Dumb Witness

Witnessing is one of those Christian duties that can seem a little intimidating. We are unused, perhaps, to speaking up and to expressing ourselves in a hostile setting. One of the commonest messages I get from fellow believers is, ‘I couldn’t do that; I never know what to say’.

Well, here is encouragement in Luke 21: 14-15. Jesus himself says, ‘Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict’. In other words, don’t plan out or rehearse your responses. Indeed, don’t worry over them, but trust that the Lord will give you the words.

I suppose we tend to look on witnessing as the fruit of faith, but it is actually more helpful to understand it as the exercise of faith. This is one more area in which we are asked to forget any strength or personal quality we may possess, and rely utterly upon God for guidance. Obviously I’m talking about verbal witness and, more specifically, the kind we bring to hostile audiences. 

We balk at the thought of entering such a lions’ den. Yet, this is precisely what Christ refers to as an ‘opportunity’. If we are hauled – literally or figuratively – before an unbelieving court, then we have unprecedented access to the lost.

At this point, we have to do two things: give the  reins into God’s hands; and remember what we were before becoming his disciples. The act of remembering strengthens our trust in him and enables us to let go.

God doesn’t ask for eloquence, or cleverness. He supplies any deficiencies we may have. All he desires is that we would lean on him and open our mouths in faith.

They will try to drown you out. Yes, and they will try to shut your mouth. Perhaps you will be taken to law and made a social pariah for believing what is an offence to many. You may very well suffer personal humiliation and loss of respect or status.

Even, Jesus says, ‘some of you they will put to death’.

No wonder we fear to open our mouths. Today, society seems poised and ready, waiting to catch us out. 

Just, in fact, as the Pharisees and the scribes dealt with our Saviour. He knows, you see, he knows what we fear in this because he has been there before us.

That’s why we don’t have to plan our responses, and why there is truly nothing to fear if we step out in faith. 

Open your mouth and he will fill it.

The Things That Make For Peace

There is an exuberance to the behaviour of the disciples in chapter 19 of Luke’s gospel, that has hitherto been absent from the narrative. It is as if they are brimming over with love and awe, so much that they forget themselves in front of the ever-watchful Pharisees. 

See how the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rapidly followed by an account of Jesus weeping over that city, though? Again, I see a pattern in his experience that I think is replicated in the lives of many Christians. Seasons of great blessing and joy are frequently followed by times of grief and sorrow.

If I compare Jesus’ conduct with my own in such circumstances, there is a significant difference. He moves from exaltation to weeping, to the practical application of his just wrath against the money-lenders in his temple. And all the time, he is the same. Neither joy nor grief nor righteous anger mar his perfection, or halt him in his inexorable work.

The same yesterday, today and always.

The more Christlike we become in our walk of faith, the less we are affected by these kinds of shifts in our own circumstances. I am not saying that I have advanced VERY far, but I am definitely learning to follow my own advice which I have borrowed from Naomi, and repeated to myself even more often than I have offered it to others:

‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

Lately, I have had to exercise this patience in a matter that has been stressful and trying. I made the usual mistakes (usual to me, that is – I’m not tarring you with the same brush): attempting to sort it out according to my own lights being chief among them. That went on for a pretty long and stormy time. 

And then, when I was finally worn down by the effort of trying to accomplish what I could not, I gave it to God. I told him I would trust whatever he would do with it, and that I would try to be obedient to his will. 

It was not quite instantaneous, but the clouds soon parted and I now feel much more sanguine about the entire situation. I know he is in it, and he is in control. Whatever he does will always be for the best. He has never steered me wrong.

That’s the lesson. Whether we are being lifted shoulder-high in triumph, or whether we are on our knees with pain, God is in control and we belong to him. His will, not mine. In the abstract, this sounds difficult; in the heat of battle, it can seem impossible, as it did to me just one week ago.

But I submitted my will to his, and now I am learning the things that make for peace.

Turn Again and Give Thanks

Jesus met a lot of people on his travels. In chapter 8, we read of the woman with the issue of blood. She’s an old friend of mine, being the reason I first felt really compelled to go forward. Since then, on our journey through Luke’s gospel, we’ve come across a whole host of characters, and a variety of situations.

In chapter seventeen, though, we meet a particular group which is standing some distance from Jesus. There are ten of them, all suffering from leprosy. You might even say that they are practising social distancing. 

Contrast their physical stance, however, with what they have to say. ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’, they call to him. Their illness causes them to remain separate from the great crowd that seems to attend Jesus wherever he goes. Yet, their eyes are on him, and their hearts reach out to him in faith.

I wonder how many people, in the midst of the current crisis, lifted up their voices to him. Did we – individually and collectively – ask him to have mercy on us, and to help?

Sadly, the fact is that we just don’t see God in the pandemic. All the talk has been of ‘getting though this together’ and of finding a vaccine. No mention of our sovereign Lord

Now that it seems the vaccine may be here, though, the mood has lifted immeasurably. There is talk of light at the end of the tunnel, of a way out and . . . where?

Back to ‘normal’.

That is the highest ambition of mankind right now. Let us conquer the virus so that we can go back to living as we please. We have that much in common with nine of the ten lepers. Although they asked Jesus for mercy, only one returned to thank him when their petition had been answered.

Our problem is that we treat blessings as though they are our due, and we treat hardships as something unnatural and wrong. The fact is, both are part of God’s providence for reasons only he knows. That includes Corona Virus and all the difficulties it continues to bring.

Instead of complaining that we want the ‘natural’ order of life restored, we would do well to be like that tenth leper, the Samaritan, who remembered Jesus – because Jesus had remembered him.

Take the Shame

No one enjoys having their enemies triumph over them. The psalms are full of exhortations that God not permit this to happen. I have been there many, many times and, whatever we say about being happy to suffer for our faith, it’s hard when ego is wounded.

The thing I have always found most useful in adjusting my thinking is to reflect on why I have enemies in the first place.

And when I do, I realise it’s got absolutely nothing to do with me. Yes, I might be objectionable in many ways, but it isn’t that which makes complete strangers take against me. They don’t loathe me for my own sake, but for Christ’s.

That’s a comfort in ways that nothing else can be, and especially on reading Luke 13:17, where we learn that all Jesus’ adversaries were put to shame. 

How were they? Did he exact cruel and unusual punishment upon them? Was he able to use his supreme power to humiliate them, to hurt them?

No, that’s not the way. It might be what we (well, I, anyway) wish for our own foes, but it is not what Jesus did – and, therefore, not what he would have us do either. 

He quite simply laid the truth before them. No need for anything else but to tell it as it is. We are not required to react to what they do, or what they say, but to hold fast to Christ, who IS truth.

If we humble ourselves with him, he will see to it that we are exalted with him. The truth transforms; it sets you free from hate and from shame of every kind.

No condemnation in Christ, remember – and his is the only verdict that matters.

Your Lord or Your Loved Ones?

Jesus didn’t go by the adage, ‘he travels fastest who travels alone’. He was almost always to be found at the centre of a group, whether just his own 12 disciples or, as in Luke 8, a more extended company.

For me, one of the interesting features is not the number, but the composition – ‘many women’. At least one of these was a married woman. She was only obeying Jesus’ own command to leave her family behind to follow him. It is what he asks of all who wish to throw their lot in with his; it is what he asks of us. Our loved ones are to move into second place,  behind our Lord.

When my father died, we discovered a letter he had written to us, the family. In it, he expressed his love for us, something a Lewisman of his generation would never verbalise. I don’t for one minute believe, however, that he thought we doubted his feelings for us. That was not the purpose of the letter.

He told us what we already knew, that we had been so happy together that two lifetimes would still not be enough time. 

Yet, he added that he was content to go to be with Christ, which is far better.

In one sense, this is an example of a father putting Christ before his family. But, in another, it is an illustration of that great Christlikeness which is the fruit of faith. He was using his love for us in the service of a greater love: he was saying, ‘you know how we feel about one another; well, here is something far more to be desired’.

He used this last communication to us as a witness for his Lord.

Leaving your family to be with Christ is not the cold sacrifice that it may sound. In fact, it can be a far greater act of love than remaining in the place where they are.

The Nets Were Breaking

Have you ever felt like you might be crushed under the sheer weight of the world, of your own failings and disappointments? It’s a rare person who has not. We have all been in situations where it feels as though, no matter how hard we try, no matter how justified our actions, our efforts are doomed not to bear fruit.

If we are Christians, that sense of inadequacy comes with a side-order of guilt, because we are well aware that our failing is often a result of cutting God out of the picture. And yet – if you are anything like me – in situations like that, we still persist in doing it our own way.

We know, but we somehow don’t believe, that God will do it better.

When we trust in him, though, he does amazing things. I can’t count the number of times I have put myself through agonies – what should I do, should I speak up about this, is it up to me to act, have I been wrong, is my anger justified – and why? All because I do not carry everything to God in prayer. And finally, when I am broken by my own complete inadequacy, and I go to him, arms out like a hurt child, what happens?

He astonishes me all over again.  

If only I would remember that, then, and not repeat the mistake of thinking I’m doing this alone. Luke 5 spoke to me so boldly this morning about the difference between my puny efforts, compared to those that are done in the strength and wisdom of my Saviour. 

We have to ask ourselves, when the going is tough, is the Lord withholding his blessings from us, or are we keeping ourselves aloof from him? Is our profession of faith truly bound to the way we live? Are we saying we trust in Jesus, but keeping our own hands on the steering wheel?

I know I am very guilty of this. Here, though, in Luke 5, is the reminder I need.

By myself, I am fishing with no bait; leaning on Jesus, the nets are straining to hold all that he bestows.

An Opportune Time

The devil never quite goes away, does he?  I know that I’m not alone in feeling that he seems to be, if not a resident, then definitely a very frequent visitor to my home. He is an expert in my badness, and my weakness. This knowledge is then used to tempt me away from God, to make me act rashly, to speak unkindly, to doubt my salvation, to steal my peace.

Whenever I find myself in a situation where there is strife and difficulty, I will invariably start to doubt whether I really am saved. ‘No Christian should . . .’ says that insidious inner voice.

But in this, as in all things, I can look to Christ. We often hear quoted that he was ‘tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin’. The second clause could easily discourage you because such perfection is beyond any human being. Concentrate on the first, though, and see what it’s saying: your Saviour understands what you are suffering; he has been here first.

It would be easy to see the temptation in the wilderness as an isolated incident. The devil comes to Jesus, not when he is low, but at a spiritual high point, after his baptism. Jesus relies on the truth of scripture and defeats his foe, going off in the power of the Spirit to begin his public ministry.

So, that’s that. Jesus in his perfection has kicked the devil into touch and commences his work in peace. End of Jesus’ experience of temptation.

Hardly. 

Note what Luke 4:13 says about the devil’s departure ‘until an opportune time’. I take comfort in that because it is the pattern of my own life: spiritual highs followed immediately by spiritual attack; the sense of the devil being defeated, only for him to return and redouble his efforts when I least expect.

But that is when I need to forget my own strength, or my own guile and cleave to the Lord. Satan did not tempt him once and give up, anymore than he does with me or you: he merely waited until an opportune time.

The loneliness of Jesus at the end of his life made that just such a time, and the devil doesn’t waste chances. Our Lord dealt perfectly with him, though, surrendering his own will to the Father and relying upon that strength against the tempter’s power.

With me, with you, he is just the same. His retreats are temporary, always until an opportune time. But our protection is the same as that which surrounded Christ in the desert and at Calvary.

Benedictus

I hope to blog my way through the Gospel of Luke, which is the ideal reading material for advent. In studying one chapter each day of December, I will have read a complete account of Jesus’ life by Christmas Eve. Therefore I expect to be more fully focused on him, the true meaning of the season by the time it is finished.

And expectation seems the right mood in which to embark on this endeavour. Chapter One is all about the anticipation of two births: John the Baptist’s, as well as that of Jesus Christ. By the end of the chapter, however, John has been born and his hitherto mute father, Zechariah, opens his mouth to prophesy.

When any child is born, into whatever circumstances, people will try to anticipate the blessings that life may hold for him. The people in the vicinity of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home were no different, asking, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ There is a sense of awe and wonder and of infinite possibility. John’s is a life consecrated to his Lord from before birth, and the curious events surrounding him have caused all who hear of them to expect wonders.

The prophecy of his father, therefore – the Benedictus – is filled with that eager anticipation of John’s great purpose in life. Few parents, at the birth of a child, can have hoped for such a life of service, of self-denial and of subordination to another. But Zechariah places his son’s personal destiny in the context of God’s mercy to Israel. What higher purpose was there, than to be the prophet of the Saviour, proclaiming him and preparing the way of the Lord?

The beginning of Advent permits all Christians to become that child in faith again. As I begin at the beginning once more, I feel a new hope and expectation. For us now, it is not the birth of a child we look forward to, but the second coming of our victorious Messiah, by whose stripes we have been healed.

And he is refreshing me through his word, reminding me through this chapter of two things:

  • the infinite possibilities that the Christian life holds, not just at the beginning but through its repeated renewal;
  • the meaning that service to Jesus will give to the humblest of lives.

Do I feel as Zechariah did on his son’s behalf? Am I re-embarking on this journey at the start of Advent, knowing that my role is to serve, and rejoicing in that?

And am I full of that joyful expectation that grants meaning to the waiting – the waiting of Advent, and the waiting that is part and parcel of a life fully entrusted to Christ?

Love IS Love

Love is all around us. We encounter the word incessantly, pouring out of our televisions, our radios, splashed across newspaper headlines and peppering social media. There has never been so much love, nor so much talk of it.

Only, I’m beginning to think that our obsession with the word belies the fact that we have lost track of what it means. For many people, the answer to that question would be, ‘love is love’ – inferring that it comes in many forms and that it can be anything we want it to be. It is yet another example of where absolutes have been removed, making it impossible to have any kind of definition at all. That’s what leaves us with the somewhat meaningless, ‘love is love’.

We don’t need to despair, however, because a proper definition does exist; it just happens not to be to everyone’s taste: God is love.

Instantly you bring Him into the conversation, of course, the eye-rolling starts. He’s a known killjoy. Funnily enough, the least Biblically literate of unbelievers know, almost instinctively, what He disapproves of. And, when you know He disapproves of what you want, then the best thing to do is write Him off as irrelevant, or even better, imaginary.

When you do that, though, there are consequences. You are purposely and repeatedly cutting yourself off from truth and choosing a convenient lie. Indeed, you are doing exactly what many Christians are accused of by atheists: you are creating a pretty fiction for yourself, and denying all evidence to the contrary. Spiritually speaking, you are deranged. For the sake of an easy and self-indulgent life now, you are choosing a hideous eternity.

That, however, doesn’t mean that believing ‘God is love’ sorts everything out. It is more than a mere fridge-magnet sentiment to be parroted in every tight spot and awkward situation. A few years ago, I sat in church as our then minister thundered that many people had gone to a lost eternity believing God is love. He was right. There are those who think that, because He is love, He would not let a basically decent person, who has lived a civilised life, suffer eternal death.

Neither He would; He has made provision for us to avoid that eventuality. He is not willing that any should perish – but some of us will it for ourselves by failing to accept His gift. Even in this, we are disobedient, messing about with our eternal souls, gambling them on a nursery belief that, because God is love, He won’t condemn nice people to hell.

No indeed; we condemn ourselves.

Which brings me back to that definition of love: God is. That’s really no help if you don’t know anything about God, though. I often hear from unbelievers that He is a figment of the imagination, a patriarchal construct, designed to supress and control successive generations, and to subjugate women particularly.

Every word they utter tells me that, no, indeed, they do not know Him at all. They have believed the propaganda – the tired, dog-eared mantra that the Bible is filled with contradictions, and that God presides over it all like a power-crazed tyrant. This God, who has been built from straw, is all too easy to knock down. He can be dismissed because He is fake.

See, the definition of love extends to a bit more than three words. And, if it’s too big to distil down to, ‘God is love’, then you certainly can’t get off with simply saying ‘love is love’ either.

So, go to the Bible, to the First Letter of John, and the fourth chapter. Here is a complete definition of love. It tells us that love is from God and that God IS love. This couldn’t be clearer, really, could it? Whether we like it or not, and whether we accept it or not, we cannot understand love apart from Him.

Which is the point where unbelievers start to shake their heads at smug, sanctimonious Christians, believing that they have a monopoly on goodness. The arrogance, honestly, of these God-botherers, claiming that only they know what love is, and that anything contrary to their understanding is not love.

See? We have heard all the arguments before.

I know that what I write here will offend some. Mercifully, being offended doesn’t kill; being lied to very well might, though, so let’s not do that. However much people want us all to agree that love is whatever we make it, and whatever we’re comfortable with, that simply does not make it true.

Love is what you see in the fact that God, while we were all in open rebellion against Him, sent His Son to die in our place. He only asks that we accept it, and permit Christ lordship over our lives.

Easy when you know how, but a colossal challenge if you have lived your life apart from God, believing Him to be a fiction. We live in a country that makes it increasingly hard to talk about Him without being mocked, pilloried, or silenced. In my own mother’s lifetime, Britain has gone from depending on the Lord in warfare, to dismissing Him utterly from our public sphere. It is difficult to witness for Christ when people hate you for it. Or, more accurately, hate Him through you.

Why go out with the Gospel, why intervene in debates where God’s name is trampled underfoot when you know that the chances of being listened to are slim, and the chance of being jeered at and derided very great?

The answer is ‘love’. We love because He first loved us. Having that love in us now, we cannot contain it; it has to flow outwards to others where we once were.

We see you, walking through the storm of life, head bowed against the onslaught. Watching, we remember how it felt to be there in the cold, buffeted this way and that, our peace and happiness subject to every prevailing wind. And we are moved, by the Saviour’s love for us and in us, to catch you and pull you in where we are, beneath the shelter of His wings.

That, my friends, is love, which comes from Christ and through Him, and depends only upon Him. God is love and, therefore, when He is the foundation, love IS love.

 

The Way To Go Home

He didn’t look like a threat of any kind, this visiting minister. Taller than what we’re used to, certainly, but of otherwise benign aspect, I unwittingly settled into my pew and surveyed that Sunday morning’s ‘Bulletin’ – and there it was: undeniable proof that we were actually dealing with a dangerous radical. Psalm 118, right enough, but the Sing Psalms version, to be sung while the elements were laid for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Trying to quell my panic, I looked up at the pulpit, and saw our own minister leaning forward, whispering something to the visitor. Ah, I thought, he’ll be pointing out the mistake; he’ll sort this out. Imagine, then, my feeling of betrayal, of abandonment – which I’m quite sure the rest of the congregation shared – as we rose to sing the modern rendering after all.

He had mentioned in his sermon about our tendency towards ‘Jesus plus’. We’ve all heard this before, this human propensity to complicate the saving truth of the Gospel, and to believe salvation requires some input from ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t; God saw what our efforts were worth back in the Garden of Eden. But this radical visitor elaborated on the theme. Adding to Jesus can take many forms, including – he said – our own preferences.

These words came back to me as I sang 118, not to the old, familiar Coleshill, but another tune entirely. Did it matter? Or was I just taken a little bit outside the comfort zone of tradition? I like what I’m used to, but it’s hardly the end of the world if something happens a little differently.

In my folklore classes, I try to teach students about the notion of motifs in traditional tales. There are many versions of, for example, ‘Cinderella’, from a lot of different cultures. Some aspects of it vary from place to place: the characters’ names, perhaps, or their occupations. These things don’t matter very much to the integrity of the story, however. What remains the same becomes a motif, an essential ingredient that cannot be removed without altering the whole message and nature of the narrative.

Well, so it is with celebrating the Lord’s Supper. If he is the host, and we are his people; if we are there to remember his death and be strengthened in faith by meditating upon who he is and what he has done, does it matter which version of a psalm we sing? He is the author and finisher of our faith, not us.

Why, then, would we think that Christ needs our help? This same Jesus who, our visitor pointed out, had been subject to all the traps of this world, yet evaded them in order to present Himself, blameless and clean to God as a sacrifice in our stead – what could we possibly add to Him? I know that I am still liable to be trapped by sin, and even to willingly permit myself to be when it comes to certain of my pet failings. Contrary to what the world thinks we believe of ourselves, Christians do not esteem themselves perfect; it’s just that we recognise sin but – sadly –still sometimes do it anyway.

I suppose that’s one of the main differences between Christians and the world. Having had that meaningful encounter with Jesus, the absolute of truth, you can see where your life is out of true. After all, a line will only be recognised as squint when it’s compared against one that is perfectly straight. If you have not met and been changed by Him, however, you have absolutely no chance of knowing just how far your life has departed from the right road.

So, when we are witnessing – actively or passively, through our conduct – the first, last and most important thing we can do is show people Christ. Otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes made by the Kirk Session at Cramond who tried to impose godliness on the people of the parish. I’ve been reading Alison Hanham’s book, ‘Sinners of Cramond’, based on the minutes of the Kirk Session over two centuries, and it offers a black and white account of just how futile this is.

It is why, despite much criticism, I stand by what I have said previously about picketing Pride marches or other worldly gatherings. Unless we are telling people about Christ or – better still – bringing them to Him, we are simply exercising our own vanity. We are, whether we intend this or not, being perceived as saying, ‘I’m better than you; I would never live as you do’.

This is why we have ongoing debate about Sunday opening in Lewis. People like me have unwittingly given the impression that the day is the thing that matters; it isn’t. What matters is that people would know Christ for themselves. Then, neither golf nor swimming, nor coffee, nor films would seem all that important – because life would no longer be all about pleasing themselves.

But we have to get better at communicating that fact. I love Sundays in Lewis because they are, for me, an oasis in a frantic week in which I can spend proper time in prayer, in reading, in worship, and in rest. It isn’t my job – or my right – to prevent others spending their Sunday as they wish. It is, however, my privilege to do everything in my power to change their minds so that they will submit freely to the power of Christ.

Others did as much for me. I was not won over by the suggestion that it was sinful to stay away from church, but I was drawn in by the irresistible message of salvation. Christ is enough. And, after last weekend, I am more persuaded than ever that all He requires of us is to point to Him, to His beauty, and to His sufficiency. Show them the Way, and He will bring them home.