Thursday, 11 January 2018

When is a sock not a sock?

Christmas Day services at church provide a time to really celebrate the most amazing event in human history and have fun together as a church family.  One aspect which the children especially enjoy is having the opportunity to show the rest of the congregation one or two of their Christmas presents.  We certainly saw some great presents this year, and the odd very quirky one (including some stress-relieving poo!)

After the children had shown us their presents, I took out of my bag one of my own presents (still wrapped).  In reality it was one which I'd wrapped up myself in preparation for the service.  What was it?  A single sock.  One of the children eagerly responded to my invitation to unwrap the present.  My thought was that I would use it as an example of a present which was given without much thought or care, and go on to talk a little about how we sometimes are less than thoughtful or fully committed in our giving to God.  He has given the most precious gift to us in his Son, but at times we give him so little.
I decided to ask the members of the congregation to imagine that they were giving a short talk and could use the gift of a single sock as a visual aid.  I gave them a few minutes to think this through and got some very interesting and thought-provoking responses.  One person said that the sock could be used as a Christmas stocking, filled with small gifts and then given to someone as a present.  Someone else suggested that the sock could be made into a glove puppet which could be used to entertain.  A third suggestion was that it could be given to Jonnie Peacock, the amputee Paralympian!

The common factor in all these suggestions, and a couple of others which I've forgotten, is that they are all positive.  In other words, they turn something apparently useless into something of value.  The more I've pondered on this, the more it seems to me to be the heart of the Christian gospel.  Jesus stated that his purpose was to 'find and restore the lost.'  Jesus was roundly criticised by some of the religious leaders of his day because he associated with those who society regarded as of no value.  He welcomed ALL who came to him, regardless of their background and social status.

We live in a society where many feel a great lack of self-worth.  There is a terrible spirit of criticism in evidence all around, particularly in the area of social media.   We seem to think that it's OK to be constantly putting others down.  How much, then, do we need to be reminded that the message of Jesus is that everyone is precious in God's sight.  He is in the business of transformation, because he sees the tremendous potential in each person.  You may sometimes feel like a worthless old sock, but God sees you as something very precious!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

God knows

In 1912 a lady called Minnie Louise Haskins published a small book of poetry called The Desert.  Her intention was to raise funds for the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, with whom she was then working in India.  One of the poems in the book, God Knows became widely known when King George VI quoted from it in his 1939 Christmas Message:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Those words have been a source of encouragement to many over the years.  But perhaps few realise that they were only the first part of Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem.  It continues….

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

As we begin a new year there may be a mixture of hopes and anxieties in our hearts.  We cannot know with any certainty the path which lies before us.  But if we take to heart the words of Minnie Louise Haskins, and put our hand firmly in the hand of God, then we can know that whatever we may face, we will not be alone.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Why them?

I was having lunch recently with a fellow church leader; as we were chatting, he asked me, “What do you do to allow yourself to experience Christmas?”  In other words, in the midst of all the activity of the season, preparing for and leading all the special services etc., how do I take time to allow myself opportunity to be personally impacted afresh by the wonder of the Christmas story?  What a great question, and one which I’ve been pondering ever since!

One of the issues with Christmas is that for those of us who are very familiar with the Christmas story, perhaps having heard it repeated over many years, we can fall into the trap (consciously or not) of merely paying lip-service to the Christmas message.  And unless we take time to dig deeper into the story, we can also miss important elements.

Let’s take one example: we are familiar with the account of an angel appeared to shepherds out in the field and telling them: ‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2.10&11).

Maybe in our minds eye we imagine the shepherds with their nice cuddly sheep.  But travel back in time to 1st Century Palestine; someone hearing what had happened would be shocked – why are shepherds included in the story? 

At the time, shepherds were on the bottom rung of society’s social ladder.  They lived a nomadic, rough and lonely life, never owning much, with no place to call home.  They were considered to be ‘unclean’, and as such were excluded from worship at the Temple.  The shepherds were poorly paid and despised by most of the community. In fact, shepherds couldn’t be witnesses in court because they were seen as untrustworthy!

So it may seem very strange that it was the shepherds to whom the news of the birth of God’s promised Messiah was first given.  Why them?  Why not the religious leaders, or the royal palace, or the rich and powerful?  Because the good news of Christmas is for EVERYONE!  Remember the angelic message: ‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL THE PEOPLE.’ No-one need be excluded.

‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.16).  That’s the amazing good news of Christmas; it should make our hearts rejoice, however many times we may have heard it before!

Monday, 4 December 2017

5 life-changing words

One of my favourite Bible passages, especially from the Old Testament, is the account in Exodus chapter 3 of the call of Moses.  At this period of time, Moses was not in a good place.  In fact, he was a fugitive from justice, having had to flee from Egypt after he had murdered an Egyptian soldier.  He ended up in a foreign land, Midian, and found himself working as a lowly shepherd, looking after his flock on the edge of a desert.  One imagines that he was probably feeling fairly fed up.

"Out of sight, out of mind" is the saying.  Yet God had his eyes on Moses.  What's more, God had big plans for him - he was to be the one who would lead God's people out of slavery in Egypt and to the Promised Land.  It's great how God so often chooses the most unlikely of people for his work (he chose me, after all!)  Yet when God revealed his plan to Moses, Moses was completely overawed.  The Good News translation puts Moses' response like this: 'But Moses said to God, “I am nobody. How can I go to the king and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”' (Exodus 3.11).

Moses thought of himself as a nobody.  He had completely messed up his life, or so he thought.  But God had other ideas.  To Moses, the task God set before him was way too big for him to accomplish.  No way can I do that!!  God's response to Moses was to speak these 5 life-changing words, 'I WILL BE WITH YOU.'  Even after those words of reassurance, Moses still took a bit of persuading, but it was those words, and the promise which lay behind them, which made all the difference.  Moses knew that whatever he was to face, he would not have to do it alone.

One of my Bibles, which I treasure, was given to me by my parents many years ago.  In the front of the Bible, my Mum has written words from the Old Testament book of Joshua.  These are words of encouragement which which God spoke to Joshua after Joshua had been chosen by God as Moses' successor (very big shoes to fill!): 'Remember that I have commanded you to be determined and confident! Do not be afraid or discouraged, for I, the Lord your God, am with you wherever you go' (Joshua 1.9).  Those words have meant such a lot to me over the years, especially in times of struggle, or when I have felt totally inadequate for the role to which God has called me.

The glorious good news is that whatever struggles we may face, whatever trials we come up against, whenever we are feeling overwhelmed by life, God is with us.  We are NEVER alone.  I know that I could never have survived 27 years in the Methodist Ministry without that knowledge that God has called me and God is with me!

We are now in the period of Advent, as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  One of the names given to Jesus is "Immanuel" which means "God with us".  In a world with so many problems, how we need to be hear again that life-changing promise - I WILL BE WITH YOU!


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Martha's plaque

In my last blog I mentioned that Sue and were due to attend a training day with the title "Growing Through Conflict." I don't want to write about the day itself, interesting though it was, but I do I want to mention something which I saw during the day.  We met in a Methodist Church in Leicestershire, and during a break in the sessions I had a wander round.  Something which took my attention was a plaque on the wall.  The plaque was to commemorate the life of one Martha Brown:

Of course, it is not at all unusual to find a memorial plaque on the wall of a church building.  It was not the plaque itself which took my attention, but rather the words which were used to describe Martha Brown's character:

‘In loving memory of Martha Brown, who was for 60 years, a faithful member of this church, and whose gentleness and kindliness won the affection of all.  She was a woman of strong faith, deep patience and earnest prayer, and a loyal friend, a faithful companion and affectionate mother.’

Even though plaques of this kind generally stress positive aspects of the person concerned, it certainly reads like Martha was a very special person, and someone who lived out her Christian life in an attractive and winsome manner.  Words and phrases such as faithful, gentleness, kindness, patience, earnest prayer and loyal friend suggest that she was a true disciple of Jesus, and a lady in whom the fruit of the Spirit could be clearly seen.  Martha died in November 1918, just a few days after the end of WWI.  

Clearly her life had a great impact on all those who knew her, not least her own family.  I have since discovered that Martha, described as an 'affectionate mother' and 'faithful companion', gave birth to seven children.  The plaque ends with the assertion that "To live in the hearts of those we leave behind, is not to die."  No doubt the memory of this woman called Martha Brown lived on long in the hearts of all who knew her.  Those people, too, are now long gone.  But those words on the plaque live on, still acting as a challenge to us today.

If they created a plaque for me or you, what words would be on there?