

It’s the name given to the most depressing day of the year. It normally falls on the 3rd of 4th Monday in January.

 

It’s a relatively new thing. It was first publicised in 2005 in an article by a travel company, who may have just wanted us to book holidays to cheer ourselves up. They even claim to have a formula for calculating it…

[(W + (D-d)) x TQM /(Mx NA)

W is the weather;

D is how much debt we’re in;

d is our monthly income;

T is the time since Christmas;

Q is the length of time since we failed to keep our new year’s resolutions;

M is our low motivational levels and

NA is our sense of needing to take some form of action.

Blue Monday is apparently when, as a nation, we apparently hit the bottom.

 

You might wonder if we have a most miserable day of the year, do we have a happiest one? For we British that’s not a given. We like a good moan. But yes, we do have a happiest day.

This year it will be Saturday July 14th.

The formula might look quite impressive, but it’s fairly meaningless. But that won’t stop you reading about it in the papers or hearing it on the radio tomorrow. I mention it in case you wake up tomorrow feeling fed up and think it must have something to do with being at church this morning. Particularly when you’re considering a passage like Psalm 13!

But the idea that there might be such a thing as Blue Monday, and that it would be around this time of year, probably feels like it makes sense. January can feel a miserable kind of month. The fun of Christmas and the colour of the Christmas lights have vanished. The weather is miserable, we may have spent more at Christmas than we wanted to, so we’re a bit short of cash, and holidays seem a long way off. It’s like there’s not a lot to look forward to.

In the manse we normally keep our tree up to Twelfth Night, partly cos I like to get my money’s worth out of the real tree and partly cos I think it all looks so drab when it’s all gone. A few years ago I discovered the Anglican tradition that Christmas season lasts to 2nd February, or Candlemas, when they remember Jesus being taken to the temple and being blessed by Simeon. That’s my excuse for defiantly keeping the two little trees outside our house lit at night until then.

I had a couple of conversations this week, one with another minister where we were talking about it being a grey, miserable time of year. Then in the other, bless the woman who said this, she’d noticed the days were getting that little bit longer. A much more positive view.

Some people like winter. I’m not saying there’s nothing good about winter. But the garden’s look dead, the trees are bare, it’s cold, it can feel like a ‘how long til spring?’

Those first snowdrops can be such a welcome sign.

There is life out there after all.

Its that ‘how long’ question we turn to this morning.

 

We’ve been looking at different stages or phases of the spiritual life by considering the 12 words in the circles on the screen. We’re starting the 7th word this morning. When?

But with this word, and the next couple it’s like we enter a whole new season.

We might liken the first three words to the summer. It’s a time of enjoying the warmth of our faith. With Here we sense God’s presence, with O we are praising him, with Thanks we are aware of blessings that God has brought to our lives.

With the next three words we enter an autumnal season. It not all plain sailing. There is still warmth, but we enter phases of struggle. Colder winds sneak in. We recognise our own frailty, our own capacity to get stuff wrong and mess up. Confession is a healthy part of the spiritual life and we thought about that with Sorry. We recognise we are very human, we have our struggles and turn to God for Help! We look around us and are moved with compassion when we see the struggles of others. That’s what we thought about with Please.

 

But sometimes things don’t resolve themselves. Things seem to spin out of control with no prospect of being fixed anytime soon. We pray but nothing seems to happen. We talked a bit about this last week.

So we recognise our faults and failings, we acknowledge them, name them before God, confess them, but they overwhelm us. Knowing forgiveness is good, but we need more. We want to stop doing wrong, to change for the better. But we make the same mistakes again and again.

Or we face the struggles of life, and no wisdom for dealing with them seems to come. Our self-control starts to wither, our endurance grows weaker and hope is fading.

Or we pray for others, but the situation doesn’t improve.

The war steps up another notch.

The mission agency suffers another flood or earthquake.

The friend gets bad news from the hospital.

That family member refuses to listen to reason and keeps making those disastrous choices.

 

Maybe you feel like the disciples did in that boat, in the episode where they are on the water, a storm blows up, they’re terrified…

…and Jesus is fast asleep.

But the difference is, you can’t just wake him up to calm everything down. You can feel like you’re going under. You’re calling out ‘how long, O Lord.’

If I follow the season analogy, it might feel like a season of winter, and you’re just longing for signs of life.

Perhaps you’ve never been there.

Perhaps you think we never should be. Last week we looked at a whole load of ideas behind prayer which seems unanswered. Maybe, thus far, those have worked for you.

Or maybe you have been there.

Maybe you are there.

It’s not just a Blue Monday. It’s been a lot longer than that.

Maybe you have known summer seasons when you have experienced the goodness and closeness of God. Perhaps you have autumns when you became aware of your need for forgiveness, help, and have prayed fervently for others.

But now God seems far off. You feel prayers, when you can pray, are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back. And that season can feel prolonged. Perhaps you wonder how long it will last.

Forever?

What if that sense of God’s presence never returns?

What if the strong faith I once knew doesn’t come back?

Church can be a hard place to feel that way. Our songs mostly focus on praise and how good God is. For all sorts of reasons we don’t do much in the way of lament. Maybe when something terrible happens which shocks the whole church or community. But not week to week.

If you look at the back of Baptist Praise and Worship, where they have responsive Psalms, Psalm 13 isn’t there. In others, certain parts of the psalms are glossed over, and it’s not ususally the ‘hallelujah, praise the Lord’ bits. I’m not knocking that book. I doubt other books are much different.

It can feel quite lonely when you’re struggling. You might even feel a bit guilty about it.

Do I belong here?

If I really believed, would I feel this way?

What would everyone else think if they knew I felt this way?

Well this morning I don’t plan to unpack any nice easy answers. To a large extent I am just letting the question sit there.

But I do want to let those who are there know that yes, you do belong. The season of ‘when’ or ‘how long’ is every bit as much part of the spiritual life as the happier times of Sorry, Help and Please and even Here, O and Thanks.

All of the spiritual life can be found in the book of Psalms. And the season of ‘when’ or ‘how long’ is one of the most prominent. I did a quick Bible Gateway search on the phrase ‘how long’ and it occurs in now fewer than 13 different Psalms.

A few of those are God speaking to us. God is asking how long are you going to ignore me and do wrong? You know the right thing to do, so when are you going to do it. How long are you going to mistreat the poor or whatever.

But far more common it is the psalmist asking God ‘how long?’ ‘When are you going to act.’ ‘Do you now know what’s going on? Do you not care? How long are you going to wait to sort it?’

Four times in the opening couple of verses of Psalm 13 we read those words ‘how long?’

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Psalm 13 is historically linked with David, who, for all his faults, was considered ‘a man after God’s own heart.’ Yet David has that experience where, just when he needs him, God seems distant. His prayers don’t get answered, God seems unresponsive.

There are occasions in the Psalms when he admits he feels far from God and that it’s his fault. Psalm 51 for example is traditionally linked with his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba, in which she gets pregnant, David fails to cover his tracks, organises for her husband to be killed.

In the Psalm he senses his distance from God. He says ‘don’t cast me from your presence.’ But in that case he knows he has drifted from God.

 

That’s not the case here. We’re not told the precise circumstances here. Some think it was a serious illness, other think it was at a time when people were plotting against him, but we can’t be sure. Perhaps that’s no bad thing. If it were to specific we might wonder if this can possible apply to me. This way we might be able to identify with it.

But whatever it is, no reason is given why God seems distant. It just feels that way. Psalm 13 suggests that even the most loyal God-fearer may despair over God’s apparent failure to pleas for help.

He’s begged for help and no help comes. It’s like God is looking the other way when he calls out to him. It’s playing on his mind. He feels stuck, he can’t move. Every waking thought is burdened with his pain and his sorrow.

You might have been there. You’re looking for a job, healing, a resolution to a problem and you’re thinking ‘LORD, how long?

Have I not been faithful God?

Have I not trusted you?

Where are you?’

There’s something very human about where his mind goes next.

What if others knew?

What would they think?

In the case of someone like David you don’t get where he was without having enemies. You certainly don’t stay there. He’s thinking they’d love it if they knew what I was going through.

We might not find ourselves thinking quite the same things, but we might think something similar. What will others think?

We might fear that people are going to point the finger at us and judge us.

We might fear that people will think less of us.

That might be true, or it might just be in our heads. Trouble can leave us feeling isolated.

A couple of years ago this week when I went down with stress. My first instinct was not so much to cover it up, but play it down. Very quickly, for all sorts of reasons, not least what signal was I sending to other people who suffered in similar ways, I chose not to. And I don’t regret that.

To be honest, looking back, I was blessed at how loving, caring, understanding people were. I was blessed by a mix of the best wife, medication, a great therapist, a wise spiritual director, and really supportive church and my own will to get better God helped me and I emerged stronger for it.

But my first instinct was that I didn’t want others to know.

What would people think?

Would they start thinking ‘he can’t handle it!’

Would they think ‘surely if he trusted God he wouldn’t have these problems?’

Would they think less of me?

Would they think they couldn’t approach me?

In the wintry season of ‘when’ God can feel distant, but our thoughts can also leave us isolated from other people. We long for change, but nothing seems to happen. Our prayers feel like unheard and we’re calling out ‘How long, O LORD. How long? Tell me this won’t go on forever.

 

Look at me and answer he says. Lighten my eyes. Give me some direction, help me to see some way through this. Maybe even just grant me a glimmer of hope.

In the wintry season there are just those moments when signs of new life begin to break through. The first green shoots start to emerge and suggest more is going on beneath the soil than we realise.

 

But they can be hard to see. Sometimes we have to really look for them. During the week when I was in my ‘oh, it’s grey, it’s miserable’ frame of mind, someone else was able to spot the fact that it is getting dark that little bit later. Despite appearances, the promise of a change of season, even on that is some way off still stands.

 

I’d love to tell you you’re never going to go through a season like this. But I suspect if you follow Jesus for long enough, you probably will, at least once.

Sometimes we don’t get to go round the obstacles in life. Sometimes we have to go through them. Growing towards maturity in anything in life involves facing the struggles, not bypassing them.

And the when seasons will change you.

You may emerge stronger.

You may carry the scars.

But in the meantime what are we to do?

How do we live?

Firstly, don’t hide from it. Don’t be frightened to bring it to God. The former Conservative politician, Jonathan Aitken who found faith after being imprisoned for perjury, once spoke of treating God like a bank manager. By this he meant he was polite to God, but he was basically in control of everything.

Some of us treat God as a bank manager, in a slightly different way. We think we have to go to God and be all proper and polite, however we feel. The big danger in that is that we don’t approach God in the struggle.

The truth is, God can handle it when we’re in the when or how long season if we’re honest with him. As we said last week, God wants our honesty. One of my favourite images is from Adrian Plass where he talks of a child on her father’s knee, crying and hammering the father’s chest until she falls asleep and the father simply enfolding her in love.

God is that kind of father. He can handle us arguing with him. In fact he gives us scriptures then invites us to use these words to help us express our struggle. It’s considered sacred every bit as much as the Praise the Lord bits.

If we don’t find healthy ways to express the pressure that builds inside, it will eat away at us and emerge in more destructive ways.

But we do have the choice of whether we will trust him. The choice of whether David will trust God is not with those who would take delight at his falling. It’s with him.

It might not look the faith of the Here, O and Thanks days or even like the trust we had in the Sorry, Help and Please days.

In the when season, Hanging on, keeping praying, keeping saying ‘how long’, keeping the longing alive and refusing to go away, those are marks of faith.

 

There is something defiant about the words of the Psalm I will trust in your unfailing love. I will sing.

In her book The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy Rachel Joyce describes an encounter with a dying woman and a nun in a hospice. The nuns asks her to look out the window and she says ‘what do you see?’

I see clouds, said Queenie. Grey ones. This is England what do you expect?

But you also see sky, said the nun

Well, yes.

And sun.

I do?

The sun and the sky are always there. It’s the clouds that come and go.

In the ‘when’ season, we have to learn to trust the turning of the seasons. Just as the first glimpse of daffodil or blossom signals that summer will come around again, we have to trust that the answer will come.

It might not be soon.

It might not look like we expected.

We might need eyes of faith to see it.

But it will come.

The clouds will come and go. But God is there whether we can see him or not.

 

I will trust in your unfailing love.

You might remember that word. Although it was way last year I talked about it.

Hesed

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

You might draw on past experience of times when you have been aware of God. The psalm says ‘you have been good to me.’ Back when we looked at that word hesed, I was talking about the importance of memory. Noticing and remembering when God has been with us and looked after us.

Because there will be times when we struggle to keep going. When we think he’s forgotten us. But he is still the same God who was with us then and he will bring us through.

We are in a better position than the writer of Psalm 13 in that we live after Jesus. We have a fuller expression of God’s full commitment to us in Jesus.

Through Jesus we are reminded that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We may go through the when seasons. They may be prolonged. And they will change us.

But they need not get to speak the final word.

So, in the when season, we may find that defiant trust that the God who was prepared to enter our world in Christ, who was prepared to go to the cross for us, ultimately won’t let us down.

Right now he might feel hidden. It might feel like he is turning his face from us, but he has shown his goodness to us, and will do so again. If we hang in there. Keep praying ‘how long.’

It may feel like we’re plodding, and getting nowhere. But don’t underestimate that. I came across a book last year by an explorer called Erling Kagge. It’s called Silence in an Age of Noise. He says the secret of walking to the South Pole is to put one foot in front of the other. On a purely technical scale this is quite simple. Even a mouse can eat an elephant if it takes enough bite. The challenge lies in the desire. The biggest challenge is to get up.

Keep plodding. Keep praying how long. Defiantly refuse to let go. In the seasons of when those will be the signs you belong.

We might emerge from the season of when scarred and changed, but if we keep going, the seasons will turn around.

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Please 3

loving worldAbout 10 years ago a group called the John Templeton Foundation conducted a study on the question of whether praying for someone makes any difference. It was based around patients in the cardiac ward of a particular hospital.  They got a group of people, all of whom believed in a God who cared about people and answered prayer. They were all committed members of worshipping communities. They agreed to pray for some of the patients. When they arrived in the ward, patients were put into 1 of 3 groups.

One group was prayed for and knew they were being prayed for. (Their first name was given to the pray-ers).

One group was prayed for but didn’t know.

The final group was not prayed for.

They wanted to see if the outcomes were better for any group.

The results were interesting. Overall there was no significant difference between the outcome of the groups. But if anything those who were prayed for fared worse than those who weren’t.

Especially in the group who knew!

That’s not the first time this has happened. A study about 20 years ago did something similar with recovering alcoholics and got the same result. Those who were prayed for fared worse than those who weren’t. Before you think I’m about to tell you to stop praying cos you’re doing more harm than good, other studies have shown small benefits in ‘prayed for groups.’

 

There are all sorts of problems with the research. How do you know someone in the ‘not prayed for’ group wasn’t being prayed for? It’s not like the only people who could possibly pray for patients were those involved in the study. Someone might be part of a megachurch holding a round-the-clock vigil.

How much account was taken of the severity of the patient’s condition or their general health?

On a more theological point, what does it say about God that he should choose to help people because they were randomly assigned to a particular group by a bunch of academics?

Really all such experiments show is that prayer is hard to analyse and understand. And you probably don’t need a PhD and $5m in research funds to work that out.

 

I’m continuing our time in the phases or seasons in the Spiritual life, where we have assigned each season one of the words on the screen. Our current word, which I want to wrap up today is Please.

Please is about when your faith causes you to care for and pray for others. It’s what Christians call ‘intercession.’ The word means to stand between two parties. It might be big international news, local or national issues, mission organisations or friends, loved ones and even, in the case of one of the readings today, enemies.

 Please is about making their needs and concerns your needs and concerns. It’s about bringing them to God, and, as we saw a couple of weeks ago it might involve bringing God to them. Putting flesh on your prayers.

 

When we pray we claim we are believing two things.

  • God cares
  • And so do we.

If we didn’t care we probably wouldn’t pray. If God didn’t care there would be no point.

 

Pretty much every faith will have some sort of prayer. I imagine most people of faith would say that prayer is important. They might have different reasons why but it is important.

But you don’t have to take prayer seriously for very long before you notice something about it.

It is mysterious.

Just by show of hands (and I’m not going to ask you to say any more than this, so it’s perfectly safe to raise your hand) how many people here have ever had an experience where they prayed for something and felt that prayer was answered?

How many have ever had an experience where you prayed for something and it wasn’t answered? At least not as you had hoped?

How many answered yes to both questions?

Prayer raises all sorts of questions. I mean God knows what we need. Jesus told us as much. So why do we need to ask?

And why do we need to be persistent? When Jesus told his disciples to ask, seek and knock, the sense is to keep on asking, seeking, knocking. Are we saying God has to be bullied into answering our prayers?

No. Jesus wanted to encourage his followers that they could trust God with the same confidence as Jesus himself had. He wanted us to see God as a good father who cares for our needs and wants to help us. Prayer was part of that. He encouraged us to bring our prayers to God and expect answers.

It’s wonderful when we feel prayer is answered. But it can be really difficult when we don’t get what we prayed for, however good or important it seemed or was. Perhaps because of the confidence with which Jesus tells us to pray, we can seek all sorts of reasons why prayers aren’t answered.

It’s not in God’s will. Perhaps. But how do we know what God’s will is? Are we really saying that all the suffering in the world is what God wants?

Or some would say ‘it’s God’s punishment’. You’ve stepped out of God’s will and God won’t answer your prayers until you come back into line.

Now, sometimes we make destructive choices and we live with the consequences of that. And there’s no point asking God to deliver you then continue to make those same destructive choices. We live in a world of cause and effect.

Sometimes suffering the consequences of our choices wakes us up to the disastrous nature of our choices. Sometimes they are rescuing us rather than punishing us.

For example in the story of Jonah, the fish is less of a punishment, and more God’s way of trying to rescue Jonah, both from the sea and his bad choices. Feeding pigs was a natural outworking of bad choices made by the prodigal son and it woke him up to the folly of those choices.

But that’s a long way from being able to say God is punishing us through suffering or by not answering our prayers. Besides we all have sin in our lives. What’s makes theirs worse than ours?

 

Some people say ‘you don’t get what you want because you don’t have enough faith.’ Jesus said if you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could move mountains. So, is what we’re saying ‘you’re the problem?’ Thing is, I’ve known people who had massive faith and have genuinely believed their prayer would be answered… yet things haven’t worked out as they prayed.

Or maybe we’re asking in the wrong way. Are we praying it in Jesus’ name? It can feel like Jesus’ name becomes some form of holy abracadabra. It reduces prayer to a form of magic. Are we saying that God only answers prayers if we get everything right?

Some would argue ‘maybe you didn’t want it.’ How would they know? Or maybe God has something better for you. I mean a good parent wouldn’t give their children something they knew would harm them. Jesus says as much in the Matthew reading.

 

There may be times when we rush to say a prayer has or has not been answered.

There is an old story about a wise man living on one of China’s vast frontiers. One day, his son’s horse ran away and was taken by nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him for his bad fortune, but the wise man, said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

Months later, his horse returned, bringing with her a magnificent stallion. This time everyone congratulated him for his good fortune. But now the wise man said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?”

One day the son fell off the stallion and broke his hip. Once again, everyone offered their consolation for his bad luck, but the father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?”

A year later enemies invaded their land, and every able-bodied man was required to go to war. The families living on the border lost most of an entire generation in battle. Only because the son was lame the father and son survived to take care of each other.

Just as we can rush to judgement on whether something is good or bad, blessing or disaster, so we can rush to judgment on whether something is an answer to prayer or not.

The end of the story might not have been written yet.

 

Reasons go on. Our motives are impure, we need to adjust our will to God’s.

All of these may have a grain of truth in them. Some are better than others. They may even have a verse or two of the Bible to back them up. But the fact that so many ideas are found in the scriptures should teach us a bit of humility. We don’t have all the answers. People of faith have wrestled with these questions for as long as we have prayed.

One great, early example of intercession was in our Old Testament reading, where Abraham almost haggles or bargains with God as he pleads for the city of Sodom.

Often this story has got tangled up with a whole load of stuff which is never said. So let me say something about what the story of Sodom is not about. This is not about homosexuality. The ‘very great sin’ of Sodom and the reason Sodom is eventually destroyed is not because of gay men.

 

The Bible offers its own commentary and explanation of the story. In Ezekiel 16:49 we read ‘this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.’

In Isaiah 1 we read ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!… Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Jesus himself says that it will be worse for the cities that refused hospitality to his disciples than it was for Sodom and Gomorrah.

Other translations speak of the outcry against Sodom reaching God. That’s a term which is used of people suffering injustice or oppression. In Isaiah 5v7 God condemns Israel because he

expected justice, but saw bloodshed;

righteousness, but heard a cry.

What was the sin of Sodom? They failed to protect the vulnerable amongst them.

To understand this story you need to recognise the importance of hospitality amongst ancient nomadic people of the Middle East. When a stranger or foreigner came amongst you, they were to be provided with food, shelter and safety. That’s what Abraham did in the scene before our reading. It’s what Lot did in the scene after it. That is contrasted with the people of Sodom who wanted to mistreat them.

 

Even so, it’s one of those stories we might struggle with. God wiping out the whole city. It’s one of those passages people turn to when they think of Old Testament/New testament God. The violent, bloodthirsty, vengeful Old Testament God, and the chilled out, peace and love New Testament version.

You may have no problem with it. But if you do struggle with it, then you find yourself standing with Abraham.

And actually I’d argue it doesn’t sit easy with God. The writer doesn’t tie everything up neatly. It’s not all neatly resolved. But God actively seeks a way out of the destruction. God’s reluctance to destroy the city is evident throughout the haggling. At no point does God say ‘enough’. It’s Abraham who stops the deal. Not God.

Which begs the question… what if Abraham had kept going?

In the context of the scriptures and the world in which Abraham lived this is a really radical story. Gods of the ancient world and the civilisation in which Abraham lived were out there, impersonal, distant, they did what they wanted, good or bad. In Genesis 12, when God first addresses Abraham, that is a huge step forward in religion and spirituality. A God who addresses an individual, who wants to relate to humans? That’s new.

But in this passage this God involves a human in his plans for the world. In the Old Testament you will quite often read an image of God convening some kind of heavenly council. God says let us make human beings in our image. Or at the call of Isaiah he says who will go for us.

Well, in this story, it’s like Abraham is invited into that council. In fact it’s like God lets Abraham chair the meeting! God almost makes himself accountable to Abraham. Go on, talk me out of it.

The other thing that is quite radical about it, is that this God values the righteous more than he cares about punishing the wicked. It’s quite a common view of the world, then as now, about how the bad can infect the good. This is a passage which says the good, however few, can save the bad. As few as 10 might have saved Sodom. Who knows, had Abraham not stopped at 10, it might not even have needed that many.

In the passage immediately before this Abraham is visited by three heavenly visitors who tell him his long-awaited son Isaac is to be born. It’s all a bit vague. In some bits they seem to be described as men, yet in others it’s YHWH or the LORD. Abraham extends hospitality to them, they tell him of Isaac then they are about to set off. Abraham walks with them a bit of the way.

Then there is almost a bit of an aside. Like the Shakespearan character who takes a couple of steps to the side to reveal their innermost thoughts, yet the other characters can’t hear them.

God says Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Then decides, No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’

 

God tells Abraham about his plans and the others set off towards Sodom, but Abraham still stands before the LORD.

Abraham is blocking the LORD’s path.

He is literally, physically interceding.

He stands between God and Sodom.

It’s not that Abraham does not know what Sodom is like. But a couple of factors concern him. In the city lives Lot, Abraham’s nephew. But also this is not Abraham’s first dealings with Sodom. A few chapters earlier Sodom lost a battle with one of the other kinds in the area and Lot was kidnapped. Abraham quickly put together an army and rescued the people and their possessions.

So for Abraham Sodom is not some impersonal idea. It’s real people. Some of whom he cares about.

It can be quite easy to denounce or condemn whole groups of people when they are just a label.

But when you meet them?

When you have relationships with them?

When it might even affect your family?

When you start to put faces and names to the labels?

When they stop being labels and become people?

That’s a whole different matter.

God has promised to bless Abraham and through him to bless others. God seeks a friend in Abraham. He is not after a ‘yes man’ or a ‘yes woman.’ Part of that calling is to do and to seek what is right and just.

That’s why God tells Abraham. He is inviting Abraham to challenge him. To questions whether this is the right and just way forward. The initiative is with God. God could have told Abraham nothing. But God invites Abraham to bring his questions. God doesn’t just tolerate it. He welcomes it.

God wants to hear our fears, misgivings, objections.

In short, God wants us to be real with him.

It’s as if Abraham gets the hint and recognises God’s reluctance. That’s why Abraham gets drawn into the haggling. He starts at 50, then 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, all the way down to 10. Why does he stop there? Perhaps he hopes that there are at least 10 in Lot’s household who will qualify.

Whatever the reason, in this story we see Abraham in the season of please, involving himself in intercession, standing, quite literally, between God and others, pleading their case.

In part he is drawn by his connections. But in doing so he is offering his prayers whether those who would be blessed deserved it or not, would acknowledge it or not.

And that is part of the challenge of this word ‘please.’ God invites us to bring our questions, fears, misgivings about how the world is. In intercession we are bringing others to God and in some ways in prayer we are urging God to be God differently from the way God was planning to be God.

Prayer is mysterious. I’d love to tell you how it all works. But I can’t. And yet somehow, some way I truly believe it matters. Somehow or other I truly believe that God invites us to bring him our concerns and the concerns of others and somehow uses them in the way he works in the world. In prayer, as much as in action, God is involving us in his care of the world.

How that works I really don’t know.

Will praying make a difference?

Will God intervene and work miracles?

Does it change God?

I don’t know.

And in some ways it’s probably better that we don’t have all the answers to tough questions like why there is so much suffering in the world. Perhaps it is best that we don’t understand why those we pray for suffer as they do.

Cos if we could say ‘oh, there’s a clear reason for this, logic could take over from caring. We would explain rather than empathise, theorise instead of pray, answer instead of act.

But the absence of logical explanations and the mystery draw out of our heads and moves our hearts. Our own powerlessness to help throws us into the arms of God and urges us to pray ‘please.’

Phillip Yancey suggests that Christians in developing nations spend less time pondering if and how prayer works and more time actually praying. By all means it’s good to wrestle with the questions, and even form opinions. But don’t think you’ll solve them once and for all. Later you will see them differently, because you’re seeing them from a different perspective.

No it’s more important that we do it, and keep doing it, whatever answers come or don’t come, however we believe prayer ‘works.’ Because however much or little prayer changes things, however much or little it changes God, it will certainly change us. It will strengthen our sacred connection and in time draw us more into the image of Christ. It is one of the ways, perhaps the most important way we are drawn into God’s plans and purposes for his world. For in doing so we are joining our hopes, loves and longings with God’s.

Posted in 12 Words, Christmas 2017

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Please 2

word flesh

Reading: John 1: 1-14

A father was desperately trying to get stuff done for Christmas, but kept getting interrupted by his young son who was just so excited. He was trying to find some way to keep the young boy occupied, when he spotted a magazine with a map of the world on the back. He hurriedly tore the page out and ripped it up into quite small pieces and handed it to the lad.

‘Here’s a challenge for you. Let’s see if you can put this picture back together again like a jigsaw. If you do it, I’ll let you have a bar of chocolate from your selection box.’

Well, for that kind of reward, the boy was very happy to accept the challenge. So off he went, his father thinking ‘that’ll keep him quiet for a while.’

But he was back much more quickly than his dad expected and sure enough the picture was complete. The father was impressed.

‘I never knew you knew so much about how the map of the world looked’ he said.

‘Oh, I don’t’ said the boy. ‘But on the other side of the page was a picture of David Beckham’s face. I recognised the face and realised that because I knew what he looked like, it could help me put the world back together.’

That’s the story John tells in the opening of his Gospel. The God who had created the world and seen the world turn from him and go wrong, longed to put it back together. He knew that, left to ourselves, we’d never be able to do it. So he came amongst us. He showed us his face, and by doing so he helped us make sense of the rest.

Or as John more described it, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

 

I’m continuing our time exploring the different seasons or phases that make up the spiritual life. Each phase or season has been assigned a word, and the word we started considering last time was Please.

A couple of Sundays ago I noted how the other words had been quite strongly personal, or individual. We might say they concerned our inner life and our personal relationship with God.

And that is very important. A theme I have kept returning to throughout 2017 has been about ‘knowing Christ.’ The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who wants to relate to us.

But faith was never intended to be just about me and Jesus, or you and Jesus. It should affect how we relate to the world. The story of scripture is of a people ‘blessed to be a blessing.’ When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, what God really wanted from us, he replied that we were to

love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and mind…  

…and love your neighbour as yourself.

 So if the early words were more about the first half of that most important commandment, Please is about the second half, the loving our neighbour bit.

When we talk about this word Please, it’s about how our faith is turned outwards, towards other people. A religious word we sometimes use for this is the word ‘intercession.’ It’s got this idea of coming between two parties, bringing them together.

It’s about bringing others, their concerns and struggles to God. That might be friends who are ill, mission organisations, enemies, situations around the world. Whatever it is, it’s about bringing that person or situation to God…

…but, as we’ll see this morning, true intercession is also about, where we get the chance, bringing God to that person or situation.

The practise of intercession assumes two very important things.

  1. God cares for those who suffer or are in need
  2. We care too.

If we didn’t believe God cared we wouldn’t bother bringing it to him. There would be no point. And if we didn’t care, even a little, we just wouldn’t get involved.

So, as Brian McLaren puts it in his book Naked Spirituality. when we call out Please on behalf of someone else, or another situation in the world, we’re saying to God and ourselves,

Someone is suffering, and at least two hearts in the universe notice and refuse to turn away. God’s heart and my own.

 

 

In any healthy relationship, over time you come to know more and more about the other person. And the same is true of our relationship with God. In a healthy relationship with God we come to understand more and more what God cares about…

…and we start to care about it too.

But as we turn to this morning’s passage, which is also very appropriate one for the Christmas season, we come to some very important questions.

How does God care for the world?

What does God’s care look like?

And what implications might that have for how we care too?

And at Christmas we’re reminded, not only that God does care for the world but how God cares for the world. What God’s care looks like.

John puts it very lyrically and poetically…

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, full of grace and truth.

 

All year I’ve talked about a God who wants to be known. Down through history he had been reaching out to us, revealing himself to us in many ways. Through creation itself,  law, prophets, wisdom writers, poets, songwriters, craftsman, stories, dreams… I’m sure there are loads I’ve not included. All of them had their place.

Yet none were enough for the God revealed in Jesus. God loved the world with a love that would not allow him to keep his distance. And so he showed the full extent of his love and care for the world. How?

The Word became flesh.

How does God most fully express his love and his longings to heal and rescue his world?

By taking on flesh.

We might say God puts flesh and bone on his love and his longings.

The word Christians have used for this ‘God becoming flesh’ idea is incarnation.

Now before I go on, don’t get me wrong. God’s coming to us in Jesus is of a very different order to anything God has done before or since. Only in Jesus does God reveal himself so completely. There is a redeemer and his name is Jesus. There is a large amount of what we believe about Jesus and how he saves us that can only be said about Jesus.

But this idea of God seeking a body…

We encounter it all the way through the whole story of the scriptures. In the beginning God creates men and women in his image to rule over and care for his creation. They are his flesh and blood representatives, called to live out his longing for the world. God’s care and plans for the world were embodied, incarnated, made flesh in them.

It’s the same when God carries the story forward through a people, the people of Israel. They are called to reflect his character in the world. To put flesh and blood on the word of the Law and the prophets. They were to embody or incarnate God’s longing for his world. They were to show the world what God is like.

 

But of course we encounter it most fully in Jesus, whom John describes as the Word made flesh.

Jesus ministry is very physical. If you look at how Jesus operates in the world, it very much involves presence and touch. Contact.

Jesus doesn’t stay in one place, invite people to come to him with a list of names, then pray ‘God, please bless and heal Kevin, Sharon, Tracy…’ He travels about and the healing he brings is through contact.

On the whole Jesus doesn’t work from a distance. I can only think of two stories in which Jesus heals from a distance. There’s a royal official who asks for healing for his son, and a Roman centurion who asks for healing for a servant. There are enough similarities to those two stories to suggest they might be variations on the same story. But even those two ‘distance miracles’ have some contact between Jesus and the person doing the asking.

And it may highlight Jesus’ power over distance, that it’s not a problem as such.

But they’re the exception, not the rule. It’s not Jesus’ normal or preferred way of working. Jesus worked through presence, touch, contact… being there in the flesh. I mean, faced with a brother who is very ill, Mary and Martha don’t ask Jesus to heal Lazarus from a distance. Nor does Jesus decide to do so. They ask him to come. They say if he had come Lazarus would not have died. The miracle waits until Jesus is there. Even though it appears he is way too late.

It waits until Jesus is there… in the flesh.

It’s a way of working which may seem, certainly from our point of view, full of all sorts of risks and dangers. We might even describe it as foolish. But God’s primary way of working in the world, of fulfilling his plans, hopes and purposes, is to have them embodied in someone or in a community of people.

When they take on flesh.

When they share in God’s love hope and longings.

When that love, hope and longing is embodied.

Incarnated.

 

This way of working doesn’t stop when Jesus ascends into heaven. The story of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the beginnings of the church. Listen to how it begins…

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven.

Notice that word in the middle. Began to do and teach. Jesus isn’t finished yet. There’s more to come.

And how does it happen? As the rest of the New Testament describes it, through the community of the church, which Paul describes as what?

The body of Christ.

 

Yes, Jesus can only be born once. There are things that God does in Jesus that he only does in Jesus.

But God’s love, plans, purposes and longings for the world continue to be embodied, to take on flesh and dwell amongst us.

He does it when his longings becomes our longings. When his love becomes our love. When his hopes become our hopes. When they become embodied in us. That’s what this word please is about. That’s true intercession. Bringing others to God and God to others.

 

Think about it in your own life…

How are you most likely to experience love, peace, comfort, inspiration?…

How is God most likely to reach you?

Through another person or group of people.

We sometimes don’t even recognise or acknowledge that it’s God who’s doing it. It’s not a big spiritual, lightning bolt type moment. They might not even realise what they’re part of. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable about sheep and goats, about people who have joined in with God’s longings and purposes for the world, and others who have rejected them. The people who joined in didn’t even know they were doing it. They say when did we do that? When did we feed you, clothe you, and so on? But in them God’s love, care and longings are being embodied. Being given a face. Taking on flesh and blood. Incarnated.

A number of years ago I came across a piece of research which looked at people who had recently come to faith, and what they saw as the main factors on the way. One far and away stood out. It was someone they knew, a family member, a friend, a work colleague who came to faith or shared their faith. God was reaching them through people. His love for them had a face. God’s hopes and longings for them were embodied. They took on flesh and blood.

How does God care for the world?

By taking on flesh.

We hear it every Christmas time, but like a dog, that’s a message that’s not just for Christmas. Cos it says something about our place in God’s care for the world.

Faced with suffering either on a grand global scale, or at a lower, personal level, there are a number of possible responses.

We might turn away. That charity appeal comes on, just as you’re sitting down to dinner and you change the channel. It’s been a tough day. I just want to relax. Be entertained.

You might suffer from compassion fatigue. It’s not that you don’t care, but you’ve helped all sorts of people and causes and things don’t improve. You’re bombarded, whether it’s by e-mail or post, with requests all the time, and they’re all very good. But there are just so many I’ll admit I get to the point where I just click ‘delete’ or don’t even open the letter.

Or you might keep watching that advert, but feel overwhelmed. Despair is a real option. Large scale stuff is particularly capable of making us feel like that. Charities will give us information about how many people are displaced by war, are starving or don’t have access to clean water. And the figures are truly horrific.

But they know that if they just did that, we would all be thinking, yes, but what can I do about that? The problem’s just so huge!

So they tell you what you can do. A small amount of money, which you can give simply by texting this number will provide a blanket, a water filter, a night in a shelter for someone who is homeless.

 

Or we can find someone to blame. It might be the government. Their policies are causing this. It might be the people themselves. If they got a job or stopped making such destructive choices…

It might even be God.

How could God allow that?

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

Some might decide that suffering is a very good reason for dismissing the existence of God, or certainly a God who is worthy of worship. I mean if he cares so much about it, why doesn’t he sort it?

 

But that brings us back to the question, how would we expect God to do something about it?

How has he done it all the way through his story?

By embodying God’s loves, hopes and longings. By taking on flesh. In people.

 People like us.

So there is another option.

We can join our love for the world with God’s.

We can join our hopes for the world with Gods.

We can join our longings for the world with God.

Our faith can turn us towards others.

Prayer will be part of that. In intercession we can bring them to God. We can say God, Someone is suffering, and at least two hearts in the universe notice and refuse to turn away. Your heart and mine.

 

But true intercession has another dimension. Do we throw our prayer up in the air and hope God will do something with it?

Or do we search our hearts and ask what part we can play in answering the prayer?

In embodying that hope and longing we share with God?

In putting flesh on our prayer?

Let me be honest. Prayer is good. You wouldn’t expect me to say anything different. And sometimes when we pray the only contribution we can honestly make is to pray.

But prayer can also be a way of passing the buck. I’ve told someone else. They can worry about it. We’ve passed it on to God, now it’s God’s problem to do something about.

As we pray, do we honestly search our hearts and ask if there is any way we can be part of the answer?

Do we ask ourselves if we can put flesh on that prayer?

Do we ask if we can embody it?

Incarnate it?

That friend who’s depressed. We can pray that God will help them and comfort them. That’s good.

But what do we do with that prayer?

Which is easier?

To pray? Or to sit with them, to encourage them, listen to them?

 

John uses a great word when he talks about the Word becoming flesh. A word which says something of the nature of putting flesh to our prayers. John doesn’t merely say that the word became a human being. Flesh was a word invested with even more meaning.

We use the word human in different ways. When talk of human rights and the dignity we possess by virtue of being human. But at the same time we’ll say ‘I’m only human’ and we refer to our frailties, our vulnerabilities, the fact that we are flesh and bone.

If John had wanted to speak of the glory and dignity of being human, there were plenty of other words he could have turned to.

But he chose his words carefully. He said ‘the word became flesh.’ The word for flesh is sarx. It’s a word which highlights the weakness, the frailness, the vulnerability aspects of humanity.

And I mean what could be more vulnerable than coming into the word as a baby? As Jesus lies in that manger he is truly vulnerable, totally reliant of Mary and Joseph for even the most basic of needs.

 

Putting flesh on our prayers, our hopes and longings, it isn’t easy. It can make us vulnerable. Their concern becomes our concern. We might feel we need to have all the answers before we can be of any help. That sense of powerlessness is one great reason why people do nothing. It’s tough. God’s plan to rescue the world is a lot slower than we like, and he doesn’t do it the easy way. It can fall flat. It can be taken for granted. It can be rejected. That’s what happened to Jesus.

But sarx says we don’t have to have it all together to play a part in putting flesh on God’s plans for the world. So many great endeavours are started by people who have been through trial and suffering. It has a way of wakening us to need that nothing else can.

You can have your own issues, but that need not stop you turning towards another in need. You might even find that together you are helping one another.

 

In her book Hallelujah Anyway Annie Lamott tells the story of an alcoholic friend who was trying to dry out. He moved to a new town and was given a contact with another guy, who himself was in recovery.

He took him to a centre with other alcoholics. As they climbed a set of stairs to the meeting room her friend wanted to run away. The only thing keeping him going was that there were so many people behind him he couldn’t go back down the stairs. That and the thought this was bad as it was going to get.

Then the guy in front of him, who hadn’t managed to keep himself sober that day soiled himself. He didn’t even notice. He just kept walking as it ran down his legs.

Her friend couldn’t get away. They reached the top of the stairs where the group’s greeter got one whiff of the man who had soiled himself and was sick. There’s a fan in the room but it’s just blowing the various smells around the room.

At first there was panic. Then a couple of the men helped the one who had been sick to the bathroom to get cleaned up. Another approached the man who had soiled himself. He said ‘my friend it looks like you have trouble here. We’re going to give you a hand.’

Three men from the recovery group helped him to his feet and walked him to the shower room. They washed his clothes and gave him some of their stuff to wear whilst he waited. They gave him coffee and some food. No-one pretended it hadn’t happened. But there was a real sense of kinship.

Summing up the story he said ‘I thought I would recover with men and women like myself – overeducated, fun to be with and housebroken – and this would happen quickly and efficiently. But I was wrong. God or life sets up a makeshift tent among us and helps us work together on our stuff. This will only happen together, slowly, over time.’

 

I love that phrase – a makeshift tent. I’m not sure if it was deliberate but it was the same idea that John spoke of in the Word dwelling among us. It’s about pitching his tent.

But in that moment we see God’s love, longings, care being embodied, taking on flesh, being incarnated. It’s a moment of word becoming flesh. Of God’s love being given a human face.

 

In the rabbinical tradition there is an idea that when we see suffering we are to remember that this is only the sixth day of creation. We’re not done here. And the good news is that God isn’t either.

And we are invited to be part of the work of co-creation. It might be in prayer. To join our hearts with Gods in caring for the world. To make his hopes our hopes, his longings our longings, his love our love.

But at some point intercession also calls us into action. To put some flesh on God’s hopes, longings and love for the world.

It’s slow.

It takes time.

But it’s how God works.

By putting flesh on the Word.

Giving his love a face,

That’s how he worked in Jesus when he took on flesh and dwelt among us.

And it’s how he continues to enact his hopes, longings and love.

How he plans to put things back together again.

And we are invited to join in. To join our love to his. Our hopes and longings to us.

To incarnate our prayers. To embody them.

And to allow the Word to become flesh

in us.

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Help 3 & Please 1

Do we have any country music fans here?

I have to admit I am not. I like a bit of Johnny Cash, but that would be about it.

But, as Jesus reminded us in the story of the Good Samaritan, every now and then help comes from unexpected sources. And this is one of those occasions.

Cos during the week I came across a song which highlights some of the stuff I want to talk about this morning. I warn you now it’s a bit sickly sweet. Nonetheless, it’s nearly Christmas. So here it is. It’s by a guy called Clay Walker, and the song is called Chain of Love.

We’re continuing our time, looking at different phases or seasons in the spiritual life. We’ve assigned each season one of the 12 words in the circles on the screen. In recent weeks we have been considering the word ‘Help!’ It’s about the simple idea that however independent we hope and try to be, sometimes we simply can’t do life on our own. It’s like life is designed so that all of us, at some point, will have reason to cry out for help, from others and/or God.

This morning I want to do two things. I want to finish our time in help but also introduce our next word please.

Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean two sermons.

If I had to give a different title to this morning’s passage and sermon it would be ‘where help meets please’ or ‘where help becomes please.’ Or to use the imagery of the song, it’s where the helped becomes the helper, keeping the chain of love going, not letting the chain end.

It would be fair to say that thus far our words and seasons have had a very strong ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ dimension to them. We began who God’s desire to encounter us here and now. We then thought of the season of O, awe and wonder, what drives us to worship. And that can be very different for different people. Then we looked at Thanks, which could have a corporate element to it, but not necessarily.

Sorry and Help have been about recognising our own personal areas of weakness, fragility, vulnerability, where we are likely to struggle or mess up. Again that’s very much about me, or about you. In all sorts of ways, things I struggle with you won’t. Likewise things you struggle with, I won’t. We’re all different.

In some ways I don’t apologise for that. Faith should have a very personal dimension. God created us for relationship with himself. But that’s not the whole story. As we touched on a couple of weeks ago, at the heart of the Bible narrative is the story of Abraham who is ‘blessed to be a blessing.’ God is calling a people who are to be a blessing to the world. To show God’s love to the world.

As we turn to this next word, Please, we’re changing gear, if you like. So far we’ve concentrated very much on the inner life. With Please I’m talking about how our faith is turned outwards.

Towards other people or situations.

When, in response to what we’ve received we want to give back, to give out.

When we feel moved to bring others to the God who has helped, forgiven and provided for us, and ask him to do the same for someone, or somewhere else.

Please is as much about how we relate to others, as how we relate to God.

It’s about keeping the chain going.

Not letting it end with us.

When you are prepared to own your own stuff, your own areas of weakness, your own mix of that HPTMTU, hopefully it might make us more compassionate towards other people in their struggles. That’s not always the case. Ex-smokers can become really anti-smoking, for example. But hopefully recognising our own struggles makes us a little kinder to others in theirs.

Likewise when we have needed help and someone has come alongside us, hopefully we don’t just forget it. Suffering and pain can make us self-absorbed and focussed on ourselves. But equally, when we are comforted in our troubles, that can turn us outwards to want to help others, to comfort them in their troubles. Perhaps drawing on our own experience.

That’s where we’re going with this word please. We’ve looked at the difference between two words, petition and intercession. Help was about petition – prayer for me, by me, or for you, by you.

Intercession is when we bring others to God – be that people we care about who are ill, mission organisations, situations around the world. It’s the idea of standing between, bringing two parties together. Bringing that person or situation to God, and perhaps, if we get the chance, bringing God to that person.

If you want to see what happens when Help meets Please, or when Help becomes Please we get a really good example in the Gospel passage we shared together this morning. It has both a Help and a Please dimension.

There is someone in need of help, certainly from Jesus, but also from others. Without the other men he wouldn’t have got anywhere near Jesus.

So there is a helped and a helper, in fact four helpers.

And although we don’t read it, it’s possible that in this story we have those who have been helped, themselves turning into helpers.

As the passage opens we read that Jesus has come back to Capernaum. It seems to refer back to a previous time in Capernaum. What do we know about that time?

In the opening chapter of Mark we get an account of what feels like a very full day in the life of Jesus. Jesus has just called his first disciples. He was walking along the shore and encounters four fishermen, first Simon and Andrew, then James and John. He calls them to come and follow him… and they do it.

They then go to Capernaum where, it seems, at least Simon and Andrew lived. The next Sabbath they visit the local synagogue where Jesus encounters a man with an evil spirit. The spirit challenges Jesus, but Jesus commands the spirit to come out of the man, and the man is healed.

From there they go to Simon and Andrew’s house. There Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. They tell Jesus about this and Jesus heals her.

Then later, as the sun set, and hence as Sabbath came to a close, crowds began to gather around the house. Word was spreading of what Jesus could do and they were bringing people with all sorts of illnesses to Jesus. Jesus does lots of healings.

Early next morning they were ready for another round of the same. But there was a problem. Jesus was nowhere to be seen. Early that morning, long before daylight, Jesus had set off to a quiet spot to pray. Simon the others eventually found him and said ‘everyone is looking for you.’

But, probably to their great surprise, Jesus did not appear too interested in that. Instead he said ‘let’s go somewhere else. I want to preach in the other places too.’

And off they went, leaving the crowds behind.

As we picked up the Gospel this morning, Jesus has returned from touring around. News that he is back spreads quickly and, as before, soon the crowds are building up and spilling over, out through the door of the house. Amongst them is a paralysed man, on a mat carried by 4 men.

I wonder if they’d brought him for healing on that other evening, but been unable to get near Jesus because of the crowds.

I wonder if, on that occasion, they’d thought ‘no matter, we’ll come back tomorrow.’

But tomorrow had come and Jesus was gone.

I wonder if both the man on the mat and his 4 friends thought their moment had passed.

Perhaps at least some of those four men had been amongst those healed by Jesus on that previous visit.

Were those who had been helped, now seeking to help?

Were those who had been blessed, now seeking to be a blessing?

Having experienced the love of God in their own lives, where they trying to keep the chain going?

Not letting the chain stop with them?

But there’s a problem. They can’t get near Jesus. The crowds are filling the house, spilling out onto the street. Like those people who just refuse to move inside the tube carriage, no-one is letting them through.

But the four men are not going to be put off. No crowds are going to keep them out this time.

Houses in those days tended to have a flat roof and would often act as a quiet space to get away from everyone else. It could be accessed by steps at the side.

There’s a certain comedy factor to the whole story. I imagine that’s one of the reasons it’s such a popular Sunday School story. I’m amused picturing the 4 men trying to keep their friend balanced on the stretcher as they go up the steps. Then they start picking away at the roof.

Inside the house bits of clad and mud start to fall on those listening to Jesus. In my mind Jesus stops mid-sentence, looks up and sees four faces peering down at him through a hole in the ceiling. Meanwhile the crowds are kind of backing away to make room for the guy coming through on a mat.

Then Jesus looks down and sees a fifth man lying there, staring up at him, expectantly. I can’t help but imagine that Jesus, amused by the bizarre nature of the whole thing and the lengths they were prepared to go to reach him, almost chuckles as he says ‘Son, you’re sins are forgiven.’

There follows a debate with some religious leaders about whether Jesus should have said what he did. Perhaps Jesus hoped to get a reaction from them. Maybe the man just needed to hear those words too. But ultimately Jesus tells him to get up, take his mat and go home.

And the man does.

He rises and step into a new life.

But the miracle wouldn’t have happened but for two things…

One was that man was prepared to be helped.

And the other was that there were those who were prepared to be that help..

Both were important.

Marks tells us Jesus saw how much faith they had. It was not just the faith of the man on the mat that brought him healing.

It was the faith of all of them.

Which leaves me with a couple of questions.

How easy do we find it to be helped?

I imagine many of us would answer that question ‘not easy at all.’ At this time of year we often here the expression about how it is better to give then to receive. But when it comes to Help might it be easier to give than to receive. Might it be just as important to receive as to give?

Thing is, we like to think we’ve got this. We don’t like to feel we are putting others out. We don’t want to feel we owe them. We don’t want to feel weak. We don’t want others thinking less of us. Maybe we don’t feel worthy of it. How desperate do we need to be, before we’ll ask for help, receive help.

We might find it slightly easier to ask for help from God. At least when it comes to stuff we know we couldn’t reasonably handle.

But what about other people?

You see the thing is, most of the time when God helps us it will be through other people.

And we might be surprised at his choices. Some of them might be quite unwelcome.

The healing of the man on the mat didn’t come about solely because he put his faith in Jesus. That certainly was an important part of it, but it wasn’t the whole story. His healing also came about because he put his trust in the other 4 men. If he hadn’t entrusted himself to them, he would never have been in the position where he could hear Jesus speak forgiveness or healing to him.

Might it be that we don’t receive help because we struggle to receive it?

Because we won’t trust others.

Because we’d rather fight our battles alone?

How often have you been in that situation where someone has explained how they really struggled with something or when someone is getting stressed out and your response has been ‘why didn’t you ask for help?’

It can feel like you’re not trusted when you’re not asked, can’t it?

Being able to receive help is as healthy as being able to give it. That’s why Help is such an important part of a healthy spiritual life.

But the miracle wouldn’t have happened without the 4 men who bore the mat. People who perhaps had been helped by Jesus, and now wanted to keep the chain going, to not let it end with them.

This story is a good word picture for intercession. For part of the calling of those who follow Jesus is to bring the needs of others to Jesus.

When we bring others to Jesus in prayer we are saying two things.

  1. God cares about the needs of others
  2. So do we

If both of those things aren’t true, there is no intercession.

If we don’t care, chances are we won’t pray.

And if God didn’t care, there would be no point.

Intercession declares that there are at least two souls in the world who care about what we pray for. Ours and God’s. It’s because we believe both of those things that we pray.

We don’t know whose idea it was to climb onto that roof and lower the man down. Did the man ask them to do it? Was it their idea? Either way their faith made it possible for Jesus to bring healing to the man on the stretcher.

And that is a good image for those who would follow Jesus.

To be the stretcher bearers for others in need to those who can’t and won’t do it themselves. We have received the grace, mercy, help of God, and don’t want the chain to end with us.

A doctrine which is very much part of the Baptist tradition is the Priesthood of All Believers. It came to prominence during the Reformation as part of the Protestant critique of Catholicism.

Basically it said that we all were free to approach God, without needing a priest to act as an intermediary. Our tradition took things further, so that certain roles could be fulfilled by anyone in the church. Although we do have clergy and I normally lead the communion service, there is nothing to stop anyone else doing those things.

But actually another way of understanding it is that together we function as priests for those outside the church. It’s a call to those of us with faith, to bring to God those who do not, and to bring God to them.

It might not be crowds of people blocking the door that act as a barrier to people coming to Jesus for themselves. It might be intellectual scepticism. They find it hard to reconcile belief in God with how they see the world. Perhaps some have had a bad experience of church, or faith, which puts them off.

Perhaps for some it has just never been part of their life. In many families in Britain there has probably been no-one with a connection to a faith community for 3, maybe 4 generations. A few weeks ago I was filling out some forms and I was asked what my job was. In those circumstances I tend to use the term vicar. It’s a term people recognise. Except this girl didn’t. And she wasn’t someone of another faith and she’d lived in London all her life.

Something I have come to see over the years of being a minister is that although there are many things I might be asked to do, there are very few that only I can do, or the church can do. Often the others will do it better. That’s not false modesty. It’s just they specialise in it. However increasingly I discover that the one thing I can offer that no-one else will is prayer.

 

And that calling isn’t restricted to me. It’s something we all can do. It’s our calling to keep faith for those who can’t or won’t.

There are times when we ourselves may need that. When we struggle to pray for ourselves, others might pray for us, hold us before God.

But it’s something we can do for others. Something that perhaps no-one else will. Please, or intercession, allows us to stand in the gap, to bridge the gap between them and God. Bringing them to God, and often bringing God to them.

 

We’re a people who carry the story of a God who loves the world so much that he gives himself for the world. He’s a God who cares for the needs of others, and when we receive his mercy, he seeks to fill us with compassion that we might care for others too. That we might seek to keep the chain of love, grace, mercy going, not letting it end with us.

 

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Help Part 2

broken-pot-with-color

Reading: I Chronicles 4: 9-10; 2 Corinthians 4: 1-12

In his book Being Human, Steve Chalke tells a story about a child who was abandoned at one of his Oasis Trust projects in Zimbabwe.

It is part of the culture of some of the people groups living there that the father of a new-born baby will name the child according to the dominant thought that comes into his head when he first sees the child. So names like Beautiful, Mercy, Grace, Lovely and Pretty are very popular.

But the name given to the child abandoned at the Oasis Project was ‘No Matter.’

She arrived at their centre without any official documentation. So it fell to the staff at the project to register her with the authorities. When two gap year students went to the appropriate offices, where they found a great line of people waiting to be seen by registrars. They didn’t want this little girl going through life carrying that name. So the students had an idea.

Eventually they reached the front of the queue where the official behind the desk asked them for the child’s first name. Together they said ‘Precious.’ They wanted her name to tell a very different story about her.

We encounter a man in a similar situation to No Matter in the reading from Chronicles this morning. Only in his case no-one changed his name. He did carry it through life.

When I told Rosalie in the office what I was talking about this week she told me that one of her relatives is called Jabez. That alone might be evidence for the truth of what I want to share with you this morning.

But it’s not a name you’d have wanted to have been given in the Old Testament period. For the name Jabez means ‘he causes pain’ or ‘he will cause pain.’ Imagine calling your child ‘migraine’, ‘nausea’ or ‘cramps’ and you get a sense of what’s going on here.

 

The story of Jabez crops up in one the least read sections of one of the least read books of the Bible. If we were a church that followed lectionaries we’d never turn to Chronicles at all, and you may be forgiven for thinking that no bad thing.

The story of Jabez only lasts a couple of verses, but that’s more than we know about most of the other characters mentioned around him on the page. The opening chapters of Chronicles offer an ‘official family tree’ of the various Hebrew tribes. Jabez’s story crops up in the midst of Judah’s ancestors. More than 40 other names have already been mentioned in I Chronicles 4 by the time we reach Jabez at verse 9. Another huge list of name starts in verse 11. But in the midst of a great big list of names we get this little story.

There are a few things we pick up from the two verses. One is that things started badly for Jabez. He was given a terrible name. Many of you will know only too well from personal experience that childbirth is a painful experience in normal circumstances. There must have been something pretty terrible that caused Jabez’s mother to name him as she does. And it can’t have been particularly healthy for his to have been constantly reminded of it.

But things end well. Jabez turns out more honourable than his brothers.

The other thing we read is that he prayed a prayer. He prayed…

Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory

Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm

So that I will be free from pain.

 

We’ve been spending time in the different phases or seasons of the spiritual life. Each word of season has been assigned a word. And the word we started considering last week was Help!

We talked last week about the difference between prayers of intercession and prayers of petition. Intercession is when we are praying for someone else or for a situation, say that we hear of in the news. So when we pray for someone who is sick, or for mission organisations on the news sheets, or for Christians around the world facing persecution, that’s intercession.

Petition is prayer by me, for me. That’s what we’re thinking about in this word Help!

 

Help! is about recognising that all of us, at some point, come up short. To use the language of Paul in II Corinthians, we are all like plain, old cracked pots. Fragile and vulnerable. We’d love to have all the answers. But it seems life is engineered so that all of us, at some point, will have reason to cry out for help, from others and/or God.

The prayer of Jabez is a Help! prayer.

A number of years ago the Prayer of Jabez was the subject of a book which sold millions of copies. It was a little book, but it opened with a very big statement about petition. It said…

Dear Reader, I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers… [which] contains the key to a life of extraordinary favour with God.

 

It may have sold lots but it was far from universally popular. As you might guess from that opening description, some claimed it was proclaiming a ‘prosperity Gospel’ type message, where God always wants you to make you healthy and wealthy and the only thing keeping you from health and wealth is your own lack of faith. It treats God like a kind of genie, fulfilling our desires, and reduces prayer to a magic formula.

I can see why the book and the prayer were viewed and used in that kind of way. But in fairness to the author Bruce Wilkinson, that’s not what he says. In fact he explicitly states that’s not what it’s about. And most of you will know me well enough to know I’m unlikely to use it in that kind of way this morning.

 

But before I go on, it needs to be noted that Jabez does seem to pray for material blessing. He does say enlarge my territory. Some other translations have him asking God to enlarge my borders. It’s likely, probable even, that he was talking about land.

The King James Bible says ‘enlarge my coasts’ which is slightly different. And it’s possible he was using a similar kind of term we might use, when we talk about broadening our horizons. Getting a bigger picture. Helping us to see things differently.

 

And it is certainly not wrong to ask God for help with material things. I do believe God is interested in our happiness and caring for us. Jesus told us to pray give us this day our daily bread.

In fact there’s a good moral reason to ask God for help in material matters. If we decide we cannot trust God to look after us, we will become anxious. If you start to believe your happiness and safety all depends on you, you will become self-absorbed. Trusting that God will care for you frees you up to be more generous. It empowers you to look outwards and how you might be a blessing to others.

 

 

But what is going on in this little story and in the prayer?

Some of the language, particularly towards the end of the prayer is a little ambiguous which means it is translated differently in different versions of the Bible.

The church Bibles put it

Bless me, God, and give me much land

Be with me and keep me from anything evil

That might cause me pain

Another version has it, as I showed you earlier

Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory

Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm

So that I will be free from pain.

 Looked at that way the whole prayer seems to be a ‘look after me’ type prayer. Which is not unreasonable.

But it’s hard to see why it would make him honourable.

 

But other translations have a better, or certainly more interesting translation

Oh, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory

That your hand would be with me

And that you would keep me from evil

That I may not cause pain.

 Can I suggest why I think that’s a better translation? It’s not just that it feels less selfish and more like the way I would have liked him to pray. It just makes sense of the story.

Jabez’s mother gave him a name which says he will cause pain. Just as in the Zimbabwean culture where a father would name a child according to his thoughts on first seeing the child, in the Hebrew culture the name of a child often contained a prophecy or vision of how life would unfold for this child.

Just as the gap year students did not want a child called ‘No matter’ living up to her name, so Jabez wanted to avoid fulfilling the ‘promise’ of his name.

He’s asking to be better than the labels that have been placed on him. Help me to live in a healthier, better life than is expected of me, than they seem to think I am capable of.

Jabez seems to be saying ‘I caused my mother pain at birth and she named me pain as a result. That name has hurt me. But I don’t want to keep the chain reaction of pain going. Bless me, enlarge my borders, be with me, help me stop the cycle of pain. Bless me, so that I can be a source of blessing to others rather than a source of pain.’

Jabez recognises that is not an easy thing to do. He knows he can’t manage it on his own. That’s why he prays ‘Let your hand be with me.’ God help me. Strengthen me to do this. I’m feeling the hurt of wrong done to me, I’ve carried it around for so long. It’s been the story I’ve been told my whole life. If I rely on my own strength, my own wisdom, I will be tempted to react badly and cause pain, just as they expect. Free me from the need to pass that on.

Bless me that I might bless others.

It echoes the promise to Abram which itself echoes through the whole Bible. ‘Abram, I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make you a great nation. And you will be a blessing. All the people’s on earth will be blessed through you.’

When you see the prayer in that way, you can see why the person who compiled the Chronicles thought he stood out. You can see why Jabez was described as honourable.

And you can see why such a prayer would resonate with people today. Because, although we might not recognise it as such, each of us is telling a story which affects how we live. It affects how we view ourselves. It gives us a sense of worth, purpose and direction.

Some parts of that story will be good.

But others won’t be.

Some parts are harmful.

People carry around all sorts of messages and they affects their lives.

I’m ugly.

I’m stupid.

I’m fat.

I failed.

I’m sick.

I’m immoral.

I’m not wanted.

I’m too slow.

I’m no use to anyone.

I’ll never amount to anything.

What would anyone see in me?

How could anyone love me?

I’ve wasted my life.

Some of them have been passed on to us by others. Careless words spoken years ago which have stuck to us like Velcro. Some of them we’ve been telling ourselves. We’d love them to be different, but we get stuck in a rut.

All of us, in our own ways, are jars of clay. Some of us might be prettier on the surface to look at. But at the end of the day we’re all fragile, we’re all vulnerable. Each of us in our own ways can become cracked and damaged.

The lesson from Jabez is that your story doesn’t have to get stuck and end there. It can be rewritten.

And it begins with a single word Help!

Jabez carried around painful story. He had lived with the hurt of what what had been done to him, quite literally his whole life. But he sensed that he was more than that. Better than that. More precious than that.

Which is part of what Paul is saying in II Corinthians. Archaeological finds from the era help us to better understand the image Paul used. They have uncovered clay jars containing hoards of coins. Some of you may have hidden cash in an ordinary jar that might just as easily have contained coffee or something like that.

Well, in the ancient world they would hide precious or valuable items in plain ordinary jars, which would not attract attention. On the surface it wasn’t much to look at, but inside the contents were precious. Or in times of war and disturbance they would bury them in the ground and the clay jar was to keep the coins safe and together.

But in either case, it wasn’t the clay jar that was the valuable thing. It was fragile. It could crack and break easily. What mattered was the contents.

Your life is precious and your real value is bound up in how God sees you, how God values you, how God views you. You are created in God’s image. You are precious enough that God sent Jesus into the world and Jesus went to the cross for you.

But we carry that message in jars of clay. We are fragile, vulnerable, easily cracked and broken. Easily damaged.

 

Paul knew he was like that. Given how much of the New Testament is given over to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it might surprise you to know that his relationship with them was not great. When people say to me that we need to get back to the New Testament church, I always answer ‘Not if we turn out like Corinth.’

II Corinthians is really quite a troubled letter. Paul had founded their church on his missionary journeys, but since those days others have come along and they have proved more impressive. On the surface, at least, they have been more successful. But this hasn’t always been to do with the truth or quality of their message.

But we see something of what they said about Paul in the passage we shared together. Reading a letter is really like only catching one side of a conversation, so it’s hard to be precise on the accusations. Some it seemed claimed he used underhand tactics to get his way. His motives were misinterpreted, his actions misconstrued and his words twisted against him. If you read the rest of the letter you’ll see they thought he was not an impressive figure. It seems he was an odd-looking man. It might surprise you to know he wasn’t much of a preacher. One of the things they said about him was that he sounded impressive in his letters, but when you met him he was a bit of a disappointment. He was in and out of trouble all the time. Some believed if God was really with him, surely his own life would be working out better. He wouldn’t have as much trouble as he was having.

Paul doesn’t hide from any of it. He doesn’t claim that following Jesus makes his life easy. And he is a clay jar. He is fragile and vulnerable. He can be hurt. He can be battered by troubles, unsure of what to do, spiritually terrorised, put down, depressed.

He is prone to all of that.

He’s a jar of clay.

But his story doesn’t have to get stuck there. He didn’t have to keep the cycle of pain going. He was made for than that. He was more precious than that. Hid value was bound up in what God had done for him in Christ and the calling Jesus had placed on his life.

His story can be told differently and that starts with a single word. Help!

In verses 8 and 9 we see 4 difficulties in which we see Paul as the jar of clay. But because of the power of the God to whom he cries for help, each difficulty is followed by a ‘but not’

Yes, he is hard pressed. But he is not crushed.

Yes, he is perplexed. But he does not despair.

Yes, he is persecuted. But he is not abandoned.

Yes, he is struck down. But he is not destroyed.

Paul can acknowledge all that he faces, all the hurt he feels, and he turns for help to deal with it. And in the midst of his difficult, fragile life, the divine power can still be known. It can still make the difference. It can give him the strength to keep going. It can keep him rewriting the story and stop him from passing on the hurt. Accusations might be hurled at him. But Paul just wants to pass on life and blessing.

A few weeks ago we looked at Sorry. We spoke of self-examination. Of recognising, acknowledging, naming our own sin, our own unique mix of the HPTMTU. And confession is part of a healthy spirituality. It’s part of what brings our healing.

And in traditions like ours, which emphasise personal relationships with Jesus, personal discipleship and piety, we can focus hard on Sorry.

But a key part of the healing we need is not from sin we’ve done, but from what has been doe to us. We need help with the hurt we carry around. For yes, we are precious. We are bearers of the divine image. Each and every last one of us.

But we carry it around in jars of clay. We are fragile. We can be hurt. We can be cracked. We can be broken. We can carry around stories we’ve been told or we’ve been telling ourselves which are harmful. It affects how we see ourselves and how we live.

And the danger is, as Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says, that ‘pain that isn’t processed is passed on. Pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted.’

What we can learn from Jabez is not that God wants to make us super healthy and wealthy, but that we don’t need to get stuck in the story. But before we can live a new story we need to stop rereading the old one.

It might start with saying yes, I’ve been hurt. And it mattered. But I don’t want to simply pass that on. I don’t want to keep that chain reaction going. God, you consider me so precious that you sent Jesus for me. Jesus tells me I am better than the labels that have been placed on me, and that I place on myself. I’m feel the hurt of wrong done to me, I’ve carried it around for so long. It’s been the story I’ve been told my whole life.

So help me. Bless me, enlarge my borders, be with me, help me stop the cycle of pain. Bless me, so that I can be a source of blessing to others rather than a source of pain.’ If I rely on my own strength, my own wisdom, I will be tempted to react badly and cause pain, just as they expect. Free me from the need to pass that on. I can’t manage it on his own. So ‘Let your hand be with me.’

God help me.

Strengthen me to do this.

Take this jar of clay, fragile and cracked as it is and let your light shone in it and from it.

Help me to rewrite the story of who I am.

And may it be the story of who I am in Christ.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Help Part 1

iqoncept-Help-Bullhorn

Reading: Mark 9: 14-29

We opened with a snippet from the Beatles’ Song Help.

Today we are starting a new word. Based on that introduction, can you guess what it is?

Help

Way back since the start of the year we have been focussing on how at the heart of our faith is this idea of knowing Christ. That God has created us for relationship with himself. God longs to be known and reveals himself to us through Jesus of Nazareth. And through Jesus we are invited to come to live in relationship with God our creator.

Then over the last few months we have been considering different phases, stages or seasons which make up a healthy spiritual life. Each of them has been assigned a word.

Help is the word we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks.

 

But just a couple of things before I dive in. When you present stuff in this kind of way, it can create the idea that there is some kind of linear progression. You should move from Here, to O, to Thanks… and so on.

But life doesn’t work like that. Even in the ordered progression of our seasons, we have warm sunny days in winter, or cold, wet, miserable periods in summer. And people are way more complex than seasons. To borrow from another Beatles’ song, the spiritual path is a long and winding road. If we examine ourselves and ask what spiritual season we find ourselves in, it might not be straightforward. We might recognise something of ourselves in several stages or seasons. Some of the stages might even overlap.

 

It might also suggest that there are good seasons and bad seasons. We could be tempted to think we need to try to rush through the lower points, the tougher seasons and that the aim is to get to the sense of the presence of God, experience wonder and so on.

That’s a perfectly human thing to want to do. But that’s not how life works and it’s not the point I’m making. It’s all these seasons taken together that make for a rounded, healthy, spiritual life. Every stage, or season, can have something of value in it.

Also our faith journey’s all follow very different routes. Whilst there may be something of this kind of cycle going on, we might start at different points. I would say more people probably begin at sorry than here.

And probably even more people begin with Help.

 

Nonetheless, there is a bit of progression or flow to these words. Here was about God wanting to meet us, and enter into relationship just where we are, as we are. God is interested in all of life and we do not have to get into a particular place physically or spiritually to set out on that relationship.

A natural reaction to an encounter with God is, O, or awe and wonder. We might be driven to awe and wonder at God’s power in creation. We might be wowed as we explore God’s great love, justice, grace and mercy, and the lengths to which God was prepared to go to reach out to us. We might wonder at what God longs to do in us and with us in his world, in our homes, our workplaces, our gyms, amongst our friends whatever. God is able to do more infinitely abundantly above all we ask or think. O, or Awe and wonder are certainly part of a healthy spirituality.

As is Thanks or gratitude. Our world is designed in such a way as our life is sustained. As we enter into relationship with God we see how much we have to be thankful for. We come to see I am not in control, and that’s ok.

But it also opens our eyes to see ourselves as we truly are. The most common description of encounters with the divine in scripture is fear and a sense of unworthiness. Another healthy part of good spirituality is Sorry: recognising that we are not perfect. Everyone mucks up. Every last one of us. In different ways, in different times, to different degrees. But we all do it. We each have our own unique mix of what Spufford called the Human Propensity to Muck Things Up (HPTMTU). I was with a colleague in the week and he will work with different counsellors and mental health professionals and he said they will have different terminology for it, but it all is pretty much what the Bible calls sin.

We can try to cover it or justify it, but Sorry was about recognising it and naming it. Not so we can wallow in self-pity or self-loathing. Indeed honesty and stepping into the light, may reveal false-guilt or areas where we do not need healing. But God wants to heal us, forgive us, give us a fresh start.

But that’s not always easy. We try to make that fresh start, but struggle to make it on our own. Knowing you need to make a change, knowing a path is destructive and harmful, is one thing. Transformation is another. We might think ‘I can’t do this.’

Or life throws up all sorts of problems.

When the doctor says ‘it’s bad news.’

When that bill comes in and you haven’t got the cash to meet it.

When that partner says ‘I don’t love you anymore’

When that child refuses to listen to reason and continues to head towards destruction.

 

And that’s why we turn our attention to this word. Help!

 

What’s the difference between God and you (or me)?

God never thinks he’s you (or me)!

 

In her book Help! Thanks! Wow! Annie LaMott speaks of three terrible truths…

1 We are so ruined

2 We are so loved

3 We are in charge of so little

Help! like Sorry is about recognising our limitations. Just as we all muck up, we all come up short. We might think we never need anybody’s help in any way. But life has a habit of proving that assumption wrong. We might say it’s almost as if life is designed in such a way that at some point we will need to turn to someone else for help. That may be another person. It may be God. 

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at this from a couple of different angles – helping one another and help from God. Today I want to look at this word help more generally.

But with help and indeed our next word please we are more directly considering prayer. Every faith has some form of prayer.

But I want to distinguish between two types of prayer.

Intercession and petition.

Intercession is about praying for another person or situation. When we pray for someone who is ill, a mission organisation we partner with or a situation we see on the news, that is intercession. That will be our focus when we turn to the word Please in a few weeks.

Help, or petition, is about prayer by me, for me.

 

And for what is left of this morning I want to use our story from Mark’s Gospel to highlight a couple of different types of petition. One relates to our circumstances, the other relates to ourselves.

 

We encounter both of these in the Gospel passage. It’s a story which contrasts the powerlessness of the disciples with the glory and power of Jesus. Had we started a few verses earlier we would have read about Jesus taking three of the disciples up a mountain where he was transfigured before them. His clothes shone, the disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.

We’re not sure how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. They just did. Peter suggests making three tabernacles on that mountain. One for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Then they heard a voice from heaven. ‘This is my own dear Son. Listen to him.’

Ever had one of those occasions where you’ve been away on holiday, had a great time, you’re fresh, relaxed, ready for what comes next… only to discover that something has happened whilst you’ve been gone, you’re brought crashing down and it’s almost like you’ve never been away.

Something of that goes on here. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story and they all place it at precisely this point. Jesus and the disciples have the fantastic experience on the mountain, only to rejoin the others at the bottom, and they’re in the midst of an argument.

Jesus asks what’s going on and a desperate man steps forward. He speaks of how his son has a Spirit which renders him speechless, and causes him physical harm, with symptoms which seem quite similar to what we would call epilepsy. We see something of his desperation as he pours out his heart about how the condition has put his son in so much danger, throwing him into fire and water. As the boy his brought to Jesus another attack begins. The man had asked his disciples to help, but they had been unable to do anything. Then he asks ‘have pity on us and help us, if you possibly can.’

Jesus effectively says ‘if? What do you mean if? Anything is possible for the one who believes.’

Then the man responds with one of the great prayers in scripture.

I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.

 

It’s not as contradictory as it sounds. He has shown some faith by bringing the boy to Jesus. He may even have been aware of Jesus or his disciples helping others. But perhaps it felt too much to hope for that it could happen to him. And when the disciples had proved powerless to help, maybe that belief was just that little bit harder to find.

Jesus commands the Spirit to leave the boy and, in quite dramatic fashion, the boy is healed.

In that short snippet we have those two types of petition. The prayer to change the situation and another to change me.

There’s a situation in this father’s life he cannot handle. His son is ill and like any parent he cannot bear to watch his son suffer. He would give anything, do anything to change it. But there is nothing he can do. In this one, he is powerless. So he prays help, fix this.

And that has got to be one of the most primal prayers, amongst people of belief, unbelief and everything in between. I cannot face this alone. I cannot handle this or fix it. And when we give up trying to fix the unfixable, I am truly at the end of my rope, and we all fall back on the same prayer. Help!

Sometimes we can struggle with the idea of petition. Some of us find intercession easier. It’s easier to pray for other people sometimes, than it is to pray for ourselves. We don’t like to ask for help. We can see it as a sign of weakness. We should be able to handle this.

Another reason why we struggle might be because we think it’s selfish. God’s running a great big world. It feels trivial to ask for help for me, when the world has situations like we see in North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe and the like. I’m reminded of the Dave Allen joke about why God prefers atheists… cos they’re not always asking him for stuff.

 

And yes it can be subject to abuse. We can start to imagine ideas of God being treated as a personal assistant whose job it is to order the world as we want it. We can be wary of the health, wealth, prosperity type preachers.

But that’s not the only way we might fear abusing it. Annie LaMott writes about a priest she knows who, she claims, spends too much time in the Old Testament who says that all prayers should include the hope that the children of one’s enemies end up living in the streets.

And such prayers do exist in the Bible. Take Psalm 28 (3, 4)

Do not drag me away with the wicked

With those who do evil

Who speak cordially with their neighbours

But harbour malice in their hearts

Repay them for their deeds

And for their evil work

Repay them for what their hands have done

And bring back on them what they deserve.

 

That’s part of the Bible!!

 

It is raw. We might not feel particularly comfortable with it. That’s not to say it’s a good attitude, one we should adopt. It’s not where we maybe would hope to linger. But it’s honest. Can you honestly say you’ve never hoped that someone who hurt you will get what they deserve?

And God can work with your honesty.

There are times when our prayers can feel selfish. Like when I am running late, cos I’ve been disorganised, and I ask God for the tubes and buses to run smoothly and the lights to be all on my side.

Or when I have a problem with another individual and I pray that God will change them or make the problem go away, rather than me have to face it.

Or I’ve taken on too much, or left too many things to the last minute and ask for strength to get it all done.

But not all petition is like that. Sometimes the problems are real, when it feels like you’re trying to fix the unfixable. When maybe you are trying to fix the unfixable.

On Thursday we had one of the most powerful and meaningful times of prayer I can remember in the circle just to my right. There was just a few of us. Each of us had come with something that was troubling us. From me with troubles we are having with the car to someone else needing reconciliation in their family. It was a muddled old time, but very meaningful and powerful.

 

It is healthy to realise that we don’t have to have it all together. You are not all powerful. Life is hard and we are vulnerable and there are times when all we can do is cry out Help! It is healthy to admit I cannot fix this. In so much of life, admitting our own weakness is the beginning of a way forward. It’s when we think we should be able to sort everything, can sort everything, and rely purely on our own resources that we run into trouble and can cause more harm that good. It can be tempting, if the only tool you have is hammer to see everything as a nail.

 

But there is another side to this. The man comes to Jesus and cries for help. But it’s not just change the situation. There is also the cry ‘change me.’

He admits his own weakness. He cannot fix this. But he admits he needs to change too. I do believe. Help my unbelief.

It isn’t wrong to ask God to help with the circumstances we face. But sometimes the help we need is within us.

Take the prayers I mentioned earlier. That prayer for the tubes and buses to run on time, might be a prayer to help me to develop the wisdom not to cram too much in, so that I leave on time and don’t have the stress of running late.

That problem I have with someone else. Rather than praying for the problem to go away, I might pray for the right words to say, or to help me understand what is going on in them and how I might help create circumstances that can lead to a positive outcome.

Or I pray that I might be liberated from the fear of what someone might think of me if I say no. I might pray for liberation of the inner slave driver who constantly demands that I cram one more thing into the day and doesn’t know how to say ‘no.’

They are all ways of answering the same prayer. It won’t always work that way, but sometimes the answer to our prayers comes in the form of learning to handle ourselves, rather than change the situation. God may, in his grace answer the first type of prayer, but that won’t be God’s end goal. We might want God to remake the world in our image, but he is more interested in changing us into the image of his son Jesus.

The father in the Gospel account prays that prayer. Yes, he prays for the situation to change. And that is good, welcome, right.

But he also is challenged to grow too. And he prays help me change. I believe, help my unbelief.

And that often will be the journey we have to make. We might wish there was another way of developing patience without delays, courage without dangers, forgiveness without offence, generosity without need, skill without discipline, endurance without tiredness, strength without resistance, virtue without temptation, and love without hard-to-love people. But there is no real growth without struggle.

But we do not have to do it alone. Remember God wants to meet us where we are, as we are. The cry for help is what keeps us in the game. The realisation that we are needy, weak, limited, imperfect, stressed, driven, troubled or frightened is just the beginning. Maybe the Beatles were onto something over 50 years ago. Maybe the loss of self-assurance and opening the door to another for help is a big step on the road to maturity. It is certainly one mark of a healthy, living spirituality.

Good, honest prayer reminds us that we are not in control and never were intended to be. We cannot fix everything. And we open ourselves to be helped by someone else or by God.

It might come in the altering of the situation, or we might find that through it we are changed. There is nothing to big or too small to call out to God or others to help. There is no reason to be hard on yourself for what you cannot solve alone. When we call out for help we are joining in God’s desire for us to grow and binds us to God far more than comfort ever will. And it is part of a healthy spirituality, because the help moments will be the place where we truly learn to trust God.