Monthly Archives: May 2008

streetdiversions 2008

Well, I may have had my photo woes on Saturday, but yesterday afternoon I managed to get some more photos of the streetdiversions festival. I've uploaded them to Flickr here, so although I haven't recreated everything I lost on Saturday, there are still photos of the wonderful Coneheads, Andrée Kupp, Stacey and Tracey from OzStar Airlines and others.

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Todd Bentley Again

In the interests of fairness, I watched a broadcast of Todd Bentley from the 'Lakeland Healing Revival' on God TV last night. I know, I can't believe what I just typed: I watched God TV. Anyway, the alternatives included the Eurovision Song Contest and Britain's Got Talent! But watching the broadcast is the closest I'm likely to get to someone I wrote about. Here are my thoughts on what I viewed:

1. I have no doubt that the guy is sincere. He's loud and passionate, and just because my personality style is much quieter, I'm not going to diss him for that. I was less sure about Roy Fields, the worship leader's insistence on extravert styles of worship, rather than letting the expressions of worship come from the hearts. I don't suppose he either was being insincere, it was more about the mode of worship and church he knows. Traditional churches that insist on people not being bodily expressive are just as wrong, in my estimation.

2. I'm still nervous about the approaches to the testimonies of healing. All but one of them came without medical verification. The one that did was where a nutritionist accompanied the testifier. And in fairness, another woman was supported by a doctor. A third said she was going to ask for another X-ray, which at least meant she was serious about verification, but I would have been happier hearing her story after that test. Bentley also read out the thirteenth case of a resurrection from the dead, but admitted he was reading it out before the story had been verified.

In every other case, the people were coming onto the stage within a few days of symptoms having improved. I do hope and pray, and especially as someone who does believe that God heals in response to our prayers, that none of these people is disappointed. But when it is so quick, there is still the danger of a case of psychological remission. I am happy to give Bentley the benefit of the doubt that in his excitement, but I fear it is getting the better of him. What will happen if any of these people have relapses? There is a danger for the spiritual effect upon them, and for those who heard it. The name of God will be besmirched.

Likewise, I wondered about the practice of getting people to donate their walking sticks, zimmer frames and wheelchairs so quickly. The relapse question looms large. And what is Bentley's team doing with the collection? I don't suppose they are being held in case the original sufferer needs them back – that would be inconsistent with the tone struck. But are they being given to hospitals, for example, or are they being kept as trophies? I'm not accusing him of anything dishonest, I just felt like I wanted an explanation when I heard it. Perhaps one has been given on other evenings. Does anybody know?

3. I still think – watching on a 28 inch TV screen rather than a small YouTube video that it looks like Bentley is giving the adults a gentle push when he prays for them in the name of his Big Bam Boom God. He never pushes the children (whose stories are, perhaps, the most touching). He blows gently on them. This does seem more appropriate and sensitive. But he doesn't seem to stop the prayer and laying on of hands until someone has fallen down and an assistant can arrive to cover them with a blanket.

4. I couldn't believe he was saying this, but Bentley really did ask those watching on TV or the Internet to lay their hands on the screen or monitor in order to receive the anointing, or the blessing they needed. It sounded like all the worst televangelist talk, of the 'Touch the television and feel my sincerity' variety. It seems to be linked into this idea of the 'transferable anointing', just as church leaders are travelling to Lakeland to receive the anointing and bring it home.

It all sounds a bit animist to me, but maybe I'm being unfair. What I do think is reasonable is that someone may have a particular experience of the Holy Spirit, and then they are so endued with divine power that when they pray for people, things happen that didn't before. I'm sure that God could 'transfer the anointing' via screens and monitors, but I wouldn't want to baptise that idea. I would see it as an act of grace. I suppose it would be like the stories in Acts about Paul's handkerchief, and those who wanted to have the shadow of Peter fall on them. One would have to be very careful to keep the focus on God and not an object that becomes the object of veneration. (The same is true, of course, regarding personalities.) I notice from Peter Kirk's account of his trip to Dudley that a handkerchief soaked in anointing oil is being used there as the ostensible means of 'transferring the anointing'.

5. Further to the regular invitations to 'come to Lakeland' is the need to theologise about the notion of the 'holy place'. It is something evangelicals have either denied, been wary about, or just not thought about. God is God. God is omnipresent. Yet God also chooses to manifest his presence in a particular place for his sovereign purposes. It is interesting that the notion of 'pilgrimage' is coming back in all sorts of Christian traditions. Some of that is purely spiritual: it is the sense that we have not arrived, for we are still on a journey. But a Lakeland or a Toronto becomes like a Protestant Lourdes, Walsingham or Santiago de Compostela. Again, the place must not be venerated, only the Lord of the place. Making pilgrimage to such a place needs to be from a sense that this is the place to which God has called me out of obedience, rather than an assumption that a visit is the current cure-all.

I have related before the story of visiting Glastonbury twenty years ago with my sister. We found the town, with its occult and new age shops, spiritually oppressive. We made a point of walking to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, where Christian prayer had been offered for centuries. There we felt 'clean'. I have heard, too, stories of Christians entering houses and feeling a sense of peace, only to discover afterwards that the previous residents were a Christian family. I would be reluctant to suggest that spiritual power somehow resided in the ground or the premises, but perhaps there is something in the sense of dedicating a place or objects as holy to the Lord. Presumably we wouldn't do that unless we believed that God took us at our words in making the dedication, and acted accordingly?

Overall, then, there is still the usual church mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent. However, with this phenomenon it is all magnified to a huge extent. May all of us, whatever our views of Bentley and Lakeland, echo the words of John the Baptist: 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'

Blog Changes

I've made a few alterations to the blog today. I'd be interested in your feedback.

1. Most obviously, I've changed the design scheme in Typepad. I'd had the old one for three years, and thought it was time for a change. Typepad has a huge array of themes. I think it's an improvement, but some might think the main colour is a bit garish. Would a softer pastel be better?

2. Most importantly, I have removed comment moderation. Your comments will now appear instantly. It seems to me that Typepad catches the great majority of the spam, and I also have filters in place to prevent certain profanities appearing. I hope this means that when a post gets popular, the conversation can proceed faster than it currently does. In any case, all comments and trackbacks still get emailed to me, and so I can unpublish or delete anything dodgy. I still don't mind hearty disagreement, it's only the offensive stuff I'd remove. If removing moderation does let a lot of filth through, then even though I can nuke it, I'll reinstate moderation.

3. If any of you read the blog in syndicated form, you'll now find that instead of just reading the first forty words of a post to judge whether it's worth reading, that has now increased to one hundred. Again, I'd be interested in any reactions to this change.

Language Of Zion

The other day I came across Ben
Myers’ post
on Daniel Radosh’s book ‘Rapture
Ready! Adventures in the parallel universe of Christian pop culture
’. The
very title (which seems, from an Amazon
search
, to be based on quite a few books) came the same day that somebody
had sent me an email, where the sign-off was something I hadn’t previously seen
in my sheltered Methodist upbringing: ‘Stay rapturable!’ It doesn’t quite fit
with my eschatology, but I suppose it’s better than being rupturable.

Which made me think about the ‘language of Zion’ that we
employ. Any specialist field or discipline has its own language, or uses common
words with a different meaning (think ‘factor’ in Maths, for example). We have
just had Trinity Sunday, and few Christian doctrines have more technical words
than the Trinity. And I certainly don’t want to diminish the importance of ‘the
language of mystery’.

But we get a bit daft in the church. Do I need all those
letters that begin, ‘Greetings in the precious name of the Lord Jesus Christ’?
I know what they mean, and some of them are sincere. Why, a few are even from
friends. Yes, the name of Jesus is precious, but over-use and reduction to
catchphrase diminish that sense of value for me.

I know a fair few of the Protestant (and especially
evangelical) words and phrases. I’m less familiar with what my friends who
climb burning candles and inhale pungent incense use. Or is this just an
evangelical disease? Can anyone help on this question?

I’m not blameless myself. Often, I end an email with the
words, ‘Grace and peace’. No, it’s not that I fancy myself as the Apostle Paul,
but I do like his use of those words in greetings. They convey something
important to me. I end some letters with ‘Yours in Christ.’ Prepare your
charges of hypocrisy to lay against me!

So why do we do it? Perhaps we need a secret code. On this
understanding, it is Christian undercover spy language. It is our equivalent to
the ICHTHUS symbol in the catacombs, before we made the fish badge something to
market. PTL and WWJD are the combinations that crack the code and let us
inside.

But if it is that, it is quite worrying. Although things may
be going against Christians in western society, we have not reached the level
of persecution that many of our sisters and brothers have. So we hardly need
the equivalent of the secret handshake. It therefore becomes a marker of who is
‘in’ and who is ‘out’, and our society is sensitive to issues of inclusion and
exclusion. Of course, some fundamental degree of inclusion and exclusion is
inevitable by virtue of positive or negative responses to Jesus Christ, but a
form that implicitly suggests superiority, and thus contradicts grace.

On another level, perhaps it indicates the difficulty we
have in translating the Gospel into what the Book of Common Prayer in its day
called ‘a tongue understanded of the people’. Are we so caught up with church
stuff and so unused to enjoying the company of non-Christians that we have no
language for mission, apart from slogans? Does anyone remember the Christian
policeman characters on ‘The
Fast Show
’? They had some of our religious clichés down to a tee.

In fact, what may seem to be a facetious subject is a missionary
question. It is indicative of our failure to heed the dictum of Helmut Thielicke that
the Gospel must always be forwarded to a new address. It is about the
assumption that people need not only to be converted to Christ but to our
culture. It thus denies incarnational mission.

Of course, maybe we shouldn’t get too po-faced about this.
Maybe the best account I’ve ever seen of this comes from the time when Ship Of Fools was a printed magazine in the
early 1980s. They published ‘The Ship Of Fools Dictionary Of Sanctified
Jargon’. It contained such gems as, ‘Suffer the little children’: see Sunday
School.

Why do you think Christians do this? And do you have any
amusing examples? Let’s have a bit of fun here.

I was going to end the post with that last paragraph, but as
well as having fun, we need (without getting po-faced, as I said) to think
about some solutions. Some are inherent in what I’ve written already. We need
to be careful about the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, especially when it is
couched in terms of persecution. We need to be more comfortable around those
who do not share our faith: rather than being petrified of them, 1 John reminds
us, ‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’ We seem to
function more with an Old Testament fear of ritual contamination than a New
Testament faith in which all those understandings have come to an end and
fulfilment in Christ.

But what do you think? As well as sharing some examples of
Christianese, what do you think we might do in order to kick the habit?

Photo Woes

Yesterday and today is Chelmsford's annual festival of strange and wonderful street theatre, streetdiversions. Having a day off yesterday, I went into town and spent six hours snapping away. I was snapping so much I thought I needed a new spare memory card for my camera. A helpful assistant I've dealt with before in Camera World sold me one of the spanking new 4 GB SD cards. Wonderful. That would take over two thousand photos at low resolution, or five hundred at high resolution.

Problem number one came last night. I formatted the new memory card, but the camera then threw up an error message. It wouldn't format on our Windows Vista computer (which occasionally throws hissy fits about formatting), but did so perfectly on our old Windows XP machine.

Fine, but the camera still gave the error message. It looks like it can't accept more than 1 GB of memory. Drat. Oh well, at least I can try to exchange it for some smaller cards, I thought, and if the shop won't accept that, I'll just have to eBay it to recoup some losses.

However, still needing memory space on my existing card, I decided I would back up the photos on it and delete them from the card. With too many to fit on a data CD, I formatted (successfully, it said) a data DVD. I left Vista churning away for the half an hour it lazily took to copy the pictures onto the DVD. I checked, and the photos were clearly on the DVD, so I deleted them from the memory card.

This morning, I thought I'd upload some of them to my Flickr account. Second problem. Mighty big one. This formatted DVD with photos on it now appears as a blank, unformatted disc to Vista, and is unreadable or corrupted to XP. And I had deleted the pictures from the memory card – nearly five hundred. While most were from yesterday, I needed several ready for a church website we hope to upload.

I think you can imagine how I feel …

Sunday’s Sermon: Don’t Worry, Be Faithful

Matthew 6:24-34

Introduction
Petrol
prices up, up, up
: a
barrel of oil has doubled in a year
. Gas and electricity up. Food prices
up. And the official inflation figures? Not up very much at all. Of course,
governments never fiddle statistics …

I paid
my credit card bill this week, and it looks like we’ve just eked out the money
to the end of the quarter[1].
It had been an expensive quarter. I had needed two new pairs of glasses. The vacuum
cleaner had become so unreliable it needed replacing. My car required an
expensive annual service, not least because the garage discovered that the
front brakes were in advanced state of wear.

You
may well be able to write your own version of this – not least if you are on a
limited or fixed income. Financially, things are becoming tighter for many of
us.

And
in a world like that, we hear Jesus telling us not to worry about money, food
and clothing. ‘Don’t worry?’ we wonder, ‘How can we not worry?’

So
how can we receive Jesus’ words today? Is he hopelessly unrealistic, or does
his teaching here help us to face an uncertain and rocky world with faith and
hope? Well, there aren’t too many Christian preachers who will say Jesus is
unrealistic (there shouldn’t be any!). I think he helps us to face uncertain
times with confidence in him. He does so by giving us a mixture of challenges
and encouragement.

1. Loyalty
‘You cannot serve God and wealth,’ says Jesus (verse 24). God versus Mammon:
choose. Mammon seems to have been the god of wealth in ancient Carthage[2].
God versus wealth is a choice of gods: whom will we serve? Who will have our
loyalty? Only one can have our devotion, and to the extent, says Jesus, in
typically colourful Jewish language, that all else will seem like hatred.

If we
are to face financial matters with peace and not worry, the first thing we have
to do is settle the issue of our loyalty. If Mammon is our god, then our moods
will swing more violently than the stock market. If the Lord is our God, then
our trust is in the One called The Rock. God is dependable.

It’s
easy to see the ways in which the gods of wealth – modern-day Mammons – are worshipped
today. Remember Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan when he was first elected to the
White House: ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. But wealth is a created thing: if it
is worshipped in place of the Creator, then it must be an idol, a false god. It
should not command our ultimate loyalty.

Yet
do we get our loyalties twisted, too? In another context, I recently read a
book where the author was saying that one of the problems in certain sections
of the church was that people invited Jesus to be part of their story, when true
conversion was about saying we were becoming part of Jesus’ story[3]. Jesus
is no optional extra to be added to life. Jesus is Lord.

This
is not necessarily a call to take a vow of poverty, although God may call some
to that. We still need money. We should still be sensible with it. Nor is God a
spoilsport: he does allow us to enjoy good things from his creation, just so
long as we remain more attached to him than to things. For times will come when
our loyalty to Christ is tested by our attitude to finance. It may be about a
major purchase, or the expectations we have about our lifestyles. It may be
about what we budget for in our outgoings.

However,
it will be rare to find there is a biblical passage that explicitly tells us
what to do. No verse tells me what quality of car I may drive, how much I should
spend on a new computer or a reasonable amount to spend on a meal out with my
wife.

It’s
more subtle than that. The test of loyalty is a test of the heart. We answer it
by listening to the promptings of the Spirit, seeking advice from others and doing
that most difficult of things, listening to the true motives of our hearts. When
we can discern our motives, we shall know whether our desire is to please the
Lord or serve the idol of Mammon.

2. Value
If you’re anything like us, one of the things you’ll have thought about in the
current financial climate is your major outgoings. What is your biggest
expenditure, and where can you trim? Not having a mortgage, our biggest regular
expense is the weekly food bill. We try to be careful not to buy those impulse
purchases that bump up the bill.

Then
Jesus tells us not to worry about food, drink and clothing! Yet they are some
of our biggest expenses! And don’t worry about how long we might live – even though
our nation spends billions on the National Health Service. Isn’t this advice
financial suicide? It sounds like it.

It isn’t
when you consider why Jesus tells us not to worry about these things. He tells
us to look at God’s care for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. In
God’s eyes, we are more valuable than either of these is. The people who spend
their time worrying and striving after these things are ‘the Gentiles’ – that is,
in this context, those who do not believe in the Lord. (Verses 25-32)

Therefore,
it’s an action of unbelief to spend all our time worrying about money and
possessions. What is it we don’t believe? We don’t believe that God loves us. We
don’t believe that God values us like nothing else on earth.

So stop
for a moment and consider just how much God does love and value us. God is
love, and created everything in love. Human beings are the only part of that
creation to be made in God’s image. In love, God still sought us out when we
turned our backs on him. Ultimately, in love, the Father sent his Son. Jesus
was born in poverty and humility. He died a terrible death and was raised from
the dead to reconcile us to God. God then comes by his Spirit to dwell within
and among his disciples. God wants to be with us; God is with us! That is how
much God loves and values us.

When
worry and stress come our way, we tend to forget important things. It’s time to
remember that God has placed an extraordinary value upon us. No transfer fee for
a footballer can match God’s valuation of us. He values us by the life of his
Son. No riches or possessions can compare with the Holy Spirit of God dwelling
within us.

So am
I advocating a reckless attitude to money? No – and yes. No, because we should
still plan our income, our spending and our giving carefully. Yet however
wisely we do that, we may still feel the pressure. Then it is time to remember
the great love God has for us, and the enormous value he places on us. A God
who views us like that will give us peace; he will look after us and provide for
our needs.

But
yes, there is a sense of recklessness about this, too, because on top of everything
else, God may challenge us in prayer to do something with our finances or
possessions that may seem crazy. God may lead us to do something that humanly doesn’t
make sense. Then, even more, is the time to remember the value God places on us,
and the immense love he has for us. If God clearly leads us in an unusual
direction with our wealth, we can be sure he will provide. The missionary
pioneer Hudson Taylor
once said, ‘God’s will done in God’s way will never lack the mean or the means.’[4]

3. The Kingdom
If we have an unqualified loyalty to our Lord and we believe he loves and
values us immeasurably, then what should our attitude be? Jesus says that instead
of striving for money and possessions, we are to ‘strive first for the kingdom
of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to [us] as
well’ (verse 33). Put simply, commit yourself above all things to the will of
God and he will supply your needs. Here’s how that happened once for me.

As you
know, I have been to two theological colleges. I applied to my first college at
a time in my life when I knew God was calling me to something, but I didn’t
know what, so I couldn’t ‘candidate’ for the ministry. Trinity College, Bristol offered me a
place. I applied for a grant (this was before student loans), but my education authority
turned me down. The college gave me a deadline by which I could guarantee them I
had the funds for my first year, and I appealed against the decision the
education authority made.

Forty-eight
hours before the college deadline, I learned that I had lost my appeal. What now?
Had I misread God’s guidance? However, it was at this stage that things started
to happen. My parents rediscovered some old funds they had forgotten. A student
who had taken a gap year between A-Levels and college and had worked to save
money for a car gave those savings to me. Her boyfriend also gave me some
money. Two elderly women at church gave me large sums of money. One wrote a
covering letter. She said, ‘It seems that God is asking you to trust him to
supply your needs. He will supply ours, too.’

By the
deadline, I had three quarters of the money required for that first year. I phoned
the Vice-Principal. He said they would take me, and help me with applications
to charities and trusts when I got there. He didn’t know I’d tried that and got
nowhere.

I preached
a sermon at a church other than my own in my circuit where I told how God had
provided for my needs. I didn’t explain that I still needed some more money. Afterwards,
a friend invited me back to his flat for coffee. He explained that he had been
planning a big holiday to New Zealand to see his auntie, but she had since died
and he saw no point in going. He had exchanged his sterling for New Zealand
dollars. However, the dollar had since fallen in value against the pound and he
had held onto the currency in hope that the exchange rates would go back in his
favour. They had worsened, and the money was annoying him. Would I like to take
this annoyance off him? Into my lap he threw two plastic Thomas Cook envelopes.
They contained NZ$2310. At the time (1986) this was worth £741, and I realised
he had originally exchanged £1000.

Later,
a friend at church who was a bank manager set up an account so that anyone
could give anonymously towards my support. With that and other gifts, all my
needs were provided for three years at college.

It all
felt like something out of a paperback testimony. Yet I felt very ordinary. I was.
I still am. I was no superhero of the faith. Jesus meant it when he said, ‘Seek
first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be
given to you as well.’

Conclusion
This morning we are offering prayer for healing during the intercessions after
the next hymn. However, healing is not merely about our bodies. It is about
every aspect of life. Perhaps your fear or anxiety needs a healing touch from
God. If so, then let me invite you – just as much as anybody else – to come to
the communion rail for anointing with oil. Come to declare your unqualified
loyalty to Jesus Christ, and find an assurance from him that God loves you and
values like nothing else, and that when you commit yourself to his will, he
will meet your every need so that you may fulfil his kingdom purposes in your
life.


[1]
Methodist ministers are traditionally paid quarterly, not monthly (although the
latter option may now be chosen).

[4] An
apology for the exclusive language, but Taylor was a man of his time.

Sunday’s Sermon: Don’t Worry, Be Faithful

Matthew 6:24-34

Introduction
Petrol
prices up, up, up
: a
barrel of oil has doubled in a year
. Gas and electricity up. Food prices
up. And the official inflation figures? Not up very much at all. Of course,
governments never fiddle statistics …

I paid
my credit card bill this week, and it looks like we’ve just eked out the money
to the end of the quarter[1].
It had been an expensive quarter. I had needed two new pairs of glasses. The vacuum
cleaner had become so unreliable it needed replacing. My car required an
expensive annual service, not least because the garage discovered that the
front brakes were in advanced state of wear.

You
may well be able to write your own version of this – not least if you are on a
limited or fixed income. Financially, things are becoming tighter for many of
us.

And
in a world like that, we hear Jesus telling us not to worry about money, food
and clothing. ‘Don’t worry?’ we wonder, ‘How can we not worry?’

So
how can we receive Jesus’ words today? Is he hopelessly unrealistic, or does
his teaching here help us to face an uncertain and rocky world with faith and
hope? Well, there aren’t too many Christian preachers who will say Jesus is
unrealistic (there shouldn’t be any!). I think he helps us to face uncertain
times with confidence in him. He does so by giving us a mixture of challenges
and encouragement.

1. Loyalty
‘You cannot serve God and wealth,’ says Jesus (verse 24). God versus Mammon:
choose. Mammon seems to have been the god of wealth in ancient Carthage[2].
God versus wealth is a choice of gods: whom will we serve? Who will have our
loyalty? Only one can have our devotion, and to the extent, says Jesus, in
typically colourful Jewish language, that all else will seem like hatred.

If we
are to face financial matters with peace and not worry, the first thing we have
to do is settle the issue of our loyalty. If Mammon is our god, then our moods
will swing more violently than the stock market. If the Lord is our God, then
our trust is in the One called The Rock. God is dependable.

It’s
easy to see the ways in which the gods of wealth – modern-day Mammons – are worshipped
today. Remember Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan when he was first elected to the
White House: ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. But wealth is a created thing: if it
is worshipped in place of the Creator, then it must be an idol, a false god. It
should not command our ultimate loyalty.

Yet
do we get our loyalties twisted, too? In another context, I recently read a
book where the author was saying that one of the problems in certain sections
of the church was that people invited Jesus to be part of their story, when true
conversion was about saying we were becoming part of Jesus’ story[3]. Jesus
is no optional extra to be added to life. Jesus is Lord.

This
is not necessarily a call to take a vow of poverty, although God may call some
to that. We still need money. We should still be sensible with it. Nor is God a
spoilsport: he does allow us to enjoy good things from his creation, just so
long as we remain more attached to him than to things. For times will come when
our loyalty to Christ is tested by our attitude to finance. It may be about a
major purchase, or the expectations we have about our lifestyles. It may be
about what we budget for in our outgoings.

However,
it will be rare to find there is a biblical passage that explicitly tells us
what to do. No verse tells me what quality of car I may drive, how much I should
spend on a new computer or a reasonable amount to spend on a meal out with my
wife.

It’s
more subtle than that. The test of loyalty is a test of the heart. We answer it
by listening to the promptings of the Spirit, seeking advice from others and doing
that most difficult of things, listening to the true motives of our hearts. When
we can discern our motives, we shall know whether our desire is to please the
Lord or serve the idol of Mammon.

2. Value
If you’re anything like us, one of the things you’ll have thought about in the
current financial climate is your major outgoings. What is your biggest
expenditure, and where can you trim? Not having a mortgage, our biggest regular
expense is the weekly food bill. We try to be careful not to buy those impulse
purchases that bump up the bill.

Then
Jesus tells us not to worry about food, drink and clothing! Yet they are some
of our biggest expenses! And don’t worry about how long we might live – even though
our nation spends billions on the National Health Service. Isn’t this advice
financial suicide? It sounds like it.

It isn’t
when you consider why Jesus tells us not to worry about these things. He tells
us to look at God’s care for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. In
God’s eyes, we are more valuable than either of these is. The people who spend
their time worrying and striving after these things are ‘the Gentiles’ – that is,
in this context, those who do not believe in the Lord. (Verses 25-32)

Therefore,
it’s an action of unbelief to spend all our time worrying about money and
possessions. What is it we don’t believe? We don’t believe that God loves us. We
don’t believe that God values us like nothing else on earth.

So stop
for a moment and consider just how much God does love and value us. God is
love, and created everything in love. Human beings are the only part of that
creation to be made in God’s image. In love, God still sought us out when we
turned our backs on him. Ultimately, in love, the Father sent his Son. Jesus
was born in poverty and humility. He died a terrible death and was raised from
the dead to reconcile us to God. God then comes by his Spirit to dwell within
and among his disciples. God wants to be with us; God is with us! That is how
much God loves and values us.

When
worry and stress come our way, we tend to forget important things. It’s time to
remember that God has placed an extraordinary value upon us. No transfer fee for
a footballer can match God’s valuation of us. He values us by the life of his
Son. No riches or possessions can compare with the Holy Spirit of God dwelling
within us.

So am
I advocating a reckless attitude to money? No – and yes. No, because we should
still plan our income, our spending and our giving carefully. Yet however
wisely we do that, we may still feel the pressure. Then it is time to remember
the great love God has for us, and the enormous value he places on us. A God
who views us like that will give us peace; he will look after us and provide for
our needs.

But
yes, there is a sense of recklessness about this, too, because on top of everything
else, God may challenge us in prayer to do something with our finances or
possessions that may seem crazy. God may lead us to do something that humanly doesn’t
make sense. Then, even more, is the time to remember the value God places on us,
and the immense love he has for us. If God clearly leads us in an unusual
direction with our wealth, we can be sure he will provide. The missionary
pioneer Hudson Taylor
once said, ‘God’s will done in God’s way will never lack the mean or the means.’[4]

3. The Kingdom
If we have an unqualified loyalty to our Lord and we believe he loves and
values us immeasurably, then what should our attitude be? Jesus says that instead
of striving for money and possessions, we are to ‘strive first for the kingdom
of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to [us] as
well’ (verse 33). Put simply, commit yourself above all things to the will of
God and he will supply your needs. Here’s how that happened once for me.

As you
know, I have been to two theological colleges. I applied to my first college at
a time in my life when I knew God was calling me to something, but I didn’t
know what, so I couldn’t ‘candidate’ for the ministry. Trinity College, Bristol offered me a
place. I applied for a grant (this was before student loans), but my education authority
turned me down. The college gave me a deadline by which I could guarantee them I
had the funds for my first year, and I appealed against the decision the
education authority made.

Forty-eight
hours before the college deadline, I learned that I had lost my appeal. What now?
Had I misread God’s guidance? However, it was at this stage that things started
to happen. My parents rediscovered some old funds they had forgotten. A student
who had taken a gap year between A-Levels and college and had worked to save
money for a car gave those savings to me. Her boyfriend also gave me some
money. Two elderly women at church gave me large sums of money. One wrote a
covering letter. She said, ‘It seems that God is asking you to trust him to
supply your needs. He will supply ours, too.’

By the
deadline, I had three quarters of the money required for that first year. I phoned
the Vice-Principal. He said they would take me, and help me with applications
to charities and trusts when I got there. He didn’t know I’d tried that and got
nowhere.

I preached
a sermon at a church other than my own in my circuit where I told how God had
provided for my needs. I didn’t explain that I still needed some more money. Afterwards,
a friend invited me back to his flat for coffee. He explained that he had been
planning a big holiday to New Zealand to see his auntie, but she had since died
and he saw no point in going. He had exchanged his sterling for New Zealand
dollars. However, the dollar had since fallen in value against the pound and he
had held onto the currency in hope that the exchange rates would go back in his
favour. They had worsened, and the money was annoying him. Would I like to take
this annoyance off him? Into my lap he threw two plastic Thomas Cook envelopes.
They contained NZ$2310. At the time (1986) this was worth £741, and I realised
he had originally exchanged £1000.

Later,
a friend at church who was a bank manager set up an account so that anyone
could give anonymously towards my support. With that and other gifts, all my
needs were provided for three years at college.

It all
felt like something out of a paperback testimony. Yet I felt very ordinary. I was.
I still am. I was no superhero of the faith. Jesus meant it when he said, ‘Seek
first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be
given to you as well.’

Conclusion
This morning we are offering prayer for healing during the intercessions after
the next hymn. However, healing is not merely about our bodies. It is about
every aspect of life. Perhaps your fear or anxiety needs a healing touch from
God. If so, then let me invite you – just as much as anybody else – to come to
the communion rail for anointing with oil. Come to declare your unqualified
loyalty to Jesus Christ, and find an assurance from him that God loves you and
values like nothing else, and that when you commit yourself to his will, he
will meet your every need so that you may fulfil his kingdom purposes in your
life.


[1]
Methodist ministers are traditionally paid quarterly, not monthly (although the
latter option may now be chosen).

[4] An
apology for the exclusive language, but Taylor was a man of his time.

Sunday’s Sermon: Don’t Worry, Be Faithful

Matthew 6:24-34

Introduction
Petrol
prices up, up, up
: a
barrel of oil has doubled in a year
. Gas and electricity up. Food prices
up. And the official inflation figures? Not up very much at all. Of course,
governments never fiddle statistics …

I paid
my credit card bill this week, and it looks like we’ve just eked out the money
to the end of the quarter[1].
It had been an expensive quarter. I had needed two new pairs of glasses. The vacuum
cleaner had become so unreliable it needed replacing. My car required an
expensive annual service, not least because the garage discovered that the
front brakes were in advanced state of wear.

You
may well be able to write your own version of this – not least if you are on a
limited or fixed income. Financially, things are becoming tighter for many of
us.

And
in a world like that, we hear Jesus telling us not to worry about money, food
and clothing. ‘Don’t worry?’ we wonder, ‘How can we not worry?’

So
how can we receive Jesus’ words today? Is he hopelessly unrealistic, or does
his teaching here help us to face an uncertain and rocky world with faith and
hope? Well, there aren’t too many Christian preachers who will say Jesus is
unrealistic (there shouldn’t be any!). I think he helps us to face uncertain
times with confidence in him. He does so by giving us a mixture of challenges
and encouragement.

1. Loyalty
‘You cannot serve God and wealth,’ says Jesus (verse 24). God versus Mammon:
choose. Mammon seems to have been the god of wealth in ancient Carthage[2].
God versus wealth is a choice of gods: whom will we serve? Who will have our
loyalty? Only one can have our devotion, and to the extent, says Jesus, in
typically colourful Jewish language, that all else will seem like hatred.

If we
are to face financial matters with peace and not worry, the first thing we have
to do is settle the issue of our loyalty. If Mammon is our god, then our moods
will swing more violently than the stock market. If the Lord is our God, then
our trust is in the One called The Rock. God is dependable.

It’s
easy to see the ways in which the gods of wealth – modern-day Mammons – are worshipped
today. Remember Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan when he was first elected to the
White House: ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. But wealth is a created thing: if it
is worshipped in place of the Creator, then it must be an idol, a false god. It
should not command our ultimate loyalty.

Yet
do we get our loyalties twisted, too? In another context, I recently read a
book where the author was saying that one of the problems in certain sections
of the church was that people invited Jesus to be part of their story, when true
conversion was about saying we were becoming part of Jesus’ story[3]. Jesus
is no optional extra to be added to life. Jesus is Lord.

This
is not necessarily a call to take a vow of poverty, although God may call some
to that. We still need money. We should still be sensible with it. Nor is God a
spoilsport: he does allow us to enjoy good things from his creation, just so
long as we remain more attached to him than to things. For times will come when
our loyalty to Christ is tested by our attitude to finance. It may be about a
major purchase, or the expectations we have about our lifestyles. It may be
about what we budget for in our outgoings.

However,
it will be rare to find there is a biblical passage that explicitly tells us
what to do. No verse tells me what quality of car I may drive, how much I should
spend on a new computer or a reasonable amount to spend on a meal out with my
wife.

It’s
more subtle than that. The test of loyalty is a test of the heart. We answer it
by listening to the promptings of the Spirit, seeking advice from others and doing
that most difficult of things, listening to the true motives of our hearts. When
we can discern our motives, we shall know whether our desire is to please the
Lord or serve the idol of Mammon.

2. Value
If you’re anything like us, one of the things you’ll have thought about in the
current financial climate is your major outgoings. What is your biggest
expenditure, and where can you trim? Not having a mortgage, our biggest regular
expense is the weekly food bill. We try to be careful not to buy those impulse
purchases that bump up the bill.

Then
Jesus tells us not to worry about food, drink and clothing! Yet they are some
of our biggest expenses! And don’t worry about how long we might live – even though
our nation spends billions on the National Health Service. Isn’t this advice
financial suicide? It sounds like it.

It isn’t
when you consider why Jesus tells us not to worry about these things. He tells
us to look at God’s care for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. In
God’s eyes, we are more valuable than either of these is. The people who spend
their time worrying and striving after these things are ‘the Gentiles’ – that is,
in this context, those who do not believe in the Lord. (Verses 25-32)

Therefore,
it’s an action of unbelief to spend all our time worrying about money and
possessions. What is it we don’t believe? We don’t believe that God loves us. We
don’t believe that God values us like nothing else on earth.

So stop
for a moment and consider just how much God does love and value us. God is
love, and created everything in love. Human beings are the only part of that
creation to be made in God’s image. In love, God still sought us out when we
turned our backs on him. Ultimately, in love, the Father sent his Son. Jesus
was born in poverty and humility. He died a terrible death and was raised from
the dead to reconcile us to God. God then comes by his Spirit to dwell within
and among his disciples. God wants to be with us; God is with us! That is how
much God loves and values us.

When
worry and stress come our way, we tend to forget important things. It’s time to
remember that God has placed an extraordinary value upon us. No transfer fee for
a footballer can match God’s valuation of us. He values us by the life of his
Son. No riches or possessions can compare with the Holy Spirit of God dwelling
within us.

So am
I advocating a reckless attitude to money? No – and yes. No, because we should
still plan our income, our spending and our giving carefully. Yet however
wisely we do that, we may still feel the pressure. Then it is time to remember
the great love God has for us, and the enormous value he places on us. A God
who views us like that will give us peace; he will look after us and provide for
our needs.

But
yes, there is a sense of recklessness about this, too, because on top of everything
else, God may challenge us in prayer to do something with our finances or
possessions that may seem crazy. God may lead us to do something that humanly doesn’t
make sense. Then, even more, is the time to remember the value God places on us,
and the immense love he has for us. If God clearly leads us in an unusual
direction with our wealth, we can be sure he will provide. The missionary
pioneer Hudson Taylor
once said, ‘God’s will done in God’s way will never lack the mean or the means.’[4]

3. The Kingdom
If we have an unqualified loyalty to our Lord and we believe he loves and
values us immeasurably, then what should our attitude be? Jesus says that instead
of striving for money and possessions, we are to ‘strive first for the kingdom
of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to [us] as
well’ (verse 33). Put simply, commit yourself above all things to the will of
God and he will supply your needs. Here’s how that happened once for me.

As you
know, I have been to two theological colleges. I applied to my first college at
a time in my life when I knew God was calling me to something, but I didn’t
know what, so I couldn’t ‘candidate’ for the ministry. Trinity College, Bristol offered me a
place. I applied for a grant (this was before student loans), but my education authority
turned me down. The college gave me a deadline by which I could guarantee them I
had the funds for my first year, and I appealed against the decision the
education authority made.

Forty-eight
hours before the college deadline, I learned that I had lost my appeal. What now?
Had I misread God’s guidance? However, it was at this stage that things started
to happen. My parents rediscovered some old funds they had forgotten. A student
who had taken a gap year between A-Levels and college and had worked to save
money for a car gave those savings to me. Her boyfriend also gave me some
money. Two elderly women at church gave me large sums of money. One wrote a
covering letter. She said, ‘It seems that God is asking you to trust him to
supply your needs. He will supply ours, too.’

By the
deadline, I had three quarters of the money required for that first year. I phoned
the Vice-Principal. He said they would take me, and help me with applications
to charities and trusts when I got there. He didn’t know I’d tried that and got
nowhere.

I preached
a sermon at a church other than my own in my circuit where I told how God had
provided for my needs. I didn’t explain that I still needed some more money. Afterwards,
a friend invited me back to his flat for coffee. He explained that he had been
planning a big holiday to New Zealand to see his auntie, but she had since died
and he saw no point in going. He had exchanged his sterling for New Zealand
dollars. However, the dollar had since fallen in value against the pound and he
had held onto the currency in hope that the exchange rates would go back in his
favour. They had worsened, and the money was annoying him. Would I like to take
this annoyance off him? Into my lap he threw two plastic Thomas Cook envelopes.
They contained NZ$2310. At the time (1986) this was worth £741, and I realised
he had originally exchanged £1000.

Later,
a friend at church who was a bank manager set up an account so that anyone
could give anonymously towards my support. With that and other gifts, all my
needs were provided for three years at college.

It all
felt like something out of a paperback testimony. Yet I felt very ordinary. I was.
I still am. I was no superhero of the faith. Jesus meant it when he said, ‘Seek
first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be
given to you as well.’

Conclusion
This morning we are offering prayer for healing during the intercessions after
the next hymn. However, healing is not merely about our bodies. It is about
every aspect of life. Perhaps your fear or anxiety needs a healing touch from
God. If so, then let me invite you – just as much as anybody else – to come to
the communion rail for anointing with oil. Come to declare your unqualified
loyalty to Jesus Christ, and find an assurance from him that God loves you and
values like nothing else, and that when you commit yourself to his will, he
will meet your every need so that you may fulfil his kingdom purposes in your
life.


[1]
Methodist ministers are traditionally paid quarterly, not monthly (although the
latter option may now be chosen).

[4] An
apology for the exclusive language, but Taylor was a man of his time.

Writing Fix

Want to write a story? Stuck for ideas? Try the ‘interactive plot creator’ here: WritingFix: The original home of interactive writing prompts and lesson ideas for teachers I pressed ‘setting’ and got ‘an office building’; for ‘character’, I got ‘a princess’; and for ‘conflict’, up came ‘your character needs water badly’. Now, off you go!

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Gardener’s Gospel

I am no gardener. I hate gardening. But my writer friend Fiona Veitch Smith loves gardening, and is writing about it from a spiritual perspective. Why not surf over to her site and read some of her ‘Gardener’s Gospel’ posts? Oh, and leave her a comment to encourage her.