It doesn’t have to be this way- but I am aware that it is very easy for your Christianity to get out of shape even as you spend your life talking about being a Christian. It is largely that the pressure of responding to concerns, needing to produce a sermon, working through a TO DO list drives what should be at the front of your mind to somewhere near the back. It is why I have always been grateful for Woody Road’s generous sabbatical provision of a month every two years. I have various mini-projects to accomplish and aspects of church life to reflect on whilst I am away but, invariably, I’ve always needed the first week of a sabbatical to get thinking about my own life straight. It is why my main prayer request as I went away was that I really would meet with the Lord. I am grateful for those who have prayed: there is a real sense that the Lord has heard. I wanted to write up the lessons of the past week mainly to remind myself- but perhaps it may also be of benefit to you if you have the chance for reflection over the summer. Here are the three main areas about which I have been reading and thinking:
I tend to go for easy reading in the first week and Adam Mabry’s Art of Rest falls into that category. Although, like me, not a sabbatarian, he emphasises the necessity of rest in order to remember and be with God. I can empathise with that. As I look back over the past month I can see a range of challenging situations and responsibilities that had to be faced. I probably had a vague sense of God being in the midst of those- but that’s somewhat different from a deep conviction that God is my Creator, the Sovereign Lord who is in control and who has stepped into history to rescue me. It has taken rest for me to remember those truths. Above all, though, rest has simply been a chance to be with the Lord. Immediately prior to the sabbatical we had our church weekend away with Matt Searles pointing us superbly to the character of Jesus as one full of love, joy, kindness and gentleness. When you realise that is what the Lord is like then there isn’t much better than consciously believing His promise to be with us and enjoying His presence. The lesson for me is to make sure this sort of rest happens more than once every two years. I know that for those with different family responsibilities that rest can be hard to find. But is it possible over the summer consciously to remember the Lord and enjoy being with Him? I love this from Jack Miller: “To be near God and to have God near us is the whole purpose of human life.”
We might have a problem with the above though. As we do spend time with God we become aware of our sin. What do we do with that? The answer, according to the New Testament, is turning to Christ in repentance and faith. This isn’t intended to be merely at conversion. I have started to read Matthew and Jeremiah this week and the theme of repentance is everywhere. Both John the Baptist and Jesus call people to repent in the light of the coming Kingdom and the great call of Jeremiah is for God’s people to return to Him. Repentance sounds gloomy and yet the promise is of life and joy as we do it. In addition to the biblical passages, I have been hugely helped by two (again- short and readable!) books this week by the 20th century American pastor Jack Miller- Repentance and Outgrowing the Ingrown Church. Both were prompted by personal challenges. In the first Miller was responding to an 18 year old daughter rebelling against the Lord and realising His need to humbly repent of certain things. The second arose from a frustration in pastoral ministry- where, again, he saw his own need to change. Overall, I was convinced by his contention that there is much too little repentance around within the church- and I can’t say that 21st century is much better than Miller’s time.
I am not going to list all the areas of my own life where I have found repentance to be necessary, although there were a number. Suffice it to say that I can empathise with one of Miller’s discoveries that we have a tendency to trust human adequacy and our own abilities rather than being the character that Jesus describes- going to a friend at midnight and saying “I have nothing.” The overall sense, though, has been the sheer joy of bringing the list to the Lord and wanting to turn back to Him.
Dare I gently ask the question- Is repentance playing a part in your life at the moment? If it isn’t that won’t be because you are not sinning. Perhaps the summer gives an opportunity to reflect and know the joy of repentance.
“Repent and believe the Good News!” It is the first command that Jesus gives in Mark’s Gospel. As we turn to Christ in repentance we trust in His forgiveness. There is another aspect of faith, though, that has struck me this week. I have started reading Spurgeon’s All Round Ministry (which, truth be told, isn’t easy reading though it is hilarious in places.) It is a series of annual messages given to a pastors’ college. The first is on the subject of faith. Essentially it is a warning against defeatism and a call to move forward armed with the promises of God. In particular, a repeated refrain is “We need more faith in the Holy Ghost.” That has got implications for the church. Personally, though, that is vital when it comes to this theme of repentance. It is so easy to be pessimistic- why repent when I know I am going to fall again? And yet the one with faith will say that defeat doesn’t have to be inevitable because I go forward believing that God the Holy Spirit lives within me. And, to pick up the theme above, it is possible to return with the promise of God’s presence at the forefront rather than the back of the mind. So- the question for the summer- what promises of God have I allowed to drift to the back of the mind that need to be brought to the front so that I live boldly in the light of them?
You may have noticed that none of the above is remotely new. It is all old stuff that we learn at the start of the Christian life. But- truth be told- I have needed to remember it. Maybe those old truths will be joy giving for others this summer?