Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Time for Flowers

The time for flowers has come. Well - not quite because as I write on the 28th February 2018 there will not be a leap year day tomorrow. But on the 29th February exactly 50 years ago, Diane and I first met. We both attended a car treasure hunt being organised by her local church and Diane was in charge (when isn't she?? Only joking my love.. hmm). I looked at her and thought "Wow"! Then "I'll bet she's already taken" and with that thought gave up and focused on winning the game. Afterwards we were sitting in the coffee bar area when she came up to me and asked "would you like some more soup"? My answer was to shuffle up and make room for her to sit down and we had our first chat. Half a century later we are still chatting.

We both feel that we found the treasure that day. When folk talk about love at first sight it hardly seems real. It is, in fact, quite rare, but the idea is both alluring and romantic. That was our experience, though, and we have been 'Eric and Diane' ever since. Now our desire is to do life together right up until we walk through heaven's gate hand in hand. To know and love one other person as deeply for as long is a great privilege, and one that we do not take for granted. Diane has sat beside what she thought would be my death-bed more than once, and we have said our final farewells to each other more times than we would have ever wanted, but God has been good to us and spared us so that we can rejoice in this day.

I have recently started keeping a 'gratitude diary' in which I write briefly down things for which I am thankful every day. It helps me to stay focused on positive things when weakness or problems might distract. Today I have plenty to write down. I hope you would have too. If you have not been blessed with the sort of relationship that I have described above please don't be too disheartened. We are all individuals and are all different, but God is still good and has good plans for our lives. Maybe there are still things that, despite the winter cold, you can join me in rejoicing about today? It may be cold and dark outside, but the time for flowers is also here.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Clean Hands and a Pure Heart?

Photo from Christianity Today Weekly Newsletter Feb. 23rd 2018
The death this week of Billy Graham aged 99 has awakened a whole lot of memories from the middle of the last century. The US evangelist took Britain by storm in the 1950's and '60's with his large-scale major 'Crusades' in venues like the huge stadiums at Wembley and Haringay. His simple but powerful preaching of the good news of the gospel of Jesus made a huge impact on many thousands and resulted in folk making commitments of their lives to the service of Christ and others. I met missionaries overseas in Africa and India who had come to faith through his preaching and were going on to do great work for God where they felt called.

I had never heard of him so when a college friend invited me to the 'landline Billy Graham relays' at St James hall in Guernsey in 1967 I was puzzled. "Who is this man?" I asked my Mum, who replied that he was some kind of religious salesman. I was not intrigued enough to attend, but I was stirred to know more, as I reasoned that if a man could sell religion he could probably sell anything!

As I look back upon his influence over the decades I am most struck by the record for integrity that Billy Graham and his team maintained.  Stung by the Elmer Gantry caricature of the hypocritical travelling evangelist in American culture and media, the Graham team decided to act. In 1948 during a crusade in Modesto California, Billy called the team to his hotel room and challenged them to find a way to 'stay clean' in their work. Sex, money and power were proving to be the downfall of other itinerant evangelistic teams as it sadly has been too often in Christian leadership over the years. The Modesto Manifesto became a programme of accountability and avoidance that would serve Billy Graham well over the decades.

Integrity is when your outsides match your insides even when nobody is looking. It is a vital component to ministry and leadership of all kinds. Billy Graham wanted to 'stay pure' but he harboured no misunderstanding about his own vulnerability. He protected himself in advance so that his work would not be undermined or destroyed by scandal.

Another great evangelist in my own denomination, Alexander Tee, once said "If you want to be successful in ministry keep your hands off the glory and your fingers out of the gold". Billy Graham's hands were clean but not by accident. By the grace of God and the wise counsel of others he fought the good fight and overcame. After all, isn't it better to erect a fence at the top of a cliff rather than park an ambulance at the bottom?

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 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!