It’s alright to be fragile…

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It does not fit well with our normal way of thinking these days to say it, but it is alright to be fragile. It’s ok to be vulnerable. It’s the meek to whom Jesus bequeathed the world. And Paul, beset by all kinds of fears and worries, sought the Lord about it:

“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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

I will boast (the word means “Exult”!) of my weaknesses. I am content with all that stuff that comes at us…

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light….
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

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The Lord’s Prayer: Back to Basics

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Perhaps it is not so strange that the Bible doesn’t contain the request “Teach us to preach” or “Teach us to perform well.” Only “Teach us to pray.” For the truth is that if we can do the last thing, then the first two will take care of themselves. 

Here’s the context in Luke 11:

“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’

He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

‘“Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.”’

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.” And suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

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!’” (Luke 11: 1-13)

The passage is slightly different to Matthew’s account. Matthew emphasises the aspect of forgiveness:  “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6: 14-15) Matthew underlines the way we are before God.  Luke notes the forgiveness clause but omits this explanation, telling instead the story of the audacious friend who just knows he will get what he wants!

And then Luke adds the famous A.S.K. passage: “Ask, seek, knock…” and the wonderful picture of good fathers who can be trusted to give their best to their children.

If Matthew is underlining the way we are before God, then Luke emphasises the way God is before us. Matthew shows the need of forgiveness. Luke shows the opportunity of grace.

For this is what we must learn, if we would ask Jesus to “Teach us to pray” – we develop a childlike confidence in the One to whom we have come.

There’s a lot of humour in Jesus’s stories here. The friend pounding on the door at midnight is absolutely confident about the graciousness of the woken sleeper! The listening parents are fully aware of their own shortcomings (“though you are evil”) but know full well tht they would NEVER shortchange their own kids.

They would die for them!

And that stuff about snakes and stones, plates and scorpions -.that’s just Jesus being playful in order to make the most serious point you can imagine.

Here it is: Parents know how to give good gifts! And so does God.

This is what Jesus told them when they asked him to teach them to pray. Pray like kids at Christmas, knowing that you are loved, knowing that you will be heard, knowing that your parents are longing to bless you!

And let your confidence, your trust and your excitement grow in the asking! Be persistent, if you like! -not in the nagging manipulation of someone wheedling his own way, but just in the excitement of a child asking “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

The joyful anticipation of a sure thing!

And we are just mere human parents, flawed and faulty, muddy in our motives…. And even we know how to give good gifts to our children.

So “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’” 

This is the climax of the passage that my Bible headlines as “Jesus’s Teaching on Prayer.” It’s not a different point but the same one. When God gives the Holy Spirit, He is giving His very best. He is giving love for our lovelessness, joy for our misery, peace for our anxiety… andforbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”(Galatians 5:22-23)

When God gives the Holy Spirit He is giving a gift that He will not take away.

When God gives the Holy Spirit He gives the gift of Himself.

For this is where every prayer finds its answer and every heart finds its home. This -He!- is what we were designed for and we can never be truly happy until we find our way there. “Our hearts are restless till we rest in thee.”

So, as a start, -as a mere beginning this morning! – Lord, teach us to pray!

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“To be seen by men….” The Danger of Self-display

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Jesus warned against the temptation to grandstand (in Matthew 6):

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Note the heavy irony on the word “righteousness.” Read it again:

 “Be careful not to practice your [so-called] “righteousness” in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

There are a few suggestions as to what this might look like. Public prayer, giving, worship.

The danger is that you will do it “to be seen by men” or “honoured by them.

Of course, we may well not even realise that that is what we’re doing. We may think that we have “a ministry” or that we’re serving God in this way. What about that bit where it says “Let your light shine”?

So that’s why Jesus said “Be careful.” Consider just what it is that you’re doing. Sometimes a desire to “Minister” in some way can be wrapped up in a desire to be approved of, or to “shine” a little, before a congregation.

That’s why Jesus went on to say “Let your light shine before men….that they might see your good works and glorify God.” Just who is getting honoured here, really?

Be honest.

That is to say, if there is any tiny part of your heart that desires human applause or approval, then that is the only reward you will get.

So what’s to do? Give in secret, without any fuss. Pray in secret, just between you and God. Worship in secret without any fanfare of “babbling like pagans.” Avoid display.

Just play it down. Things don’t have to have capital letters. I can encourage my friends to worship God and be part of it without saying “Now I’m a Worship Leader.” I can care for people in trouble without saying: “Hey, I’m a Pastor.” I can quieten myself and hear God speaking without saying “I have a Prophetic Gift.”

The worst case scenario of all this is what we see in the Bible, when Jesus calls such grandstanding people “Hypocrites.” It was a word that meant “actors,” people acting a role for public applause.

We see people like Peter trying to sort Jesus out (in Mark 8) and Jesus saying “You are minding the things of men and not the things of God.”

And later, (in Mark 9) wanting to build little booths on the mount of transfiguration because “He knew not what to say.”

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness [–or your brilliant notions, Peter!]-in front of others to be seen by them”. 

And we hear of Diotrephes (in one those little Letters of John) who “loved to be first.”

Now we don’t know precisely what the deal was with Diotrephes, but it does seem clear that he wanted to be “in front of others to be seen by them.” 

How about you?

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“Forgive… as we forgive”

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“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (C.S. Lewis) And so Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Luke 11:4)

But the “As” is troublesome.

It suggests that there is a conditionality about my relationship with God (which, of course, there certainly is). It is confirmed in many other passages. The measure that you use to others will be the measure God metes out to you. No one can love God and hate their brother.

Jesus teaches that as we ask God for forgiveness, we should also confirm our practice of forgiving others. Of course, this assumes that we are in the practice of forgiving others, an assumption that may or may not be true for us. Martin Luther King Jr. said:“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”

How could we pray in the way Jesus teaches us if we are unwilling to forgive?

How could we ask God to forgive us if we hold grudges or become mired in the quicksand of resentment?

The “As” underscores the connection between receiving divine forgiveness and forgiving others. As we experience God’s gracious forgiveness, we are called and empowered to forgive those who have wronged us. If we choose to hoard the forgiveness granted to us by failing to forgive others, not only do we disobey the Lord’s teaching, but also we miss the full benefit of forgiveness. God’s purpose in forgiving us is that we might be reconciled to him and to each other. The experience of divine forgiveness enables us to do what otherwise is beyond our strength.

In my experience as a pastor, I have seen unforgiveness wreak havoc on individuals and their relationships. The failure to forgive can destroy marriages, families, business partnerships, friendships, and entire church communities. This is a big, big deal.

And more, unforgiveness fills our hearts with bitterness, quenching our gratitude and flowing out of us as poisonous anger.

A recent Christian novel that has approached this question in a remarkable and powerful way is Paul Young’s The Shack. Here’s a key passage, to which I return again and again.

“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat……Forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established………Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. But should they finally confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation………Forgiveness does not excuse anything………You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. And then one day you will pray for his wholeness……”

How easy do you find it to forgive people who have wronged you? Do you hold back in forgiveness? Why?

  • Could you honestly pray in the way Jesus teaches us, connecting your forgiveness of others with your request for God’s forgiveness?
  • Are there people in your life right now whom you need to forgive? Will you?

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Heavenly Father, I must admit that I feel uneasy about this prayer. Yes, yes, I want you to forgive me. But there are times I forget to forgive others. I can fool myself into thinking that the offense against me is gone, but, in fact, it lurks in my heart, ready to lash out at others. Forgive me, Lord, for my unforgiveness. Help me to remember those who have wronged me so that I might forgive them.

I must confess that there are other times when I am aware of my unforgiveness and I don’t want to let go of it. I feel comfortable living behind the wall it builds between me and the one who hurt me. I like the sense of self-righteousness that puffs me up with pride. Honestly, I’d much rather stew in bitterness or spill out with gossip than offer the forgiveness you require of me.

Forgive me, Lord, for my unforgiveness. Help me to choose to forgive even when it’s hard, even when I really don’t want to.

I pray in the name of Jesus, who calls me to forgive, who shows me how to forgive, and whose death enables me both to be forgiven and to forgive others. Amen

Prayer from Mark Roberts, The High Calling

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“Our Bread for Today”

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It seems odd, at first glance, to have such a specific prayer for provision in the midst of those high-sounding phrases in the Lord’s Prayer. The God of Heaven, the eternal Father of all, whose very name is holy, and before whom all we can do is ask forgiveness…. some food please. Anyone spot the apparent bathos?

We pray that his kingdom might come, and are told that “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” (Rom14:17), so why here do we ask for bread?

The key, I believe, is in that word “daily.

That is to say, the primary referent is not provision, but trust in provision. The God who creates, also sustains. The God who forgives, also gives grace upon grace on a daily basis, like the manna of old, sustaining the covenant people day by day. The God who is holy, also imparts his holiness and effects it within human lives.  He is able to keep us from falling and to present us before him without fault and with great joy! (Jude 24)

And so “daily bread” becomes a metaphor for joy in the journey and confidence  that we will indeed arrive.  It is faith and assurance that “he who began a good work” will see it through and that we will still be singing when the evening comes.

A few years back, when we were fostering children, it often happened that we would find food, taken from the dinner table, that had been hidden under a child’s pillow. Sometimes it made quite a mess!

It was a poignant reminder that some of the children in our care had not always known the luxury of regular meals. And some, -those from Kosovo and Afghanistan,- faced a daily anxiety that there would be nothing for them tomorrow. And so they had learned to survive as best they could.

It took a while for them to learn to trust us for their daily bread.

This petition of the Lord’s Prayer, then, teaches us to come to God in confident dependence, asking God to provide what we need and to sustain us from day to day. We are not given license to ask for great riches, but we are encouraged to make our needs known to Him, trusting that He will provide.

 

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The church will grow…

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…if it is  outward-looking.

The more occasions for church folk to meet non-church the better. There’s no point in hiding within the church’s walls expecting people to come in. Invite them – or even better, go out.

…if it is useful.

A church is part of a community – so what’s it doing for the community? It may not be preaching, but ministry is witness.

…if it gets the basics right.

If everyone feels cared for, no one feels excluded and church life is reasonably well organised, incomers can soon feel at home.

…if it connects faith and life.

The three questions of a text – What does it say, what does it mean and what does it mean to me? – are excellent for preachers to keep in mind, especially the last one. Church on Sunday should fit us for life on Monday.

…if it is God-centred.

A church is different from the world, or there’s no point in it being a church at all. By all means be accessible – but be different. Pray. Think. Offer people a different way of looking at life, and a different drum to march by.

 

Just trying to get as simple as possible here.
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The Rescuer

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“Now, this is what the Lord says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43)

There are some passages in the Bible that speak to me more than others. This is one such passage. It reminds me that the phrase “The Authority of Scripture” is not a prescriptive concept but a relational one. If you get the balance wrong, then the Bible becomes a kind of magic spell book to blast people with.

No, as Alan Scott put it recently: “God revive your church so we know more about covenant than management, presence than program, authority than activity.”  That is to say: covenant, presence and authority are relational terms.

And here’s the relationship I need in order to make sense of life.

First: it’s a God who communicates, and “this is what the Lord says.” I need ears that are open and a heart that is tuned in to what God is saying.

Second: it’s a God who restores and creates value.I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”  Even if there’s a sickening quality of self-obsession in those adverts that declare “Because I’m worth it!”, there’s still something true about the sentiment! You are indeed worth it, because God says so. He summons you “by name.”

And this applies to any that you might be tempted to devalue or dismiss – someone of another class or IQ level, or religion, or race or gender. They too are worth it. They too are summoned by name.

Third, it’s a God who is with us in the hard times. He is “Emmanuel.” He never promises  a trouble-free life, but he does promise an accompanied one. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”

His accompaniment is like that of a coach who has gone through the race already, and knows the pitfalls and problems every step of the way. He is not daunted by the dangers nor tempted by easy-seeming shortcuts. And so “I will be with you” means, specifically, that “the rivers … will not sweep over you.”

Fourth, it’s a God of rescue.When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Every crisis is solvable. Every danger is doable. The reason for this is that not only is he present like a coach, walking me through the difficulties, but he is powerful, like a champion, a saviour. That last word is really the most important word of the whole passage. It means hero, rescuer, lifesaver, Doer. The Doer will get it done.

Yesterday, at the beach, my oldest son rescued someone from drowning. He wouldn’t want to make anything of it, so don’t tell him I told you, but reading this passage this morning, I realise just what it means to have someone there for you in the crisis, who is more equipped than you are to manage, who understands your weakness and is committed to being there for you on your behalf.

Jesus.

 

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