Drifting

The story of Jose Salvador Alvarenga is one that has the power to surprise and baffle even the most trusting. Alvarenga, a Mexican fisherman, was out fishing with his friend one day when a storm washed his boat out to sea. Searches by the authorities proved fruitless and in November 2012, after a two week search, they were registered as missing persons.

Eventually Alvarenga was found washed up on the Marshall Islands six thousand miles away having drifted at sea for over a year.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews warns against spiritual drifting. In verse one of chapter two he highlights the need to pay attention to message of Jesus that these Christians had heard and to hold on to it.

Drifting can happen very easily. Sometimes it happens as the result of a storm. The people receiving the Hebrews letter were facing a storm. A storm of persecution and pressure from the authorities to cut loose from their Christian faith and go back to their Jewish roots. According to 10.34-35 this storm of persecution had previously manifested in confiscation of property and imprisonment, a storm that these believers had withstood with commendable commitment to Christ.

Never doubt the power of any kind of pressure to push you into drift mode. Pressure is a threat because Satan will use it as an argument to de-prioritise, not so much your faith per se as your expression of faith: “You’re just too busy for church.”” You have enough on your plate.” “Give your self a bit of breathing space.” You know the kind of line he takes. And you know his intention is to push you into spiritual drift mode.

Sometimes drifting is brought about not so much by bad things as by things which are not necessarily bad in themselves. They might even be good things. New opportunities. New interests. Even a passion for doctrine or theology! Our energy and focus is taken up by something new, something exciting. Or we get into the latest theory about the end times. Or the antichrist. Or some other theological controversy.

For the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews one of the issues was angels. Angels without doubt have a very important place in God’s purpose. In terms of status however, they are a long way behind Jesus. You might wonder how people who had the gospel brought to them in such a powerful manner – signs, wonders and gifts of the Holy Spirit (2.4) – could make such an elementary mistake. We can only guess at an answer. And it is probably an answer along the lines of a complex mix of background, the external pressures they were facing and a misunderstanding of scripture. Suffice it to say, they were in danger of losing their way.

Any of us can lose our way. And what begins as a localised storm close to home can end up in weeks, months or even years drifting off to the spiritual equivalent of the Marshall Islands.

Thankfully, there is a way back from the isolation of drifting or even the threat of drifting. Right at the end of chapter 2, Jesus is presented to us as a high priest, not as king or Lord or even saviour. The high priest’s role in Israel was, so to speak, to keep the nation connected to God. Once a year, on the day of atonement he went into the most holy place and sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial animals on the mercy seat and burnt incense.

Jesus keeps our connection with God. And He does that, on the one hand, with complete faithfulness to God and on the other hand, with complete sympathy with us in our weakness. Here’s how The Message puts it:

That’s why he had to enter into every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed (Hebrews 2.17-18).

However you have got to where you are, Jesus knows and He understands. And thank God, He is willing and able to help.

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Everybody has a Uzziah

“In the year that King Uzziah died…” (Isaiah 6.1) those words on the surface seem not much more than a few words of narrative to plant Isaiah’s vision of God in historical context. In reality they describe the source of the spiritual shockwave experienced by Isaiah and his nation towards the end of the eighth century B.C..

Uzziah was one of the great kings of Judah. He did what was right in God’s eyes, having becoming king at sixteen years of age (2 Chronicles 26.3-5). His foreign policy successes were matched by a prosperous economy (2 Chronicles 26.6-9). The nation was at its most prosperous since the days of King Solomon.

But now the great king was gone and the great prophet did what great prophets and godly people do, sought God.

It is possibly stretching things too far to conclude dogmatically that Isaiah’s world was in meltdown because Uzziah had gone.There can, however, be little doubt in the way that Isaiah 6 is presented to us, that the author wants to contrast the uncertainty of human government and human affairs with the certainty of divine government and heavenly affairs. Isaiah had a Uzziah. And Isaiah had a God. When Uzziah, simply because he was a human being, could no longer deliver success and stability, Isaiah still had God.

Outstanding though he was as a king, Uzziah nevertheless had weaknesses.

First of all, he was human! And human beings have a limited shelf life. After fifty years on the throne of Judah, it must have felt as though Uzziah would go on and on. Well, he did. But just for two more years. Even great people are mortal.

Secondly, he wasn’t as good as some might have thought he was. Towards the end of his life, 2 Chronicles 26 vv.16-21 records that Uzziah became proud and tried to burn incense in the temple, a ceremony reserved for the priests. He was struck with leprosy and lived out the final years of his life in isolation.

Thirdly, it’s just possible, even probable, that some had begun to trust in Uzziah rather than Uzziah’s God. How easy that is! Of course, that was not Uzziah’s fault and no doubt he would have been the first to eschew any kind of attention that smacked of idolatry.

Most of us, perhaps all of us, have a Uzziah. What I mean is, most of us, in our humanity, are inclined to put something or someone in the place of God. The trouble is, the something or the someone does not last. Uzziahs can be preachers, leaders, politicians, experiences, relatives, friends. You get the idea. They are not necessarily bad things or bad people. Sometimes they are very good people. But somehow we come to rely on them. And somehow we allow them to take the place that rightfully belongs to God.

Times change. Uzziahs come and Uzziahs go. Change and uncertainty are times to seek a fresh perspective of God. To allow the Spirit to touch our own hearts and apply the cleasing blood of Jesus (Isaiah 6.5-7). And, like Isaiah, to listen for the voice of the Lord that sends us out into a broken world (Isaiah 6.8).

The Big Vote

I have been reluctant to say anything about the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, my family’s Scottish connection is now a little tenuous; we left Scotland for Ireland over two centuries ago. I am very aware that I will have a vote on this matter whilst Scots living outside of Scotland will not have a vote.

Secondly, as a church leader I decided a long time ago that, whilst I might have my own political persuasions, I would never seek to use my influence or office to recruit to the cause of any political party or political agenda. I do make an exception for issues of ethics and social justice, as I believe that those kinds of issues are not the preserve of any one party, or at least should not be.

My third reason follows on from this. There are Christians on both sides of this debate who firmly believe that their cause is a godly one, or a more godly one. I want those Christians to vote in line with the dictates of their own conscience, without the interference of a cleric – and one who might happen to be their pastor at that!

However, I still feel that I should say something with reference to a vote that will have implications that are far more important and lasting than that of any general election. What I offer is more by way of observation than direction.

To begin with, I think we should be very thankful. Thankful that such an important issue is being resolved by political debate and by the ballot box. In many parts of the world such issues are often settled after much bloodshed. Thankfully, that has never been on the radar of anyone in Scotland.

Secondly, let’s manage our expectations. Whatever the outcome on Thursday, it’s unlikely that either side will be able to fulfil all of our expectations – except our negative expectations!

Thirdly, there are no certainties. There is no such thing as a safe option. The world is a very uncertain place and neither side has the power to reduce the uncertainty.

Fourthly, as Christians, our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. Every other allegiance is secondary to that one.

Finally, I believe we need to pray not only for the vote, but for the aftermath. If the polls are in any way accurate there will be a very narrow margin between “Yes” and “No”. We need to pray that a united Scotland emerges rather than a divided one.

If I could risk sounding political for a moment, it might be that a united Scotland is more important than the way in which the vote goes. However, it will go one way or the other, so let’s pray that God’s grace expressed through a spirit of co-operation amongst political leaders on both sides will be the hallmark of Scottish politics after September 18th.

 

Suffering and evil demand a God

Antony Flew (1923-2010) was considered the leading atheist of his generation. His father was a Methodist minister, so most of Flew’s early years were spent in church circles among church people. His early years were also some of the most turbulent years in European history, and the suffering that came about through ideological and military conflict led Flew to give up on God. How could there be a God when there was so much suffering?

That question is asked by many people. It is one of the major objections to the Christian faith and to faith in general. And it’s fair to say that even believers are sometimes bewildered by the prevalence of suffering and evil – especially when evil people seem to get away with it! The author of Psalm 73 had exactly that problem until he began to see things from God’s perspective.

Oddly enough, the existence of evil and suffering is an argument for the existence of God.

That might sound a strange thing to say, but think for a moment what is implied when we become frustrated or even outraged by suffering and evil. We are saying that there is something wrong with the world. That it’s not the way it should be. That indicates that there is a way it should be. “It’s not fair” indicates that we have in mind a standard of fairness.

This is something that just about every person in the world holds in their heart: a sense of what is fair and what is not fair, what is right and what is wrong.

Where does that intuitive knowledge of a standard of fairness come from?

Well, if there is no God, then we can have no real complaint about the way the world is. It just is that way. Nature is violent, human nature is selfish. Everything is based on the survival of the fittest. There is no order or meaning in the world. We are here by chance so looking for some sort of meaning to life is pointless. That’s what some famous thinkers have taught. Albert Camus and John-Paul Sartre are among them. Richard Dawkins’ outlook takes you in exactly the same direction.

But that kind of thinking doesn’t satisfy most people. Because most people believe there are real standards of morality and justice. Believers answer that our quest for fairness and our dissatisfaction with what goes on in our world reflects an intuitive if diminished knowledge of God’s law. Martin Luther King, when he was in Birmingham jail, said that if there was no divine law, then we had no basis for challenging any unjust law.

How does that help us with the issue of evil and suffering? Well, the Bible teaches that all of the problems of the world can be traced back to the wrong choice of the first couple. The root of the problem of evil and suffering lies in a choice that was made to yield to the voice of Satan, who promised Adam and Eve that they would become more powerful if they ate the forbidden fruit. When you think of it, the first temptation was all about power; much of the suffering and evil in the world today is tied up with the pursuit of power.

Those first chapters of the Bible also reveal that what happened is part of an ongoing battle between light and darkness. In Genesis 3.15 we find the promise of Messiah who would crush the serpent’s head. God is a warrior actively hunting down evil, not a policeman defending His own patch.

When we turn over to the New Testament, we find that God goes even further to rescue His world. He comes into the world in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 4.15 says that Jesus understands us completely and is able to sympathise with us, because he was tempted in every way, just like us.

The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is another chapter in the long war against Satan. And it is a decisive chapter. Satan’s doom is sealed. Broken lives are being restored and healed by His grace.

Of course, the Bible teaches that there are still better things to come. One day Christ will return and bring about a whole new order where righteousness is the standard. No more pain, suffering, sickness or death.

Until that day comes, God offers every person the opportunity of a relationship with Him and of securing their place in His eternal kingdom.

That might seem a long way from where we started out! However, what I have just sketched out briefly outlines the Christian hope and the Christian response to evil and suffering.

People sometimes think that evil and suffering deny that there could be a God. I believe evil and suffering demand a God.

I don’t know if Antony Flew ever managed to find answers to his questions about suffering. He did eventually change his opinions about God. Late in life he came to the conclusion that the laws of nature, our sense of purpose as humans and the very existence of the universe indicated that there was a God. One thing is certain, however, if there is no God, there is no way to understand evil and suffering let alone fight it.

Bowling Alone

Over twenty years ago an American sociologist, Robert Putnam, wrote an article entitled Bowling Alone. In it he sketched out the decline of community life in America one expression of which was found in the rise of the number of people going bowling alone.

The kind of lonely individualism that Putnam described is well documented on both sides of the Atlantic, both in academic studies and in the kind of news stories one finds in tabloid newspapers.

Unfortunately, what’s happening out there always affects the church. Family breakdown, families dispersing to live in different parts of the country or the world, plus the growth of social media, has left us with the bizarre reality of a world that has better means of communication than at any time in history and yet is more disconnected and lonely than ever. It is really a bit weird that you can have a smart phone, a tablet, landline and a laptop, and yet still live in a social desert.

Of course it was never meant to be that way. We were created for community. It was not good, said God, for man to be alone. God Himself is no lone ranger, existing eternally as a holy community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And the church is called as a body of people. We are called to gather for worship, prayer, mutual encouragement and the word. Something like fifty-nine one anothers in the New Testament might just be an indication of the essence of the church.

There really is no substitute for gathering. We can use social media and television to good effect, but it is no substitute for flesh and blood contact: love one another doesn’t really apply if your whole experience of God and church is sitting in front of a screen watching a preacher – however gifted or famous he or she is.

At best – best – it is one third or even one quarter of church. In fact it is just the bit out of which you get something. God doesn’t receive anything from you as there is no worship (or offering – unless the preacher asks you to donate online). There is no interaction with others. And what about that practice that Jesus instituted for His church, communion? If anything demonstrates that we are supposed to be people meeting together it must be the Lord’s supper. It just doesn’t work in virtual church.

If we are honest, however, our challenge isn’t simply one of logistics. It is sometimes priorities. When you look at the church in the East, especially in places like North Korea or the Islamic nations, it is often the case that Christians are prepared to give up their lives in order to meet. Whereas in the West, Christians are prepared give up meeting in order to do life.

Let’s push through the mindset of individualism that our society has foisted upon us and live up to our calling to be God’s holy, gathered, identifiable community.

I’ll leave you with the words of Hebrews 10.24-25, as translated in The Message:

” Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”

Join the Marines and be happy. That’s an order.

Some people who read my blogs have said that one phrase that recurs is “I don’t watch much tv, however…”. Well, I don’t watch much tv, however, a while back I watched a bit of a documentary on new recruits in the Marines – Royal Marines, that is. Most of it was what you would expect. A demanding training regimen. Recruits having second thoughts. Overbearing NCOs.

And then the surprise. A recruit was asked to repeat the four values that made up the commando spirit or mindset. Courage. Obvious. Cowards do not volunteer for the Marines – unless it is an extreme way of trying to conquer their cowardice.

Determination. Of course. You do not become a fully fledged Marine without a lot of grit.

Unselfishness. Well, there is a revelation. To be a Marine you have to, in biblical language, die to self. Makes sense really. If you’re on the field of battle looking out for number one, you’re a liability.

But it was the next one that really ambushed me: cheerfulness in the face of adversity. Marines are expected to be cheerful! At sometime in the history of this elite regiment, someone decided that cheerfulness was a key component in shaping the commando spirit.

I would suggest that cheerfulness is a key component of the Christian spirit or Christian mindset. If, like me, you have read the NIV or King James Version of the scriptures for most of your life, you will be familiar with 1 Thessalonians 5.16:

“Rejoice evermore” (King James Version) or “Rejoice always” (NIV).

However, The Message translates this verse:  “Be cheerful no matter what”. The implication is that you can choose to be cheerful. Or you can choose to be uncheerful. Fortunately, we are not left to our own best efforts to be cheerful. The Holy Spirit, according to Galatians 5.22 enables us to choose cheerfulness. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit.

Cheerfulness is not just a stand alone quality. The context of 1 Thessalonians 5 links it with prayer and thankfulness. Cheerfulness without prayerfulness will soon evaporate. Thankfulness completes cheerfulness:

 “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)

It’s the way God wants you to live. It’s the Christian spirit.