Thursday, 16 November 2017

Handling conflict

In a few days' time Sue and I are due to attend a day workshop on dealing with conflict.  What a shame we can't agree on who will drive the car (only joking!)  In preparation for the day, we have been asked to complete a questionnaire which is intended to give an idea of our personal response to conflict.  It was absolutely no surprise to me that the questionnaire suggested that my initial response to conflict is avoidance!  My natural tendency is to try to avoid situations of conflict at almost any cost. That probably isn't a great tendency for someone in a leadership position.  

One of the wonders of God's creation is the enormous variety in what he has made, and that includes human beings.  Each one of us is different from each other in so any ways.  I am not so much talking here about external, physical differences, but the differences in character, temperament, viewpoint, perspective etc.  We all see things differently, and so it is perhaps not surprising that sometimes we find ourselves in situations of potential or actual conflict.

Sue and I will next year be (God-willing) celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary.  Miracles do still happen!  Whilst for much of the time we have enjoyed a really good marriage relationship, and still love each other greatly, there have been times when we have been through deep conflict.  Perhaps that is inevitable.  Indeed, a little booklet produced by Care for the Family suggests that arguing well is one of the keys to a healthy relationship and that conflict in marriage is normal and can be creative.

On reflection, it's probably true to say that what I have found most difficult during my years as a Methodist Minister has not been so much my personal conflicts with people, but conflicts which have occurred between people within a church.  Sometimes the way which church-going people have treated each other has been difficult to reconcile with the Christian way.

So, if conflict is almost inevitable, how do we deal with it?  We would do well to take note of St Paul's instructions to the Christians in Ephesus: 'Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you' (Ephesians 4.31&32).  I like the words of the writer of the book of Proverbs, 'A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger'  (Proverbs 15.1).  Then, of course, there are the very challenging words of Jesus, 'But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you' (Luke 6.27&28).

The forthcoming workshop is titled, "Growing Through Conflict", and I'm hoping to gain some tips about how best to do so.  What is clear from the three Bible passages in the previous paragraph (and from others I could have used) is that we all have a responsibility.  When we are faced with conflict, the way we respond can either inflame the conflict or help to deal with it.  Our choice, our challenge!

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Counting the cost

Even though I am in my 28th year as a Methodist Minister, there are still many things to learn and a multitude of new experiences to encounter.  Earlier this week I we had a service at church to give thanks for the life of one of our church members who had died.  She had reached the age of 97, and as I led the service a verse came to mind from the Old Testament concerning the death of Abraham who, we are told, 'breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years.'  Though, of course, there is always an element of sadness and loss when a loved one dies, the service was an overwhelmingly positive one as we gave thanks for a life well-lived and rejoiced in the assurance of eternal life for all who trust in Jesus Christ.

Nothing particular unusual there, then.  What was unusual was that there was no body present, nor had there been a burial or cremation.  This was because the lady concerned had donated her body to medical science.  Although I had heard of that possibility, I had never before come across it personally.  As we were thinking about this lady's life and the kind of person she was, I did make the point that the fact that she had been willing to donate her body to medical research indicated that she was someone who thought about others, and was willing to commit herself to doing what she could to benefit other people.

I have been mulling over in my mind the commitment required in donating one's body.  It's true, of course, that once a person is dead, they have no more use for their earthly body.  Nevertheless, making the decision to donate one's body to medical science is something not everyone would wish to do.  In view of these thoughts, it seemed significant when this morning's daily Bible reading (I use the "Pray As You Go" app) focussed on a passage from the 14th chapter of Luke's gospel, in which Jesus is talking about the cost of discipleship.  Here is part of the passage:

'One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters - yes, even one’s own self! - can’t be my disciple .. Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple."'

Jesus couldn't have been much clearer about the cost of following him.  He challenges those who would follow him to first count the cost.  There can be no half-hearted discipleship!  Just as the lady whose life we celebrated this week was willing to make the commitment of donating her body to medical science, so those of us who are followers of Jesus must be willing to make the commitment of putting him first.  Easier said than done!


Tuesday, 31 October 2017


There are times when something you are reading really hits you between the eyes and makes you sit up and take note.  I was shocked by two pieces in the Autumn edition of 'TEAR TIMES', the magazine of Tearfund, a Christian charity engaged in the fight against poverty in today's world.

Here is the first:

"East Africa is in crisis with 23 million people facing desperate food shortages - according to the UN, it's the largest humanitarian crisis since the second world war.  As is so often the case, it is the women and children who suffer the most.  More than 800,000 children under five are severely malnourished."

As those words began to sink in, I tried to recall any recent mention of this "largest humanitarian crisis since the second world war" in our news media.  Compared with this devastating situation, the kind of stuff which so often fills our news headlines these days seems so trite and relatively unimportant.  How can we turn such a blind eye to what is going on in our world and the millions who are suffering as a consequence?

If that extract Tear Times wasn't enough, something else I read also took my breath away:

"A third of all food produced in the world is never eaten.  Not only is this a moral challenge when millions go hungry, but the wasteful grow-and-throw cycle is also contributing significantly to climate change - hitting those who live in poverty the hardest."

When this almost unbelievable statistic is combined with the earlier paragraph, it is hard not to weep, and wonder how we as a human race have got things so dreadfully wrong.  We call ourselves a civilised society, we pride ourselves on our great achievements, we spend billions on weapons of war, and yet we apparently turn a blind eye to those millions of our human family who find themselves in desperate need.

Jesus told a story of a man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead by the roadside.  Two religious people came by but continued on their journey, leaving the man laying on the road.  Another man came along who was of the hated Samaritan race.  This man had compassion on the one lying on the road; he helped get him to safety and attended to his needs.  I ask myself, as I think of the human tragedy unfolding in East Africa, which am I like - the ones who passed by or the one who stopped to help?  Is that same compassion in my heart?  How will I respond?

I am challenged by the words of the Apostle John, 'Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth' (1 John 3.18).

God forgive us.  God help us.  God melt our hearts.  God show us how to respond.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Whose image do you bear?

Some of the members of one of the churches of which I am Minister attended the annual Christian event, ECG, in Scarborough earlier this year.  The morning Bible studies were led by Methodist Minister Rev Paul Smith.  Those from my church who were present as Paul Smith led the Bible studies were so inspired and challenged by his words that they bought a copy of the dvds of the Bible Study.  Over the past four Tuesday evenings we have met at church and watched the dvds, joined by friends from other local Methodist churches.

There is no doubt that Paul Smith is one of the most gifted of current Methodist preachers/teachers (I try hard not to be jealous!)  He has a wonderful way of presenting aspects of Christian faith, which can appear complex, in a way which is understandable to the ordinary person.  One of the ways in which he gets the message across is by his excellent use of illustrations (Jesus himself was always telling stories to help people understand the things of God).

A number of Paul Smith's illustrations in the dvd series spoke very powerfully and helpfully, and I want to try and relate one in particular.  It concerns a gentleman called Thomas Cook, who was a famous Methodist evangelist in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  A certain church had, so the story goes, invited Thomas Cook to come and speak.  Those were the days when Wesleyan Methodist Ministers had large manses and employed a maid to help keep things in order!  The Minister had given instructions to his maid to make all the necessary preparations for the arrival of their famous visitor.  As the weekend approached, the poor maid was very tired.  The Minister, apparently, heard that Thomas Cook had a particular liking for sausages, so instructed the maid to visit the local butcher's shop to buy some sausages.

The maid, by this time almost worn out with the extra work, rather begrudgingly did as she had been instructed.  She fell into conversation with the butcher, pouring out her woes, exclaiming, "You would almost think that Jesus Christ himself was coming to stay!"

Some time later, the maid found herself once more at the butcher's shop.  The butcher jokingly asked her, "Well, did Jesus Christ come to stay, then?"  The maid paused thoughtfully for a moment and replied, "Actually, I think that perhaps he did."  During his visit, Thomas Cook had made such an impression on the young lady, by his character, words and actions, that she felt that it was almost as if Jesus himself had been present in the household.

The Apostle Paul, describing those who have been called by God into his family, writes that God 'chose them to bear the family likeness of his Son' (Romans 8.29), and John writes that, 'The life of a person who professes to be living in God must bear the stamp of Christ' (1 John 2.6).  What challenging words!  What God most longs to see as he looks at his children is that we are growing into the image and likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ.  That is our calling!  It is not something which we can ever hope to accomplish in our own strength; it is only as we allow God's Holy Spirit to work in us, moulding us and shaping us, that the transformation will take place.

So, whose image do you bear?

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Resisting the pull of temptation

Let me share 3 imaginary scenarios:

1. You're at a party.  There are lots of people you don't know, and you feel a little out of things.  It's not made any better by the fact that you are there alone because you and your wife aren't getting on too well and she decided not to come.  You're sitting there feeling rather isolated and sorry for yourself when, as you glance around the room, your eyes meet those of a very attractive woman.  Just for a split second you feel a spark from deep within.  Your eyes return to her and she is smiling at you; you feel an attraction to her (the male/female roles in this scenario could be reversed).

2. You're on a motorway, driving to a business meeting, and you're in a hurry.  You are due to meet a very important client, but because of delays due to roadworks, you're running late.  You feel that you ought to contact the client and tell them that you might be late for the meeting, but you realise that if you pull into a service station to make the call, that will only add to the delay.  The thought comes into your head that you could save time by using your mobile phone while driving.  You know that it's against the law, but begin to tell yourself that "just this once" won't harm anyone.

3. You're visiting a long-standing and trusted friend; as you're about to leave, the friend asks you to post an urgent letter.  It needs to be posted first class today, and as the post box is on your way home say that you will be happy to post the letter for your friend.  You arrive home and are horrified to discover the letter still on the seat next to you.  You rush to the post box, only to realise that the last post has already gone.  You post the letter, knowing that you've failed your friend.  Your friendship means a lot, and mutual trust has built up between you both over the years.  The thought comes into your mind that it might be easiest to tell your friend that you did what you'd promised; any delay can be blamed on Royal Mail.

One of the trees in our garden is a sycamore tree.  Over the years we've discovered in gardens of the various houses in which we've lived, that the sycamore is very good at spreading its seeds to make more sycamore trees.  Sue has, on several occasions, reminded me that I need to dig out the small plants before they have chance to really take root.  I was reminded of that when I came across a tiny sycamore seed just beginning to root in our current garden.  I pulled it out, but as I did so I was conscious that we also have a rather large sycamore tree in the garden.  To get rid of that one would be a very arduous and time-consuming task!  Here are images of the tiny plant (on a gardening glove) and the tree:

James gives this stark warning in his letter, 'Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death' (James 1.14&15).  It's not a sin to be tempted (Jesus himself faced temptation); the problems arise when we give in to temptation.  Whenever we face temptation, such as in the scenarios outlined earlier, we have a choice: to turn away from it or to give in to it.  It may be hard to refuse the initial enticement of temptation, but if we don't cut it off when it first arises we are likely to find ourselves drawn deeper and deeper into trouble, to an extent that we find it immensely difficult to extract ourselves.

It may be painful to resist the initial temptation, but not doing so is likely to lead to much greater pain in the future.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Unanswered questions.

If you were able to ask God one question, what would it be?  There could be a myriad of answers to that one!  Many of us might find it difficult to come up with just one question when we have so many for which we would like answers.  For me, it probably wouldn't be one of the enormous and regularly quoted questions such as "how can a God of love allow so much suffering in the world?"  My question would be more likely to be to do with understanding why God allows some of his most faithful followers to die at a relatively young age.

When I was a Minister in Sheffield I had a very close friendship with an Anglican colleague called Alan.  He was a lovely, godly, prayerful man, and he and I worked closely in encouraging prayer in the area.  I was desperately sad when I learned that he had contracted cancer.  Many of us prayed for Alan's healing, yet although he did experience a period of remission, he eventually died.  I vividly remember walking the streets of Sheffield one dark night, with tears streaming down my face; the question "why?" was at the forefront of my mind.

More recently, my brother Phil has been through a similar experience to Alan, as I have written about previously in my blog. People all over the world have prayed for Phil ever since he was first diagnosed with terminal cancer in April 2015.  As we read the gospel records we see that every time someone came to Jesus for healing, he responded positively to their request.  What's more, he instructed his followers to continue his work, 'He sent them to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick' (Luke 9.2).  I know that God still heals today, and for a time Phil was remarkably restored to health.  His witness through the tough times of his illness was inspirational.  And yet he still died, aged just 55. So what are we to make of those kind of situations?  How do we respond to questions for which we receive no complete answer?

When we don't understand why God has allowed something to happen and our prayers have not been answered in the way we had hoped, it seems to me that we have a clear choice.  We can either give up on God, or we can continue to trust him even in the unknowing.  There was a time in Jesus' ministry when many of his followers turned away from him, feeling that the going was too hard.  Jesus turned to his twelve disciples and asked them whether they were going to desert him, too.  Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life' (John 6.68).  If we give up on God. what's the alternative?

I firmly believe that God's word to me is to continue to trust him, and to believe that he can use even the worst situations for good.  Painful as Phil's death is and will remain, many good things will come from the legacy of his life.  The greatest comfort, perhaps, is that we know that those who put their faith in Jesus Christ have the wonderful assurance of life eternal; death is not the end, it is a doorway into the very presence of God!  I know that Alan and Phil are safe and secure in God's loving care, and experiencing the reality of God's promise:

‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away' (Revelation 21.3&4).

This is wonderfully captured in Matt Redman's song, 'One Day (When We All Get To Heaven)'

In this life we won't get all the answers we seek.  I've come to the point where I am at peace with that truth; I will trust in God, even when I don't have the answer.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Don't leave it until it's too late

I was brought up in a family of 6 children, and family has always been a really important part of my life.  I am so grateful for the love and nurture which I received in my formative years.  Although, on reflection, I never remember as a child being told verbally by my parents that they loved me, I think that deep down I knew it was so.  Apart from when I was having the occasional childhood tantrum (I vividly remember on one occasion threatening to leave home!), I never felt unloved.  And yet those three significant words, "I love you" were rarely, if ever, spoken.  So does that really matter?

It is sometimes said that when a person becomes a parent, they tend to model the kind of parenting which they themselves experienced.  Having discussed the matter with my wife, Sue, as far as we can recall as young parents we didn't often tell our children that we loved them.   Of course we did (and still do) love them very much, and we hope that they experienced our love, even if we didn't verbalise it.  But maybe we ought to have spoken it out more regularly as an added affirmation.  Certainly, our children regularly speak out words of love to their children, which is wonderful to hear.

I have come to the conclusion that the best way is to both speak the words "I love you" and to demonstrate that love by our actions.  The apostle John makes this clear when he writes, 'Our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action' (1 John 3.8).

When my later brother Phil was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it brought this issue into sharp focus.  I had become more used to sharing the phrase "I love you" with my sisters, but somehow to say it to my brother seemed a bit embarrassing and not quite the manly thing to do (I realise that might sound very strange and perhaps old-fashioned, but that's how I felt).  It dawned on me that there would come a time when it would be too late to say those words to Phil, and so I plucked up the courage, overcame my embarrassment, and spoke out those three small yet powerful words.  

I am so grateful that Phil and I were able to share our love and appreciation for each other while he was alive.  We had that opportunity because we were given notice that Phil's earthly life was drawing to a close.  The last couple of weeks of Phil's earthly life were spent in a hospice in Auckland, a city where he and his family had made their home.  Phil and his immediate family were able to spend time together, and share memories, laughter and tears.  It was a precious time.

What has really come home to me afresh is the realisation that we need to speak out words of love and thankfulness while we still have the opportunity.  Life is very fragile, and none of us know how much longer our earthly lives will last.  Sometimes we have no time to prepare for the death of a loved one.  Those people whom we love and appreciate need to know how much we love and appreciate them.  Don't leave it until it's too late!