Long term love

Some recent research has compared the brain size of young children raised in different kinds of environments. It revealed that children who enjoyed a strong nurturing environment in their earlier years had a larger hippocampus (the area of the brain important for learning, memory and stress responses) than those who had not received such nurture. This kind of nurture, the study discovered, sets children up for life. They tend to do better at school and are more emotionally developed than their peers who have not the same kind of nurture in their backgrounds.

Reading this you might be tempted to think that because of your background you have no hope whatsoever! Well, according to the apostle Peter we are redeemed from an empty way of life (1 Peter 1.18) – and that includes a love-starved background.

Love matters. Not just sporadic feelings of affection, but ongoing love or long term love.

Love is absolutely foundational to the Christian life. God is love. God so loved the world. Love one another as I have loved you. But the greatest of these is love. You won’t turn over many pages of the New Testament without reading about love.

Even some of those ministries (and perhaps ministers!), whom some would not associate with love, are love obsessed. Paul, that in-your-face apostle who wasn’t short of courage or afraid of a fight, could describe his ministry like this:

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, 7 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. 8 We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2.7-8

It’s this kind of love that sets us up for real change. Important as teaching and outreach and spiritual disciplines all are, we need to pursue them in a context of the nurturing love of God and in a nurturing church environment. In fact, Paul indicates that we grow truly in Christ only when that kind of nurturing environment is secured:

I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.2 My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2.1-3

Encouraged in heart. United in love. Nurture. That’s what sets you up to know Jesus in a fuller and richer way.

When it comes to this kind of love we are both givers and receivers. When we are open enough to receive love and committed enough to give love, we will kind the satisfaction of both being a blessing and enjoying new dimensions of spiritual life ourselves.

And it’s that kind of love that brings people to Christ. I am inspired by my friend Paul’s journey to faith which entailed amongst other things five years of faithful witness by the Salt and Light team. Five years. Long term love.

D.L. Moody, when talking about winning people to Christ had one simple answer: love them in. I would add: and when they’re in, keep loving them. Love will keep them. Long term love, that is.


Get out of your stronghold!

“But the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not stay in the stronghold. Go into the land of Judah.” So David left and went to the forest of Hereth.”1 Samuel 23.5

You never know who you are going to bump into when you are travelling. That’s one of the exciting things about going on a long journey. Sometimes people simply exchange pleasantries. Sometimes they want to chat and you have a meaningful conversation.

However, I was quite unprepared for what I encountered on a recent flight. A young woman sat down in the seat next to me wearing a surgical mask. I decided there and then that I shouldn’t take this personally! After all her friends in the row behind were also wearing masks. I don’t know exactly why they were wearing masks, but it seems that people in Japan sometimes do this either because they are sick and don’t want to spread their germs or because they are afraid of catching something from the people around them.

Either way, in covering their faces like this, they revealed their sense of vulnerability.

A sense of vulnerability can cause us to build protective shields around our lives.

When David was on the run from King Saul, he headed for Moab, a foreign country where he would be beyond the reach of his enemy. It was understandable given that David had to provide for and protect his parents as well as himself.

However, safe and all as Moab was, God had other ideas. The prophet Gad revealed to David that God wanted him to leave Moab and go back to Judah. He was to leave the protection of Moab and travel back into Saul’s territory. He was to move from what seemed to be a secure position into one which seemed far more exposed.

In short, God wanted David to trust Him to protect him instead of trusting the fortifications of Moab.

When we are feeling vulnerable or facing an unknown situation, it is easy to retreat into what we think is a stronghold. Like the lady on the plane, we pull on our mask and hope for the best. Or like David, we seek out a Moab. Yet it’s at this very time that God wants us to trust him. He wants to prove Himself as our unseen protector.

We know that in the end, David eventually became King. He went back to Judah and God protected him and showed him his faithfulness at every step.

When we are prepared to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading and step out of the stronghold we will be sure to find once again that God is indeed faithful.

Time for an upgrade

Not long after we were married, my wife and I were given an Amstrad 8512 PC. We must have been, so we thought – or liked to think – the envy of our friends. The little monitor with a screen that shone a mixture of green and black when switched on, exemplified the cutting edge of technology. It was a great machine. For the first time I began to type up my sermons. Until then I was limited to scrawly handwritten notes. Letters took on a whole new air of professionalism, especially if it was a letter of complaint – name printed at the bottom and the signature added afterwards. To misquote the late Neil Armstrong, it was one small step for mankind, one giant leap for a newly married couple.

Those days seem far away now. Amstrad PCs are museum pieces and their originator is now better known for his tv appearances than his technological breakthroughs. Good as our Amstrad was as a word processor, it would be completely lost in today’s cyberworld. Itunes, iPlayer, Google, livestreaming and so on are from a wholly different era. However good our first computer was in its day, it’s now obsolete. At best it’s now retro cool – but I doubt it!

In the book of Hebrews chapter 8, the writer makes a startling statement about the covenant God made with his people through Moses. He says it is obsolete:

“By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear “ (v.13)

That must have come as quite a shock to some of those who heard this letter read out. How could anyone say something so shocking about the covenant God made on Mount Sinai? How could anyone, by implication, criticise the very law of God? Certainly, Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything, but you can’t just write off a substantial piece of God’s revelation?

It’s not hard to understand why some of the people in the early church wanted to hold on to the law in the way they did. In its time it marked an incredible breakthrough. Even apart from the ten commandments, which effectively became the foundation of the legal systems of Western society, the law was so enlightened. Even some of the parts that are quoted as being primitive were very advanced. For example, people sometimes cite the saying an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, as an example of God endorsing revenge. Far from it. It was a way of saying that justice should be appropriate and fitted to the crime and not be excessive.

However, what the law could not do was deal with heart issues. Expecting the law to change people’s hearts was as realistic as expecting to catch up on missed tv on iPlayer using our dear old Amstrad. It’s just not going to happen. It never had the capacity to perform that kind of function and never will. The law never had the capacity to change our hearts. And never will.

We live in a new covenant. We live under grace. Paul says we have died to the law (Romans 7.4). We are free from it. It has no hold over us. We are in Christ.

The mistake that we make sometimes is that we go back to the law. We judge ourselves by the law and we allow Satan to condemn us using the law. We allow him to remind us of past failure and present failure. And we allow him to restrict us and kill our joy by presenting that failure in terms of the law. We need to remind ourselves and our enemy that he is working with a system that has been made obsolete by the blood of Jesus. It’s as obsolete as a twenty year old computer.

We are in a new covenant. A covenant of grace. One of God’s law written on our hearts. One of complete forgiveness. One of peace with God. A covenant that guarantees us intimacy with God. One that is not based on our failure (See Hebrews 8.7-12).

The law was great in its time, but we are in a better covenant. So let’s live in it. Let’s dare to believe it. The old covenant is obsolete. It’s not even retro cool. Upgrade to grace. It’s there waiting for you.

Don’t reach for the black bags too soon!

A cleaner was doing her rounds at an art gallery the morning after a party launching an exhibition. She came across an assembly of empty bottles, full ash trays, paint tins and cigarette boxes. Being a diligent cleaner, she immediately reached for her black bin bags and cleared the whole lot away. What she didn’t realise was that the “mess” was actually a piece of art put together on the spur of the moment the night before by Damien Hirst.

For those of us who don’t appreciate the work of the man who famously pickled a sheep in formaldehyde, the cleaner’s reaction to this latest piece by Hirst was entirely reasonable, “As soon as I clapped eyes on it I sighed because there was so much mess.”

So much mess. That is how many people would sum up their lives. If you get involved at any level in Christian ministry, especially outreach ministry, you will at times feel confronted by so much mess. So much complication. So many damaged relationships. And that’s before we try to unravel some of the spiritual knots that tie up our own souls! If the thief came to steal, kill and destroy, it seems he is doing a very effective job.

The instinct most of us have with “the mess” is to reach for whatever the spiritual equivalent of a black bin bag is. We simply want to discard it. That’s understandable. Why would we want to hold on to our pain? Mercifully, Jesus is the great physician. He deals with our pain. Sometimes, however, He redeems – or wants to redeem – our pain rather than simply relieving it.

Before Peter had his spiritual car crash of denying the Lord three times, Jesus assured him that He had prayed that his faith would not fail. He also directed him once he had worked through his failure to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22.31-32). His pain was not to be wasted. It might have looked like a mess, but the prayers of Jesus were turning it into a work of art.

Psalm 84.5-7 says:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.[b]
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

The Psalmist talks about passing through the Valley of Baca. The Valley of Baca is the Valley of lamentation or weeping. Somehow those who find or have found strength in God and have set their hearts on pilgrimage, are enabled to turn their tears into something that refreshes both them and others – “they make it a place of springs”.

What turns weeping into refreshing is finding strength in the Lord and having our hearts set on pilgrimage. If we see Baca – or the place of weeping – as our destination, that’s all it will ever be. And there is every chance we’ll end up stuck in Baca.

However, if our hearts are set on pilgrimage, if we are on a journey, if we’re pressing on in our pilgrimage with Jesus, Baca becomes nothing more than a place we pass through on the way.

It might look like a mess to us, but if we let the Great Physician, who’s also a Great Artist, get to work, we’ll think twice before we write off the Baca times as rubbish that threatens to clutter up our lives.