news of the world

If you watch, listen to or read the news at the moment it can make for miserable reading. There’s hideous violence committed at individual, community and international levels. There’s devastating poverty that is affecting people, countries and whole regions of the world. There is hideous greed that is making a few rich at the expense of those who can least afford it. Environmental crises are breaking out across the globe with a seeming unwillingness to act from some of those who are most able to make a positive difference, preferring short term economic gain while sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring the clamour for action. There is blatant racism, sexism and other prejudices that seem to be encouraged or at least not condemned at the highest level.

It’s not likely to lead us to a happy place is it? Even the ‘and finally’ lighthearted items on the news or the plethora of funny cat videos on the internet can’t lift the sense of gloom.

So what can we do?

Have another look at Psalm 23. You probably all know it, or have heard of it. Yes, that’s right: the Shepherd one.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

(NIVUK)

Most of us don’t have a lot of experience of shepherds, especially ancient near-Eastern ones, so what can this ancient piece of poetry do for us today?

First of all, recognise that an ancient near-Eastern shepherd was responsible for protecting the whole flock and providing for them. It wasn’t simply a question of leaving them out in a field, the flock would roam the countryside. And they would follow their shepherd who would go ahead of them (not driving them from behind as in the UK), listening for his voice and trusting him because he had provided for them in the past. No sheepdogs were needed because the shepherd was trusted and known. David, who wrote this psalm, had experience of this as he had been a shepherd, and that was one of the ways in which he experienced God – someone he knew, whom he trusted, whom he was willing to follow, whose voice he knew.

Green pastures are always good places if you are a herbivore. It’s easy food and provides the nutrients that are needed. In the ancient near-East green pastures would have been at a premium, bearing in mind that it was/is a hot climate. Much of the land would be dry scrubland with not so much to eat, so if a sheep found theirself led to a green pasture it was bliss , especially if there was also a source of cool water there. If you have been in the hot Mediterranean sun you would be refreshed and feel restored at such places. When we find ourselves in green pastures or beside still, refreshing waters we should not forget to give thanks to the one who has led us there. We should find ways that our soul is restored – what works for you?

The shepherd would know the local terrain and would know which were the paths to follow. Some might be difficult but they would go to the right destination. Here ‘right paths’ doesn’t just mean those that go to the right places, however, it also refers to ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’ and means that the flock benefits from the shepherd’s faithfulness. ‘For his name’s sake’ means that God acts consistently with his character. There are many names given to God in the Old Testament and all of them reflect something of his character. Even referring to him as ‘The Lord’ as David does at the beginning of the Psalm is bigger than we imagine. The word in Hebrew is YHWH – the Hebrew word for God that was originally unpronounceable because there were no vowels but is now sometimes pronounced ‘Yahweh’. It derives from the Hebrew for ‘I am’ and reminds us of the eternal nature of God, the existence of God, the constancy of God, the self-sufficiency of God and so much more. That’s the One who’s our shepherd!

Following the shepherd does not mean that we’ll always be in green pastures and beside still waters. There are times when we go through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death). We all know that to be true even though we hate to admit it. The difference for those who follow the shepherd is that they know he is with them as they travel through that dark valley. They may be frightened, worried, anxious or even terrified of what is in the shadows, but they know that the shepherd is there with them and is committed to them. You’re not alone if you don’t want to be.

The psalm abruptly changes from a pastoral metaphor to a banquet scene. There’s a celebration, a meal in our honour, and we will be vindicated in the sight of those who have opposed us. The host is generous to us and honours us. Did you notice too how the language changes from an impersonal third person (‘he’) to a personal second person (‘you’). This is not a theoretical expression of faith, it’s a personal relationship with YHWH. God’s care for us is genuine: not just a story of a shepherd but an experience of love, care, honour and justification.

And there’s an eternal dimension to this that can never be taken away from us.

Add to that what Jesus said about being the Good Shepherd and it becomes spectacular!

None of this changes the news. But it may help us look at it differently knowing that YHWH is leading us, with us, for us and we are his eternally.

Be blessed, be a blessing

praying

This morning I spent some time at a prayer space at South Woodham Evangelical Church and found it very helpful. During the time several different thoughts occurred to me and a couple of them stuck.

One is that I personally find it a lot easier to spend time in prayer if I have activities to engage with. Spending time in silent prayer and meditation is good but I find it hard work (not that hard work is wrong!). I lose concentration, my mind drifts and, if I am completely honest, I can get a bit bored.

But if you give me some prayerful activities to engage with I find myself entering into a dialogue with God that is so much richer and more profound that sitting in silence. That bothers me, because I fear that I am missing out because of that, and it also blesses me because I recognise (as I have said many times here) that we all have different spiritual personalities and there really isn’t one-size that fits all when it comes to praying, reading the Bible and encountering God.

This morning I was refreshed as I put an Alka Seltzer tablet (other effervescent tablets are available) into a bowl of water and watched it vanish – reflecting that the stuff that separates me from God (my sin) has been forgiven when I confess it and as far as God is concerned is gone, forgotten, deleted, erased… it is no longer something that separates me from him.

I was blessed when provided with a blank piece of paper and some drawing implements so that I could  be creative. I drew something that represented the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday and thought through the implications of that: because the tomb is empty

I am…

I can…

I will…

I will be…

I see…

and I filled in some of the blanks in grateful prayer.

I wrote the names of people and situations for which I am currently praying on a cut out of a person and sought God’s grace, joy, peace, presence and love for those people. It helped me to focus on them, their needs, their circumstances and the fact that they are people not just names.

I had an encounter with God.

inspired

And there was more besides. Much more. It was a very special time. Thank you to SWEC and the Chelmsford 24/7 Prayer team who helped organise it.

So the thought occurs to me to ask you how you find it easier to encounter God, to pray, to read the Bible? Have you tried other approaches to see if they are helpful or have you just stuck to what you have always known and the way you have always done it? You could be missing out!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

monochrome faith

old tvImagine for a moment that you have never seen a television. Imagine that the first one you see is a black and white TV (yes, young people, they used to exist). How amazing would that be: moving pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having only experienced a black and white TV,  you see a colour TV for the first time. Wow! How amazing would that be? Moving colour pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having experienced a colour TV you now see an HD TV for the first time. WOW! And so on. The more detail, the more colour, the more vivid and impactful the experience.

[Bear with me for a while, we’ll come back to this]

A number of years ago, while I was still a ‘wet behind the ears’ minister…

[brief tangential comment] – I think being ‘wet behind the ears’ is probably a good thing for a Baptist Minister as it suggests that we have been immersed in water. However, where does that phrase come from? Why is a failure to dry behind your ears an indicator of being a novice? The WWW suggests that it’s to do with newborn babies who are so new they have not even had a chance to be dried off yet. Hmmm, not sure about that one. Anyway, enough of a tangential comment, let’s go back to the original train of bloggerel.

[original train of bloggerel resumes here]… I was with a group of people from different churches in the town where I was a Minister. It was intended as a social gathering of the Christian participants in a successful event. I was chatting with some of the people there when I became aware of something deep and serious going on in a corner of the room. There were several people praying over a woman who was crying and sobbing and as she wept she kept saying: “I don’t feel anything!”

The people were praying that the woman would be filled with God’s Spirit and would feel his presence. But she was not feeling any difference so they were praying all the more fervently. I wish I had intervened. I wish I had had the courage to tell them to leave her alone and stop bullying her. I hope that she might, somehow, read this bloggage and know that I am sorry that I didn’t. But I was wet behind the ears (see previous tangential comment) and did not have the courage (or wisdom) to challenge what was happening.

For some reason this event came back to mind yesterday as I was driving along from a meeting. I felt profoundly uncomfortable at what had happened and prayed that the event might not have bruised that woman’s faith too badly. If you have had a similar experience I pray that you won’t have been too badly bruised either.

I think (from what I observed and subsequent conversations) that a group of people had been talking about how they experienced God and the woman had said that she did not experience him in the same way that they did. So they offered to pray for her. I commend the people who were praying for their desire to see the woman’s experience of God deepen. I commend her (I believe she was a willing participant) for wanting that too.

But now I see this as a form of (inadvertent?) bullying. The unspoken (or perhaps spoken) message was that everyone has to experience God in the same way that the pray-ers experienced him, and if you didn’t then you were in some way deficient in your faith. You had to have it prayed into you. You had to feel something. You had to experience him physically. And we’ll keep praying until you do (or until you pretend that you have in order to make us stop).

Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe that some people physically experience God’s presence. I do believe that he can be felt in our emotions. I have had experiences like that myself.

But, dear bloggists, let’s think about it for a moment:

We are all different. We all have different personalities – even personality type indicators can only give broad brush strokes to our personality. We have all had different experiences in life. We are all wired differently. We are unique individuals – even twins who share the same DNA are not the same people. Some of us are touchy-feely-huggy-emotional people. Some of us are reserved-handshaky-thoughtful people. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just that we’re different.

So if we are all so different why would we think that God only reveals himself to us in one particular way? If nobody else is exactly like us why would we assume that just because I experience him in a way that suits who I am (personality, experience, preferences, etc) that this is the only way in which to experience him?

Human beings tend to gather together with like-minded people. You can see this in churches. Some are swing-from-the-chandeliers, hands-in-the-air, dance-in-the-aisles churches; others are stillness-and-reflection, sit-quietly, gentle-thoughtfulness churches. And there are many other types as well. People tend to go to a church in which they feel they can fit in, where they feel comfortable. But if we assume that the church we attend is the normal church, the best church, the only church then we can also (incorrectly) assume that the way we encounter and experience God in our church is the normal, best, usual way to do it and if someone else doesn’t have that then they are deficient and we need to fix them (through fervent prayer).

You may sense that I am getting a bit hot under the collar about this. (That heat may dry out any residual dampness behind my ears). I believe that many of us need to grow up as believers. We need mature in our understanding of the God whom we worship. We need to recognise that the same God who created such diversity among us is not only capable of making himself known to us in diverse ways so that we can encounter him in the way that we find easiest, he actually does it that way.

You can encounter God in stillness and silence. You can find him in choral music. You can experience him through modern songs. You can find him in studying the Bible. You can find him in conversations with others. You can sense his closeness as you serve other people. You can hear him as you pray. You can experience him in the vastness of the Universe, the beauty of creation or the intricate design of the building blocks of life. You can find him in church services (of any flavour). You can find him in the kindness of strangers. You can find him in the friendship and love of people around you. You can find him in the familiar. You can find him in the unusual.

And none of them is the only way to experience him. None of them is better than any of the others. None of them is exclusively right: they are just different preferences for encountering God.

I sense some of you have your fingers poised over the special ‘smite the heretic’ key on your keyboards, so before you hit it (and me) let me clarify: I am not saying that you can dispense with the need for faith in Jesus Christ. I am not saying that the central moment in human history and the focus of the Christian faith is anything but the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But I am also not saying that any of these is wrong. I am saying that none of them is adequate on their own. I am saying that we can experience God in any of those ways I have described, and many others that I have not mentioned. I am saying that we need to be open to experiencing him in other ways. And I am saying that because we are all different we will all find it easier to encounter him in different ways. We will all have ‘default’ positions.

But please, please, please let’s not assume that our default is the same as another person, or that it’s the only one, and please, please, please let’s not try to impose our preferences on another person. And please, please, please let’s not make what is secondary to the Christian faith become primary (putting it alongside or in place of Jesus).

I do hope and pray that that lovely woman found the ways in which she can best experience Jesus. I do hope and pray that you have found yours too. And I do hope and pray that churches will be able to offer more than a monochrome experience of God (as amazing as that would be). Perhaps with a wider range of possible ways of encountering him promoted and offered by churches we could get closer to HD (which is still only a poor imitation of the real thing!).

Be blessed, be a blessing.