Secret Grace

Unfortunately we live in a world in which secrecy is almost always considered something negative. And of course there is good reason for that. How many newspapers would survive if it weren’t for dark secrets they can expose and print as headlines? Not too many.

In the kingdom of God, however, secrecy is not always seen in such a negative light. Jesus, for example, talks about developing a healthy secret life when it comes to praying, fasting and giving.

And then there is what you might call secret grace.

The story of Esther, perhaps more, or at least as much as, any other, reveals the power and influence of secret grace.

God’s secret grace is at work all through Esther’s life.

His secret grace is at work in the affairs of court. When Queen Vashti refuses her husband’s invitation and subsequently loses her position, a piece of the jigsaw of Esther’s life falls into place. Esther could never have imagined that Vashti’s dismissal and divorce would have such a profound impact upon her life.

Secret grace was at work in the people that God put around Esther. Mordecai, Esther’s adoptive father, was a key influence on her life. A parent and a mentor. And his part in foiling a plot to kill king Xerxes eventually played a crucial part in Esther’s story (2.7, 10-11, 22).

Hegai, the manager of Xerxes harem, favoured Esther, and no doubt helped her manage the politics and practicalities of life in the harem (2.8,15).

And of course Xerxes, the king. He married Esther – possibly much to her surprise! And then in chapter 6 he is awakened in the night, reads some official documents and finds he need to reward Mordecai! (2.17-18; 6)

God’s grace was at work in and through all of these people.

Finally, God was at work in Esther’s personal circumstances. Her place of birth. Her appearance and even her pain (2.7). All of these were important pieces in the jigsaw that we know as the story of Esther.

God’s secret grace is at work in our lives. God is secretly working for us. He is not against us. He works in places and events that seem to have no connection with our lives whatsoever. His secret grace is at work through the people He has placed around us. And it was and is at work in our personal circumstances, however unpromising they might seem.

God is for us. His secret grace is powerfully at work. As Romans 8.28 says in The Message:

“We can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”

4 things you can be sure of in a time of change

Perhaps because his reign as Israel’s first king ended so disastrously, King Saul is seldom held up as an example to follow or as one whose life demonstrates God’s grace.

However, the chapters in 1 Samuel that record how he became aware of his calling and how God prepared him reveal so much about the way God works. When you factor in that Saul’s accession to the throne was not only the story of his own spiritual journey but also the story of how a whole new era began in Israel, the beginnings of Saul’s story as king become all the more compelling.

Saul never had any intention of becoming king. Nothing indicates that it was an ambition that he harboured. In fact one of his difficulties was that he never really got to grips with the position that God had given to him. His own deep insecurities marred his reign and brought about not just his own demise but that of his family as well.

That was not the way it was at the beginning. 1 Samuel 9 records how Saul was sent to look for his father’s lost donkeys. During his search, he encounters the prophet Samuel and in the course of an overnight stay at the prophet’s house, Samuel anoints him king over Israel.

As he is about to return home, Samuel predicts that he will meet three groups of people on his way back to his father’s house. First of all he will meet two men. They will be able to set his Saul’s father’s mind at rest, by assuring him that Saul is well (1 Samuel 10.1-2).

The second group will provide him with bread (1 Samuel 10.3-4). And then he will meet a group of prophets and will begin to prophesy (1 Samuel 10.5-7).

It all happens exactly as Samuel says, and Saul’s journey towards the throne of Israel well and truly begins.

What has all of this got to do with us?

Firstly, sometimes God’s true purpose for our lives is discovered when we are getting on with our everyday lives. Saul set out to find donkeys. He came back an anointed king. Saul was not looking for answers or looking for strategies, he was looking for donkeys. Don’t neglect your donkeys! They might lead you into God’s purpose!

Secondly, the story reveals that, even in a time of change, God cares about family details. You might think that when God changes the shape and constitution of a nation, the last thing on his mind would be donkeys! But he cared about Saul’s family and about Saul’s worried father.

Thirdly, God cares about our practical needs. He cared Saul’s own physical well-being. He provided bread for him. Some might want to see a covenant application here or a foreshadowing of Christ as the bread of life.

Finally, God equips us for the task He has given to us. He gave Saul the anointing that he needed. He begins to prophesy.

At a time when our nation is changing and our world is changing, Saul’s story reminds us that God cares about the details of our lives. At a time when your world might be changing, God cares about your family concerns. He cares about your practical needs. And you can be sure that, just as in Saul’s case, he will equip for the task He has given you.

Finding your “for”

One of the most fascinating patterns in nature is that of the annual migration of animals from one habitat to another. Biologists who have observed these patterns comment that birds, for example, will overfeed for the long journey ahead. Once in flight their route is direct. They don’t zig-zag. They eat when they have to, but that’s it. It’s the same for other animals: a direct route to their winter habitat or back to their summer surroundings. One author commented that you could say they are driven by a larger sense of purpose.

Having a sense of purpose changes our lives. It changes the way we do things. It changes the plans we make – and don’t make. It determines the things we will give our time to. And it cuts things out of our schedule. Purpose is a powerful thing.

Yet so many, even Christians, are not sure of what their purpose is in life.

Queen Esther discovered her purpose in life as a result of a set of circumstances that threatened the future of her own people.

She had become queen and found that she was the person closest to the man, King Xerxes, who could save her people.

But she was no heroine. In fact she was a reluctant heroine. Very reluctant. She knew that attempting to influence the king meant taking her life in her hands. Her cousin Mordecai had to persuade her that she had come to royal position for such a time as this.

Queen Esther discovered her for. She discovered her purpose. And she acted with courage and disaster was averted.

Discovering your purpose might not be as straightforward for you as it was for Esther. However the Esther story gives us some pointers as to what our purpose might look like.

We know that each of us is called to be an influence for Christ in our world. What that looks like might be different in each case.The end result,however, is the same for all of us: being a witness.

How do we fine tune that general calling that we all have into something a little more focused?

Firstly, there are providential factors that determine our purpose.

Esther came into young adulthood at a time of upheaval in the family of the Persian King. She had no control over that. It was the crisis connected with the former queen Vashti (2.1-4) that opened the door for Esther to go to the palace.

Esther was considered beautiful enough to be a potential queen for King Xerxes. Her physical appearance was given to her by God (2.7).

These factors helped shape her purpose, though at the time she was unaware of that and had no control over those factors.

There are aspects of our lives over which we have no control, yet they are part of God’s purpose. Those aspects are wrapped up in the mystery of providence. Paul sums this up in Romans 11.34-35:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’

Secondly, there are people factors that help us to discover – and fulfil – our purpose.

Mordecai (2.7,8; 4) was a combination of adoptive parent, mentor and coach for Esther. He looked after her when she became an orphan. He advised her on how she should conduct herself in the palace. He helped her find the courage to go to the King.

Hegai (2.8,15) was another person God provided for Esther. He helped to guide her through the protocols of life in the harem and advised her on how to prepare for her audience with the King.

And then there was Hathach (4.5-9). Hathach played a crucial role as the messenger who kept the line of communication open between Esther and Mordecai.

God provides people who help us both discover and fulfil our purpose.

Finally, there are personal factors that help us to discover and fulfil our purpose.

Esther had to win the favour of various people at various times (2.9,15,17). God was certainly with her, but at the same time she had to develop people skills. Good manners are no substitute for the anointing, but you will never win the favour of people if you have anointing without good manners!

Esther also had to find a reserve of courage and determination that perhaps she never realised she had. If you are going to find and fulfil your purpose, you will need courage and determination.

Esther came to royal position for such a time as this. She discovered what her royal position was for. We have been given royal position in Christ. We have been made sons and daughters of the King for a purpose. With the help of the Holy Spirit and some guidelines from Esther’s story, we can discover our for.

 

 

 

Free speech? Maybes aye, maybes no.

If you are thinking of moving to Northern Ireland, think twice if you are a preacher.

Of all the places in the world for a preacher to face prosecution for doing what a preacher is supposed to do, it is hard to believe that a preacher should face prosecution in Belfast. That the chief prosecution witness has made public statements – which he hastily retracted – supporting ISIL, makes the whole thing even more bizarre, not to say reprehensible.

Pastor James McConnell is one of the most successful Christian leaders in the UK in the last fifty years. He managed to build a mega church from scratch during the years when the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were at their most intense. In many ways his church was ahead of its time, attracting people from both sides in a divided community.

Now, at seventy-eight years of age, he finds himself facing prosecution under the 2003 Communications Bill because he expressed his views about Islam.

Whatever you might think about what Pastor McConnell said, direct and forthright language is not something that he or his supporters have suddenly invented in an attempt to be controversial.

Pastor McConnell stands in a tradition of Christian preaching that stretches back through the Christian centuries to the Lord Himself. In fact, if you want to be really accurate, it goes right back to Enoch the seventh from Adam (Jude 14-15).

It’s a tradition of prophetic speech that you will find in any of the major branches of Christendom – Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. So let’s not dismiss this case as an example of a lone fundamentalist who is angry about Islam and won’t dance to the tune of a pluralist agenda. That would be a mistake. If St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the Doctors of the Catholic church, is able to watch from heaven – let’s take it that he is in heaven – we might find that he has every sympathy with Pastor McConnell.

The outcry against this prosecution has not only come from the Christian church.An Islamic scholar and the National Secular Society have also come out in support of Pastor McConnell’s right to free speech.

Finding the right response to the growth of radical Islam has proved taxing for a supposedly liberal society. Two conflicting liberal instincts kick in. On the one hand there is what seems at times like an excessive desire to prove our liberal credentials by embracing Islam in all its manifestations. On the other, there is a deep uneasiness at how exacting and prescriptive even a moderate Islamic worldview is.

This unease is seen in the way that government and sometimes the media have reacted to Islamic terrorism and violence. A recent example is referring to ISIL as DAESH. Using the latter designation conveniently enables discussion about the violent phenomenon that is ISIL / DAESH without having to connect it with Islam  . The argument that this violence is not perpetrated by real Muslims is a comforting thought for many in our society. Somehow we want to believe that everyone in our society has a common belief in Western liberal democratic values.

This rather flimsy attempt to paper over the cracks of religious pluralism conveniently ignores two things: that those who are fighting for ISIL / DAESH see themselves as truly Islamic and are seen as truly Islamic by many in Britain.; and that not everyone in our society holds to Western, democratic liberal values. A BBC poll commissioned earlier this year found that 51% of British Muslims believe that clerics who preach violence against the West are not out of touch with mainstream Muslim opinion. Although the BBC tried to put a very positive spin on the results, former Islamist, Maajid Nawaaz, found the results of the poll “profoundly disconcerting”,

Whilst one can understand why government and even media might want to be the arbiters of real and false Islam, one has to ask on what authority they do so. Additionally, we might want to ask why this distinction of real and false adherents of a faith is not accorded to other faiths. I don’t remember hearing any commentator make this kind of distinction when paedophile scandals in the Catholic church were exposed. The perpetrators of such abuse were not deemed non-Catholic because of their deeds. You might counter that much of the abuse was perpetrated by leaders of the Catholic church. I would reply that much of the encouragement of jihad in the Middle East and elsewhere is driven by imams.

You can draw your own conclusions as to why prosecuting a protestant pastor might be attractive to the authorities. Whatever the motive, even if it is simply an attempt to apply the law to the letter, to present a Christian leader as a religious extremist and prosecute him, ticks the boxes of fighting extremism and parading liberal pluralist credentials.

If, however, this prosecution is motivated by a desire to apply the law to the letter, why has Richard Dawkins not been cautioned or prosecuted? He is on record as comparing Islam to Naziism . And he did equate religious instruction of children with child abuse. Whatever way you look at that, he is labelling parents of whatever faith, who teach their children that faith child abusers. In a society that claims not to believe in Satan, it is surely more serious to label religious people “child abusers” than to label a system of belief “satanic”.

Christians have always been criticised and vilified. That is not the issue here. The issue is that we are supposed to live in a society that values free speech. For Pastor McConnell to stand in the dock on this issue, beggars belief. Especially when the actions of ISIL, a group that the chief prosecution witness has supported in the past, serve to validate Pastor McConnell’s position.

Perhaps it is not Aquinas or the National Secular Society that I should be quoting, but the famous words of Victor Meldrew: “I don’t believe it.”

Keep your grip on love and loyalty

The writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders once said: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” Odd as it may seem, some psychological research maintains the sentiment reflected in the above quote, namely, that we are shaped and influenced by the chance events of life.

When you read the life of Esther, you might be tempted to conclude that her life was a chain of chance events which ended up in the most chance event of all, a Jewish orphan marrying the ruler of the Persian empire. That is certainly how some people in Esther’s day might have seen it.

But not so the generations of Jewish readers who would read the story of Esther as a reminder of God’s deliverance. For them, each detail of the story was woven into God’s providential plan for His people.

One aspect of that plan that comes to the fore, is how Esther found favour with the most unlikely people. First of all, she won the favour of Hegai (Esther 2.9 NIV, ESV), who was in charge of the king’s harem. Then we are told that she won favour with everyone (2.15 NIV, ESV). And finally, she won favour with the king (2.17NIV, ESV).

This did not all happen by chance. Nor did it happen simply because God had somehow predestined it that way, that is if you understand predestination as fate. Esther had a part to play. She won the favour of Hegai, everyone else and the king.

Proverbs 3.3-4 says:

“Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favour and a good name in the sight of God and man. “

Our lives are not shaped by chance. They are shaped by the providence of God. By his favour. But that is not some sort of fatalistic mechanism that operates without our co-operation. Like Esther we have to win the favour of those whom God wants to make favourable to us. And that greatest of books of wisdom, Proverbs, shows us that we win favour through consistent love and faithfulness to the people around us.

If you want to win favour, let love and faithfulness never leave you. Or as The Message puts it, “Don’t lose your grip on love and loyalty”.

3 Things Cecil the Lion has taught us about Western Culture

Not since Mufasa perished at the hand of Scar, has the death of a lion so captured the public imagination.

Cecil is gone.Brought down by a dentist named Walter, aided and abetted by an accomplice called Theo. The names would, I’m sure, be changed to something more exotic should Disney ever choose to animate this sorry saga.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have foreseen the impact Cecil would have in death, violent or otherwise. But an impact he has made. And what an impact. There is even the possibility that Walter Palmer will be extradited to Zimbabwe.

Cecil’s story isn’t just the story of a famous lion. Cecil’s story reveals something about where we have come to as a culture.

For a start, it reminds us of the almost overweening power of the media.

How many of us heard of Cecil the lion before his untimely death? Not many. But if you watch television news or read digital or print media, you will know all about Cecil. You will be aware of the worldwide outrage at his death. And the threats to kill his nemesis – or in the eyes of some, his murderer – Walter. A combination of news media and social media has transformed the death of a lion into a morality tale. And, as usually happens, our response to the narrative is an indication of our moral fibre or lack thereof.

News media and social media has an ability to shape any narrative, wresting any control of that narrative from its main protagonists. The authorities in Zimbabwe, Walter Palmer and Cecil himself are simultaneously transformed into actors on a world stage and puppets in the hands of the Western media.

That power is also manifest in news stories that are not covered. I appreciate that arguments from silence are not the strongest. Consider, however, for a moment, one news story that has to my knowledge had no coverage by major news media in Britain. It’s the story of a doctor who works for Planned Parenthood offering, in a sting video, to sell body parts from aborted babies. This video will give you an insight into the story. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Whether your are pro-life or pro-choice, the kind of outlook expressed by the doctor is an important factor in the debate. So one wonders, why no coverage? It suggests that the media not only shapes the narrative but also creates it. And it is very selective about what it includes in the narrative. I guarantee if a pro-life doctor has been filmed saying that women were being paid not to have abortions, it would have been headline news. I’ll leave you to figure out why that might be.

Heard about Austria rejecting same-sex marriage? Probably not. You’ll not find any coverage in the mainstream British press without spending a lot of time trawling through google searches. And you might still draw a blank. You would need to read Gay Star News to find out about that vote that took place less than two months ago. Yet when Pitcairn Island, with a population of 48, legalised same-sex marriage, it was covered both in the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph.

We can only conclude that the Western media considers the death of Cecil the lion more newsworthy than the covert trade in body parts of aborted babies. And more newsworthy than a member of the EU rejecting same-sex marriage.

The second cultural revelation is connected to the first.

I will put it in the form of a question: what does Cecil’s death, or rather the coverage of his death tell us about the moral climate in the West? Quite a lot.

The way this story has been covered and the ensuing reaction, feels like the way a murder story would be reported. And sad to say, the reaction is greater and more visceral than a murder story normally generates.

Walter Palmer’s fatal arrow has touched hearts in a way that the outrages of ISIS seem unable to. Just watch Jimmy Kimmel’s commentary. And witness the outpouring of celebrity rage.

Perhaps the story reveals that we care more about animals than people.That’s not true of everyone. Of course not. However, it seems to sum up Western culture, or at the very least sums up the views of many Westerners.

We’re still waiting for the outrage over some of the atrocities perpetrated against Christians in the developing world. The controversy surrounding the Liverpool Care Pathway never seemed to touch the nation like the death of an elderly lion has.

One is left with the unsettling feeling that, whatever the moral rights and wrongs of hunting, and however upsetting to see such a noble creature as this lion hunted down, our moral vision is somewhat askew.

We are also living with something of a moral tension. In the Jimmy Kimmel video (linked above), Kimmel qualifies his criticism of Palmer by stating that he is not against hunting, if it’s for conservation purposes or if it’s your culture. But that’s just the problem, hunting is Walter Palmer’s culture!

This is the kind of double standard we see every day in news media: we promote and celebrate freedom until we don’t like what someone does with the freedom we say belongs to us all. The moral relativism that has for so long reigned in the West is beginning to tear it apart. And once we try moralising, we get ourselves into a moral muddle.

Finally, despite the overreaction and the hype. Despite our moral contradictions, there is something in this story that gives us reason to hope.

Somehow we still have a capacity to recognise what is beautiful, good even noble. Cecil had his own grandeur. To end his life wounded by a crossbow bolt and then put down seems an ignominious end for such a creature.

Many will feel that way even though they can’t explain why. Rose George in the Guardian put it well: “I felt only disgust and rage, somewhat inarticulately.” 

That’s the thing. We know there is something wrong, but we’re not sure exactly why.

Christian apologists have long argued that our appreciation of beauty points to a Creator who has given us the capacity to make aesthetic as well as moral judgments. (Alistair McGrath skilfully unpacks this argument in chapter 7 of his book Mere Apologetics). After all, how would a capacity for recognising beauty fit into an evolutionary approach to life and the universe? We don’t exactly need such a capacity for survival!

Amongst all the muddle, moralising and genuine sadness, the Lion of the tribe of Judea is still calling to broken people in a broken culture. At a time when we have forgotten our Christian roots, Mufasa’s words could well be spoken by Jesus: “You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me.”

3 reasons people find it hard to pray

I read a story sometime in the last decade about a man who went to a prayer meeting. The man was from Asia. He was visiting America and decided he wanted to visit one of the churches. One Sunday he went to a well-attended church and enjoyed the service. So he thought he would return mid-week for the prayer meeting. He checked the day and the time.

On the appointed day, he set out for the prayer meeting. He wanted to be in time to get a seat, so he aimed to be at the church one hour before the beginning of the meeting. This church, he reasoned, is so big and so influential the prayer meeting will be packed out. So off he went, expecting to join a queue of prayer warriors.

To his surprise, he found that he was the only one at the appointed place so early. As the time for prayer approached, a handful of others joined him. But it was only a handful. How could such a great church, he wondered, be so successful with such a poor attendance at the prayer meeting?

Why is it in the Western world we often find it so hard to pray when it should be something instinctive to Christians? You know the saying about prayer being the Christian’s vital breath, and all that?

Let me offer three reasons why we either don’t pray or find it hard to pray.

One reason we do not pray is a very simple one: prayer is nowhere near first on our list of priorities.

We do what is important to us. We make time for things that are important to us, even if they are not really that important!

The issue is not whether prayer is important or not. We all know it’s important. It’s whether it’s important to me? That’s a question we have to answer for ourselves.

A second reason we do not pray or struggle with prayer, is also a very simple one. It’s the flesh.

In the hour when Jesus sought the prayer support of those disciples who were closest to Him, they failed Him miserably. They fell asleep when they should have been praying. Let’s face it, if you are tired and trying to pray, it’s not too hard to nod off.

Jesus summed up their failure with words that have been applied to scenarios far removed from falling asleep in prayer, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

To pray – and pray effectively – we have to press through the demands and excuses of our flesh. My flesh will convince me that watching tv on a Friday evening instead of going to the prayer meeting is spending quality time with my family. It will reason that I need that extra half hour in bed instead of attending the Saturday morning prayer meeting. It will tell me all sorts of pious tales about how people can become so heavenly minded but be no earthly use. Those, dear friends, are the kinds of arguments our flesh uses to keep us from prayer.

The only way to handle the flesh is to put it to death. How do you do that? Say “No” to it!

A third reason we do not pray, or struggle with prayer, is that of frustration.

There are all sorts of ways we become vulnerable to frustration. We prayed and believed God for a specific answer in a specific situation, but the opposite happened. Or we have prayed for someone or something for a long time but there is still no change. If this describes you, don’t give up! Keep praying! Jesus told His disciples a story about prayer that had one point: we should always pray and not give up (Luke 18.1).

Another way in which we become vulnerable to frustration is perhaps a bit surprising.

The example of the great prayer warriors can serve to intimidate us rather than inspire us. Generations of Christians have been brought up on Rees Howells, E.M. Bounds, Praying Hyde and a host of other incredible prayer warriors. People like this can be inspiring, but taken the wrong way, they can make you feel that you have never prayed at all! I would suggest that we have much to learn from the prayer “Greats”, but they should not be regarded as role models. Unless that is, you have a specific calling from God.

One of the great pray-ers of the last century was Smith Wigglesworth. He once said he never prayed for more than twenty minutes, but that he never went more than twenty minutes without praying! That kind of approach is probably more helpful. Make the most of the spare moments. Don’t allow yourself to be locked into a particular form or expression of prayer. Intimacy with the Spirit will take you into a far more effective and satisfying prayer life than the inspiration of prayer giants past or present.

Paul says in Colossians 4.2:

 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”

The Amplified Bible translates:

“Be earnest and unwearied and steadfast in your prayer [life], being [both] alert and intent in [your praying] with thanksgiving.”

That’s the challenge. But by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, it’s one we can rise to.