Pointing fingers!

 

This week is marked by many as “Mental Health Awareness” week.  I, for one, am glad that during this week there are people who are openly speaking about mental health and are challenging the social stigma that has been placed on these issues.  As I drove into work this morning, I was listening to a fascinating piece on the radio about our poor sleep patterns in this country and their link to mental health and wellbeing.  As I finished listening to the piece on sleep, it felt a little ironic to then listen to a piece on problems in the Middle East and North Korea.  If anything would deprive me of sleep, it’s those two situations!

I found myself reflecting on human beings.

Humanity is, in the words of the Psalmist, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139 vs. 14).  We are a complex creation of mind, body and soul.  We can be emotional, caring, creative and incredibly destructive.

I thought about the many ways in humanity has sought to make life better for itself.  We have endeavoured to find political answers, which have gone horribly wrong.  The old cliché rings true; In capitalism man exploits man, in communism it is the other way roundEven the best of intentioned can get lured by power and prestige.  I thought about the charities and humanitarian solutions that have been offered, only to be reminded of their, recent, heart breaking scandals.

In my time of reflection, I read some words of Jesus;

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.

(John 17 vs. 15)

I remember, a few years ago, hearing an interview with a mega-church pastor from America.  He described his “Church-complex” that included a shopping mall, health centre, medical facilities, gymnasium and even a hairdressers.  He finished his interview by saying “none of my people need to go into the world for anything”.  I have never felt such anger as I felt at that moment! (I even typed that paragraph angrily).

God does not separate Himself from the mess of humanity but, in Jesus Christ, embraces what it means to be fully human.  He then pays the price for human mess on the cross.  His resurrection is the ultimate in life transformation and hope.

I believe that the gospel that we have to share is one of transformation for the world now and in the age to come.  The gospel is not just “pie in the sky when you die”, it’s about transforming the world in which we live.  If you like, eternal life begins this side of glory.  That is what the Church is called to live!

Yes, the Church is flawed.  Yes, the Church gets things wrong and make mistakes.  But, a Church that separates itself from the world, is a church that is not living the gospel.

But Jesus prays something else in this verse.  He prays, that we would be protected from the evil one.  This led me to think about whether or not I always recognize the presence of the evil one.  In the world we see so much hurt and pain that it’s easy to point the finger and say “that is evil”. 

However, evil and the presence of evil it not always “out there”.  Sometimes, it’s very much “in here”.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  Evil can be a very subtle, manipulative thing.  Do I always recognize the presence of evil in my life, my heart?  How often do I give into the pressure to “be somebody important”?  How often do I trade servant leadership for power?  My ways for God’s ways?

Sometimes, I need to remember when I point the finger at somebody else and declare “that is evil” there are three pointing back at me! 

My prayer today is that God would help me to recognize the presence of evil in my own heart and bring it to Him so that I can experience His forgiveness and renewing love.  What about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bowl of Salad?

 

 

I read a wonderful piece recently written by Margaret Silf.  In her book Landmarks an Ignatian Journey she describes an experience she had whilst attending a friend’s induction as minister of a church.  She writes;

The congregation streamed out of the church and into the hall.  The place became alive with conversation, and, as so often happens at these gatherings, within ten minutes the laden tables were almost bare…..…Except for one large bowl of rice salad, which remained untouched in the middle of a long empty table.

Margaret then goes on to say how she could not understand why the rice salad had not been consumed with the same gusto as the rest of the food.  It looked good, somebody had obviously put time and effort into it.  She tried to imagine the feelings of the person who had provided it.  She decided that she would consume some of the delicious looking rice salad.  However, as she approached the salad she discovered that the reason why it had remained untouched was because there was no spoon to serve it with.

Margaret Silf used the bowl of salad to ask some serious questions of the Church and, I believe, that her questions are very valid for us to consider too.  The Christian faith is, to use Margaret Silf’s analogy, like a bowl of delicious salad!  But, as she rightly asks, where is the spoon?

Today, as I wrote this piece, is marked as the Feast of The Ascension and I read part of Marks Gospel this morning as part of my devotions;

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”

(Mark 16 vs. 15)

Over quite a number of years, the fellowship at Pier Avenue have undertaken building work.  In the physical sense, we undertook the building of the Welcome Centre, Atrium and improving other facilities.  This has been done to enable us to actively engage with an ever changing community. 

We have engaged.  Our building is constantly in use by Church and outside groups.  We have welcomed the homeless.  We have welcomed the confused, hurting, lonely and isolated from our community.  We have sought to build bridges to “outside users” of our halls and we have learnt some interesting things along the way.

To only consider the physical aspect (no matter how beautiful that is) of our mission and to neglect the inner aspect of our mission is to miss the most crucial part of all.  Too often, we do a great job at the “outer” display of mission at the expense of the “inner” part of mission.

I believe that people are hungry for a deeper reality in life.  People are hungry for, as Jesus puts it, “life in all its fullness” (John 10vs. 10).  Therefore, we must continually ask ourselves the question, what are we engaging people with where, if you like, is the spoon?

For me, I believe we continually need to be seeking God’s guidance on our Spiritual lives.  As individuals, and as a Church, I feel that we need to, regularly and honestly review the journey we are on and seek God’s leading for the future and we need to be brave enough to ask the honest question of ourselves, where is the spoon?  Can others easily see and access all the good things of God through my life?

As I read on in the Gospel, I read something I had never spotted before;

Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.   

(Mark 16 vs. 20)

It was that phrase, and the Lord worked with them that caught my eye.  They were not on their own Jesus, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit worked through them, enabling them to engage.

As I was reflecting on these words, my mind went to a well-known passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus refers to Himself as the true vine (you can read it in John 15 vs. 1 – 17).  In that passage Jesus tells us that we must remain in Him, connected, receiving His life flowing through us and, as we do that, then we will truly offer the world something that is worth having.

 

 

 

Joy Filled?

The English Language is weird!

No two ways about it.  For as long as I have spoken, my language has always been English.  To my shame, I have always struggled when it comes to learning other languages.  Over the years I have tackled French (c’est une catastrophe), I was hopeless at Hebrew and Greek was all Greek to me.  English is the only language I have ever mastered and English is weird!

This fact has really been brought home to me over the last few months.  We have a young German youth worker on placement in our Church at the moment.  I am, effectively, his line manager and we meet regularly for chats as well as developing his work.  I can say something that makes perfect sense to me, however to him, it means something entirely different.  I now have to think carefully about the words I use and the context in which I set them.

So take, for example, the sermon I preached in Church yesterday morning.  I used as the key word “Joy”.  The sermon was based around Ezra chapter 6 where the Bible says;

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy.

(Ezra 6 vs. 16)

What does “joy” mean?  Are you the sort of person that could be described as “joyful”?

In much popular thinking, joy is equated with happiness.  Some people would describe joy as exceedingly happy or happiness over an extended period.  For some Christians joy is characterized as a “hallelujah anyway” and the ability to smile through whatever difficulty life throws at us.

I have come to the conclusion that is wrong!

The Bible is not silent about the difficulties of life and the Messiah is described by Isaiah as;

 

…a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.

(Isaiah 53 vs. 3 NLT)

But I do believe that Jesus was a man who was full of joy.  Let’s face it, nobody wants to follow a misery guts, yet people must have seen something in Jesus that was worth following.  I think that, in part, it was the joy that Jesus had and still has.

To help me get to grips with happiness and joy I read this in www.psychologies.co.uk/joy-vs-happiness

Joy and happiness are wonderful feelings to experience, but are very different. Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events. 

Christian joy is not grounded in ourselves, it is grounded in Jesus and in all that He has done for us.  Because of Jesus, we have can have peace and confidence in the relationship with God we were created to live in.  Jesus joy was grounded in His relationship with His Father.  That is what, I believe, people saw in Him and wanted to find out more.

Rather controversially, I did suggest in my sermon that there were two things that should characterize a Christian.

The first is love. Love of God, of each other and even our love for ourselves (see Matthew 22 vs. 39, Mark 12 vs. 31, Luke 10 vs. 25 – 28)

The second characteristic is joy!

Perhaps, I need to do some more work on both of these.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Hospitality

I read a quote this morning that really made me stop and think, it comes from Henri Nouwen;

To pray for others means to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen to their needs and pains.  Compassion, therefore, calls for a self-scrutiny that can lead to inner gentleness

(Henri Nouwen – The Genesee Diary)

There were three words that lept out at me from this quote.

The firstly word was hospitality.  I wonder if many Christians today are losing touch with this most important of gifts.  We expect our Churches to be places of welcome (especially toward us) but, what about our homes?  Think about it, when was the last time you invited somebody you do not know so well to come and have coffee with you?

One of the sad facts in our society today is that community is slowly dying.  We, as a society, are becoming more self-absorbed and focused upon the individual.  I am sad to say I see this trend entering the Christian Church.   One of the reasons, I think, that there is an increase in isolation, loneliness and fear is as a result of the loss of community.

I believe that Christians have a unique form of community based on and around the person of Jesus Christ.  However, too many in the Church have a “come to us” mentality when, in fact, Jesus tells us to go to them (see Matthew 28 vs. 19).

The second word that challenged me was the word listen.  Listening is part of the gift of hospitality.  We do not invite people to come in without creating space to listen.  I think that is part of what the story of Martha and Mary is about (Luke 10 vs. 38 – 42).  Martha is concerned with the mechanics of hospitality , Mary is concerned with the listening of hospitality.  I think that’s why Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better way.  If you look at the painting by Velazquez (from 1618) I think Martha’s expression says it all!

To really listen to somebody is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

The final word was “compassion”.  The listening we do must not just be surface only but, it must be listening with our hearts.  Our hearts need to be touched by the stories we hear so that we can truly pray for those we give hospitality too.

The quote from Henri Nouwen really made me think today about what part hospitality plays in my life and ministry.  How about you, will you look around you today and ask “who can I show hospitality to?”

The Good Shepherd

 

This morning, I sat down for my quiet time with my Bible, journal and reading notes.  I have been working through the section in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks of Himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10 vs. 1 – 30).  The particular verse that I was focusing on this morning was verse 27;

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

In our modern western culture, we are aware that sheep are driven and guided.  We may marvel at the skill of our modern shepherds controlling their sheep dogs to guide the sheep where they need to be.  However, there is something special about the image that Jesus presents us with, a shepherd walking ahead of his sheep calling for them to follow.

Of course, these verses and images are familiar to those of us who have been a round church circles for a little while.  However, my notes encouraged me to think of things in a slightly different way this morning.  I found that, what they suggested, was profoundly helpful.

Let me explain.

I am used, at the end of the day, to stopping and reflecting back.  I reflect on my whole day.  I think about those things that went well, those things that did not.  I will ask myself if there were times that I felt especially close to God or, were there times when God felt absent.  I ask myself if I have encountered God in places, or people, where I did not expect Him.  It’s a good thing to do and is part of my daily routine.  When I have done this, I take the opportunity to hand the day over to God complete with its successes and failures.

My notes today suggested that, as well as doing this at the end of the day, why not do this also at the start of the day?  I sat with my diary in front of me and looked at the list of appointments, the tasks that needed to be done.  I was aware of the things that I will accomplish, those things that needed to be put aside.  I was aware of the pastoral visits and how I would seek to bring the comfort of God in various situations.  I thought about the conversations of celebration and those that would be a little harder.  Most of all, I became aware of the clamor of voices that would fill my day and I thought of Jesus words;

My sheep listen to my voice

I then used my imagination and tried to picture Jesus in my day.  What did He look like?  What was He doing?  What was He saying?

I had, at that point, what I can only describe as a really profound experience. The picture I saw was of an outstretched hand.  It was almost as if I was being invited to reach out and hold Jesus hand!

As my prayer time came to a close, I was left with this real assurance that, whatever today holds, I do not journey through it alone.  I can reach out and put my hand into the hand of Jesus and travel with Him.

Why don’t you give it a go and see what Jesus says to you?

 

 

 

Light into Darkness

It was a time of feasting in the city of Jerusalem.

The feast of Tabernacles and 8-day festival of music and dancing, food and friendship.  An 8-day party!

A time when the Jewish people remembered God’s provision in the wilderness and looked forward to the day when all people will flow into Jerusalem to worship God.

It was at the end of the first day of the feast and the whole city was in darkness apart from one lamp in the heart of the great temple.  Gradually, one by one, torches and lamps were lit from this one source until the light spread out across the city until the whole place was illuminated. A blaze of light and colour.

And then a silence fell over the people as a controversial teacher stood in front of them and declared

“I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but, will have the light of life.”

 The crowd were stunned, shocked, amazed and angry.  Who was this man who could dare to say this?

Okay, to be honest, I don’t know if that is exactly what happened or not.  There is, perhaps a bit of artistic license in my telling of the story but the basis of it, is what happened at that Feast of Tabernacles and Jesus said those words, they are recorded in John’s Gospel, chapter 8.

I was thinking about them today.

As I drove into my office this morning I was listening to the news on the radio.  It was full of the atrocities in Syria, the problems in London and the political difficulties that are happening in the world.  As I listened to the radio, I was acutely aware of the power and strength of the darkness that is in the world at the moment.

As I sat with my Bible I re-read John 8 and I also read some, familiar, words from John 1

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

(John 1 vs. 5)

I said in Church, on Sunday, that one of the major problems in our world today is not so much the presence of evil but, the loss of hope.  As a Christian, I should not only be aware of the hope that Christ brings into my life but I should, must, be willing to carry that light out into the darkness of the world.  The famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi says;

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

 

Those words became my prayer today, may they be yours too.

Feeling Neglected

 

Something interesting happened this morning which, sadly, my photo does not do justice too.

My wife, Paula, was setting up the song and reading boards (yes, we still have them) when she called me to come from my office to look at something, “just look at that” she said.  I took a look at it and, in the half light of the building, I was amazed to see that the white card background stood out brightly in contrast to other cards used.  Paula then explained to me how difficult it had been to put the name card into the runners “I don’t think it has ever been used before”, she commented.

I don’t know the age of the cards but, I do know that it has not been used for at least 10 years because, that’s how long I have been in Clacton and I have never preached on the book of Ezra before.

I first began to think about Ezra at the end of last year and, at first, I just couldn’t get my head around what we could possibly learn from that book.  From a historical point of view I could see that it was contemporary to Nehemiah.  I could see the overall picture of the book but, what I could not see was how this could possibly fit with the context in which I am called to preach.

Eventually, after a lot of prayer and study, a few ideas began to emerge and I saw something within the book of Ezra that I had not seen before.  Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to be sharing that with the folk who attend the fellowship where I minister.

Like many preachers, I draw inspiration from different sources. However, I guess I am not alone, when I say there is always the temptation to preach from those bits of the Bible that I like and leave aside those parts that I struggle with.  The Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy says;

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.                                                                                                                                                                     (2 Timothy 3 vs. 16 – 17)

 

All means the bits I like and the bits I don’t!

As I write this I am painfully aware of the damage that people can do with the Bible too.  Some, seek to use parts of scripture as a justification in holding onto certain attitudes and values and I believe this is an abuse of scripture.  I use that strong word, deliberately. 

To read the Bible as a text book and leave aside the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, is a dangerous thing to do.  You see, Paul talks about “God-Breathed” and we need that breath of God blowing into our hearts and minds as we look at scripture. We need to not only read words on the page but, to know the heart of Him who inspired them to be written.

 

Out of Sorts

It’s interesting how things sometimes fit together.

Over the past few weeks, I have been feeling a bit “out of sorts”, a bit low, not comfortable in my own skin. There have been some issues to wrestle with, through work and some things I have been heavily involved with in the past, I can no longer be involved with.

All of this has led to me feeling very unsettled. It’s not a good feeling

For those disciples, that very first Easter must have been a very unsettling experience. Just as everything seemed to be going so well, the crowds cheering for Jesus on Palm Sunday, it all goes horribly wrong. Jesus was arrested, put on trial, crucified dead, and buried.

Just as their whole world seems to have fallen apart, they discover that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is alive and amongst them! We are, possibly, so familiar with the story we lose the impact of those words.

Just when it was finished, over, final, God does something incredible.

I was reflecting on this today when our post came.

There was a beautifully handwritten envelope that contained an Easter card. I paid real attention to it because the painting was done by a friend of mine, David Senior. It is always a treat to get a card from David because they are always special.

The painting is called “Resurrection”. What I love about it is the shading, the effect of the light. It’s a picture of hope symbolised by the presence of light.

Yes, I am out of sorts. Yes, I do feel a bit down in the dumps at the moment but, there is hope. I believe things will get better because, somehow, in the midst of darkness the light of Christ can shine.

Turning The Clock Back

How did you cope with the time change?

For those of my readers who are wondering  what I am on about, in the UK last weekend we moved our clocks forward one hour to British Summer Time.  Twice a year we go through the ritual “Spring Forward, Fall Back”.

I always struggle for a few days whether forwards or backwards, it takes me a few days to adjust my thinking.

It’s interesting that, this year, the date fell on the start of Holy Week.  This got me thinking more and more about time and one particular character, Judas Iscariot.  I am not going to give you a biography of Judas but just a couple of quick things to note.  Firstly, he was the keeper of the common purse who was helping himself to the disciples funds (John 12 vs. 6).  Secondly, he was to betray Jesus (John 18 vs. 1 – 11).

Judas is often portrayed as the villain of the piece.  For those of us who have been betrayed by those close to us, Judas has become a name to be used for anger or insult “you Judas!” we say (albeit not verbally).  When it comes to choosing names for children, Judas is never going to feature in anyone’s top ten.

The final thing we know about Judas is, he took his own life.  He killed himself.

I wonder how Judas actually felt.  Perhaps he began his journey with Jesus full of hopes and dreams.  Maybe he was full of enthusiasm and a keen follower to begin with.  Maybe, he was full of wonder at the miracles and never missed an opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus to hear the parables and soak up the teaching.  The other disciples must have thought he was fairly trustworthy after all they gave him the common purse to look after.

Somewhere along the line, things began to go a little wrong.  Maybe it was the pressure of debt.  Maybe it was the responsibility of home.  Maybe he had only meant to borrow it but, somehow the money began to find its way from the common purse, to his private purse.  Perhaps he fully intended to pay it back but, it just never seemed to happen.  The other disciples would have trusted him less.  Let’s face it, John says he was helping himself and if John knew it, you could guarantee it that the others were aware.

Finally, for 30 pieces of silver (yes, again it’s the money) Judas agrees to betray Jesus.  He has now left the league of petty pilferers and entered the big league.  The guys he was now dealing with would expect their pound of flesh (quite literally).  There was no going back.

I wonder if, as Judas stood on the brink of taking his own life, he just simply wished he could turn the clock back.

I know, in my life, I have often wished the same.  I wish I had not done certain things, if only I could turn the clock back then…. 

I wish I had approached that situation differently or responded differently or…. 

But, I guess, I am not the only one.

Regret is a very powerful emotion and feeling.

Sometimes, in the face of our regrets, we feel as though we are completely powerless.  That our past has a great hold over our present and, ultimately our future.  But, I don’t believe that it has to be this way.  Our past can be forgiven and used to help build our future.  Our mistakes do not have to have the last word.

One thing I have been thinking about, is that if Judas had gone to Jesus and asked forgiveness, He would have received it at any time.

In those early days, when the money was just a “short term fix”.  In the middling days when there was no way he could pay back what he had taken.  Even at the last minute itself.  God puts no time limit on His forgiveness.

For me too?  Yes, even me with my regrets, I too can find God’s forgiveness.

And you?  Well now, that gives you something to ponder about doesn’t it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling Wound Up

 

 

 

I was feeling pretty wound up this morning when I got into the office.

I am sure you know the feeling.

I had been out of the office for just one day and it seemed like there was an Everest of paperwork all needed doing ready for the next lot of meetings.  The answerphone was full of messages that needed attending too.  To make matters worse, I was about to lead devotions at our homeless project and had no idea what I was to say!

I decided just to read something comforting from Psalms;

The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit

(Psalm 34 vs. 18)

“That will do” I said.  It is comforting, encouraging and will lead nicely into prayer. I put the bookmarks in my Bible and prepared to rush on to retrieve the paperwork I had left on the photocopier.

It was at that point, I felt that God almost “grabbed me by the scruff of my neck”!

I stopped for a moment and I really felt God was speaking to me just from the words at the start of that verse;

The Lord is close…

“Do you believe that, do you know that?” I just felt Him ask.

In truth, the biggest reality was the stress and pressure I was feeling at that moment in time.  But, instead of helping me to do more, God seemed to be asking me to stop.  I then picked up a devotional book and read the passage for tomorrow (yes, I was so stressed I got the date wrong!).  Here is what I read;

We listen to sermons and homilies affirming the benefits of a life of communion with God, but somewhere deep down we really believe it is action, not prayer, that will satisfy our needs.  We may think that prayer is good when there is nothing more important to do, but we have strong reservations and doubts about Gods’ effectiveness in our world, of God’s personal interest in us.  We are no longer conscious of God-with-us

(Henri Nouwen – Clowning in Rome)

That was it!  I had, somewhere along the line, stopped being aware of God’s presence with me and that is what God was seeking to remind me.  It was amazing, as soon as I reached out to God, He was there and the stress was gone.