A Year in the Life

The fireworks have started, I hear them outside my window. As I write it is nearly 10pm in Birmingham, England. 2014 will soon be history.

Looking back at the year, it feels like quite a dreadful one, almost certainly the worst I’ve experienced since I came to faith. You may not have got a sense of that from my blog posts, and that is something I regret. When I first started blogging it was my stated intention to share my life – my journey – with you, including the ups and the downs. What I didn’t realise at the time was that something that felt so internal and personal to me is actually almost entirely shaped by my relationships with other people. Friends, family, brothers and sisters in Christ, other loved ones, and not-so-loved ones. They have all had issues to deal with, some of which have involved me directly, and they have all had an impact on me, for better or for worse.

And yet I’ve been unable to share with you so much that has filled my prayer life, because I’m determined not to share anyone else’s story without their permission, especially when they involve sensitive situations or emotions. And the situations and emotions are ongoing, so I haven’t reached a point where I feel comfortable to ask permission.

Occasionally over the years I’ve shared personal vignettes, with participants left unnamed and stories intentionally vague. Right now I don’t feel able to do even that, though I’m sure I’ll find opportunities in the future.

But at present all you know is that 2014 has been dreadful in my eyes. Sure, I can think of many blessings, stars twinkling in the dark sky. But my, the sky is dark.

Where can I look for my hope for 2015? Where else but to the Lord, and to His word. I wanted to end this post quoting Philippians 4:10-13 but when I went to Bible Gateway to find the exact scripture reference (after writing the previous paragraphs) I was amazed to see their verse of the day, no doubt inspired by the time of year:

This is what the Lord says — he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters,

“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.”

Isaiah 43:16.18-19

Wow.

I’m thankful that although I feel unable to share the deepest issues of my life here at present, I have good friends who I can talk to, and who can give me wise counsel, or if needs be just a comforting shoulder. And I’m thankful that God is ever-present, even if I sometimes don’t see him through tears of sadness or frustration.

My prayer for you, my friend, is that you too have such friends, and that you too know God’s presence in your life. And whatever 2014 was to you, I pray that your coming year will be characterised by God’s joy and peace, and that you will see a way in the wilderness, and streams in the wasteland.

Heavenly Minded

I see them all over social media, and once in a while I hear them in sermons – the inspirational one-liners, the faith-building sound bites. I dread them. Sometimes it’s an out of context Bible verse, but even worse are the quotes which sound like they are Biblically based wisdom, but which might be little more than misleading witticisms.

Here are my three principle thoughts on religious sound bites:

  1. They trouble me because they could easily lead someone in the wrong direction or reinforce a misconception.
  2. They usually have an element of truth in them, making them even more dangerous.
  3. I use them myself. I wish I didn’t, but they are very seductive.

Here’s an example that I came across recently…

When you have a problem don't go to the phone. Go to the throne.

I can see the value of the message. I can see the truth behind it. It seems to embody scriptural meaning, for example from Philippians 4:6

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

And of course this is just one of dozens of verses instructing us to take our problems to the throne. Very good. Very wise. Very Christian.

These days when for many people the phone is their window on the world, I can see too the wisdom of encouraging them not to immediately Google their problems, or share them with the world on social media, but instead to pray and reflect on them.

But at the same time, I was troubled as soon as I read the quote, because I could also see a very negative side to it.

For a start, it’s an uncompromisingly black and white message. It reminded me immediately of people who say they don’t need anything or anyone but Jesus. It seems like perfect faith on the surface, but I don’t think it’s the message that Jesus Himself gave.

I think about the parable of the good Samaritan for example (Luke 10). The traveller who was attacked got his help from a human being. How much of the Samaritan’s motivation came directly from God is a question we could debate, but while I agree that in the perfect world to come we will need nothing but our Lord, the Bible makes it clear that in this broken world we currently inhabit we need each other.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

God has put people in our lives. He has given us friends to counsel us and support us in our times of need. If we have a problem and we go to the phone to call a good friend who can give us the advice, encouragement or the shoulder that we need, then in a sense we have also gone to the throne, because we are using the resources God has made available to us.

I have no doubt that most Christian inspirational quotes are well intentioned and useful in many circumstances. But you can’t get the whole story from a soundbite. The world is not black and white, and sometimes, as the famous one-liner goes, you can be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly use.