Key to Life

Key to Life

Pastor Vince gave a passionate presentation this week of the key principles of Christian life, and life more generally. He then expanded this general theme by noting the example and attitude of the Apostle Paul.

Philippians 4: 10f reads, “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” A central factor in the key to life, is accepting the circumstances that we are in and making the most of the situation.

Pastor Vince then expanded this with the observation, that each of us has a different ministry, different lives, and different callings.  All too often, we fail to find “the peace beyond understanding,” because we are judging our own lives by the standards, abilities, and callings of others.

Paul had in several places spoken of the different gifts of the Spirit, and of the different parts and functions of parts of the body. We are meant to function corporately. Think in secular terms. Could we function as a society if everyone was a lawyer, or doctor? Who would build our houses or grow our food? We need to find the gift and vocation God has prepared us for, and then be the best at it we can be.  Not spending our time wishing we were something else, someone else, or that things were different.

Luke 22 shows us this.  Jesus told the disciples of trials ahead.  Peter took the view that that can’t be the case. He was after the “making things different than they are” approach. Verses 31 and 32 tell us how Jesus then prophecised, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Essentially it is saying “Peter, you are going to be tested, and tried. The chaff will be blown away, and what is left will be stronger for it.”

Tested, proved, completed. We have examples of this as well, notably in I Samuel 17. Young David had already killed a  lion and a bear before he ever saw Goliath. God had tested him, proved him, and perfected him to the task of facing giants.

We like Paul need to be open to the good and the bad.  We need to grow in the times of want, and to praise in the times of plenty. We need to not seek to accept that we have a role even when times are difficult, and wishing them away is not an option (like Peter had to learn). And we need to take those opportunities to grow and be tempered as Peter and David were.

The key to life, is to trust God who is guiding us, and to take the world for what it is, in the good and the bad.



The Gifts Within

images (1)

On Sunday Sister Ima brought her testimony, which was powerful in its humility, and insight.  The service’s theme was a reflection on the power of “ordinary” Christians to do great things.  Ima spoke about her inward faith, and how it made an impact into the life of her, then non-Christian, husband.  She told how her life of prayer and dedication, not expressions of ostentatiousness, but of simple faith, changed him by her example.  She went on to speak about the misfortune of a work-mate, whose family circumstances left in distress.  Ima, in living up to Christ’s call to “love your neighbour” showed acts of kindness, and has since changed the life of this family, again through prayer and example.

Pastor Vince expanded on this message by talking about some of his recent experiences where whole congregations reached out to touch, pray, and support one another.  Jesus called all Christians to “go into the world.” And in order to prepare us for this call, He has equipped each of us with the gifts necessary to fulfill to roles given to us by His Spirit.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4: 11-12).”

But not only these,

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines (1 Corinthians 12: 4-11).”

“Just as He determines.” We are gifted in building up the body.  Not all are pastors, but this does not mean that we “leave the work to the pastors.”  We each have gifts. We may only lack the confidence to use them.

I have had several Wizard of Oz moments recently.  Okay, some background first, I am a theologian and ecclesiastical historian. I have training, education, and experience.  But the Spirit is more powerful than any university or education system. He gives Christians the gifts mentioned. I am at times humbled by the knowledge and faith of my brothers and sisters.  I love learning from them!  Yes, I learn as they offer insights and experiences beyond my “book learning.”  This is not to say that I have nothing to offer, but it is all in the balance that Christ has constructed a body “just as He determines,” each uplifting and complimenting the gifts of others.

For those lacking confidence, trust in Him who is in you.  Remember the Wizard of Oz gave nothing to the Lion or Tin Man they didn’t already have within them.



A Matter of Scale


In cooking, and in life in general, scale is important.  If you are throwing together a snack, the difference of a gram or two either way usually doesn’t have a major impact.  General scales and guess-work are often all that is needed.  For more intricate dishes, tiny differences in the amount of spice or thickeners can have and profound effect on the subtlety of the flavours, or on the textures of the dish.  Precision can make all the  difference.

In my kitchen we have some grand old fashioned scales with brass weights and it is wonderful for rough work, and bread making.  We also have a set of electronic postal scales.  These are more exact than we can possibly ever need going into milligrams, but they are really useful when dividing recipes, or doing the fine work with spices.

Life is often that way too.  We can cut a few corners, make estimates rather than surveys, and get by with vague greetings to ones we know.  But there are times when “close enough for government work” doesn’t cut it.  We in our budgeting may need to really come in in the black, as there is not reserve to fall back on.  We might give that vague “How are you?” to someone who really needs to tell you how they are.  Are we prepared for that challenge?  Have you ever giving that quick and easy “Howdy” with no expectation of hearing (or sadly caring about) an answer?

Personally, I do try to only offer an open greeting of that sort with an expectation, of listening.  Usually, it is greeted with a “Fine, thanks,” but not always.  Sometimes it is about scale.  Rough and ready “Okay,” versus “I am really felling down.”  The first can be responded to with a nod.  The latter requires your ear, and better still your heart.

As a person of faith, I cannot afford to be lax. As Sister Lisa commented on in church a few weeks ago, we are ambassadors.  Are we cutting corners in the work we are tasked with from above? Are we shoddy workmen, or do we work with all of the precision of my kitchen postal scales?

Rough estimates work some of the time.  Exactitude rarely is expected of us (unless you work in finance). But in the eyes of God, there is an area we cannot dodge or hedge.  It is our conduct.  An ounce of extra flour may not spoil the loaf.  But sin in our lives, is still sin.  When it comes to scale there are not big sins and little sins.  People often think of the Ten Commandments and the weighty sins of murder, and theft.  But covetousness and disrespect to parents weigh equally heavy on God’s scales.

Let us examine our lives today, and measure them with the postal scales of His word, and not with the guesswork of indifference.




Pastor Rich centred the family service on Matthew 7:24-27 this week.  It is well known as the parable of the wise and foolish builders.

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’

The idea is clear, we need to make the foundations of our lives firm.  All too often people choose the wrong foundation to build their lives on however.  For some (especially in this present age) it is based on fame and prestige.   People seek out their fifteen minutes of fame.  Celebrity is a do all and end all in itself.  For others it is artificial crutches of drugs or alcohol which are seen to be needed “just to get through the day.” And yet for others, who may well look down upon those who build of the values of the world, they themselves often fall into the trap of “self-righteousness.”

But Jesus said there is a firm foundation, beyond the temporal, the artificial, and the self that gives life true meaning.  These are Jesus’  “words of mine  . . . puts  . . . into practice.” I remember a youth minister decades ago saying that each of us has a Christ-shaped vacuum within our lives.  Many of us seek to fill it with the wrong things.  Only Jesus, the true rock of foundation is sufficient to bear us up when “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew.”  

Are your foundations set in the rock of God’s love today, or on the sand of the illusion of stability?  Let us seek to dig deep into the stone of truth, and put the word into practice today.  Let’s be wise builders.


Why I Teach


There are many reasons why people become teachers. For some it is the desire to “make a difference” in the world. For others the motivation is a care and concern for young people.  And for yet others, it is the importance of their subjects, and the concern that knowledge of it endures.  We can add to this a small minority that didn’t know what else to do with their degree. [As an aside, I remember overhearing a conversation between two final year university students on their futures.  One of them said he would do teacher training, “while he worked out what he really wanted to do.”]

Why stay a teacher? Now here is a more interesting concept.  Some – but not all – of the world changers become disillusioned and leave.  Some “kid’s are our futures” types, equally withdraw after seeing the realities of the classroom.  And “preservation of knowledge” advocates become frustrated when their beloved topics fall on disinterested ears.  But the majority persevere. Why, because they come to embrace all of the above, and become educators.

Our little victories drive us onwards. That moment when little Johnny “gets it.”  The realization that these young people are indeed people, and they are developing into wonderful human beings.

I have been an educator for nearly three decades.  I may have started out as a “my subject matters” type, but I have grown!  I really care about the students I teach.  I feel for their hurts, and I really find joy in their triumphs.   I see them as full individuals, not just as recipients of my subject. As a case in point, I love watching the programme on the last day of the year, when those about to leave us make their speeches, share their recollections, and share their talents in music or drama.  I can look then, and take pride that I in some small part helped shape these awesome people.

That is why I teach.  I may not have changed the world, but I have touched the lives that have touched mine.


12 Great Quotes on Preaching


Preaching the word of God is a blessing, but also an irksome responsibility. There have been thousands of great proclaimers of the Gospel over the centuries, and I have picked just a few to share their sage advice on preaching.  I hope their words will help use to reflect on our own motivations and practice.


“Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow.” Richard Baxter

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15

“Keep up a humble sense of your own faults, and that will make you compassionate to others.”  Richard Baxter

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”  Francis of Assisi


“For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” 1 Corinthians 9:16

“Don’t preach to make friends or so we will be loved – don’t do that. Preach so God will be loved and souls will be saved” Marshall Keeble

“To preach Christ is to feed the soul, to justify it, to set it free, and to save it, if it believes the preaching.” Martin Luther

If a preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon.” John Calvin


“I preached as never sure to preach again, And as a dying man to dying men.”  Richard Baxter

“You can hit a nail too many times, then you bust the plank. So, don’t keep hitting it, hit it then ease off.” Marshall Keeble

“I would not have preachers torment their hearers, and detain them with long and tedious preaching.” Martin Luther

“If you haven’t struck oil in 20 minutes quit boring.” T. J. Jones (and others)







Four Responses to Emmanuel


Sister Amba presented an excellent message yesterday in which she brought in Christmastide with some reflections on how people reacted to the birth of Jesus in the original nativity story.  Her insights into human responses and how we each react to the coming of Emmanuel in our lives was uplifting as well as challenging.

The first respondent to the annunciation of the coming of the Christ was by Mary.  In Luke 1 we find this young woman confronted with an angelic message, that she was to give birth to Messiah.  Her response is straightforward and thoughtful.  “How can this be since I am a virgin?”  When she is told it is through the power of God she simply, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled (verse 28).”  Her response was of surrender and obedience.  “Let it be so.” How powerful is that?  No argument, no appeals to the social consequences.  Just acceptance that God’s will be done. Oh, that we could so easily do so in our lives!

The second response was found in the shepherds of Luke 2.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. . . .”15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Amba powerfully showed us that the birth of Jesus “turned the world upside down.”  The first recipients of the news of the birth of “God with us” came not to the mighty, but to the base.  Shepherds in a field are told of the event that would change lives for ever.  Their reactions of fear (at the presence of an angel), to curiosity (“Let’s go see”), turned to praise. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (verse 20).” We to have different reactions to the Son of God.  That message may have been frightening, it may seem alien to our sense and world view, and it may merely have sparked curiosity.  But has it turned to praise and rejoicing?  It should, it has been meant to be that transformational.

The third response Amba cited was that of the Magi.  These learned men of the East came to find a king born in Israel (Matthew 2).  They had seen His star. There is a lot of speculation on this, but many scholars (well it does fit the present response) believe they saw a “new star” or cosmic anomaly within the constellation which was thought to regulate the fate of Israel.   Using this astrological belief that a king had come to that nation, it was only natural for them to seek him out in the palace in Jerusalem.  This would explain their arrival in the capital rather than humble Bethlehem.  What though was the motivation “to come worship?”  Was it intellectual curiosity?  Was it the acknowledgement of “worldly power?”  Or was it just to confirm their own academic conceit? Whatever the reason, the result was that they overjoyed on actually finding the Christ. [It is interesting to speculate on the reasons they came, but the symbolism of their gifts whether intentional (a sign of faith), or ironic (a God given meaning to their intellectual gesture) still give us much to think about].  Is our response to Jesus of the head or of the heart?

The fourth response was that of Herod.  Matthew tells us that he and all his court were disturbed by the news of the Magi of a newborn king.  Herod is known to despise any rival, and was so obsessed with this even had his own children killed.  But, here we have a reaction of jealousy and outright malice.  He calls on all the children two years and under in the region of Bethlehem to be killed.  His reign is to be unopposed, even by a babe.  Amba noted that we can be like that.  We don’t like what Jesus exposes about us, and we sometimes strike out.  Herod did.

Of our four responses, only Herod failed to, in some measure, come to be changed by the coming of the Christ-child.  Whether our response to His coming and call is total surrender, joy, intellectual comfort, or heart-felt rejoicing – He will have made a change in us.  If all we feel is anger, jealousy, and pride, we have a dilemma.  But even in the case of such a rejection remember this – you may reject Him, but He still welcomes you.  “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).”

I thank Amba for giving the core of this post in her message, and I feel blessed to have heard it, and to have her words prompt me to dig deeper into the four responses.




Finding Haven in Virtue and Order


I often have had discussions with my students as to the purpose for rules.  Are rules arbitrary controls established by authority figures to subjugate their followers? Or are they means by which those who have wisdom attempt to aid and protect those around them?

Okay, in a modern political context, maybe a bit of both. But in Psalm 1 we find the following reflection: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither — whatever they do prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaf that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.”

Those who do not associate with people who are laws unto themselves will be blessed.  Those who meditate on the ideals of God with flourish. Verse 2 is interesting as it does not imply “pie in the sky” with a reward will be given later, nor does it promise vast wealth along the lines of the “faithful will be materially abundantly blessed” school.  Rather it is saying, that following the steady God-given course and purpose in life allows for a measure of comfort and fruitfulness.  This is the prosperity of what is needed.

My students at times have said that if we are free moral agents we should then indeed be free to do as we please, and to go after those things we want. Okay, as such a morally-free being you can.  But if the desires of your heart are arbitrary (see here is where the word arbitrary really comes into play), we must suffer the consequences not only of our own “unfettered” actions, but those of other free-agents as well.  What is the result? “Not so the wicked! They are like chaf that the wind blows away.”

This in part is the law of natural and logical consequences.  If you are out in dark alleys in the wee hours, in the company of those who do not value your rights, there seems to be a greater chance of something untoward happening to you, than if you were snugly in bed with a good book.

God’s laws (if followed) offer us protection.  Here we have a potential double fulfillment of the words of verse 6.  We know on the one hand that “every hair on our heads is counted,” and “not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge.”  Herein is His guiding and protecting hand.  But also His laws, guidance, and examples place us in a literal haven as well (as noted above).  Evil, and even merely self-serving actions do lead to destruction in many cases.

We can find virtue in the order that God has established for us.  In that virtue we find care and safety.  Human rules may well be self-serving, but God’s guidance offers sanctuary.



Finding the Shepherd


Stray Sheep

Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

This is a Psalm of comfort and of promise.  The image of God as the the protector and provider prefigures Jesus’ image of Himself as the same in John 10.  It reads, 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13 The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” 

The shepherd we are told prepares good pastures, and leads near still waters.  He provides food (and even anoints with oil).  He is prepared to lay down His life for His flock, and knows each individual.  What could be more comforting?

This Psalm was one of my earliest religious/spiritual encounters.  Its promise of safety, and care was and is reassuring.  The passage was recurrent in my youth as a scripture regularly in interfaith contact between Christians and Jews.  The same God, the same promise.

Too often today we gloss the promises of God.  The Psalm passes us by, and in the words of John 10, we start to put our trust into the hirelings.  Those individuals who seem to have authority (political, social, and yes even religious) and yet do not have the same fervour for our well-being as the “True Shepherd.”  No wonder we are so often left feeling let down by failed political promises, social one-up-man-ship, and at times barely veiled indifference.

Let us therefore turn back to the Shepherd today.  Remember, He is known by His own!


An Attitude of Entitlement


There has been a lot of discussion on the issue of entitlement of late. Michelle Obama has cited an attitude of entitlement among men, and there have been been blogs on the subject of regional and national attitudes.  It seems though that this concept, that one group of people should assume privilege over another, has been with us far longer than the present debates.  Whether it is British over their imperial subjects, the Party over the “ordinary” Soviets, or any other construction of presumed position.

This was true in the time of Jesus as well.  Luke 16 gives an account of a rich man and a poor man that slept rough at his gates. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 

Here we have a man accustomed to his riches of purple and linen.  He has feasted and not merely dined, and he has a house with gates and not just doors. When he dies he is sent into torment, and seeing the poor man in the presence of Abraham, he calls on the patriarch to send the poor man to comfort him.  His attitude of superiority has not been tempered by his situation.  When it is explained to him that he is beyond help, his concern shifts to his family, but even still he does not see the error of his attitude to Lazarus, for he again calls for him to be sent to serve his (and his family’s) needs.

So what do we do about this assumption of “I am owed” something?  When I was in the forces we owed a symbolic respect to superior officers.  This was manifested with a salute.  Interestingly, we were repeatedly reminded that this rendered courtesy was not directed to the person, but the position: “You salute the uniform, not the man.” There is a check on entitlement, if only but one.

With that aside made, we need to remember that all people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and as such are “entitled” to the same share of dignity.  Jesus expanded on this when He called on His followers to ” . . . ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these {along with loving God} (Mark 12:31).” He even used a despised Samaritan to illustrate His point (Luke 10).  

First John 4:7-8 provides a great starting point in changing our attitudes to entitlement. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Those who love, share.  Those who love, seek to bless those with whom they are in love.  Those who willingly give, move beyond “self.”  When the self is diminished, “entitlement” fades.