Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Blurred Sight

In my daily prayer time, once I've read the day's appointed Bible passage and studied the notes that go with it, it's my habit to take off my glasses.  As I did so the other day, it occurred to me that the physical effect of doing this - i.e. not being able clearly to read the words in front of me - reflected the essence of what I had just read.

For many years, I've been following the excellent studies and commentaries provided by Scripture Union in their publication Daily Bread; at present we're working through the middle chapters of Mark's Gospel. Here, Mark follows Jesus' travels around Galilee and in the adjacent Gentile areas, with many stories of miraculous healing and feeding, amidst which Jesus was also trying to teach his disciples.

In the miracle of restoring sight to a blind man (Mark 8:22-26), Jesus led the man out of the village.  This meant that the disciples were the main (possibly the only) witnesses.  The healing took place in two stages, which one commentator takes to be an illustration to the disciples that they had only understood half of Jesus' message to them.

In answer to His question "Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:29), Peter proclaimed - possibly as spokesman for the others - that Jesus was the Messiah.  When Jesus followed up by explaining that He would suffer, be rejected and killed, and rise from the dead (Mark 8:31 and 9:9), it was clear that they didn't understand this at all.  Peter tried to persuade Jesus that no one would kill Him if he, Peter, could do anything about it ... and received the painful rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan" (8:33).

In general, what these chapters reveal is that the disciples' idea of the Messiah and the reality of Jesus' life purpose on earth were two very different things.  The disciples expected Him to deliver the Israelites (God's chosen people) from the yoke of Roman occupation; Jesus had come to explain the true nature of being 'chosen people'.  The disciples were seeking answers - as many of us do today - to the wrong question.  They were asking, 'How?'; they needed to ask, 'Why?'

'How?' presupposes the objective; if that supposition is wrong, then the question is irrelevant.  'Why?' is seeking the motive.  The motive determines the objective and leads to a more productive conclusion.  We spend many hours in fervent prayer wondering how God is going to solve particular problems, sometimes the world's, sometimes our own.  If instead, we were to step back a stage to why it might be that He would do this, we might understand the all-embracing nature of His love.

In his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, Tennyson wrote, "Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die".  It's usually misquoted in the first person: saying 'ours' instead of 'theirs', which helps our understanding of its relevance here.  Once we understand that God loves us and, in Paul's words to the Romans, "works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28), we learn to trust Him to do so in whatever way He will.  We should have no need to ask God, or even to wonder to ourselves, 'How?'.

The belief of the blind young man's father in that story of healing was probably similar to that of many of us: it was partial.  We need to echo his prayer in Mark 9:24: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!".  Belief or faith to the extent that can trust the way he did does not come without help.  Faith, as the commentary in my Bible explains, "... is a gift from God.  It isn't something that we can store away like money in the bank.  Growing in faith is a constant process of daily renewing our trust in Jesus."

Who'd have thought that taking my specs off would help me see that more clearly?

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Back to Church Sunday?

Some years ago, I remember one Sunday in September being designated 'Back to Church Sunday'.  The idea was that each member of the congregation would invite a friend or family member to join them in going to church, as a 'taster', with a view to returning if they liked the experience.  Alternatively, there might be people who had simply not been to church for some while and who had now 'got out of the habit'; that day was an opportunity to return without embarrassment, knowing that there would be others present who would be finding church behaviour 'new' or 'strange'.

As churches now are in various stages of 'returning to normal' following the lock-down (ours will open for worship again next Sunday), this tag line takes on a renewed significance.  There will be many who will not wish to go; some will have good reason, perhaps still shielding, some with children who will not be catered for in the usual way and so would have to sit through an 'adult' service without disrupting - not at all easy for 3-to-7-year-olds - and still others who have simply got out of the habit of public worship ... especially since armchair worship through technology has been made possible by many churches in the last few months.

Over the years, I've heard many other reasons why people don't go to church;  I'd just like to comment on three of them. 

"I don't like the vicar/this week's preacher" ... It's quite natural that not everyone pleases us, but this shouldn't be allowed to deter us from drawing near to God and His people.  I know a woman who, on realising that she didn't like the new vicar, stopped attending church.  As soon as the next vicar arrived, she was again seen there every week.  She had missed a whole slice of parish life!  The writer to the Hebrews encouraged his readers in "not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another" (Heb. 10:25).  We should keep going to church despite the people we'll meet there!

"I'm not good enough to go to church" ... Some of us who were brought up on the Book of Common Prayer will remember the service beginning with the plea, 'O Lord, open Thou our lips'.  The words come from Psalm 51, and have been part of liturgy since before the Reformation.  Their source reminds us that, of ourselves, none of us is worthy to come before God.  Isaiah expressed this unworthiness very concisely: "I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:5).  Fortunately we don't have to suffer the remedy that he reported (see verses 6-7), but can claim the redemption won for us by Jesus on the Cross.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus declared, "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill ... I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matt. 9:12-13).

"I haven't anything decent to wear." ... I blame the Victorians for the tradition of wearing one's best clothes for church-going.  Many working men would only have two sets of clothes, one that they wore every day for work and the other that was kept for church.  If only they had read more closely the story of Samuel's selection of David, the shepherd-boy-come-king!  Samuel was told, "Don't consider his appearance or his height, ... people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7).  Many people are put off church by the thought of appearing inferior; I'm very glad that the churches I have attended over the last thirty or so years have welcomed all, whatever their appearance.

If you want to worship in God's house, feel free to do so.  Don't be put off by mere people and their misguided traditions!

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Water, Water ...

How have you coped with the extremely high temperatures this last week or so?   It was nice to have sunshine during much of the lock-down period, but many of my friends have opined that the last few days have been a bit too hot, and for longer than they would have liked.  My mind went back to the songs of a former age and I thought, "The green, green grass of home" ... is turning white!  By the time the inevitable storms came, some no doubt were ready to run out into the torrents to celebrate, but I was happy to stand at the open window and inhale the wonderful fresh smell of the rain, glad that the day ahead would be more bearable.

Water is indispensable to life, of course.  If you've read the excellent historical novel, Cat and Mouse by Tim Vicary, you'll know that it contains vivid descriptions of a suffragette on hunger strike, who decided to stop drinking to add to her protest.  Aching limbs, headaches and spots before the eyes featured in the experience described and the woman was warned that, should she carry on this way, death would shortly follow.

John's gospel tells of an encounter between Jesus and a woman beside a well.  There's no question of this woman being in such a dire condition.  No doubt it was her daily habit to collect water at the well and she probably had good reasons for choosing to come in the heat of the day despite the exertion required to carry the water back home.  Her visit on that day, however, was far more productive than she had expected.  Jesus challenged the cultural differences between them by asking for a drink.  His next comment completely threw her as he offered her 'living water', in contrast to the water she gave him that she had just drawn.

He pointed out that, after drinking the water from the well, people would in time be thirsty again; what he offered was what Isaiah had spoken about centuries earlier: "I [i.e. God] will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants." (Isa. 44:3).

What Jesus described as "a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13) was nothing less than God's Holy Spirit, which Paul later described as a 'down payment' (the 'earnest' or 'guarantee') of the eternal life that is ours when we believe (Ephesians 1:14).

Next time you think, 'I could do with a drink,' ask yourself if you are also in need of Living Water.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Knowing Me, Knowing You ...

Many years ago, there was a TV game show called 'Mr & Mrs'.  Couples competed against each other to show how well husband knew wife and vice versa.  Each couple in their turn would be divided, one going to a sound-proof booth while the other faced questions about how their partner would react to specific comments or situations.  The 'silenced one' would then be released and asked the same questions, with the number of questions that got the same answer from each partner determining that couple's score.

A few days ago, I did something foolish and told myself off under my breath, using words that my father would have used had he caught me in that situation.  It wasn't a phrase that I would normally use and I started reminiscing about our respective vocabularies. (And that, incidentally, is a word he would never have used: he would probably have said 'the way we speak'.)  Each of us has our own vocabulary, assembled from what we hear or read day by day as we grow in age and experience.  I recognise words that my father would or would not have said because he was part of my life every day for more than twenty years.

These two examples illustrate the profound link between love and knowledge (that's knowing in the sense of intimate awareness).  A winning couple in the game would have shown the deep understanding of each other that could only come from true love; the fact that I still recall my father's words over thirty years after his death is an indication of how special he was to me in his life and still is today.

I invite you to look with me at Psalm 139.  It tells of a knowledge that is beyond our understanding (v.6) and a presence that is greater in its compass that is barely matched by the most modern of technologies (v.7 ff).  This is explained by a depth of intimacy far exceeding that of a human parent (v.13-16) and gives rise to the loyalty that matches the fiercest that we could expect within human families (v.19-22).  How do we react to such love?  Surely all we can do is to seek our own improvement (v.23-24), seek to know Him more and nestle into our heavenly Father's warm embrace.

These verses show the depth and intensity of God's love for us, the greatest expression of which was the gift of Jesus.  The significance of that gift is, for me, summed up by the words of Stuart Townend's hymn, How deep the Father's love for us, which you can hear here.  

It never cease to amazed me how the Psalms, though written thousands of years ago and couched in ways of life and cultures now long gone, reflect situations and relationships that are just as relevant to our lives in the twenty-first century.  

Which is your favourite Psalm?  

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Hardcore!

What are you reading for pleasure?  Perhaps your taste is monochromatic, you only read one type of fiction, or perhaps no fiction at all.  Maybe your bookshelves boast a technicolor of literary delights.  In recent months, I've been working my way through the medieval mysteries of Ellis Peters' monk-cum-detective Cadfael.  I'm making that delight last longer by alternating these with anything else that takes my fancy among the many unread volumes I've collected down the years.

An interesting contrast has emerged.  Quite apart from the disciplines and ritual of the abbey, there is about Cadfael an unspoken and yet clearly understood spiritual dimension that is often - whether by accident or design - missing from the characters in other books, be they real or fictional.  I believe this is a reflection of life itself.  There are those people who have a true and deep-rooted faith that simply oozes out of everything they do or say, and there are others for whom any kind of religion is anathema.  Strung out between these two extremes is a whole spectrum of spiritual awareness along which most of us move this way and that as our life proceeds.

I cite as examples of these extremes, two characters from the Old Testament.  The first is Joshua who, knowing that he was coming to the end of his life, wanted to leave the Israelites the same encouragement that he had received from Moses, that they should follow God's commandments and would therefore enjoy all the good things that He had promised.  During their years of wandering in the desert, the people had picked up lots of bad habits from the tribes around them, and some of their beliefs and gods as well.  Joshua made it clear that they had a choice.  They could continue to live with the false promises and uncertainties of what they had become familiar with, or they could pack all these things up, leave them behind and turn back to Jehovah Jireh, the God who would provide for their every need (Genesis 22:14).  "But as for me and my household," Joshua concluded, "we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15).

My second example is Saul.  This man was a weak leader; he was chosen as the people's king because he was head and shoulders above the rest.  This was a physical advantage only.  Apart from questions about his mental stability in the ways he behaved with David, his son-in-law, his leadership was dependent in large measure on the prophet Samuel.  In a spectacular failure, he had followed his own instincts and dealt with the Amalekites in ways that were directly opposite to what God had told him through Samuel, and shortly before his death, Samuel had reported God's displeasure with Saul.  Then came a day when Saul was faced with an important battle against the Philistines.  He was terrified.  He realised that he wasn't getting any help from God and so turned to a medium so he could talk to Samuel from beyond the grave.  The only help he got from Samuel was a repeat of God's anger.  When the battle came, he was defeated and met his end (1 Samuel, ch. 28 & 31).

One of my favourite hymns was written by two Irishmen, one from Dublin, the other from Cork and both graduates of Trinity College, Dublin.  Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady wrote many metrical versions of the psalms and one that remains familiar today is that based on Psalm 34, "Through all the Changing Scenes of Life".  You can hear it here.   The words remind us that, whatever we have to face there is a source of help - if not to avoid a situation then to deal with it - simply by turning in prayer to our loving Father.  If we turn away from Him, we reject the eternal source of love, wisdom and hope who can guide us through all of life ... and beyond.

Where do you turn in a crisis?

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

In Every Part

Spiders.  They're like Marmite: you either love 'em or hate 'em.  I make no excuse, I fall into the latter camp.  My cousin is pretty much of the same opinion, and recently put me on to the idea of the ultrasonic pest repellent.  It's wonderful.  You plug it into an electric socket and it emits a constant sound - beyond our hearing range - that 'encourages' the little creatures to move out.  The device comes in multiple packs, not just to sell more of them (although obviously this is also true), but so that you can spread them around your home and avoid protecting one room at the expense of others.

My regular Bible reading led me the other week to Mark 4:3-8, the parable of the soils, sometimes known as the parable of the sower.  It's followed by Jesus' explanation to his disciples just what he was getting at, how the reaction to his Good News differed from one person to another, depending on their circumstances.  One commentary I read led me to an understanding of that parable that hadn't occurred to me before.  

We usually think of those four types of soil as referring to different people; it could apply to different phases through which our life passes, perhaps as our faith develops and we become stronger to overcome other demands on our lives and attentions.  It might also apply to different areas of our lives.  We might, for example, let God guide us as regards our future, or how we behave towards our parents or children, but at the same time be totally closed to ideas of caring for His planet by recycling our waste, or for the poor or disadvantaged people on the other side of the world - or of our own town - by giving to charities that are active in those fields.

One of my weekly habits is to listen to a radio programme, 'Beverley's World of Music'.  It's presenter, Beverley Humphreys, will sometimes follow a piece of music with the comment, "I love those words ..." and she then reads the words of the song we've just heard.  Often I find - and perhaps you do, too - that I've listened to the music and enjoyed it, but haven't registered just what the words say.  The spoken repetition certainly contributes greatly to the overall appreciation of the piece.

When I read that commentary about soils and people, I immediately recalled the first line of a hymn I'd sung long ago, Horatius Bonar's "Fill thou my life, O Lord my God" ... but couldn't remember what came next, so I looked it up.  It's worth applying the 'Humphreys technique' to that hymn, as I did that morning.  It is, in effect, a prayer for an all-pervasive faith: "I ask ... for a life made up of praise in every part", "Let all my being speak of thee and of thy love, O Lord" "So shall ... all my life ... be fellowship with Thee."

Have you, like me, got lots of spiritual spiders that need to be 'encouraged away'?

Monday, 15 June 2020

Trimming our Relationship

Have you noticed how even the most familiar people seen out of their usual context can seem total strangers?  I once met my hairdresser in the supermarket and just couldn't place where I'd seen her before.  I now patronise a different establishment and, when the lock-down is finally relaxed, I shall return there.  But one thing is common to all hairdressers, I believe.  The conversation is usually limited to 'Do you have a busy day lined up?' or something very similar.

One reason for my change was the fact that my previous hairdresser was leaving to have a baby; realising that that might be the last time I saw her, I wanted to express my appreciation for her services.  The conversation went something like this.  Me: 'You're so quick!'  HD: 'It's just practice; I've been doing this for nine years.'  Me: 'You know exactly what to grasp, where to cut.'  HD: 'Well, I know your hair ... I've cut it lots of times.'

Recalling this brief conversation now, I suspect that these four expressions: speed, practice, ability and familiarity, reflect our Creator's relationship with us.  I also remember a friend who spoke of her hairdresser as, 'the kind of best friend whom you can trust implicitly to tell you if you look rubbish'.  While not my experience, that seems to endorse this comparison.

Take practice for a start. God has had an eternity of practice dealing with other people just like us.  From creation, through Old Testament and New Testament times, through hundreds of generations, among millions of individuals down the centuries isn't it highly likely that there have been several like each one of us?  Even if our composite individuality has never been precisely replicated, God has seen - and heard the prayers of - many thousands of people who have experienced each separate circumstance we find ourselves in, every challenge we've faced, every difficulty met, every hill climbed.

As the psalmist reminds us, God is familiar with us.  He has "knit me together in my mother's womb ... my frame was not hidden from (Him) when I was made in the secret place ... (His) eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in (His) book before one of them came to be." (Psalm 139:13-16).  There is no aspect of us, no behavioural trait with origins lying deep in our growing-up, of which He is unaware and therefore no part of us that He can't deal with.  In the light of my opening analogy, Matthew 10:30 is even more amazing: "... even the very hairs of your head are all numbered."

I admired the way my hairdresser knew where to aim her scissors to achieve the desired effect; the multi-faceted nature of God's love simply embraces us to provide just what is needed in every part of our bodies and our lives.  Paul writes, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that ... (nothing) ... in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:37-39).  How fantastic to think that we are inseparable from the God who loves us.

And when the need is great, God is not slow to act.  After the temple in Jerusalem had been repaired and the service of God was restored, "Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people, because it was done so quickly." (2 Chron. 29:36).

About 250 years later, following the return from exile in Babylon, Nehemiah asked the Persian ruler for permission to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the walls of the city.  Nehemiah reports his conversation, "The king said to me, 'What is it you want?'  Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king ..." (Neh.2:4).  Nehemiah thought nothing of praying in the split second before he opened his mouth to reply to the king's invitation, and many other instances of spontaneous prayer are recorded throughout this short book.

Living as we do in the midst of God's great love, we need to realise that nothing is too difficult, too embarrassing or too mundane for us to bring to Him in prayer.  If it's a matter of urgency, the answer can come surprisingly quickly.  Think for a moment of someone you love.  If they were in need or in danger, wouldn't you drop everything and run to their aid?  It's ironic that the speed of answered prayer should amaze us.