Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chilling

“As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.” Acts 13:42-43

I am not a loiterer. My daily life is punctuated by bells that ring mostly every forty minutes and time is compartmentalized. Every minute is not idly squandered but assigned a task. Yes, there is a bit of the control freak about me. In the effort to make sure that every base is covered, and every reaction from the young people I encounter is anticipated and planned for…life gets regimented!

Sometimes it spills out in the evening, this careful management of time. An hour gets assigned to the ironing pile, an half an hour to washing up, ten minutes here or there to sort out the veggie box, or toss out the rotting salad in the fridge.

I give a half hour here, an hour here…and when things run over time I am not comfortable. I am not as bad as I used to be!

Reading in Acts 13 last night, I could picture the scene – the sermon over and done with, the blessing spoken, everyone leaving to go home and have lunch…there was a crowd congregating around Paul and Barnabas wanting to talk further, reluctant to let the conversation end.

It brought to mind a sentence in the Old Testament. Please don’t ask me to try and track it down. Moses and Joshua were in the tent of meeting. Then Moses left to go and do stuff – an hour of ironing, perhaps. The next little bit says that Joshua stayed. He didn’t go off to do his pile of ironing, or whatever. He stayed with God in the tent of meeting. It doesn’t tell you anything of the conversation – just that Joshua stayed.

It occurred to me that I don’t stay! Obviously in my morning quiet times, there is a limit to how long I can stay. On an evening though, my time with God, when it happens gets the same time allocation as any other task – the single half hour, or hour. And if I think I have heard what I need to hear I will perhaps break off the conversation.

I luxuriated last night in a non-timed, non-clock watched time with God. My need for God stemmed out of a difficult week that had left me feeling a little battered. The need to just “be” was strong in my mind. I was also thinking of a word for Sunday. It’s my turn and what with the week’s traumas, I hadn’t felt like I had been listening much.

I meditated on recent passages I had read, prayed about various issues on my heart and I listened to a worship tape. I stayed. I didn’t fret about all the other things I could have been doing, I just stayed.

By the end of the evening, I felt on an even keel once more. I was no surer of a word for Sunday. This was not a meeting to discuss strategy and plans, or to direct the next phase of operations. It was chill out time – so I chilled. As God reminded me – the point was not to put the world to rights (except mine perhaps) but simply to be with Him.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Keep it Simple!

It was last Sunday during a discussion on Acts 8 that a friend of ours commented on how simple things can be and yet how complicated we make it – faith-wise.

At the end of the chapter we encounter the Ethiopian official going home after worshipping at Jerusalem. He was sitting in his chariot, struggling to understand a passage in Isaiah. God teams him up with Philip. He told the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus.

“As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?”

I think there are more than a few church ministers who would be thinking in terms of come kind of commitment course for a few weeks, or a Bible foundation class, or an Alpha course…something where they could evaluate whether the response to the gospel was genuine. We complicate it all – even though we may be acting in all sincerity. The Ethiopian became God’s responsibility, not Philip’s.

I was thinking about my tendency to complicate things this morning. I had been reading n from Acts 8 during the week and had come to the end of chapter 10, with Peter and Cornelius.

In v26 Peter says, “You know…” How did they know? How did Peter know that they knew?

The events that had happened with Jesus in Judea and Galilee had happened in another country. It is amazing how what happens in our country may not really make the news elsewhere. Apparently England might know all the details of a football match against Germany that they lost decades ago, but the Germans are more concerned about a match they played against Holland in the same tournament! What mattered to Peter in Judea, that had been personally life changing for him, might not have stirred anyone else a couple of hundred miles away.

My initial reaction was to assume the Peter was operating in the gift of discernment. He personally didn’t know what Cornelius knew, but it was revealed to him by the Spirit. I think I even started praying that I would pursue, more zealously the gifts of the Spirit, at which point I think God guffawed in heaven, and His throne room shook with divine mirth!

“Mel,” He said patiently, “Just how long did it take Peter to travel from where he was to where Cornelius was?”

“A day?” was my reply, not quite sure where the conversation was heading.

“And who was he traveling with? Cornelius’ servants, right? What do you supposed they talked about? They had a whole day of traveling in front of them. I would imagine that Peter asked as many questions as he could to find out what he was walking into. So when he said, “You know…” he knew what they knew because he had made it his business to find out what they knew. He knew because he had asked.”

Some things may be hidden from us and, perhaps then, we need to operate in the gift of discernment. Most times asking and answering will do it!

Keep it simple!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Sanctuary of God

“When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God;” Psalm 73:16-17

Quite what it was yesterday that put me out of sorts wasn’t down to just one thing.

• A favourite skirt I planned to wear no longer fits comfortably! I used to have to put a safety pin in the waistband to keep it from falling down!

• I ran out of teabags! This might not seem like an issue. I need my daily dose of caffeine and I wasn’t getting it. Decaf teabags just don’t do the job required!

• The footpaths around the estate melting and freezing over successive days are fast becoming like ice rinks. My middle name is neither Torvill nor Dean.

• The bus driver didn’t hear the “ping” when I pushed the “stop” button. The next stop, in the city centre is a ten minute walk from work.

• The bus I had to catch to get to a Bible Study at a friend’s house after work was going to pass by my house. I wanted so much to stay on the bus and go home!

• At the Bible study a friend asked me how my poetry project was going. If poetry was like the digestion system of the human body – I am poetically constipated!

• My darling hubbie is away on a business trip and I am missing him. Coming home to an empty house is sad.

By the time I got home, I felt frazzled! I was surprised not to see myself coming apart at the seams. I wanted to cry, not for any specific reason but just because I felt out of sorts.

What I did do in the end was a pile of washing up in the kitchen. It always helps to bring order somewhere, in someplace where nothing fights me, or answers back with a smart comment.

Then I heard God tell me to come and sit with Him and tell him about my day! So I went into the sanctuary – the front room, legs up on the sofa, a cup of coffee on the table and a Bible on my knee.

I don’t think I really made any resolutions, but well into the first few days of January it did seem like I was establishing some very good habits. I was spending time in the word and my prayer life was improving. And then just three days back at work and everything was falling apart! What works in holiday time may not be so easy to maintain once you are back at work.

Just like the ice outside had melted somewhat, I felt the hard core of frustration begin to melt as I sat with God. There was a continual sense of a wave of wellbeing washing over me, as he reminded me that He loved me. Most times that is all I need to know.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Defintions

I came across a very sad tale this morning.

In 1938, a German merchant vessel sank in a storm in the North Atlantic. A lone sailor survived floating on a mattress. A British ship came by and came in close to pick up the sailor, even though it wasn’t the safest of manoeuvres. Someone on deck threw a life belt out to him. However, the sailor, realising that it was a British ship, an enemy of Germany turned away. His mattress sank and so did he.

The sailor chose to ignore the life belt because he defined the British as his enemy, and refused to change his definition even in the face of death.

I was reading the end section of Acts 9. Life had become unsafe for Saul in Damascus, and in the middle of the night he was lowered in a basket through a hole in the city wall. He travelled to Jerusalem to join the apostles, but got a very cool reception. They weren’t convinced that he was genuine in his faith.

The apostles chose to cold shoulder Saul because they had defined him as the enemy and were almost prepared to hold on to that definition, even though they had heard that he had changed.

It took Barnabas to stand with Saul to make them change their minds.

Supposing Saul, or Paul after his name change, had been allowed to walk away. Supposing the apostles hadn’t been challenged by Barnabas to change their definition – would we have Paul’s marvellous letters to the churches today? Would there still have been all those challenging missionary journeys with Barnabas, and later Silas? Would there have been a prison cell in Rome for Paul, and the letters he wrote there, and his example that he set?

How easily God’s plans for Paul could have been derailed even before they began! I am glad that Barnabas was there to make it happen!

A church that I attended for five years in Limassol, Cyprus had some very strong definitions about certain things. The activity of the Holy Spirit, in terms of the ministry of the gifts, was defined as something for the early church only. Their experience of Holy Spirit led ministry had been uncomfortable, touchy-feely and not, they felt, rooted in scripture, so they defined it as wrong. Even lifting a hand during whilst singing a hymn, or praying, was discouraged.

I am challenged about the definitions that I hold about things. How do I define church, for example? My mother was voicing concerns that now her church is growing, it is feeling less like a family. My own church remains very small and is like a close family and yet I long for a bigger church. So much of our church’s impact is out in the world – healing on the streets, Street pastors and housing the homeless – and yet I complain because no-one preaches a gritty sermon! My definition of church is outdated and self centred and needs to change.

And how do I define myself? I guess that puts me back with Stephen and Philip in Acts 6-8.

Friday, January 08, 2010

No limits

I treated myself to a new daily Bible reading study book. I am not one of these people who very faithfully work their way through them month in month out. I can get very “religious” about it all, and think in terms of earning my brownie points if I keep up. I know what I am like.

This one starts off in the Book of Acts. We had been working our way through Acts in our church meetings, but somehow came to a full stop at Acts 8. Acts 7 was good with Stephen, his stroll through Jewish history and his martyrdom. Acts 9 is good sermon material because you are into Saul/Paul and then Barnabas and missionary journeys. Acts 8 has a lot of things happening. It is the stepping stone from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth that Acts 1:8 promised.

What I like about Philip, and what I liked about Stephen, is that they were not defined by the roles assigned to them. They stepped in to make sure that no one was being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The apostles didn’t think they should neglect the ministry of the Word to wait on tables. Philip and Stephen were among the “waiters” but they did not allow a label to limit what they could do. Stephen preached an amazing sermon that showed such a depth of knowledge and understanding that was as good as anything that the apostles had preached. Waiting on tables did not bar them from ministering the Word too.

Joe and I are hosting the Sunday meeting. The church leaders are away on holiday and will not be back in time. We were talking this morning about what we were going to do. A blank sheet of paper, a bit of blue sky thinking, no ideas rejected outright. Joe is quite happy to wait on tables and let someone else minister the Word. I am quite happy to minister the Word if someone tells me the subject matter or the Bible passage. We both limit ourselves in some way.

Philip impresses me because not only did he not limit himself, but he pushed himself to go to places other people didn’t go to. With the persecution, people were scattered, but I bet you they still avoided going to Samaria. Samaritans and Jews had a history and neither side liked the other. Travelling from Galilee in the north, to Jerusalem in the south, the Jews would go around Samaria rather than through it.

Philip doesn’t go around it. Just as he doesn’t put limits on what he can do, he doesn’t put any limits on where he can go. Jesus has been to Samaria and talked to a woman at a well, and through his conversation with her affected a whole village. Since then, no missionary teams had gone there to consolidate what Jesus began. It was just a one off.

Philip picked up the mantle that Jesus dropped just the other side of the Samaritan border. To get to the ends of the world, perhaps you have to start with the next door neighbour! The nest door neighbour isn’t the easiest of person to talk to given the history – but Philip refused to allow history to limit who he spoke to.

He did not put any limit on what he did, where he went or who he spoke to. He was a man that God could use – and God used him. Nothing that happened in the first few chapters of Acts happened outside of Jesus’ named disciples and apostles. Then there was Stephen preaching and being stoned for his message…and then there was Philip widening the net of who God used to take His message one step closer to the ends of the earth!

And then there was me. No limits?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Fighting for the Lentils

It is amazing how some very powerful little stories, simply because they are little, just a verse or two, slip through the net when you are reading the Bible in a year, three or four chapters a day.

One of my favourite characters who just gets the one verse, not really a story at all, is Baruch in Nehemiah 3:20. I just love the enthusiasm he displays in building his bit of the wall around Jerusalem. I am not sure that I would like to be building next to him. I am not sure that I wouldn’t find his enthusiasm just a little bit daunting. It makes me wonder when I am in an enthusiastic phase of life whether I make people feel that way. You don’t get the impression that he slowed things down or toned things down to make the people around him happy.

On Sunday we were introduced to another enthusiastic man. 2 Samuel 23 identifies some of David’s mighty men and v11-12 has a little tale of Shammah.

"Next to him was Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel's troops fled from them. But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the LORD brought about a great victory.”

If someone climbed over my garden fence and pulled up stalks of rhubarb – that’s the only edible thing growing in my garden – would I take a spade and hit the man over the head to protect my rhubarb patch? Probably not! It’s just rhubarb. It’s not people. It’s something that I wash, chop up, stew with a touch of sugar and serve with my porridge for breakfast. It’s not something to fight over…or is it?

My step father had an allotment, a strip of land in a field that he grew vegetables on. There was nothing exotic growing there, and there were no prize winning marrows. It was just vegetables to feed the family and what we couldn’t eat, he gave away. There was a locked gate into the allotment field, but very often someone would take a wrench to the lock and then help themselves to the crops. It had taken time to clear the land of rock and stones, weeds and slugs. It had taken time to dig, and hoe, and plant and water, to debug and protect the baby plants from frost. And then someone breaks the lock, enters the field and steals the harvest.

The Israelites were continually being raided by the Philistines. This was the Promised Land, given to them by God. Everything they planted and nurtured was being stolen by raiders. This time the field wasn’t a big one, the crop wasn’t a precious one…but Shammah had had enough. So he drew a line in the lentils and challenged the Philistines to cross it!

The rest of the Israelite army had fled, but Shammah stayed and fought over a field of lentils. The rest of the Israelites didn’t think the field was worth fighting over, but Shammah did – it was part of the land God had given them and should not be surrendered no matter how small. How big does it have to be before it is big enough to fight for? How small does it have to be before it is surrendered? Every square yard mattered to Shammah and he made his stand.

There were bigger things beyond the lentil field – the vineyards, the fields of grains, family homes, wives and children. Let them take the lentil field and they are much closer to the bigger, more valuable stuff. Stop them at the lentil field and all the rest is secure.

The enemy wants to steal my harvest! He wants to rob me of my fruit! He was to see me spiritually under-nourished. He wants to take the land off me that God has given. He want to get to the bigger stuff, the more valuable stuff.

Fight for the lentils and the rest is secure.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Stirring the Gunpowder

“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.” Amen. Hebrews 13:20-21

I suppose that I am looking for a verse, a word of God to be my focus for the coming year. I am looking for a word to ingite my spirit. It seems the spiritual thing to do and lots of people I know swear by it, pat themselves on the back when they come to the end of the year because they lived by that word sucessfully.

In our ladies Bible study earlier in the week we came across this one. It sounds like a church minister’s favourite way to end a service.

I used to live about three miles away from a little village called Ashby St Ledgers. I am not quite sure that it qualifies as a village – there isn’t even a shop. There is a church, and there is a very old building next to the church. It might be wattle and daub and wonky wooden beams – it looks old. On the wall next to the big iron gate there used to be a plaque that informed the reader that Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotees met together in the house there to draw up their plans.

On my Christmas list was a book. It had nothing whatsoever to do with Ashby St Ledgers, Guy Fawkes or his gunpowder plot. It seems these days that many books rarely stand alone. They come in parts. I had picked up a book months back and it was the first in a trilogy. Written by Bernard Cornwell, the Grail Quest series, the books are set in the 1300s when France and Britain were at war. Sieges use big wooden contraptions to hurl stones at fortress walls and guns and gunpowder are making an entrance.

Our hero, Thomas, is stuck in a tower with the local French aristocracy bombarding him. The guns can only fire three or four times a day, but they are nibbling away at the tower. Stick with me, there is a point to all of this.

The author writes in detail about the guns and the gunpowder – I tend to skim the technical bits. He mentioned the need to stir the gunpowder before it could be used. In those days, and maybe in these days too, gunpowder was made up of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Left in the barrels the the saltpetre sank to the bottom the barrel, much like currants and sultanas sink to the bottom of a cake mixture if it’s too wet. So, they stir it all up.

Immediately the concept of stirring up the gunpowder ingited (clever play on words there) my spirit. It reminded me of Paul’s encouragment to Timothy to stir the gifts within him. God have erquipped each of us with gifts to use in the building of His Kingdom, to demonstrate his glory to all of creation.

Without the stirring the gunpowder will still blow up, but the reaction will not be so dynamic. All the different elements have a part to play in creating a big bang, but they have to be evenly distributed throughout the mixture.

If I knew more about Chemistry and what was reacting with what I could probably come up with a better analogy – but it seems to me that the word of God, mixed with faith, mixed with the direction of the Spirit, mixed with obedience – all of these things stirred together have go to be explosive! The trouble is that perhaps we don’t do enough mixing and stirring and things sink to the bottom of our life barrels that shouldn’t. The more likely scenrio is that we choose not to stir the mixture because once ingited we think we have too little control over what happens next. We don’t need to be in control – we just need to be obedient.

Let’s get the mixture right and do a bit of stirring this year – aim the gun, touch the fuse, see the explosion and cheer loudly when the strongholds come tumbling down!

Friday, January 01, 2010

One Day is Enough

We were down to the last roll of toilet paper and my husband was looking longingly at the pages of some old second hand books that could be put to use. The snow was inches deep everywhere. There was no evidence left that we had cleared the front path earlier in the week. It looked like it was time to dig out the boots and make a trail to the local shop.

I picked up the camera thinking that I might be able to take some fancy snow pictures. I used to take lots of pictures when I was younger and worked my way up the camera hierarchy. Then I saw my brother Mike’s pictures and gave up trying. I have a simple point and click thing and I have never taken the time to read the manual properly! I have settled for “will-do” results figuring that the how-to-take-a decent-photo gene was all Mike’s.

Housing estates are not up to much in terms of scenery, even with a blanket of snow everywhere. Anywhere scenic is too far away to get to with the snow making many roads impassable.

It is amazing how much more carefully you look at things when you have a camera in your hand. I was looking up at the roofs of the houses, with their rows upon rows of icicles hanging down. The shadows of sunlight through bare branched trees were very pretty. I was looking for a robin to pose obligingly on the top of a snow capped garden gate but that didn’t happen!

Without the camera in my hand I would not have looked at things as closely as I did. It made the journey to the local shop a much more interesting one.

I wish I could train myself to be more observant, to take an interest in what happens all around me. How many things do I miss seeing because I have a head down, hands in pockets, marching from one thing to the next kind of attitude to life?

I was sitting down this morning thinking about changes in attitude and action – the New Year resolution thing. I think I almost heard God groan, push back the legs of the throne, scraping it along the gold tiles of the throne room, muttering something about coming back later when I was all done.

“OK, so it’s New Year, and yes, a new decade…but do we have to do this? Can’t you just make the change for one day, and then try it the next day…just one day at a time?”

One day is enough.

So, today I am going to remind myself to lift up my head, take my hands out of my pockets and take an interest in what happens all around me. I will seek to be more observant.

And then I will try and do the same tomorrow!

One day is enough.