Silent Night, Holy Night

25 12 2012

Six o’clock in the morning and the house is silent.  The potential of the day is just lurking, waiting to come alive. It is Christmas morning. No doubt in many homes with young children, parents have been forced into wakefulness already.  For us it is yet to come. My mind has already wandered over the preparation of the potatoes, the parsnips, the brussel spouts and much more. And it has put those thoughts aside for those things, by necessity will push their way to the forefront later on. Now is a time for reflection. Yes, the presents have been wrapped, the food has been bought in and we can do no more, so now relax, sit back for a few minutes and ponder on the wonder of this day.

The Christmas accounts of the Gospel are amazing. It is no wonder that some are trying to push them off Christmas cards, no wonder they try to challenge this day saying silly things like, “Well it was a pagan festival that you Christians hijacked.”  Smart move whoever did it. Now we’ve anchored this day to act as a particular day of remembrance. So it could have been January 10th, May 15th July 6th, who cares! It’s just a day when we remember something incredible – a baby cried (almost certainly) and God was suddenly out in this world in human form.

We can’t cope with that really, the thought of a baby expressing God, or even later on of a grown man being God while still man. My wife and I have been reminded recently of the illustration of the meal offering in Leviticus where flour and oil mingle together to form one material – you cannot distinguish between the two but they are still two materials blended together. Thus God clothed in humanity revealed himself to us.

I have sometimes pondered on why He didn’t just occupy a grown human body but that would have required one of two things. Either he would have to invade the will of an adult human being (and God never invades our free will) or He would have had to create a unique human figure at the age of say thirty (but God doesn’t do magic and anyway such a being would not have thirty years of human experience  and it seems that God made the most of this unique time in HIS experience by entering into so much of what we experience.)

So often when we say, “But Lord, you don’t understand what I feel, what I’m going through,” He replies, “But I do, I’ve been there!”

But there’s an even more mind-blowing thought and it is that which we see particular in John’s Gospel where Jesus speaks about having come down from heaven where he had existed before.  This baby born on whatever day it was, was containing the incredible third person of the trinity, the Son of God, who has always existed as one expression of those three expressions of that one God. We’ll never understand it this side of death, but that unique expression of God that we call ‘the Son’ had always been, and now was in human form.

I recently heard Christians testifying at a Christmas service and was saddened that they could only focus on Jesus coming to die. As critically important and real as that was, they missed the sheer wonder of God putting Himself in human form so that He could reveal His character to us through this human being. How do we know we have a loving and good God? Look at Jesus. Read the Gospels with an open heart and see the wonder of this ‘man’ and marvel. Every life he touched, he touched with love and goodness. He healed thousands, he even raised the dead and all he did was an expression of God’s goodness and love and, yes, eventually he died on a Cross to take the punishment that was due us for our sins.  Those of us who have been Christians a long time tend to lose the wonder of this person who ministered in Israel for three years some two thousand years ago.  Pause afresh and reflect and wonder.

I like the nativity stories because they are so blatantly supernatural – angels turning up all over the place, dreams given to guide, and a supernatural man-less  conception. Awesome! I recently heard someone trying to explain what the ‘star’ was that guided the wise men to Bethlehem, and was left thinking, “Well I suppose that’s what it might have been – but it might have been something else, but who cares – somehow God managed to guide these astronomers cum astrologers to Bethlehem where He used them to be the supplies of the finances that the young family needed.”  Why is it that we feel we have to explain every detail of HOW it all happened. Sorry, I can’t explain virgin birth, I can’t explain angels and lots more, but if God says this is what is, then OK. There is sufficient that I do understand, that I’m happy to rest in the bits that I don’t understand.

It’s like Christmas is a time (whenever it actually was) where God says, “Here you are. Here are my gifts to you – a massive pile of evidence for you to unwrap and think about, to help you believe, and when you come to the bits that you can’t understand, don’t worry, I do!”

A baby in a manger, angels, shepherds, wise men. It’s just the start of the story and there’s nothing else like it in all of history, in all of the world. So ponder on it, think about it, marvel over it and don’t let the opening of presents or preparing food  or whatever other practical things force them on you this day, detract from the wonder of it. Whatever else you do, stop and say thank you.

The Woes of Lifeless Preaching

3 05 2011

The Woes of Lifeless Preaching 

It seems my blog writing is like London buses. Nothing for a long time then several come together. This particular one has been stewing in the back of my mind for a number of weeks and just needs speaking out. Remember, this is supposed to be a blog about faith and the Christian life.  It concerns the quality of preaching today. Over the last three months my circumstances have changed (I’ve retired) so my wife and I have been free to try out a variety of churches and we’ve also been to Spring Harvest, the focus of which this year was all about the Bible. The following are some of the things that have cropped up as we have listened to a variety of preachers in this time.

1. The Preacher Whispers.

This particular speaker had a rather ineffective microphone and spoke very quietly. No one has taught him that out there are people who would like to hear him, and so he has obviously never learned to project his voice. Don’t preach unless you want people to hear you and you are willing to put effort into projecting your voice!

2. The Preacher is Tired

At least this was the conclusion when listening to one particular preacher and in a measure he has my sympathy. Being a one-man ministry and doing all the pastoral work and preaching every week (which is what I think this man does) is tiring and it is difficult to maintain power in preaching. If this is you – give others space, take a rest and get renewed.   Both this man and the previous one convey that the message is not very exciting. Read sermons by Martyn Lloyd Jones and almost every time he conveys that this is THE most important message in the Bible.  If the Bible doesn’t excite us, don’t preach!

3. This Preacher is Chatty

This message came over like a chat over a cup of coffee. It was largely unstructured but most of all it lacked authority. Authority in preaching comes from a man who is given over to God, and who has the word of God burning in him, and who has spent long times in the Word and knows his Bible. The more you know it, the more authority you will have. Until you have that authority, sit down and read your Bible.

Linked with this is a failure to realise the purpose of preaching. It is, I would suggest (without resorting to ML Jones or John Stott’s books on preaching) to convey the truth of the Bible in such a manner that it is understood and it then moves people into action and change. It is the truth revealed by God in His word that will change lives and change the world.

4. This Preacher declares only Law

This preacher conveys guilt and pressure by the use of the words, “ought” and “should”, instead of conveying the possibilities in God and by the enabling of His Spirit, that have been opened up to us by the finished work of Christ on the Cross. There are imperatives in the New Testament as well as the Old, but unless we also preach the means of achieving them in Christ, we simply set people up for failure and more guilt. The wonder of the Gospel opens up the way for people to move into a new experience of being enabled by God to become the people He has designed them to be.

5. This Preacher bores with principles.

Yes, he quotes Scriptures all the way through, in fact so many you never take any of them in, but he never takes time to apply them, open them up and illustrate them. Principles thus become rules which are tedious and hard to work on. This preacher asserts that he believes the Bible implicitly, but has obviously never meditated on it because all we receive is a surface glossing over of proof texts.

6. This Preacher only tells stories.

This man has been told we live in a TV age and so realises that illustrations are all important, but along the way he has never taken in the wonder of the word itself and realised that this is the truth he is to be preaching and not merely emotive stories.  The stories may be highly emotional but unless we are left with the sense that the Scripture has been conveyed to us, its understanding opened up and applied to our daily lives, all we are left with is an emotional buzz which soon evaporates. Our will has not been impacted and changed by the truth of God’s word that He has conveyed to us.

7. This Preacher has never been taught discipline

I have no problem with 50 minute sermons if they have all the matters above taken into consideration. This particular preacher declared his intention to cover two chapters of the book of Revelation in his sermon, and no, it wasn’t a skeleton overview of the big issues of the last days, he was going to cover it all in detail, which suggests he has little knowledge of the book or of his audience. At the opposite end of this scale is the preacher (probably from a particular denomination) who has been schooled to preach the message in ten minutes. The only trouble is that he still leaves his congregation hungry. However concise, however compact you are able to be in that period of time, you are indirectly conveying that actually the Bible isn’t very important and isn’t worthy of our time and effort on a Sunday morning or evening. The result is people whose lives have not been changed y the wonder of God’s word, applied in the power of the Spirit, by God’s faithful servant who has spent time and effort to bring it.

And to summarise….

So often it seems we are being presented with a sketchy view of Scripture, together with a shallow understanding of it because preachers have failed to read and absorb the Bible, be moved by it and become utterly convinced that this is THE truth of God that saves people and transforms people, so that they have the most exciting task in the world, to present the most exciting truths in the world. Please can we return to that!

Nativity – truth and fiction

24 12 2010

Nativity – truth and fiction

When I woke this morning I found last night’s last episode of the BBC’s four part series, The Nativity, still in my mind. It was memorable and it was different and we enjoyed it. It had more of a sense of reality about it than any other film we’ve ever seen about the events of Christmas two thousand years ago.

What were the good things about it? Well, as I’ve said the sense of reality, the feeling that this is how life might have been then – but the truth is that it may have been very different because it is difficult to judge from two thousand years distance. But it communicated well. What was also good was the fact that they didn’t fudge the central issue – Mary was a virgin and still conceived as a result of a divine encounter. What was also good was the supposition that the ‘star’ was actually three planets coming into alignment – just at the moment of Jesus’ birth. Although speculation, it certainly added to the sense that this was a cosmic event, and that sense of divine destiny was heightened by the sound of machinery like massive cogs moving the planets into place just for this supreme moment.  What was also excellent was the genuine worship brought by the wise men. What was intriguing was the ongoing saga in the background of a young man who was a shepherd suffering under the harsh regime of Herod, which eventually brought him to the stable where he saw the child and – we presume – was released from all his anger – a little too much unsaid at that point.

But then I felt myself feeling a little sad for the BBC because having done such a good job on so much of it, they altered it to suit their filming whims. The setting of Mary & Joseph’s betrothal was excellent but thereafter Joseph got the rough end of the plot which diverted from the Biblical text considerably.

For instance, to start with, Matthew tells us that, Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Mt 1:19) In the filming Mary’s ‘disgrace’ is a major issue and so it was not being kept under wraps.  Next in the text we find that shortly afterwards in a dream he gets the message from heaven – which he believes and “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Mt 1:24) In the film he rejects her story throughout and holds her at a distance until the birth in the stable. Not so! The text indicates they lived under one roof as husband and wife (without sexual relations) for at least five or six months (If Joseph had wanted to hide her disgrace she would have told him within the first two months of her pregnancy, the dream followed shortly afterwards and he took her home to appear as husband and wife before she really started really showing she was pregnant. One would assume that a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would take less that two weeks and so they didn’t start off until half way through her last month.)

The wise men skirting round Jerusalem also moves somewhat from the text. Again Matthew tells us they boldly (or naively) arrive in Jerusalem and start asking around. Herod eventually calls them in and gets details from them before sending them off again.

The timing of the wise men according to the text, and most interpreters understanding of it, was also astray. It was nice that they turn up just behind the shepherds but the text suggests it was different from that. Intriguingly the text says “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” (Mt 2:11)  What is intriguing about this is the reference to “the house” and the absence of any reference to Joseph. When you put this story together with the fact that Herod later ordered the death of baby boys under the age of two (Mt 2:16), it suggests that some time had passed before Herod acted and the fact that the little family escaped south to Egypt (and not north away from Nazareth) suggests they were still living in Bethlehem and to do that Joseph would have had to find work and would explain his absence from the home (which they presumably borrowed or rented) doing work for someone as a carpenter in their home. Everything points to the wise men coming months later to Bethlehem to this little family that appears settled there for the moment at least. But what’s the truth among film-makers; the story is the important thing!

So, an enjoyable story opening up new thoughts about the reality of it all, but nevertheless short on the truth as presented by the Gospels. But you can’t ask for everything can you? Or can you?

Drop outs from Church

2 12 2010


I have just been reading an article about the number of young people between the ages of 20 and 30 who have been dropping out of church and of Christianity. I was slightly surprised at my reaction to them – sympathy!

Now why did I feel that? Ideas pour to the surface. The fist one is that just recently I have retired from being a full-time pastor – and I feel relieved and I also feel anxious for those in our leadership team who continue on. Why relieved? Three things immediately come to mind. The first is the freedom from administration, the second is the freedom from the burden of people, and the third is the freedom from responsibility. I had better explain those.


So much of modern church life is given over to planning and administration. Hours are spent discussing church. I recently sat in briefly with a group of leaders from another church and to my horror heard the leader talking about leadership meetings going on until one in the morning! If the Holy Spirit was moving I suspect we wouldn’t spend so much time talking.

I wonder if many of our young people hunger for a reality of ‘life’ instead of administration?  Where, they might wonder, are the Philips who might get led off down a desert road at the prompting of God to go and do something that is not yet clear, something that may cut right across the organised blessing of the present?


For years I have preached and anguished and seen “what could be”. I have a feeling if that aged saint, Tozer, was around, he’d have some things to say about our lack of commitment and our lack of love and lack of effort. I think this was typified by an appeal I’ve heard about this Christmas. In recent years we have been involved in filling shoe boxes for children in Eastern Europe for Christmas. This Christmas it was suggested we supported another organisation who were saying, give us your money and we’ll fill the shoe boxes for you – to save you the effort of having to do it.

I wonder if many of our young people yearn to see a church on fire, a church all out, a church that says nothing but nothing is as important as going for God? Where, they might be thinking, are the four stretcher bearers who would be prepared to rip the roof off the house to get to Jesus?


For years I have anguished over my flock, often while no one else really seemed to care. That load is on someone else’s shoulders now. But I wonder if some of that sense of responsibility comes because I’ve felt alone and in the absence of the Spirit’s moving I took a load that was ultimately God’s? But that can be a cop out. But again it can be because so much of church life is institutionalised and we run on tram rails of expectation and legalism – you can’t do that, we’re the ones who lead the church.

I wonder if many of our young people see the straight-jackets we, the older generation, have perhaps put on ourselves and on the church. Where are the Jonathan’s, they wonder, who will scale the cliff with their armour bearer just to see what God might do?

So let’s shout for reality, let’s shout for freedom and let’s break lose to a new day where at long last we turn the world upside down and reveal the emptiness of the world that is crushing us!


All Publicity, Good Publicity?

20 11 2009

All Publicity, Good Publicity?

I went through period when I felt there was nothing I could or should comment upon. Suddenly it seems to have changed! The latest piece of info-speak that I have come across that seems intellectually incredible comes from the Humanist Society’s website where there is comment upon their ‘billboard campaign’ against labelling children, complete with comment from Richard Dawkins. Expounding on some of the bad rationale from the God Delusion this dogma declares:

We also believe that labelling children is coercive because it:

  • places an expectation on the child to conform to her parents beliefs
  • removes choice and decreases autonomy by limiting the options available; by constraining the child to think that their religion is “a given”.
  • can act as a threat, either because there is an implied risk of parental disassociation if the child rejects the religious beliefs, or because inherent in the religion itself are explicit metaphysical dangers (judgment, Hellfire etc) associated with disbelief or apostasy.

Now I have some well-founded objections to this as follows:

1. Intellectual Dishonesty playing with half-truths

I come from the Christian part of the world that is neither Anglican nor Catholic and I have so say that in my reasonably wide experience, children from our families are not labelled, and we do not label other children. Yes, I understand that where there are ‘faith schools’ there is often a bias in favour families from a clear faith, but that is more linked with the work and ethics ethos that goes with Christian faith and “The faith” is not the big issue at many such schools. In Catholic schools there appears to be a stronger leaning towards identifying children as coming from Catholic families but, I would suggest from local knowledge, the emphasis is on the family and not the child. I suspect the same is true of the Muslim families.

The vagueness of the dogma is thus all-embracing and does not cover the majority of the Christian population (I’ll say more on this below). It is only a vague truth therefore and there would be a sense of integrity in this dogma if they specifically aimed it at faith schools (which they do in other posters) and at specific religious groupings. Aiming at the whole audience is careless and sloppy, and intellectually indefensible.

2. Utterly Inaccurate

In the Christian world at least, links to faith schools are minimal – most of our children don’t go to such schools, simply because there aren’t enough of those schools. Put those schools aside, therefore, and my experience tells me that these three ‘reasons’ above are unrealistic and verging on the absurd.

My wife and I are both practising Christians. We have three children who are now in their late twenties or early thirties. They are all bright kids who think for themselves. Where there are religions or religious expression that is authoritarian then it may be that there could be a shred of truth in these things – but the vast majority of Christendom does not fit in the category of authoritarian. My own children came to church with us, made their own decisions to be Christians without pressure put on them. They have had plenty of opportunity to reject those beliefs whenever they wanted but have not done so, seeing their faith as the best alternative in a world of mixed values and being very happy with their choices, being aware of all the others!

I have also known a number of other children who grew up in a Christian environment but rejected the life and beliefs of their parents and went their own way. They have also turned out to be those who have struggled with life and have not got a happy outcome – but that has nothing to do with their supposed feelings of ‘guilt’ of leaving the Christian fold (which is absent), but simply because of the life choices they have made, similar to so many of their peer group in the world, who similarly are struggling with the wonders of a humanistic lifestyle and its outcomes.

3. He who lives in glass houses….

Possibly the greatest hypocrisy and deception in this dogma is the implied claim that while Christians impose values on their children, atheistic humanists don’t! You must be joking! Richard Dawkins is crusading for the hearts and minds of the children of this nation on a platform that many of his scientific peers think is abhorrent. From my own observation, I would suggest that crusading humanists may well be those who impose their views far more than their Christian counterparts.

My wife is an RE teacher and her curriculum requires the students to analyse the historical evidence for Jesus Christ and the resurrection. What she increasingly finds is that many of her students who come from atheistic families (i.e. mother and father deny belief) are literally incapable of objectively analysing the factual evidence that is there in history. They have been so indoctrinated by their parents that they are intellectually incapable of being objective when presented with accredited historical data. They are UNABLE to be unbiased. Now that is far more worrying, I suggest.

I recently came across the following quote which starts with a supposition and goes on to recount an experience. It is worth bearing in mind:

people who have been given a faith-based education are generally more tolerant when dealing with people of other religious and non-religious faith traditions than those who have been nurtured in an intentionally anti-religious or ‘secular-humanistic’ environment. The way in which Muslim parents actively seek out Christian ethos schools is testimony to the fact that they believe those schools are more likely to encourage a tolerant and warm attitude to their own religious beliefs, than a school which may deliberately exclude the idea of the divine. Lord Sacks was educated at St Mary’s Primary School. Comments the Chief Rabbi, ‘I got more tolerance in that Christian school than I suspect I might have had if I had gone to a secular school where no faith was taken seriously at all. That was when I discovered religiously based tolerance – the religious roots, the foundations of tolerance.’

Intolerance is clearly alive and well in the humanist camp, but here is my closing thought. I am aware that there are many unthinking people who mindlessly subscribe to the thoughts of the Humanists, but it strikes me that anyone who knows anything about the reality  of the individual child’s ability to make up their own mind, will know that this language from the humanist website is empty posturing and must simply be a means of gaining publicity – except it does not show them up in a good light, and one wonders if, in fact, this publicity is good publicity, or rather it shows them as bigoted zealots with an intellectually empty cause?  Sad!

Dawkins’ Faith

24 08 2009

Richard Dawkins is about to launch his latest shot in his crusade against God – The Greatest Show on Earth – not, he says, intended as an anti-religious book, yet still part of his anti-religious campaign. Today The Times Supplement printed an extract from this new book which comes out soon.

It appears to be a book founded on science and inference: “Given that, in most cases, we don’t live long enough to watch evolution happening before our eyes, we shall revisit the metaphor of the detective coming upon the scene of a crime after the event and making inferences. The aids to inference that lead scientists to the fact of evolution are far more numerous, more convincing, more incontrovertible, than any eyewitness reports that have ever been used, in any court of law, in any century, to establish guilt in any crime. Proof beyond reasonable doubt? Reasonable doubt? That is the understatement of all time.”

Now that language I find most interesting because it is exactly the same language that I would use to describe why we can be confident in our acceptance of the Bible and its veracity as a revealer of God. The only difference, I suspect, is that when I look back on the evidence for the Bible and use ‘inference’, I look at all possibilities before I arrive at a conclusion and Richard Dawkins considers only one possibility and ignores all others – well actually he doesn’t ignore, he denigrates!

Whatever he may try to convince us about evolution – and I am not anti-evolution (but wait before you rush to comment) – he comes at the subject, it appears from his past writings,  loaded with emotional, historical prejudices that are tantamount to a form of blind faith.  He believes on the basis of partial facts viewed, it seems, through the skewed eyes of atheistic emotional prejudice – and is utterly convinced he is right – just like the flat-earth extremist is.

Now if you think that is an unkind, unjust and unfair comparison, I can only say that that is how it appears to some of us watching from a slightly less emotionally charged position. In fact what I have just done is the same as he does when he denigrates those who wish to have open minds to other alternatives to atheistic, mechanical evolution, by equating them with holocaust deniers, which is what he does in the book.

Rather like some of Job’s comforters, he appeals now to questionable traditional figures such as some Church of England Bishops, who aren’t always known for their traditional beliefs. But let’s start from the opposite end of the scale, from the Biblical perspective, about which neither Dawkins nor his followers appear to have much knowledge. The Biblical picture of God is that He is both Creator and Sustainer of the world and interacts with it as He deems fit – both with people, animals and what we might call inanimate creation. (This is a tremendous subject, but it will have to wait for another time).

If we accept for a moment the general concept of evolution – and I have to say that although I am quite open to the concept of evolution, there appear to be a considerable number of question marks which throw doubt on the idea of ‘fact’ that Dawkins espouses – what is impossible to determine is WHY things happened (if they did) as the evolutionary scientist maintains.

If there is no God, then anything that happens is chance and given sufficiently long periods of time, anything can happen. Whether it is behavioural or genetic change it has to be purposeless. To speak of survival ‘instincts’ makes a major leap of faith, a questionable leap, I suggest. It prejudges. Why should ‘life’ want to ‘survive’? Chemicals don’t have that instinct.

Now if there is a God as revealed in the Bible then there is nothing to say that changes that have been observed have not been God-directed changes, i.e. it is simply the way He worked to bring about the present end result – IF those changes did happen.  Whichever way it is, it is a faith issue, and the starting point is whether you believe from the outset in God or that there is no God. Your end result follows from there. Thus I would suggest that Dawkins’ latest trend of trumpeting how wonderful this world is, is simply what the Bible has done for centuries before him – except it declares that it is not a mechanical accident, but the purpose of a benign and loving God.

Our applause, or otherwise, of Dawkins’ latest “controversial book” will depend entirely, I suggest, on our starting point, but it will be left to others commenting upon it to add light for those who want light.

God’s other book

18 08 2009

I came across an interesting quotation recently – one I’d seen before, but it came afresh: “There is a long-standing tradition in Christianity that God wrote a Book of Works (Creation) as well as a Book of Words (the Bible).”

For the last two weeks my wife and I have been out in the midst of God’s “Book of Works”  The Psalmist wrote “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” (Psa 19:1,2) and “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory.” (Psa 97:6). The apostle Paul wrote, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20)

The clear declaration of those verses is that God’s greatness is obvious and should be obvious in what we might call ‘nature’ or ‘creati0n’.  I have lost count over these past two weeks of the number of times my wifre and I just stood and looked at the wonder of the country before us and just went, “Wow! That is incredible!”

Many years ago when I was having to write an essay with a strong philosophical base for part of my Teacher-Training Course, I chose to write about the existence of rainbows.  I’m reminded of that when I pick up Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow. It is a book to show how wonderful creation is – without any God, it is wonderful. That is the message of it, I believe. it is a defensive book because in the preface he quotes from his colleague, Peter Atkins: “We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.”

I like that quote for it reveals all that is left when you take away God from the equation. Solomon, in his latter years, when he had drifted away from faith and lost sight of God, declared similarly, “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.” (Eccles 1:2). What is fascinating is that Dawkins agrees with that quote YET feels he has to revel in the glory of the wonder of this incredible world.  He too recognises the wonder of the world in which we live. You can’t avoid it – only try and ignore it.

But I noted some interesting reactions within myself as we gazed over tremendous vistas or stood in awe in an arboretum of nearly three thousand specimens of trees, shrubs & bamboos from around the world. The variety of size, colour and shape was incredible. We marvelled at such beauty.

But hold on! Why should it be that if I am simply the product of random time and chance molecular activity that I should have such feelings and such concepts. Surely ‘beauty’ is a mere illusion, a chemical reaction? Why should I feel refreshed and restored  after spending time in these environments where my eyes and (sometimes) ears were made accutely aware of the amazing beauty around us? We can rationalise it, categorise it and try and explain it, but it is something that still has the capacity to make all such intellectual exercise seem rather pointless. I was reminded of the poem:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

(William Henry Davies)

As I have stood and stared, I have found a response rising within me, “Lord, that is wonderful. Thank you so much.”  I feel sorry for those who have no one to thank.

Easter Sunday

12 04 2009

She followed the crowd. Why are they shouting like this? He hasn’t done anything! Well, no, that’s not true. He’s done so much. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.

The doctors had been no help; they hadn’t known what was wrong. I knew behind their whispers that people said I must have done something wrong, but it wasn’t like that. I didn’t know if I had done anything. All I knew was that I was ill and that they said I was dying. Then he came to my town.

My mother had helped me out to see what all the noise was about. We’d heard rumours. Then there he was with a big crowd around him, walking down the street. The crowd was noisy. We held back in the doorway and watched, but as they came level with our home, he stopped and turned towards us. He obviously said something to those with him, for they stood aside as he came across to us.

There was nothing special in what he did, and yet everything. He just smiled at us and said, “Hullo.” I found myself just gaping at him with tears running down my face; I don’t know why. Somehow… somehow, it was as if he knew, knew all about me, and still loved me…. He reached out and gently placed his hand on my head and almost whispered, “Be healed.” And then he was gone and we both stood there weeping and I was well. Yes, I know it sounds too simple, but I was. I was completely well. I can’t explain it, but I’m alive and well – because of him. So why are they treating him like this?

The soldiers are so brutal. They’re making him carry a large wooden cross. Why? Surely they can’t be……. They push at him and snarl at him. He falls. Oh why? They drag a man unwillingly from the crowd to carry the cross. They pick Jesus up and I see his face. There is blood all over it. There’s a crown made with long thorns that’s been pushed on his head, now askew, but the wounds from the thorns mean the blood runs down over his face. He can hardly stand, and then I see his back, or rather what is left of it. I am sick in the street. The crowd moves on and I stand there in shock. Why are they doing this to him? What has he done to deserve this? I remember the look as he stood before me. Here was utter goodness; it was that which broke my heart then – and now.

The crowd has gone. I am alone in the street. I must go. I must follow him. I must see where they are taking him. I follow the sounds down the street. Where is this all going, on this Friday?

I took a wrong turning. I found myself alone in the back streets of Jerusalem. Here there was silence. But then across the city came two stretched-out screams, just two. I eventually found my way to one of the gates of the city and there across the valley I saw three crosses being erected, three horrible symbols of man’s inhumanity to man. Even from this distance I could see he was one of the men being crucified. Why? What had he done except be good! I slumped down against the city wall and watched. The hours passed and eventually I saw them take the bodies away. It is over. I am past weeping. I am angry, no I am furious! Why? Why did they have to do this to him?

Two days later, when I woke on Sunday morning, something was different. No one else in the place where I was staying was awake yet, and so I quietly made my way outside. Something had happened! What was it? I still had that awful ache inside, but something was different.

I wandered down the street. There was hardly anyone else around. A woman scuttled by laughing and crying, but I hardly noticed. I came to one of the city gates and looked out over the graveyard area. I heard a sound of panting and two men dashed past me. Now it was my turn to be hardly noticed. I watched as they ran down through the olive groves to the grave areas. What a terrible place this is. Death hangs over it condemning all of us.

“I’m not there,” a gentle voice came from behind me. I started and turned and gasped. Again I found myself just gaping at him with tears running down my face. It was him. No, it can’t be. “It is,” he said reading my thoughts. “But why,” I sobbed, “why did it happen… and how are you alive?” Words were meaningless. I just sobbed.

“It’s all right,” he gently replied, “it will all become clear. The most important thing is that I’m here, so you can go home now and live and tell your family and friends what you have seen.”

“But they won’t believe me,” I sobbed.

“Not at first, but many will eventually. You’ll never be the same again now you know I’m alive. Go now.”

“But when will I see you again?” I managed.

He smiled, “When you come home.” Then he was gone, and I was never alone again.

Thanks, Praise & Worship

8 12 2008

Just inside our front door hangs an old barometer, not very valuable I’m told, but at least of some sentimental value. It’s been around in our family for a while, and there are many people who come into our home who I catch just gently tapping it to see which way the arrow is going. It’s an indicator of the weather which means, in Britain at least, it goes up and down regularly. There’s something about that old barometer, I believe, that is more homely and, obviously for many people, even more interesting than the detailed weather forecasts on TV.

I’ve found myself pondering thanks, praise and worship recently and I believe collectively they act like a barometer revealing our spiritual state and spiritual direction. I believe that that order – thanks, praise and then worship – involves a development of understanding of truth and takes us from the state of self-centredness to the state of complete un-self-centredness. Let me explain.

‘Thanks’ is an expression of gratefulness and when you are thankful you are grateful. When you thank someone you express your gratitude and inevitably it is thanks to a person. We thank someone when they have done something for us or given us something. Now with Christmas approaching I can’t help thinking of the somewhat strained thanks that we give when the present we have just received is definitely not what we wanted.

There was, I believe, a number of years ago, bad bit of teaching going around Christian circles that said “Give thanks for all circumstances” whereas the Biblical teaching is “Give thanks in all circumstances.” It’s a simple change but a vital one. So there were all these poor people struggling to be thankful for being abused, raped, mugged and goodness know what else. Nowhere are we called to be grateful for sin or for the perpetrators of pain through sin on us. When God hates those things, I think we’re doing mental gymnastics when we start trying to justify or make ourselves grateful for such things. It is something quite different to be thankful in the midst of circumstances that have their origins in sin. We can thank God that He is there for us in the midst of them and thank Him that His grace is sufficient for us, just as the Bible says. Similarly if our own sin brought the bad circumstances upon us, then it is folly to be grateful that we were so stupid. Repentance is a much more apt expression than thanks, in those circumstances.

But I started by suggesting that each of these things involves understanding. So much of modern thinking (call it post-modern thinking if you like) is nihilistic, full of negativity and it is not surprising that many people suffer depression and many others attempt suicide. Listen to the preface of master-atheist, Richard Dawkins, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow:

“A foreign publisher of my first book confessed that he could not sleep for three nights after reading it, so troubled was he by what he saw as its cold, bleak message. Others have asked me how I can bear to get up in the mornings. A teacher from a distant country wrote to me reproachfully that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book, because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless. He advised her not to show the book to any of her friends, for fear of contaminating them with the same nihilistic pessimism. Similar accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general, and it is easy for scientists to play up to them. My colleague Peter Atkins begins his book The Second Law (1984) in this vein: We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.”

Although Dawkins could not take back his first book and its effects on people, he desperately tried to counter this ‘nihilistic pessimism’ by showing the wonder of the world that science reveals, but all he is able to do is basically say, look at the wonderful facts we have revealed. Of course in his mechanistic approach he is unable to answer the fundamental yearning that most of us have, to understand something of ‘meaning and purpose’ in life, because a ‘machine’ (the world of evolution) doesn’t have ‘meaning’, it just develops.

Perhaps Dawkins’ writing here may be summed up by the person who said, “I feel really sorry for atheists, who feel thankful but have no one to thank”. All of us want ‘someone to thank’ and when we are told there is no one, we feel cheated. But the very sense of feeling thankful, should tell us something. Why should we feel ‘grateful’ if we are just the result of accidental evolution because being ‘grateful’ implies being grateful to someone.

But I also started out by suggesting that ‘thanks’ is a self-centred starting point, but that isn’t always bad if it leads us on somewhere better. Again, when we speak of being grateful, we are recognising that we have received benefit and we feel good as a result. But it’s all about what we feel. Hence my initial starting point.

So what about praise? Praise is about acknowledging achievement. When we praise our children, we are acknowledging when they have done well. Praise takes the focus from on me to on them. Unlike thanks, it may be that we are acknowledging something that has not brought personal benefit to me. We are simply acknowledging how well someone has done.

The first time ‘Praise’ is used in the Bible was on the lips of Abraham’s servant: Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.” (Gen 24:27). He was praising God for the way that God had done good for Abraham and for the way he had led his servant. It was about what God had done.

There is an interesting use of praise when Leah, one of Jacob’s two wives bears him three sons, each of whom she names according to the emotion she feels in respect of what God had done for her so far, and by the time she bears the fourth son, she realises that this has all been the hand of God on her: “She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” So she named him Judah.” (Gen 29:35) and Judah, the note in your Bible will tell you, ‘sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew for ‘praise’’. Now she was acknowledging the goodness of what God had done.

Some time later Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, gives an interesting response to what he hears has been happening: “Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. He said, “Praise be to the LORD, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians.” (Ex 18:9,10) so again praise was the response to what the Lord had done.

When we come to consider ‘worship’ we find something quite different. Worship refers to a bowing before a sovereign by a lesser subject, to kiss their hand or even feet, as a sign of subjection. This is what real worship is. It is not singing songs or reciting creeds, it is actually bowing before the Supreme, Almighty God, acknowledging His wonder and our smallness. We can see again and again in Scripture that bowing down is part of worship. It is submitting to and acknowledging the superiority of our God. Worship is getting God in perspective. When we realise who He is, of what He is capable of doing, and what He does, there really can be no other response.

Do you see now why I said at the beginning that this involves a development of understanding of truth and takes us from the state of self-centredness to the state of complete un-self-centredness? When we see God for who He is, we lose all sense of ourselves, for our vision is filled with Him and Him alone. We have developed or changed from being silly, puny individuals who make silly noises about God, to see that the One revealed in the Bible is truly like what we find there and, like those who had a vision of heaven, we fall on our faces in acknowledgement of our smallness and His greatness. If we don’t do it this side of death, we will do it the other side when we will see Him clearly!

So those things act like a barometer of our spiritual state and direction. If we never give thanks we live in a cold, sterile world of facts but nothing more. When we realise that there is a hand behind all the good and wonderful things in this world, we start to give thanks. When we develop our understanding, probably by reading His word, we see more and more His hand on all good things and we find praise starts taking us away from our self-centredness to starting to be God focused in a much bigger way. When we eventually realise His greatness and our smallness, we fall in worship and adoration. It’s there in the Book, and it’s truth. So what, I wonder, is the ‘barometer’ telling about you?

Thoughts of Heaven (4)

16 09 2008

A while back I wrote three blogs about some thoughts I had been having about heaven, and the possibility of seeing my father again. I found myself pondering the other day about how God prepares us for heaven – at least I think that’s what He does.

When we are young we rarely give a thought to death; we feel we are immortal or, if not immortal, at least those with a long while to go. Hitting middle age many of us look back over the years and start to wonder what we have achieved, what it is all about. Instinctively we wonder about the future – are our years limited? Yes they are. But how many years have we got left? We don’t know but our time IS limited. We wonder what we can do with the remaining years. Facing old age can be a fearful thing. There is the possibility today of living to what we once called ‘a ripe old age’, but for so many the length of years is not accompanied by a strong mind and a strong body.

I wrestled with this several years ago. I didn’t want to become geriatric in old age and said, “Lord, please let me burn out before I get to that stage.” But then I pondered it over the following months and eventually came to a place where I said, “Lord, please keep me in good health and clear mind so you can use me, until you let me burn out before getting geriatric.” I began focusing on, not burning out early, but of being used up to the point of burning out early. But then i thought some more and thought this was a place of limited faith and so eventually prayed (when i was 60), Lord, please give me another twenty-five years and may I be able to serve you, bless you and glorify you, every one of those years. How we approach our eventual death, I have concluded, is important.

I have written these sorts of words a number of times before, but they bear repeating. I have been challenged by the psalmist’s words: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 93:12-15) Did you see the reference to old age?

I’ve asked for it, because it seemed right and good. Whether I get it, only time will tell. Reading Job, I agree with his assessment of life and death (and I know I’ve said this before!) : “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21) The Lord decrees when we leave this planet and I will go not a minute before He decrees. He may decree this year, next year, twenty years time, or whenever. He is the Lord, and His timing will be right.

Why do I say all these things? Because I am certain that the latter years (maybe all the years) of our lives are preparation for heaven. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, even a hundred years, is merely a drop in the bucket in comparison with eternity. I’ve suggested before that the Biblical hint is that heaven is a place of activity and blessing. I’ve also suggested we may be granted a glimpse back. There does seem a Biblical link between what we do on this earth and the eternity to follow. I don’t want to suffer too much culture shock when I get there. I hope that however many years I have left, they will be years when I sense more and more something of heaven on earth.

Can we ever prepare for heaven? In as much as we seek for God and know Him today through His Son Jesus Christ, yes we can. In as much as we learn to be led by His Spirit, catch His heart, and catch what He feels and wants for us and for those around us, yes we can. Why do we slow up when we get old?   I’ve concluded it is so that we can gradually detach ourselves from the attachment to this earth and start catching something of what is to come. No, not infirmity in heaven, but infirmity helps me become less earth-orientated and gives me the opportunity to become more heaven orientated. Heaven IS a reality. I want to be ready for it.