Saturday, November 30, 2019

Turning points 2)

Early in 1967, with continuing excitement about leaving in the Summer for India, I received a letter in one of those tiny brown envelopes which required folding a letter (at least) four times to fit inside.  Enclosed was a duplicated sheet produced by wax stencil in which the evenness of typing (or lack thereof) and mistakes were visible as ink seeped through patchily.  Along the top in block capitals was the heading: EAST ASIAN CHRISTIAN COLLEGES ASSOCIATION.

This utterly unimpressive letter began generically Dear Friend. The next sentence was devastating:  owing to various circumstances we are ceasing to function as an organization and any arrangements that have been made are ceasing to function too!   It was brief, without further explanation, to inform all donors, supporters as well as volunteers in the me. I couldn't believe something that I was basing my immediate future on had suddenly been wiped out.

Having been so pleased with my India future I was suddenly confronted by a blank sheet.  The question:'What are you going to do after college?' was thrown disturbingly open.  In shock I had no idea.  Absolutely no idea.

This event was to cause a turning point which was to change everything in my life.  Everything!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Turning points

Last week I was asked to speak at our church Women's Meeting.  (What echoes of the past when such meetings were packed and obligatory engagements in my diary).  It gave me opportunity to consider a new theme (new to me anyway) about the turning points in our lives.  When things didn't happen as we hoped they would only for other things to happen that couldn't have happened without the first things not happening.  If you know what I mean!

I took that extraordinary verse Rom. 8:38 - We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  And it is extraordinary..the conviction 'we know' that speaks of faith tested by experience and authenticated by the Holy Spirit. And the claim that for those who love God turning points in our lives are ultimately positive.

At the meeting I indulged somewhat in a flashback to 1966-67!  I was in my last year at college for a  Geography degree.  Like many leaving students I was keen to do something worthwhile.  I heard about an organization called East Asian Christian Colleges Association.  Apparently, they placed a few new graduate students in universities in E. Asia where they could teach their subject.  I was interviewed and offered a place at Serampore College in India for two years.  This was doubly thrilling. Serampore College was founded by the great Baptist missionary William Carey (and two co-workers) in 1818.  It is the second oldest university in India with an amazing track record of providing leadership.  This appointment also gave me opportunity to develop my academic interest in physical geography and form a basis for research and who knows what in the future!

In those days going to India was unusual.  Only people like the Beatles went....and missionaries!  The thought of these two years thrilled me.  When people asked me what I was going to do I confess I was fairly impressed with myself when I told them.  It seemed a golden opportunity.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Living without triumph

When our Christian book shop closed (and what a sad event that was) I bought some bargain books including The Freedom of Years - ageing in perspective by Harriet and Donald Mowat. One phrase caught my attention when they wrote of their Christian perspective on ageing as living without triumph. They consider this expression sums up much of the journey through ageing.

Now, at first this seems to fly in the face of Christianity's great faith claims - But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57).  Aren't we supposed to remain people full of hope and joy right through to the end?  Wasn't that the point of my last sermon on joy?Yes, but this phrase emphasizes another truth about ageing.  That many of the events and experiences in our younger lives gave us immense satisfaction with a sense of personal achievement and certainty.  We were doings things that others noticed - especially those of us working in public life.  And, inevitably, memories of those accomplishments do stand out as moments of triumph.  Of feeling significant and worthwhile!

However, with increased ageing those moments of triumph may no longer be repeated.  Rather, we live in a present marked by the absence of those 'triumphant events and experiences' and if we are not careful our sense of significance and value can dwindle.  The challenge of living without triumph is to realize that in this different season of life we are no less significant and valuable to God. We learn that individual accomplishments are not the reason why God loves us. Indeed, individual accomplishments can easily pump up pride and self-importance.  No, slowing down to see a bigger picture of collective good where belonging to others, developing Holy Spirit fruit such as love, joy, patience, self-control, living in Christ's victory, is vitally important to who we are as God's children.

Just recently, some health issues have forced me to say no to some bigger commitments that in the past I would have undertaken with energy. In disappointment I am learning that living without triumph is a very different way of life but just as valid in God's love.  It may be that some of my older readers will agree?!

Monday, November 11, 2019


Yesterday I was surprised.  Someone stopped me after the morning service and thanked me for a sermon I had preached two weeks before.  She said: 'It was your illustration with the slide of a fruit bowl.  It has really stayed with me.'  And then she added: "It's the way that this fruit contrasts with the really ugly list of our normal human behaviour.  It's the contrast between these lists that really challenges me. Thank you for the picture!'

Yes, I was surprised - in at least two ways. First, that a simple visual like this had struck home enough to be worth mentioning two weeks' later. And it was so simple - just a bowl of fruit. Second, and amazingly, the serious point of contrasting the fruit in Gal. 5:22 with the sinful nature of v.19 was uppermost in her mind.  So often if illustrations can be recalled at all their whole point is frequently forgotten.

It was the first time that I had used power-point in my local church.  In the past I have shared in debate about the pros and cons of powerpoint in preaching and, indeed, of illustrations themselves. How much do they add or detract?  Powerpoint can so easily be abused as, by example, an overuse of words on the screen which threaten to undo the power of the spoken word.  Yet, here was a clear example of its value - especially to visual learners.

Surprises like this are always welcome!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Christian Joy 4)

After Sunday's sermon one lady said to me 'That was very hard to listen to and for you to preach.'  She was right!  Two passages (Rom 5:1-5 and Jas. 1: 1-5) speak of joy in suffering.  An extraordinary claim - especially for those suffering 'trials of every kind' right now. It deserved its 18 certificate.

I began by retelling how my College Principal, visibly upset by the death of a close friend, told us ministerial students (mostly in our twenties) how we were too young to preach on suffering. Too young in faith and life-experience. How true was that!

The sermon had two prime challenges, 1) Christian joy restructures everyday living. Unlike computer rebooting, Christian joy requires life-long commitment to begin each day reasserting how much God knows me, loves me, saves me (Luke 15:1-10) and how God gives me help every day to walk with him (Gal 5:13-26 ).  I had some fun with some T-shirt stories and suggested how these assertions should be on the front of the T shirt we put on every morning. But on the back would be these words: this leads to PERSEVERANCE, MATURITY, CHARACTER AND HOPE. The world admires these qualities. I told the story of Sarah Thomas who had recently swum the English Channel four times in 54 hours, Battling tides which turned an 80 mile journey into 130 miles!  But linking these four words with Christian joy doesn't make sense to the world.

2) Christian joy develops through dark times. Looking carefully at the texts we see how through the process of suffering and the testing  of faith joy can emerge. I quoted Leon Bloy: There are places in our hearts which do not yet exist and it is necessary for suffering to penetrate there in order that they make come into being. This part of the sermon became more difficult because I knew several people in the congregation are really suffering.  I shared how after 13 years of healthy ministry I was hit by a neurological disease and told I would never work publicly again and, yet ,in very dark places I learned that God was not loving me less, nor walking with me less so that I might even there show fruit.  I criticized that saying: Christians are like teabags. You have to put them in hot water to see how strong they are.  Actually, in hot water they show how strong God is in their weakness!

I asked permission of one of our members, Peter, who is dying of cancer whether I might tell what happened when I had coffee with him eight days earlier.  A lady who had not seen Peter for a long time came up to thank him for service he had given in the village. She said how sorry she was about his illness and how well he was holding up.  Peter looked up at her with a big smile. 'It's a gift', he said. 'God has given me victory'. His face was radiant.  That's the hope in suffering. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57).

Friday, November 1, 2019

Christian Joy 3)

I gave this sermon a 15 certificate.  It began agreeably with a picture of a fruit bowl with a list of the fruit of the Spirit in which joy belongs intimately with love, peace, patience and the rest Gal. 5:22).  What's not to like about that picture?  But however well meaning we are about living this good life it is quite impossible without first confronting the other list in Gal 5:19.

I used an ugly font to list some of them: sexual immorality, impurity, hatred, discord, dissensions, jealousy, selfish ambition, factions, fits of rage.  Tragically, this is human nature at work. Though no-one gets sent to prison for these (unless taken to extremes), from God's point of view this is disastrous. So far from his purpose for humankind.  Indeed he calls them 'sinful nature', using a word 'sinful' that in contemporary usage is rarely applied.  Only when we understand the conflict between living in this way (the natural, everyday human experience) and walking by the Spirit can we understand how serious is the daily challenge (15 cert. at least)!  This means (at least) 3 challenges:

WHICH WALK?   I told the story when I was Principal of Spurgeon's sitting in my local church with my mind full of a busy week. As the service ended but an elderly man leaned across and asked me: How is your walk with Jesus?  That question hit me in the gut.  All my 'professional' Christianity - was it being fitted into a natural sinful  walk?  As C.S. Lewis put it: The idea of reaching a 'good life' without Christ is based on a double error.  Firstly, we cannot do it; and secondly, in setting up a 'good life' as our final goal we have missed the very point of our existence. Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts.

ASKING FOR HELP?  We cannot do it by our own efforts  We need God's third person - the Holy Spirit.  Some are wary thinking that the Spirit may force things upon us.  No never. He is God and he needs to be invited. He doesn't muscle in. That's why Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. We need to ask him.  I shared an old hymn which was very popular in my youth. It's second verse goes:
I need thee every hour
Stay Thou near by;
Temptations lose their power,
When Thou art night,
I need Thee, O I need Thee
Every hour I need Thee!
O bless me now, my Saviour,
I come to Thee.  
To contemporary ears is sounds so outdated and excessive...every hour?  But it's a vital prayer.

WHAT VICTORIES?  I confessed that I was going to end with a great story of victory in the life of the Japanese evangelist Koji Honda, a giant joyful person I met many years ago.  But I realized this would dodge the issue about the victories, some of them very small, that God was wanting me (us) to win this coming week.  As a church we know that we are work in progress in showing fruit, like Joy.  Martin Luther quoted an old prayer: We ain't what we oughta be. We ain't what we want to be. We ain't what we gonna be.  But thank God, we ain't what we was.

For us, right now, this requires serious commitment. I ended with a prayer from one of our house groups a couple of weeks ago: Lord, there are lots of things that divide us. Forgive us for getting up one another's noses.  Help us by your Holy Spirit to live together with love and care (and I would add JOY).