40 days of change-day 39

25 March, 2016                                                      40 days of change-Lent, 2016

He too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Hebrews 2:14,15

I would expect that there are very few people reading this reflection who doubt the death of Jesus? It seems to be a well documented fact; even a secular historian cites a man named Jesus being killed by Romans. Although we don’t doubt the event happened, we may doubt it’s meaning, or whether it’s good, or whether it’s sufficient. Maybe we have more doubts than we think regarding his death.

The Bible encourages us to believe that Jesus death on the cross was significant for all of humankind as it brought forgiveness of sin, gained victory over evil, satisfied our need to die, and was the most inspirational example of love. And yet, we still feel guilty, evil seems to be still alive and flourishing, our loved ones still die, and God killing his son is considered more controversial than inspiring. What appears to be our reality runs contrary to scriptural truth, and the contradiction breeds more doubt than it does belief.

And what about the doubt that the death is good? Many are puzzled that we glibly call the day when the world killed Jesus ‘Good Friday’. Recently, I was trying to explain it to some children and I could see the skepticism in their face. They were not being skeptical it happened, but that a death was called good. I felt like a cheap salesman trying to sell a used teabag to a Brit with the pitch that a watered down version is significantly healthier. Yet the Scripture says it is better that one should die than all perish. So if Jesus death keeps us all from perishing, that’s good; isn’t it?

‘But is it good enough’ we hear whispered at times; strangely sounding like the voice of our own doubts. Can it be possible that a death 2,000 years ago can meet the requirement of a holy God who had pronounced death as a deserving end to all humankind? To answer our doubt about sufficiency we want to insist on some good works. ‘Go to church, avoid cheating, be kind –– that will ensure salvation’. Again, that’s the voice of doubt. Listen to the voice of Christ: ‘it is finished’. Really?

What do we do with these doubts? We ought not ignore them or suppress them. Ignoring them will make them raise their voice from a whisper to a shout. Suppressing them will cause them to spring back larger, more unmanageable, and with a bit of an attitude. Address the doubts by laying them before God, the Holy Spirit, in prayer. His responsibility is to lead us into all truth, to comfort and to guide. For the questions God wants us know the answers, the Spirit will reveal the truth we need to know. He will comfort when the answers are not yet forthcoming, and he will guide us along the difficult path from doubt to belief.




40 days of change-day 38

24 March, 2016                                              40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 1 Corinthians 1:16

The night before he dies, Jesus has dinner with his friends and initiates the most significant Christian ritual we have today. It was the beginning of the Eucharist, or as some of us call it: Communion, the Breaking of the Bread, Remembrance Service, or the Last Supper. Protestants and Catholics both practice it. We do have different views on what transpires when we take the bread and drink the cup: some think it actually becomes his flesh and blood, others think the elements coexist as both bread and wine and flesh and blood, and others think nothing happens other than you swallow an object lesson as you conjure up a memory –– the elements are merely symbolic. Speaking from the tradition of those who believe the elements are symbolic, for that is my background, let me suggest that our belief is borne from a degree of doubt in the mystical, and can lead to a dangerous indifference.

If we revisit the story of Jesus and notice he never uses language in any of the accounts such as ‘it’s like my body’. Neither does he use the language of simile when it comes to the wine. What he says doesn’t make sense, but the taking of the bread and wine as Jesus body and blood didn’t need to make logical sense to the partakers of Communion for the first 1700 years it was done by believers. It was a miracle each time that they accepted and celebrated. Modernity has often robbed us of the mystical. Have our doubts born out of rationale thought reduced the sacred to mere symbols of a cold and boring ritual?

In the symbolic tradition, we don’t refer to Communion as a sacrament. There is a profundity to the word sacrament. Originally the word was used to speak of an action in which Jesus was present (a meaning lost in our vernacular use). If your theological framework included the idea that the bread and wine was actually part of Jesus or became so, you would approach it with more of a gasp of awe. If you thought Jesus was right there, we would be humbled, wanting to express our recognition that we are on holy ground. Yet, the very fact we can take it as we gaze out the window, yawn or look at our mobiles, suggests there is doubt as to just how sacred this moment is in our minds or heart.

How do we move to believe it is something special beyond the symbolism like a flag or a brand logo? Maybe by refusing on insisting it has to be logical. I’m not asking us to think it actually becomes his flesh or blood, but we should confess the doubt in the mystical and move to a belief that says its more than what we understand. Then, when we hold the elements this Sunday our hands may tremble and our hearts burn within us.

40 days of change-day 37

23 March, 2016                                                 40 days of change-Lent, 2016

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘this is a hard teaching, who can accept it?’ John 6:60

Even the biggest doubters believe that some of the teachings attributed to Jesus were profound. The turn the other cheek principle, the first shall be last, the love others are all lessons that need to be implemented by our colleagues, partners and children. No one doubts that. What we doubt is whether the teaching works for us personally? If you turn the other cheek, you will have two sore cheeks, a gloating enemy and what good is that? If the first is last, then that will only encourage losers, wrongly protecting them from the harsh reality of the survival of the fittest. I’ll be gentle in my critique of the loving others principle, that’s workable as long as I don’t have to love them more than myself; although Jesus may have come dangerously close to implying that with his feet washing and crucifixion examples. Rarely do we allow these thoughts to be verbalized in polite company, but our interactions within the church tell us that we have some doubt about what Jesus taught. There is no point in denying it; remember actions speak louder than words.

Why do we doubt it? Is it to excuse you from having to follow the teaching? The argument might go like this:

I don’t want to turn the other cheek. It is important that bullies be taught a lesson. I will strike back (although next time I will remember to strike first) and champion the cause for all the downtrodden.

To justify your actions you express doubt whether Jesus meant turning the cheek in the context of the bully, or was he just saying not to retaliate in certain situations. The doubts give you the freedom to ignore Jesus’ teaching. But those manufactured doubts, aren’t doubts, they are lies. We propagate these lies to justify our disobedience. I think Jesus taught something about not lying, but then again, maybe he didn’t mean that in this situation. I presume that’s not the reason for all our doubts.

Sometimes we doubt because we are scared. Scared that the teaching may not come true. Following much of Jesus’ teaching puts you at risk. If I allow myself to be last, I might find out that I actually end up being last! ‘But I thought I was suppose to be first’ you plead from the back of the queue. Learning that God is faithful is the only antidote to those fearful doubts. You can read about God’s faithfulness in Scripture, and you can hear about it from friends who’ll attest to him being true to what he said –– both help us to believe. But the best support to our faith walk is found in just taking your own step of believing, finding out for yourself it is true; and then taking another step that affirms that belief. Each step is a powerful boost to our confidence helping us to regain that balance that doubt caused us to be unstable. After a few faith enhancing steps you are well on your way from doubt to faith.


40 days of change-day 36

22 March, 2016                                                   40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. Matthew 17:20

After cleaning house at the temple, Jesus heads out of Jerusalem and comes across a fig tree with leaves but no fruit. He has words with the fig tree due to its lack of production and the disciples witness its miraculous death. This miracle gives Jesus the opportunity to reiterate a lesson he had taught before when he had first uttered the verse quoted above. However, this time Jesus says to move the mountain, you need to have faith without doubt (Matthew 21:21).

The implication of what Jesus says is that the least amount of doubt defeats the greatest amount of faith. Doubt keeps mountains where they are. If that’s the case, then no wonder we live in a world with few miracle for most people have some inkling of a question around the edges of their faith. We may not doubt God can do the miraculous; more often our doubt relates to whether or not He wants to in the situation at hand. If that’s the case, there is no hope of us seeing a mountain move in our lifetime for who of us have faith without doubt? Could there be another understanding of this passage?

Jesus understood people had doubts. In his introduction to faith moving mountains in the verse above, Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains. That’s not very much faith. Consider it from a mathematical perspective. If we could give faith and doubt numerical value and then subtract our doubt from our faith, would the remainder be a positive or a negative? Admittedly, it may be a small amount, but I expect for many of you reading these reflections it would be positive amount. The point of the mustard seed metaphor is you don’t have to have a lot of faith to see God do something spectacular, but you have to have more faith than doubt. Unfortunately, some of us get the metaphor mixed up and read it as: if you have a mountain of faith, you may be able to move a mustard seed. When we think that way our doubt is greater than our faith.

We will have doubts; but will the doubts exceed and defeat our faith? In Mark 9, Jesus honors a man’s faith despite the man’s admission that he had doubts. The man says to Jesus, ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief’. Let that be our honest approach when we stand at the metaphorical mountain and hope it moves to the left or to the right. Tell God you believe he is able to do it (he created the big pile of rock) and then ask him to help with the unbelief that doubts God’s will. As you sincerely and transparently cry out to God, taking the first step in a journey from doubt to belief, watch carefully the mountain doesn’t land on your toes.



40 days of change-Day 35

21 March, 2016                                                   40 days of change-Lent, 2016

One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.’ Psalm 62:11

As we come through this week called Holy Week, we will take a closer look at Jesus and discuss the doubts that can flitter across our mind, or for some actually take root and nearly choke out our faith.

The Gospels describe Jesus entering Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter with the fanfare of palm branches and hails that hearken back to King David. The crowds were gathering for the upcoming festival of Passover and were abuzz with the thought of making Jesus King. Why wouldn’t they want him to be King; he heals the sick, feeds thousands, seems to be really wise. He’d be a perfect monarch –– well almost perfect. He had this habit of demanding people to be morally and ethically good. Wouldn’t you know it? As soon as they have a pre-coronation celebration, his perfection causes a traumatic temple scene.

Jesus goes into the temple and finds commerce has take over penitence. In a fit of holy anger he clears the temple grounds and with force reclaims it as a house of prayer. The picture of Jesus cracking a whip and throwing over tables seems far removed from the crowd feeding, children loving, healer of the broken we see in the gospel stories. He seems harsh, out of control, almost insane, totally fearsome. Do we really believe this is Jesus our Saviour?

For some of us Jesus being fearsome is not that hard to believe. God, and Jesus by association, seems a little grumpy in the Old Testament, kicking people out of gardens, sending floods, choosing arbitrarily one people group over another. It looked like Jesus was going to be different, but the temple event confirms what some of us feared. In fact, doesn’t God demand we fear him? Not hard to fear him if we perceive God as mostly angry with people. But, it is hard to love someone we fear. People, who find fear of God reasonable, but love of Jesus difficult, may find Jesus being Lord as sensible, but a loving Saviour questionable in their heart.

So often doubt cuts both ways in a situation. Is Jesus loving or is he scary? A theologian will tell you that he is both; that he holds what appear to be opposites in dynamic tension. We can’t easily explain how he does it and to me that provides encouragement, not dismay. A human can rarely if ever hold two apparently opposing characteristics in harmony, but God can. If God is beyond us, there should be things about him that I can’t explain. These unexplainable doubts remind me that Jesus is not just a man; he is truly the Son of God. Yes, that’s scary, but comforting at the same time. It makes me want to embrace my doubt as confirmation of my belief and draw near to the fearsome, loving Jesus.

40 days of change-day 34

19 March, 2016                                                            40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Discerning – A discerning man keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth. Proverbs 17:24

Discernment involves going past perception to making nuanced judgments. Discernment is to perception as wisdom is to knowledge. A person may know facts, but it takes wisdom to apply them to thinking and acting appropriately. Similarly, when it comes to making judgments, it takes discernment to put each piece of evidence into its proper context and assign the appropriate weight to it. Today’s verse hints that discerning people put things in context and arrive at appropriate conclusions. Undiscerning people’s attention wanders off in all directions, and so they can arrive at outlandish conclusions.

Jesus was brilliantly discerning. He saw through people, knew their thoughts and their lives (Luke 5:22; 6:8; John 2:25; 4:17-18). Supernatural discernment like this is beyond us. But Jesus also had a natural discernment from which we can and should learn. When He is led into the desert to be tested by the devil (Matt. 4:1-11), Jesus uses Scripture to block the devil’s first suggestion, and the devil counter-punches with another Scripture: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ This is from Psalm 91, about God protecting, rescuing and rewarding those who love and trust Him. An undiscerning Jesus might have gone along with it – did He not love and trust His Father? But He keeps wisdom in view. He knows that deliberately putting Himself in harm’s way to force God’s hand would show, not love and trust, but the kind of wicked unfaithfulness that asks for a sign (Matt. 16:4). And so He responds, It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

On another occasion some Pharisees challenge Jesus on divorce, referencing Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But Jesus looks at the wider context of God’s purposes in creating man and woman (an approach, by the way, which could also be applied to same-sex marriage). From Genesis 2:24 He concludes, Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Mark 10:9).

Most heresies, public and private, begin when a person uses a Bible verse as the foundation for an unjustifiably large doctrinal superstructure. We can avoid this trap if we keep wisdom in view. This is not an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual one: the Psalms tell us that to acquire wisdom we should begin with the fear of the Lord (111:10), while it is the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God.” (14:1; 53:1). This Lent let’s begin a life-long habit, whenever we see an assertion supported by a Bible verse, of checking its wider context to see if it’s justified. You could start with today’s reflection …

(contributed by Chris Stiven)

40 days of change-day 33

18 March, 2016                                                      40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Studious – And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. Luke 2:52

The gospel of Luke teaches us that Christ Himself “grew in wisdom…”. I like to think it’s a safe bet that Jesus was studious in all He set his mind to. Sometimes we see Jesus as some sort of walking internet search engine who had all information at His fingertips, but this trades on a lopsided view of who Jesus is. It emphasises His divinity, yes, but let’s not forget that He is also truly human. He learnt to be a carpenter, something that takes many years of study and practise. In His devotions, Jesus would have studied the scriptures and meditated on God’s word frequently.

“Bookworm”, “nerd”, “geek” or “theologian ” are all terms I’ve heard (and used!) to describe someone who is studious. Dictionary.com defines the studious person as someone who studies diligently, who is careful and planned in what they set out to do. While none of us would suggest that these qualities are bad, sadly – and all too often – I have come across the view in Christian circles that to be studious means “doing things in your own strength”. Let’s face it, sometimes this view is just a smokescreen to cover-up our own laziness; we can’t make the effort to engage our minds ourselves, so we dismiss those who do.

Paul teaches us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12.2a). We tend to think that being a disciple of Jesus means being a follower of Jesus. But being a disciple of Christ is not a passive calling. The meaning of the Greek word we translate as “disciple” is actually best rendered as “learner”. We must engage our minds in order to follow Jesus well.

We cannot deny that one of the primary ways in which we come to know God is via His written word to us: the Bible. God has decreed that we should read about Him. Why is it then, when we have this amazing, divinely inspired resource readily available, we find studying the Bible such a boring or difficult task? Do we love God so little, that we cannot be diligent in our studies of His word to us? The average amount of TV we watch in the UK is 4 hours a day; can we not, for example, devote just 30 minutes a day to read a portion of scripture and a written commentary or discussion of that same passage? Let us not forget that Jesus Himself taught us in the greatest commandment that we should, among other things, love the Lord our God with all of our minds (Matt. 22:37).

Are you seeking to be a disciple of the Lord? Do you want to know God better? Do you want to know His will for your life? Do you want to know what He would have you do, how to conduct your affairs, and live out your time on earth? Go to the Bible, read His inspired word, take in those God-breathed pages. Let us learn to be studious like Christ!

(contributed by Jim Davis)