‘You can’t control who you fall in love with’

In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty U.S. states, this old phrase has been making the rounds again: “You can’t control who you fall in love with”.

Well, actually, you can.

In fact, when you get married you promise to do just this. You promise to forsake all others and stay loyal to your marriage partner.

Do you seriously think that you’re never going to be attracted to anyone else? Think again! We’re all living a lot longer these days; the chances are excellent that, at some point in the course of a fifty-year marriage, you’ll be tempted elsewhere. And the experience of a married person falling in love with someone else is very common.

But it didn’t start with love. It started with attraction, and it progressed when we made the choice to allow that attraction, to indulge it, to cultivate it in fact. And that’s when we made the choice to fall in love.

Having a healthy marriage depends on the ability to control who you’re going to fall in love with. If you can’t control that, your chances of making your marriage last are severely diminished. So there may be good arguments in favour of what its proponents call ‘equal marriage’ (I think there are), but this isn’t one of them, and I wish people wouldn’t use it. When it’s believed, it damages all marriages, gay or straight.

So let’s set the record straight. Let’s stop saying helplessly “I can’t control who I fall in love with”. Instead, let’s say “I meant the promise I made on the day of my marriage, and so I am going to learn to control who I fall in love with, because I want my marriage to last”.

Wanted: Anglican people in the Diocese of Edmonton who are excited about Jesus and want to introduce other people to him

Well, along with being the rector of St. Margaret’s I’m now the Warden of Lay Evangelists for the Diocese of Edmonton. What the heck does that mean?

It means that we’re looking for some ordinary Christians in our Anglican churches who are excited about

  • sharing their faith with others,
  • helping non-Christians become followers of Jesus,
  • training others as witnesses, and
  • giving leadership in outreach and evangelism in their parishes.

Do you like that idea? I’m not asking if you’re not afraid (we all are, to a certain extent). I’m just asking, can you feel something tugging at your heart when you hear about this? Are you maybe thinking, “Well, that’s not me right now – but I wish it could be!”?

More information? Of course! Here it is.

Why evangelists?

In our baptismal covenant we are asked, ‘Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?’ and we respond by promising, ‘I will, with God’s help’. Evangelism is what we do in order to keep that promise.

Every Christian is called to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. So why do we recognize a special ministry of evangelism?

Evangelists are people who have a special gift and joy in communicating the gospel of Jesus to others, by word and action. They enjoy having conversations about faith with non-Christian friends. They love watching the Holy Spirit drawing people to faith in Christ, and they like helping new Christians get established as followers of Jesus. They don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they live their lives transparently and honestly, so that others can see God at work in them.

Evangelists look for opportunities to help the church connect with the non-Christian world around. They are always on the lookout for new ways their congregations can serve their neighbours in Jesus’ name. They are comfortable on the edges of church life, building bridges for the gospel into the community at large. They are learning to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, so that they can relax and enjoy the work of evangelism without feeling that all the responsibility for leading people to faith is on their shoulders.

Evangelists are part of the ministry team of their parish, and their specific roles may include any of the following:

  • Relational evangelism (learning to share the gospel in the context of genuine loving relationships, and mentoring others to do the same).
  • Helping new disciples grow in basic Christian practices.
  • Taking a leadership role in helping their parishes welcome and integrate new members.
  • Leading inquirers’ courses such as ‘Alpha’, ‘Christian Basics’, ‘Pilgrim’, ‘Emmaus’ etc.
  • Working with baptismal families to share the gospel with them and help them come to faith in Christ.
  • Finding creative ways to engage the people in their neighbourhoods.
  • Taking a leadership role in Christian service projects in their communities in order to build bridges between the church and the world around.
  • Helping organize Invitation Sundays (e.g. ‘Back-to-Church Sunday’) and other special events by which a parish can share the gospel with unchurched people in the neighbourhood.
  • Pioneering outreach work in new areas where the Anglican church does not presently have a gospel witness.

How can I be licensed as an Evangelist?

What sort of people are we looking for? Well, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ personality profile, and in fact there are as many different ways of evangelizing as there are different human temperaments! But we can say in general that we’re looking for people who have a real sense of joy in what Christ is doing in their lives and a desire to share this with others. We’re looking for people who love people, enjoy conversation, and share Jesus’ compassion for those who are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9.36). We’re looking for people who enjoy thinking outside the box, trying new things, taking risks, and stepping out in faith.

If you feel that this might be you, and that God may be calling you to be licensed as an Evangelist, the first thing to do is to talk to your rector about it. There will be a simple discernment process involving conversations with your rector, your parish, and the Diocesan Warden of Lay Evangelists (that would be me!) so that we can talk about your sense of call, pray about it, and get a clearer sense of whether God is leading you into the ministry of evangelism.

On being accepted as an Evangelist-in-training, you will be required to participate in thirteen training modules over a two-year period. Most of these modules will take place on Saturdays; a few of them will involve Friday evenings as well. These modules will be offered at a central location in the diocese, and there will be a small registration fee for each module. We strongly encourage parishes to cover this registration fee for their candidates in training.

The modules will cover such things as:

  • Sharing your faith with others in the context of genuine caring relationships.
  • Helping a person become a follower of Jesus.
  • Addressing big questions and common objections to the Christian faith.
  • Helping new disciples of Jesus grow in basic Christian disciplines.
  • Understanding changes in our culture and their implications for Christian witness.
  • Helping a congregation become more effective in sharing the gospel and growing (in numbers and in faith).
  • Welcoming and integrating new members into a congregation.
  • Engaging our neighbourhoods with practical outreach projects.
  • Running effective inquirers’ courses (eg. Alpha, Emmaus, Christian Basics).
  • Working with baptismal families to share the gospel and encourage them to follow Christ.
  • Running effective invitation Sundays (eg. ‘Back to Church Sunday’).
  • Resources for Evangelists.
  • Spirituality for Evangelists.

On successful completion of the training and on the recommendation of the Warden of Lay Evangelists, the Bishop may license candidates as Lay Evangelists in the Diocese of Edmonton. The license will be for a specified period of time, and renewal is at the Bishop’s discretion.

After training and licensing…

…comes the adventure of sharing the gospel, working in step with the Holy Spirit, and seeing people come to a new joy through faith in Jesus Christ!

In order to help this happen, the Warden of Lay Evangelists will help you to negotiate a working agreement with your parish, which will specify such things as which specific tasks you will be working on, how many volunteer hours you will be expected to give to this work, how the parish will support you, and how continuing education will take place. You will be expected to give regular reports on your work, and the parish, the diocese and the Warden of Lay Evangelists will be there to support you and cheer for you! The diocese will also organize regular opportunities for continuing education so that you can grow your skills and learn new ways of becoming more effective in the ministry to which God has called you.

For more information:

Contact the Diocesan Warden of Lay Evangelists, the Rev. Tim Chesterton, at stmrector@gmail.com or 780-437-7231.

‘Out of the Depths’: a sermon on Psalm 130

When I was in college my Old Testament professor used to say, ‘the rest of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us’. I think this is true, and I’m really glad that we use them week by week in our Anglican worship.

The Book of Psalms is a book of prayers written by Old Testament people; some of them perhaps date as far back as the time of David, a thousand years before Jesus, while others are more recent. In the psalms we’ll find the whole breadth of human experience and emotion – joy and suffering, praise and anger, love and hate – every part of our human life, even the nasty parts, all presented to God in prayer. I hope you’re getting to know the psalms, and I hope you read them regularly. This extraordinary collection of prayers is telling us that every part of our human life can be prayed; there’s no experience, and no emotion, that can’t be brought up in our conversations with God. The psalms invite us to be honest and to be ourselves in our prayers. God knows all about us anyway, so we may as well tell him the truth!

Today’s psalm, Psalm 130, is definitely speaking for us in our troubles. It speaks of a painful aspect of our human experience, when we say to ourselves, “I’m in trouble, and it’s my fault: I’m the one that caused it”. So we’re not only dealing with despair and difficulty, but guilt as well. If we’re religious people, we may find ourselves thinking “God must be punishing me for what I did”.

This was a common view in Old Testament times: the idea that if you were suffering, you had obviously done something wrong, and God was punishing you for it. I say this was a common Old Testament view, but of course it’s still with us; we still hear people who are going through hardship asking, “What have I done to deserve this?”

But even in the Old Testament not everyone agrees with this, and when we turn to the New Testament we come across a completely different view. In John chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples looked at a man who had been born blind, and they asked Jesus, “Who sinned – him or his parents?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Throughout the gospels Jesus lives out a message of grace, which is God’s unconditional love for all people, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the woman caught in the act of adultery at the beginning of John chapter 8, and even his own friend Peter, who denied him three times. In each case, instead of sending trouble on the sinner to punish them, Jesus is reaching out to them with the message of God’s steadfast love, and is calling them to come home to a God who is more than ready to welcome them.

Psalm 130 is one of those places in the Old Testament where we catch a glimpse of this truth as well. Let’s explore it together. I’m going to use the pew Bibles, the NRSV translation, rather than the BAS which we prayed a few minutes ago, because there’s one word that I think is translated much better in the NRSV; I’ll point it out when we get to it!

So let’s start by asking ourselves, what is the writer of this psalm experiencing? Look at verses 1-2:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

The ‘depths’ are a common Old Testament metaphor for suffering, despair, and depression. The writer is talking about the ocean depths, or maybe the floods: ‘Lord, I’m drowning in despair here!’ There’s another example of it in Psalm 69 where we read these words:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God (Psalm 69:1-3).

Our readings for today give us examples of these depths. In our first lesson, David is crying out to God in grief for his dear friend Jonathan, who has been killed in battle with the Philistines. Grief, we know, is one of the hardest things we go through as humans – the death of someone we love, and the continual experience of their absence, is something we never really get over. And of course, the more we loved them, the harder it is to deal with.

In our gospel one of the characters in the story is going to deal with that as well. Jairus has a little daughter, and he’s frantic with worry about her; she’s very ill, and indeed is at the point of death. The serious illness of a much-loved child is one of the great fears of all parents, isn’t it? And if you’ve lost a child, you know how black those particular depths can be.

There’s also a woman who has been suffering hemorrhages for twelve years; she’s spent a lot of money on doctors, and we can guess that she’s prayed a lot too, but nothing has changed. Twelve years is the age of Jairus’ little girl; all the time that Jairus and his family have been enjoying their dear daughter, this woman has been suffering, and there has been no relief. A long, chronic illness, and years of unanswered prayer: that’s a very, very dark valley.

In 2 Corinthians 8 there are hints of another dark valley. Paul is organizing a relief fund in all his Gentile churches to help the Christians back in Jerusalem, who for some reason are going through a time of severe economic hardship. Very few of us have to deal with that sort of thing; even if we’ve been out of work for a while, we usually haven’t had to worry about where our next meal is coming from. But of course, there are people in the world who are overwhelmed with worry about that; they have no idea whether or not they’ll be able to eat today.

So these are some of the ‘depths’ that Bible people experienced – bereavement, chronic illness, unanswered prayer, crushing poverty. They are with us still, of course, along with many other hard circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us.

I wonder what ‘depths’ you have experienced, that have led you to cry out to God in fear or desperation? Maybe it was the depths of grief at the loss of a loved one, or maybe it was panic when you found yourself in serious financial difficulties, or maybe lost a job that you were depending on. Maybe it was the pain of the breakup of a marriage, or conflict with children or parents. Maybe it was the unexpected diagnosis of a serious illness. Or maybe it was a sense of guilt at some things you had done, and a fear that God had turned his back on you and abandoned you.

These are all common human experiences; we all go through them, whether we’re Christian or not. Sometimes it’s harder for us as Christians, because we’ve been told that if we follow Christ, God will always bless us and look after us. So we find ourselves asking, “Have I done something wrong that he’s punishing me for?” Or again, we’ve been taught that we’ll always be joyful if the Holy Spirit lives in us, and now we’re not feeling that joy.

So how does the writer of Psalm 130 deal with this experience? What does he have to say to God? Where does he find hope in the midst of despair? Let me point out a few things to you.

First, the writer arrives at what seems to us to be a blindingly obvious conclusion, but it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to get there without some help. What’s the conclusion? Simply this: If God was sending thunderbolts to strike sinners dead, there’d be no one left standing. Look at verses 3-4:

If you, O Yahweh, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

Of course, we tend to think of ‘sinners’ as being people who are guilty of some particularly heinous sin. What we classify as a ‘heinous’ sin, of course, changes with our culture. To some people, it’s anything to do with sex; to others, it’s anything to do with social injustice. In the Middle Ages, it was daring to charge interest when you lent money to anyone!

But we Christians can’t be so selective in our definition of sin, can we? In most of our services we confess our sins together, saying “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”. This, of course, is based on Jesus’ two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we’ve neglected to do this, then we are sinners. And as soon as you start defining sin to include the good things we don’t do, then we know we’re all nailed! As Paul says in Romans 3, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ – which is pretty much a New Testament Christian way of saying exactly what our psalm writer said.

So that’s the first thing the writer reflects on: everyone is a sinner, so whatever else my troubles might be, they can’t be God’s punishment for my sins, because if they were, everyone would be going through the same punishment. The writer then goes on to reflect on three aspects of God’s character that give us hope.

First, God is a God of forgiveness. Verse 4 says, ‘But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’. The wording seems a little strange to us, but if we read the psalm as a whole, we can see that this ‘with you’ language is the writer’s way of pointing out different aspects of God’s character; he might say ‘there is courage with you’ or ‘there is patience with you’. So in verse 4 we have ‘forgiveness’, and in verse 7 we read ‘For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem’. And these three ‘with you’ characteristics turn out to be just the things that give us hope in our despair.

So – first, forgiveness. We who follow Jesus, of course, don’t need to be in doubt about that. Over and over, Jesus met people who were in despair over their guilt and assured them of God’s forgiveness. He reached out to people who were considered to be the worst sinners, to the point that he was even described by his enemies as the ‘friend of sinners’ (hint: they didn’t think that was a compliment!). He taught us that God is like the father who welcomes the prodigal son home after he’s wasted all his property, or like a king who forgives an embezzling servant a debt bigger than the entire revenue of the kingdom. Paul says, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). ‘There is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’.

Secondly, God is a God of steadfast love. This is why I like the NRSV better than the BAS translation of this psalm. The BAS says, ‘for with the Lord there is mercy’; the NIV says ‘for with the Lord there is unfailing love’, which is a little better. The Hebrew word is ‘chesed’, which I think means ‘love with muscles attached to it’, ‘stubborn love’, ‘love that never gives up’. And so the NRSV has this wonderful phrase, ‘steadfast love’.

What’s it telling us? It’s saying that God has made a covenant with us that he will not break. In that covenant, he has adopted us as his children, forgiven our sins, given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and promised that nothing can ever separate us from his love. His love for us is patient, stubborn, steadfast and sure, and we can count on it. His love will never let us go. Never.

So God is a God of forgiveness, and God is a God of steadfast love. Thirdly, God is a God who comes to the rescue. The NRSV uses the old word ‘redeem’; it says in verses 7-8, ‘…and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’.

The word ‘redeem’ is often used in the Bible to mean paying a price to set slaves free, or rescue them. But it’s also used in a military sense: God rescuing his people from a hopeless situation by what the Bible calls ‘the strength of his right hand’. Our psalm writer asks the question ‘What enemies are too strong for me to defeat all by myself?’ and comes up with the surprising answer, ‘My sins’:

‘…with (Yahweh) there is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (vv.7b-8).

Yes, our own sins, or ‘iniquities’ as the psalm calls them, can be our worst enemies. How many times have we made New Year’s resolutions about dealing with our bad habits, and how many times have we broken them? And, on a less humorous note, how many times have we said of someone, “He’s his own worst enemy?” Positive change is very, very difficult for us humans; if eternal life is a reward for good behaviour, we’re in a desperate situation indeed.

So once again, we’re back to forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark’s gospel, ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). In the original language, the word ‘ransom’ comes from the same root as ‘redeem’ or ‘redemption’. Jesus is using the illustration of the slave market: we are slaves of evil and sin, but he’s given himself on the cross to ransom us from slavery, so that we can be forgiven and go free.

We’ve seen that God is a God of forgiveness, a God of steadfast love, and a God who rescues us from our sins. What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is two words: ‘Hope’, and ‘wait’. Look at verses 5-6:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

This is honest and realistic; the writer isn’t promising that the answer to our prayers is going to come instantly. Whatever this ‘flood’ is that’s threatening to overwhelm him, he’s not expecting that God will instantly taking it away. Far from it: he’s expecting to have to wait.

And this lines up very much with life as I experience it. My Dad told me once, “I’ve been impatient all my life, so every time I’ve really wanted something, the Lord has made me wait for it!” And I remember that in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable to encourage us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’ (Luke 18:1); there would have been no need for him to tell that parable if we always got everything we asked for right away!

So – keep on praying, and don’t lose heart. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope’. Whatever trouble we’re going through, let’s keep bringing it to God in prayer, confident that God is not punishing us, because he’s a God of forgiveness and steadfast love. This trouble we’re going through isn’t a big stick he’s using to beat us up or punish us. Rather, he’s walking through our dark place with us, just as he came and lived and died as one of us in Jesus, experiencing all the trouble that we go through as human beings, all the way to death on a cross. So we can come to him with confidence, knowing that nothing can ever change his steadfast love for us.

As we finish, why don’t you put your own name in the last two verses of this psalm? ‘O Tim, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him there is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem me from all my iniquities’. Amen.

Three models of church – and they’re all true.

This week the clergy of our Diocese of Edmonton have been enjoying a clergy conference with Doug Pagitt as our theme speaker. I think it’s safe to say that Doug was provocative! I liked some of what he said, strongly disagreed with some of it, but certainly enjoyed the conversations he sparked.

One of the things he said was that churches tend to relate to the world around them in one of three different ways, or models:

  1. Church as a bounded set, with strong boundary lines for who is in or out.
  2. Church as a centred set, with fuzzy edges but a strong centre of unity (a shared belief or shared loyalty).
  3. Church as a network in which everyone brings their own toys to the party, and the whole thing is about being connected to others.

It occurred to me, as I thought about this, that I actually believe in all three of these models, and I think that church is incomplete without all three of them.

To start with the second one, at the centre of church is our loyalty to Jesus Christ, who (as Peter says in Acts 11) is ‘Lord of all’. When churches lose sight of the centrality of Jesus and start to put something else in his place (a tradition, a liturgy, a political commitment, or even the Bible), then trouble always results. So we need a strong focus on Jesus, on his revelation of God to us, and our commitment to following him.

But the idea of a ‘bounded set’ also has its place – not that we’re trying to keep people out, but that we acknowledge that if we have chosen to follow Jesus as Lord, we’ve committed ourselves to a different standard. In chapel Thursday morning we heard the Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel about how God’s people asked Samuel to give them a king so that they could be like the nations around them. When God’s people want to be just like everyone else, we know something is seriously wrong! The New Testament tells us that ‘once we were no people, but now we are the people of God; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy’. So we are not to take our cues from the world around us but from the one who we believe is the Son of God. That’s the truth the ‘bounded set’ idea reminds us of.

Finally we get to the network model. This reminds me that everyone in my church is part of multiple networks of people. Some of them are inside the church – Bible study groups, friends who hang together at coffee hour, vestry members and so on. Others are outside – friends, work colleagues, family members, schoolmates and so on. Those networks are natural lines for sharing the love of Christ in word and deed. They are also natural lines for getting people involved in other ways. As Doug said, everyone brings their toys to the party. In our church, for instance, musicians who are not members of our church, or even necessarily believers, have gotten involved in the fundraising we have done for World Vision; in other words, they have brought their gifts to the party in the cause of blessing the poor.

Doug’s preferred model was the network, but I refuse to choose. I think each of these three models has something to contribute to our view of what the church is all about, and I want to learn from all of them.

We don’t know how to be happy

Last week I posted a quote from C.S. Lewis about not looking to Christianity to make us happy; that, Lewis argued, was the wrong reason for becoming a Christian.

However, it has since occurred to me that there is a sense in which it may be exactly the right reason.

Goodness, or holiness, or virtue, is often misunderstood. When Lent rolls around each year, Christians take on little disciplines of self-denial – giving up coffee, or chocolate, or Facebook, or things like that. But we’re often a little confused as to why we’re doing it, other than ‘well, that’s what we do during Lent – it’s part of our tradition’.

Christian moral theology, it seems to me, starts with the assumption that we need to be instructed in the art of happiness. We don’t start off knowing how; we have to learn.

A child might think, for instance, that being allowed to eat only ice cream at meals, three times a day, would make her very happy, but eventually she will discover, by painful experience, that this is not the case. Likewise, most adults enjoy alcoholic beverages from time to time, but the entirely logical conclusion that if two or three drinks a week makes us happy, two or three drinks an hour will make us even happier, turns out to be problematic, to say the least.

We all seem to have inside us a spoiled, self-indulgent child who persists in thinking that selfish pleasure is the infallible key to happiness. Taking whatever we want, doing whatever we can get away with, having sex with whoever we want whenever we like, doing business to get as much wealth for ourselves as we can without thought for others – these all seem like splendid ideas to this inner child. And he isn’t very good at listening to reason, or he would have abandoned this idea a long time ago, on account of its failure to produce the happiness it promises..

Training in virtue consists in learning what it is that makes human beings happy in the ultimate, most lasting sense, and then training ourselves to do it. And this isn’t just about ‘me, me, me’; this is one of the things we need to unlearn. It involves learning what makes everyone happy, and then doing our part to bring that about. This is why true holiness involves questions of justice, compassion for others, caring for the poor, learning to deal with conflict and work for reconciliation and so on.

It is to be expected that this training will not be easy. The older we get, the deeper the behavioural ruts we have worn for ourselves. We have made a habit of selfishness, and habits are notoriously difficult to break. Added to this, the Christian doctrine of original sin teaches us that the nature we were born with was not human nature as God originally designed it, either; it has been infected by evil, so that our desires are not always an accurate reflection of God’s good will for us.

Which means that ultimate happiness will sometimes, perhaps even often, involve accepting a certain short-term unhappiness while we learn a new and better way to be happy.

Well, fair enough, but let’s not make that unhappiness an end in itself. Let’s remember that it’s only a means to the ultimate end, that of enjoying the happiness that God designed us for.

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalm 16:11, NRSV).

Pleasures for ever more. Do we believe that?

Actually, C.S. Lewis would have agreed. Here’s a famous quote from his sermon The Weight of Glory:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Mud pies in a slum. A holiday by the sea. Which is better? The answer seems obvious when you put it that way, but it would seem that when it comes to our own happiness we don’t always find it obvious. We have to be trained. And, because God loves us so much that he wants us to be happy, he is willing and ready to train us, if we will trust him enough to let him do it.

Accepting imperfection

The central Christian conviction is that God is a God of grace.

‘Grace’ is a Bible word that means love that we don’t have to earn or deserve; it comes to us as a free gift from God, because it’s the nature of God to love. As Philip Yancey puts it, there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less; God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that.

This does not mean that we can’t refuse the love of God. God has given us that right, and God honours our decision. But the refusal is on our part, not God’s part.

Grace involves the acceptance of imperfection, or what Francis Spufford calls our ‘human propensity to mess things up’ (he actually used a stronger word than ‘mess’, but this is, after all, a family blog!). Grace is realistic; it recognizes that we are all recovering sin addicts, and that change is very, very hard for us. Nonetheless, grace chooses love over hate, forgiveness over vengeance, patience over punishment.

Those who are aware that they are the recipients of grace can also be graceful (in this sense) toward one another. We are very aware of our own failings, but we are patient and forgiving toward ourselves. We are invited to extend this patience and forgiveness toward others as well.

Grace is the only hope for peace in the world. The alternative is the continuing cycle of revenge. You hit me, I’ll hit you back harder. You burn down my village, I’ll burn down ten of yours. This is why the conflict in Ireland went on so long, and why the conflicts in the Middle East continue to this day. If we can’t forgive, we’re doomed to keep hurting each other and killing each other. Grace is our only hope.

Jesus exemplifies the way of grace. He taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them. He reached out to good and bad alike, offering forgiveness and love. And then when he was crucified, he practiced what he preached: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. They killed him, but they could not kill his love for them.

God of love, thank you for your amazing grace that reaches out to us as we are. Thank you that it is your nature to love the unlovely into lovableness. Give us courage and strength to love others as you have loved us. Amen.

David and Goliath (a sermon on 1 Samuel 17:1-49)

This past couple of weeks there has been a flurry of articles in British newspapers about the future of the church in Britain. This future is being predicted, of course, by projecting current trends forward a few years. Every ten years in the UK there is a census, and each time the census is taken, the number of Christians drops. Between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians in the UK fell by 5.3 million – about ten thousand a week. As the statisticians pointed out, if that rate of decline continues, Christianity in Britain will become extinct in 2067.

Even in the USA, which is a lot more religious than Britain, the statistics are not encouraging. The Pew Forum recently published a survey indicating that the percentage of the US population calling itself Christian fell from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014. In other words, in a period of only seven years, the size of the professed Christian population in the USA fell by 10%. In Canada also, all the signs seem to indicate that an increasing percentage of the population identifies itself as having ‘no religion’.

I think we’ve all noticed this. Simple observation tells us that many – perhaps most – churches are graying, and even young people who come to church aren’t coming as often as their parents and grandparents did. Those who want to attend church on Sundays and to practice the teaching of Jesus during the week are now swimming against the stream. And a huge part of our population has no connection with organized Christianity at all. At one time we Christians felt like we had real power and influence in the land; now, for the most part, we do not. It’s easy for us to be fearful, as if a great giant has appeared on the scene and is advancing menacingly toward us. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s no escape. The end is nigh.

What’s all this got to do with David and Goliath? Well, let’s continue.

The Philistines were originally from Crete; they were a seafaring nation of battle-hardened warriors. They first appear in the Bible in the Book of Judges, living in an area of Palestine roughly equivalent to the modern-day Gaza strip. They had a huge tactical advantage over Israel in that they had iron before the Israelites did, and iron wins out over bronze almost every time.

In the second half of the eleventh century BC the Philistines were pushing east, threatening the territory of the tribes of Israel. This threat was a huge part of the reason why the Israelites asked the prophet Samuel to give them a king to lead them in battle. When Saul took on the kingship, this was part of his job description: do something about the Philistines, please! But it turned out to be a difficult proposition.

Last week we read of how Saul’s disobedience led God to reject him as king of Israel. Instead, God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David, the youngest son of Jesse, to be king in Saul’s place. But David was a shepherd boy, and it would be a long time before he succeeded to Saul’s throne. For now, Saul was still king, so he was the one who led the armies of Israel to the Valley of Elah to do battle with the Philistines. The Elah is actually a wadi that is dry for a lot of the year. On either side of the valley are wooded hillsides, and the two armies took up their positions on opposing hillsides. Of course, neither wanted to come down and put themselves at a tactical disadvantage by having to cross the valley and attack uphill.

And so Goliath makes his appearance. The book of 1 Samuel is a little unclear as to just how tall he was; the Hebrew manuscripts say ‘six cubits and a span’, which is about nine and a half feet, but the Greek translation of the Bible, which may have worked from even earlier manuscripts, says ‘four cubits and a span’, about six foot nine, which may be more realistic. He came out to challenge the Israelites to single combat, a common practice in the ancient world; heavy bloodshed would be avoided by each side choosing a fierce warrior and letting them duke it out.

Ancient armies were made up of three types of troops: cavalry and chariots, infantry, and projectile warriors – that is, archers and slingers). Goliath was a heavy infantryman, and when he issued his challenge, he obviously expected to be met by another heavy infantryman. Certainly that was what he had prepared for. He wore chain mail made of bronze; it weighed about a hundred and twenty-five pounds, and it covered his body and his arms and reached down to his knees. He had bronze greaves protecting the front of his shins, and a heavy metal helmet, and he carried three separate weapons: a javelin made of bronze, which he would throw with great force at an enemy, a sword, and a short range spear with a thick shaft and a cord attached to it so that it could be retrieved and used again. It had a sharp tip made of iron weighing about fifteen pounds. Truly, Goliath was a terrifying figure; no one in the Israelite army dared to take him on.

Saul tries to find an Israelite warrior brave enough to accept Goliath’s challenge.

‘The Israelites said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel”’ (1 Samuel 17:25).

But no inducement seems to be sufficient. Reasonably enough, Saul’s soldiers are probably thinking, “The reward sounds pretty good, but I’d have to survive the battle to collect it! And what are the odds of that?”

Interestingly enough, until this point in the story no one has mentioned the name of God. But a change comes in verse 24, when a new voice is heard, asking a vital question: “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” This is the voice of little David, the shepherd boy, the youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem, who has turned up at the battle to bring food for his brothers.

David is different; he’s not afraid. Why not? Well, it seems to me that there are two reasons.

First, David lives his life on the basis that God is real. He’s actually willing to stake his life on that reality. He’s like Peter when Jesus called him to step out of the boat and walk in the water toward him. That act made no sense at all – unless God is real, and is able to do amazing things in the real world.

This is the faith that David has. Saul thinks he’s foolhardy: “You’re just a boy”, he says, “and he’s been a warrior for years. ” But David won’t back down:

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it…Yahweh, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (vv.34-35, 37).

And later on, as he’s advancing into battle against Goliath, David says,

“I come to you in the name of Yahweh of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied…so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that Yahweh does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is Yahweh’s, and he will give you into our hand” (vv.45-47, excerpts).

David isn’t afraid, because he believes that God is real, and that God cares enough to intervene. A thousand years later, Jesus believed the same thing. None of the ruling powers were very happy about him, but Jesus walked through the land acting in faith that God was real, and that God cared enough to intervene. And so the sick were healed, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, and the good news spread like wildfire: the kingdom of God is at hand! Even after the powers that be killed him, God raised him from the dead, and he sent out his defenceless messengers all over the ancient world. Wherever they went, they announced the good news that love is stronger than death, and that God has appointed a new king over the world, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of all. Of course, we know the story, and it all seems believable for us today, but at the time it seemed anything but: the little carpenter from Nazareth, leading a kingdom of God movement! Rome would make short work of him!

But Jesus was not afraid, as David was not afraid, because he believed that ‘there is a God in Israel’. And I wonder if that’s part of our problem today? That even though we say we believe in God, we’re not willing to step out in faith and stake everything on him? We need a human plan, a training course, a healthy budget – anything but staking absolutely everything on God, and God’s power to change the world.

But there was a second reason why David wasn’t afraid, and that was because he wasn’t planning to let Goliath tell him how the battle should be fought. Goliath was a heavy infantryman, and he challenged the Israelite army to send him a heavy infantryman to engage in single combat. That was what Goliath was armed for, and Saul tried to prepare David to fight him on those terms, by giving him his armour. But David wouldn’t take it; “I can’t wear this stuff! I’m not used to it”.

No – David was a slinger, a projectile warrior. Malcolm Gladwell explains this:

‘Slingers had a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long strand of rope. They would put a rock or a lead ball into the pouch, swing it around in increasingly wider and faster circles, and then release one end of the rope, hurling the rock forward. Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon…An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards’.[i]

Gladwell goes on to cite a recent study by a ballistics expert with the Israeli defence force. He calculated that a typical stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five metres would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four metres per second – more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead.

This was David’s plan. Instead of fighting Goliath on his own terms – size, strength, conventional weapons – he was going to run fast, choose his ground, and use the weapon he was confident in, the one he knew could strike with deadly accuracy far beyond the range of Goliath’s weapons. And that’s exactly what happened.

And maybe there’s a message for us here too, in this strange new world in which we find ourselves, when the church seems to be staring extinction in the face. Christians of my age grew up in a world of big: big buildings, splendid cathedrals, big organizations, established procedures. In England, where I grew up, the Church of England is the established church, integrated with the systems of government. Here in Canada, when our General Synod meets, we continue to pass motions calling on governments to do this and that, as if governments actually care a hoot about what the Anglican Church of Canada thinks.

You see, we’re still used to big; we find it reassuring. But maybe ‘big’ isn’t what’s called for today. Goliath was big and well protected, but he was also slow and inflexible, and that slowness and inflexibility cost him his life when David took out his sling and stone. And maybe today it’s the nimbleness and speed and flexibility of David that we need.

And we also need David’s absolute confidence in the weapon in his hands, even if pacifists like me might be a little uncomfortable in this military analogy. David had confidence in his sling and stone, because he had seen it work many times before. And I would suggest to you that what we need today is absolute confidence in the power of the gospel to change people’s lives. The early Christians had no big administrative structures, no cathedrals, no seminaries to train apostles. What they had was a message that they called the good news. People heard it, believed it, and committed themselves to it, and when they did that, their lives were transformed. It was like moving from darkness to light, they said; it was like being born again; it was like being raised from the dead.

Those of you who follow Reed Fleming’s blog may have read this story on Friday:

I had the most extraordinary experience this week. Linda and I attended the AGM for…a women’s ministry in Saint John. There in the front row was someone I didn’t recognize. She was beautifully dressed and seated next to a young man who was obviously smitten with her. It turned out he was her fiancée. I did notice a tattoo, which was reminiscent, but I could not figure out where I had seen it.  This young woman was the key speaker at the meeting. As she was introduced my jaw dropped…this was Holly!

I met Holly over three years ago. She was a hilariously funny and very creative person with a terrible drug addiction, which was obviously killing her. At the time I met her I was working closely with my friend Catherine. Catherine was an outreach worker at our church. She became a great friend and support to Holly and it seemed for a while that there might be hope in Holly’s dark world. Just about that time Catherine’s employment came to an abrupt halt and we lost track of Holly. The last glimpse of her I had was as she was standing on a street corner. She was selling her terribly thin body in order to buy more drugs. After that I didn’t see her. I assumed that she had probably died in some crack-shack.

I remember feeling upset that we should be brought into her life and then because of a decision by others, lose that entrée. I did not know that God had a bigger plan than I saw. A local women’s addiction centre sent Holly to a treatment centre where she ‘got clean’ and more importantly found Jesus!

I did not recognize the no longer rail thin young woman. As she spoke she gave credit to Jesus that now she was clean, reunited with her children, no longer living on the streets but living in a house. She has a young man who is also a Jesus follower and she has a future!…

I was upset when Holly was no longer in our orbit, (but) God has his ways which are higher than mine. Holly’s story will keep me going for a long time. I know others in very similar circumstances and I pray “God what you have done, do again. Nothing is impossible for you.”

This is the power of the Gospel to change people’s lives. As we share our faith confidently with others, we will see it happen, and the more we see it happen, the more our confidence will grow.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s not be afraid of Goliath. Despite statistics, the church does not need to die – but it may need to change beyond our imagination. Like David, we need to learn to walk out into the world in the confidence that God is real, and that God cares enough to do amazing things. We need the courage to abandon our fascination with ‘big’ and ‘strong’ and embrace ‘small’ and ‘flexible’, as Jesus and the early church did. And we need to recover our confidence that the Gospel of Jesus is really good news and that it has the power to change people’s lives. Truly, as David said, there is a God in Israel – and in the whole world – and if we are running with him, we do not need to be afraid.

[i] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (New York; Little, Brown, and Company; 2013), p.9.

British Folk Revival

imageSongza is a streaming musical service that I have begun to really enjoy. My enjoyment increased exponentially when I discovered that it has a sub-genre of ‘Folk and Americana’ called ‘British Folk Revival‘. Here is how it is described:

The massive post-war folk revival in Britain emphasized 19th century work songs, including industrial labour songs and sea shanties. Here are the most important recordings of the British traditional music movement.

In fact, of course, the subject areas are much wider than that – agriculture, murder, sex, social class, legends and magic, the list goes on and on. But here we have recordings by some of the old singers – Jeannie Robertson, Walter Pardon, John Strachan – and the early interpreters of their material, people like Louis Killen, Bert Lloyd, Ewan McColl, the Watersons, Martin Carthy, Bob Copper, Shirley Collins, Peggy Seeger, Margaret Barry and others from the 1950s and 60s. This is really great stuff, and if you’re interested in the roots of traditional British folk music, check this channel out.

Coming soon to a folk festival near me: The Earls of Leicester

The Earls of Leicester will be performing at this year’s Edmonton Folk Music Festival August 6th-9th. Here they are playing ‘Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’.

The Earls of Leicester are a tribute band for the music of Scruggs and Flatts (see info here). They’re all pretty talented, but I’m especially a fan of Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien, although apparently Tim won’t be playing with them when they’re at the folk festival. This is because he’s touring with his other band, Hot Rize, who will be performing at the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival in Stony Plain the week before.