Saturday, 21 January 2017

Being salt and light is not an option

Many years ago, a well-known Anglican wrote a book about mission in rural areas in which his main point was based upon the words of Jesus to his disciples about being salt and light.  While there was much in the book that I was pleased to read, I was unhappy that he presented the two similes as possible alternatives.  Jesus did not say, “You can be light or salt”.  He said, “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5: 13-16).

The point that he was making was that rural contexts are such that the subtler influence of salt is probably preferable to the challenge of light.  Salt is absorbed into the context which it then changes.  It is what is sometimes referred to in a missional sense as ‘presence evangelism’.  On the other hand, light is a contrast to darkness and can sometimes be uncomfortable.  There are two aspects of his argument that I wish to challenge.  The first is the premise that salt is less disturbing.

To an observer, the introduction of salt when cooking might seem to be having a subtle affect, but that is not the case as far as the other elements are concerned.  Salt has a chemical and mechanical effect on the other ingredients.  The presence of a holy and righteous person (such as a Christian?) into a group of ungodly people, will always be disturbing, even if they say nothing.

The second aspect of his argument is the one about which I feel more strongly.  He presented it is two possible approaches to mission.  But we need to be clear that there is no sense in which there is any option.  Jesus said, “You ARE the salt… You ARE the light…”.  When we become Christians, being salt and light are not optional extras to which we can sign up if we wish. Whether we are effective salt and light is another matter, however.

In the days when Jesus spoke these words, salt was almost certainly used for preservation of food and for bringing out flavour in cooking (rather than adding flavour).  As a preservative, it inhibits the development of harmful microorganisms.  There is much in the world that is harmful to individuals and society.  Living with such values and saying nothing is unlikely to do much good.  God expects us to challenge injustice and sin.  Salt is added during cooking, primarily because it has a wonderful way of bringing out flavours.  Similarly, even among the worst of people there are some good qualities, and Christian influence can bring these out.

But too much salt added has a less than pleasant effect.  In this sense the analogy of salt when considering mission can be every bit as disturbing as light.  The challenge of what Jesus said was to ensure that we do not lose our salty properties.  In 21st Century UK we need to ask whether Christians are not impacting the world around because the salt is too often in the salt pot rather than spread around.

The presence of light brings benefits.  I once took a school assembly with a dirty mark on my forehead.  The children stared but politely said nothing.  Eventually I got a child to tell me what was wrong, and then suggested that a lack of light in the bathroom meant that I failed to see myself as I was.  Of course, this was a set up and that was explained to the children.  They took the point.  Light can help us see what is wrong, as well as journey through life safely.  If we are the light of the world, then we need to be shining appropriately inti the world for the benefit of others.

I inherited a torch from the previous owners of our house.  It has a rechargeable battery.  Charged up it emits a light that can be quite blinding if shone into someone’s face.  That would be an inappropriate use of the torch.  On the other hand, it has annoying habit of the battery running down just when it is needed it.  Some Christians are like that.  Charged up by attendance at a conference or a poor course on evangelism, they dazzle others they might wish to win for Jesus.  But then as the influence that charged them up begins to wane, the light grows dim.

Some Christians are like some power-saving lamps.  They take time to warm up and give a poor light at the start.  Others are like fluorescent tubes with faulty starters.  The flick on and off all the time instead of giving out a steady light.  Still others are more like the lights on Christmas trees, very attractive and drawing attention to themselves, but otherwise not much use!

So, the challenge is not to be too bright and dazzling, not so dim as to be no use, to shine consistently, and to ensure that the light shed is helpful to others and does not simply draw attention to ourselves.  And we need to remember what Jesus said about not hiding our light.

Salt can only loose its saltiness if it becomes contaminated or overly diluted.  Lights in Jesus’ day depended upon a steady flow of fuel and a clean wick.  In our day, light powered by electricity can become dim because of dust and dirt, or poor contact with the power source.  Effectiveness in both similes can only be determined by good outcomes it has on those around us.

Remember these are not alternatives and it is not optional.  Christian disciples ARE both salt and light.  The question we need to ask ourselves is how effective are we?  Often the benefit of salt and light is not recognised until they are absent.  I ask myself, if I were not present, or if my church did not exist, would it make much difference to those around?

Dear Lord, you called me to yourself so that I might be a light to help others.  You know that I do not always shine as brightly as I should. Sometimes the circumstances around me cause my light to grow dim just when it is needed to be bright.  Sometimes I neglect to seek to be constantly filled by you, and my own neglect causes my light to fail.  Fill me afresh, Holy Spirit.  Help me to shine as brightly as needed to give light to others without dazzling the.

Lord, you have declared that I am the salt of the earth. Help me to be effective, driving back corruptive influences, bringing healing, and influencing others to bring the best of taste into your world.

You know, Lord, that I cannot be in my own strength what I am meant to be. Please take me as I am, and make me all you would want me to be.  Amen

From the Diary
Give thanks for the blessing of the past week, for moments of inspiration, and the opportunities to open up God’s word to bless others.  Especially give thanks for an effective day of teaching at the Salvation Army’s William Booth College, on the Safeguarding Course

Sunday 22nd – Nottingham Congregational Church
Tuesday 24th – HMP Gartree
Thursday 26th – Country Way Magazine Editorial Team
Saturday 28th – East Midlands Area (Congregational Federation) Meeting
Sunday 29th – HMP Gartree

Please do not underestimate the value of your prayers day by day.  Please keep us in your prayers asking God to keep us walking close with him and faithful each day in living out the ministry with which he has entrusted us.  Your prayers and support are vital.

May God bless you and make you a blessing to many through the coming week.


Saturday, 14 January 2017

God's Love Agenda

I am always grateful to receive comments following the e-letter/blog, and was especially grateful to receive a generous letter together with a paper challenging the use of the term, “Unconditional Love”, which I had used in the last piece I wrote.  My friend, David, pointed out that this is not a phrase that is used in the Bible and he also quoted various Bible passages that imply that God only loves where certain conditions are satisfied.  It made me think, and I hope will make you think too.

Before I reflect further on this topic I would like to state that while we might want to assert that God’s love is unconditional, his forgiveness is certainly not unconditional, calling for genuine repentance, which ought to include appropriate actions.

Probably, both words, unconditional and love need some unpacking.  Let’s start with love.  The simple definition form the Oxford English Dictionary is A strong feeling of affection”.  There is further definition but this will suffice for the present.  It is probable that our understanding of what love means is derived from our experience in giving and receiving love.  This might be the experience we have within family or among friends.  In some situations, it might be entangled with sexual attraction, and the concept of being in love.

I recently watched a TV programme that showed various animals acting in a loving way, both towards partners, offspring, and in a situation of tragic death.  It would be impossible to describe the behaviour in any other way than loving.  Many reading this will have benefited from the loving devotion of their mother or another adult who cared for them as new-born babies.  At a time of extreme distress as a child in hospital I felt love from a staff nurse, whose concern for me made that time bearable.

While we rejoice over such expressions of love, we also recognise that this is a love that is the response to something we observe in another.  We also recognise that it can vary in degree and might not endure.  The behaviour of someone we have loved might cause us to no longer feel that deep affection.

While there are biological explanations for the production of love, the theological explanation is that we love because we are created in God’s image.  John tells us that God IS love.

The Bible uses two Greek words for love.  These are philia and agape.  The love of which I have written above is mainly the philia love.  The Greeks in the time of Jesus, used the word agape to describe the highest and purest form of love. This is the word used to describe God’s love towards humankind.  It was used to describe the strong affection that is not evoked by the merit or actions of another.  It is the love that is described by Paul in 1Corinthians 13.  Essentially, this is a love that endures even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, and unworthy. In this sense, it is unconditional.

You may already be aware of the interplay of these two Greek words in the conversation between Peter and Jesus recorded in John 21.  Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  After all, at the Last Supper Peter had assured Jesus of his devotion, but had failed to prove it when tested.  The first two occasions, Jesus used the word agapao in his question.  But Peter could only respond using the word phileo.  It is as if Peter knows that his love for Jesus is not as strong as it should be.  The third time that Jesus asks Peter he uses phileo, as if asking Peter if he could be sure of that much love.  No wonder Peter was distressed as it seems he had to face up to the reality of his limited love for his Master.

In the light of the extravagant generous love of Jesus, our love for him will always seem poor.

But what do we mean when we speak of God’s love (always agape) being unconditional.  We need to be clear that God’s amazing love does not cause him to be tolerant about our sin.  If we were to say, “Because God loves me, it does not matter how I live”, we have missed the whole point of love.  God’s love is always intentional.  That is to say it has purpose.  In John 15 Jesus speaks about ”abiding in his love”. This is linked to keeping his commandments. But this does not imply that God ceases to love us or that he loves us less if we fail.  This is about our dwelling in that love which he has for us – making it our home.  It is we who move out of the centre of his love; not that his love becomes less or imperfect.  Keeping his commandments is like moving out of the shadows into the sunshine.

Love is a big theme for John and on several occasions in his first letter, he speaks about love becoming perfect. (See 1John 2:5; 4:12; 4:17).  John, here, uses a wonderful expression in the Greek.  He uses the word, teleioo. In this context, it means the fulfilment of its goal.  Just as a loving parent’s love for their children wants only the best for their, would keep them from harm and do well in life, so God’s love for us embodies his desire that we achieve the best.  So, just as deliberate disobedience moves us out of the fullest experience of God’s love, similarly, living in full obedience places us where his love longs to bring us.  But again, it is not the character of God that changes.

Perhaps we do need to be careful if we use the expression, “God’s unconditional love”.  The gospel reveals for us a God who is not casual about sin, but whose love for sinners is so strong that God the Son freely gave his life for us and our salvation.  I certainly do not believe that this is a love that arbitrarily picks and chooses those who will benefit from it.  But it is a love with intent. By comparison our love for God is weak.  It is a responsive love, evoked by the wonder that God first loved us.  If the love is true it will draw us ever close to God through the glad surrendering of our wills to his, so that his love for us achieves its goal.

And if we are wise we will do all we can to make the fullness of that love our dwelling place.  1 John3:1 says it so well: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” Three hundred and fifty years this revelation inspired Samuel Crossman to write my favourite hymn.

My song is love unknown
My Saviour's love to me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
O who am I that for my sake
my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

From the Diary
Most of the coming week will be used for writing.
Tuesday January 17th – HMP Gartree
Wednesday 18th – Churches Together in Harborough
Thursday 19th – William Booth College, London (teaching on Safeguarding Course)
Saturday 21st – Mission Support Group, Narborough, Leics.
Sunday 22nd – Nottingham Congregational Church

Thank you for your fellowship.


Saturday, 7 January 2017

Living with failure

One of my favourite subjects when I was at school was technical drawing.  I was a keen mathematician and technical drawing seemed to grow out of that.  However, I have never had good control over my hands and drawing neat lines was a problem. It ought not to have been a problem since we used a tool called a clutch pencil and mistakes could be erased.  But that was where things always seemed to get worse.  My attempts to erase failure always seemed to leave behind the evidence.  As much as I loved the subject, my messy work let me down time and again.

I intended to entitle this article, ‘starting afresh’, but ‘living with failure’ seemed more honest.  I thank God that his mercy endures for ever, and that he gives the opportunity for fresh starts again and again.  However, even if we managed to never make the same mistake twice, we often find that, from our perspective, something of past failures remain in our lives, rather like the evidence left behind when I tried to erase my mistakes on the drawing board. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

If we have let ourselves and God down (and anyone else), it is wonderful to know that God completely forgives when we repent.  From his point of view, it seems the evidence has been erased.  So, we talk about what God forgives he forgets.  However, I’m not sure that it is that simple.  Jeremiah 31 speaks about the New Covenant and in verse 34 God promises that in that day he will not remember the sins of his people any more.  But I’m not sure that the doctrine of forgiveness and justification grows out of an inability to remember.  Is it that God cannot remember what we have repented of, or that he chooses to forget them?  Surely the wonder of salvation is that God knows all too well our weaknesses but so forgives us that it is as if we had never sinned.

I used to look at my technical drawings with huge disappointment.  The more I tried to erase my mistakes the worse I seemed to make it.  Of course, I should have been using my mistakes to make me extra careful in future.  That way living with failure would have led to a positive outcome.  These days, the essential tremor that affects my hands means that I type rather than write, and try to be careful if carrying anything with liquid in it, like a hot cup of coffee.  I recognise I have a weakness and learn to live sensibly.

Many years ago, when I was living in community, we had a well-known painting of an English, blonde Jesus staring knowingly out of the picture frame.  Beneath it were the words,” The Lord turned and looked upon Peter and Peter remembered”. The picture was inspired by words from Luke 22:61 and record a moment as Jesus was led from the house of the High Priest where he was on trial for his life.  Peter had adamantly assured Jesus that he would never let him down.  But, in the pressure of the situation in the courtyard, he had three times denies knowing Jesus.  What was in that look that Jesus gave to Peter, that made Peter remember, then go out and weep bitterly?

Doreen and I once attended a performance by the Rev Frank Topping of The Impossible God.  It had a powerful impact on me.  The dramatization of this story I knew so well gripped me in a new way.  It seemed to grip the audience in the Stables Theatre in Hastings, possibly as many had not realised the message and purpose of the performance.  I found myself beginning to understand how Peter must have felt.  I was also moved by the scene of Thomas meeting the risen Jesus.  There is a line which goes something like, “Those were not nail prints; they were chasms of love”!  Wow!

Prior to this I used to state that it was the baptism of the Holy Spirit Peter experienced on the Day of Pentecost that made him a different man. But then I saw things differently.  How important was it that Peter made such a dreadful mess of things and knew that he could never put it right?  How important was it to hear again loving words and receive loving looks from the One he had failed, and who knew his failure?

I do not believe in the so-called doctrine of sinless perfection.  I am not glad that I fail and mess things up between me and the Lord, but I think that living with failure in the light of God’s unconditional love is important.  In my teens, I was a zealous Christian who tried to be a better Christian than others of whom I was critical.  When I heard about the baptism in the Holy Spirit, I started attending special prayer meetings where people met to seek this experience. I saw many of my peers receive the Holy Spirit just as people did on the Day of Pentecost.  But I left these meetings disappointed.  I could not understand why God blessed others and not me when I was sure that I was at least as good if not better than them.

Some months later, in a church meeting and listening to a sermon from a man whose life I could see was marred by a critical spirit, God met with me.  As I rehearsed his failings before God and asked why he had the audacity to preach at me, the Holy Spirit withdrew from me.  In a moment, I knew why.  The faults I found in him were also in my life.  I prayed that God would take the bitterness from my heart and baptise me in his love.  Immediately I was baptised in the Holy Spirit, just as the disciples had experienced in Jerusalem so many years before.

My failure to see myself as I really was, had become the reason I was failing to experience all that God wanted to do in my life.  There is an important balance to be struck in the aspect of forgiving ourselves.  God does not want us to cart around unnecessary guilt when he offers forgiveness and reconciliation.  However, it is important that we acknowledge that we do mess up from time to time.  God does not look at you and me through some kind of divine blinkers.  The wonder of grace is that he sees us as we really are, yet still lives us and offers us forgiveness.  We also need to see ourselves as we really are as we take hold of that love and forgiveness.  Facing up to my mess, helps me to move on with God, and deepens my awe of him.

From the Diary
Tuesday 10th – HMP Gartree
Wednesday 11th – Churches Rural Group (representing the Rural Evangelism Network and smaller Free Churches)
Friday 13th – Interviewing a student moving into ministry.

Thank you for your fellowship.


Saturday, 31 December 2016

An Uncertain Journey?

Let me start by wishing you a Happy New Year.  Happiness is an interesting word as it contains “hap” which has its root in the context of chance rather than certainty.  We find it in perhaps.  In some parts of the UK people use the word happen to mean maybe.  Of course, words mean what we want them to mean, according to Humpty Dumpty, and when we wish someone a Happy New Year, we probably mean something like may your year be blessed or pleasant.

The fact is that life is unpredictable.  Good and bad experiences come to us all at different times, and often undeserved.  As the Bible puts it,

“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant, or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

You have probably heard it said that we can make our own luck.  Of course, that can only be partly true, but it does have something to say to those who go through life hoping that they will get lucky.  Or as Mr Micawber puts it in Charles Dickins book David Copperfield “Something will turn up”. Each week millions of pounds are spent on the lottery.  Some follow strange rituals in order to seek good luck. Or put their trust in four leaf clovers and rabbits foot.  Then, when good or bad things happen, people restart to saying things such as “It was meant to be”, or,” wasn’t meant to be”.

As Christians, we are encouraged to place our trust in God and offer our lives to his service.  But there is no promise of an easy ride.  The time and chance factor will affect us much the same.  In addition, God’s plan for our lives sometimes includes disappointment or suffering.  When the apostle Peter was re-commissioned (see John 21), Jesus warned him of difficult times ahead.  A similar thing happened to the apostle Pau who was warned by God that he would have to suffer (See Acts 9:15,16).

So, how should we face this new year of 2017?  The best that I could hope for would be that you might seek God’s will in your life and gladly actively surrender to it.  There will be no guarantee that bad things will not happen.  If they do, hold onto the Lord, knowing that he will never loosen his grip on you.  You may need to trust God when you cannot trace him.  On the other hand, 2017 might be filled with joy and peace.

When I started to write, it was my intention to reflect on the incident in Philip’s life as recorded in Acts 8:26-40.  When Philip went to Samaria it was apparently to escape persecution in Jerusalem.  Making Samaria his destination appears to be a random decision.  But here is a man who has yielded his life to the Lord, and who is ready to grasp the opportunities that came his way.  So, he uses this new situation to proclaim the gospel to any who would hear him.  God blesses his ministry and grants signs and wonders.  Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that many believed and that there was great joy in the city.  It sounds like revival. 

Then in the midst of all that is happening, God calls him away from the revival to go back to Jerusalem and wait on the road that went to Gaza. It appears illogical.  There were still Christians and Christian leaders living in Jerusalem.  Why not use them?  We are not told the reason.  It might be that Philip had some experience of cross-cultural evangelism. Perhaps it was his notable readiness to share the story of Jesus with others.  Whatever the reason, God uses him to bring an Ethiopian civic official to faith in Jesus.   In God’s economy, reaching this one man was more important than the crowd in Samaria at that time.

But the extraordinary experiences in Philip’s life do not end with the Ethiopian being baptised.  God takes him off to yet another place where he once more engages in sharing the good news about Jesus.  Philip’s life seems, on one hand, to be a series of random happenings.  It is his response to these situations that turn chance into blessing, and through which God works out his purposes.  Similarly, the missionary activities of Paul and his team are not always clearly directed by God, yet he uses each situation to share the good news and discover what God wants to do wherever he is.  Even in prison, Paul sees this as an opportunity gained to lead his captors to the Lord (See Philippian 1: 12-14).

My prayer for you, as a tick of a clock moves us from one year to another, is that you will start this year by offering this time to God.  You will start it with who you are and where you are.  Seek to find God’s purposes at this moment.  Use the opportunities it brings to share the good news and do good works. In the process, you will be changed.   Then be ready for whatever comes your way.  May you find peace from God, whatever the circumstances, and prosper in his service.  Now that’s a happy new year.

“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually. It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it.” (3John 2-3)

21 December 2016

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Exchanging Greetings

Unusual circumstances this year have led to two problems with Christmas cards in our house, both caused by restricted time.  The first of these is that we only started sending out cards two days ago.  With several hundred to go out, it’s has been a hard job.  A few have had to go first class and we still have some in a pile waiting for addresses to be checked.  The second problem is finding somewhere to put all the cards we have received (great to get letters with some too).  So, they are still in an untidy pile.

One thing that annoys me is the habit some people have of feeling they must send a card back to everyone who has sent them one.  Last Christmas Eve I dropped a few off by hand quite late.  I was amazed to get a couple back the next morning!  I fear that I am unlikely to have reciprocated for every card received this year.  But while some find the whole practise of sending and receiving cards a chore, I do value the cards we receive.  A few have been hand-made.  I wonder at the amount of time this will have taken.  Others include cards that clearly have been carefully chosen, such as one from a sister in law and one from our former foster son (well, at 47 it no longer seems right to call him our foster son, but he’s still our boy!).

My late colleague, Monica, was more gregarious than me and attracted an amazing number of good friends.  Often there was no room to display all the Christmas cards she received.  I think that she also sometimes packed them up and took them with her if she was away over Christmas.  She did something wonderful with Christmas cards she received.  Monica was single, and during the holiday period, had some times on her own.  During these times, she systematically went through the cards received, pausing over each one to say a prayer, or to give thanks for the person or people who had sent them.  I think that is an amazing expression of love and appreciation for the greetings exchanged.

Maybe I’ll try to make some time when I can do that this year – or as they come down (once I get them up!).  How about you?

When I moved into the East Midlands eleven years ago, I was amazed to find that in a town of around 20,000 people, folk greeted strangers that they passed.  It seemed more friendly than down south.  But I was slightly disturbed by the greeting “Are you alright?” as it made me wonder if I looked ill.  I’ve got used to it now.  In case you do not know the standard reply, is “I’m good, how are you?”.  I guess it’s not much different from the traditional, “How do you do?” which does not expect and answer to the question, but does expect a “How do you do” in return.

When I first entered Christian ministry, I was trained by a first-class mission secretary to begin letters with the words “Greetings in the precious name of Jesus!”  I still do that occasionally.  I also love the greeting at church, “God is good” to which the congregation should respond with “All the time”, and then the process is reversed by the service leader.  I am informed that early Christians greeted one another with the word “Maranatha”, which is Aramaic for “Come, O Lord”.  This was especially precious during times of persecution within the Roam Empire.

One American Conference speaker told of a situation during a conference in the States where he had spoken about the second coming, and informed his congregation of the Maranatha greeting.  Early the following morning he went out for a run and saw two women (he described them as blue rinse ladies) jogging towards him.  As they recognised who was approaching them they quickly engaged in conversation together.  Then, as the passed, they greeted him with “Marijuana, brother” (pronounced marawana).  Well it was nearly right!

In the prison choir I lead on Tuesday afternoons (it’s like my day off with some added value), I have a North Korean prisoner and was glad that I had been taught how to greet him properly in his language, including the bow.  More recently, we have had the addition of a Chinese Christian.  Not content with the basic “Nee How” greeting in Mandarin Chinese, I have been learning how to greet him, and the folk at our local Chinese Takeaway with more sophisticated expressions.  I love getting the appropriate response, which I presume signals that the smile is not just one of bemusement at some mispronunciation or something worse!

I believe that Charles Finney, the 19th Century revivalist, used to sometimes greet people with the words, “Do I meet you in revival?”.  Another Christian leader would ask, “Do I meet you praying?”  Both greetings carry a challenge.

By contrast, the Hebrew greeting, “Shalom” is a word of peace.  But it carries deep meanings, also implying that there is nothing of a negative nature between those exchanging this greeting.  It is essentially a form of blessing.

At the opposite end of a meeting, there are similar words of blessing in various languages.  For example, “Goodbye” is a simplification of “God be with you”.  “Adios” in Spanish is basically meaning “Go with God”.  I hear many Christians say, “Goodbye, and God bless you”, but not always to non-Christian contacts.  Why not?

I don’t want to fret over whether it should be happy Christmas or merry Christmas. Usually, whoever is using either expression means the same.  Merry is probably better as it does not contain the implication of chance, whereas the word happy does. It is possible to merry (a pleasant state of mind) without alcohol!

So, I pray that you will have a merry Christmas, brought about by the conscious enjoyment of God’s super abundant blessing.  I hope we will all greet the New Year prayerfully and seek to pass its days in revival.

No prayer requests this time (even though I could give you quite a few). Instead, why not take some time out over the next few days to return thanks and praise to God, not just for the occasional blessings that have come our way, but for whom God has been revealed to be through scripture and our experience?  After all…., God is good

(Did you respond?)


Monday, 12 December 2016

No More Shadows

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a hymn that had meant a great deal to me.  I was delighted to receive more than the usual responses as various people wrote about how the same hymn had also meant much to them. Others wrote about old hymns and new songs that brought blessing into their lives.  Such was the response that it seemed to me that there might be a series about hymns.  Certainly, I have a number that have meant much to me over the years.  But the one I will write about here is one that I composed at a moment of extraordinary inspiration (they do not come that often!).

The Mission Team was working in the east End of London.  It was an extraordinary location for a team of rural evangelists.  There was a friendly link with the curate, the Rev’d Felix Dias Abeysinghe, whose daughter was at Bible college with one of the team.  But the Vicar of St Mark’s, Dalston was also keen that the mission programme should reach into the parish and not pull in people from other parts of the city.  Parish missions was our strength, and we had a very special time over those days.

I cannot remember much about the accommodation other than the small cloakroom in the church tower where I had to wash and shave each day.  My back was towards the only window, which meant that, since there was no electric light on the facing wall, I shaved each day in shadow.  That is until one particular morning.  That day the sun was especially bright.  As its rays hit the frosted glass of the window, the light was so dispersed around the room that the whole of it was bathed in brilliant light.  There was not one shadow.

Almost immediately, words began to form in my head.  Within a matter of minutes the words of the hymn that became known as the Dalston Mission hymn were written.  The first two lines are

When shadows fade before the morning bright,
And faith, at last, gives way to glorious sight.

It is essentially an Advent hymn, looking for that moment when Jesus comes again.  There’s an old Sankey hymn written by Fanny Crosby with similar thoughts that goes, “On that bright and golden morning, when the Son of Man shall come, And the radiance of His glory we shall see, When from ev’ry clime and nation He shall call His people home, What a gath’ring of the ransomed that will be!”.  Another hymn about the second coming is “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound…”.  The second verse goes, “On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise, and the glory of His resurrection share; When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies, and the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there.”.

In our life on earth there are many things that cast shadows including the loss of a loved one, times of chronic illness, the loss of friendships, hurtful and abusive words and actions.  But just as the shadows in that cloakroom vanished before the scattered brightness of the morning sun in Dalston, so it will be when we see Jesus.

Here are the words that came to me that morning:
When shadows fade before the morning bright;
And faith, at last, gives way to glorious sight;
And earth’s embrace no longer holds me tight,
I shall see Jesus, I shall see Jesus

Shall sad remorse begin to fill my mind?
Or, do you think, like Peter I will find
Tears of regret are stopped by words so kind?
When I see Jesus, when I see Jesus.

While myriad voices with new rapture sing,
And cause the heavens with their praise to ring;
And there with them my grateful thanks I’ll bring
To praise my Jesus; to praise my Jesus.

I wonder what my heart will find to say;
I think ‘twill all be praise; no prayer to pray!
I shall be satisfied when on that day
I see my Jesus, I see my Jesus!

Copyright ©Barry Osborne 1974

I do sometimes wonder about the many times I have let the Lord down.  It has caused me to wonder whether a sense of shame might cloud that moment when I see Jesus.  However, the gracious way in which the risen Lord reacted to Peter by the lake (see John 21), has given me hope.  Incidentally, if you would like to sing this hymn, it goes very well to Sine Nomine, which we usually sing to “For all the saints who from their labour rest…”

As a new Christian in my teens, I used to attend Advent Testimony Preparation Meetings which focused on biblical prophecy concerning the second coming.  Of course, there are various views on what will happen and in which order.  I have a very special friend, called Alfred Lavender, who was a colleague in my early mission years.  On rather particular Christian quizzed him once as to which school of interpretation he inclined to, whether he was a pre-millenialist. post-millenialist or an amillennialist. He wittily retorted that he subscribed to the Peter School of Prophetic Interpretation.  His bemused inquisitor asked what that meant, to which Alfred replied, “I’ll wait until its fulfilment and declare this is what was prophesied”!  As Peter did on the Day of Pentecost.

While I am far less certain, these days, of the order of events when Jesus will come again (and please do not try to enlighten me), I miss the sense of anticipation that fired us up in those Advent Testimony Preparation Meetings.  Advent is a season when we need to be reminded of our call to be Christians living ready in the expectation of that coming which will take most people by surprise. I conclude with some lines from one of those meetings.  “Are you ready? Ready for the trump and shout of voice?  Will his coming make you tremble, or cause you to rejoice? Are you walking with him daily, making him your care?  Do you live so close to heaven, that a breath could waft you there?”

From the Diary
You may be aware that not long ago, Doreen, my wife, suffered a fall and had to go to hospital for 24 hours.  Since coming home I have taken on the role of carer, and now (temporarily) plan work around my caring duties.  Please give thanks for the help given and offered from local Christian friends.  Please pray that she will get regular physiotherapy.

I am afraid that these circumstances mean that Christmas letters and cards have not yet been written, and may not get written.

Planning 2017 is a priority.  There are a host of meetings and on-line seminars to be scheduled.  Please pray for wisdom.

Much of what I do has a team-ministry dimension, and right now I am dependent upon my colleagues more than ever.  Give thanks as various good women and men step up to the mark, for the things that my current restrictions make difficult.

I hope to get another Praise & Prayer News written before Christmas.  But, just in case, I pray that you will have a very blessed Christmas as we celebrate the greatest gift of all time.


Saturday, 19 November 2016

God's Amazing Coincidences

Sometimes God amazes me as he works out his purposes in my life.

Act One
It was a damp and cold early winter evening in 1962 as John Eaves moved uncomfortably in his chair at home. It was not physical discomfort he felt, though he had been recovering from pneumonia.  It was the urging of the Holy Spirit to go out onto the streets of St Leonards-on-Sea and give out gospel tracts.  Convinced of this call from God and against the advice of his caring wife, out John went from 27a Springfield Road and into the cold evening air.  At first he could find no one to speak to, neither on London Road nor Bohemia Road, the two main roads nearby.  He stepped out of the cold into a shop doorway to pray.  “If you wanted me to come out please send the person you want to have a tract soon; I’m not feeling too well!”

As he stepped out onto Tower Road he spotted a man in naval uniform hurrying down towards him.  He selected a tract at random and held it out.  The man grasped it and pushed it into a pocket as he hurried on.  John went home and told his wife that he had given a tract to a sailor and that he was convinced that God was going to save him and that God had a plan for the man’s life.  They prayed together that night and John sent newsletters to friends asking them to pray for the sailor.

The young man was not a sailor, but a sea cadet.  He was also a person who desperately wanted to sort his life out.  Having rejected his Christian background, he had drifted into an ungodly lifestyle.  Worse still, he influenced his peers into a hedonistic way of life.  Sometime later, in the privacy of his bedroom, he read the tract and found the story it contained curious and bizarre. It was about two young men who had attended a Christian meeting for fun and mocked the preacher.  The preacher prayed for the Holy Spirit to convince them of their need.  Almost immediately they broke down suddenly distraught and with a sense of their need for forgiveness.  Bizarre as the story seemed, it had echoes of stories from the Scriptures that the “sailor” recalled from earlier years in Sunday School.

The two young men only found peace when the preacher spoke with them, quoting from John 6:37, “Whoever comes to me I will never turn away”.  In the quiet of his bedroom a prayer was breathed: “If this is true, please accept me as I am.  My life is a mess.”  Nothing dramatic happened immediately, but a change began to take place.  A few months later he had started attending a Christian youth meeting, mostly because he was attracted to a girl whose father was a former minister.  After a couple of weeks, the minister of the church who led the group announced that the young man would speak on his favourite psalm the following week.  Not wanting to lose face in front of the girl, he agreed.

He wanted to be original and for five days he struggled to find a talk on the only psalm he knew other than psalm 23. It was then he picked up a picture postcard he had purchased on a school trip to the Tate Gallery.  It was of sheep in hazardous situations.  He turned it over and saw it was called “Strayed Sheep” and painted by W Homan Hunt.  He turned to a study Bible he had been given years before and read the notes that went with Psalm 23.  These pointed to other verses of Scripture:  Isaiah 53:6 and verses from John 10 and Luke 15.  The next Tuesday evening he gave his talk and confessed himself to be a lost sheep for whom the Good Shepherd had sought and for whom he had given his life.

After the meeting, the minister restrained him and urged him to be baptised.  There followed a series of preparation classes which he attended with two other young men.  The baptismal service was planned for Easter Sunday evening.  Easter Saturday evening, a woman evangelist had been booked to speak on Hastings Pier.  Sylvia Smith worked for The Evangelisation Society among London’s strippers and prostitutes and it was advertised she would speak about her work.  Unsurprisingly, this sounded interesting to the young man who attended with his friends.  That evening, after speaking about her work, Sylvia spoke on “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.  Taking each character in turn she spoke of Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, Herod’s desire to be entertained, Pilate’s washing his hands, and the soldier’s cat of crucifixion.  After each she quoted the words of Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. 

As he listened, the young man recognised himself in each of the characters she described.  And as he heard that prayer repeated, the love of God took hold of his own heart. The gospel he believed intellectually became a profound experience as he sang as the meeting closed, “Love so amazing, so Divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

The following evening, he was baptised before a packed church.  He started to witness to friends and family, leading some to the Lord.  A few months later he applied to join a mission organisation and went on to ordination and many years of fruitful ministry.  Many months after his baptism, he found that tract and re-read it.  He recalled the night he was given it and went off to share his story with a Christian friend who ran a shoe mending business in the town.  The show mender listened then produced a newsletter he had received asking for prayer for a sailor who had been given a tract.  It was from John Eaves and bore his address.  That day John received a visit from the man for whom he had prayed.  You will imagine his joy.

I was that young man.

Act Two
About a year ago I was booked to speak at a Torch Fellowship Group meeting in Melton Mowbray in last Monday 14th November 2016, and had chosen to share my testimony but to explain how the pathway followed sometimes brought sadness and frustration as well as blessing.  I entitled it “Rehoboth: Journey into Space” and based it on the story of Isaac’s frustrated journey as recorded in Genesis 26.  As the meeting was about to start, an elderly man came into the room.  He was unknown to all but had seen an advertisement in the local library.  I suspected that he had not realised it was a Christian meeting, so I said a little about the work of the Torch Trust to introduce the fact. 

He explained that he had not realised it was a Christian meeting, and was a little embarrassed as not only was he not a Christian but that some life experiences he suffered as a young man had stumbled his faith when he was preparing for ordination in the Church of England, turning him away from God.  Instead of pursuing a pathway into ordained ministry he had spent his adult life working with troubled young people living on city streets, some of whom worked as prostitutes. 

Members of the Group quickly put him at ease and I started my talk.  We were sitting around a table and he was on my right out of my vision.  As I got to the part about the meeting on Hastings Pier, the host of the meeting stopped me.  Pointing at the stranger she said, this man has something to say.  Apparently, she had seen a shocked expression on his face.  We turned to see him shaking his head.  “I can’t believe it” he said.  “In 1963 I was visiting my Gran who lived in St Leonards.  I saw the posters for the meeting on the pier and because the speaker seemed to be doing similar work to me, I attended that meeting.  But what drew you actually pushed me away”.

Had he not been able to provide further evidence I would never have believed his story.  He had moved into Melton Mowbray from Leicester only a few months before.  He had attended a meeting he had never been to before where he met a man he never knew giving a talk he had planned some month’s previously, only to find that both he and the speaker had been in the same meeting some 53 years previously.  I assured him that although he had lost his grip on God, God had never lost his grip on him.  He was already reminded of the prayer of Jesus for forgiveness so I reminded him that Jesus had also said that whoever came to him he would never turn away.  Will you please pray for Jeff as John Eaves and others prayed for me?  God has a plan for Jeff’s life, just as he has had a plan for mine.  Please pray that after the years of rejecting the gospel, it will now bring life, peace and joy.

More from the Diary
Please pray for my work in the prison, and for all chaplaincy staff at this time of stress in the prison service. Last Tuesday my regular visit was cancelled.  I am due in again this coming Tuesday.

This Sunday 20th November I am taking the service at Clarendon Park Congregational Chhurch, Leicester.

Later in the week Doreen and I will be staying with her sister in Kent.  While in that part of the world I have meetings planned in Dunks Green, Kent and in Hastings, East Sussex.

On Friday I shall be attending a service of thanksgiving for the life of a former collage, Heather Stainer.  Philip and Heather worked with Doreen and me in Mission for Christ: Rural Evangelism, for many years.  Please pray for Philip and the members of their family at this time.

Please pray for my colleague in Rural Mission Solutions, Katrina, as she is laying the foundation for a meeting next Spring for those leading children’s work in rural churches in the Southeast of England.  This is part of the process of picking up on the work previously done by the late Monica Cook.  Please also give thanks for the faithful support being given by friends of Monica to enable this ministry.

May God bless you abundantly as he works out his purposes in and through your life.