Thursday, 30 September 2010
Tonight I want to speak about an issue which isn't often acknowledged in church, but is something that affects most Christians at some point in their lives, the experience of the absence or distance of God in their lives.
I want to explore why this happens, what the experience of the absence of God can feel like, and how we can respond to it.
MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In 2009 I went through a period of several months where I suffered from depression. Although all the symptoms were there, I only recognised that I had been suffering from depression as I began to improve and emerged out of this long dark period.
During the time that I was depressed I felt as though God was distant from me, so much so that it almost felt like being abandoned. Although I carried on doing what was expected of me, getting up each day was a real struggle, and I often felt like running away. I felt like a failure, and started to question my relationship with God. Prayer during this time was difficult, as was reading the Bible.
I think my depression was comparatively mild by the standards of what some people experience, but I can understand why some people in this situation would find it quite easy to stop coming along to church – but for me this obviously wasn't an option! But going to church, singing worship songs that talk about how wonderful God is, and how much we love him, can actually make that feeling of isolation and alienation from God even more difficult to bear. When people around you seem to experience the closeness and intimacy of God, it can leave you wondering why God feels so distant from you.
In The Shack William P Young calls this 'The Great Sadness' – the ache of life not being as it should in some area or other. But for me it felt like being in a wilderness, a spiritual desert.
WHY DO WE HAVE TIMES WHEN GOD FEELS DISTANT?
If you have experienced something similar to this, it is important to know that you are not alone; most Christians will have an experience of God's distance at some point in their lives. What strikes me as I read the Bible is that many of the great heroes of faith also went through periods when God felt distant. For example in 1 Kings 18 Elijah witnesses the power of God at work when he defeats the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. After such an incredible experience of God at work, you would think Elijah would be full of faith and confidence, but in fact he is just the opposite. He becomes afraid for his life and flees into the desert and hides in a cave. It is whilst he is hiding that God appears to Elijah, and in the ensuing conversation Elijah pours out his heart to God, and complains that he is the only person in Israel who has remained faithful to God – which was not true. The point is that Elijah feels as though God had let him down and abandoned him.
In Psalm 22 the Psalmist cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent." (Ps 22:1-2) These words will probably be familiar, because they were the same words that Jesus cried out when on the cross (Matthew 27:46)
So why do we go through these spiritually barren times in our lives?
There isn't a simple answer to this question. In my case it was depression, which triggered the feeling of being cut off from God's love. What didn't help me was that I started to neglect prayer and reading my Bible, and that actually compounded the sense of distance from God. During this time I focused more on my worries, concerns and dissatisfactions, than I did on God, and so it wasn't God abandoning me, but me drifting away from God. What helped me out of the depression was in part learning to try and focus on God, making an effort to pray and read my Bible even if I didn't always feel like it.
Sometimes sin causes a blockage in our relationship with God. In Isaiah, the prophet records these words from God. "Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!" (Is 1:15-16)
In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15), it was the son that left his father, and not the other way round. We need to recognise that it is our actions or attitudes that can take us away from God.
Neglecting our relationship with God
Another reason for that sense of God's distance is when we neglect prayer and worship, and when we cut ourselves off from God's family the church.
If I want a good and close relationship with my wife and children I need to work at it. I need to make time for them, speak to them, play with them, and I do this even if there are times when I don't always feel like it, because I recognise how important it is. If I decided not to talk to them anymore, or interact with them, even though we still lived under the same roof, we would soon become strangers and drift apart. The same is true with our relationship with God.
I was recently talking to someone who used to regularly attend church, but for various reasons had stopped going to church. I asked them if they were still praying regularly and reading their Bible, to which the response was no, they weren't. By not coming to church anymore, and worshipping with other Christians, they were drifting further and further from God, and not surprisingly with that came a feeling that God was far from them.
When there is no explanation
But there are times when there isn't any obvious explanation why God feels distant, and that is why it feels as though it is God who has abandoned us, rather than the other way round.
HOW TO RESPOND DURING TIMES OF SPIRITUAL DRYNESS
When we experience these times of spiritual barrenness, how should we respond?
The writer of Hebrews said "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another." (Hebrews 10:25).
When we feel as though God has abandoned us, and when we find it really difficult to pray or read our Bibles, there is a temptation to abandon worship altogether, and to neglect church. But if we do this, we will just end up drifting even further from God.
When you are ill and have no appetite, it is still important to try and eat something, because if you don't, you end up getting weaker rather than stronger. In the same way it is important to maintain the discipline of going to church and worshipping God, praying and reading our Bibles, even if we don't feel like it.
If you find prayer difficult then use set prayers, or say the Lord's Prayer, but also use the Psalms to aid prayer. Many of the psalms are songs of lament, and can help give voice to our own feelings of frustration and abandonment. For example in Psalm 10:1 David cries out "Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide in times of trouble?" God wants us to be honest with him, and so when we pray don't put on a front with God, tell him exactly what is on your heart.
I think we often misunderstand what worship is really about. You don't have to be full of joy to worship; in fact worship is not reliant on feelings at all. Worship is an affirmation of who God is, and that doesn't change whatever our circumstances. Worship was never intended to be for us, it is not meant to make us feel better, or to fit into our own personal tastes. Worship is about recognising and honouring who God is.
In one single day Job lost everything: his family, his business, his health, and everything he owned! And what is Job's response? "Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: " Naked I came from my mother's womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:20-21)
My own personal experience has taught me that coming to God in prayer and worship, even when this is difficult, helps me to discover that I haven't been abandoned, but that God is there with me. This is why the Apostle James said "Come near to God and he will come near to you." (James 4:8).
TRUST IN GOD
To have faith in God, means learning to love, trust and obey God even when we can't sense his presence. In times when God feels distant, it helps to focus on who God is, and his unchanging nature. Raymond Edman author of many devotional books said, "Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light." This is why it is so important to trust in God's loving faithfulness, and one way of doing this is to look back on the times when we have been aware of God's presence in our lives, and what God has already done for us.
When God feels distant, we can start to question our faith, but it is important to remember that our faith in not based on feelings, but on what God in Christ has done for us. This is important because God wants us to learn to trust him, rather than trusting our emotions. And although our emotions change, just as the weather changes and people change, God does not change, he remains rock solid, totally true and dependable forever.
What is striking about the psalms of lament is that they inevitably focus on that hope that is found in God, and upon God's faithfulness. For example in Psalm 22 just after the psalmist has cried out "why have you forsaken me?", he goes on to say "Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed." (Ps 22:3-5) The Psalmist looks back to what God has done in the past, and this gives him confidence for the future. And in Psalm 55, in which the Psalmist says "My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me." (Ps 55:4-5) the psalm ends with the words "But as for me, I trust in you."
DRYNESS CAN LEAD TO GROWTH
Earlier I described the sense of God's distance, as being like a spiritual desert. My view of a desert used to be that it was a place devoid of life and hope, but this changed when I went to Israel ten years ago. The group that I was travelling with was asked by our guide to go and spend time sitting alone in the desert. As I sat in a small cave overlooking the dry valley, I slowly became aware that a place that I thought was devoid of life, was actually full of life.
I have also discovered that times of spiritual dryness and barrenness can be times of growth and life. A tree growing in an arid landscape needs to put down deep roots in order to reach water, in the same way periods of spiritual dryness can encourage us to develop deeper spiritual roots. But my experience is that we often only come to realise how we have grown after the time of spiritual dryness has passed.
It is often through our periods of suffering that we grow in our knowledge of the one who is able to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). We must remember, while 'weeping may remain for a night' we have the promise that 'rejoicing comes in the morning' (Psalm 30:5). So we need to trust ourselves to God in our pain, worshipping when we don't feel like it, in whatever way we feel able – in songs, reading psalms or in the silence of our own broken hearts – believing that ultimately, because of who he is, all will be well.
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
How we spend our days reflects how we spend our lives, and reveals what our real priorities are.
In the Bible the two great commandments are to love God and love our neighbour, in that order. These commandments emphasize the importance of relationships, our relationship with God, and with one another. This is what matters most in life, not having a nice house, or flashy car, or foreign holidays, but good relationships.
Every New Year I promise myself that I will make a bigger effort to visit family and friends, but so often it doesn't happen because I don't make it a priority, and so inevitably other things get in the way and before I know it another year has passed. Sometimes we look forward to a slower day when we believe we will have more time for the important things in life, such as when we get the promotion we are waiting for, or when we pass our exams, or when we retire. We need to realise that a 'slower day' is not coming, and therefore make room today for the things that are most important.
If you had a bank that credited your account each morning with £86,000 that carried over no balance from day to day...Allowed you to keep no cash in your account, and every evening cancelled whatever part of the amount you failed to use during the day, what would you do? Draw out every penny every day, of course, and use it to your advantage! Well, you have such a bank, and its name is TIME! Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it rules off as lost whatever of this you failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balances, it allows no overdrafts. Each day it opens a new account with you. If you fail to use the day's deposits, the loss is yours. There is no going back. There is no drawing against tomorrow.
Are you making time for what is most important in your life?
Thursday, 23 September 2010
John 1: 35-42
I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone to hear that I have never been particularly sporty or athletic. One of my abiding childhood memories was the horrendous, humiliating experience of waiting to be picked for football matches. All the best players would be picked straight away, but I inevitably always seemed to be the last person chosen. And then I was usually put either into goals or defence, the two positions no one else wanted.
The experience of not been chosen, of being overlooked, ignored or rejected, because you're just not good enough, or you don't have what it takes, can be a deeply painful.
This week I was reading an article about the experience one man who in 2009 was made redundant after the charity he worked for ceased operating. Although this man is highly qualified, he has not been able to find work. In the article he describes the crushing experience of what it is like to get one rejection letter after another. He writes "I stopped keeping or counting the 'thanks, but no thanks' responses to job applications. Each one had pushed my morale lower and lower, threatening to wipe out any sense of self-worth that was left."
Not being chosen can really hurt.
In my talk this morning there are two points that I want to make:
- Jesus chooses us
- Jesus changes us
JESUS CHOOSES US
In July I wrote an article for the Walsall Advertiser in which I said the important question isn't only about whether we believe in God, but also whether we know that God believes in us. Following the article I received a letter from a lady, which I shared with the church a few weeks ago, in which she wrote "I too thought that if there is a God, he wouldn't want anything to do with me."
I think many people feel the way she does, they imagine that if God was picking his perfect team, they would be the ones left standing on the sidelines, unwanted, and unchosen. But the message of the Bible, and the message of the Christian faith are about how much God really does love us, and care for us, and how he chooses us.
We see this in our Gospel reading, in which Jesus chooses his first disciples.
Normally only the very best of the best were chosen to be become a disciple of a rabbi. This would have happened after many years of intense study, during which time the students would have been expected to memorise the entire Old Testament. And then the rabbi would only choose those people who they thought had what it takes to not only learn from them, but to become like them, so only the best of the best were chosen.
But the people Jesus choose to be his disciples weren't the best of the best. They were very ordinary people, fishermen, take collectors and even radicals – not people who had devoted many years to studying the Bible, not the people you may have expected Jesus to choose.
To: Jesus, Son of Joseph
Woodcrafter's Carpenter Shop
From: Jordan Management Consultants
Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.
The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study each of them carefully.
It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.
Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew had been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale.
One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.
We wish you every success in your new venture.
Jordan Management Consultants
So why did Jesus choose such an unlikely bunch of people to be his disciples, people who clearly didn't make the cut? The reason is that by choosing these people, Jesus demonstrates that his movement is for everyone, it's for rich and poor, old and young, men and women, educated and uneducated. This is a movement for anybody and everybody. Jesus calls us to follow him.
Elsewhere in the Bible Jesus says – "You didn't choose me, I chose you." In Jesus' day rabbis didn't choose disciples unless they believed these people had what it took to do what they do, and to become like them, because that's what a disciple ultimately wants, to become like his master, to do the things his master does. This is important because Jesus chooses us, which means that he believes that we can become like him, we can do the things he does. This is very important because it shows us that it is not just about whether or not we believe in God, but about knowing that he believes is us… in you… in me. Jesus chooses us to come and follow him, and in doing so, become like him and experience life in its fullness.
JESUS CHANGES US
The second point that we can draw from this reading is that knowing and encountering Jesus changes us.
After meeting Jesus for the first time, Andrew, and the other disciple, who most commentators believe to be the apostle John, the man who wrote John's Gospel, go to Simon, Andrew's brother and say to him "We have found the Messiah". And they brought Simon to Jesus. On seeing Simon Jesus says "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas" (which, when translated, is Peter).
Names in the Bible are extremely important, because your name conveys an important message about who you are. Jesus renames Simon, which means 'To hear or to be heard' to 'Peter' which means 'The rock', and he says "You are Peter, the Rock on who I will build my Church.". And in that very instant Simon's life was changed forever.
How would you feel if you were Simon? Imagine that you are standing before Jesus, looking into the eyes of God, who looks right into your very being and declares what you will become.
Jesus saw not only who Peter was, but who he would become. Because although Jesus changes Simon's name to Peter, over the next three years of Jesus' ministry Peter was far from being "rock-solid". Peter made all sorts of mistakes, even denied knowing Jesus and abandoning him in his greatest hour of need. It wasn't until much later, after Jesus' resurrection, and the day of Pentecost that Peter became a solid "rock" in the days of the early church.
When Jesus looks at us, he sees not only who we are, but also who we can become. And it is through walking with Jesus, learning from him, spending time with him, that we are transformed and become like him.
I want to finish with this reflection, entitled 'The Touch of the Masters Hand' written by Mrya Brooks Welch.
It was battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer thought it
Hardly worth his while
To waste his time on the old violin,
But he held it up with a smile.
"What am I bid, good folk", he cried,
"Who starts the bidding for me?"
"One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two?"
"Two dollars, who makes it three?"
"Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three",
From the room far back a grey haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow,
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet,
As sweet as the angel sings.
The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said "What now am I bid for this old violin?"
As he held it aloft with its' bow.
"One thousand, one thousand, Do I hear two?"
"Two thousand, Who makes it three?"
"Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
Going and gone", said he.
The audience cheered,
But some of them cried,
"We just don't understand."
"What changed its' worth?"
Swift came the reply.
"The Touch of the Masters Hand."
And many a person with soul out of tune,
All battered and scarred by sin,
Is auctioned cheap by the thoughtless crowd just like the old violin.
But the master comes, and the foolish crowd never can quite understand the worth of a soul, and the change that is wrought by the touch of the master's hand.
Oh Master I am the tuneless one, lay, lay Thy hand on me. Transform me now, put a song in my heart of melody, Lord to Thee.
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
Sermon by Rev Dr Amy Richter, US Episcopal Church - to read the full sermon please click HERE
What do you think heaven is?
A man and his sister were taking care of their father who was in the last stages of cancer, the man staying with their bed-ridden father during the day and his sister staying with their father through the night.
It had been a hard day. The man and his father hadn't always got on well, and on this particular day his father was especially irritable and giving him a hard time. The man was impatient, waiting for his sister to come for the night shift. He had his coat and shoes on so he could leave as quickly as possible when she arrived. But he heard his father call to him from the other room. He went in, and his father asked, "What do you think happens to us after this life?"
A big question. A serious question. The man didn't have many words, but he thought he could show his father his answer. He got into the bed and lay down beside his father. He asked him, "Dad, do you love me?"
"You know I love you," his father said.
The man touched his own chest and then touched his father's, right above his heart. The man asked, "How much of our ability to love do you think we use during our lives? Ten percent?"
"Fifteen," said his father.
"Okay," said the man. "In heaven," he said, touching his own chest and then his father's, "100 percent."
The next day the man got a call from his sister, telling him his father had died, quite peacefully. But before he died, he made a gesture she didn't understand. Just before he died, he looked at her, and he touched his chest – his heart – and then reached up and touched hers.
In heaven, 100 percent: true connectedness, true love, right relationship, no chasms between us.
We were made for relationship. We were made to be in right relationship with God and one another, 100 percent. But very few of us live that way – I know I certainly don't. We always have a relationship with something else, something that takes up part of that heart space so we don't use all 100 percent for loving God and loving our neighbour. Sometimes that something is money or seeking our own comfort over the needs of others.
In our reading today from 1 Timothy, Paul exhorts the faithful not to get too close to the uncertainty of riches, but instead draw close to "God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." If you live in right relationship with God, it will show in this way, says Paul: doing good, being rich in good works, being generous and ready to share. And living this way will allow us to "take hold of the life that really is life." Not the appearance of life – what this world trumpets as the good life – material comforts – but the life that really is life, the abundance that comes from living heart to heart, 100 percent now.
Friday, 17 September 2010
In 1989 Mother Teresa gave an interview for Time Magazine. When asked what motives her work, she replied "We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us to put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise."
She was also asked what is God's greatest gift to her, to which her response was: 'The poor people.' Because with them "I have an opportunity to be with Jesus 24 hours a day."
These are extraordinary words from an extraordinary person, who devoted their life to serving some of the neediest people in the world. In her service to the poor we are reminded of Jesus' words from our reading this morning 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Mt 25:40)
I was reminded of these words recently when Beata and I were in Poland over the summer. We were sitting in the centre of Torun, enjoying a pizza on one of the many street cafes when I spotted an unshaven, dishevelled man limping badly and walking with the aid of a stick. He had the appearance of someone who had been drinking, although to be honest I couldn't be sure. When I saw him I confess that I averted my gaze, hoping that he would pass me by. But instead he came towards us, and so I prepared to send him on his way by saying to him in English that I couldn't speak Polish, because I expected him to ask for money, and I've always been reluctant to give money to people on the streets. But to my surprise he asked in broken English "Can I please have some of your pizza."
I confess that I felt an immediate pang of guilt, and so we handed one slice of pizza to the man, which he took gratefully and ate as he walked away from us down the street.
It was only after he was gone that I suddenly thought to myself, we've just been visited by Jesus, in the form of this broken man, and I was overcome with a tremendous sense of guilt. I didn't need that pizza, I had eaten well today, and knew that tomorrow I would eat well again, his need was much greater than mine, and yet all I was prepared to give was one slice of pizza, making sure there was plenty left for me. And I realised that could have, and should have done so much more. I could have sat him down and offered to buy him a proper meal, to forget about my embarrassment and worry, and treat him like a human being, giving him one of the most precious gifts, the gift of time. But instead I had been more concerned that he should move on, and go somewhere else, so I could enjoy my food in peace.
"For whatever you do to the least of these dear brothers of mine, you do to me."
It's a challenge to see Christ in other people, but that is what we are called to do. Think about the people you will meet today, the people in the shop, your neighbours, the people you know, and the people you don't know. Each of them is Christ in disguise.
In the interview with Time Magazine the last question Mother Teresa was asked was what are your plans for the future?
Her reply was, "I just take one day at a time. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not come. We have only today to love Jesus."
We could do well to follow her example, for we only have today to love Jesus.
Next Sunday is Back to Church Sunday, when we are encouraged to invite people back to church. As we prepare for this important event, I want us to think about the topic of welcome and hospitality, particularly in relation to the church.
Welcome in the Bible
The theme of hospitality and welcome is an extremely important one in the Bible. In the Middle East great value has always been placed on hospitality. In the biblical culture extending hospitality was not simply a courtesy but an obligation. Travel in the ancient Mediterranean world was fraught with difficulty and danger. Inns where people could stay were few and far between, and travellers were dependent on locals for life sustaining food, water and shelter.
Whilst hospitality has always been important in the different cultures of the Middle East, it had particular significance for the Israelites. The Israelites themselves had been strangers in foreign lands and had experience of wandering from place to place, and this experience shaped and influenced the way they themselves looked after strangers. For example in Deuteronomy 10:17, 19 it says, "For the Lord you God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." So for the Israelites proper treatment of the stranger was a just and grateful act in response to God's loving provision.
In the New Testament hospitality also has a central role to play. Jesus' itinerant ministry took him too many places, and he was very much dependant upon the hospitality that people provided. The most famous pictures of that hospitality are Mary and Martha's entertainment of Jesus and when Jesus invited himself to the home of Zaccheaus. When Jesus sent his disciples out on mission, he sent them out on the assumption that they would receive hospitality along the way.
In Hebrews 13:2 we read "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."
This therefore raises the question, how good are we as a church when it comes to welcoming visitors? St Martin's does pride itself as being a welcoming caring community, and I think there is a lot of truth in that. But I've also yet to visit a church that doesn't think of itself as being welcoming and friendly. George Fisher, who is the Director of Parish Mission for Lichfield Diocese has travelled extensively around the diocese visiting churches as part of his job. He tells a story where he visited one church in the west of the Diocese, and was disappointed that they didn't do refreshments after the service. When George got back home he wrote an email to the vicar and said had they considered providing refreshments after the service. To which he received the reply, we do have refreshments, but we wait for the visitors to go before we serve them!
In research conducted by Bob Jackson whilst he was Archdeacon of Walsall, he discovered that between 90% to 99% of people who visit churches do not become regular worshipping members. Just think what a difference it would make to churches like our own, if say 10 or 15 percent of those people who visited us decided to stay?
What can we do therefore to make St Martin's an even more welcoming and open church to those who visit us. There are a number of lessons we can all learn about hospitality from our reading from Genesis 18 in which Abraham & Sarah welcome three strangers to their home.
"The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground."
The first thing to notice is that when Abraham saw the three visitors, he hurried over to them and did everything he could to make his guests feel welcome. He didn't just leave them standing near his tent, uncertain as to what to do, Abraham took the initiative to welcome them to his home. When people visit St Martin's we can all do our part to make them feel welcome, to take the initiative to invite people into the church, to introduce ourselves, and take an interest in the people who are visiting, and above all to put them at ease.
Going into a church building for the first time can be quite a daunting experience, especially if you are not used to attending church, and so the welcome you receive from the people in the church is extremely important. Just put yourself into the shoes of someone coming to church for the first time, imagine what it might feel like to go into a place which is unfamiliar, and where you don't know anybody, but where everyone seems to know one another. Even though I have attended church all my life, I still feel uncomfortable going to a new church for the first time. The typical worries that go through my head are will I know what to do during the service, where are the toilets, are the any facilities for the children, can my children join the Sunday School, etc.
For someone to come over, smile, shake your hand and welcome you to the church can make all the difference. We can all too easily assume that people know what to do during a service, or assume that people will know that they are invited to stay for tea and coffee following the service, but that is not always the case.
Whilst hospitality often starts with a greeting and a handshake it does not end there. When Abraham came to the visitors he "bowed low to the ground." In other words when Abraham greeted his visitors, he made himself their servant.
In Poland there is a saying that "a guest in the house is God in the house." This is one of the reasons why the Polish are renowned for their hospitality. When it comes to welcoming visitors to St Martin's we need to have that same attitude, welcoming visitors as if they were God himself.
Abraham took care of his guests every need. For example we see that after their long journey on a hot and dusty road, Abraham offers his guests water to wash their feet, and he shows great sensitivity to the needs of his guests as he invites them to rest under the shade of a tree, in the place of honour, whilst the meal is being prepared.
When people come to church, it could be for a whole host of reasons. It may be that some are coming in search for sanctuary and rest from troubles in their lives, and so like Abraham we to be sensitive to their needs. And we also need to be aware that some people may have had difficult or painful experiences in the past to do with church or with other Christians, and so physically coming into a church building can raise all sorts of emotions.
As Abraham's guests ate their meal, Abraham took the attitude of a servant. He saw it as his personal responsibility to see that all needs were met. Verse 8 we read "While they ate, he (ABRAHAM) stood near them under a tree.." In other words, he waited on them.
This is how we need to treat visitors when they come into St Martin's. Each guest is a guest of honour. We don't want to flock over them in such numbers that we threaten to overwhelm them, but certainly we need to make certain that each visitor is given proper hospitality. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury said "The church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members." As a church family we have a responsibility and a concern for those people who are not yet full members of our church family.
Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester has a 3 minute rule that he encourages the people in his diocese to follow. The idea of the 3 minute rule is that for at least the first three minutes in church you go and speak to someone you don't know before speaking to those you do know. This would be a good rule for us to try and follow. When people visit St Martin's we all have a responsibility to make them welcome, to go that extra mile by serving and ministering to them, making them feel welcome, and seeing to their needs.
Inviting people to St Martin's
So far I have talked about hospitality and welcoming people to St Martin's. Next week we have an opportunity to invite people we know to a special service here at St Martin's for Back to Church Sunday.
We have taken part in this initiative over the last few years, and as a result of Back to Church Sunday a number of people have become regular worshipers here at St Martin's. The wonderful thing about extending welcome and hospitality to visitors to St Martin's is that it is something we can all do, and so is Back to Church Sunday.
Research conducted by the Christian Charity Tearfund revealed that up to 3 million people in Britain would go back to church if ONLY THEY WERE INVITED.
In our Gospel reading we have the invitation to 'Come' repeated twice. First of all when Jesus invites two of John's disciples to 'Come' and see where he is staying, and then when Philip tells Nathanael to 'Come and see' Jesus. It is a simple, yet powerful invitation. I am would like you to think and pray about one person you would like to invite to 'Come' to church next Sunday. We want to extend an invitation for people to come to St Martin's and discover what this church has to offer them, to come into a community where they will find love and acceptance, and above all come to a place where they will meet with the living God.
When we practice real hospitality to people, we entertain God himself. In Matthew 25, in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus says For 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' When we practice hospitality, we entertain God himself.
Monday, 13 September 2010
A while ago I wrote an article in the local newspaper in which I said that the important question wasn't just whether we believe in God, but whether we know that He believes in us. As a result of that article I received a letter from a lady who wrote the following:
"I was reading the advertiser newspaper, and came across the piece you had written. I found myself reading the last section over and over again, 'Do you know that God believes in you.' I too thought that if there is a God, he wouldn't want anything to do with me. I'm far from perfect and have made lots of mistakes, still do, nothing bad just normal stuff. For some reason I realised I kept on reading this section over and over, it was a lovely feeling and I thought perhaps you don't have to be perfect. I've cut the piece out of the paper so I can read it from time to time."
This lady is not alone in feeling that if there is a God, He would find it difficult to love someone like her, I believe many people feel the same way. The two great Christian commandments are to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves, and yet I think very often we really struggle to even love ourselves, because there can be so many things we don't like about ourselves. Many people go around believing that that they're not good enough, that they're useless, a waste of space, unlovable, worthless, stupid fat, ugly, etc. And very often, because we feel this way about ourselves, we think that this is how God must also feel about us. But this is not true.
God knows exactly what we're like, he knows the good things about us, as well as the not so good things. But when He looks at us this is what He sees:
We are God's child, we belong to God, we are His family
- We are loved
- We are God's masterpiece
- We are Significant
- We are Holy
- We are Beautiful
- We are Forgiven
- We are Unique
- We are Accepted
- We are Free
The choice we face is do we believe these things that God says about us, or the lies that we often believe to be true?
I am a great believer in the power of prayer. I have seen some wonderful answers to prayer, including seeing people being healed. And every time a prayer is answered, it builds up faith and gives great encouragement. And in the Bible we are given some wonderful encouragements about prayer, for example in John 14:13-14 Jesus declares "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." And in Matthew 18:19 Jesus says "I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven."
But for all the prayers that are answered, I can think of many that don't appear to have been answered. I think about all the people I've prayed for to be healed but who haven't – for example my friend Pete who died from cancer in July at the age of 45. Pete was chaplain in the Royal Air Force, passionate about Jesus and doing wonderful work – why wasn't our prayers for healing answered?
And then I hear people talk about how God helps them to find a car parking space when they go shopping, and I'm left wondering is God more concerned about finding parking spaces, than he is in healing people who are desperately ill. Or when someone survives a plane crash and they say it was an answer to prayer, I think about all the other people who were on that plane and praying just as hard but didn't survive.
The question of unanswered prayer is a really big issue for many people, as Philip Yancey in his book on prayer writes: "What kind of companion who has the power to save a life or heal a disease would 'sit on his hands' despite urgent pleas for help?" (page 208 'Prayer: Does it make any difference?')
The Inconsistency Problem
The question for me isn't 'Does God answer prayer', because I believe passionately that He does. The problem is about the inconsistency of the answers to prayer. Why are some prayers answered and others apparently not?
Blockages to Prayer
There are a number of reasons why God may not answer our prayers as we wish.
Some prayers go unanswered because they are frivolous, for example we might have sympathy for the student that comes out of an exam and prays "Dear Lord please make Paris the capital of Turkey", but that prayer is not going to be answered. More seriously if someone is a chain smoker they don't have the right to pray "Protect me from lung cancer."
Another reason prayers may go unanswered is if we have some unconfessed sin in our lives. A while ago I had problems with the toilets at home which weren't flushing properly, eventually I discovered that what was causing the problem was that the drains were completely blocked, and we had to get someone in to unblock them. Sin in our lives can do something similar in our relationship with God.
The psalmist writes "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened." (Ps 66:18) And in Isaiah, the prophet records these words from God. "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." (Is 1:15-16)
So it is not only our private spiritual state but also our social concern (or lack of it), for the poor and marginalised, that has a direct bearing on how our prayers are received. How I treat God's creation and God's people will determine in part how God receives my prayers and my worship.
Then there are contradictory prayers, which simply can't be granted. If a dozen people pray to get the same job, eleven must ultimately come to terms with unanswered prayer. Or while we might be praying for a nice hot sunny day, a farmer may be praying for rain.
The Blessing of Unanswered Prayers
There are of course times when we should be grateful that God doesn't always answer our prayers. Imagine what it would be like if God answered every prayer – and not just the good requests, but prayers for vengeance, or retaliation, or the prayers of people waging war against other nations.
When Jesus wasn't welcomed by the Samaritan villages James and John asked "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them, imagine what would have happened if that prayer had been answered.
How can we be certain that we pray always with the best motives at heart?
If God always answered our prayers then He would in effect turn the world over to us, and what would the consequences of that be?
The country singer Garth Brooks had a hit song, 'Thank God for Unanswered Prayers', in which he has the line 'Just because he doesn't answer, doesn't mean he don't care. Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.'
Jesus' Unanswered Prayers
As we think about the question of unanswered prayer, it is helpful to realise that Jesus too knows what it is like not to have prayers answered. For example, in John 17 Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers, 'that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.' (John 17:21) But you only have to look at the church today to realise how far that prayer remains from being answered.
Think too about when Jesus went out on a mountainside and prayed all night before calling his disciples and choosing twelve of them to be apostles, this included Judas Iscariot. I wonder whether Jesus ever questioned the Father's guidance, as Jesus had to put up with their petty concerns, and lack of faith, especially when they all abandoned him at his greatest point of need.
But Jesus' greatest unanswered prayer was his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed to his Father to 'take this cup from me.'
What would the consequence have been if Jesus' prayer had been answered, and he did not go to Golgotha?
For me knowing that even Jesus had some unanswered prayers doesn't solve the problem of unanswered prayer, but it does bring some comfort to know he has experienced what we experience.
If we are hoping to find an easy answer to this question about prayer, then we will be disappointed, because I don't think there is one. Instead we are called to live with the mystery that is prayer. In the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18), Jesus encourages us to keep on praying. Whilst I live with the tension of unanswered prayers, I have seen enough answered prayers to know that prayer does make a difference, and to keep on praying.
I can look back on my life and I can now understand why God didn't answer some of my prayers the way I wanted. But there are also other prayers which I'll never understand the reason why they weren't answered the way I would have hoped for, and in those situations I have to trust that there was a reason for God to act the way he did. For 'my ways [are] higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts' (Is 55:9), reminds God.
If you read the Psalms, which are often full of groans and laments often over God's lack of response, they always come back to the theme of God's faithfulness. And so no matter how circumstances appear at any given moment, we can trust the fact that God is the one that rules the universe, and that we have a divine promise that one day all shall be well.
How God answers prayer
Maybe a big part of the reason why we feel God doesn't always answer prayer is because God is answering our prayers in ways we fail to recognise.
I came across the following quote as I was preparing this talk, "A theist believes in a God in heaven whereas a Christian believes in a God who is also physically present on this earth inside of human beings… God is still present, as physical and as real today, as God was in the historical Jesus. God still has skin, human skin, and physically walks on this earth just as Jesus did." God calls us to work in partnership with Him, and as we inform God what we think should be done in the world, He reminds us of our own role in doing it.
The way God is at work in the world, the way in which He answers our prayers, is often different to how we expect Him to act, and because of that maybe we fail to recognise God at work.
The following checklist can be helpful for us to make sure our prayers are on target:
- What do I really want? Am I being specific, or am I just rambling about nothing in particular?
- Can God grant this request? Or is it against God's nature to do so?
- Have I done my part? Or am I praying to lose weight when I haven't dieted?
- How is my relationship with God? Are we on speaking terms?
- Who will get the credit if my request is granted? Do I have God's interest in mind?
- Do I really want my prayer answered? What would the consequences be if the prayer was answered?
Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin. Let me use disappointment as material for patience. Let me use success as material for thankfulness. Let me use trouble as material for perseverance. Let me use danger as material for courage. Let me use reproach as material for long suffering. Let me use praise as material for humility. Let me use pleasures as material for temperance. Let me use pain as material for endurance.
Finally, it is important to remember that prayer is not just about our requests and petitions, it is about companionship, walking with God day by day, when times are good and also when times are hard. And it is therefore important that we do not neglect prayer. And whilst we have to live with the mystery of times when prayer isn't answered, the more we do pray, the more we will discover God does answer prayer.