A Reflection On Brexit

I understand the reasons why the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. Some of those reasons I can sympathise with, and others I simply can’t.

But what’s done is done. And what’s important now is that everyone in the country is gracious to one another, whether in victory or defeat. And in the longer term we have to be united in our efforts to support and lift the disenfranchised, the poor and the weak among us. And more than that we must be a light to the world, generous to those beyond our shores who don’t enjoy democracy, those who don’t live in peace, those who don’t experience freedom, those who can’t even turn to a food bank for their daily bread.

Many people argued that the referendum was about control, but no matter who won, God was always going to be in control. Both sides of the referendum campaign focused on fear, many people on both sides made their decisions through fear, and now the outcome is spreading fear in certain parts of the country and the world.

But while I’m saddened by the result, I refuse to fear the future. My faith is not in politicians or economists. My faith is not in the British electorate, whether or not they agree with me. My faith is not in the UK or the EU, but in Christ alone.

Just Pray


And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should 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 today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

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 6:5-14 (NIV)

The Power and Purpose of Prayer

The primary purpose of prayer is not to persuade God to act on your – or somebody else’s – behalf. God has things pretty well sussed, His plans are made, and He’s not in the habit of changing His mind (Isaiah 46:10-11, Numbers 23:19).

No, the primary purpose of prayer is to change you – to move you to compassion, to transform your mind, to open your eyes to the direction where He is leading you, to align you with His will.

Consider a line from arguably the most famous prayer in the world, a line that is included in countless other prayers every day.

“Your will be done.” – Matthew 6:9-10

Often phrased as “Lord, have Your way,” this prayer was spoken by Jesus not only in the Sermon on the Mount, but also in Gethsemane as he contemplated his coming crucifixion (Matthew 26:39). And what Christ did next tells you everything about the purpose of prayer – He acted on it.

What do you imagine it means to God when you ask Him that His will should be done? Do you think it might prompt Him, stir Him into action thinking “I’m glad you reminded Me!” Of course not. As your prayer is directed to God, so He reflects it back to you in a perfected form, and if your heart is really open to Him then you receive that reflection, you recognise it as His response, and you understand how He is directing you to act. This is the power of prayer – it actually connects you to God’s will.

If you ask the question “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” then you’re likely to hear several standard answers. Among them are selfish motives, unrepentant sin, unbelief and hypocrisy (James 4:3, Psalm 34:15-16, Proverbs 28:13). At the root of all these issues is pride. Pride blinds us to God’s reflection of our prayer, and we refuse to acknowledge our part in the responsibility for doing His will.

Sometimes our part is very small, but that doesn’t make it insignificant – “For want of a nail…

And sometimes of course the only thing we can actually do is pray. In those circumstances, whether the answer comes through the actions of others or directly by God’s hand, and whether it comes today or years down the line, our prayers still need to change us. We need to learn to trust God, to be thankful to Him in all circumstances, to love unconditionally, and to keep our faith (Romans 8:18-39). As God reflects such prayers back to us, they come wrapped in His peace, and we gain a deeper appreciation of His sovereign power and His infinite mercy.

Reflections on Mercy

I’ve been thinking about mercy. It’s a beautiful thing to consider, and God’s mercy is described throughout the Bible, sometimes translated as love, compassion, or pity. It is usually synonymous with forgiveness. Another beautiful word.

Grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Grace is when we receive something good that we don’t deserve. Mercy is when we are released from a bad consequence that we do deserve.

As I was thinking, I recalled that mercy is the theme of a famous Shakespeare speech, so I investigated. The play is “The Merchant of Venice”. The merchant’s name is Antonio and he guarantees a loan agreement that his friend makes with a Jewish moneylender called Shylock. A contract is drawn up stating that if the loan is not repaid on time Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. After some merchant ships are lost at sea the loan defaults, and Shylock takes Antonio to court to seek justice. Portia, a wealthy heiress who has promised to marry Antonio’s friend, disguises herself as a lawyer and makes this plea to Shylock:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Some critics have suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is anti-semitic. There are arguments for and against this view, but I don’t want to get into that debate. Instead I think it’s interesting to compare the ‘Old Testament’ ideas of law and justice as demonstrated by Shylock, with the ‘New Testament’ focus on grace and mercy pleaded by Portia.

You can see several scriptural references in this speech:

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Matthew 5:7 (NIV)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“It is an attribute to God himself.”

Daniel 9:9 (NIV)

The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.

“We do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.”

Matthew 6:12 (NIV)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

King David referred often to God’s mercy in his psalms, for a typical example let’s look at Psalm 6.

Psalm 6 (NIV)

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

I have a problem with some psalms. I find that often they will be 90% spot on with insight into my own hopes, fears, feelings and prayers, and then David will throw in a couple of lines asking for, or promising, revenge and dire consequences for his enemies. I’m uncomfortable with those lines because they don’t seem to line up with Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies. I’m sure that all of us have harboured some small yearning for revenge – or justice – at times. I just don’t like to see it expressed so bluntly in the Bible – and by a man after God’s own heart.

But when I look at scripture in totality, it seems clear to me that God wants to see forgiveness in our hearts, not vengeance. Mercy is one of those gifts that is not only lavished on us from above, but is expected from us in our relationships.

Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

But should we expect mercy with ‘no strings attached?’ Is that what God promises us? No.

Proverbs 28:13 (NIV)

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

The one who confesses and renounces their sins will find mercy. A principle also found in first John:

1 John 1:9 (NIV)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Yet we know, even on a human level, it is possible to forgive someone who hasn’t confessed or repented. We’ve all done it – even non-believers. So is that true forgiveness? Is that real mercy? Or are we deluding ourselves, clothing ourselves in self-righteousness?

Thinking again about The Merchant of Venice, even after Portia pleads for mercy Shylock insists on receiving his justice, and the law cannot deny him. However, Portia then insists that Shylock sticks rigidly to the letter of his contract. He must take flesh, and not blood – if a drop of Christian blood is spilled then all of his goods will be forfeit under the law of Venice. He cannot take any more or less than one pound, or the same penalty will be due. When Shylock finally gives up his claim he is charged with threatening to kill a citizen of Venice and his sentence is death. His life is spared by the Duke, in his mercy.

We can see the parallels in our own lives, as God’s law shows us the depth of our own sin, and justice would demand a death sentence. Yet our lives our spared by the Lord, in His mercy, through the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

Titus 3:3-7 (NIV)

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

James 2:8-13 (NIV)

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

So why does He do it? Why does God show us such undeserved mercy? Because He said He would. Because He loves us. Because much of the time we know not what we do. And because He is giving us a reason to show the same mercy to others.

1 Timothy 1:12-16 (NIV)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

Amen.

Promises

The promises of man
Are castles made of sand
And the tide will wash them through
Before the day is done

But the promises of God
Are stronger than a rock
And they will endure
Beyond the earth and sun

 

Almighty God, despite Your instruction I still worry too much about what tomorrow may bring. But I want to thank You today. I want to thank You for not promising me tomorrow, but instead promising me eternity, with You, in paradise. I thank You in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

 

25 August 2010

Use It or Lose It

When my shower gel most recently ran out, I decided not to buy another bottle.

No, I wasn’t embarking on a pungent new ‘back to basics’ personal hygiene routine. Instead I started using the many mini-bottles of shower gel that I’ve picked up from hotels over the years.

The purpose of this post isn’t to discuss the morality of taking home ‘consumables’ from hotel rooms – that question has been dealt with quite thoroughly already, right here. The simple fact is that I had a lot of spare toiletries that I was holding onto ostensibly for an ‘emergency’, but in reality they were just taking up storage space.

I’ve always had a weakness for hoarding. In my teens I subscribed to news magazines like Time, Newsweek and The Economist, and I held on to back issues. I thought that one day the articles in there would provide fantastic background material for my creative pursuits – writing songs, short stories or novels. This was before the Internet made research rather less challenging than it used to be.

Well a time came when I moved house and didn’t have room for all those magazines, so I reluctantly took them to the city’s waste disposal centre. I don’t think they even had recycling facilities back then, so hundreds of magazines probably ended up as landfill.

I’ve had similar clear-outs over the years – a lot of CDs, a few clothes, and many little gadgets, tools and so on that might have one day come in useful. That day never came.

Every time I’ve disposed of, or given away, something I’ve hoarded, there’s been a small pang of regret just beforehand, and quite a heavy sigh of relief immediately afterwards. Almost like I’ve been released from invisible chains.

I could tell you a similar story about money, but that’s an interesting one that deserves its own post, so for now I’ll keep a hold on it. (Or is it keeping a hold on me?)

This morning after I’d finished my shower I thought about Job’s words (in Job 1:21),

Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,
and naked shall I return thither:
the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord.

And it’s true that everything we hold on to physically can be taken away, by theft, by accident, or by natural disaster. And even if we hold on to it for the whole of our lives, as the saying goes “You can’t take it with you.”

As Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:6-10),

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

The other scripture that came to mind as I was contemplating the shower gel was Jesus’ famous instruction in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 6:19-21),

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It can be very difficult sometimes to let go of things, even when you’ve convinced yourself they have no real value. Whether it’s selfishness, or fear, or some other emotion or lie that has you bound, the pull can be powerfully persuasive, and the consequences terribly destructive.

I know I haven’t completely conquered my hoarding habit yet, but as in so many areas of weakness, I keep striving to improve. One day at a time. One step at a time. That’s the journey.

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!