I Believe..?

Every so often a line will hit you hard, and you’ll never forget it. Maybe from a film, book or song, or maybe in everyday conversation. Of course there’s quite a few memorable lines in the Bible.

There were a few lines that struck me back in my early school days. There was “go to the ant, thou sluggard,” (Proverbs 6:6) for no particular reason, except it had a pleasing rhythm when I spoke or thought it. Then there was “the plank in your own eye,” and the rest of that small section of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 7:1-5) that I had to memorise and recite in a morning assembly, aged 9 or 10. But the most memorable Bible quotation in my entire life is found at the end of Mark 5:9, and it has to be the King James Version:

My name is Legion: for we are many.

I didn’t have any understanding of the context – I think I still have a lot to learn from the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man – but I was just mesmerised by the weirdness of the line. It was the creepiest thing I’d ever heard. And because of the way my neural pathways were being laid down at that time, it probably still is! I think I got the idea that the Bible was an exciting book just from the knowledge and remembrance of those eight words. And though I drifted far from Jesus over the years that followed, that line never left me, and never lost its power to enthral me.

More recently, last year to be rather imprecise, another verse got under my skin in a similar way. And as I write I am only just realising that it is very similar because of the paradox it encapsulates. It’s Mark 9:24…

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

Is it presumptuous of me to suggest that if you ask any Christian “Do you believe in God?” then there’s a very high probability that they’ll answer “Yes”?

But if I was ever asked that question, even though I’ve surrendered my life to Christ, I wouldn’t want to say “Yes”!

Why?

Because to “believe” something, or to “believe in” something, there has to be an element of doubt – or room for doubt. I believe it’s going to rain tomorrow, but it might not. I believe in my ability to hit a tennis ball over a net, but I might fail. Whenever I hear someone say “I believe in God,” I can’t help hearing the unspoken continuation, “…but I could be wrong.

I believed in God for as long as I can remember. There were times when that belief was more important and times when it drifted out of my consciousness. When it was important, I’d seek answers to the meaning of life and what was the exact nature of God. I looked at various religions, they all had their pros and cons. None fully met my requirements, or fitted completely with whatever I might call my world view. So I defined myself as “spiritual but not religious” and left it at that.

During a difficult time in my life, in late 2008, I was invited to a church conference which ignited a passion in me. Over the course of several weeks I found myself drawn to Christ, and on 14 December I accepted Him as my personal Saviour.

The moment before I made that commitment I believed in God, and I believed in His Son Jesus. Moments afterwards, “believe” became the wrong word.

God touched me in a physical way, He shook my body, moving from my head down to my feet, in a way I can’t describe and which I’ve never experienced before or since. It was a completely unexpected manifestation, although I’ve since heard that other people have felt His presence in a similar way.

Because of what I’ve experienced, I no longer “believe” in God, I “know” Him in a personal way.

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. (Job 19:25)

Is the distinction important? Is it just semantics? It’s difficult to say. On a personal level, yes it feels very important to me. Knowing the reality of God makes it much easier to have faith at those times when He feels far away from me. But what about those Christians who haven’t had such a tangible confirmation? I can’t help thinking about Jesus’ words to Thomas:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Maybe God touched me because it’s what I needed. Maybe if He hasn’t touched you, the faith He’s given you is strong enough without further intervention. Whether it’s connected to your personality, or your life story, or because of His plans for you, I don’t know. Maybe He will touch you some time in the future when you need it most.

I’m also aware that certainty brings danger as well as comfort. There’s a danger of certainty leading to arrogance. There’s a danger that that I could lack patience or understanding when I’m talking to people who still have doubts.

And finally, my certainty about the existence of God is not going to answer the other questions that naturally arise in my journey through life. There is so much for me to learn about God’s nature, about His plan for me and for those who are close to me. There is so much for me to understand about everyday issues, and my personal trials and my weaknesses. There are more questions than will ever be answered in my lifetime, but I’ll keep learning all I can while I have breath, and then look forward to learning the rest when I find my way home to my Heavenly Father.

Abundant Life

A thought I scribbled on 7 June 2011. Was I being fair?

Too many people are just thanking God that they’re still alive.

Yes, life is a wonderful gift from God, and yes we should be thankful for it.

But Christ lived, and died, not only that we should have life, but that we should have it abundantly (John 10:10).

So don’t just settle for being alive, take the opportunities God is giving you to fill your life, and other people’s, with the blessings He provides.

And don’t just thank God for your life, thank Him for the amazing way He has enriched it, thank Him for the unique gifts, opportunities and experiences He has given you in your abundant life.

Goldilocks and the Three Prayers

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for as long as I can remember. I started watching regularly towards the end of the Tom Baker era, and Peter Davison was the first Doctor I saw from beginning to end, so I guess those two are my ‘favourites’ though I can see merits in all of them (yes all of them!)

I’ve enjoyed the 21st Century reboot as well, but there was one particular change that bothered me. I think it bothered me so much that I even complained about it on internet message boards! It was the change in episode format and story length.

In the good old days the episode was generally around 25 minutes long, and a story typically ran over 4 episodes. That gave opportunities for classic (or not-so-classic) cliffhangers, but more importantly it gave a degree of flexibility to the story length. If necessary the story could be spread over a shorter or longer number of episodes – I remember the all time great Genesis of the Daleks was a 6-parter. In theory you could also have a one-off 25 minute story if you wanted to. Somewhere in my archives I probably have a list of all the stories that I could check to see if they ever did that – but I won’t!

The reboot changed the format more in line with the current US TV vogue. There was a 13 episode ‘season’ which had on underlying/overarching storyline ‘arc’, but within that were 45 minute episodes that were usually self-contained stories. Yes there was the occasional 2-parter but they were the exception, and in any case putting together 45 minute episodes naturally gives less flexibility than 25 minute ones.

Many stories work brilliantly within that format, but more often than I’d like, I’d see stories that seemed either padded out or squeezed to fit them into the required number of minutes. In my perfect world I would let the writers write a story that worked, of whatever length was necessary, and I’d let the director film it in as many parts, of whatever length, so that they would work on screen for maximum audience satisfaction. So a 30 minute story one week could be followed by a 2 hour TV movie the next, followed by a 90 minute story spread over two weeks with a terrific cliffhanger in the middle.

Of course that’s not how TV schedules work these days – I don’t know if they ever did. If you want the flexibility to produce a moving picture that is the perfect length for the story you want to tell, cinema is your best hope.

Other art forms aren’t as restricted by schedules – although some might be moving that way, as Billy Joel noted in his 1974 song The Entertainer:

I am the entertainer,
I come to do my show.
You’ve heard my latest record,
It’s been on the radio.
Ah, it took me years to write it,
They were the best years of my life.
It was a beautiful song.
But it ran too long.
If you’re gonna have a hit,
You gotta make it fit –
So they cut it down to 3:05.

I recall a magazine interview Mark Knopfler gave, back in the late 1980s I think, although he’s told the story on other occasions. He spoke about being in a bar, listening to “Telegraph Road” which was on the jukebox, and he found it overlong, overblown and lifeless. Straight afterwards, he heard Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!”, about 13 minutes shorter, which was the complete opposite, and to Knopfler’s ears sounded so much better for it.

Of course he wasn’t comparing apples even with oranges, but rather with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding! Completely different songs, trying to achieve entirely different results, with entirely different things to say. Each one works perfectly well in its own terms.

You might be wondering by now, just what all this has to do with my Christian journey? Well these examples were brought to mind when I was reflecting on this blog. What I like about the blog format is that I can write as much or as little as I want on a particular subject. I can even produce a series of posts on a theme (as I intend to shortly) to extend the scope wider if I feel it’s necessary.

But I’m still not convinced that I’m getting it right. There’s a danger of me writing too much, and just getting boring, or overly-analytical. I feel there’s even more danger of me not writing enough. I usually think about my posts for a few days before I write, though some are more spontaneous. I’ll tend to write them out in draft form, then read over them again a short time later to correct obvious grammar problems and generally tidy them up. But still I often look back on a post and realise that there was so much more I could have added to explain my thoughts, and my faith, more clearly.

Hopefully I will improve as a writer over the next weeks, months and years. And one of the advantages of a blog is that I can go back later to revise them if I really need to, although I’ll try to avoid that if possible, and maybe add links to better articles, or footnotes, instead. I’m not George Lucas and this blog isn’t Star Wars. I’ll try to avoid tinkering. If Greedo should have shot first, then I can only apologise.

Thinking about this also reminded me of other places where I’ve noticed the problem in Christian life. And the first of these is in sermons.

I haven’t been a Christian for that long – less than four years at the time of writing. I don’t have a vast personal experience of the variety of preaching styles that are available, but I’ve heard a few, and I’ve also heard that one of the hallmarks of some denominations can be the length of sermons. I hope I’m not stating the obvious when I say that I don’t mind how long the sermon is, as long as it’s appropriate for the message being delivered. Actually I hope I am stating the obvious there!

I was troubled to read this statement by James MacDonald in an article titled 5 Things We Do Today Instead of Preach the Word (on page 3):

“Twenty minute sermons”

I don’t know how it works at your church, but for us it takes 5 minutes to set the rig up and another 5 or 10 minutes to take it down. If you’re only preaching for 20 minutes, that gives you 5 minutes to drill. You’re not going very deep, are you? It takes some time.

Judging by the comments on the article there were several others who shared my concern. Of course, I’m not arguing in any way that 20 minutes is always long enough to explain even a single verse, but 45 minutes? An hour? 2 hours? How much is enough? How much can the congregation take? How much will sink in? If you preach the most devastatingly insightful and life changing message of the last 2000 years, but you’ve lost your audience, then what glory will God get from it?

Some services are unrestricted, while others are strictly scheduled, especially when multiple services are running through the day, so the preacher’s hands may be tied in some respects. But I would like to think that room can be found for flexibility in most cases.

I’m not going to make arguments comparing Jesus’ sermons and teaching, because what is written doesn’t necessarily reflect everything He said, and there are often layers of meaning to read into His words. But at other times He was able to encapsulate a major message in the simplest of ways, and that simplicity is something I cherish and want more of from my spiritual leaders.

There is a time for every sermon under the sun. Sometimes that time will be 20 minutes or less. Sometimes it will be 2 hours or more. Let wisdom decide.

And finally to something I’ve struggled with many times – prayer.

I’ve thought about prayer a lot over the years. Talked about it. Prayed about it! No doubt I’ll blog about it plenty in the future. I don’t understand how it can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time – particularly public prayer.

More than once I’ve been asked to pray at the start or end of an occasion, and the person before me has reeled off what seems an unfeasibly long prayer, full of the right turns of phrase, and making my own words that follow feel pitifully inadequate. In some circles there’s almost a cachet surrounding lengthy prayer.

But again, does the content justify the length? I don’t believe any of the people listening to the prayer need to be told the same thing in half a dozen ways. And I’m absolutely sure that God doesn’t. It saddens me that I’ve found myself not sharing a sense of God’s presence on occasions but instead thinking of Jesus’ words:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

(Matthew 6:5-13)

The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words in the New King James Version. Of course that’s not enough to cover everything that you may wish to pray about on every occasion, but as a model it comprehensively refutes the idea that a lengthy prayer has more innate worth than a short one. And in case you want another example, turn to Luke 18, and say together with me:

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

But I say yet again that a short prayer isn’t always appropriate either. It’s all about proportion and balance. I’ve had quiet times alone with God when my prayers have gone on for twenty minutes, half an hour, or more. God knows it all already, so it’s really for my benefit as my conversation with Him helps me understand more clearly the situation and what He wants me to do in it.

And there will be times of corporate prayer where much does need to be said, and something serious will be lost if we short-change ourselves.

So let’s use the right prayer for the right occasion, be it 7 words, or 66, or 1000. And let’s give God thanks for the amazing privilege of speaking to Him directly about whatever concerns us.

(1894 words, excluding this line!)

Update 8 November 2012 – This article describes a different perspective on the length of church services, and sermons. I don’t agree with the rigid structure it suggests, but I can see its merits, unlike most of the commentators!

Feeling Low

In this article I’m going to be deliberately vague. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. Why? Three main reasons, in no particular order:

  1. To protect my own privacy. I don’t think it’s wise for anyone to lay bare the full details of their private life to the world. It’s no secret that I’m a sinner, because we all are. My own sins may be viewed by the world as greater or lesser than anyone else’s. What I consider to be sin in my life may be viewed as nothing of the kind by others, and the reverse is also possibly true. Small groups and close Christian friends provide the outlets for detailed discussion, confession and repentance.
  2. To protect the privacy of others. Do I need to explain this? The people closest to me, or those involved in whatever situation I write about, may well recognise incidents and individuals. Some might even feel offended or exposed that I’ve publicised something about them. But I will always be careful not to reveal personally identifiable information about anyone I know in this blog. If I speak on public matters then I’ll try to use wisdom and discernment. If I make any mistakes along the way, I trust you to let me know.
  3. Ultimately I should be able to refer to issues broadly and vaguely without losing sight of the meaning behind them. And by keeping to generalities rather than specifics I hope that more people will see parallels with their own lives, their owns journeys, their own struggles – and in that way we can encourage and support one another.

So… I’m feeling low.

I expect that nearly all of us have experienced the pain of rejection. It’s just one those things we have to go through at some time in our lives. I’ve been through it several times in mine – well I’ve been around for over 40 years so I can’t be too surprised at that. But I went through it again this week and it hit me hard. I don’t know if it feels different because it’s the first time I’ve really been through it since I found Christ.

It isn’t the only thing that I’m going through. My other issues are less usual, but equally difficult. All I can say is that I’ve got a lot of painful situations all going on together, and I’m really struggling to come to terms with them all.

And that’s where my head was when I went to church on Sunday, and I wept as I worshipped, and then some of Jesus’ words came to me and I didn’t understand exactly why.

Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a little child and set him by Him, and said to them, “Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great.” – Luke 9:46-48

I can honestly say that I have no desire at all to be great, either on earth or in heaven. I have no interest in status, or in fame or fortune. I’d like to think that I’ll make a positive difference in some people’s lives, and I wonder if one day I may make a bigger impact for God, but my satisfaction will be in knowing in my heart I did well, not in any external recognition.

So in theory, to be least is just fine with me, just fine.

In theory.

But I broke down inside at that moment, because it suddenly felt as if I was not even least, but I was nobody. And as little as it matters if I’m ‘nothing’ to ‘everybody’, I have such a need to be ‘something’ to ‘somebody’. And not just ‘something’, but something significant.

I’m not alone, I have family and friends, and I know I mean something to them, but it isn’t enough.

I’ve heard on more than one occasion that God is enough. That we can find complete fulfillment in our relationship with Christ. I’m sorry but I don’t believe that, and I don’t think it’s a Biblical viewpoint either. Read Genesis, and notice that everything God sees in His creation is good, or very good. What is the first thing he sees that is not good? In Genesis 2:18…

And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”

Some people can live a successful single life, Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 7, but that isn’t my gift.

I need to make clear at this point that I wasn’t just yearning for a wife on Sunday. I had an overwhelming vision of myself as servant to everyone; putting everyone’s needs before my own; wanting to talk to my spiritual brothers but not wanting to interrupt them, because I don’t matter as much as the people they’re already talking to; not wanting to be in the conversation I was in, but unable to extricate myself from it because the person who was speaking to me was more important than I was.

That isn’t the real me, well not the whole of me. Yes I try to put other people first most of the time, but I certainly have a selfish side as well and it manifests itself more often than I’d like.

But at that moment I was small, I was insignificant, I was nothing.

There have been some times in my life – and I think this is also something that many Christians experience – when I have been acutely aware of my insignificance as an individual, but at the same time I have felt God’s love for me, and been overcome by the awesome wonder that the Creator of the universe knows me intimately and cares for me deeply. Those moments are among the most amazing of my life.

On Sunday I still knew of God’s love for me, but I couldn’t feel it. I still don’t feel it now, so I’m still struggling, but I know it’s there. I think I’ve just allowed the temporary troubles of life to take over my mind and flood my heart with sadness. God hasn’t gone anywhere, but I’ve shut myself off from Him.

I need to reconnect with Him. I need to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. I need to keep praising His holy name because he has been so good to me. I don’t need to keep feeling low. I need to lift up the name of Jesus, knowing that He will in turn lift me.