Life is a journey, with a beginning and end. We’re all travelers, somewhere on that journey, forever on the move, learning, growing, changing. The disruption caused by Covid-19, the daily news updates of casualties and the attempts to find a vaccine inevitably lead to a rollercoaster of emotions, highs and lows, hopes and fears. Psalm 23 is probably the most widely known and best loved of them all. In part it is because it addresses the strong emotions we often feel at times such as this. There are two parts to Psalm 23:
23:1-3 “The Lord Is My Shepherd” – What I affirm about God. 23:5-6 “You love will follow me” – What I experience of God.
23:4 links the two together. The Lord is my Shepherd because I know Lord you are with me.
As a young Christian at Sussex University in the early 1970’s, I was enthralled by David Pawson’s biblically-based teaching and coveted his weekly teaching audio cassette tapes, especially on controversial theological and political subjects. He taught me to root my faith in scripture and apply it to every aspect of life. Forty years on, I remember David with respect and admiration. View his website here.
The Psalms have a unique place in scripture. They have been likened to a hymn book. But not just any old hymnbook. Whether we feel like worship or not, as we begin to recite the verses of the psalms, something begins to happen in our hearts. It is as if the saying of the words draws us in to praise. John Piper says, “Thanksgiving with the mouth stirs up thankfulness in the heart.”
I don’t know about you, but I cannot read more than a few verses of Psalm 148 without wanting to sing the beautiful hymn “All Creatures of our God and King”. It was written by William Henry Draper, based on a poem by Francis of Assisi, and set to a tune composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. But as we sing, or say, the words of this psalm, I also confess that I smile at the absurd idea that somehow we human beings can instruct the angels, the sun and moon, the weather, the mountains, the seas, reptiles, birds and animals, to praise God. Why? Because the scriptures tell us this is something which they already do, naturally and instinctively, all the time.
On a recent flight I read an article in the airline magazine about a rather unique watch called a Tikker. It doesn’t just tell you the time – it tells you how long you have left to live. The author of the article, Ben Hamersley writes, “Do you have any idea how long you have left, well, actually? In total? To live? I do. It’s counting down on my wrist as I type this. I have, according to my watch, 44 years, ten months, five days, six hours, ten minutes to go. Even less by the time you read this, of course, and the information is coming to me every time I glance at my wrist. I’m wearing a Tikker watch, calibrated against my date of birth, nationality and other pertinent things, and displaying a forever depleting time left to my, actuarially predicted, statistically average, time of death. The brainchild of Fredrik Colting – a Swedish former gravedigger…” Fredrik obviously had plenty of time on his hands. We all do, and one of the things I love to do on a flight is watch the map of the world going by and the timer ticking down to the arrival time. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have one for our life journey? Fredrik hits the nail in the coffin by observing,
Beat the clock. Around the clock. Against the clock. Clock in. Carry the day. Once in a blue moon. From now on. In the long run Come of age. A day in the sun. The crack of dawn. Year in, year out. A month of Sundays. Hour of need. Full of the joys of spring. Now or never. The moment of truth. Better late than never. Make my day. Here today and gone tomorrow. A blink of the eye. Days are numbered. What do they all have in common? Time. We say, long time no see. Killing time. Wasting time. Behind the times. On time. Just in time. As time goes by. The nick of time. Do time. Serve time. A whale of a time. Save time. Good time. Ahead of time. No time to lose. The big time. High time. Time is money. Times flies. Crunch time. Out of time. Time for a change. Times up. I counted over 100 expressions for time. They all refer to chronological or sequential time.
I have always fancied going on a cruise in the sun and 15 years ago I got my chance. In 2004, I was invited to co-lead a late Autumn Cruise through the Mediterranean for MasterSun, a Christian travel company. It was billed as the “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” cruise. We visited some of the Biblical sites on Crete, Jerusalem and Galilee, and some of the sites of churches planted by Paul and the Apostles in Turkey, Patmos and Greece.
There were daily lectures to give about the significance of the places being visited the next day and the situation of Christian communities today. And we did indeed pray for the peace of Jerusalem. MasterSun had already invited a host from Christian Friends of Israel and they wanted someone to provide another perspective – hence me. When my name appeared in the publicity for the cruise, however, a rather eccentric Pentecostal minister warned in a prophecy that the ship would sink. MasterSun didn’t seem too worried but I did some research on the kind of whales that live in the Mediterranean.
The cruise actually went very smoothly. Apart from the last night. We encountered a rather violent electrical storm in the Aegean Sea not far from where Paul encountered his. This one had everyone on deck taking photos of the impressive thunder and lightning display. All except me. Being a little deaf without my hearing aids, I slept soundly right through the night. I heard all about it the next day at breakfast. It is the nearest I have come to experiencing the kind of crisis Paul describes in Acts 27. You may like to turn to it with me (and check out the outline in your weekly News)
The fact is, all of us, at one time or another, will find ourselves in a crisis. Sometimes we cause our own problems, sometimes we have no choice, but everyone experiences times of crisis. And it doesn’t seem to matter how good we’re trying to be. As the Scriptures say, “The rain falls on both the just and the unjust.” So how do we deal with a crisis? Like Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army crying “Don’t panic, don’t panic”? How can we stay calm? How can we maintain our confidence and courage, regardless of what happens? Continue reading →
I have a problem with suffering. I am sure you do also. A couple of years ago I experienced some of the worst pain in my life and I ended up in hospital. I knew the medical reasons why I was suffering but that didn’t make it any easier. If God wasn’t going to answer my prayer and take the pain away, I wanted to die. When the pain had gone I changed my mind. We struggle to keep their faith when confronted with pain or illness or death.
The problem of suffering is therefore a question we have something in common with our friends. The answer to our question should therefore help them as much as ourselves. For some it is an intellectual and theoretical question about the existence of God and problem of evil. For others it is a present and personal experience. The answer we give will greatly depend on the context. Our culture finds the issue of suffering a huge problem. The presence of pain and evil in the world leads many to question the existence of God. David Hume, the philosopher put it like this:
“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (David Hulme)
Here is how C.S. Lewis framed the dilemma,
‘If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain in its simplest form.’ (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
They say, “where there’s a will, there’s a family” and boy has there been a family dispute over the inheritance of Abraham. Millions and millions of the relatives of Ishmael and Isaac believe they are the rightful heirs. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the longest running dispute in the hands of the United Nations. In fact its over 4,000 years old. It is also the most dangerous military conflict in the world, without any international regulation of the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons held by some of Abraham’s descendants.
And it is undoubtedly the most controversial media story in the world with accusations of holocaust denial, anti-semitism, racism, apartheid and Islamophobia. And, sadly, it is being perpetuated by some misguided Christians. Today in our teaching series, ‘What Abraham discovered’ we are going to discover the rightful heirs of Abraham, how to resolve this age long conflict, and most important of all, how you can claim a share of Abraham’s inheritance.
I would like us to spend a little while thinking about the very first member of the church. The very first person to see the risen Lord Jesus, the first person to respond to him, the first person to tell the good news to others, was not one of the Apostles, but a woman, Mary Magdalene. Let’s discover how Mary became a member, the first member of Christ’s New Testament Church. Then let’s think what that means for us too. Mary Magdalene appears in all four Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus. From these we learn that Mary Magdalene became a friend and follower of Jesus after he cast out 7 demons from her.
She was present during Jesus’ trial (Matthew 27:45). She was there at the Crucifixion (John 19:25). She watched Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus (Luke 23:56). And on Easter Sunday she and some other women were the first to discover the stone had been rolled away (John 20:1), first to meet the risen Lord Jesus (John 20:15-16) first to tell the disbelieving disciples the good news (John 20:18).
I wonder if you have ever been to a Death Café? There are or have been nearly 3,000 around the world since the first was held in London in 2011. Visit www.deathcafe.com, enter your postcode and you will be directed to the nearest. There was one at Virginia Water Library last week. “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion about death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session. – With no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action – Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!” I welcome this initiative to break the taboo of talking about death. But how much more helpful and above all hopeful to discuss our mortality in the light of the most significant death in all of history.
John Owen, the 17th Century pastor and theologian, who became chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, managed to squeeze ‘death’ into the title of a book about Jesus, three times. “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” dwells on the love of Christ and the deep conviction that Christ’s work on the cross literally saves us from the deadly nature of sin.