Saturday, February 17, 2018

More than a Passing Pain

I met a dear friend yesterday whose heart is breaking. You would not know it if you saw her in the supermarket or driving her car. She beams with pride when speaking about her extended family and loves the outdoors. Her attitude to those in pain is exemplary, practical and caring. She does her work as requested and puts more into it than many would. She loves and is loved. She believes that God is preparing a place for her 'on the other side' of life.

Yet, Jane (not her real name but I can't keep saying 'she') is wracked with the most appalling clinical depression. I don't know if it is worse at this time of the year when dark winter clouds blot out the life-giving rays of the sun. Maybe it is, but I suspect perhaps not, because this is what the Bible describes as "the arrow that flies by day and the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, the plague that destroys at midday"(Ps. 91:5-6). This kind of deadly depression seems to hit us when we are down, not just when the sun goes down.

Winston Churchill, the great war leader of Britain, suffered from bouts of dreadful self-doubt and dark depression. The recent film Darkest Hour reveals this well. He called depression his black dog, and felt that it plagued him at the most unwelcome times.

William Cowper, the writer of several well-known hymns like "There is a Fountain" and "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" was plagued with dark periods of despair and depression all his life. At the age of 21 he wrote "I was struck with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same, can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, rising up in despair." His many attempts at suicide were not just cries for help - they were the outcome of his hatred of his life and himself, and the misdirected longing to be free from his suffering.

When my lovely, joyful wife and I were first married, she suffered from 13 years of almost unbearable depression and anxiety. Those years of sleeplessness, distress and dark forebodings, affected us both deeply. We can and do thank God for stepping in and through a long process of counselling. love, prayer and healing ministry, bringing both of us out of the shadows. But it is not easy, nor is it something that can be achieved in a moment.

Those whose hearts are breaking right now are precious to God and they should be to us. You can't see a sign on Jane saying "I am depressed". May God help us to be more sensitive to those in the grip of this plague and offer far more than platitudes. Practical love manifest in persevering prayer, comfort and kindness, acceptance and grace, must all play their part in helping others to get through.

Think of that if you have a moment to read William Cowper's words below - words torn from a breaking heart.

  1. God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants His footsteps in the sea
    And rides upon the storm.
  2. Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill
    He treasures up His bright designs
    And works His sov’reign will.
  3. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.
  4. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.
  5. His purposes will ripen fast,
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flow’r.
  6. Blind unbelief is sure to err
    And scan His work in vain;
    God is His own interpreter,
    And He will make it plain.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Preaching and Burning Bones

I love preaching! Mostly doing it, of course, although I am also an avid sermon listener and always make fulsome notes to review later (no, Matt Gregor - [my pastor and friend] I am not writing a shopping list or doodling!). My whole adult life has been given over to preparing and preaching messages of all types. Sermons, homilies, radio talks, debates, speeches, and all kinds of oral communication. My PhD thesis was on the subject of preaching in a 21st Century setting, and I had to research the subject inside out and upside down at that time.

Last weekend I had the joy of preaching at the City Church Cardiff in Wales, UK. It is a preacher's church building, with hundreds of people stacked high in a rising terrace in front of the stage. The church programme that day included services at 9am and 11am, 4pm and 6.30pm with large crowds attending. I spoke at the first two, and Diane gave a short account in each of how God has helped us through the 21 years since I left the post of Senior Pastor at that church, seriously unwell. It was a wonderful day of proclaiming the goodness of God and our need to trust in him even when things are tough. A handful of people made first-time commitments to become followers of Christ and that crowned an otherwise glorious day.

Sadly, though, preaching has fallen onto hard times. As the joke above (taken from the Church Humor (sic) Newsletter published from newsletter@lists.christianitytoday.com) shows only too well, many preachers find their material in online joke sites and other even less worthy places. Don't get me wrong, I am all for good humour in the pulpit and I try to make effective use of it. But a serious attempt to hear from God in his Word - the Bible - and to communicate that with passion to our listeners, must mark preachers today as always.

Preaching is not a lecture nor a seminar. It is an encounter with the living God in his Word by the power of his Spirit. When I kept silence for the last 2 years up to Christmas 2017 due to my extreme ill health and recovery from major surgery, the fire of God's message burned in my bones. Last Sunday I was at last able to release it with joy and watch it kindle a glow of faith in the hearts of my listeners.  That was a huge privilege and I hope the start of many such times to come.

Please pray for your preachers, and do encourage them when they do well. Take notes of what they teach and say, and make the sermon as vital as Sunday lunch in your life too. Your bones may even start burning as well!

Friday, January 26, 2018

You'll Never Guess what they are Painting now! Lessons from Four-legged Hooligans!

"I didn't do it!"
You will never guess what the Guernsey authorities are going to paint blue now!  Yes, the poor dog hiding behind the fence is the clue - dog poo!! Later this year a team of dog wardens are going to creep around a much-loved island common watching out for those offending heaps.  When they see them they will paint them bright blue (with a spray can you'll be relieved to know). As a (sadly) former dog owner, and all-time dog lover, nothing makes me more mad than owners who refuse to pick up after their pooch. After all, the resulting mess is not only smelly and disgusting to see, it is both unhygienic and downright dangerous to the health of children. But - forgive my cynical incredulity - I just cannot see this plan working to reduce the problem.

The idea is to shame people into avoiding the issue, either literally by not stepping in it, or educationally when they realise it was their beloved hound that did it! But it does feel like bolting, or perhaps painting, doors after the animal has skedaddled. Maybe it will work and time alone will tell.

What this typically Guernsey solution has put me in mind of is how often people go around spray painting our faults and mistakes after the event instead of helping us to avoid them in the first place. Is this what Jesus meant when he said that we shouldn't try to remove a tiny speck of dust from someone's eye while there is a great big plank sticking out of our own?  Well, give them a pair of protective plastic glasses eh? And go and see the surgeons about that plank.

'After-the-event' criticising and highlighting (painting poo) may fulfill our desire to flag up a problem caused by other peoples' wrongs, but does it ever really change human nature? Integrity is choosing to do what's right, to our own cost, even when nobody else is watching. That is an issue of the heart, and maybe if the blue piles of poo reveal that to us, they will have served some slight benefit. Only a change of heart can really address anti-social behaviour of any kind. Sadly we live in an age where ideals of right and wrong are sometimes overlooked by those who should know better.

I still think a supply of poo bags and bins in each car-park is probably the best we can do. "Here boy.. no don't do that - not there!"

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Blue Monday gives way to Wonderful Wednesday!

In this season of grim days and dim days it is so good to have a reason to celebrate! Today is my wonderful wife's birthday and what a different one it is proving to be from the last 21. The past year has seen a remarkable transformation in our lives as amazing space-age surgery has set me free from chronic and recurring acute pancreatitis and everything that belongs to it. Diane has had to be my carer for most of that time, trudging the grimy streets of London alone scores of times while I was in hospital again. We have said 'goodbye' to each other more times than I want to recall when we have been warned that there was a '1 in 3' chance I would not survive this procedure or surgery. Her faithfulness has mirrored to me the character of the God we both love and serve. She has been 'Christ' to me in so many ways. I am glad that she has her voice back after a recent cold stole her joy in singing. In better weather Diane spends time in her shed, reading the Bible in several versions - even in French - and singing hymns and songs. I hesitate to tell her that everyone in the neighbourhood can hear her, but that would not stop her, nor would I want it to. God is glorified in this touching simplicity of love and faith together with its open heart and honest questions. What is there not to love?

We read together this morning from Psalm 13 in the Message version of the Bible. It says:
1  Long enough, GOD—you’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough.
2  Long enough I’ve carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain. Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me.
3  Take a good look at me, GOD, my God; I want to look life in the eye,
4  So no enemy can get the best of me or laugh when I fall on my face.
I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—I’m celebrating your rescue.
6  I’m singing at the top of my lungs, I’m so full of answered prayers.

Well that just about sums up this day. Happy Birthday my glorious wife - and many, many happy returns!

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Jaded by New Year Resolutions? Try this for size!

I don't want to be too hard on you or myself by blowing a trumpet for New Year's resolutions. All well and good as they are, I can recall some spectacular non-starters from my own past. "Going to lose a stone" - "Going to the gym and the pool regularly" - "Pray more" - "Eat less". They're all present and correct in the roll call of erstwhile good intentions. Is it the Chinese who say that the roadway to hell is paved with good intentions? If so, is there any point in this annual outbreak of self-bashing guilt-fest?

Well maybe it's not a bad thing to take a mild kind of self-test at the start of a new year (with the emphasis on the word 'kind'). Perhaps we should content ourselves with aspirations such as - to smile more and scowl less: to listen more and speak less: to err on the side of love if given a choice between that and harsh judgement: to be present in the moment rather than regretting yesteryear or day-dreaming about an unreal future.

But I have been struck anew by a prayer written over 500 years ago by a Christian leader and mystic, Ignatius of Loyola. It sets out before God and my heart what I would really want for my life in 2018, especially since I have been so graciously set free from pain and disease in the last year...

Teach us, Good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil and not to seek for rest;
To labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.

I remember being deeply affected by hearing this prayer being said at college assemblies before I even became a committed Christian. It is so much more than a temporary resolution that may fade by February. I want to make it my prayer as we enter 2018, and I hope you might think it worthwhile to do so too. If not, remember God loves you anyway, and at least be grateful and kind. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Special Time of Peace and Goodwill.

At the time of writing it is late on Christmas Eve. What a very special time this is across the nations as people gather to sing seasonal songs and share with family, friends and neighbours the joyful message of the angels. It was a really special thing for me to bring a short message to the congregation at our local church. It was the first time in around two years since I had preached on a Sunday, let alone a Christmas Eve. In fact, last Christmas I wasn't even able to attend much over the season, and certainly not eat much due to my battle with chronic ill health. What a joy to be able to share the Christmas story myself after this year with the amazing space-age surgery I have been through. After 21 years - no pain, no opiates, no danger of an acute attack of pancreatitis, no Christmas in hospital- thank you Lord!

In fact we went to our local hospital this afternoon and were able to visit and pray with 4 or 5 folk who are having to be in there today. I feel for them, but I have to say it was with a sense of relief and deep gratitude that I could walk out again, hand in hand with my wonderful wife.

I asked for the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" this morning because I wanted to speak about the last verse.  It says:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

If you want to see the video of the talk you can do so by clicking here for Vazon Elim Church's website .  Whatever you are facing this Christmas can I urge you to give God your heart in commitment and worship? Thank you, and have a very Happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Christmas Calamities?

I had my first "bah humbug!" moment of the season when I heard a piece on my local radio station promoting "Christmas disasters you have known". Folk were being invited to call in and tell the dark story of the very worst Christmas calamity they could recall. To illustrate this the presenter began sharing some of the the awful things that some callers had told him about already. There was the family who found that their dishwasher broke down on Christmas Day, the home where the oven packed up on the special day forcing them to take their festive dinner to a neighbour to cook - and even one home where oven breakdown led to a barbecued turkey!

Once I had calmed down from my indignation I thought about some of the Christmases we have known - they certainly weren't all white, whatever Bing Crosby sang. There was the Christmas Day where I was called to the local hospital just before lunch to be with the dying husband of a church member. And then there was the turkey meal I couldn't enjoy because I had an attack of acute pancreatitis in the morning and by the time the Queen's speech was over I was an in-patient and nil-by-mouth. Another Christmas I had a spell in a London hospital over the holiday season and was discharged late on Christmas Eve after the last flights home had gone. Diane and I stayed in a hotel where the kitchen closed on the day itself as did most of the restaurants nearby. But among the biggest calamities I recall was the one where a guy who worked in our home and garden in Zimbabwe wakened us early on the Christmas Eve to tell us that his new baby was dead. The little one had passed away during the night in his accommodation next to us. There being no undertakers or gravediggers available, we wrapped the little one and buried him in the bleak children's cemetery later that day as is the custom in hot countries. We were just grateful that our own boy was safely away with his grandparents in Guernsey for Christmas that year.

Christmas, you see, is not all about magic and nostalgia. It's about life in all its pain and trouble. The Son of God came into the world in a stinking animal shed, not a clean maternity room, and certainly not a palace. He was hunted down by Herod's killers before he could even walk. His family was forced to run for their lives and to seek asylum in Egypt. His coming into a messy, violent world was because we needed a saviour and deliverer from the addictions of  selfishness, materialism and greed. Life is not fair for millions this Christmas, not just for those whose white goods give out on the 24th or 25th. Their dinner may be in danger, but not their lives or their homes.

I hope you don't have a calamity this Christmas, but if you do, please know that it will not be out of keeping with the season, nor, I hope, will it be as bad as many will know. Thank God the coming of Christ was designed for just the sort of real world that many will experience. "Born to raise the sons of Earth - born to give them second birth. Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the new born King!"