Saturday, 22 July 2017

Creating A Life With God

I have been reading Daniel Wolpert’s book Creating a Life with God or, to give its full title – ‘Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices.

Wolpert reminds us that God is present in all that we do, but that sometimes we need to take the trouble to listen for what God is saying to us – ‘we must allow space in the busy world we have created.’

He suggests that one way in which this can happen is by allowing God to speak to us as we spend time with his Word, the Bible. He reminds us of the Benedictine practice  by which ‘Benedict wanted the monks to ruminate on – literally to “chew” or “digest” – the Word of God, much as a cow would chew its cud.’ Wolpert recognises our tendency to always be seeking right and wrong answers, but contrasts this with how we need to relate to God – ‘we come to the realisation that we know nothing of God; we must simply surrender and wait for God to know us.’

Wolpert talks of how we change across time and need to recognise that we are on a journey. However, God is always there for us, sustaining us in the way we need for the moment. What we need to remember is to allow God God’s place in things. ‘The hallmark of all our prayer practices is that in some manner they put us at God’s disposal. God is in charge, not us. We are there to listen and to notice God’s presence; we are not there to have God do our bidding.’

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Tough Life of a Prophet (1 Kings 19:1-8)

Elijah discovered that life was tough as a prophet. He ended up with tasks that he would have preferred to avoid, some of which brought him enemies. One of those powerful enemies was Queen Jezebel. He really wanted nothing to do with her, but it was not a question of mutual avoidance. She wanted to do away with him.

Elijah had had enough. He was ready for the easy life. He just did not want to be involved any more. It was time to try and move on to easier things, and he thought that some time out, a retreat in the desert, might be a step in the right direction. (Sometimes we need to explore what needs to come next.)

He left his servant at Beer-sheba because there are some things that you just need to do on your own. He was afraid, trying to escape whatever might happen. (There is nothing wrong with being afraid – just don’t let it overpower you.)

Elijah, in all honesty, is about to give up. He can’t see any future. He just wants to be rid of this prophetic ministry. But God has other ideas. Elijah found a place to rest under a solitary broom tree. He did not want to undertake any further ministry. He is tired – and he falls asleep.

But God is not yet finished with Elijah. (Sometimes we think that we have done all that we can, and it is time to stop. That might be so, but it might be that God has other ideas.) Elijah is ready to give up – only an angel touched him. The angel has provided cake and water, something to eat and drink, and Elijah partakes – but then goes back to sleep. Elijah, despite this very special provision, is still not ready to move on.

But God is still not finished with Elijah. I find it interesting how often God is persistent in calling those who try to evade a particular task that is placed before them. I find that in the Bible, and I rather suspect it remains true today. The angel touches him a second time and provides more sustenance. It is true that we need God’s refreshment and that, without it, the journey will be too much for us as our strength fails. However, it is also true that God’s provision is pretty amazing. In this particular case it sustained Elijah for forty days and forty nights. It must have been some meal!

So, nourished, Elijah goes to Horeb, the mount of God. Elijah’s needs are met. His strength is renewed. Despite his reluctance, he ends up where God wants him to be.

That, perhaps, leaves a couple of questions. How is God sustaining me at the moment (and am I accepting that sustenance)? And where, for now, is Mount Horeb for me?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Disciple's Story (Matthew 26:6-13)

He was always being invited out for dinner, never short of an invitation. There was always someone who wanted to talk to him, to ask him questions, to try and get his opinion, and a meal was a good opportunity for conversation. I did wonder why he accepted some of the invitations. Personally, I would have avoided some of his dinner companions, but we always tagged along. We wanted to see what he was up to, and we came as a sort of package, Jesus and his disciples. None of the hosts seemed to mind that.

Simon had a nice house, and it was good food, but I was never quite sure why he would go to the home of a leper. It always seemed risky. But the conversation flowed, and so did the wine. Simon and his friends had lots of questions. They seemed to be really interested in what Jesus was saying.

Then it happened. How embarrassing! How annoying! Simon did not seem to bother who wandered into his courtyard, or who listened in to the conversation. But this woman did not just stay on the fringe, listening in, like other passers-by. She walked straight up to Jesus. He was carrying a jar of perfume which she broke up. I have to admit that it was expensive stuff. You could tell that immediately from the aroma that spread across the air. It smelt lovely – but how inappropriate. How could she gate-crash the party and draw such attention to herself?

What a waste! I was so annoyed. We could have done so much with that money. It would have kept a foodbank going for a month. It was all used in a moment, and it could have done so much.

But Jesus commended the woman. He said that she had done something really special. He said that she would always be remembered for what she had done.

So maybe, just maybe, there are some things that I need to learn from that woman (and even from Simon). What are the questions I need to be asking? How can I be more hospitable? What do I need to see or do differently? What costly thing do I need to do for/give to God? What good service should I be performing for God – and for others? What preparations do I need to be undertaking – and for what? What do I want to be remembered for? What will I be remembered for?

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

After Breakfast (John 21:15-19)

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ (John 21:15).

How do I respond when Jesus asks me a question to which I think the answer ought to be obvious?

The story of the ‘breakfast on the shore’ (John 21:1-14) is one of my favourites. It’s such a lovely scene. There, on the beach beside Lake Galilee, Jesus and this group of disciples share a breakfast of barbecued fish and – somehow I think, freshly baked – bread. It has been a frustrating night – but that has suddenly all been turned round. The fishing expedition was fruitless until, just before they landed, Jesus (though they didn’t know it was him at the time) tells them to have one last cast. Fish galore. They haul them aboard and then Simon, ahead of the rest, realises. It is Jesus, the risen Jesus. He jumps over the side and wades ashore to greet his Lord.

The catch is landed. Excited greetings take place. Breakfast is shared. The disciples hardly dare to believe that this is happening.

Then, this semi-private chat between Jesus and Simon takes place. If it were you or me in Simon’s place, I wonder what Jesus would be saying to us. I wonder what questions Jesus would be asking us. I wonder what challenges Jesus would be placing before us.

And then again, I wonder how we would respond. I wonder what we would be thinking. I wonder what we would feel. I wonder if we would mind if Jesus asked us the same question three times. I wonder if, like Simon, we would feel that Jesus’ questioning was superfluous. Lord, you know everything. I wonder if we would be willing to listen for what Jesus was telling us to do. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

I wonder if we would notice that the crunch comes in the last two words: follow me

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Cleopas' Story (Luke 24:13-35)

We were almost inconsolable. It had all gone horribly wrong. The dream was over. We had thought he was the one. We had thought things were going to change. We were expecting some kind of revolution, the end of Roman rule, God’s Kingdom ushered in. But it was not to be. The unthinkable had happened.

We were going home, weary, angry, frustrated, devastated. There was only one thing we could think about – what might have been and what, now, was not going to be. It felt a very long seven miles, that walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. There was only one thing we could talk about. We remembered things that he had done and said. We recalled bits of teaching, great sayings he had uttered. We talked about stories he had told. The shepherd who had risked his ninety nine sheep by going off to look for the one that had wandered away. The Samaritan who had helped a man who had been mugged – Samaritans didn’t usually behave like that. The party-giver who sent his servants out inviting all and sundry because his friends all made excuses. We remembered people he had healed, other special moments, things that happened that we will never forget.

We were so busy talking – in amidst the tears – that we didn’t notice that somebody was catching up with us. ‘What are you talking about?’ There was only one thing on our minds. We couldn’t believe that he didn’t know. So, we started to tell some of the stories again. He joined in the conversation, explaining certain things in ways that we hadn’t seen them. We were so busy talking. It was so interesting.

We told him about the rumours that were beginning. Some of the women had seen a vision of angels and were now saying that he is alive. Crazy – but there you have it. We didn’t want any false hopes like that.

Before we knew it, we were home. The journey had suddenly seemed to speed up. It was late. It was dark. In any case, we wanted to continue the extremely interesting conversation. We invited him to stay with us. It was too late to continue a journey until tomorrow.

We all went into the house and we got some supper ready. Just a simple meal, and we sat down at the table together. Somehow it seemed right to ask him to say grace – so we did. He said the prayer as he broke the bread. Then we realised who had walked with us on our journey and, as we did, he disappeared.

What a moment. We wished we had known as we walked – but we realised that, in a sense, we had known – were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?

Suddenly, it wasn’t too late for a journey after all. We rushed back to Jerusalem to find the disciples. We simply had to share the good news.

When has Jesus accompanied me (you) incognito? How has that changed things for me?

Monday, 17 July 2017

Philippians 1:3-11

As Paul begins his letter to the Philippians he sounds a strongly positive note. Though challenges, exhortations, and even admonishments, are sometimes needed, it is always good to be positive. (Am I/are you sufficiently positive? Do I have a reputation as an encourager?)

Paul’s prayers are both constant and marked with joy. (How would I describe my prayers? What are the various elements contained in my conversation with God – and are they in the right balance?)

Paul is glad because of their sharing in the gospel. (How do I share in the gospel? How do I share the gospel? Are those two different?) Living a gospel life should have an impact on everything I do. One of the way that I find most helpful in trying to describe that is to ask to what extent do I demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Would others use those words to describe how I live?)

Paul goes on to talk about God at work in them and, in particular, to mention the influences that stem from God’s grace. (Perhaps this is no different from a question I have already posed, but – how is God’s grace at work, and seen to be at work, in me?)

Then, in verses 9 and 10, Paul’s prayer reaches a kind of crescendo – And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.

God’s generosity is amazing, and the image of ‘overflowing’ is one of the best descriptions of this. I have always liked how the psalmist puts it – You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. I always remember how a colleague illustrated that. She was leading us in a celebration of Communion. She opened a bottle of wine and started pouring it into the chalice. The chalice took so much wine, and then was full, but she kept pouring. Naturally, it overflowed. It was messy (though she had taken precautions to take care of that) – but what an apt illustration of the abundant love of God.

In the end – verse 11 – it is all about the glory and praise of God. How right to come before God with awe and reverence, recognising the multitude of ways in which we experience God’s love. (Is that what drives me? How do I experience God’s abundant grace? How is that seen in how I live?)

Sharing in God’s grace is indeed sustaining. 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Abundant Grace (Romans 6:1-11)

God’s offer is of abundant grace. However, that does not come as a means of dealing with our continuing and increasing sin – to respond to Paul’s rhetorical question, not that we should need to do that (verse 1), though Paul, of course, does so himself (verse 2). Grace does not appear as a result of a mounting pile of sin. Rather, it emerges from God’s amazing generosity. As God's love surrounds us, we experience something special that is best described as grace.

One of our problems is that we are insufficiently willing to rely on God. We are not confident of God’s promises. Paul here encourages us to move on in faith. We are in a different place. We are experiencing newness of life.

Paul uses the image of dying and rising with Christ, which he links to baptism. Baptism is an indicator of our new life with God. The symbolism is there whatever the method of baptism – but perhaps more obvious in baptism by full immersion when the waters close over the candidate, a symbol of being buried with Christ – and then rising to new life.

As a minister, I have conducted many baptisms. A few I remember; many, to be honest, I don’t. All, bar one, of those baptisms happen to have been by sprinkling. However, one that I certainly don’t (and won’t) forget is the single occasion that I have baptised by immersion. When we lived in Panama, one of the relatively elderly members of my congregation came to me and said that she wanted to be baptised, and she wanted it to be by immersion in the river ‘just like Jesus’. So that is what we did, a memorable and special moment – perhaps especially for a minister who is a non-swimmer! Baptism is baptism. Every baptism is personal and indicative of God’s grace. That was so on that occasion in a Panamanian river, just as it has been at the fonts in various churches where I have had the joy of offering that sacrament.

In each case, whatever the detail and individual circumstances, baptism speaks of resurrection, of hope, of possibility, of life. It is about unity with and in Christ.

Perhaps one of the things many Christians could do a little more often is to recall their baptism, to remember how it indicates the abundance of God’s grace, and so be inspired to greater things with and for God.