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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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.

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

God, Have Mercy

I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable admitting that I have “favourite” passages in the Bible. I know it’s not something I should be uneasy about. Clearly different books, chapters and verses will have stronger resonance during different seasons of my life. And no doubt people who have lived different lives will be drawn to different parts of scripture, or God will speak to them in different ways than He does to me with the same words.

But there are some passages that are universal, and one of my favourites is such an excerpt. It is Luke 18:9-14, known as the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. When I say “universal” I really mean it, because not only can any Christian relate to it, but so can anyone of any faith, or of none, so long as they are not so deluded as to think themselves perfect.

I doubt that a day goes by during which I don’t have thoughts that correspond to the Pharisee’s. When I see someone make a foolish driving manoeuvre, or act rudely in a shop, or just express an opinion I disagree with. Sometimes I will literally think myself “better” than the other person, but often I’ll find myself thinking the same thing in that slightly more subtle, but maybe more pernicious way… “At least I am not like that person.”

And then I’ll catch myself, and realise how far I am from the pedestal I briefly put myself on. At this point a non-believer will berate themselves for their superciliousness. So will I, before figuratively beating my breast and pleading “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Luke 18:9-14

In Memoriam

I hadn’t heard of Jo Cox MP until she died on 16 June 2016, but from her dying day until my own, I’ll never forget her.

There are two reasons why I’ll remember her. One is the brutal nature of her murder at the hands of a xenophobic far-right extremist. The other is her quote from a parliamentary speech, which was repeated often in the aftermath of her death.

…we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.

She was far from the first person to express such sentiments, but a special poignancy has been added to her words by the way her life was stolen, and those words have been running through my mind recently, triggering two thoughts that I want to share with you.

First, there is the simple, profound truth of what Jo said. How many of us can say that we’ve never made a negative judgement about someone based on a perceived difference between “us” and “them”? Whether that difference is in their race, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, mental or physical impairment, or anything else – yes there are many differences between us and them, and between you and me. Yet if we looked more deeply into our common humanity, looked with different eyes at the “other”, if we thought about the story of their life, the comedy and the tragedy in their history, the same needs, the same concerns, the same hopes and fears that drive them, and also drive us… if we could only see them as God sees them, we would surely discover love for them. I have some way to go in this area. I know I have my own prejudices. They may be different to yours, but that doesn’t make me any better or worse than you. It’s wrong, and it’s stupid. Prejudice belittles everyone (Galatians 3:28, Leviticus 19:33-34, 1 Samuel 16:7).

At the risk of sounding morbid, my second thought was this: how do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? I think this matters, and I think it should matter to you as well, whether or not you share my faith that death is not the end (John 11:25-26). It’s not a case of earning points toward a happier afterlife. It’s not particularly important for its own sake either – my ego isn’t going to be massaged by the kind words people speak about me when I’m dead. But it matters if the way you’re remembered is a reflection of the way you lived your life. It matters that people remember your kindness rather than your eloquence. It matters that people remember your generosity rather than your wealth. None of us are perfect, and the people who know us best will no doubt have plenty of uncomplimentary stories they could tell about us when we’re no longer around. But what matters is whether they will want to share those stories, or the ones that show us in our best light because they know that in our hearts we wanted to shine our best light in the world (Matthew 5:16).

Jo Cox never saw the sun on 17 June 2016, and tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us (James 4:13-14). I believe God has wonderful things in store for His children in the next life, but that doesn’t make this life any less precious, or any less important, so while we’re living it let’s give the world something beautiful to remember us by.


You might be interested in visiting the website of the Jo Cox Foundation: https://www.jocoxfoundation.org/

 

Father, Forgive Them

A few months ago a friend asked a question on Facebook. It concerned forgiveness, and the willingness of “the world” to forgive, compared with the willingness of those in the Church. It made me think. A lot. Forgiveness, seemingly such a simple concept, has become a hugely complex and difficult subject in the heart of mankind.

The Bible speaks often of forgiveness. As Christians we are exhorted to forgive one another.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

These verses are in the context of living as a Christian community. But Christ doesn’t seem to limit the scope of forgiveness when he says, immediately after teaching the Lord’s Prayer,

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)

He is emphasising one verse from the prayer. Think about it. Jesus is emphasising one verse from the most famous, most widely spoken prayer in the history of the world. What does that say about the importance of forgiveness?

There is something about these verses though. Something that I think our fallen hearts focus on even if we are not aware of it. We see a transaction taking place. God forgave us and so, in return, we should forgive others. If we don’t forgive others then, in return, God will not forgive us.

And sometimes that’s how we forgive. We do so because we know we should, or worse, because we want to be seen as good Christians – or if we are not believers, to be seen as good people. Like the giving, praying and fasting of the hypocrites in Matthew 6, we forgive for show, not for love. For forgiveness to count for anything, it must come from the heart, as Christ explained in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

There’s another way our hearts lead us to misunderstand forgiveness. Consider these words of Jesus.

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. (Luke 17:3-4)

It is an unambiguous instruction. Depending on the nature of the sin, it might be a very difficult instruction to follow, but Jesus never said that following Him would be easy.

But I’m not thinking about the difficulty of forgiveness, so much as what comes before it in the verse – repentance. Repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand at various points in the Bible. And we have come to believe that repentance is a condition for forgiveness. Unless the one who has sinned against us repents, apologises, begs forgiveness, in some way admits their wrongdoing, they don’t deserve our forgiveness, and we are entitled to withhold it. (Oswald Chambers wrote a short, interesting devotional on repentance, you might like to read it.)

In this world there will be times that we feel sinned against when the “sinner” has actually done no wrong, but the hurt is based on some kind of misunderstanding or disagreement, not on any intention of harm. But even when harm is deliberate, and there is no sign of repentance, we can still forgive.

When I consider this, I remember Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987. After describing her last words to him, he said to the BBC,

But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.

Tears come to my eyes as I read his words again. This is true forgiveness, from the heart, born out of faith, unconditional.

And that brings me to Christ’s words on the cross,

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

I think about the Roman soldiers casting lots for His clothes as Jesus forgives them. I think of the people of Jerusalem who had cried out for His crucifixion, not understanding who He really was, and He forgives them as He hangs there.

It was only when I thought about His words again recently that I realised He was also speaking of me. I understood that this was the moment in history that Jesus saw all my sin and prepared Himself to suffer the full consequences of everything I will ever do in defiance of God’s will. And He knew that in my humanity I can never completely change, that every day I will sin in word or thought or deed. He knew that sometimes those sins would be wilful, and sometimes neglectful or thoughtless. And He knew that I can’t possibly truly know what I’m doing, because I can barely comprehend the cost of my sin or the depth of God’s love for me in spite of it.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)