is Christmas over?

Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.

It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.

But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.

My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)

And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?

All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.

We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?

Jesus is missing

I hope that you are well and in good heart as you navigate through the maelstrom of Christmas events. I hope and pray that in the midst of it all you are finding Jesus… which leads me neatly to my theme:

Have you seen this news story on the BBC news website? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-46599641?utm_source=Daily+Media+Digest&utm_campaign=4223aabbb0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_12_03_10_54_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_296e14724b-4223aabbb0-248620461&fbclid=IwAR2rgNGteYRlZ7vzkbhmnrM9m5nmIiM_DpmnUvHr-G9YkvdRYbzk_ooqC_w  

If you don’t have time to read it, the short version is that someone has taken the baby Jesus from a church nativity scene in St Annes, Lancashire. It’s not clear whether it’s malicious, pranksters or even a child who wanted to take care of the baby however in the article there are a couple of fascinating sentences: The first is from the priest, Revd Scargill who ‘said he had tried to order a replacement Jesus but it was out of stock.’ Imagine that, Jesus is out of stock at Christmas! (There’s a line for your Christmas day sermon).

But for many of us he can be out of stock, can’t he? I am not just talking about the people who don’t know him, who walk past churches every day unaware of the good news within. I am also referring to the way that for all of us we can all ‘run out of Jesus’ – even Ministers. It happens particularly when we are busy and we find that we lose touch with him. Our faith dims a bit (it’s so gradual we don’t always notice the process) and slowly but surely we find that we are ministering more in our own strength than in the power of the Spirit. Of course we are good at covering it up so that our people won’t notice, but we do notice after a while. We feel a little empty, or as if the shine has been taken off and spiritual fruit starts to wither and we respond to people with less grace, joy, patience and so on. That leads me to the second sentence.

In the article there are quotes from different people. The priest speaks of forgiveness for those who return Jesus. But on the church Facebook group one lady ‘called the culprit “low life scum”’. I’m not sure which of the fruit of the Spirit is being shown there.

I do hope they find Jesus (a smaller replacement has been offered). And more than that I hope and pray that all of us find him again this year in the familiar carols, readings, services, lunches, Christingles, nativity plays and the time we spend with those we love.

do less, be more (continued)

Carrying on from the last bloggage, I am exploring Mark 1:35-39

A summary of what happened is that Jesus seems to have found himself a good place and time. Jesus went off to a place with few distractions where he was unlikely to be interrupted.

He went very early because he knew the rest of the day would be busy. The fact that the disciples mounted a full-scale manhunt for him suggests that they were not used to him doing this, but if you read the gospels there are lots of times when Jesus took himself off to pray. He set aside time and space to talk with his Father. It’s not that he didn’t talk with him through the day, but he knew the value of giving God his full attention.

Sally will tell you that I am not a morning person so getting up very early to pray is not likely to bless me. But I can find other times in the day when I know I have space and can give God my full attention.

When he gave his Father his full attention prayer flowed. We don’t know what he said,but from other prayers he prayed we know he would remind himself who his heavenly Father is, he prayed for guidance, strength, for the state of his relationship with his Father and other people, he would pray that God’s will be done…

That feels like a good model for our praying doesn’t it? And of course it’s actually the model we call the Lord’s prayer.

Are you feeling guilty yet?

It’s really easy for us to look at Jesus, or at other people and their amazing prayer lives and feel like a failure. My prayer life is nothing like what I have just described.

But God wants us to be us, not to be someone else.When it comes to praying we can be really good at beating ourselves up because we don’t think we’re very good at it. Or we wallow in guilt because we don’t pray as much as the preacher says we ought to. Or we resolve on a Sunday that this week we’re going to do better, and have forgotten that resolve by the time we tuck into our Sunday roast at home.

If you come away from today thinking, “I must try harder,” or “I must do better” then I will have failed. Because that’s not the message I am bringing you. You see Jesus didn’t pray out of a sense of duty or obligation. He prayed because it was natural for him to talk with his Father,and because he was full of the Holy Spirit whose role is to enhance our relationship with God. Jesus must have found immense benefit and blessing in praying. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have got up so early to do it. He made time and space to give his Father his full attention.

Recently I have joined a gym. It’s part of my desire to continue my rehabilitation following surgery earlier in the year. When I started at the gym I found most of the exercises were hard and left me feeling exhausted. The next day my muscles ached terribly. But I have been going to the gym twice a week for most weeks since and I have found that the exercises are becoming a bit easier. I can lift a little more weight, walk and row and cycle a bit faster and further. And I find I am even enjoying it.

To compare our prayer life with going to the gym is rather inadequate but the similarity is that while we may struggle at first,the more we pray the easier it gets.

Let me change the image. When I first started going out with Sally we didn’t really know each other very well. We had to get to know how each other thought, we had to understand each other better and in order to do that we had to talk with each other. We have been married for over 29 years now and conversation between us is much easier because we know each other so well. Sometimes we know what the other one is going to say even before they say it.

So it is with God in prayer. The more you talk with him the better you get to know him and the easier the conversation (prayer)flows. And to help you get started I would suggest that you may find it helpful to find a space where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. You may find it helpful to find a time when you have not got lots of other things to do. And when you are in that space, tell God what’s on your mind.

Be honest with him because he already knows it anyway,but by being honest with him you’re being honest with yourself. If you don’t know what to pray, remember the things Jesus prayed about – use the Lord’s Prayer if that helps you. But instead of rattling through it pause and think about each phrase and tell God what images and thoughts it conjures up in your mind. What does it mean that you pray to your Father in heaven? What does it mean to say that his name is holy?

If you struggle to pray on your own, find someone or a couple of people you know and trust and join together on a regular basis to share and pray together. Or you could join a home group. Find support in your local church.

Relationships are deepened and enhanced by spending special time with the other person and giving them your full attention, and that includes our relationship with God.

Be blessed, be a blessing

making up for lost time

Gosh, was it nearly a month ago that I last posted a bloggage? That’s not good. I am surprised any of you are still interested! By way of apology I will put some posts up over the next week or so that are based on my reflections on a passage from the Bible on which I have preached recently:

Mark 1:35-38

a relaxing place

Gosh, was it nearly a month ago that I last posted a bloggage?! I am amazed anyone is still interested in what I write, and you must feel really ignored by me. By way of apology / revenge I am planning to post a series over the next week or so based on a recent sermon. It’s all based on Mark 1:35-39:

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ 39 So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

When I was asked to preach on this passage it was with a theme of beating burnout and prioritising prayer. But as I have looked at the passage this week I think I have found the secret to winning at church and life. I think it will shock some of you.

I wonder what you think it might be:
Getting up early, while it’s still dark?
Praying more?
Preaching?
Going outside the walls of the church on evangelistic road trips?
Casting out demons?

Actually I think it’s this: do less, be more.

When we look at Jesus in this passage I think we see that he does less than the disciples thought he should, but was more in touch with his heavenly Father. Do less, be more.

If anyone didn’t need to it was him – he was the Son of God! Yet the gospel writers record many occasions when Jesus was praying, not just this one.

It did him good – recharging spiritual batteries – the day before he had been healing and driving out demons, which was spiritually draining – after praying he was ready to go elsewhere and preach. It maintained his relationship with his Father and Spirit – praying to his Father, empowered by the Spirit.

It made a difference – Jesus had more than enough to do without getting up early, so he must have considered that it made a difference to him and his mission. You might think this is a case where he is doing more, but it’s actually about him being closer to his Father.

So what about it? Am I prepared to do less and be more?

courageous reasoning

With all the love, grace and encouragement I can muster I want to ask you to bear with me and read this bloggage to the end. It may be the most important one I have ever written.

One of the things that an imminent operation on your heart does for you is force you to face your own mortality. I have the utmost confidence in the surgeon and his team and have been assured that the risks of the surgery are minimal, but they are there nonetheless. I have had to think about and prepare for that very small possibility.

Christians believe in life after death (and life before death too). We don’t believe in reincarnation or hanging around as a ghost / spirit, but a full-blown life-as-God-intended no-holds-barred all-consuming experience of God for those who want it once we have curled up our tootsies and shuffled off this mortal coil. And when we come face to face with something that reminds us that we are not indestructible and that life is finite we have to consider whether we really believe what Jesus said.

That’s when the rubber hits the road as I have to consider whether I really believe what I proclaim.

rubber hits road

I want to say a wholehearted, unequivocal “YES!” I believe it with all my heart, mind and soul. I have staked my life on it.

One of my favourite definitions of faith is: “Reason in a courageous mood.”* You take what you can deduce, what you can learn, what you can understand and then extrapolate from that to the next logical step, and that extrapolation leads you to take a step of faith – following the trajectory of your thinking and understanding and acting on it.

So, by way of example, if you had to cross a ravine and there was a bridge there you would need to exercise faith in the bridge in order to use it and cross the ravine. Before you did you might examine the bridge to see how strong it is, you might ask other people who have used the bridge and you might even research online how and when it was constructed. But once you had come to the conclusion that it is strong enough for you to use safely you then have to take the step of faith and put that reasoning into practice by crossing the bridge. And you are encouraged when that faith is vindicated and the bridge holds.

All that I have read, considered, discerned and understood about Jesus of Nazareth confirms to me that I believe him and I believe in him. What he said makes incredible sense. What the contemporary records say about him reveal an extraordinary person. And the evidence for his resurrection is (in my view) pretty conclusive. All that points me to the conclusion that he is who he claimed to be: God with us. He is worth following and trusting and through faith in him I am able to have a relationship with God that is life in all its fullness now and beyond death. My reason has become courageous and I have been blessed, inspired and encouraged to find that this faith has been vindicated.

I want to say a hearty “Amen, amen, amen!” to these words written by Paul to the early church in Rome (Romans 8):

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? [If you read the preceding verses you see that ‘these things’ are pain, suffering and death.] If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’[j]

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You have to make your own mind up about this, but please do so on an informed basis. Faith may be reason in a courageous mood but for many people lack of faith is not cowardly reason, it’s simply that they have never considered it. The difficult thing is that although you can investigate, research, discuss, listen and discern about the Christian faith, ultimately you’ll only experience it in its fullness by taking the step of faith. It’s like a stained-glass window. From the outside you can see lots of the shapes and images in a stained-glass window but you will only really experience it in all its glory once you go inside a church and look at the light shining through it – that’s the way they were designed.

stained glass 3

If you would not say that you are a follower of Jesus and if you consider me to be someone you trust then I want to encourage you to consider his claims carefully and investigate them for yourself. Then you can decide whether to get courageous with the reason.

If you are a follower of Jesus, don’t privatise your faith – live it 24/7. If it’s good news for you it’s good news for everyone.

If maybe you are a follower of Jesus but you’ve not been actively following him you will know that he would love to welcome you back into a closer walk with him – you only have to take the first step and you’ll find that he’s already there with you.

If you have never considered these things I hope and pray that we could have a conversation about it once I have recovered from the operation, but don’t feel you have to wait for that moment – talk with another Christian.

The reason I believe all of this is not because I am a Baptist Minister. I am a Baptist Minister because I believe that this is the most important thing in life (and death) and it’s worth dedicating my life to.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I believe this is attributed to LP Jacks from 1928, but I first heard it from one of my spiritual heroes, friends and Senior Minister in my first church: Revd David Richardson

faq

Picking up a thought from yesterday’s bloggage got me wondering whether we ask the wrong questions and then are surprised and disappointed at the answers we get. Yesterday one of the questions that I suggested is thrown up by the apostle Paul pleading in vain for God to take away the “thorn in his flesh” was ‘why didn’t God take it away?’ It’s a frequently asked question about suffering and unanswered prayer.

pexels-photo-221164.jpegBut it’s a question that can lead to all sorts of unsatisfying answers (I don’t subscribe to any of the following answers, by the way). Some might suggest that God wanted to teach Paul something through his suffering. What sort of capricious God would want someone to remain in pain simply to learn a lesson? Others might suggest that Paul didn’t have enough faith when he prayed. But Jesus debunked that myth when he said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. (For me the mustard seed measure of faith equates to ‘as much as it takes for us to pray). Others may say that Paul did not pray enough times – he only pleaded three times. But is God really the sort of being who needs lots of prayers before he responds – like a slot machine that asks for more coins before it dispenses a bar of chocolate?

Is it the wrong question because it leads to unhelpful answers?

What if the right question looks at things from a different perspective: ‘why does God intervene in answer to prayers?’ You see when we look at Jesus in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles) we see that (especially in John’s gospel) these are ‘signs’. They point us towards something significant:  they reveal who Jesus is; they help us understand something about human nature; they help us realise that God’s kingdom is much bigger than we could ever imagine; and they help us face our own internal prejudices.

So could it be that when God intervenes in answer to our prayers we should be asking ourselves why he did rather than focusing on the times when it appears that he doesn’t*? What does he want us to recognise, realise or learn because of his intervention? What difference would it make to our faith if instead of asking “why not?” when God appears not to have responded* we ask “why?” when he does?

*I would also want to challenge the notion that God hasn’t responded when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want. Given that we are talking about a relationship with a God who says he is love, isn’t it fair to expect that he will answer – but perhaps we are looking for the wrong answer. Jesus gave us a hint about this when he was teaching about prayer (including giving his famous pattern for praying we know as The Lord’s Prayer):

11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

So when we pray we know that God wants to respond in the best way for us. When we pray we pray “your will be done” and seek to align ourselves with that rather than “my will be done” and try to convince God to agree with us. When we pray we should be asking for him to give us the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual resources and gifts we need to become the person God created us to be, and to be able to listen to God’s answers. When we pray we should be seeking answers to the right questions.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

sufficient

I’ve written in the past about my experience of enduring years of chronic migraines and cluster headaches and how thankfully, following surgery, they are now no longer part of my experience. I am conscious that for many people chronic pain is still part of their experience – physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual pain is incredibly debilitating.

In the darkest days before the operation there were times when I felt like I was clinging on by my fingertips – clinging to my desire to carry on and clinging to my faith as a follower of Jesus. In those moments there was a verse in the Bible that was immensely helpful:

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (from 2 Corinthians 12:9)

open handsAnd I can honestly say that was my experience. God’s grace – his generously-given, unearned, sustaining presence – kept me going. I was able to live, serve and bless others from a place of weakness because God filled in the blanks for me. When I lacked words he provided them. When I couldn’t think he provided the thoughts. When I couldn’t see beyond the pain he lifted my eyes up towards hope. When I was battling through in my own strength he provided people to carry me and to tell me to stop and rest.

The context for those words in 2 Corinthians is filled with mystery:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What, or who, was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Chronic migraine and cluster headaches certainly feel like a thorn and are tormentors. We don’t know, and Paul doesn’t tell us because it’s not important.

I can certainly empathise with prayers pleading for God to take away the pain. And not just three times! So, why didn’t God answer his heartfelt pleading to take away this thorn? Why did God allow me to suffer for so many years before finally the surgery resolved the problem? Or, to widen out the question: why doesn’t God always seem to answer our prayers in the way that we want?

The answer Paul received was not a theodicy (answers to the question of how a loving God can allow evil, pain and suffering to persist). It was a promise. The promise was of a loving, gracious sustenance that was sufficient for the problem. Not a flourishing, dancing-in-the-aisles, swinging-from-the-chandeliers victorious healing. Just enough to enable Paul to cope. Sufficient.

Sometimes we receive more than we need. But we will receive sufficient.

And God will make up for what we lack. It may not be inner strength and fortitude. It may not be miraculous supernatural ability to rise above what is going on. It could be that it is other people coming alongside us. It could be that it is the ability to let go of some of the stress and allow others to help. It could be that it is the opportunity to receive love, support, encouragement and strength from others who can give you what you lack. It could be that it is the courage to stop and realise that we are not indispensable and that we don’t have to go it alone. And in that liminal space the paradox of weakness being strength, of grace sufficient for pain, of power perfected in impotence becomes reality.

The difficulty for us is that in order for this to happen we have to trust God and stop trying to do it all in our own strength. We have to trust that he will keep his promise. When you’re in the depths of despair it’s perhaps not so difficult to do that because you’ve already exhausted all of your own resources. My testimony is that this is true. Today I read Simon Thomas’s blog of his own heart-rending experience. He is finding the same to be true.

But if you aren’t in a wretched place the same promise is true – God’s grace is sufficient for you. You may need to let go of more of your security blankets and self-reliance to experience it, but I believe that he will prove himself trustworthy.

I pray that you and he will continue to know that God’s grace is sufficient for you. And that his power is made perfect in your weakness.

Be blessed, be a blessing