Monthly Archives: October 2012

Guest Post: Praying Against Panic And Anxiety

In a world where stress is endemic and various therapies have arisen to help people combat it, do you ever wonder how a professional from that field views the place of Christian faith in dealing with anxiety? Ryan Rivera from the Calm Clinic offered to write for this blog with his perspective. I’d be delighted to know what you think of his piece, which follows:


Certain situations and daily life in general can make people constantly anxious about the way their life can play out. You might find yourself in a moment where a sudden rush of negative and bothersome thoughts floods your mind, leaving you worried and shaken. Sometimes, this kind of thinking can cause you to turn away from good and wallow in all your woes. What you might not know is turning to God for anxiety help can uplift you and allow you to power through your negativity with renewed strength and willpower.

You are blessed and you don’t have to fear. Whatever it is that you are worried about, leave it up to God. He is always with you, to guide you and bless you. Don’t sulk and just turn to God, and you will get your strength back.

Why worry?

Worrying might be a reason for you to lose your connection with God. When you dwell on your anxiousness and shut out any possible form of comfort from Him, you will never be at peace. Don’t let your fear get the best of you. Never forget that God is always with you, and whatever it is that is causing you to think ill thoughts can be overcome if you keep the faith. Seek God for comfort and listen to His word so that you may be enlightened.

Keep your spirituality strong and you will not have to let the negativity bother you. Always pray, attend service, keep up with worship. Strengthen your faith. These little things can slowly help you combat anxiousness and pessimism. Every little thing you do as a spiritual being will contribute to your positivity because you will never forget that you are not alone.

To remind you that you are blessed, one way to get anxiety help is to read up on encouraging scriptures. Think of Psalm 29:11 for strength: “The Lord gives his people strength. The Lord blesses them with peace.” Turn to the Bible for verses that you might find applicable to your current situation. These can help remind you of God’s unconditional love for you, so take this chance to be a blessing to others who might be needing God’s grace as well.

Praying for inner peace

Communicate with God whenever you feel like you are bogged down by worries and misgivings. Address your problems to Him, and keep in mind that he will always lead you to the right path. Ask Him to keep guiding you, that you may be able to share his love to more people. Remember that with God, you would never have to worry.

When seeking anxiety help, remember to pray for inner peace. Keep 2 Timothy 1:7 in mind: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Prayer will keep you on track and will keep you grounded while you carry out God’s plan for you. Being anxious and panicky will do you no good. With God on your side, you should never fear.

Be thankful

Worrying might make you forget how truly blessed you are. With God’s love and grace, you should be forever grateful. Keep this in mind and use it as a form of anxiety help. Count your blessings and ask yourself how you can be a blessing to others. God wants you to be happy and could only wish the best for you. He will stay beside you to make sure you never forget.

If you can’t help but worry, remember Philippians 4:6-7: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Without faith, you will not be able to overcome the negativity. Believe. You will never be forsaken if you turn to God for anxiety help. Make your bond with God your driving force in powering through your worries, and you will reap great rewards from keeping the faith.

A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service 2012

It’s time for our annual All Souls service, and this is what I plan to preach tomorrow night:

Revelation 21:1-7

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

If you’ve ever seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, I’m sure you remember the powerful funeral scene where John Hannah’s character Matthew recites this W H Auden poem Funeral Blues, desolate at the loss of his lover Gareth, played by Simon Callow. It picks up that bleakness we feel in bereavement, and I’m sure that’s why the film made the poem so popular again in recent years.

You might expect that at a Christian service, especially one where we have announced that the theme is one of hope, I would jump straight from that to a happy picture of heaven, all lit up with LEDs and shown on retina screens.

But no. I shall talk about hope in a few moments. However, Christians are not immune from the bleakness of bereavement. However much we believe in a future full of hope, we feel that loss now. When C S Lewis wrote his book A Grief Observed about the death of his wife Joy Davidman after only four years of marriage, he said,

The death of a beloved is an amputation.

I wonder how many of you have felt like that since your bereavements? You haven’t just lost someone you love; you’ve lost part of yourself. Elsewhere, in similar vein, Lewis says,

At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.

With those feelings in mind I chose the reading from the Book of Revelation. It’s a book some people think is weird and troubling, but at heart it’s something written to suffering Christians, and couched in code-like terms so that those causing the pain of the Christian recipients didn’t understand it. Their suffering was perhaps different from ours in that it was religious persecution. However, that persecution led to the deaths of loved ones, and in that respect we can find common feeling with them, and thus draw comfort and hope along similar lines to them.

Revelation sees a world torn apart by sin and evil, and a God who wants to put it right. He will judge the wicked and make a new world free from injustice and sorrow for those who love him. You could describe God’s project as like the renovation of a house. Our reading promises ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (verse 1), a ‘new Jerusalem’ (verse 2), the end of ‘the old order of things’ (verse 4) and indeed ‘everything [made] new’ (verse 5).

I invite you to think of it something like this. Friends of mine have been describing recently on Facebook the renovation of an old house they own in Northumberland. Footings and block work needed to be done. The gas supply needed to be disconnected, moved and reconnected. However, if I read their accounts rightly, that didn’t happen as quickly as they would have hoped, and they had a cold night wearing extra layers of clothing. They got chilly again when the porch and utility room were demolished, and they were left without heating from 9:30 one day. They finally got gas and hot water back after three days.

God, I believe, is promising a cosmic renovation project, including the heavens and the earth, a new order of community in which to live (the ‘new Jerusalem’) and new order of life, free of sin and pain. He has already done it for his Son Jesus, in raising him from the dead on that first Easter Day. He promises renovation for our bodies after our deaths at a great resurrection of the dead.

Outside one of the chapels at Oxford Crematorium, you will find a plaque that C S Lewis had made for his late wife. He wrote an epitaph for her that is displayed on the plaque. It reads:

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

The hope we share by faith in Jesus Christ is that an Easter Day is coming for us. As Jesus was raised from the dead, his body renovated by God, so too shall we.

Renovation projects sometimes take longer than we would like. Anyone who has had a new kitchen fitted may understand that. They can also be pretty uncomfortable, as my friends who lost their gas for three days discovered.

But they do reach completion. And in the great cosmic renovation, we can be sure that God is not a cowboy builder. We have seen his work already in the resurrection of Jesus, and he promises the same craftsmanship to us.

Meanwhile, though – what? It’s a long time to wait with that void in our lives, that amputation of a limb that C S Lewis spoke about. Is there nothing to do but wait around in our loneliness for God’s great renovation?

I think the answer is that we can actively anticipate what is to come. If we have a sense that God is going to make all things new and wipe away every tear, then we can prepare for that world. When grief comes stealthily sneaking up behind us and mugs us unawares, we can remember that life will not always be this way.

We can also live by the values of God’s new world in small ways. We can seek to bring hope to others, comforting other grieving people with the comfort we have received. We can play our little part in building for a new world where hatred and suffering do not always win.

May the peace and hope which come from trusting in Jesus Christ risen from the dead be your light in your darkness and a light for your path.

A Church Anniversary Sermon

Matthew 16:13-20

Too many churches want nothing to do with Jesus.

Wait a minute! Isn’t that a bit judgemental? And what a thing to come and say as the visiting preacher at a Church Anniversary!

What I mean is this: many of the assumptions Christians make about the church bear only the most meagre resemblance to what Jesus teaches about the subject.

This morning, I want to contrast many of our popular suppositions about the church with what Jesus says here. There are great riches in our short reading, but I shall confine myself to verse 18 for a text:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

We’re going to start in the middle of the verse and work our way outwards. Firstly, church. We may protest when the world assumes that ‘church’ means ‘building’ and say, “No, it’s the people,” but what is the reality? How much of our time do we spend talking about property and finance? How often do we say we want to get more people through the doors? Have we not got locked into this idea that church is a building and an institution?

But what did the word ‘church’ originally mean? It did indeed mean ‘the people’ and they didn’t have their own buildings, gathering instead in the larger homes owned by the more wealthy believers.

More specifically than that, ‘church’ comes from a word used in the early Greek democracies to indicate the calling out of a people to assemble together. Split down very literally, it is ‘the called-out people’ and that came to mean ‘the assembly’ of people.

We are a ‘called-out people’. We assemble together for worship because God in Christ has called us out to be distinct from the world. The church is the people who have heard the call to follow Christ, and that means gathering together (the assembly) as a holy people (we are called out from the world and set apart for a special purpose).

This, then, is church. Our prime concerns are all located in that single word. Does our worship reflect the Christ who calls us out? Are living as a distinct, called-out people? How are we co-operating with the Holy Spirit who is calling other people out of worldliness to join us as Christ’s new community?

And if all the discussions about property and finance were related to those issues, we’d be in a healthier position.

Secondly, my church. There is a healthy way in which people can say ‘my church’. They can mean, this is the congregation where I can love and be loved, and work out my discipleship.

The trouble is, too many churchgoers say ‘my church’ and mean something else. They act as if they own the church, or as if church solely exists for their benefit, and that it should conform to their tastes and prejudices. Such people throw wobblies when an act of worship does not sit nicely with their tastes in music.

But it’s Jesus here who says ‘my church’. The church belongs to him. It is his. In Paul’s terms, it is the Body of Christ and Jesus is the head.

Not so many years ago, it was popular in some Christian circles to hear preachers declare this claim: “Jesus wants his church back.” You know what? I think we could do with hearing that again. It’s his church, not ours. How many of our worship wars would be different if we were more concerned about what Jesus likes than what we like? How many of our petty arguments would fade in the brilliant light of knowing that the church belongs to Jesus? Aht do we need to hand back?

Thirdly, I will build my church. An evangelist I used to know said that whichever town he went in the UK, the local Christians always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Now some of that might reflect the general difficulty we have in the present climate for sympathy to Christianity, and I can understand that. But what is the alternative? If you were to believe some Christians, it is to batten down the hatches and simply ensure that my local congregation will see me out. Once I’m dead, it can close.

If that attitude shocks you, let me assure you that it is widespread among churches.

Yet whatever the difficulties, it has to be clear that Jesus has a big vision for his church. It is to be built. Let’s not have any arguments about quality versus quantity, Jesus wants both. He wants to build both the quality of our spiritual lives – holiness – and he wants to build the quantity of those who follow him – evangelism.

It is therefore only right to ask whether questions of holiness and evangelism are central to our conversations and our meeting agenda. I fear we avoid them and major on minors. Where are the class meetings where we hold one another accountable for our growth in grace? Where are those who are making sure we focus on how we shall reach out into the local community?

Fourthly, I will build my church. Some people who have got to know me well know one of my pet peeves. It’s the idea that churches and Christians run after the latest techniques and fads in order to turn around their fortunes. If someone else has made something work, then this is what we must do. If this is what we have learned at this conference, then it must be right for us. If this is the latest big-selling Christian paperback, then we must put it into practice here as soon as possible and as much as possible.

Now I don’t have any problem learning from the best of what is happening. I happen to be an avid reader. I told our daughter’s teacher at a parents’ evening last week that you can’t be a Faulkner if you aren’t a reader.

But what does this attitude do? It assumes a kind of technological, push-the-button approach to the spiritual life. Follow these five steps and everything will be all right. Practise this technique and your troubles will be over.

As if.

For God is not a machine who responds to us programming him. God is sovereign, and if that means anything it means that he has more free will than we do. It is Jesus who promises to build his church. We want to see it grow, too, but Jesus will be the one who makes that growth take place.

What does that mean for us? We may or may not use popular programmes such as the Alpha Course, but our attitude is to ask Jesus what he wants to do and what he is doing. We then seek to join in. Rather than us try to control or even manipulate things with our religious techniques, we instead place ourselves in a position of vulnerability rather than of control. Instead of taking charge ourselves, we ask Jesus to take that position. If he is to build his church, then that requires us to be dependent upon him, and therefore to seek to hear his voice and respond.

Fifthly, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. Here’s another challenging thought, something that goes against many of our natural instincts – something ‘counter-intuitive’ to use a popular fancy word these days. If we want the church to grow more, then wouldn’t it be obvious that to be able to include more people in the church we should lower the bar for entry? Shouldn’t we make church membership easier? Besides, we don’t like to ask embarrassing or intimidating questions, nor do we want to appear judgemental. That should start to increase our numbers.

But, no, Jesus sees it differently. When he says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” he is surely responding to what Peter has just done. Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus grows his church by confession of faith in him. If you lower the bar, you stop being the church, because the church is the body of people who have faith in him. You might inflate your numbers in the short term, but in the long term you will no longer be the church. You might just about be a religious  club, but you will no longer be the church of Jesus Christ.

So what about the people on the fringe whom we are nurturing? Are we discriminating against them? Are we excluding them? There is still room for them. John Wesley had a number of small group meetings, not just the famous class meeting. Some of them were reserved for those who had made a clear commitment of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ. Others were open to both those who believed and those who were enquiring about the faith – or, in Wesley’s words, ‘desired to flee from the wrath to come’.

Church holds an aspiration before people, namely to become radical disciples of Jesus Christ. Set the bar high. Make it worth the leap.

Sixthly and finally, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Let’s call in the doom and gloom merchants again. The church is under attack. Christians in this country are now being persecuted. (Goodness knows how they would describe what happens to Christians in some other countries, then.) Everything and everyone is against us. It’s time to pull up the drawbridge and defend what we’ve got.

Well, let’s not deny that the climate is not so positive towards Christianity in our society anymore. That much is obvious. But is it really faithful to Jesus’ vision of the church to conceive of the battle as all being one way, the forces of darkness rampaging against the church? I don’t think that stands up to the words of our Lord here.

Did you notice I didn’t read the old translation, ‘the gates of Hell will not overcome it’? The association with Hell makes people think this is about evil forces assailing the church of Christ. But the translation I read is better: the gates of Hades. That is, the place of the dead. Death will not prevail against the church. Certainly, individual churches close and many decline, but Jesus is asserting the indestructible nature of his church. Can death ever conquer a community of faith founded in the Resurrection? Not a chance!

And specifically, there is no need to be negative here for this reason. ‘The gates of Hades’: when was the last time you were assaulted by a set of gates? It’s ridiculous! Gates are defensive tools. They are used to protect against invasion. But Jesus is saying that his church invades and conquers the forces of death. Where death attempts to reign, we proclaim resurrection. Where the forces of sin lead to death, we proclaim forgiveness. Where death is at work in the world, we proclaim the kingdom of God. The gates of death tremble as the gospel community, the church, preaches the good news of her Saviour and Lord!

In conclusion, then, yes, the church faces all sorts of challenges and difficulties today. But part of our problem is that we have allowed ourselves to believe distorted accounts of what the church is. When we return to the teaching of Jesus about the church, we have every reason to believe that God has given us a hope and a future. Let us put our house in order. Let us be humbly dependent upon Jesus Christ. And then let us face the world with confidence in him and his Gospel.

A Brief Sermon For A Wedding

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

I want to begin with a story that I am sure will not happen at this wedding. It did, however, happen at a wedding that a friend of mine took.

The happy couple were posing for their photos outside the church after the service. They had all the usual groups in the pictures: bride and groom, bride and bridesmaids, groom and best man, happy couple with her family, happy couple with his family, bride and groom with his friends, bride and groom with her friends, happy couple with anyone else who didn’t fit any of the categories, and so on.

They went off to their wedding reception, and the photographer went away to work on what he had done. He then came to the evening reception, hoping to sell copies of his photos to the guests.

There was only one problem: behind the bride and groom in every photo was the church noticeboard. It prominently displayed a Bible verse: there, just for the happy couple, were the words of Jesus on the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.’

Now I suspect you do know what you are doing, or as much as any couple on their wedding day can know. No-one knows for sure, because the future is full of surprises, some of them delightful, others we’d really rather not know about. But you have taken time to test your love and commitment to each other before making your promises today. You have taken your relationship seriously. Debbie and I have noticed from a difference how you have matured as a couple, and today, as we celebrate love in the setting of Christian worship, I want us to pause for just a few minutes and think about love from a Christian perspective.

Here are three thoughts for you today:

Firstly, love is unconditional. Somebody once joked that the agenda of the bride on her wedding day is ‘aisle-altar-hymn’ (think about it!). ‘I’ll alter him’ may be necessary, but to go into love on the assumption that love is conditional upon someone changing is quite dangerous. Love becomes carrot and stick. Love becomes something that is policed by ‘good cop, bad cop’. Love eventually gives way to fear and distance.

But the love of God is not like that. There is a beautiful verse in the Bible which says, ‘We love, because he first loved us.’ God’s love for us is seen in him sending Jesus before we ever loved him. It’s unconditional love. He loved us before we responded to him.

And I suggest to you that this unconditional love is a healthy model for marriage. While it is right to long for your spouse to change, they are best loved into changing. If they know they are loved regardless, they will want to change. Make no mistake, it’s important to change over the years. If I still loved Debbie the way I loved her on our wedding day eleven years ago, I don’t believe we would still be together. My love for her will always have to grow. And what brings that out the best is that the knowledge that she loves me unconditionally.

Secondly, love is forgiving. When I was a child, a slogan in an advert for a wildly popular film was this: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ Do any of the older people here recognise it? It was Love Story.

And wouldn’t it be great if love really were like that? Never having to say you’re sorry.

If only.

But for us frail human beings, love is rarely like that. Rather than ‘Love is never having to say you’re sorry’, I suggest ‘Love is saying you are sorry and hearing you are forgiven.’

Much as today we celebrate the enjoyable side of love with its chemicals and hormones, the fact is those things won’t make a marriage last. What will make a marriage last is the willingness to seek forgiveness, and to forgive. That’s why in the Bible reading Paul says that love ‘keeps no record of wrongs’ (verse 5). It’s easy to keep a record of wrongs. If you’re not careful, you keep a chart, a list, a running tally of all the times you’ve been hurt or offended. I encourage you not to do that. Forgive, because that’s what Jesus does.

I don’t know what the father of the bride is going to say later today, but at my sister’s wedding, when my Dad gave his ‘father of the bride’ speech, he gave one piece of advice to her and my brother-in-law. He had another Bible verse as a motto, the one had he and my Mum have kept close to their hearts: ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ I commend that to you. Find your ways of resolving your conflicts, forgiving each other – and of then enjoying the making up!

This all means that thirdly and finally, love is sacrificial. What does it mean to forgive? It means to set the other person free by absorbing pain into yourself that should rightly be theirs.

And thus love isn’t quite what we sometimes think it is. How many of you guests today turned up, expecting the bride and groom to say ‘I do’ to each other? But did you notice they didn’t say that? Only one person said ‘I do’ in the service: the father of the bride. At least he didn’t say, ‘Take her, please!’

The bride and groom didn’t say ‘I do’, they said, ‘I will.’ And that’s important. Because ‘I do’ is just in the present tense and it might change in the future. ‘I will’ is a promise for now and for the future. It also recognises that sometimes love will be an act of will rather than a feeling. Sometimes love will be the actions we do in spite of how we feel. Somebody once said, ‘It isn’t true that love will keep your marriage alive. Rather, marriage will keep your love alive.’ It is your commitment of will to keep those promises that will see through the dark tunnels and out into the light at the other end.

But that’s hard to do. And in truth I’ve told you a half-truth in reminding you that the bride and groom said ‘I will.’ What they actually said was, ‘With God’s help I will.’ God is available to help us keep those promises, promises that on occasion will hurt, promises that will mean we make sacrifices.

But the God who promises to help us at these times is one who knows how to show sacrificial love. This the God who forgives – and who does so from the arms of Jesus stretched wide in love on the Cross. Jesus knows sacrificial, forgiving, unconditional love. He has modelled it in dying for us. He is ready to help all those who call on him.

Take the words we read from 1 Corinthians again. Instead of ‘love’, substitute your own name. This is how it would sound for me:

David is patient, David is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He does not dishonour others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. David does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I feel rather sheepish reading that, because I am so very far from that picture of love.

But now take out your name or the word ‘love’ and substitute instead ‘Jesus’:

Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He does not dishonour others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

That is the Jesus who is available to you this day and every day to make your love for one another and for others grow that will touch others with joy.

May God bless you both.

Popular Music At Funerals

Co-operative Funeralcare have released another survey of the most popular music chosen at funerals they conducted – although like the old ‘chart return’ shops for the Top 40, they only surveyed 250 of their 900 branches. Aside from the headlines about the dreadful ‘My Way’, the banning of ‘Imagine’ (quite right, too!) and ‘Abide With Me’ now being the most popular hymn, I just want to know this:

Who chose the clock from Countdown to be played at the committal?

Sermon: The Revolutionary CV Of Lady Wisdom

Proverbs 8:1-36

For the most part, classical music is a realm of closed-off mystery to me. I cannot understand it or appreciate it. A Local Preacher in my first circuit tried to educate me with the beauties of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and while I did indeed think it was beautiful and even bought a CD of it, Wolfgang Amadeus didn’t open the doors of heaven for me.

Nor did a girlfriend who loved classical music. When I tried to show an interest and started to like some baroque music, she scorned that style because it wasn’t as demanding as her beloved Sibelius. I tried him too, but beyond Finlandia it all washed over me.

Yet there are other areas of life which I enjoy but which remain a strange land to others. Cricket, for example. To me it is the sport of heaven, especially in the glory of its full five-day Test Match version. Innovations like Twenty Twenty are to me a dumbing down into crash bang wallop territory that lose the subtlety of the game in its fullest expression.

What is the difference? When it comes to classical music, I have never truly learned an instrument or had a mentor. But with cricket, I had a mentor and I used to play. As a child, I watched my father play every time his club team had a home fixture in the summer. I picked up the bug from him. When I started to play, he would take me over the park and place a ten pence piece on the ground to show the exact place where I as a bowler should pitch the ball. When I was slightly older, he took me with him to winter nets practice with his club. Only as an adult did he tell me that the batsmen couldn’t read my Chinaman. If only I’d known that as a teenager, I would have developed as a spinner, not a seamer.

And yes, I realise that the last couple of sentences are gobbledygook to some of you.

What about wisdom, though? What if wisdom is – as I said in the all-age service a fortnight ago – the ability to live well for God? Is that not something we all desire? Yet do we not struggle with it? Is the competence to live for God’s glory a mystery to some of us? Could we not do with a mentor to help us play?

Step forward Lady Wisdom herself. In Proverbs chapter eight she presents her CV for guiding people in the way of wisdom[1]. Is she someone you would take on? Let’s compare the way things are with what she can offer. Of course, this being an ancient document her CV won’t tally exactly with how we write them today, but we do see how she presents herself as qualified for the position.

Firstly, Lady Wisdom offers her skills to everyone. Imagine the dilemma like this. Could it be that the average person is short on wisdom, lacking in the ways to live a life that pleases God? Could it be that many a typical Christian earnestly longs to please God but struggles to do so? And might it also be that the same typical Christian thinks, “I can’t be wise, because I don’t have the theological education or the special gifts that others do”? If so, we face a situation where those who would love to be wise in the biblical sense feel unable to meet their good and godly aspirations.

I wonder whether that is how you feel at times. Do you long to please Christ, yet regard yourself as some kind of second-class Christian?

If you do, Lady Wisdom has something on her CV for you. She is everywhere, and therefore available to everyone. She calls out at the meeting of the paths and at the entrance to the city (verses 2-3). She calls out to ‘all humanity’ (verse 4), including the ‘simple’ and the ‘foolish’ (verse 5). Lady Wisdom’s special attributes are not for the élite but for all. Why? Because they are not about cleverness, talent or charisma. Lady Wisdom empowers all and sundry to live for God’s pleasure. She doesn’t require you to gain alphabet soup after your name, she only requires a heart of obedience and a willingness to depend on God’s Spirit.

Secondly, consider some of the reasons we as Christians feel uncomfortable with the values and priorities of our society. An emphasis on wealth and possessions. An undue attachment to celebrity. Lies, deception and spin. Do we not get frustrated and disheartened by the shallow and tawdry things that capture the imagination of our world?

Lady Wisdom says, I bring qualities of true value. If you want something truly precious, she says, I have it, and I can give it to you. Her words are ‘trustworthy’ (verse 6), ‘true’ (verse 7), ‘just’ (verse 8), ‘right’ (verse 9) and more valuable than silver, gold or rubies (verses 10-11).

She says we can have a choice between a culture that is tone deaf to goodness[2] and one that rejoices in her pure and beautiful teaching. Which do we want?

Thirdly, Lady Wisdom invites us to think about the civil and social order and imagine what it could be like. Christians are not immune to the popular perception of politicians as only being in their profession for the amount of gravy they find on the train. We are used to viewing them as having their fingers in the trough and their ducks in the moat.

And of course in the wider public culture we have the corruption of journalism. We await Lord Leveson’s report into the role of the press and the police in the phone-hacking scandals.

However much we also know that in truth there are many decent politicians, journalists and police officers, it’s hard to evade the conclusion that smell of rotting vegetables in our public life.

That is where Lady Wisdom offers her gifts again. Verses 12 to 16 centre on the place of wisdom in public life. Wisdom brings prudence, knowledge and discretion to the public square (verse 12) and evicts evil, pride, arrogance and perverse speech (verse 13). Instead, she says,

Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have insight, I have power.
By me kings reign
and rulers issue decrees that are just;
by me princes govern,
and nobles – all who rule on earth. (Verses 14-16)

It’s a common thread from the ancient world, applied here in terms of Israel’s God:

In the ancient Near East, kings ruled, judged, waged war, protected the weak, and gave laws by means of the authority and gifts of the gods. They mediated divine blessings to the people and ensured peace and prosperity.[3]

I’m not simply saying we should always vote for Christian politicians, but I am saying this: Lady Wisdom invites us to dream of a different social and political order from the one we have.

Fourthly, and related to this, do we not also dream of a society where righteousness and justice are rewarded? Goodness is sometimes rewarded in our culture, but we also witness the way the unrighteous gather power for their own benefit and use it against others. If the allegations about the late Jimmy Savile are true – and the Met Police seem to be talking as if there is clear evidence – then we have a case of someone who garnered fame and fortune and then used his power base and his connections with those in authority to carry out and cover up great wickedness.

It is Lady Wisdom who says that a society which rewards goodness is possible. When wisdom is exalted, truth, righteousness and justice receive their reward. It is not celebrities and entertainers who flourish; rather, it is the wise, who walk in the ways of God, are recognised. Verses 17 to 21 describe a place where wisdom receives riches and honour. Surely we long for a world like that.

Fifthly, let me suggest that we long for a world that needs more than science as an explanation. Science cannot tell us whether anything has a purpose. It can only analyse cause and effect. The trouble is, we have people so committed to science as the answer to everything that they speak about a world that is only explained by cause and effect. They rule out any sense of purpose. The logical end product of this is the claim of Richard Dawkins that the universe displays what he calls ‘pitiless indifference’. It is a cold, purposeless, pointless place.

I am not denigrating science. I am saying it cannot explain everything. It is one important discipline among many. And although the ancients did not conceive of science in the way we do, in our passage Lady Wisdom alerts us to the fact that there is purpose in the universe. We see this from the extended description of Wisdom as having been present before all things in verses 22 to 31 (‘given birth’ in the NIV may be misleading). Not only that, wisdom was involved in creation itself. It is a rich passage that I cannot examine in detail this morning. But if the wisdom of God was present before all things and involved in creation, then we have a guarantee that God baked purpose into the universe.

So – is this what you want? Do you reject a world where only the élite are candidates for wisdom and long instead for a world where wisdom is open to all who wish to live well for God? Do you despair of a culture that values vacuous celebrity and long instead for one where wisdom is prized? Are you sick of the corruption of the powerful and pray for a society where wisdom rules with justice? Are you fed up with a world where the influential use power for themselves and earnestly desire instead a place where goodness is rewarded? And do you say ‘no’ to those who insist on describing life as meaningless, mocking those who disagree as stupid, because you know deep down there is purpose ingrained into life?

And if this is what you want, then what to do? The concluding five verses of this chapter urge us to get familiar with wisdom, the wisdom of God. Ultimately in New Testament terms that means Jesus Christ. What we need to do is embrace the teaching of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus, God’s true wisdom, who turns the values of our world around. His is what one author called ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom.’ He reverses the priorities of this world. He is ‘making all things new.’

To follow God’s wisdom in Jesus will likely never win a majority at the ballot box. It will not be widely popular, except in versions so diluted they lose their power. We are likely to be a minority, operating at the margins of society rather than in the corridors of power.

How, then, can this change the world? It’s a curious thing, but often the most powerful social movements are those who which are minorities operating on the margins. Jesus certainly works this way.

Does anybody want to start a revolution?

[1] Raymond van Leeuwen describes verses 6-21 as ‘Wisdom’s self-presentation. Self-praise seems strange to Westerners today, for whom it seems immodest and naïve. But the function of such speech is like a modern résumé, in which people present their qualifications for such a position.’ (New Interpreter’s Bible Volume V, p90.)

[2] op. cit., p91.

[3] op. cit., p92.

Benjamin Zander On Leadership

I came across this TED Talk by Benjamin Zander via Nancy Duarte‘s book ‘Resonate‘. Zander, an orchestral conductor, has a big vision for leadership that he doesn’t doubt. He wants everyone to love classical music. And he knows he is doing his job when the eyes of his people are shining. Quite a challenge for any leader.

Enjoy the video.

The Civil Wars Cover The Jackson Five

This isn’t my usual style of blog post, but I think this is an amazing cover version. What a difference from the explosion of energy I remember this song as having been when it first came out forty years (aargh!) ago:

The Church Limps Into The Social Media Age

Here is a brave attempt by a country parish to use social media (in this case, YouTube) to advertise for a new vicar. They seem to know they’re struggling with the technology but are not afraid to laugh at themselves. It’s amusing, yet touching:

Via David Keen.

Rachel Held Evans And The Southern Baptists

Only in America? Rachel Held Evans tells her readers:

Since a lot of you have asked, (and in the spirit of Banned Books Week,) I thought I’d let you know that I recently received word that Lifeway has decided not to carry A Year of Biblical Womanhood in stores, presumably in the wake of the “vagina” controversy over the summer.

The history: Evans has written a book detailing how she spent twelve months attempting to follow all the biblical instructions for wives as literally and fully as possible. Her manuscript contains the word ‘vagina’. Her editor encouraged her to remove this scandalous word, because it would offend the sensibilities of Christian bookstores. Readers of her blog campaigned for her not to give in to such silliness, and she didn’t.

Now, the Southern Baptist bookstore chain Lifeway has said it won’t stock this evidently shocking book. Is it down to using this terrible word? Certainly, Evans has criticised Christian bookstores for demanding such ultra-sanitised content that, if they really followed through with their stated convictions, they wouldn’t stock the Bible itself. So maybe this is Lifeway’s revenge. That’s a nice Christian motive if it is the truth. Yet bizarrely, they are taking online orders for this book! Well, business is business, I guess.

Maybe it’s Evans’ public pronouncements in general, that have been deemed too theologically liberal for Southern Baptists. One of their scholars, Denny Burk, denounced her the other day as a ‘non-evangelical’, a ‘post-evangelical’ and a ‘theological liberal’. He doesn’t give any evidence in the blog post or the comments, but since Burk is a ‘complementarian‘, he is probably offended by her egalitarian views on gender rôles. Indeed, one of the thrusts of his article is that several of these women should not be celebrated, because they are doing things that only men should do – proclaim the Word of God. Worse than that, Evans has raised doubts about creationism and dares to think that gay people are human beings, not an issue.

Only in America?

Actually, no. Although they have certainly changed in recent years, the British-based international bookstore chain Christian Literature Crusade used to be known in some circles as ‘Constricted Literature Crusade’. (I think Michael Saward may have been responsible for that name.) They only sold certain books under the counter in brown paper bags if you ordered them, because they wouldn’t stock them. The Lion Handbook to the Bible was one example, because it contained a photo of an archaeologist who was smoking.

So am I advocating that Christian bookstores should have no boundaries? Of course not. But I am saying that fear is not a decent motive for boundary-setting. And I am saying that attitudes which denigrate women (why else would a proper biological name for a body part – a body made by God – be unacceptable?) are also unworthy of Christians.