I love reading. Both my parents were avid readers and they instilled in me a love of books. I learned to read at a very early age. Consequently I always have at least one book on the go at any given moment in time … often more than one? I tend to read the more serious stuff during the day, and leave the lighter stuff for bed-time. If I read the serious stuff at night I find it difficult to go to sleep because I keep thinking about what I have just read. Sometimes I get so excited about what I am reading that I can’t turn the next page fast enough. I want to know where the story is going next, or how this new truth I am learning develops, and so on. Turning to a new page is always an adventure!
I also love writing. I write almost every day. For over 40 years now I have written down the fruits of my daily Bible study. Some of it finds its way into sermons, or talks, or even academic papers occasionally. Much of it has never seen the light of day … the various notebooks will hopefully be a fund of good stuff for others who may read them after I am gone? Even though I am computer literate these notes are always hand-written in a notebook. I write on one side of the page and leave the other side for later thoughts, illustrations, stories that may come to mind in the process. I always write in pencil so that I can rub out stuff I am not happy with. Sometimes I am so dissatisfied with what I have written that all I can do is put a line through it, and turn the page. Thankfully, most of the time I am so excited at what I am learning as ‘God breaks forth more light and truth form his Word’ that I find myself turning page after page in order to get it all written down!
I also love drawing and painting – mostly watercolour but also a bit of acrylic – even though I am not that good at it. I frequently find that I have rubbed out what I have previously drawn so many times that that particular page in my sketch book is so grubby that it is not worth painting on. I have no option other than to turn the page and start again!
Subliminally, I guess these various illustrations came to me as I was reflecting on the imminence of yet another New Year? The older you get, the quicker they seem to come. By nature I am normally a very positive person, a characteristic that has been enhanced by my personal faith in Jesus Christ and conviction that God always wants the best for us. As the Apostle Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans: ‘We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them’ (Romans 8:28). Applying the well known analogy of either being ‘a glass half full or a glass half empty’ person, I have been described as someone whose ‘glass is full and overflowing’! So, even at 71 years of age, I am really looking forward to 2015 with a great sense of adventure, challenge, wonder and excitement at what God is going to lead us into in the next 12 months? Consequently, as I was prayerfully reflecting on these things, seeking to hear something from God as to how we should approach this new chapter, something positive Julia and I could take to heart ourselves, something that would be encouraging that we could pass on to others, it seemed to me that what God was saying was that for many of us it was ‘time to turn the page’ in the book that is our lives!
Some years ago, one of Julia’s tutors at Spurgeon’s College, Stuart Murray-Williams, suggested that the years following the so-called ‘decade of evangelism’ (the 1990s) would be decidedly ‘messy’! This has proved to be a ‘prophetic statement’. In some ways history has always been somewhat messy. If you were to produce a ‘chart’ of history – rather like those ‘temperature charts’ that you used to see at the bottom of hospital beds – it would not be a constant line, either up or down, but a jagged line that goes all over the place, one minute up and the next down, and so on. Contrary to popular opinion things are not getting steadily worse nor steadily better – they have nearly always been an inconsistent mixture of the both. Since the turn of the century, however, everything seems to be even more ‘messy’ than ever? In fact things are so messy, both nationally and internationally, that resolving the various issues seems impossible. The only solution would appear to be for the various ‘movers and shakers’ in our nation, and in our world, to ‘draw a line’, to ‘turn the page’, to ‘move on’ from what we have now to something far better. To that which we all know, in our heart of hearts, to be right, moral, fair, just, good and Godly for everyone!
Whilst few of us are in a position to influence national or world affairs for the better, we can all do something about our own lives, however. The only way to really change our world is for each one of us to change our own ‘heart attitude’ to so much. What is needed is an understanding of spiritual things, and a spiritual understanding of other things! It is no good, however, trying to ‘put things right’. To be honest so many people are so ‘messed up’ that they have no hope of untangling the knots. So many lives and situations are so tangled that they resemble a ball of wool after a kitten has been playing with it for a hour or two? Let me try and illustrate what I mean by this? Take ‘marriage’ for example. The divorce rate in the UK is currently one in three. Add to this the large number of couples who simply ‘co-habit’ rather than marry, together with the number of ‘families’ where there are several children all with different fathers … and we begin to see how complicated or ‘messy’ everything is. I say this by way of illustration not to pass judgment. A friend of mine recently overheard two teenage girls talking together at school. One girl apparently was heard to say to the other, ‘My new step-father used to your step-father, I believe?’
Let’s be honest, Christians and the Church have often been far from helpful in resolving these kind of problems. All too often we have only been moralistic and judgmental rather than helpful. We have been heavy on the need for ‘repentance’ – interpreting it as ‘weeping over our sins wearing sackcloth and ashes’ rather than simply ‘turning from a Godless direction to a God-ward direction’ (which is what the word really means) – and only offered ‘legalistic’ rather than practically helpful solutions. I recently heard a prominent evangelical preacher on one of the ‘God TV’ channels preaching about marriage. After condemning divorce and re-marriage as ‘unbiblical’ he bluntly stated that the only Godly way forward for such people was for them to ‘end whatever their current relationship was’ and ‘re-marry their original partner’? What was particularly worrying to me was the large number of people who seemed to agree with him? What he was suggesting was not only ‘bonkers’ but quite impossible to implement! Think of the chaos and confusion that would ensue as a result in a world of multiple divorces, re-marriages, and re-assembled nuclear families? The example of ‘marriage’ is just one of many that I could have used to illustrate just how ‘messy’ things have become for so many of us.
So what are we to do to clear up the ‘mess’ of so many lives? Is there a ‘Godly solution’ to this kind of mess? Does the Bible have anything helpful to say to us? I believe that the answer is ‘Yes’. The Apostle Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians – a situation which was just as ‘messy’ in its own way as ours today – and suggests that oftentimes the only way for us to extricate ourselves from the particular ‘mess’ we are in, is for us to ‘draw a line’ under the past, ‘turn the page’ and move forward with God into a brighter future. Some of the ‘messes’ that the Corinthians had got themselves into were so complicated that there was no hope of unravelling them. All they could do was to turn to Christ, hand over the mess to God, and move on because, as Paul tells us, ‘anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)!
Many of the situations we find ourselves in are just as complicated, and there is just no way of resolving them other than to hand them over to God, and move on! Where the ‘mess’ was our fault we know that, because of all that God has already done for us in Jesus, ‘if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from our unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). Where the ‘mess’ was caused by others we have to ‘leave the past behind, and press on’ (Philippians 3:13). Trying to ‘puzzle’ our way out of impossible situations, or condemning ourselves to a perpetual ‘guilt trip’ because of ‘screwing up’ in years gone by, is just a waste of time and prevents us from moving on into a brighter future. There comes a day when ‘turning the page’ is the best decision we can make because we realise that there is so much more to the book than the page we have been stuck on!
Much the same can be said for many churches. Having been involved in the Ministerial Settlement Process with Julia for the last three years has given me insight into the current thinking going on in a number of our Baptist Churches. Having visited, and talked to, a number of churches in recent years, I have come to the conclusion that many of our churches feel ‘stuck’ and also need to ‘turn the page’ and move on. There was a similar feeling around 30 years ago which resulted in many churches moving away from being what they called ‘traditional’ to what they called ‘contemporary’. This was best seen (although not exclusively so) in our Baptist Churches in terms of the style of corporate worship, where the traditional ‘hymn-prayer-sermon sandwich’ was replaced by ‘contemporary praise and worship’. It was believed that this move would prove more attractive to ‘outsiders’ and thus draw them into the church family. This trend was primarily the brainchild of what has been called the ‘baby-boomer’ generation – those people who today are in their late 50s and early 60s. Essentially the experiment failed and today ‘contemporary praise and worship’ feels very dated and ‘old hat’. The results of a recent on-line survey, widely reported in the social media, suggests that the majority of people (inside and outside the churches) are actually wanting something that is ‘more traditional but expressed in modern language’. Consequently many churches are asking similar questions to those asked 30 odd years ago. They feel they are ‘stuck’ in something supposed to be ‘contemporary’ but which is actually quite ‘dated’ now. The problem is that many churches don’t know how to change things, and are somewhat negative and fearful of making yet more changes after the perceived failure of those earlier changes implemented back in the 1980s or so? The trouble is that we can’t start the next chapter of our lives if we keep re-reading the last one?
A classic example of this is the way in which we tend (albeit subliminally) to see Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-24). The scene Jesus paints would have been a familiar one to his hearers. A farmer is sowing seed in his fields and, whilst the vast majority of his seed falls on good soil, some of the seed falls on the stone-hard paths between the fields, or on shallow soil covering the underlying limestone rock, or amongst weeds and thistles. Only the seed that falls on good soil grows and becomes fruitful. The rest either fails to take root or withers away for one reason or another. The Parable is in fact an allegory for how various people react to hearing God’s word. Some take it to heart, and blossom and grow as a result, whereas others reject or neglect God’s word, or only respond in a shallow way, or allow circumstances to overwhelm any initial spiritual response. Now in actual fact this Parable is very positive. The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the seed fell on good soil and produced a significant (if varied) harvest! Only a small amount of the seed actually fell on the hard paths, or the shallow soil, or amongst weeds and thorns. Just because three quarters of the story is to do with negative responses doesn’t mean that the heart of the message of the story is negative? Most of the sermons on this Parable that I have heard over the years have tended to spend a disproportionate time on the poor soil rather than the good soil? Equally, time and again, I hear churches going on and on about all the ‘negatives’ they are facing – the falling numbers, the lack of commitment, the lack of financial support, the poor location (and state) of their buildings, the indifference of the local community, and so on. All these things may be true … but so what? Clearly the 120 or so disciples, hiding away in an Upper Room ‘out of fear’ for the future (John 20:19), 2,000 years ago, felt much the same … just before Pentecost came! So here is my advice to any churches feeling negative about the future. Move on! What you have been experiencing is just a chapter in the past. It is not the whole story. Don’t close the book … just turn the page! ‘Set your hearts and minds on things above where Christ is’ (Colossians 3:1,2) and step out in faith! God has something good just around the corner!
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness
and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light
and safer than a known way.’
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God,
trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills
and the breaking of day in the lone East.
~ Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)