What do you want?

My family know all too well I have one enormous failing. I am an absolutely awful person to buy gifts for. I don’t do fancy stuff, and I’m pretty low maintenance. I dread the question, “Mum, what do you want for your birthday?” It’s not good. They want to bless me, make me smile, give me something I’ll enjoy, and I can’t think of anything I need!

God has loads of gifts he wants to give us. What do you want? Don’t waste your time asking for tacky stuff. And in this passage, Matthew 7:7-12, I don’t think Jesus was talking about basic essentials. No this is about the really valuable, precious gifts. And it’s for something you really, really want. Begging for it, hunting it down, hammering on the door for it.

Matthew 7:7-12

Matthew 7:7-12

The difficulty we have, is that, like me, we don’t know what we want, so we don’t desperately seek it out. There’s a list of some of the gifts available to us in 1 Corinthians 12.

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

And we can be fooled into thinking that we just have to wait and see what gift(s) the Holy Spirit chooses to impart to us. But look down the page to the end of the chapter. The gifts are placed into an order of seniority, and we are commanded to ‘EAGERLY DESIRE the greater gifts’.

And so we come back to Matthew 7 – God has good gifts for us, and we must beg for them, hunt them down, and hammer on Heaven’s door. We can be assured that he will never give us anything that will harm us, for he is a good Father, and knows how to give good gifts. So there’s nothing to fear there.

Take a look through that list of gifts. What do you want? What do you really want? You aren’t restricted to just one gift. What restricts me, and probably most of us, is the wanting. We don’t do enough of it. And we don’t do it eagerly. We’re aware that gifts come with a responsibility. Using them. The parable of the talents makes that clear enough (Matthew 25:14-30). We need to shake off that lethargy. It holds us back from all God has for us.

God has only good gifts for us. Ask for them, seek them, hammer for them, with everything you’ve got. What do you want?

 

Why I see what I think I see

We were reminiscing the other day. There was this girl who used to irritate me something rotten. Not deliberately. But she would angle for attention, in your face, fussing. I was never outwardly mean to her, just avoided being around her as far as possible. Older and hopefully wiser, I can see now she was struggling to be accepted, probably had a low self-esteem; and my response did her no favours. Maybe it says more about me than about her…

I can just imagine the scene where Jesus first told the story about the man with a plank in his eye, trying to take a speck out of his brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-6). I bet he played it up as a real comedy act. Lots of laughs from his merry audience. Then he followed it up with the vision of pigs skidding on pearls like ballbearings, and chasing the tail of the one who’d tried to give them such a treat!

Matthew 7:3-6

Matthew 7:3-6

The point was this. Clear-sightedness. It’s not necessarily that your brother has smaller faults than you, but that our own problems, experiences, wrongdoing and hurts, cloud our vision and get in the way of how we see a situation. Our perception is distorted by how we are; we misjudge.

Dogs and pigs were both considered unclean animals. Why give something wonderful and divine to scum? They’ll only use it against you anyway. No. If you have some special inspirational thought, you should choose carefully who you impart it to.

Not.

I believe Jesus was tacitly challenging their notions about who they saw as ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’ – their attitudes to other people. Are there people we look down on, who we judge unworthy of being blessed with our noble opinions? Who don’t fit our expectations, and the standards we believe are correct?

It’s not even about how I perceive other people, and how I judge their faults. It’s about clear-sightedness to understand why I see what I think I see. It’s about me and my attitudes. It’s about getting rid of my hang-ups, seeing beyond my scars, recognising the filters of my culture, dealing with my sinfulness, so that I can see people as God sees them. Hung-up, hurting, culturally confined and sinful. In need of grace. In need of love. Not in need of my judgementalism.

Get my attitude right, and I’m free to love, free to help others.

It’s wrong

In the wake of the horrific attack on the Manchester Arena, how can you talk about forgiveness? How do families and friends come to terms with their loss? Those hurt, those traumatised, those who have lost so much in so many ways?

It’s almost two years since Dylann Roof sat amongst the congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina for an hour, before opening fire and murdering nine of them. The survivors chose to forgive him. Why would they do that? They had discovered that hate just eats you up. It doesn’t harm the person you hate, it harms you. Forgiving doesn’t necessarily help the person you forgive, but it sets you free. Jesus told us to forgive because he knew that, hard as it is, it is the best thing for us.

There is one step further. Matthew 7:1-2 – not to judge.

Matthew 7:1-2

Matthew 7:1-2

But what about law courts? I don’t believe Jesus was referring to the civic duties of the legal system, but of our personal response to an individual or group. And he wasn’t talking about helpful correction, as we see from the following passage about taking a speck out of your brother’s eye.

There are good reasons not to judge – you don’t know the whole story; you don’t see it from the other person’s perspective; you should treat others as you would want to be treated; being judgemental is a negative way of thinking… But none of these are the reason Jesus gave.

Judgement, like unforgiveness, is not good for you. It ties you in, and holds you prisoner to your anger. My earlier post Dirty hands, clean hands explains how this happens with unforgiveness, and it’s similar with judgement, only worse. Whilst you hold judgement over someone else, that judgement is over you too. It becomes a bondage; it fastens you to the problem, it binds you to the negative emotions, and holds you back spiritually. Jesus clearly told us not to judge for our good.

That’s why, however difficult it is, we must forgive, we must stop judging.

And that’s why as a body of Christians, we need to come around those who are hurting, to pray for them, minister to them, support them in any way we can, to help them find the peace and freedom that only comes from letting go. And stop judging, ourselves.

What about the mess?

Is it pride to tell you my garden has been spectacular over the last 2 or 3 months, with a wonderful display of daffodils and other spring flowers? The best of it, is that I didn’t have to do anything for it – those bulbs were planted years ago, and they just keep coming back and multiplying! I love spring! Now, sadly, they’ve pretty much finished, leaving a straggly mess of leaves recuperating the energy back into the bulbs. So if we don’t put up with the messy leaves in May, we don’t get the flowers next spring.

Our passage today, Matthew 6:25-34  reminds us of how God provides food for birds, and beautiful garments for even weeds. So it’s about God meeting our needs, right? No, actually. I have to admit I’ve missed the point so many times when I’ve read this. It’s about not worrying. Jesus was talking to people who were going to face privation and terrible persecution. He never promised a life free from things to worry about – “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (v34).

Matthew 6:25-34

Matthew 6:25-34

In suburban Britain we cannot contemplate that God would allow us to go without any little comforts. But “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (v25). Bad things happen to good people sometimes, and we have to learn how to stop worrying when they do. Life is not just about feeling happy and comfortable. It’s the pagans who run after these things (v32)! Being anxious achieves absolutely nothing – we know this but we still feel we should be worrying anyway!

Our first and foremost concern should be God’s kingdom and righteousness. Get that perspective, and the rest falls into place. God knows what we need, better than we do. He knows the future.

My garden may look straggly right now, but if I tidied up the leaves too soon, I’d lose next year’s bloom. Life might feel messy, but God knows what he is doing in our lives. He knows what we really need, not just now, but for the future. We must lay down our anxiety, concern ourselves with promoting his kingdom, not our own, and trust him.

Mastering the situation

“You’re supposed to be on holiday!” My husband’s frustrated cry whenever he saw that look in my eye. We’d be in some pretty little souvenir shop, and I’d spot some curious object that would be just the thing for a particular lesson. I worked in special ed, and finding stuff to help children understand the world they lived in was an important part. So wherever we were, work would come with us. It also ate up every evening. I’d come home, make tea, then get straight back on till bedtime. And still I could always have done with doing more…and not unreasonably, my husband wanted some of my time too. Pulled and stretched.

I think this is some of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6:24 –

Matthew 6:24

Matthew 6:24

Yet the reality is, in today’s society, many of us are struggling to meet the demands of work, whilst juggling the requirements of home, family, health, responsibilities…not to mention church. No wonder God hardly gets a look in! How can we pray and focus on the bible when we are stretched ragged?

One solution that worked for me, was my constant prayer. God help me to do this faster and more efficiently. Help me achieve more in less time. I’d find ideas coming into my mind driving to and from work, or while I was making tea, or visiting the bathroom. Praying through problems before getting into bed at night, and my waking brain the next morning would often devise answers. Time in my study was then more productive, getting straight down to typing up the ideas – I could hit the ground running.

But there came a time when I had to fight my corner to reduce my working hours. Yes our income dropped, but so did the pressure. It was the right decision at that time. For some, it might be a tough decision to change or even give up work, or pay someone to do something that relieves the pressure.

God provides for every need. That’s a promise. So somewhere out there, is a solution to the problem. God does not want to be squeezed out of our lives, he wants to be right there in the front of the action. And that’s where we need him to be. That is the provision. If he is master of our lives, the rest can and will work. That’s a promise.

How you see it

I so appreciate good eye sight. I remember going on a course for disability awareness, and we were given various pairs of glasses to wear, which mimicked eye conditions, and we had to find our way round with limited vision. It was hard! It alters what you perceive –  you edge forward with uncertainty; you can’t tell what coins you are passing over; you can’t drive a car, can’t see the number of the bus, if you can even see it coming. But it also really knocks your confidence. Without being able to see others’ faces clearly, how do you know how they are really reacting to you?

The same applies in a way, in the spiritual realm, as Matthew 6:22-23 points out.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Matthew 6:22-23

A healthy outlook makes for healthy perception. We may be seeing the world through a haze of pain, bitterness or anxiety, for example, which affects our walk in the world. Our reactions may be clouded by our previous encounters, so we judge unfairly, get snappy or feel upset.

Sometimes (sadly not always) people with visual impairment can have treatments that bring healing. It must be amazing to suddenly be able to see right again, after years of struggle. Likewise, Jesus is able to bring healing to anyone who will submit their lives to him, accept that they need help, and ask for him to come and bring his light and life into their heart.

The biggest difficulty is for those who don’t believe they need help. They’ve managed so long with limited vision, they don’t recognise the problem, or don’t want to ask for help. There are so many people around who are hurt, struggling, oppressed, shackled by their own history. And sometimes we don’t want the changes to life that the help would bring. Feeling sorry for ourselves, we may feel justified in being over-sensitive and somehow limited – ‘they haven’t suffered what I’ve had in my life…’ And that can get quite comfortable, thank you.

Jesus died to bring healing to all aspects of life – sin, sorrow, suffering… Whilst the circumstances of life may not always be perfect, he can change how we view them. He can heal the wounds so we can live as victors, not victims.  Let go of the past and ask Jesus to help you see clearly and let your light shine.

Treasures

That awful moment you arrive home and realise you’ve been burgled. It happened once when the kids were young. Drawers open, rifled. My jewellery box pillaged, most of its worthless contents scattered around. My engagement ring on the floor, discarded as it had lost its stone. My grandmother’s jade ring! The only piece of value I possessed, was gone. It’s an empty feeling.

“It’s OK mum, I’ve got your ring. I was playing with it this morning, and it was in the toy box under my bed!” And so there it was, safe! We did lose a few things that day, but nothing noteworthy – to be honest we didn’t possess that much worth stealing!

Burglary aside, should I have valued the ring more? Should my daughter have had access to such a valuable piece? Should it have been left in a toy box? Curiously, if I had guarded it more closely, we’d have lost it!

Jesus warned us not to store up treasure on earth, where it can be spoilt or stollen, but to store up our treasures in heaven, where they are always safe (Matthew 6:19-21). In our western culture of plenty, it’s hard to work out what this means in practise. Was Jesus advocating living on the bread-line, giving away everything other than basic essentials? Should we empty our bank accounts and renounce having any valuable  ‘stuff’ around us? Yes, if that’s what God is telling you.

But at the very least, imagine yourself in your rocking chair at the end of your days. What will you then think the most important things in your life? Was it that you had a fat bank account, or that you made other people happy? The precious thing a child dropped and broke – will it still sting that you lost it? Or will it be more important that you comforted the child, and kept a good relationship with them? Will you even remember the thing you lost? That I sponsored a child right through his education, that will matter. Will the world be better because I was here?

Stuff will always be that – just stuff. Unless we choose to apportion it a greater value. As with my grandmother’s ring, if you hold too tightly, you can lose out. If we hold lightly, share willingly, and value people more, no-one can steal that away from us. That is treasure in heaven.

Power to overcome

People are roughly divided into two groups – those who go to the gym (or who at least think you should), and those, like me, who have never actually been inside one – shock horror! With some people, exercise is almost an ethic, for others it’s a waste of good energy. Personally, I’ve plenty of cupboards to clean, stairs to climb, washing to hang out, and a whole lot of other stuff I need to do, that keep me well exercised. But however you keep fit, it’s all about building muscles. You do stuff, use the muscles, and they get stronger; then you can do more stuff.

The same applies in the spiritual life. The more you do the spiritual disciplines, the more power you have to overcome your weaknesses. Forgiving others is so very hard, but it’s like exercising that muscle, God helps us find the strength to decide to start forgiving, then to do it better, and eventually get to the place where unforgiveness no longer has a hold over us, and we can overcome the hatred, so we are free to be forgiven ourselves (Matthew 6:14-15, and see also Dirty hands, clean hands).

It also applies to fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). Not something we find easy in our culture, but it is do-able. Again, choosing to begin in a small way, and building it up like a muscle.

There are rewards for forgiving (being forgiven) and for fasting that is done right. It’s all about power to overcome. How often have you encountered a problem like not being able to forgive, or not feeling up to fasting, or serious prayer, or something that you feel God is telling you to do, but you find too challenging – and you tell yourself, “I just can’t do this, I’m not spiritual enough, I’m just not that person, it’s not how I am…”  Is there a Christian on the planet who has not had those thoughts? Yet some do achieve great things. So why not me? Why not you? We too have the Holy Spirit to help…

Like building muscles, choose to start. Begin with small things, but begin. Then keep going. Do stuff, and then you get stronger and do more stuff. It’s power to overcome. Overcoming yourself, and your own perceived limitations to start with. But with God’s help, power to overcome.

Matthew 6:14-18

Matthew 6:14-18

For thine is the kingdom

I’m writing as the results of the American election unfold. As fellow blogger Pieter Stok put it, the process has been “like observing a slow motion train wreck and being helpless to do anything about it.” 

And so I turn to the next section of the Lord’s Prayer. I’m looking for that section, “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever, and ever. Amen.” Only it isn’t there in my bible. I loved singing the wonderful crescendo of that part when we sang it at school. But it is absent in the very reputable NIV translation! There is plenty of discussion over whether Jesus included this in the original, but it is thought by many to have been added as a doxology – giving glory to God at the end of a section of worship. Hence its absence in later bible texts.

I’m not particularly arguing for the return of the missing bit of the Lord’s Prayer. I can add it on anyway, whether or not Jesus did – because I’m pretty sure he’d have had no problem with its sentiment. The content is totally scriptural anyway.

As the world apparently goes mad, isn’t it wonderful to know that the kingdom belongs to God. That ultimately he has all the power; that he can do anything; that he can take terrible situations and bring something good out of them; that he is totally faithful and worthy of the trust we put in him. And that, whatever happens, we can still give the glory to him.

You may not like the results of the American election; you may be rejoicing. You may be very, very fearful as to where this world is heading. It’s time to take your attention firmly away from where the media wants it to focus, and fix your eyes on a glorious, all-powerful king who needs no election, and who will reign for all eternity. God is still on the throne, no matter what.

And what about the election? Now, more than ever, it’s time to stop moaning and criticising, which achieves absolutely nothing, and time to pray, pray, pray without ceasing, for the rulers of this world, whoever they are. They really, really need it. For God’s is the kingdom. And the power. And the glory. Now and for ever. For ever. Amen – so be it!

Shift your focus, change the outcome

I have three wonderful (now grown-up) kids, that I am so proud of. I am amazed at their achievements, and even more amazed that my husband and I managed to turn out three such spectacular human specimens! However, I do know, sadly, that no-one in our family (me very much included) has ever achieved perfection. Come to think of it, we did a lot of teaching about how to be good; I don’t remember one single lesson teaching, or being taught, how to be naughty – we’ve all managed that bit all by ourselves!

Don’t you fancy living a life where you always make right choices, always say the right things, even always think the purest thoughts? That would be a life free from temptation, wouldn’t it? There again, without the temptation, wouldn’t it just be life as a machine that is programmed to follow a particular pathway? Making right choices when there is no temptation isn’t really a choice. But making right choices when there is temptation to do wrong – well that would be complete freedom. But the only person to achieve it perfectly is Jesus himself.

So what was Jesus meaning when he taught us to pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:13)? Temptation is pressure to do wrong, and the truth is, all of us will fail if the pressure is strong enough. And ‘the evil one’ is always happy to oblige in that department.

Jesus must have looked around at his audience, knowing that many, if not all of them would suffer, even die for their faith. They undoubtedly were going to face a time of testing, trial, temptation. What he was teaching them, was the ‘the evil one’ only has the power we permit him to have. Focusing on him leads to failure. They needed instead, to keep their eyes firmly fixed on Heavenly Father, who knows precisely how much pressure we can take.

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful;he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Some temptation gives us the opportunity to grow stronger in faith. Too much would crush us. God knows what we need. Fix your eyes on him. That’s how to disempower ‘the evil one’.

 

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