Two kinds of brokenness

In an animal sanctuary somewhere on the East Coast of Scotland lives a horse. His name is Boris. Boris is in the sanctuary because his previous owner was finding it difficult to provide for him. This same owner had been a good, caring owner. In fact, Boris’ time with that owner was perhaps the best period of his life. Prior to that, he had been subjected to a miserable existence of abuse and ill treatment which had left him scarred.

Another horse who is living in retirement has the name Frankel. If you follow racing or sport generally, you will probably have heard of Frankel. Frankel is probably the greatest race horse ever, or a least one of the greatest ever. He never lost a race. And even in retirement he is valued at about one hundred million pounds.

Apart from the fact that they are both horses, Boris and Frankel have one other thing in common: they are both broken. One broken by life, the other, broken in and trained in such a way that his incredible strength and power has brought victory and success to his owners. Two kinds of brokenness, two very different outcomes

The Bible talks about two kinds of brokenness.

Psalm 51.17 says: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”

Isaiah explains that this is the kind of attitude God is after:

‘These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.’ (Isaiah 66.2)

Yet we find that Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted (Luke 4.18 KJV).

How come? Two kinds of brokenness. The brokenness that is the result of sin is a brokenness that God wants to heal. But there is a humility of heart a brokenness that comes about as a result of our pursuit of Jesus, a brokenness that is the outcome of our surrender to Him, that God loves. In fact without it, you will never enjoy a close relationship with God and you will never produce the kind of fruit that God has planned for you to produce.

How can you have a broken heart – in the positive sense? It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. When a horse is broken in, one of the main objectives of the trainer is to bring the horse to the place where it follows and respects a human being. Being humble and broken before God simply means that we have learnt or are learning to follow and respect what He wants.

Unbroken horses aren’t safe for human beings, but when broken in, their strength and power has the ability to plough fields, win races, and bring great pleasure to their owners. Unbroken disciples are equally dangerous! But when they submit to the word and will of Jesus they have the potential to change the world.


God hasn’t shelved His plans for the future

In 1919 an anonymous donor gave £500000 to the British government. The donation was in response to a letter in The Times that was signed FST. It became clear that the initials stood for First Secretary to the Treasury and the appeal was being made by the government to the wealthy to help Britain’s national debt after the First World War. (As an aside, perhaps a government minister should make such an appeal today?).

The huge donation – over twenty-six million pounds in today’s money – was put into a trust fund, on the basis that it could be drawn down if the nation was ever in serious trouble. It has never been touched. Not during the depression of the thirties or during world war two or in the economic crises of the seventies. Today, the fund is valued at three hundred and fifty million pounds – seven hundred times as much as was originally invested.

It takes some vision, not to say courage and self denial to make that kind of investment even if you do have the money. Let’s face it, the donor never became famous. Nor did he or she ever gain from the investment.

Tales like this are a healthy corrective in an age that has been driven by short term thinking. They also challenge the whole celebrity culture that has affected even charitable giving.

It isn’t always easy to think long term, mainly because most of the things that take up our time require immediate attention. Managing and or fixing problems can consume huge tracts of our lives.

One story of long term thinking recorded in the Bible concerns the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 32 tells how God instructed Jeremiah to buy a field at Anathoth. It wasn’t the best time in the world to be buying property. Hundreds of people had already gone into exile after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had annexed Judah. Judah itself was run by Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet, King Zedekiah. And Jeremiah himself was in prison.

So what motivated  Jeremiah to buy the land?

There were good personal reasons. The land belonged to his extended family and it was now up for sale. Buying it would keep it in the family. Jeremiah’s wider family – and the future of his extended family was clearly of interest to him and God. If it hadn’t been, God wouldn’t have instructed him to buy this land in particular.

The main reason, however, was prophetic:

14 “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so that they will last a long time. 15 For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”  (Jeremiah 32.14-15)

When we invest in the work of God by giving our time or our money, we are saying effectively that the future belongs to God. We are stating that God’s original intentions for His people and His world will prevail, even though all the signs from the culture seem to be pointing in a very different direction. Although Jeremiah’s instruction to buy land at a time of national crisis might not be a direct command to the church today, when churches invest in property with a view to future expansion it makes a huge statement to the world, especially in a time of national challenge or crisis. It sends out the message that, if Jesus doesn’t return, God is going to be powerfully at work in the futures of our towns and cities.

When God told Jeremiah to buy the land, it wasn’t as though he picked the best moment for the prophet. He was in prison. His own future was uncertain. Out of that uncertainty he found the courage and faith to testify to the certainty of a God who is never finished, even when His purposes seem to be thwarted.

There’s never a good time to invest for the future. There are always pressing needs and good causes. And yet it’s always a good time to make a statement of faith in the God who has a future for His people. Whatever projects and plans we have had to shelve because of the needs of the present, it’s good to remember that God hasn’t shelved any of His plans for the future.

A voice from the other side of the garden fence

Given the glorious summer we have enjoyed this year, I decided to take advantage of the good weather and paint the decking behind our house. Of course, before I could apply a new coat or two of paint I had to remove the now fading paint that someone had carefully applied years previously. It seemed too big a job to tackle with sand paper. The answer seemed to be a wire brush.

I had seen my grandfather on many occasions use his wire brush to great effect. So off I went to look for my wire brush. I soon realised that I only thought I had one, in fact the one that I thought I had was just a mental picture of the one my grandfather used. Next stop, therefore, B&Q . I soon had my own wire brush. And I was soon stripping the paint of the decking in the summer sun.

It was so satisfying to be working outside. And even the tiredness, when the task was almost completed, somehow felt good.

A few days later I had some time off and went back to finish the job. My neighbour happened to be out in his garden. He is a very kind neighbour, certainly not a know it all type of person. So when he said that his friend who does landscaping, removed paint from decking with a pressure washer, I had to listen. A pressure washer would do the job in a fraction of the time and with a lot less energy.

Initially I declined the offer of his pressure washer. The wire brush was better. But careful consideration over a lunch break brought me to repentance. A pressure washer was about to consign the cherished wire brush to the scrap heap of history.

We all are inclined to hold on to the past. This isn’t something that is peculiar to people in mid-life, like me, or to older people. It can affect us all. “But it’s the way we’ve always done it” locks both the present and the future into the past.

It’s not necessarily that the way we have always done it is wrong. (There are “ways that we have always done it” that are harmful, even sinful, but that is another story). It’s just that life changes. And while God never changes, the challenge that He sets before us today isn’t exactly the same as yesterday or the last generation and won’t be the same for tomorrow or the next generation.

Hebrews 11 is for me one of the most fascinating passages in the whole of the Bible. Fascinating on different levels. One aspect of it that fascinates me is that everyone who is commended for their faith expressed that faith by doing something unique. There are no repeat performances.

Enoch walks with God. Noah builds an ark. Abraham leaves his home, believes God for a son and then almost sacrifices him. Moses parts the Red Sea. Rahab hides the spies. All different. Their God was the same. But the need was different. The crisis different. The opportunity for faith different. And different requires a different response.

Can you imagine what would have happened if they had all tried tried to do what their predecessors had done? Noah might not have got into a building project because he just wanted to walk with God like Enoch. Rahab might have thought God was calling her to leave Jericho. Abraham might have tried to build an ark – or better still Moses might have tried to build an ark to cross the Red Sea!

Of course, none of that happened. Because each recognised what God was saying in his or her day.

How that applies to you only you can determine. It does mean that we need to allow God to speak, whether through the Bible, others or His quiet voice within us. Or even just through what is going on around us. We need to hear, so to speak, a voice from the “other side of the garden fence” that brings us fresh perspective and enables us to respond to what God is saying and doing in our day.


It’s all about the music

A few months ago one of the national newspapers, in its online edition, carried an article entitled “How to spot a Stradivarius”. You were then able to click three different recordings of the same piece of music. One was played on a Stradivarius, one on an expensive 19th century German violin and another on a violin from Tesco with an rrp of £49.99. Having listened to each of the three violins you could then make your selection as to which was played on each of the violins.

I took the test. To my surprise I found that I guessed which was the Stradivarius correctly. But I confused the expensive German instrument with the Tescovarius.

I am not completely convinced that the accuracy of my correct guess of the Stradivarius was down to anything more than the fact that it was the last of the clips that I heard and was nothing more than just that – an accurate guess. I can’t believe it was due to my ear for music, though I do think the Stradivarius sounded a little smoother.

Whatever the reality of my choice of the Stardivarius, what surprised me was how little difference there appeared to be between the cheap instrument and its more expensive German counterpart. To the untrained ear, hardly any difference at all.

You’ve probably heard the saying “The good is the enemy of the best”. And that is often true. Sometimes however, the good and even the best can be the enemy of the effective.

When it comes to serving Christ, we sometimes disqualify ourselves because our gifting isn’t “Stradivarius” class. The truth is there are very few who have “Stradivarius” class giftings. If you take preaching, for instance, the Wesleys, Spurgeons, Lloyd-Jones, Jakes and Bonnkes are rare, a handful in every generation. And sometimes not even a handful. Their gifts are way beyond what the vast majority of preachers could ever realistically aspire to.

You could say the same about social action and reform. How many Mother Teresas and Martin Luther-Kings have we had in the last hundred years? Eh..two. The same applies to business. Think Jobs. In fact it applies to many areas of life.

But because I can’t preach like Spurgeon, do social action like Mother Teresa or start a business like Apple, doesn’t mean there is something lacking in the gift that God has given me. And it doesn’t mean that you should quit preaching, doing social action or starting a business!

I think most of us know that, but we’re sometimes left a little overwhelmed by “Stradivarius” level giftings.

Now for the more controversial bit! The Tescovarius level gifting is adequate! What we do, and what I have sometimes done, is spent hours trying to perfect a gifting in the hope that it will become a more effective gifting. Or we think that if we were just a little bit better at something, if we were just a little more 19th century German than £49.99 Tesco, then God could use it.

Whole churches make that mistake. They look at what they aren’t and expend a lot of effort trying to make themselves what they think is just a bit better, but the world doesn’t notice any real difference. If the time that we spent thinking about how we could become better was employed thinking about how we could deploy and use what we have the world would be a happier place.

Am I saying that we shouldn’t seek to excel in the gifts that God has given us? Of course not. All I am saying is that perfecting a gift doesn’t necessarily make it more effective.

Coming back to our violin illustration, if a violinist was sent to a place where a violin concerto had never been heard, armed only with a cheap violin, no-one is going to complain about the violin. Their focus is going to be on the music.

And that my friends is what it’s all about. The music rather than the violin. The power of the Holy Spirit rather than the gift in which it is wrapped.

Let’s keep the music playing, whether our gifting is superstar class or superstore level.