Row 10

Last week I made a trip to Geneva to discuss working together with our continental cousins in the evangelisation of Europe. The airline I travelled with kindly emailed me to tell me that I could check in on-line.

After consulting web sites about best seats on the aircraft for my flight I was delighted to find the exit row seats still available. Row 10 was clear – more leg room for me! What a nice surprise. These seats are highly prized and usually long gone by the time I check in. I confirmed the seat (10D), tootled off to the airport, breezed through security and settled into my super-seat with a certain smug satisfaction.

Moments later two women sat in the seats next to me (10E & F). They had not flown before and were surprised to find themselves in an exit row. I asked them how they got the seats. They told me it was random. They just showed up at check-in and were allocated the row by chance. They had not requested these seats, and had not known of their value. Their delight trumped my satisfaction.

It occurs to me that this is a parable for the relative joys of self-righteousness and grace. Self-righteousness has some satisfactions (“I did the right thing”, “God would be pleased with me” etc.), but these women were not experiencing satisfaction. They were filled with joy. “How lucky”, they said. “What fun!”. Indeed they giggled in a rather annoying way through most of the short flight and referred to me as a ‘seasoned traveller’ due to the fact that I knew about the seats and that you could not have bags at your feet during take-off and landing. Normally I might have taken some delight in such a sobriquet, but on this occasion I was less than pleased. Their surprised joy sucked all the fun out of my satisfaction.

Jesus said that those who ‘earn’ their righteousness will have their reward in this life,

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2 NIV)

There is no lasting joy in such a ‘righteousness’ – only self-satisfaction. Not only does such satisfaction not last (it depends on repeating the acts that brought about the sense of satisfaction), but it is something fit only for this world since it is produced by the talent and energy of the individual in this world. But those who trust in God’s righteousness (grace) instead of their own find something of an entirely different quality,

“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:3–6 NIV),

A Christian is someone who looks forward eagerly to a reward that he or she did not and could not earn. The delight of receiving our donated ‘righteousness’ will dwarf any joys of this world. Grace is more powerful, more fulfilling and more amazing than anything we can ‘earn’. I am glad that God offers me the joy of the surprised women of Row 10 rather than my own smug self-satisfaction.

Obscuration

My morning prayer-walk often takes me past a tree and an obscured sign. I looked at it more closely today. It is something about not cycling or motorcycling on the common. The ivy has grown over it so that the exact instructions are hard to read. The sight reminded me of when Jesus warned his followers,

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13 NIV)

And right after this he says,

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16 NIV)

Lights can be lit. They can be bright. But if stuffed out of sight they are useless. A salt-cellar dispenses salt that enhances the flavour of food. But only if upended and its contents shaken over my dinner. If the salt gets damp (as our did recently by being stored in a cupboard next to where the kettle boils) it becomes useless.

A Christian is a regularly soul-searcher. We are keen to not obscure the message of Jesus. Sometimes it is our conscience that bugs us into seeing the ivy climbing over our witness. At other times it might be the preached Word of God, or a loving word of truth from a friend. In whatever way we get to see the true state of our saltiness or lighted-ness, we are responsible for cutting off the ivy of obscuration. Take a moment today to clean your ‘sign’.

Harrow Weald council have neglected their responsibility with the sign on the tree, but that’s OK. No one will die as a result. The consequences of us not paying attention to the clarity of our witness are far more serious.

The Kettle of Despair


Or – “The Importance of Reading Instructions”

Yesterday my wife and I visited a National Trust property called ‘Shaw’s Corner”. George Bernard Shaw lived there for many years. Before leaving home we checked the web site – no cafe on site. No problem, we thought, this is a perfect opportunity to use our new ‘travel kettle’ for the first time. Congratulating ourselves on our forethought we packed said kettle, coffee, tea, mugs and milk before heading off. Little did we realise the lesson that awaited us.
Arriving on site we plugged the kettle into the cigarette lighter socket. Seventeen minutes later the water was hot, but not boiling. Not a little frustrated I poured the water into a mug and made some lukewarm coffee. It came time to lock the car and stroll around the property. Central locking, it turned out, was not working. Strange. Inserting the key into the ignition revealed that the car would not start and no electrical device could be operated. The car was as dead as a Dodo.
A call to the AA brought them hot-foot to the rescue. In no time the battery was recharged, but tests revealed it to be on its last legs (if batteries have legs), and so it was replaced. It transpires that I should have had the engine running while using the kettle. Why did I not do this? Because I had not read the instructions. And why had I not read the instructions? Because I made an assumption. I thought I knew enough about cars and kettles to be able to predict how this one should be operated. My mis-placed confidence was nothing less than complacency at best and arrogance at worst.
The lesson? Well, the lesson of complacency is summarised by this passage:

“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.’ Their wealth will be plundered, their houses demolished. They will build houses but not live in them; they will plant vineyards but not drink the wine. “The great day of the LORD is near—near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the LORD will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there.” (Zephaniah 1:12–14 NIV)

When God speaks He is authoritative. Therefore people who are complacent in obeying Him are guilty of arrogance. We may feel that God will do nothing, but we should not mistake His patience or His decision to wait for the right time as evidence of a lack of seriousness on His part.
On this occasion the AA were able to save me. But on another occasion, when the issues are more important than kettles and coffee, the LORD may not be in ‘saving’ mode, but ‘judgment’ mode if I am complacent regarding His words. We must heed the words spoken by Joshua to God’s people:

“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.” (Deuteronomy 30:15–16 NIV)

Today let us choose life and not complacency.

True Friends

This morning I was struck by this sign on a tree in woods where I walk the dog and pray. It seems that whoever Leonard Renery was, he was out of the ordinary. I am sure the common has had many friends, but this man was a ‘true’ friend. Such friendship was unusual enough that it was noticed, remembered and celebrated. It reminds me of the Proverb,

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24 NIV)

We all need friends like that, and it is something Jesus modelled and expected of his followers. What a beautiful moment it was when, after three years of intensive training and teaching, Jesus invites his disciples into a new and deeper friendship,


“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15 NIV)


Three things make this friendship possible:

  1. Friends of Jesus must love one another: “My command is this: Love one another” (John 15:12 NIV). If we cannot love those Jesus calls friends we cannot enjoy his friendship. This would be a contradiction in terms and make our friendship with him hollow and hypocritical.
  2. Friends of Jesus must obey his commands: “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14 NIV). Since we love Jesus, and honour Him as God’s son, and are inspired by his power, character and compassion, we are people who delight in obeying him. To not obey the one who came to save us (as implied by John 15:13) would be to deny that we accepted his very nature. Obedience is what makes friendship with the eternal Son possible. This obedience is a joyful liberation from slavery to sin and the principles of this world.
  3. Friends of Jesus must accept his love. This might seem strange, but, of course, you cannot force someone to be your friend. Jesus would like all to be his friends, but only those who will accept his love will enjoy that privilege.

Jesus was and is a ‘true’ friend to all who love him. We are his ‘true’ friends when we reciprocate that love both to him and his fellow-friends. And weekly communion reminds us of that sacrifice that made such friendship possible.


I never met Leonard Renery, but I am glad his admirers recorded his true friendship to the common. Jesus ‘met’ me, and there can be no greater honour in life than to realise that he would want to be my true friend. The call to me and all who follow him is to show him that true friendship – and to show it to others. After all, the evidence of the true depth of his friendship was nailed to a tree at far greater cost than the sign in the photograph above.

The Ring

What is a ring? Specifically, what is an engagement ring? They come in a bewildering variety of styles, with different metals, settings and stones. Some have engravings, some are new, or, like the one Penny & I picked out 26 years ago, some are old. It seems that this is a relatively modern tradition in Western culture. Ring-giving was rare until the late 19th century, and diamonds became popular only in the 1930’s.

My good friends Barney and Anh got engaged last Sunday, and I saw them together for the first time since that event at church today. Anh showed me the ring (not sure who sparkled more, her or the ring!). This photograph confirms the ring is on the finger – but the ring itself confirms much more than that. What is it?
This couple have decided to marry. They are determined to see a promise through. Their commitment is to honour an accepted offer. He asked, she assented, and now a ring evidences their devotion to enter a state that changes them from two to one. We are all looking forward to the big day when further rings will be exchanged. It is not yet clear when that will be, but I will keep you posted.
In much the same way, the deposit of the Holy Spirit in a Christian signifies something. The comparison with engagement only goes so far, of course, but there are some parallels. We are now ‘promised’ to God.

Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13–14 NIV)

The Spirit seals us for the day of redemption (when God will claim us for His own, as a husband claims his wife and takes her from her family into his own on the wedding day), and the Spirit guarantees our inheritance (when God will give us all he has promised, as a husband gives all he is and has to his wife on their wedding day). We live in the ‘already but not yet’ of having received the promise and begun to enjoy it (as an engaged couple enjoy the period of betrothal), but we have not yet come to partake in all the delights of heaven as an engaged couple also must wait patiently before a new and deeper level of intimacy is possible.
As grateful recipients of this wonderful ‘engagement gift’ of the Spirit, let us enjoy showing it off as much as Anh enjoyed showing off her engagement ring at church this morning.

Kicking Up A Stink

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury (AOC) stirred the hornet’s nest. His remarks on politics, society and the priorities of the coalition government have given rise to lengthy columns in newspapers, hours of debate on radio and television, and innumerable tweets on twitter. I will not comment on his views, but observe that very few people actually read what he said and instead reacted to what they thought he had said, or had heard others say what he said, or on a phrase or two taken out of context.

Similarly, I was intrigued by this morning’s reporting of last night’s interview with the Duke of Edinburgh to mark his 90th birthday. I watched the programme and remember him being asked if he thought he had passed his sell-by date. He said “no”, but that he would need to wind down some of his responsibilities since he was getting older, slower and the memory was not working as well as it used to. That is what I heard, but this morning on Radio 4 he was quoted as saying he was past his sell-by date. He said nothing of the sort. Having heard his views on the media last night I doubt he would be surprised at this mis-reporting, and I also suspect that the AOC is unsurprised at his treatment. This got me thinking about the way Jesus was treated and what our expectations should be.
Jesus was misquoted. He had things he said taken out of context and used against him both by those who heard him and those who merely heard second-hand. To take just one example, Jesus spoke about the temple. He said,

“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19 NIV)

He was talking about his body, but let’s look at how this saying was interpreted. It was used against him at his trial,

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’” (Mark 14:58 NIV)

Several problems here. He did not say “I will destroy”, or that he would “build” another one “not made by man”. His saying has been twisted and added to. What about at his crucifixion?

“Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!”” (Mark 15:29–30 NIV)

Jesus did not say he would destroy the temple, or re-build it. How galling it must have been to hear these false allegations – especially at his most vulnerable moment in agony on the cross. If the words of Jesus were twisted and taken out of context why should we Christians be surprised when the same thing happens to us? Is one of the reasons we hesitate to share our faith the fear we will be misunderstood? The message we have is life to some and death to others. As Paul says,

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” (2 Corinthians 2:14–16 NIV)

We are aroma-spreaders, but we cannot tell whether the next person who sniffs our message will think it the smell of death or the aroma of life. The response of others is not within our control – just ask the AOC or the Duke. But the spreading of our true convictions is always in our own hands. Jesus was misunderstood, but his mission was successful. Let us be faithful that as we speak and spread the truth God will make our efforts successful to His glory.

Moving On

One of my favourite places is Neros. I like the coffee and the atmosphere. I have been in my local this morning for a while. After some time with my friend Je Vais (he had a hot chocolate, which is not quite false doctrine but is not to be encouraged) I remained drinking a coffee or two as I worked on Sunday’s sermon and other lessons. All of human life seems to pass through Neros or walk past its windows. I could not help but reflect on what I have seen today in the light of Sunday’s sermon just gone – ‘Moving On’ from Psalm 120.


For example, a couple have just left the table to my right after a very loud argument. I was trying not to listen (writing a sermon does require concentration), but the volume was so high and the distance between them and my right ear so short that I could not help but hear some of what was said. In summary it seemed to be, Him: “My girlfriend hates me”. Her: “Leave her”. Him: “But I can’t”, followed by a long list of reasons he could not move on, followed by an even longer list of complaints about her. His passion was so intense and his hand-waving so vigorous that I feared for my physical safety. His volume has not exactly helped the tinetis in my right ear either.


As another example, outside the window in front of Neros several people are sitting in the rain with their coffees – smoking. It is cold, wet and windy. They are already miserable, and now they are killing themselves with carcinogenic substances. I am doubtful that the people out there are content with their situation. Why not move on?


I do not know their reasons, and I am not here to sit in judgment on them. But they have their reasons. When we want to change and yet do not change it is always necessary to ask the question, ‘Have we actually decided to change?’ Why did Jesus ask the invalid, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6 NIV)? Or the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41 NIV). His questions demonstrated compassion (it allowed them to express their problem for themselves), and it also gave them the space to own their challenge.


If you have been feeling stuck recently might it be an idea to ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Could you talk this through with a friend? Transformation is the privilege of the Christian life (2 Cor 3:18) and it is enabled by sober, honest acknowledgment not only of our stuck-ed-ness, but also of the level of our desire to change. The Psalmist said,“Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.” (Psalms 120:6 NIV). Have you been somewhere too long? You can move on.


As for me, I’m off to talk to the smokers in the rain.

Spreading Tree

I saw this article on the BBC web site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-13682775) about the UK’s ‘vastest’ tree (is there such a word as ‘vastest’?). It spreads over an area the size of a football pitch, and is more than 250 years old. Now I like trees, but unfortunately this cannot help but remind me of the ‘spreading trees’ of the Bible – and their reputation was significantly less illustrious than this Oriental Plane in Wiltshire.
You see, in Bible times the spreading trees were on the ‘high places’. And what occurred at these locations? Let’s do a history lesson. First, God warned the Israelites about them,

“Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the LORD your God in their way” (Deuteronomy 12:1–4 NIV)

He gave them clear instructions because he knew the temptation to fit in, to compromise and to accommodate that which should be repudiated. How successful was this warning? Judging by the number of accounts describing the Israelites involving themselves under the spreading trees it does not look like they paid much heed to God’s warnings. Witness Judah,

“Judah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than their fathers had done. They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.” (1 Kings 14:22–24 NIV)

Male prostitution. It is hard to see how they could have got further from God’s plan for them. Hang on, it did get worse – with Ahaz,

“He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.” (2 Kings 16:2–4 NIV)

Child sacrifice. The nadir of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. So what did God do? Wipe His people out? No, He sent his prophets like Isaiah to call them to account and plead with them to repent,

“You burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree; you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags.” (Isaiah 57:5 NIV)

And did He get the response He hoped and longed for? Well I think we know they answer to that. In general the response was just as Stephen described hundreds of years later,

“Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—” (Acts 7:52 NIV)

Why, after all the teaching, the evidence of God’s provision, power and love, the many messengers and impressive patience of the LORD did His people not repent? Why did they not destroy their high places and turn the spreading trees into fuel for the fire? One cannot see into all the hearts, but I imagine that they came to believe the lie we all want to believe – that we can have the LORD and the WORLD. After all, the reasoning goes, God is by nature forgiving. But we confuse forgiving with tolerant. God is entirely ‘other’ and so are His people meant to be,

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15 NIV)

We are called to spread the love of God, not indulge ourselves under modern ‘spreading trees’. Do we have ‘spreading trees’? Where are the places we go for fulfilment, for meaning, for value, for identity, for worth that are shabby substitutes for the real thing that only God can provide?
I hope the Wiltshire tree lives and spreads for a lot longer, but let us be sober about the spread of the World into our hearts. God’s word can awaken us to the danger of the world, and repentance can enliven us to devotion to our God.

Flawed GEMs

On Sunday afternoon the Family Group Leaders of our congregation came over to our place for lunch. We talked about principles and practicals of what it takes to have great evangelistic meetings (G.E.M.s for short) in our homes. I especially found it inspiring to hear the people present talk about the reasons they first came to a GEM and why they came back. It reminded me that God is at work in people’s lives in ways we cannot see or anticipate.

We discussed such issues as; good forward planning, full involvement of the group, engaging topics, well crafted discussions and questions, relevant and non self-righteous sharing, friendliness, lack of religious jargon, and, of course, the important subject of food (yes, it was the men that brought that up). All of these matters are very significant, but as I sit here today I feel called to offer myself a quick ‘however’.
The ‘however’ is this. No GEM will be perfect, so let us not get stressed out if mistakes are made. Indeed, I do not think that most of the GEMs involving Jesus followed all of our practicals. What about the banquet at Levi’s home? Jesus got criticised for eating with the wrong people,

“Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”” (Luke 5:29–30 NIV)

It wasn’t the right kind of GEM for the perspective of the Pharisees, but, mind you, it gave him an excellent opportunity for a lesson.

“Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:31–32 NIV)

Or how about the healing of the paralytic? The owner of the house and perhaps many in the crowd cannot have been too thrilled when they felt ceiling dust dropping onto their heads,

“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralysed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”” (Mark 2:3–5 NIV)

If that isn’t a distraction from the purpose of a GEM I don’t know what is. But, again, Jesus turns a messed-up situation into a powerful opportunity to teach. He does not need perfect conditions for a GEM that glorifies God.
So the next time you are at a GEM and things do not all go to plan, don’t panic. Perhaps God has a different idea on this particular occasion as to how he is going to make an impact on the people present so that they will hear the gospel. The key issue is to keep our focus on what God is doing among the people rather than on what we are doing.

I grew up watching the BBC children’s programme ‘Blue Peter’. In my time it went from black and white to colour, but one thing never changed – there was always one member of the team who did outrageous stunts. It was John Noakes in my day, but I was so glad to read of one of the current presenters carrying on the same tradition. Andy Akinwolere has just swum five miles across the Palau Trench – the deepest ocean abyss in the world (8,000 metres in depth). His full story is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/uk-13659716?SThisEM.
This is impressive in itself, but what made me sit up and gasp was the fact that ten weeks prior to this he could barely swim a length of a swimming pool and was terrified of the open water. Truly this is facing your demons and overcoming. I salute his courage.
It brings to mind what it takes to grow as a Christian. Discipleship is an adventure, not a picnic. Sure, we are safe with Jesus in the sense that no evil can steal our soul,

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37–39 NIV)

However, the truth is that between here and eternity we will encounter challenges,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2–4 NIV)

We can face these trials with a smile because they are working in our favour. Nothing is wasted with God. No difficulty, distress or disappointment is empty if we view it from the perspective of faith. I do not think Andy Akinwolere is regretting the challenge and the training now. Perhaps he felt rather daunted at the outset, but something about the goal prevented his negative emotions getting the better of him. In much the same way, when we ‘fix our eyes on Jesus’ (Heb 12:1), and keep the goal of growth before us, (I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14 NIV) we find uncharacteristic courage and endurance.
Do you have challenging waters to enter? Do you feel you could be drowning? Take courage, Jesus is near (Matt 14:31), and he has a purpose in what you are encountering. It will make you more mature, complete and lacking nothing.