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Sermon: Making Adversity Work

This will be my first sermon back after the sabbatical. I wrote this at the end of January (hence some of the references!). It will appear on the blog Monday 4th May, to be preached on Sunday 10th, the latter being the date I start back.

Text: John 15:1-8

One of my favourite stories is the one about the little girl who asked her mum whether all fairy stories end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ “No,” replies her mother, “Some end with, ‘When I became a Christian, all my troubles disappeared’.”

Jesus’ teaching in John 15 explicitly refutes the idea that the Christian life may be lived without suffering or difficulty. In the image here from a vineyard, each branch is either cut off or pruned. I am no gardener, but neither procedure sounds painless!

Whatever the joys and pleasures of our ultimate destiny when we are raised from the dead to life in God’s new creation, life now unavoidably includes uncomfortable and painful seasons. Some of those times, says Jesus, are actually brought by God for our good.

As Adrian Plass has put it, “Each day is a choice between what you don’t want to do and what you really don’t want to do.” The challenge for Christians is to make those hard circumstances count positively for the kingdom of God.

To do that involves grasping two things mentioned in these verses: what God is doing (pruning) and what we need to do (abiding in Christ).

Pruning 
I am no gardener. I can think of few things that bore me more than gardening. So metaphors in the Bible like this one of God pruning the branches of a vine don’t sit easily with me. Give me a pair of secateurs and I’m more likely to injure myself than accomplish anything worthwhile.

But I do realise that an image of pruning has something to do with cutting away in order to promote health. And on that simple level, I can understand the notion of God pruning us in a spiritual sense. Much as we might prefer God not to, I believe it’s often God’s way either to cut something out of our lives in order for us to grow in the life of the Spirit, or to allow something to be removed from us, so that we are challenged to focus on those things which are truly important.

We may protest about the difficult seasons of our lives – well, I do – but they may sometimes be seasons of the Spirit. Sometimes a bad experience is something to resist and protest against, but not always. God works for good in all things with those who love him, who are called according to his purposes, as Paul says in Romans 8:28.

Whenever an adversity comes into our lives, we have a choice as to whether we will seek the purposes of God in it. Endurance and perseverance are character-building qualities. I do not mean that we should embrace injustice or seek out bad times – that would be perverse – but I do think there is a call not just to look for easy ways out but seek what God is saying and doing in that environment.

So a pruning experience can be a stripping away of things that get in the way of our faith. It can be the removal of hindrances, or of accretions that are weighing us down.

I said in a sermon elsewhere just before my sabbatical that the atheist bus campaign with its slogan, ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick at a time of economic recession. To tell people whose jobs and homes are under threat or even disappearing just to ‘stop worrying and enjoy [their lives]’ is unbearably smug. We Christians are not exempt from the economic downturn, despite what the odd prosperity gospel idiot might say. And without in any wanting to minimise the pain for those who are feeling its effects, the differences for Christians are these: our sense of worth is not in our job, but in being loved by God. Our security is in God, not our ability to generate wealth.

Back in January, Debbie spent a weekend away at the annual Children’s Ministry conference in Eastbourne. I juggled preparing and conducting services with childcare that weekend. We fitted in various fun things, including visits the children wanted to their favourite shops – Claire’s Accessories in Rebekah’s case, Waterstone’s bookshop in Mark’s, and Millie’s Cookies for both of them.  But nothing really made up for the absence of Mum, even though she rang each day to speak to them and say goodnight to them. On the Saturday tea-time when Debbie phoned, she told Rebekah that she had bought some presents for them. Rebekah’s reply was devastating and moving:

“Mummy, I love presents, but I’d rather have you.”

When God prunes us, not only is it a time of removing sin from our lives, it’s a time when he pins us back to that question: would we rather have him than all the goodies?  The writer to the Hebrews calls us to ‘lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1), and sometimes the ‘weights’ are not sin. Good things can weigh us down. When God prunes us to make us more holy, he is sometimes asking us whether we want him more than the goodies.

It isn’t that God is a killjoy. The same passage in 1 Timothy where he tells the wealthy not to put their hope on the uncertainty of riches, he tells them to trust in God ‘who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (1 Timothy 5:18). God not only understands we may enjoy certain things, he made them for our enjoyment. But he will not permit these created things to be his love-rivals for our affections. And for that reason he will sometimes prune us of good things.

So when we enter a season of our lives when the good life seems to be disappearing, we need to seek God in prayer about it. Is this something evil that should be opposed, or is God pruning us so that ‘we may perfectly love [him]’?

Abiding 
Just as ‘pruning’ was a difficult image for a non-gardener like me, so ‘abiding’ is an awkward one for somebody who was never good at Biology or Botany at school! For Jesus is using an image here of the branch remaining on the vine. He’s talking botany.

One one level, it’s absurd: how can you tell a branch to remain or abide in the vine? It just happens. Well – it happens, provided the flow of sap to the branch remains. In the physical world, neither the branch nor the vine are conscious beings, and so cannot be given commands or expected to choose certain actions. The idea of a branch choosing not to remain connected to the vine is ridiculous.

And it’s similarly ridiculous for the Christian disciple to contemplate not being vitally connected to Christ. Yet Jesus urges his followers to remain, to abide. Of course, the analogy is limited, but maybe that’s the point: we humans are foolish, and easily detach ourselves from the source of spiritual vitality and health. When the flow of sap stops, the branch falls off, or needs cutting off.

As I said near the beginning, the choice is being cut off or being pruned. Each is painful. But assuming we have chosen pruning and are willing to endure that for the sake of greater spiritual fruitfulness, then how do we ‘abide’ while God ‘prunes’?

Not surprisingly, this comes down to a disciplined approach to the spiritual life. Regular habits of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures are essential parts of this. Yes, it can be difficult to find time, but we make time for food even when we have to eat on the run, and it’s critical that we make time for these habits, without which we shall starve. We don’t all need to do them first thing in the morning, as some books tell us, but we do need a time.

The disciplines are not merely personal and private, though. Even prayer and biblical meditation need not be solo practices. Often they are helpful done in fellowship with others. The ‘sap’ doesn’t always come to us directly; sometimes it arrives through others.

Then, there are those practices which we are used to conceiving of in a corporate form: worship and the sacraments. We don’t sit in private cubicles at worship and Holy Communion; we are deliberately together to encounter God within us and among us, and to build each other up.

But we can’t even stop there. Abiding in Christ involves not only receiving the sap, it means allowing it to work. So prayer, Bible reading, worship and taking the sacraments are not simply passive practices. They are meant to lead to action. Spiritual nourishment is designed by God in such a way that it is health-giving when put into practice. It decays without use. We need to respond to what we are given. This means there are both public and secret disciplines.

The public practices are by nature fairly obvious. They involve every way we demonstrate the love of God in Christ to others. So pastoral care within the church, when done in response to God’s love, is a spiritual discipline. So is care for the poor, praying and campaigning for justice. Evangelism, too.

Then there are the secret responses we make, the ones where Jesus condemned those who did them for show as having already received their reward in public adulation. Giving to someone in need. Or fasting as a sign that something was so important it was worth going without the basics of food in order to underline prayer. And some forms of prayer itself are best done secretly rather than showily.

Abiding in Christ is everything we do to keep in tune with him and sustained by him. Sustenance involves taking something into us, and some of the disciplines I’ve mentioned are blatantly ones where we put ourselves in a position to receive from Christ. 

Others, though, are about the outworking of what we have received. Jesus expects much of those to whom much is given. Some Christians emphasise prayer, others action, but both are priorities. Abiding in Christ is a matter of both receiving from Christ and giving back to him and others.

Both the receiving and the giving are practised in easy times and hard times, when life and faith are going well, and when we are facing opposition and even undergoing pruning. They are, after all, disciplines, not just activities we engage in because we feel like it.

Many are the ordinary routine actions of life that we maintain regardless of whether we feel like doing them, but we continue with them for the sake of our well-being and the flourishing of others. So are the spiritual disciplines of abiding in Christ, too.

I’ve heard some people speak about marriages as if marriage ‘didn’t work’ – implying that marriage was something that happened to them. But relationships take work and effort, and our spiritual relationship with Christ doesn’t just happen, either. It does happen to us in the sense that God makes the first move towards us. Furthermore, his approaches are sometimes of a ‘pruning’ nature.

But it then requires faithful response from us, through good times and bad. And that’s what abiding in Christ is all about.

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Sabbatical, Day 40: Ministry And Personality Type Survey Explosion, Child Worries

The response to my surveys into ministry and personality type that I announced yesterday has staggered me. At time of writing, I had 42 members of the Facebook group. 60 people had completed the congregational members’ survey. 29 had completed the ministers’ survey.

At the recommendation of David Burton, I have joined Twitter and am using that to publicise the surveys, too. Please ‘follow’ me if you are on Twitter. My username is davefaulkner.

Other news today mainly concerns the children, and especially Rebekah. Today, she had a ‘number bonds‘ test at school. Testing seems to have started quite early, in my opinion. She is still ten days shy of her sixth birthday. For a few weeks now they have also been having spelling tests, and Becky is getting quite agitated about it. Last night she was late getting to sleep, worrying about whether she would pass. She kept getting stuck on the numbers four and six. What number do you put with four to make ten? What number goes with six to make ten?

There have been two saving graces about this. One is that we have been concerned about her concentration when learning. This certainly made her concentrate – but I felt like we had a GCSE student in the house! The other is that … she passed. Now she’s worried about going up the front at assembly next week and being applauded when the Head Teacher gives her the certificate!

What worries we load onto children at a young age. I have been concerned for a long time about the pressure induced on children by the SATS tests required by the Government. I know these are going to be rationalised, but making children take official tests from the age of seven means they have been turned into nothing less than political footballs by cynical, morally evacuated Governments. Worse, parents who have seen the strain on their children have effectively connived with this by looking for the results in evaluating schools. 

And there are other worries, too. A little while ago, my friend Dave Warnock sent me an invitation on Facebook to join the Pink Stinks campaign.Last night, I finally looked at the campaign and joined up. It’s taking the colour pink as symbolic of the sexualisation of young girls, and that’s something I feel very strongly about as the father of a five-year-old. I’ve joked before about her love of Claire’s Accessories, but it must have been around the time she started school that she began to change from tomboy to girly girl. I have no problem with her having a nice appearance, and frankly for all my life she will always be the most beautiful girl in the world. But I don’t want her value to be based on how physically attractive boys think she is in later years, or how attractive or not she perceives herself to be. 

While Pink Stinks seems to come from a secular feminist origin, having the militant atheist Polly Toynbee as a major cheerleader, there is much in the campaign I am pleased to support. One excellent feature of the website is the naming and shaming of sexist products aimed at children. Another is the section of the site that seeks to promote positive female role models. I’d far rather Rebekah had Sally Ride as an aspirational figure than Amy Winehouse or Paris Hilton. I believe my daughter is made in the image of God, and that gives her a dignity like nothing else on earth. I want her to know she is loved unconditionally, and that she has unique gifts which she can use in the service of God’s kingdom. 

I hadn’t thought too much up to now about the propensity of infants’ school girls to love High School Musical or Hannah Montana. Although I recognised them as telling the stories of teenagers, there hadn’t been anything I’d noticed that seemed  overtly immoral. What had bothered me was that they told stories that were not age-appropriate and that that might be emotionally difficult. I could see that might be tricky to handle. Now I think I see them as rather worse than that, because they are promoting a certain image of what is acceptable young womanhood, and much of it is just based on looking good for the boys. 

I have to say Debbie isn’t as worried by this as I am. She thinks the trend towards little girls prettifying themselves is a fad that will disappear and be replaced by another trend. Me, I see sinister commercial forces behind it. What do you think?

Wanting Mummy

This afternoon, Debbie got back from a weekend at the annual Children’s Ministry conference in Eastbourne. Managing the children and preparing for this morning’s service has been quite a stretch since she left around 5:30 am on Friday. (She had another call to make in Sussex first.)

It hasn’t been the juggling of responsibilities so much, although that has been a factor. Anyone who spotted that today’s sermon only appeared on the blog in the early hours of this morning rather than yesterday evening as usual will get a hint of that.

This morning, we loaded up my car with all sorts of distractions to occupy them during the service, since it was one of the alternatve weeks when Sunday School doesn’t happen. Scrap paper, pens, cuddly toys and games all made their way to church – where we were told that two current Sunday School teachers and one former teacher had arranged a session especially for our kids, knowing I would be coping on my own with them while trying to lead a communion service. How kind is that?

No, the real issue has been dealing with the children’s emotions while mummy has been away. They are used to her being away for a day or two here and there, normally dealing with something to do with her house that we retained when we married and which we let through an agent. However, familiarity with Debbie’s short term absences never makes these times emotionally easier for them.

They coped better this time – there is a pragmatic virtue in keeping busy, maybe in the short term. So after school on Friday we went to the supermarket and bought some treats. (Bribery is good, too.) Yesterday, after Rebekah’s regular Saturday morning ballet lesson, we headed into town. Mark wanted to check one of our two Waterstone’s branches to see whether the one book he doesn’t have in the latest Thomas the Tank Engine series was in stock. It wasn’t. Rebekah wanted a visit to her favourite place of worship, Claire’s Accessories, a place of torture for males, and so Mark played up something rotten while we were in there. On the way back to the car, a detour to Millie’s Cookies  at least gave us the chance to sample their raspberry and white chocolate flavour.

It all broke down yesterday tea-time. Debbie phoned for a chat with the little monkeys before they headed for the bath and bed. Rebekah told her how much she was missing her, and Debbie replied that she would be back with some presents for them, something I knew from a text message she had sent me in the afternoon.

“Mummy, I like presents but I want you more than the presents,” was Rebekah’s devastating reply from the heart.

And I thought, if only more of us could reply like that – to one another, and especially to God.