Monday, 10 April 2017

Threat Level High!

It is always a great thrill to visit one of the great cities of the world and to immerse yourself in its life even for a short time.  Sadly the shadow of terrorism has fallen over many.  Paris, London, Moscow and now Stockholm have all suffered and the ‘threat level’, the possibility of further terrorist action remains high.  The police and other security agencies are preparing for the worst. 

It may seem a big leap of imagination to make a connection between these modern cities and the ancient city of Jerusalem in the first century.  But there was one particular time of the year when the Roman invaders prepared for the worst.  This was in the season of Passover when the people of Israel celebrated their liberation from slavery in Egypt under their great leader Moses. By some estimates the population of Jerusalem quadrupled as Jews from all over the Ancient Near East gathered in their holy city for this special season.  It was a time when resentment against the Romans was at its highest and nationalistic feelings ran high.  

Add to this the appearance of a preacher from Nazareth who some people were claiming was the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, who would lead his people from oppression and establish them as the supreme power in the world.   His entry into the city was greeted by cheering and the waving of palm branches.  For the Romans the ‘threat level’ went up a notch or two. 

But then a strange thing happened.  This preacher made no denunciations against the Romans.  If there was any finger-pointing on that day or on following days it was towards his own people.  He wept over Jerusalem and called it ‘the city that killed the prophets’.  He entered the Temple, the nerve centre of Jewish spirituality, and called it ‘a den of robbers’.  He delivered teaching whose emphasis was the judgement that was soon to fall on Israel for her unfaithfulness and the need for repentance.   The message was clear.  Israel’s need was not political but spiritual.  Kick the Romans out of Israel and the nation still had a problem.  She had grown distant from God and needed to return. 

Five days after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem he died on a cross.  The expectations of his people that he would be their political liberator had not been met.  But Jesus’ followers came to understand that this death made it possible for a deeper liberation to take place.   Jesus himself had said that he would give his life as ‘a ransom for many’.   He would pay the price for the world’s sin and make forgiveness and renewal possible for the whole of humankind.    It is this spiritual revolution, happening in the hearts of men and women, that will lower the ‘threat level’ in our world and bring in the Kingdom of Jesus where compassion, justice and peace rule over all. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Where Is The Strength?

I was in a library recently and there was a notice at the reception desk that said: ‘Just In!  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Body Building Bible.’  Now I don’t know that book.  I don’t know what kind of advice Big Arnie would l give you if you want a body like his.    But someone once told me that if you are interested in that kind of thing it doesn’t matter how hard you work in a gym it’s what you do outside the gym that really counts.  By that he meant you have to be careful what you eat and what you drink and make sure you get all the sleep you need.  It’s not just about pumping iron you have to be disciplined out there in the world and that can be a challenge.  

That’s something we could apply to the whole of our lives.  There are times when we are doing the things we enjoy and we feel that life is really worth living.  There are times when we are with family and friends and we feel that we are loved and appreciated.  But the real test is when we move out of our comfort zone and have to do things we don’t want to do, have to deal with people who rub us up the wrong way, face circumstances that are demanding too much from us.  How do we cope with that?

In a couple of weeks time Christians all over the world will be celebrating Easter and at the heart of that is the belief that on the third day after Jesus was tortured to death He rose again and for a long period of time he appeared to his followers and talked to them and even shared meals with them.   These must have been extraordinary experiences and you can imagine that the followers would want them to go on forever.  But Jesus told them that there would come a time when these appearances and their fellowship together would come to an end.  They would have to break out of the warm bubble that they had been living in.  They would have to go out into the world and tell His story and share His love with people in need.  In effect he was telling them that they had to take on everything that was bad in the world and overcome it.  

I’m always challenged whenever I think about that.  I still love reading books about Jesus.  I love to discuss his teaching with other Christians.  I love to lead worship and to preach.  All these things make me feel strong within myself but it’s not much good if I go into the world and live a careless life.  Being strong in my Christian bubble is not enough.  I have to take the teaching I have gathered and put it into practise.  

Now that is not easy and I know that too often I’ve failed and maybe sometimes even felt that I was losing heart.  But the great thing about the Christian message is the assurance that  you can always start again.  One of the first followers of Jesus was a man called Paul.  In a letter he wrote to a friend he describes a traumatic experience he had to go through that demanded a lot from him.  ‘But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.‘  Now Jesus had long ago departed the scene but His Spirit was close to Paul in his time of trouble and that gave him the strength that was needed to go on.  

That’s what Easter means to me.  It’s knowing that whatever challenges I face the Spirit of Jesus is close and in His strength I can always go forward in hope.  If you find yourself caught up in His great movement to transform the world that will be your experience too.   

Monday, 13 March 2017


Heavenly Father,

We are conscious of so many things that make us strong:
The hills and lochs and everything that lives and breathes;
The bonds of love within our families and amongst our friends;
The gifts we see in others that show the goodness in living;
The daily access we have to food and clean water and shelter.

But we are most grateful for your Word:
Sustaining us in our most challenging days;
Inspiring us to reach for the best in life;
Revealing Jesus to us and bringing the assurance of forgiveness and renewal.

Let that Word feed our souls today and take us forward in a spirit of hope.


Thursday, 23 February 2017

My Times.

I suppose like many of you I am finding it hard to believe that we are now in the month of March.  Where did these last few months go?   When I was in primary school we had a history book called ‘The March of Time’ and many of us might feel that the pace does not get any easier.  Mind you, people have warned me over the years that time passes quicker the older you get!  Perhaps, but what matters is how you cope with it.  Some might say you have to cram as much into every day, make the most of what time we have.  Others might point to the importance of having the best of relationships with everyone  we encounter.  You never know when there will be no more time to set right what was wrong.  And still there is that powerful impulse, as old as humankind, to drain as much pleasure out of life while we can, what the prophet  saw as the attitude that says: ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!’  (Isaiah 22: 13) 

All of this puts pressure upon us and creates an unhealthy drivenness that turns us more and more into ourselves.  But when we look at the spirituality of the ancient people of the Bible there is a great aspiration to live with a constant consciousness of God and to trust in his good purpose for our lives, even when it seems that time is running out for us.  We find this in the Psalms.  Have a look at Psalm 46.  All around the writer there are changes that are challenging, even frightening, but the voice of God is clearly heard to say: ‘Be still, and know that I am God.  Or Psalm 31.  This seems to be a time when there are many pressures acting on David’s life and he fears that he does not possess the resources to cope but he breaks through to the place where he can say: ‘But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands.’ (Psalm 31: 14-15)

That was the assurance that was strong in the soul of the Apostle Paul.  When it seemed that he was the victim of forces beyond his control he was able to say: ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances . . . whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I  can do everything through him who gives me strength.‘  (Philippians 4: 11-13)  

This is something we all need to learn in face of all the challenges of life, not least the feeling that time is running away with us.  We live in the presence of a loving God, who has a good purpose for us.  We might not always see this clearly but we are assured that what has seemed dark to us in this life will be made clear when the Kingdom comes.  Then we will be able to say: ‘My times were in your hands.‘    

Friday, 16 September 2016

"My Soul Is Troubled."

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!”Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

Jesus is approaching the ultimate sacrifice.
Pain, humiliation, dereliction are before him.
He is troubled in a way none of us will fathom.
Still his focus is on his Father,
His desire is that the completed mission 
Will bring glory to Him.

We might approach the worst of times
Troubled beyond words.
Jesus shows we can yet be witnesses

To the love and goodness of the Father.  

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Amazing Grace.

Anne Tyler is one of the foremost American writers of our day.  In many people’s eyes she manages to convey the lives of ordinary people in a way that makes them seem extraordinary.  Family life is a place where there is conflict, tension, suffering but also a place where people find the resources and the dignity to overcome.  In the simplest of language personalities are brought to life in all their variety and complexity.   Her latest book sees a family seeking to plan the funeral of their mother who was killed in a road accident.  They wonder if she has left any instructions and speculate what they might be: 

““My only fear is, she’s requested ‘Amazing Grace,’” said Amanda.

“I like ‘Amazing Grace,’” Stem said mildly.

“So did I, till it got to be a cliche”

‘It’s not a cliche to me.”

Amanda raised her eyes to the ceiling.”

I know what Amanda means.  Ever since Judy Collins made it a hit in 1970, followed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1972, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been sung and played on various occasions with people of all faiths and none feeling able to join in.  It is, of course, essentially a Christian hymn, written by John Newton, praising God for the undeserved love that has flowed into his life despite his own shortcomings.  Newton’s progress towards faith was anything but straightforward and he stood amazed at how firmly God had held him in the face of ‘many dangers, toils and snares’.   Strangely, the name of Jesus is not mentioned which perhaps may account for its wide appeal, even to the extent that it was played on the bagpipes at the funeral of Mr Spock in one of the Star Trek movies!

Yes I know what Amanda means.  ‘Amazing Grace’ is one of those songs which can be sung without any meaningful connection to its heart and soul.  Which is why it meant a lot to me recently to lead a Bible Study with a group of people recovering from a range of addictions and to begin with the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’.  I am tempted to say it took on a whole new meaning but actually this was men and women connecting with the only meaning Newton intended.  From the brokenness of his own life along with a deep sense of shame and unworthiness, Newton marvels at the love of his God who thought him worthy of the death of His Son and brought him to that place where he could say:

‘The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.‘      

Not that this is a hymn merely for those with what might be described as a dark and difficult past.  Anyone with any insight into themselves can find reasons why they don’t deserve anything from God and so the assurance of His grace, covering this life and the next,  is something we can all celebrate.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Pierced Ears.

They say that with regard to your general health and well-being you should choose your parents carefully.   It seems that so much ill-health, particularly heart disease, has a genetic base.  So with that in mind I suppose I should be grateful with  my parents lived well into their eighties.  I can’t say that their quality of life was the best as they became more and more dependent on others and there was a particular problem with deafness.   That was very frustrating for them and for everyone around them.  I have to confess to a degree of impatience having to repeat things over and over again.  
Someone has suggested to me that part of that was not being able to accept what they had become, that I was reacting against this inevitable deterioration in people I loved.   That may well be.  The thing is, I am now getting a taste of what it must have been like for them.  Last week, at a function I couldn’t make out what people were saying at my table unless they were sitting next to me.  I found myself frequently nodding to someone as  she was speaking to me and I don’t know what I was agreeing with.   I put this down to a lot of background noise but then I was always good at denial.  When I go to the movies I am missing chunks of dialogue.  The subtitles go on when watching certain TV programs. Just yesterday, being served in Starbucks, I had to ask the girl to repeat herself three times.  (She was asking my name so that she could write it on my cup!)

I know that many people who have good hearing have a problem with modern acting.  Was it the BBC’s ‘Jamaica Inn‘ that received complaints about the cast’s mumbling?   And Christian Bale in the recent Batman trilogy.  Why did he have to whisper all the time?  So there is an  issue here but I can’t escape it.  I am definitely getting deaf.

Spiritual deafness is a huge problem in the Bible.  Paul Simon sang of ‘people hearing without listening’.  That sums up much of the experience of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  They hear God’s Word but they either ignore it or screen it out so that it is never put into practice.  The prophets continually roared out the command ‘Hear, O Israel’.  If the nation was to realize the vision of being God’s people on earth then first of all she had to focus on and embrace His Truth.  

Jesus faced the same challenge.  People had spiritually bunged up the channels through which God could speak to them and turn their lives around.  He said: ‘He who has ears to hear let him hear.’  

It has been good to have a moan about my diminishing hearing but of greater importance is my willingness to hear in a deeper sense.  The Psalmist once wrote: 

‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require.’  (Psalm 40: 6)

This is a familiar theme.  God is not impressed by the externals of religion unless they flow from a heart devoted to Him.  They way to that is to have ‘pierced’ ears.  No not in a decorative sense but in the sense in having ears that have been penetrated by God’s Word, ears that have been a channel of His truth,  ears that have been the medium for that truth to be established in our hearts.