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Putting us to the test?

Recovering from our Easter celebrations, we turn back to the “Pattern Prayer” for the final thought:

As a child, I wondered why, when God wants us to be good, we pray that He won’t tempt us to do something naughty, but on its face value that is what we have been praying for the last two millennia.

The modern version prays that He will not “put us to the test”, as if God wishes us to do difficult things, or resist irresistable temptations, just to prove we are good “soldiers and servants”.

Sounds a bit like school when we were goaded to do silly things, just to prove we were one of the gang.

Poor “Bunger” Young who doing a dare during the school lunch hour at Sandown Secondary School, fell into the large water-filled pits at the brickworks that used to be behind the Broadway, trying to cross it over a 6” plank.

When asked by the Headmaster why he had done such a thing, his ”dare” was dismissed and accompanied by “six of the best” because all of us involved had broken school rules.

Is it likely that God would impose tasks upon us, just to test us out?

Yet, it is a common idea that we suffer in all manner of ways because we have done something wrong and this is our punishment.

We cry, “Why do I deserve this” when calamity upon calamity enfolds us.

Some pilgrims try to make their journey more “holy” making it more difficult (and painful) by putting peas in their shoes or travelling the last stage on their knees.

It should be made plain that God doesn’t wish us to suffer more in this life than we need. After all, Jesus spent so much of His Ministry, alleviating their pain or problems.

Where there was no bread, He fed the 5,000; when people had been in pain or difficulties He eased them and taught others to do the same.

It may well be, that some calamities fall on us, because we have lived or done things which have caused our difficulties, often despite warnings or good advice.

The good God by His divine alchemy often turns what appears at first sight to be disasters into blessings. The Psalmist says “It is good for me that I have been in trouble, that I may understand the loving kindness of the Lord”, and Paul tells us that God will not test us beyond our resources (1 Cor. 10, v13). In other words, He doesn’t ask the impossible of us.

J. B. Phillips translates it “Keep us clear of temptation and save us from evil” which is an entirely different thought.

It is commonly assumed that God sends suffering and misfortune either as a punishment for past failings or a way of testing our obedience that as a result we shall become better Christians.

If you think about it, God doesn’t need to act like this, deliberately putting obstacles in our way.

Daily life sends enough of these, for the Devil is constantly attacking and misleading us. (Yes, I’m convinced there is one, Jesus thought so too so I am in good company).

Temptations are much different in this generation than in my youth and I am sorry to say even more effective; the influence of the Internet, the media and the general breakdown of accepted moral standards challenge today in ways we older folk never experienced.

Our “Pattern Prayer” gives us a template setting out our priorities, which is essentially “God first, ourselves last”. The Lord’s Prayer is brief, reminding us that the length of our prayers is no indication of their worthiness. Jesus said so.

“Good prayer is like a bikini; it may be brief as long as it covers the two essentials!


28 April 2019

Careful with the commas!

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says at the door, “Look it up”.

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation,

Panda. Large black and white bear-like mammal. Native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”.

So writes Lynn Truss in her amusing book on punctuation.

What’s that got to do with Easter Day?

Well, let’s take a simple sentence which is apposite for today.

“Jesus Christ is risen.” Written like that, with only a full-point at the end, it’s a bald statement arousing no emotion; an unbelieving hearer might say “So what?” and go about his or her business unmoved. Let’s take that sentence and play around with punctuation.

Suppose we add a “query” ?

Jesus Christ is risen?” The hearer raises his or her eyebrows and says, “Pull the other one. Convince me by pointing me to the Gospel accounts. I would like proof”. So let’s try again.

“Jesus Christ is risen!” with an exclamation mark. Happy Orthodox Christians run through the streets with candles, singing and shouting the glorious news. Note that if I hadn’t put a comma there, it would have implied that the bystander saw and heard candles singing and shouting. An Easter surprise indeed.

Then again, we come to the punctuation that few of us have any idea what it does, which is the “Semi-colon ;”

We all can understand the full-point, the query, the exclamation symbols and the semi-colon helps to you to take a breath, before going on in the sentence, expanding the previous thoughts.

In other words, when you come to a semi-colon, it tells you that it’s not trying to bring the sentence to an end, but opening the door for an expansion of the thinking. In other words, our cry of “Jesus is risen;” is leading us on to related thinking.

Now if we follow on, we are not asking a doubting question, nor shrieking with unalloyed joy, or making a bald statement of fact, but more or less wanting to put a word of explanation to what has gone before.

While someone may say “So what”, in this case, it implies that as a result of the Resurrection, other ideas may follow, as they should.

Instead of a semi-colon, we could use a word, “therefore”.

“Jesus Christ is risen”, therefore great ideas follow on, giving us clues if we believe, as to what lies ahead in our future.

I’m not speaking only of life beyond the grave (the “promise of Easter”), but it should affect our whole outlook on life, and how we need to tailor it to express and demonstrate that resurrection faith.

Over Easter-tide, it might be well to think about our own ideas of what Jesus’ resurrection means to us and how as a result, we need to adjust our thinking and behaviour.

We needn’t run through the street shouting with joy, carrying our lighted candles, but each one of us needs to contemplate what that empty tomb signifies.

However, we do need to show by our life-style that the Easter message gives us reason to hope and rejoice, and make our lives such that the Risen Jesus is within us. As Paul writes, “If you are risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, not on the earth, for your life is hidden with Christ in God”  (Read and meditate on Colossians 3, vv1-17)

A happy and blessed Easter to you all.


21 April 2019

Something for Nothing?

We have all been brought up to think carefully when we are offered something at a ridiculous price, or even for free, on the grounds that eventually, someone has to pay a price somehow.

That is why I drew your attention last week to the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that can imply that God’s forgiveness is conditional on being ourselves willing to forgive others.

That sounds fair enough until you begin studying what Jesus had to say about it, particularly in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The starving younger son, having wasted his father’s money in a short life of debauchery, returns home and on the way rehearses a plea for forgiveness for when they meet.

It is clear his father has been constantly on the lookout, watching to see if his wayward son will return.

Before the boy has had chance even to meet his father, the latter is running towards him with outstretched welcoming arms. No word of condemnation for his son’s behaviour, no waiting for the rehearsed confession and penitence, but the fatted calf is prepared for a banquet (much to the elder son’s disgust) of thanksgiving for the beloved son’s return.

Here, surely Jesus is saying that God’s love is un-conditional for that is why we have the Gospel (Good News), with its good news of the Cross as the means by which are able to approach the Father.

Many Christians, especially among fundamentalist believers, teach that God is so angry at humanity’s sins, that He must be pacified by the sacrifice of His only Son.

That might well be, but the whole tenor of the Old Testament prophets’ teaching regarding sacrifice is that God doesn’t want blood of creatures shed in order to pacify Him, but rather that penitence should show itself in good social works, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and welcoming “strangers” (immigrants).

I could not have been alone in asking my wife (or she of me), “Do you love me?” with an affirmative response, but suppose we press the matter further and ask “How much do you love me?”

The answer might be “very, very much”; we may be foolish enough to press further and enquire whether that love is “unconditional”.

That’s a difficult one and the truth is that no one loves “unconditionally” but God Who is love.

Peter, having failed Jesus by denying Him must have felt awkward when he met the Risen Lord (John 21, vv15-end), but Jesus’ question is a simple one “Do you love me?”

Peter splutters a bit and replies in the affirmative, “You  know that I love you” and Jesus says “Feed my lambs and feed my sheep”. Rather than pronouncing absolution to the failed disciple, Jesus, asks the same question three times, and goes on to give him a job to do, to this failure trusting him with an even greater challenge.

God’s love is unconditional, for the Gospel is simply, “God  loves you”, whoever or whatever you are and accepts us without conditions and this is where the Cross comes into the equation.

The Cross is not only a reminder of how cruel mankind (and womenkind) can be, but how loving God is, for this is no mere man hanging, spit-covered, thorn-crowned, but God Himself and it is to this Cross that we turn. Our relationship with God enables us to plead because of that one tremendous act of His self-offering.

It is difficult for us to grasp, but we are dealing with Divine mystery. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” and we turn to that definition in the Athanasian Creed that Jesus was (and is) “Perfect God and perfect man; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by taking of the manhood into God”.

“There was none other good enough to pay the price of sin” wrote Mrs. Alexander and she never wrote a truer word, for we are thinking of the sin (not sins) of the whole of humanity from the beginning of time, for which, paradoxically, God pays.


14 April 2019

"Forgive Us Our Trespasses" (Debts)

for Passion Sunday, April 7th, 2019

  Read Matthew 6 to find the background to all the teaching:

My earliest acquaintance with “trespasses” was in relation to notices which told me not to “trespass” which I understood to mean going through gates or on land to which we were forbidden entry.

At 8 years old, I couldn’t understand where God came into the picture, because as a small obedient youngster I didn’t dare do so; I feared “prosecution” (whatever that meant.) but I understood it meant being reported to the frightening policeman.

Actually, “debts” is more accurate for when we do, say or think that which would be alien to the spirit of Love, we have incurred a “debt”, for which there must be some recompense.

When we offend in this way, unless we say “Sorry” (and mean it), putting right anything that has injured the other party (including God) then the darkness of such behaviour hangs around us.

There are certain problems regarding our response, for if we feel a sense of guilt, then this can darken our lives and is the instigator of much unhappiness with anyone with a conscience.

I have spoken previously regarding this factor in our personal lives which can lead in extreme cases to self-destruction and this has to be dealt with in some way.

The whole of the Christian Gospel is concerned with relationships, between God and ourselves and that with other people.

“Forgive us our debts”, then, but let’s consider this more.

The parable of the “unjust servant” (Matthew 18,vv23-35) is probably a compilation by Matthew in his Gospel of Jesus’ teaching on the subject and is interesting. Clearly there are two meanings in the Lord’s Prayer; 1. That we ask for forgiveness of God because we have already forgiven others “as we (have?) forgiven those who have offended us in some way”, but it can also mean 2. “Inasmuch as we have forgiven others”. In other words, Jesus says, that our forgiveness is conditional, in that we cannot expect God to forgive us if we have not a forgiving heart towards those who have offended us.

Yet, Jesus in other teaching implies that God’s forgiveness is readily there because of the Cross; yet we cannot expect to receive treatment from God that we are unwilling to offer others.

The heart of the Gospel teaching is reconciliation, the relationship we have with others; “at-one-ment”, which means making “At one” those who are opposed to each other. (We’ll talk about this next Sunday).

I look back over my own ministry, where the refusal to forgive someone who has offended, has divided families and friends bringing much unnecessary unhappiness. Beneath this refusal to forgive lurks that old and dangerous sin of “pride” which is serious and spiritually dangerous.

An appraisal of our own behaviour should be an essential part of our daily devotions and certainly prior to our confession in our worship. That is why a regular, honest self-examination of our actions and motives is basic to our Christian way of life, painful though it may be at times.


7 April 2019

"Give Us"

Originally, I spoke of the “Lord’s Prayer” as “The Pattern Prayer”, for I keep company with those who believe that Jesus didn’t expect this to be repeated several times a day, but it was a guide-llne as to how, and for what we should pray.

The disciples had asked “Teach us to pray” and it’s a very short lesson, giving us a series of headings indicating priorities and subjects, and if you have thought about it, the prayer is divided into two distinct sections, which we can simplify as “God’s priorities” and the other, ours.

Now we have reached that dividing line, for we cease thinking about God and His priorities, which if they were followed would enable a peaceful and ordered, loving Society to exist.

If God’s Name were to be revered and His commandments obeyed, then His Kingdom would come; these are priorities but now we turn to our basic needs, both physical and spiritual.

This is not a natural order, for left to ourselves we would probably pray for our (and others’) physical needs, forgetting that all is of no avail, unless we put God in the prime position as the source of all Being.

Thanksgiving does not always come naturally to us, for we tend to see only the little picture and not the whole of God’s sway, nor do we always pray for spiritual guidance.

Our daily dependence upon food is obvious, but that we are to do so daily is enfolded in the words, which properly understood, means “Give us this day, our bread for today”.

“Lord for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray” we used to sing in Sunday School, stressing that our daily existence depends upon God and our contact with Him needs to be a daily event in our spiritual lives.

“Be not anxious” says Jesus reminding us that our Father has a deep concern for our welfare, and day by day we need to recall and pray,  giving thanks daily, for our practical needs.

We would be upset if our diet only included “daily bread”, for the request covers all manner of sustenance, but bread itself has its own significance.

The Early Christians took this also as meaning food for our spiritual needs. In order to fulfil that prayer, after the Sunday Eucharist, they were allowed to take away sufficient of the consecrated bread that they could communicate themselves during the next six days. A practise that didn’t survive much beyond the first century AD, but nevertheless is significant.

Included in all this should be our concern for those who work and sometimes struggle to provide for our physical needs, often living precariously with a hand-to-mouth existence.

During the war, we were very conscious of the risks that our brave sailors faced daily in order to provide fish for our tables; today, despite there being no fears of submarines, fishing is still an occupation that carries many dangers. Sailors and fishermen still need our prayers today.

All this is encompassed in that single prayer “Give us” but inherent with asking there must be he “thanking”.

How often do we say “Grace” before or after a meal? In our household as children, we were not allowed to get down from the table until we had done so, something very common pre-War, which has ceased to be heard in most households.

The value of a prayer is not to be considered by its length; Jesus had words to say about “vain repetitions”. By using the ”imagining” I suggested recently, you do not need to seek for flowery language. We are talking to a loving Father, who will enable our needs, so brevity is not less spiritual when we pray in Faith.

Using it as a guideline, following Jesus’ thinking as presented in the Gospels, the “pattern prayer” enables us to pray simply but trustfully, effectively. Next week we turn to “Forgive us”.


31 March 2019

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