Alone

According to Wikipedia St. Valentine’s Day was first associated with romantic love around the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, in the early fourteenth century. I was planning on making some cynical comments about what it’s become since then, but that’s not the purpose of this message. If you have a partner, and if you want to share romantic moments with your loved one today, go for it, and God bless you.

But my thoughts today are for people like me, who are alone, and who don’t like it. I’m alone. Often it gets me down. Sometimes it’s hard to bear.

Some people, and I’m thinking particularly of Christians, will tell you it’s all right to be alone. They might even say that it’s good, because you don’t have to dedicate time to your partner and your family, so you can dedicate even more time to God. For some, that’s true, I’m sure.

And some people will extend that argument and tell you how great it is that without the shackles of a relationship you are free to do good works for God and for people. You can devote yourself to mission work and great Kingdom causes. For some, that’s true too.

Some people will tell you not to obsess over finding ‘the one’, not to turn that search into your mission, and not to turn the object of your search into an idol. Wise words, certainly.

You will often be told that ‘relationship’ is not just about the romance that leads to marriage, that you should treasure your family and friends, your church family and wider community. You will be told that these relationships are where you can offer, and experience, real love. Yes, yes, we know that love has many forms of expression, and yes, we want to love our neighbours, and our enemies, of course we do.

And then comes the killer blow: “Isn’t Jesus enough for you?”

Wow. Just wow.

Don’t get me wrong, singleness is right for some people. And there will most likely be seasons of life when it’s right for each of us. Paul, a single man, has a lot to say about singleness (and marriage) in 1 Corinthians 7, and he touches on several of the arguments I’ve just listed. But he isn’t entirely dogmatic about it. Indeed he says in verse 7, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

If, like me, you don’t believe your singleness is a gift from God, then it can be difficult to hear some of the (usually) well-meaning platitudes like those mentioned above. I want to reassure you that you’re not the only one who feels like this. And I have responses to those statements.

First, is it good to be alone? God doesn’t think so.

The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ (Genesis 2:18)

It’s the first time in the story of creation that something is not good. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘helper’ and think that somehow God just wants people to help each other out, to be friends, and somehow this will make things good. No, Genesis continues to describe the union between Adam and Eve, the first marriage, referred to by Jesus in Matthew 19, and thus held up as an example by church leaders ever since. If singleness suits you, good for you, but if it doesn’t then know that God understands your pain.

What about the work you can do for God as a single person? Yes, you can do much, but consider Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. He talks about the qualifications and character of those who lead the church, and a faithful marriage is mentioned several times, not as an instruction that elders and deacons must be married, but certainly confirming that marriage is no bar to such a position. And there is no pattern anywhere in the Bible to suggest that God’s work was done better, or more often, by single men and women. Couples can certainly do mission together, and the support they can offer each other will be invaluable. If they are blessed with children, then their priorities will change, but raising children is precious work in itself.

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. (Proverbs 1:8-9)

To make an idol of anything, including the search for a partner, is clearly a big mistake. I would never argue otherwise. I would just say this – to honestly desire something that is good is not to idolise it. So don’t unquestioningly accept such an assertion from others, especially others who have that one thing that you lack, and who don’t necessarily understand, or remember, what that lack feels like. Instead, guard your heart (Proverbs 4), bringing your needs to God and trusting Him through the hard times. You can find a helpful article about guarding your heart here

Your life will be richer if you can enjoy all kinds of relationships. That’s undeniable. Friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, fellow believers, they all have something great to offer, and you have something great to offer them too. But equally undeniable is that there is another kind of relationship, one that Paul describes as a kind of reflection of that between Christ and His church in Ephesians 5. Think about it. What would the church be without Christ? Doesn’t that tell you something about the power and the value of this most intimate of relationships?

But isn’t Jesus enough? Isn’t that actually a God-shaped hole that you’re trying to fill?

Go back again to Genesis, when the man was alone. This was the time when, as described in Genesis 3, the Lord would walk in the Garden in the cool of the day. Whether or not you take Genesis literally, it’s clear that in God’s eyes, even His own immediate presence is not enough to satisfy our desires in this world. Complete intimacy with another human being, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” is a basic human need, like food and shelter. If you are without food or shelter do you just ignore that want? Do you tell yourself that your cold and hunger aren’t important because Jesus is enough? No! You trust in the Lord to provide, but you also do your part to make it happen.

Some people might say there’s a difference, that human intimacy doesn’t have the same immediate priority as protecting your physical well-being. But we are starting to understand the weakness of that argument. We are starting to see that emotional well-being is just as important, and its deprivation can be just as deadly as physical damage.

And if you have any doubt about how important the church considers intimate relationships, just think of the amount of time and energy it spends arguing with society and within itself about the rights and wrongs of all aspects of marriage and sexuality.

So this is my message to you, if you’re alone, and like me, you’re not ok with that. My message is that it’s ok to not be ok with that. I pray that you’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that you will be able to patiently endure the loneliness while you trust for God’s provision.

If you feel blessed to be single, then you are, and that’s wonderful. But if you don’t, then don’t feel guilty for desiring, and seeking, a partner. And take comfort in the knowledge that, in one respect at least, you are not alone.

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Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn

I hired a car for a few days over Christmas. It was the first time I’d driven in a year, and on the quiet holiday roads it was a truly pleasurable experience.

At some point I parked and noticed the car showed me a display of my “eco-credentials”. I wish I’d taken a picture at the time, because it gave me a score in the 90s, and my acceleration and anticipation marks were perfect. Sadly, later in the evening I took a long drive down a dark country lane which took the edge off my scores, so when the inspiration for this post came to me and I took the picture below, it was not as impressive as I’d hoped.

IMG_20181226_205022

Over the years I’ve learned to drive steadily, because doing otherwise serves no purpose. So I’m not surprised that my statistics remained quite good in the main. The interesting part of the display was my gear change score, which started relatively poor and didn’t improve.

Like many modern vehicles my car gave me a visual clue – a flashing gear stick icon – on the dashboard when it ‘wanted’ me to change gear. I didn’t notice very often because my eyes tended to stay on the road. But when it did attract my attention I became aware of what was going on, and what was hurting my gear score when I was convinced that I was driving smoothly.

When I learned to drive, about twenty years ago, my instructor taught me to listen to the engine, and said that the car would tell me when to change gear, either up or down, by the sound it was making. I found that the changing up spot would come between 2000 and 2500 rpm – usually towards the lower end of that range. This satisfied my instructor, and also got me through my test and my first nineteen years of driving.

But this Christmas, I found that my car was flashing its icon at me between 1500 and 2000 rpm, well before it sounded right for me to change up, and it would also tell me to change down when my senses and experience were telling me the engine was fine where it was. I tried to adjust, but it wasn’t easy unless I let my eyes linger on the dashboard much longer than felt safe. I expect it would take a few weeks for me to adapt my driving style to this new paradigm.

This got me thinking, asking myself why I was getting this simple task so wrong after all these years. Advanced motorists among you may have an immediate answer, but I was very interested in the range of possible explanations that occurred to me. They were:

  • Did I misunderstand the original instructions, but ‘got away with it’ when I was learning and being tested?
  • Am I remembering my instructions wrongly? My memory isn’t my greatest asset.
  • Was the instructor wrong?
  • Have cars changed over the last twenty years? Undoubtedly they have, so have improvements to engine design and efficiency changed the way they should be driven? And do different ‘rules’ apply to different cars?
  • Am I really just driving by ‘muscle memory’, through habits formed over years of experience, for better or worse?

Speculation about my driving technique is one thing, but as I thought about those questions it brought to mind another kind of instruction I’ve been receiving over the last ten years, which is of course Christian instruction – from reading the Bible or other books and articles, from Sunday messages, from small group discussions, and so on.

In the last decade I’ve moved home a few times, and as a result moved church as well. I’ve been a member of three different churches over those years. At each one there have been occasions where I was taught things that I was uncomfortable with at the time, or which I have come to doubt since.

Reflecting on this, I realise that the questions I asked myself about my driving are also pertinent to these teachings:

  • Did I misunderstand what I was being taught?
  • Have I misremembered what I was taught?
  • Was the teaching wrong? Even the best of us is human, and fallible. I’d love to believe that everything spoken from the pulpit is right and good, but I’m sure that mistakes are made. This reminds me of an occasion when I was in primary school. I don’t know how old I was, but I was very young! A teacher asked us what “USSR” stood for, and being rather too well-informed for my years I stuck my hand up and said “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” which the teacher promptly shot down and corrected me, informing the class that it actually stood for “United States of Soviet Russia.”
  • God doesn’t change, but the world does, and people do. I do. Does this affect what I was taught, or how it should be applied?
  • Has my experience of life, faith and God changed my perspective, beliefs and practices – or habits – for better or worse?

I think it is vital for all of us to consider these questions whenever something troubles us, either in our own understanding, or in what we learn from others, because not one of us has all the answers. We are all “looking through a glass, darkly,” we should all be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” which is an ongoing, life-long process. There are some tenets of faith that are fundamentally true, while we can sometimes hold on to others that merely make us fundamentalists in the worst sense.

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heaven’s all-gracious King” –
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever circling years
Shall come the age of gold;
When Peace shall over all the earth,
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song,
Which now the angels sing.

Edmund H. Sears

10 (again)

Today I am 10, and on the anniversary of the day that I was born again I can look back on the last decade and you may be surprised to learn that in some ways it feels like they’ve been the toughest 10 years of my life.

If you ask me why I feel like that I can probably sum it up in one word – disappointment. I’ve been disappointed by individuals, by organisations and by circumstances. And yes, I’ve disappointed myself on a daily basis.

But the One who has never disappointed me is God. Do I wish that He would click His fingers once in a while and make things go the way I ask? Of course I do, but He isn’t a genie waiting to obey my commands. Do I long for Him to transform people’s hearts and minds and lead them to act more generously, graciously and lovingly? Yes, how I long for that, but as much as I love Him I still find myself stubbornly doing my own thing. How can I expect more of others than I manage myself? Do I want Him to speak to me, tell me His plans, show me the way? I do, but I know that I need eyes to see and ears to hear. Occasionally I catch a glimpse, but I don’t look or listen as much as I should. I must miss so much of what He’s telling me.

But He is with me. He always has been and always will be. He understands me and loves me and accepts me. Knowing these things, and knowing I am His, helps me through the difficult days, and years.

As I reflected on the last 10 years, the verse that came to mind was John 16:33. As I turned to my Bible to copy the verse I read the earlier verses giving context to this one and I felt they were equally important, so here is my birthday gift to you, John 16:16-33…

Jesus went on to say, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.’

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,” and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They kept asking, ‘What does he mean by “a little while”? We don’t understand what he is saying.’

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, ‘Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me”? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

‘Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.’

Then Jesus’ disciples said, ‘Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.’

‘Do you now believe?’ Jesus replied. ‘A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

Private Lives

I was browsing through some notes I’d written over the years, looking for some inspiration for a post, and I came across a document titled “Private Lives”. It turned out to be a complete article which I thought I must have posted here previously, but then I noticed that it had been written on 22 May 2011, predating my blog by nearly a year. So I thought I’d share it with you now. I haven’t edited it. There are a couple of lines I would probably change if I was writing it now, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of rewriting history, so what follows is what flowed from my mind on that day…

Private Lives

I’m troubled by the Twitter/super-injunction drama being played out before our eyes.

It seems that some Twitter users feel that they have a right to total anonymity (privacy) at the same time that they are denying celebrities that same privilege.

Let’s look first at the legal side of this. Rightly or wrongly a court has ordered that the real identity of “CTB” should not be published. Contempt of court is a serious matter.

Twitter’s terms of service clearly state “We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request…”

So the seeming uproar among the Twitter community at the news that CTB is seeking – through the courts – the name of the individual who has broken the injunction, is unjustified.

But there are even more important issues at stake here than privacy or freedom of speech. Read this well-known passage from John’s gospel.

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Behind the headlines there is a broken family. There are hurting people. A sin has been committed, and sin has consequences. That is God’s way, and it is right. But the world’s way is to hound, ridicule, judge and condemn the sinner more than they would any ordinary person, because he is a celebrity. I don’t condone the adultery, of course not, but I don’t blame him for wanting to try and keep the details between the parties involved. All of us have sinned many times in our lives, and whether those sins were greater or lesser than CTB’s, who of us would want the details broadcast around the world? And what benefit has this pantomime been to any of us? A few cheap jokes, a few more newspaper sales or website hits. That’s all. Is it worth trying to destroy a family for that?

No, we should be praying for healing, and for restoration. We should hope and pray that CTB repents for what he has done, and that he can restore good, loving relationships with his wife and children. We should remember that in all likelihood it was for their sake as much as, or more than his, that he took out the super-injunction in the first place.

As I said, CTB has to face the consequences of his actions, but remember before you speak, write or act, there are consequences to everything you do too.

Who Do You Blame For The Fall?

…so the reason is first the fall, and then free will… why we live in a broken world…

I bit my tongue. First, because it may have been an unintended slip. Second, because it wasn’t the main point of the conversation and I didn’t want to go off on a tangent. Third, and if I’m honest, most pressing, I prefer to avoid conflict. It’s a bit nonsensical sometimes, like on this occasion, when a minor disagreement or correction would hardly lead to world war three, but there it is – I know I need to work on my assertiveness. But the statement gnawed away at me, and so I’ll take this opportunity discuss some of the thoughts I have on the subject.

The first point, which I hope is uncontroversial, is that free will came first. That’s just simple logic. If we didn’t have free will then more or less sixty four and a half books of the Bible would not have been written, and you would have looked at the title of this post and wondered “what fall?”

But that’s not how the world worked out, and so we’re left to contemplate the cause and effects of the fall. And this is where my problems start, because of statements like the following one, which is from the Wikipedia entry on “original sin” but reflects quite a broad understanding:

Original sin, also called ancestral sin, is a Christian belief of the state of sin in which humanity exists since the fall of man, stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden, namely the sin of disobedience in consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The key phrase is “…stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion…” It’s just too easy for us to unthinkingly blame Adam and/or Eve for the fall, and hence for every aspect of this broken world. Genesis 3:16-19 seems to provide scriptural support for that view. But let’s be honest about this. If it wasn’t Adam and Eve in the Garden, if it was you, or me, or your favourite preacher or worship leader, whoever was there would have fallen. And if we’re overly generous to ourselves and believe that we would have been smart or strong enough to resist the serpent’s first temptation, we would have fallen for the second, or the third…

Because, lest we forget, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) And we should also remember that the blaming of Eve for the initial transgression has led to untold (and ridiculous) misogyny in the church and the wider world over the millennia.

No, we should not blame Adam, or Eve, but instead reflect on the fact that this is who we are: fallen, and falling, and as Christians we spend our lives trying to gradually fall less often and less far.

This is what I’ve thought for a long time, but I would always find myself troubled when I thought about Romans 5:12-21, where Adam and sin are juxtaposed with Christ and righteousness. I’ve now found peace in this passage, which I can try to explain to you here, but bear in mind that this – like much of Paul’s writing – is packed with meaning, and I’m only scratching at the surface for the purpose of this post. By the way, I’m looking at the NIV. Translations matter when it comes to examining individual words, but for now, until I become a scholar of Biblical Greek, I’ll trust that the NIV gives a fairly sound representation of Paul’s argument.

In verse 12, we are told “…sin entered the world through one man…” At first I thought this contradicted my understanding, until I focused on the word “through” – not “because of” but “through”. As I said above, sin would have inevitably entered the world, sooner rather than later, unless God had chosen to create robots rather than human beings. But no, by His grace we were given free will, and not only did that throw up options of obedience or disobedience, it also made possible all those other wonderful gifts, like surprise, and joy, and love. And yes, the other things too, but they have their place. As one of my favourite sayings goes, “Lands that know only sunshine and no rain become deserts. Life too is like that.”

As I said, there’s plenty to get our teeth into throughout this passage, but I’ll skip ahead to verse 19, where a potential theological hurdle is expressed very clearly. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

I have convinced myself that because sin only came “through” the disobedience of Adam, we can’t blame him for our own sin, it’s just a consequence of how we were created. But then how do I reconcile this with righteousness coming “through” the obedience of Jesus Christ? Doesn’t that suggest that we can’t praise or thank Jesus for righteousness? If it didn’t come through Him then would it have come anyway as another consequence of creation?

No, because the man that righteousness came “through” was the “fully human” Jesus, but it came “by” the grace of the “fully divine” Jesus. See verse 15, as well as Hebrews 2:14-18 and Colossians 1:15-20.

So who do you blame for the fall? Who should you blame? The devil, in the form of the serpent? Loathe as I am to let him off the hook, he was also permitted to act as he did, just as he was in the book of Job. So if you want to point the finger somewhere, you might look at versus such as John 1:3 and Isaiah 45:7, and point towards God.  In fact, personally, I think the question of who or what to blame is the wrong one. I think the purpose of Genesis 3, one of its purposes at least, is to hold a mirror up to ourselves and remind us of many things: who we are, what freedom means and what are its consequences, Who sustains and covers us, who deceives us. It’s a deep, rich picture of where we belong in God’s universe, and a reminder of Who we belong to – a humbling and beautiful picture.

It Pays To Give

About eight and a half years ago I was a mess. I was separated, soon to be divorced, and my finances looked desperate. We’d built up a lot of debt during the marriage, and now I found myself owing tens of thousands of pounds on credit cards and personal loans. I looked at all the monthly payments, added those to the money I needed to spend to live, and realised that even though I was on a decent salary the sums just didn’t add up.

After receiving some debt advice and doing difficult calculations, I managed to agree payment arrangements with banks and credit card companies. I found that if I carefully watched my spending from week to week. I was able to get by.

Shortly after I’d made these arrangements I realised that God was speaking to me about money. He didn’t speak audibly, but instead through several different sources: yes, a message in Church, and also through podcasts I listened to, and Christian articles I received in my email. It was like a coordinated attack! I felt convicted in my heart that He wanted me to tithe.

I struggled to accept His instruction, because I couldn’t see where I could possibly find ten percent of my income to give away. But I examined my budget carefully and figured that if I cut all my spending right to the bone then maybe I could just about make it. Moreover, I felt compelled to give because I love Jesus, and this was something I wanted so much to do for Him.

So I prayed, and said to God, “Okay, I hear you, and I’ll do as you ask, but please help me because I’m going to struggle.” I decided to give it a try for six months, I set up a standing order so I was committed to the sacrifice, and then I waited to see what happened.

What happened was that from that day onward the amount of spare money I had at the end of each month just grew and grew. I couldn’t explain why. My salary stayed the same, all my major spending commitments stayed the same, and yet I was able to start saving money for a rainy day and soon I was able to lend money to friends and family. In the years since then I’ve increased my giving. On top of my tithe I make monthly donations to charities, which I add to from time to time as the Spirit leads me.

I had a rocky season when I felt it was wise to reduce my giving for a while, but I didn’t feel guilty about that because I knew God understood, and He knew my heart. Now I’m back to what I would call “full strength” tithing, and I don’t feel proud about that, just grateful and blessed that I’m able to respond to God in this way. I can see the day coming in the not-too-distant future when my debts to financial institutions will finally be cleared. My debt to Christ, for what He did for me on the cross, I can never repay. But God showed me a way to say “Thank You” and I’m so glad that listened to Him.

So I really feel that God has rewarded me for my obedience. I didn’t do it expecting a reward, in fact I didn’t expect anything. I just hoped that things would work out. But when I stepped out in faith, God made amazing things happen. And I’m convinced that He’ll do that for all of us, not just financially, but in every area of our lives if we just learn to put our trust in Him.

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Malachi 3:10-12