Tuesday, 25 July 2017

hello gorgeous!

In these days of electronic communication, we tend to receive far less mail through our letter box than we used to.  We do, however, still receive our fair share of leaflets and flyers.  One which landed on our doormat recently stated in bold pink letters, "hello gorgeous" and in smaller letters underneath, "live happy! with Slimming World."  I suppose that the underlying message is that if we make the effort (with Slimming World's help?) to get our body into shape, and manage to look "gorgeous" then we will be able to live happier life.  But is that really true?

I must confess that I could certainly do to lose a few pounds, and I know people who have told me that losing some weight has been of real benefit to them, both physically and mentally.  On the other hand, there is a danger that we focus too much on our outward appearance, and worry over much about how other people may see us.  We could get sucked into the thankless task of chasing after the perfect body image (whatever that is!)

So, what do you see when you look in a mirror?  The most obvious answer is that we see our physical body.  But sometimes, when we look beyond our mere outward appearance, we can see something of what lies in our heart.  And that's where we need to look if we are to see our true selves, because who we really are is not defined by our outward appearance.  Just as we may not always like what we see when we look at our outward appearance, so we may not be all that positive when we see what lies within.

There are times when I look back over my life and have real regrets that there have been occasions when I haven't been what I should have been. I haven't always been the husband my wife deserves, or the father my children deserve; I haven't always been a great son, brother, friend, colleague or church leader.  Sometimes my many failures seem to pile up in front of me, at times hanging like a dark cloud over my life, as they reveal something of my inner self.

I am so glad that the message of the gospel is that we need to recognise our own weaknesses in order that we can truly acknowledge our need of God.  As Paul puts it, 'The Lord said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong' (2 Corinthians 12.9&10)

I may have made many mistakes on the way, but I am forgiven and embraced by the love and grace of Jesus.  I may not yet be all that I should be, but in his strength I am determine to continue to grow in my life as a follower of Jesus.  Once again using the words of Paul: 'I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself. Of course, my friends, I really do not think that I have already won it; the one thing I do, however, is to forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead. So I run straight toward the goal in order to win the prize, which is God's call through Christ Jesus to the life above' (Philippians 3.12-14).

Monday, 17 July 2017

Cherish them while you can

Sue and I spent last weekend in Doncaster.  I had been invited to lead the Church Anniversary services at Priory Place Methodist Church, a church of which I was privileged to be Minister for 12 years.  I must admit to having been a little nervous about going back, not least because it had been 5 years since I had last taken a service there.  However, once I arrived and began to see familiar faces it didn't take long for the nerves to disappear and for me to feel very much at home.  Sue and I thoroughly enjoyed our time at Priory; it was great to have the opportunity to renew friendships with those we hadn't seen for some time.

Priory is a large church building, situation in the town centre of Doncaster.  In the late 1970s the building, which was opened in 1833, was redeveloped.  It was formerly a typical large 19th century Methodist church with a balcony.  During the redevelopment, the building was divided in two, creating a sanctuary area at first floor level.  Comfortable seating is provided in a horseshoe shape.  I have always liked the layout of the sanctuary area because it enables the worshipping congregation to see each other, rather than sitting in rows (looking at the back of other people's heads!) which is the case in most church buildings.

This also means, of course that the preacher has a good view of the congregation.  The interesting thing for me yesterday, as I stood at the front of the church, was that as I looked out at the faces of those who were present at the two services, I could also 'see' in my mind's eye (imagination) the faces of many other people who had been regular worshippers during my time as Minister of the church, but who are no longer alive.  Though my time as Minister of Priory wasn't by any means always plain sailing, I cherish some very special memories from those years, and of some wonderful Priory people who I got to know.

Life is often described as a journey.  None of us knows how long the journey of our earthly life will last, nor exactly where it might lead.  Along each section of our life's journey will be those who travel with us; some for many years and others, perhaps, just for a short time.  What I was reminded of during my time at Priory this weekend was how much we should value our friends and loved ones while we have them, and cherish each opportunity to spend time with them.  We don't know how long we have them for. Over the years, God has blessed me with many wonderful friends and an amazing family.  I'm not sure that I've always valued them as much as I should have done.  Sadly, it's sometimes only when someone is no longer around that we truly understand how much they have meant to us.

I am determined to try and value those who are part of my life's journey while I walk with them, and to cherish each and every friendship.


Sunday, 2 July 2017

What to wear

A few weeks' ago, I came to a decision that I needed two or three more clerical shirts.  To buy a new one usually costs between £20 and £30, and (being the typical Yorkshireman that I am) I don't really like paying that much for a shirt.  I was delighted, therefore, to discover that a recently retired church leader was selling a number of his old clerical shirts on eBay!  I was fortunate enough to win the online auction and bought them for what I thought was a very reasonable price.

The shirts came in various colours, and when I wore a rather bright green one to church this morning it elicited quite a few comments!  Some church leaders wear particular colours for various seasons of the Christian year.  I simply chose the green shirt because it took my fancy when I got dressed this morning.

A few Sundays ago, on a particularly hot day, I happened to mention in church that I really would have preferred to have come in my shorts, but that the thought of some disapproving comments persuaded me not to do so.  After the service, one of our elderly church members came up to me and said, "You wear your shorts if you want to, we don't want you to faint!"

St Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, uses the clothing image to illustrate what followers of Jesus should be wearing in terms of their character traits.  This is what he writes:

'Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.'

I'm sure that God isn't too concerned about the clothing we wear on our bodies.  It's the kind of 'clothing' which Paul highlights which God really does want to see in our lives.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

We don't know what to do

The Queen has issued a statement on her official birthday which begins with these words: "Today is traditionally a day of celebration. This year, however, it is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood.  In recent months, the country has witnessed a succession of terrible tragedies.”  She rightly points out the sombre mood over our nation, as we look back and reflect on the awful events which have taken place both in London and in Manchester in recent months.  Most raw on the nation’s conscience is this week’s Grenfell Tower tragedy in which many lives were lost.

Perhaps particularly in respect of the most recent tragedy, there are all sorts of emotions in evidence.  There must be a terrible pain and anguish in the hearts of those who were touched in any way by the events at Grenfell Tower, especially the friends and relatives of those people who are still unaccounted for.  One local church leader commented, ‘People are incredibly angry, they're bewildered, they're confused.’  There is clearly a great sense of injustice, and some are seeking to point fingers at those whom they feel bear responsibility for what has happened.  In the midst of a great show of compassion and mutual support, there is also a tremendous anger and recrimination.

All this comes at a time when the family and friends of the late M.P. Jo Cox are encouraging the nation to come together in “The Great Get Together” as a way of remembering Jo’s challenge that we should concentrate far more on what we have in common than what divides us.  I thoroughly approve of and support these sentiments, yet I can’t help feeling, with a deep sadness, that as a nation we appear as divided as we have ever been.  I have commented before on the reality that so often people seem to want to identify themselves by what they are against.   Whatever the rights and wrongs in particular situations, the deeply personal and abusive attacks on those in the public eye cannot be condoned.

What a mess we are in as a nation.  A hung parliament; Brexit talks to commence within days; a nation divided and in pain.  I am reminded of a passage in the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles.  King Jehoshaphat and his people are surrounded by a mighty opposing army.  They are vastly outnumbered, and there seems no way, humanly speaking, that a terrible defeat can be avoided.   In that desperate situation, Jehoshaphat calls on the people to trust in God, ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.’  He turns to God in prayer and says, ‘We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. (2 Chronicles 20.12)

I love that verse, and I have prayed it many times over the years when I have faced difficult and confusing times.  Our nation may be in a mess, and we may not have a clue how we can work to improve things.  But we have a God who loves us and loves this nation and its people.  It’s time for us to pray like never before, to trust that God will show us the way and help us to be the people he needs us to be in this time of great need.  'We don't know what to do, but our eyes are on you.'

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Seeing the value in the rejected

I was talking recently with a lady who was expressing great concern for her adult son who had lost his job a few months ago.  Despite his best efforts, he had not been able to obtain employment elsewhere.  He was beginning to feel overwhelmed with a lack of self-worth and a loss of identity.  A number of his former friends had drifted away, and he was feeling the isolation of his desperate situation.

I am aware of another situation where a young girl had been denied a place in any of the 3 schools to which she applied for high school.  I would imagine that this is not an isolated example, and the feeling of rejection in such a situation can have a seriously detrimental effect on a young person at a vulnerable and impressionable time of life.

I am reminded of my own school days, when a games teacher might choose two people to be team captains and invite them to select the members of their teams.  One by one the team members are chosen; it was hard for those who were left right to the end, and I'm sure they must have felt unwanted and embarrassed.

The sad reality is that we live in a society and a world where so many people have little or no sense of self-worth, and feel isolated and unwanted.  We live in a society were certain individuals and groups are often marginalised and looked down on.  The feeling of rejection must be really tough to take.

A few weeks ago, Sue and I spent a few days in Scarborough.  On one of those days we visited the Market Vaults (the area beneath the town indoor market, where there are a number of shops).  Outside one of the shops was an old spiral coat hanger, which presumably at one time had been used by a retailer.  It was showing signs of its age, and was obviously no longer wanted.  It had been rejected as being past the stage of being useful, and had been left outside the shop with a price tag of £5 if anyone would take it away!  To be honest, I had passed it by without giving it any attention, but Sue had spotted it and had immediately saw it as a potentially useful and valuable object.

To cut a long story short, we paid the fiver and brought it home.  It's now serving a really useful purpose in our back garden as something on which to fix our hanging baskets - a piece of contemporary garden furniture!

For most people, the hanger was worthless and unwanted.  But Sue saw in it something of value.  The message of the Bible is that when God looks at every human being he sees a person who is of immense value.  In fact we are of such worth to God that he was even willing to give us own Son for us!  However the world regards us, or even however we see ourselves, God loves us with an eternal love.  You and I are precious to God - we are never rejects in his sight!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Ridiculous Grace

We have recently started something called a "Bible Book Club."  It's just like any other book club, but with the Bible Book Club we read a book of the Bible each month, then get together to discuss its message, and in particular how it speaks to us today.  I have set out an initial six-month programme, when we will be looking at various books in the Bible, alternating between Old and New Testaments.  We started off this month with the book of Jonah.  One of the benefits of modern technology is that we were able to listen to David Suchet reading the book via the Bible Gateway website (it only lasts around 8 minutes in total).

Some people have the opinion that the Bible, because it was written so long ago, it no longer relevant to today.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  We found the book of Jonah a fascinating and thought-provoking read, which gave rise to much discussion.  What came across very clearly in the book is the reality and depth of God's compassion for all people.  

Jonah appears to be a very grumpy individual from start to finish.  One can perhaps understand his initial reluctance to take God's message to the heart of the Assyrian empire (an empire noted for it brutality and barbarity, perhaps not unlike the ISIS of modern times).  But it is possible that the main reason for his reluctance to carry God's message to the Assyrians was not so much that he was afraid of them, but that he really believed that they fully deserved their punishment from God and he didn't want them to have the opportunity to repent and receive God's forgiveness!

In the event, Jonah did eventually take the message to the great city of Nineveh, and the people of the city, from the king down, repented of their evil ways.  God's response was to set aside the judgement which Jonah had prophesied.   We are told, "But to Jonah this seemed very wrong and he became very angry."  Indeed, he became so angry with God's act of forgiveness, which had greatly offended his own sense of justice, that he wanted to die.  These people didn't deserve to be forgiven (thought Jonah)!

I thought again about this story when the news came through that 'Moors murderer' Ian Brady had died.  The acts which he and Myra Hindley carried out against young children, some of whose bodies have never been recovered, were gross offences by any measure.  One of my Facebook friends put on their Facebook page, "Hopefully he will burn in hell now."  It is probably not only what he did, but the apparent lack of remorse he showed, and the refusal to identify the sites of the missing bodies, which has put him, in the eyes of many, far beyond any chance of redemption.

Yet the truth is that God's grace is not for a restricted few.  The point about grace is that it can never be earned or deserved, but is available to all, even the (apparently) most undeserving.  God's grace is there for you and me, just as it was for grumpy Jonah, for the violent and bloodthirsty people of Nineveh, and even for people like Ian Brady.  The moment a person responds to God's offer of grace, they can experience God's compassion and forgiveness.  It may seem absolutely ridiculous to us, but as former slave trader John Newton discovered, it truly is amazing:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

God is FOR us

At one of my churches we've recently started a teatime fellowship.  The idea is a simple one: we get together and share some food and chat, then look at a story of Jesus from the gospels.  It's a really good format, and can encompass people of all ages.  We don't go into great depth, but ask ourselves four questions: what does the passage tells us about God or Jesus, what does it tell us about people, what we should do in response to the passage, and who can we share the story with.

The passage we looked at yesterday was from Luke 7, the story of the woman who wept at Jesus' feet.  The woman comes into the story when Jesus is eating at the house of a religious leader.  We are told that the woman had lived a sinful life, and it is clear that the religious leader and his friends judge her as worthless.  They are shocked when Jesus shows love and compassion to the woman (when the religious leaders elsewhere call him a 'friend of sinners' they are not being complimentary!)

Time and again in the gospels we read of how Jesus showed acceptance, mercy and love to people, even when others might have regarded them as the dregs of society.  Jesus came to show us that God's love is for ALL people.  Everyone who comes to him is welcomed with open arms.  The story in Luke 7 is such a powerful one, and worthy of reading many times to allow its full impact to sink in.  The message of the passage is that whatever our background, whatever kind of life we may have lived in the past, God is FOR us, and wants to help us to live life to the full and discover our true worth and purpose.

This morning a friend posted a video clip on Facebook which makes this very point in a vivid and powerful way, for more eloquently than any words of mine.  I've watched it more than once, and each time I've been brought to tears.  I'll write no more, but encourage you to watch it HERE.