The Power of Words

The Spartans were famous in their day as fearless warriors. They were also famous for the directness of their speech and given to few words.

If you thought for one moment that their apparent inability with words disadvantaged them in international affairs, think again. They seemed to know how to choose the right words and those words were incredibly powerful. For example, on one occasion, King Philip of Macedon sent a message asking them if they wanted him to come as an enemy or as a friend. The threat was all too obvious. The Spartans sent a one word answer back: “Neither”. Philip and his army never showed up. Held at bay by one word.

You don’t have to read very far in the Bible before you encounter the power of words. Genesis one records God speaking the created order into existence by His word. And it’s not just God’s words that are powerful. Words spoken by human beings can also pack a punch that goes beyond the awareness of those who speak them. Proverbs 12.18 states “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing”. Words can wound, words can heal.

So how can we use words in a constructive way?

Firstly, we need to recognise the power of the tongue. James 3.2 says “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” James has a lot to say about the tongue and its power. In this verse, he says that the way we speak is the key to self-control. That is quite a statement. If we will think about the way we speak and bring our speech and conversation into line with God’s word, it will have a positive impact on us as individuals. Incidentally, psychological research reports similar findings when it comes to the relationship between our speech and our general well-being.

Secondly, recognise the massive impact for good that you can have on others. In Ephesians 4.29 Paul says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” If you want to build people up, think about what you say. Is it wholesome? Is it helpful for building up others? Does it take into consideration their needs? Does it benefit them? The word translated “benefit” in the NIV is actually “grace” in the original. Are your words full of grace? Just think for one moment of how you could build people up if you made a conscious effort to release grace into their lives through what you said to them.

Finally, remember that your words can shape circumstances. Jesus said in Mark 11.23  Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” Much has been said and written about these words and sometimes they have been made to say things Jesus never intended. It should be remembered that they form part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. However, you don’t need an in depth Bible study to see that Jesus wants us to speak in faith. Sometimes you have to speak to your mountain and tell it to get out of the way.

Even a brief study like the above shows very simply how powerful our words can be.We can use our words either to wound or heal. To tear down, or build up. To bring life, or bring death. To encourage or discourage. And by now you can probably add a few other opposites yourself. Why not decide that this week you are going to speak life, encouragement and grace into the people around you. If you do, you might just be surprised at the result.

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Fitting around Jesus

In case you were not aware, 24th June is the Feast of St. John the Baptist. As John the Baptist is such a major figure in Christianity, I think we could make a strong case for observing his feast day with a public holiday on 24th June. Perhaps it could even become the official end of the school year, which would be fitting as John brought the era of the law to an end and heralded the new era of grace.

John, by any stretch of the imagination, was an outstanding man and an outstanding prophet. The charismatic circumstances surrounding his conception and birth indicated that he was no ordinary child. When he did emerge as a prophet, his ministry shook the nation. His preaching and baptising caused earth tremors within the religious establishment. People regarded as too bad for God and too far out on the religious fringe were swept up in the tornado of spiritual renewal that his preaching brought about. And even hated, battle-hardened Roman soldiers sought advice on how to work the truth of his message into their every day military duties.

However, John’s greatest achievement was the one that  effectively signalled the demise of his own ministry. When his cousin Jesus came seeking baptism, the Baptist immediately recognised Him for who He was, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to use John’s own words. Throughout his ministry, perhaps even throughout his life, John knew that one greater was coming after him. His ministry was not the be all and end all. It was temporary. It was seasonal. When God’s purposes moved on as God’s Son moved into His ministry, John’s outlook was simple: He must increase, I must decrease.

And decrease he did. Criticism of Herod landed him in prison. Shortly afterwards, he was beheaded.

If the greatest prophet had to learn how to decrease – and greatest is how Jesus described him – then I would suggest that there are times and seasons when we need to learn how to decrease.

All our ministries are temporary, whether they last five months or fifty years. They are relevant only as long as they serve God’s purpose. When God “moves on” we have to let go and allow Him to redefine our role in way that fits what He is currently doing.

Unfortunately we are seldom ever taught how to “let go” or how to “move on” to what God is now doing. So what might John advise us?

First of all, I think he might say, “Know who and what you are not” (John 1.18-21). The priests and levites wanted to know if John was Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet. He was none of those. He wasn’t a pale imitation of a great person of the past nor a wannabe Messiah of the future. He refused to become trapped in the expectations of others. His knowledge of who he was not saved him from the risk of being caught up in the messianic schemes of others and gave him the security to leave centre stage when Jesus arrived.

Secondly, I think John might say, “Find your own voice” (1.22-23). That was how he described himself. The voice of one calling in the desert. He wasn’t an echo! He wasn’t reflecting the opinions or ideas of others, he had something from God. The priests and levites question is still a good one: what do you have to say about yourself? Well, what do you have to say about yourself? Knowing who we are will help us remain strong and secure when what we do changes.

Finally, I think John would say, “Remember – it’s all about Jesus” (John 1.29-31). Sadly, for many, when God begins to do something new their reaction is one of “How will this affect me? What about my ministry?” For John it was different. From the beginning of his ministry he knew he was, to use the cliché, doing himself out of a job. And he was quite satisfied with that. In John 3.29-30, he said his joy was now complete and that Jesus must increase and he must decrease. He was happy to fit around Jesus.

In the end, it is all about Him. It’s not about you or me. It’s not even about the people we serve. It’s not about our ministry. It’s all about Jesus. Whether we are main stage or just a stage hand doesn’t matter, as long as Jesus is centre stage.

John the Baptist. What a man. What a prophet. The one who prepared the way of the Lord. And then stepped aside to make way for the Lord. Trust you will enjoy his feast day.

How to stir up the gift

That is why I would remind you to stir up (rekindle the embers of, fan the flame of, and keep burning) the [gracious] gift of God, [the inner fire] that is in you by means of the laying on of my hands [[c]with those of the elders at your ordination]. 2 Timothy 1.6 Amplified Bible

If you grew up in the pentecostal / charismatic world or you move or worship in those circles, you might not have heard this verse quoted a million times, it’s just that it feels like it. “Stir up the gift!” is an exhortation commonly used by pentecostal preachers – this one included. And let’s face it, they didn’t make it up. The greatest of pentecostal preachers, the apostle Paul, was the first to use it.

But how exactly do you stir up the gift? Let me offer a few suggestions.

Firstly, understand Timothy’s context. Timothy was a youngish church leader. Some would argue that he was in the thirty-forty age bracket. He was pastoring the church in Ephesus. Some church historians maintain that the church was made up of thousands of people. But, big church, big problems. There was a lot of false teaching in Ephesus and Timothy had a lot of troubleshooting to do. It seems clear from what Paul says in first and second Timothy, that Timothy was tempted to feel intimidated by the circumstances and people he faced. And with that came a temptation to neglect his gift.

What do we learn from Timothy’s context? Difficult situations and difficult relationships can dampen our zeal and confidence. Sometimes the sheer pressure of life and or ministry can threaten the expression of our gifting. If it could happen to Timothy, I would suggest it can happen to you or me.

Secondly, take stock. Perhaps, the most important step in stirring up the gift is acknowledging that we need to stir up the gift. When was the last time you prayed out in public? Shared a word of encouragement with someone? Spoke in tongues? Prayed for someone who was ill? If you are struggling to remember, you might just need to stir up the gift.

Thirdly, get your theology straight. People get into all sorts of spiritual tangles because they have a theology that is bent out of shape. They come up with all sorts of reasons for their spiritual dryness. Many of them aren’t their own thoughts, they are the devil’s thoughts. So you get faithful Christians who think they have committed the unpardonable sin. Or they have become so reliant on feelings that when the feelings aren’t there they think God has withdrawn the Spirit. Or they talk about not being in a “right place”. Or they want someone to lay hands on them and stir up the gift for them.

All of these ideas are the enemy’s way of holding people back from enjoying the presence and power of the Spirit. God sealed us with the Spirit until the day of our redemption (Ephesians 4.30). Yes, we can grieve Him. But there is a world of difference between grieving and leaving. He might be grieved but He doesn’t leave.

Fourthly, talk to yourself. Chances are, you have talked yourself into the spiritual pit you find yourself in. “Self-talk” is a concept that is pretty much common in personal development literature. It does express a biblical truth: as people think in their hearts, so they are (see Proverbs 23.7). The mind is a place of battle (2 Corinthians 10.5). Psalm 42.5 shows us David talking to himself when he was spiritually flat.

Fifthly, try praise. I know that sounds like a trite piece of advice taken from the title of some paperback in the late seventies, now long out of print. However, if you want to live the Spirit-filled life, praise and thanksgiving and prayer will never be far away. Just consider how many times Paul exhorts Christians to give thanks and the number of times he recorded himself as giving thanks. In Ephesians 5.18-19 he directly connects the Spirit-filled life with praise and thanksgiving.

Finally, set aside some time and do the above. The above requires some private time with the Lord. If you have neglected the fire, then the chances are you will feel a bit awkward praying or praising in public. Spend some time with the Lord and see what happens!

Whatever happened to uncle Tom?

The recent events to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, have stirred many memories and drawn our attention once again to one of the most pivotal days in history. It is hard not to be moved by the stories of heroism and suffering that unfolded on that day and in the ensuing months, right up until the end of the war in May the following year. No wonder some sociologists refer to the World War Two generation as a hero generation.

The uncle Tom of the title was part of that generation. He was actually my great uncle. I have seen his medals. But I never met him. Great uncle Tom was killed in action about two weeks after D-Day. It is easy to make the comments that one usually makes about men who die so young. And those comments are fitting and appropriate. The pain of loss that was felt by his sister, my maternal grandmother, was one that she carried to the end of her life, finding expression mostly on Remembrance Sunday at the local Cenotaph.

However, it would be inaccurate to portray my late great uncle as someone sent to war against his will. Indeed the opposite was the case. He had pretended he was eighteen, when in fact he was sixteen, to secure a place in the Marines. He was found out and sent home. When eventually he did join up, he was sent to North Africa, and fought in the big, well-known battles.

By 1944, he was safely in a desk job, serving one of his superiors. Apparently, he became concerned that the war would come to an end without him firing another shot, and asked to be sent to France.

We have so much to learn from my great uncle’s generation. Much and all as we see them as heroes, and they certainly deserve that description, it’s hard to find any of them who saw themselves as heroes. In fact, many, if not most, were loath to talk about their heroics. Sometimes it is tempting to ask “Whatever happened to the spirit of uncle Tom’s generation?”

We need people in all walks of life who are prepared to fight for what is right. But nowhere more so than in the spiritual arena. People who are prepared to leave the security of their own familiar circles and branch out into enemy territory. People who are not prepared to accept that the destiny of cities, towns and villages are locked into a flight path that leads to self-destruction. People who are more concerned about saving the lost than securing their own spiritual hero status.

Paul knew all about the demands of spiritual conflict. He experienced difficulty and setback at a level most of us could never imagine. In 2 Corinthians 6 he reveals something of the price tag of spiritual warfare:

All this we want to meet with sincerity, with insight and patience; by sheer kindness and the Holy Spirit; with genuine love, speaking the plain truth, and living by the power of God. Our sole defence, our only weapon, is a life of integrity, whether we meet honour or dishonour, praise or blame (2 Corinthians 6.6-9 J. B. Phillips translation).

Whatever the circumstances or the setbacks, Paul was determined to meet them in the spirit of Christ. That’s a warrior spirit. That is the spirit of someone who doesn’t give up. The spirit of one who won’t give in. A true hero. But of course, such people never think of themselves as heroic. Just servants of Christ.

It all counts

I hadn’t gone home that particular Sunday afternoon. There had been some event that had lasted so long that it made the journey home and back again for the evening service rather pointless.

So at some point in the afternoon I took a walk to McDonald’s for a coffee. You can see that my tastes are very refined.

As I was on my way back, fully armed with a latte, my eye caught sight of something that looked like a set of goal posts. They were situated on a piece of what looked like waste ground on the corner of two roads. The site was shielded by sheets of corrugated iron at one side and by huge advertising hoardings on the other.

I was too intrigued to walk by without attempting a closer look. Sure enough, behind the screening was an old, dilapidated football pitch. The pitch itself was slightly raised, with steps up to it. Apart from the decaying goal posts, the site was all but derelict, a relic to the time before virtual reality games and cable television.

As I walked away, I looked up at the advertising hoardings. Of all the things, they happened to be advertising football on television, under the slogan “Every Goal Counts”. Somehow it seemed deeply ironic that a football pitch that had all the hallmarks of years of neglect should be used as a platform to advertise the apparent importance of the beautiful game.

What the advertising slogan really meant was “Every goal scored by a player in a top league that is covered on television and funded by hundreds of millions of pounds counts”. In other words, it’s the big stage that matters.

When it comes to the mission of the church, we can be fooled by the notion that it is only what happens on the big stage that matters. It is only what the super gifted, the ministry equivalent of premier league players, do that counts. That is simply untrue.

Of course, God does raise up people who bring vision and direction and instruction. The church, both today and throughout its history, has been blessed by such people. However, what really makes the difference where you and I are, is what we do. What we pray. What we say. Churches that give themselves to consistent outreach where they are, are every bit as crucial to the mission of God as churches that are famous throughout the Christian world.

One of the letters to the seven churches was a letter to the church in Philadelphia. The church in Philadelphia had “little strength” but it had been faithful (Revelation 2.8). Yet it is to this church that the Lord promises an open door (v.8), a turn around of their enemies (v.9) and protection during a time of trial for the world (v.10).

Faithfully serving God on the stage of everyday life is right at the heart of the Christian faith. Keeping going, whether we feel what we are doing is significant or not, is of great importance because all our service is significant. It all counts.

Coming back to my Sunday afternoon experience at an abandoned football ground, I couldn’t help but wonder how long football could prosper in more wealthy surroundings without prospering at street corners. Who knows? One thing is certain though, the progress of the mission of the church relies every bit as much on it flourishing at the street corner as on the big stage.