new life fellowship

serving jesus christ the king

Missing the Point?

(By Stephen Steele, working with New Life Fellowship)
(May’s Verse)

Have you ever expectantly watched a TV debate on an important issue, only to see the contributors spectacularly miss the point? In your frustration you feel like shouting at the TV – “a blind man on a galloping horse could see it!”

This month’s verse seems, on first glance, to be an example of Jesus completely missing the point. This popular young preacher has been teaching in a house that’s so packed that no-one else can get anywhere near him, when suddenly those in the room start to notice bits of plaster falling from the ceiling. As they look up, they begin to see a small patch of light which gets bigger and bigger. Eventually the hole is big enough for the four guys on the flat roof to lower down their paralysed friend on a stretcher—so determined are they to get him to Jesus.

The crowd wait with baited breath to see a miracle. But our verse tells us:

‘Jesus said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”’ (Mark 2:5)

What?! Here’s a man who can’t even move, yet Jesus doesn’t see his blindingly obvious physical disability as the first priority! Only after declaring him forgiven (to the outrage of the religious leaders), does Jesus heal the man’s paralysis.

If you could ask God to do one thing for you, what would it be? So often we see our biggest needs as physical health or relational restoration—perhaps a long-term illness, or broken relationship. But to Jesus, the biggest need of each of us is spiritual; we need to be cured of the most pervasive disease of all—sin.

The religious leaders’ outrage at Jesus’ blasphemous (as they thought) statement was partly because the words are easy to say—any charlatan could come out with them. But true forgiveness is always costly. When people wrong us, it costs us not to make them pay for what they’ve done. Forgiveness always costs.

For Jesus to say these five words cost him the ultimate price. He had to go to the cross, not just to suffer physically at the hands of the Romans, as many before and after him did, but to quench the wrath of God due us for our sin. The one who had created the universe by speaking a word, could not simply say ‘Let there be forgiveness’. A price had to be paid.

If you could ask God to do one thing for you, what would it be? Would it be the thing that cost him the most? Or are you content just to keep on asking for the things that cost him nothing?

Jesus came to this earth so that the words of our verse—“Son (or Daughter), your sins are forgiven”—could be true of you. Are they?

Freedom at a Price

(April’s Verse)

There is a great scene in the 1992 film
The Last of the Mohicans. Set in the British-French-Native Indian conflicts in colonial America, the main characters Duncan, a British officer, and Hawkeye, an adopted Indian, both love Cora, the beautiful daughter of Colonel Munro. Cora however has eyes only for Hawkeye. In the final scene they have all been taken captive by the Huron tribe. They stand before the chief awaiting their fate. Since they don’t speak the tribal dialect the conversation is in French, understood by Duncan and the chief, but not Hawkeye. Duncan translates the chief for Hawkeye, and Hawkeye for the chief.

The chief declares his final judgment on the party—the dark girl (Cora) is to burn in fire for the sins of her father and his people (the English). Duncan and Hawkeye are both to go free. In desperation Hawkeye shouts at Duncan to translate: “No! Listen” (to Duncan) “Tell him I'll trade him! Me for her! Tell him!! (to the chief) “My death is a great honour to the Huron. Take me!”

Duncan turns and translates in rapid-fire French. The chief looks at Duncan. Hawkeye shouts “Did you tell him?” Duncan responds “Yes.” There is a long pause as both men look at each other, Hawkeye steps forward to be taken, but as the chief nods, the warriors seize Duncan and leave Hawkeye.

Duncan is tied with his arms outstretched and hung up in the flames. And Hawkeye realises that what Duncan has done is to give himself in place of Cora. He had deliberately translated Hawkeye’s words as applying to himself, saying, “Take me. Me for her. Take me!”

Out of love for someone who didn’t love him he said, “Take me”. And he dies in the fire so that someone who didn’t love him could be set free. He offers himself so that she could be redeemed.

And that is like what Jesus has done—in the words of this month’s verse:

“In him (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7)

Out of love for those who didn’t love him, he stood before the judgment of God, and when the sentence should have fallen on us, he said, “Take me. Me for them. Take me”. And because of his death we have redemption—freedom. Our sins have been forgiven, our guilty record expunged, and justice satisfied.

However this is not a blanket payment, as the verse notes it is only ‘in him’ or ‘in relationship with him’ that we can have this privilege. There is great and full forgiveness available, but it is only in Jesus. Only he will go into the flames for you. And if you haven’t asked him, then you will have to face them yourself. But this Easter he says to you once again, “Come to me, trust me, and you can be forgiven and free. I will stand in your place so that you can be free from sin, judgment and Hell.”

Behind the Mask

(March’s Verse)

How many people live in denial? Denial about how bad their finances are, their marriage, their health? Sometimes it seems easier to bury our heads in the sand than to do the hard work of facing reality and seeking to change it.

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Wilful Blindness’ by Margaret Heffernan which is full of examples of denial and the factors which lead to it. Some of the stories are shocking like the one from Libby, Montana, where bosses of a vermiculite mine knew for 30 years that the employees were dying of asbestosis and did nothing about it. Staggeringly the medical fraternity knew about it and took x-rays to study the disease without letting patients know there was a problem. And more staggeringly, the townspeople refused to accept the truth, and fought against getting help while family members sat on their verandas breathing with oxygen tanks.

From banks to businesses, to hospitals, from corporations to individuals, wilful blindness is rife. Heffernan writes, “You cannot fix a problem that you refuse to acknowledge.” But, she says, you will be held responsible for it. What’s that got to do with us? A lot, I suspect. There may be many areas of life where we are practising wilful blindness, some serious, some not so.

But first and foremost we do it with ourselves. The Bible tells us we are sinful, more sinful than we realise. Yet that is not a fashionable truth. We prefer to find a mask to hide behind—we are victims; we are not as bad as others; we do our best; we try to keep up appearances…

In his book ‘The People of the Lie’, Scott Peck says that the heart of sin is the persistent refusal to tolerate a sense of our sin. We are simultaneously aware of our guilt and yet desperately trying to resist that awareness. Keep running, keep doing, keep up the appearances, whatever you do don’t stand still long enough to see yourself as you really are.

Cornelius Plantinga writes, “We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite… We make up reality as we go along.”

And the tension of living in denial is etched across our lives. How much stress, fear or anxiety is caused by living in the fear of the truth about ourselves? And all the while there is an easier option:

“He who conceals his sins does not prosper,
but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)

God calls us to honesty with him for he is not fooled by our masks. If we come humbly with our masks off seeking forgiveness through Jesus, we will find mercy and also God’s help to change. Otherwise he will hold us responsible.

The Power of Guilt (February’s Verse)

Guilt is a powerful emotion. It brings with it a terrible fear—a fear that can be paralysing. Guilt can have many side effects—often seemingly far removed from our guilt; side effects that can range from anxiety about inconsequential things, to depression, to muscular and bodily pains, to a host of other areas.

Good treatment doesn’t simply deal with the symptoms but seeks to get to the root of the matter, but how do you deal with guilt for long past events? One way is to seek out those injured, apologise and make restitution. This is good, but not good enough, because we are still guilty in God’s eyes. We have also broken his law—a law intended to guard the people that we have hurt, and even though we make things right with them, we haven’t made them right with God. The guilt remains—and often we are aware of it niggling at us.

And what of those situations where we have done wrong, and can’t do anything to make amends, or having done so, still feel we can’t forgive ourselves—where do we go then?

The verse on the calendar for February points to the answer. Rather than just quote the verse, let me put it in its context. It’s from Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.


Guilt places us in the depths, but where do we go? We can try self-help, counselling, making amends, but we can never pull ourselves out of the pit successfully. We will still be guilty, and we know it. How so? Because there is One who keeps a record of our guilt, and to him we must answer.

Yet that line that speaks of God keeping a record of our sins is phrased as a question, not as a statement of fact. Why is that? Because God offers to set aside our guilty record and to offer us forgiveness instead. He offers us mercy, forgiveness, and unfailing love—three medicines that deal with the root cause of guilt and not merely the symptoms.

Where do we find this mercy? We don’t earn it, we ask for it from the one who offers to take our record of sin and guilt and deal with it at the Cross—Jesus. Is guilt plaguing you? Let it take you to him, for “with him there is forgiveness” (verse 4).

October’s Verse

(From the Irish Christian Calendar 2011)

A man drowning. Not waving but drowning. Frantic. From safety a hand reaches out. Grab on! Still he thrashes. Grab on! More thrashing around—panic. Take hold! The thrashing ceases. A gradual sinking… too late, now.

Why? A voice from the depths. I didn’t need rescued. Not by him. I was doing fine myself. I couldn’t admit that he was right. It would cost too much. I’d lose face. What would my family think—rescued by him. Just pride. Pride. And fear. Fear of what? Not drowning. People. Opinions. Talk. Just pride really.

And where has it got me?

“These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” – John 5:39-40

Haunting words from Jesus Christ. In Ireland we have the scripture in Irish and English and many other languages. It’s only a click away on the internet, a step away on a shelf or cupboard, a walk away in Easons or other bookshops.

But it’s not the having that counts, it’s our hearts—
“yet you refuse.”

Haunting words. Words that will haunt for all eternity. French philosopher John Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people”. He was wrong. Part of Hell will be ourselves. Our own memories—recriminating, accusing, “I had the message, yet I refused it. I had the opportunity and I refused. Why O why did I not take it? How could I have been so stubborn, so proud, so fearful of others’ opinion?”

Haunting words, for our attitude to Jesus in this life determines the next. If we accept him in this life he will accept us in the next. If we refuse him in this life, he will refuse us in the next. It is not our actions or our good lives, but our acceptance or refusal of Jesus’ salvation that determines it.

And one of the staggering things about Jesus’ statement is that he spoke it to the devoutly religious of his day, even to people who
‘diligently study the Scriptures’ (John 5:39). They thought that by reading and keeping commands they were in. Jesus says that it’s about more than the commands. It is about him—‘testify about me…come to me’. You can come so close, and still refuse the hand that reaches out.

You who read this column, thank you for reading, but can I ask “Have you got Him?” Or is something causing you to hold back, as yet, refusing to come to him that you may have life?

Haunting words. May they haunt you here, so that they do not haunt you there.

April's Verse - Living and Active

Why bother reading the bible? Surely we can find a way that is more interesting and more fun to spend our time? Why all the focus on a fusty, millennia old book? Well, because frankly, it's much more than just a book.

The verse on the calendar for this month describes it well. It says: “For the word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) This is a book unlike any other. Whenever someone reads the bible, they aren't just filling their minds with information; there's a real change in the reader - God's word has a transforming effect.

This effect isn't always an enjoyable one. God sometimes uses the bible as a spotlight, highlighting our shortcomings, and putting the focus squarely on our sin. He causes us to look past our respectable exteriors and straight into the darkest recesses of our hearts. And if we're honest with ourselves, we won't like what we see.

But the bible doesn't stop there. It's good news. It's just that sometimes to see the good news, we have to grasp the bad. The bible exposes our problem - that our sins alienate us from God - but it also points us to the solution. The bible tells us about Jesus, who has done everything necessary to remove the sin-stain.

It's much more than a book. It's living and it's active. It's God's gift for his people, one of the ways he supports us in a sometimes dark and distressing world. It gives comfort to the despairing, guidance to the uncertain, correction to the mistaken, and encouragement to the worn down

Ask any Christian you know, and I'm sure they'll be able to share their experiences of the bible. They'll be able to tell you how reading it has helped them, how they've found God's word to be a gold mine of wisdom, and a rich source of joy.

God has given us a wonderful gift. It would be a tragedy to leave it unused.

February’s Verse

We live in a world where there is a constant din and hubbub of competing voices offering advice on what life is about and how to live it—self help groups, life coaches, tv talk shows, the list goes on. But theories change, one guru contradicts another—are we left just to find our own truth, surely there has to be something better than that?

Like last year, our church and Letterkenny Baptist church gave out a calendar around Letterkenny. The verses on this year’s calendar are all about God’s word. February’s verse points us to the answer to our questions:

“Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” – Proverbs 30:5

Perhaps we regard such a claim with jaded cynicism, we’ve been stung once to often, and we won’t get caught again. This verse is from the book of Proverbs in the Bible—a collection of sayings put together by King Solomon, many of them his own, some collected from other sources. Solomon’s sayings aren’t the trite little phrases of a naïve young fool; instead they were put together towards the end of his life as a gift for his sons, passing on lessons that he wanted them to learn. In particular they were lessons he had tried and tested, lessons from his experience, rather than simply grandiose claims.

Solomon had been around enough corners in life, and tried to find his pleasure and purpose in all the wrong places, and it is his conclusion that all the promises of wealth, fame, pleasure are worthless—there is only one set of promises that are flawless and they come from God. He had tasted sorrow as well as success, and found only one certain refuge, one stronghold that could keep him going—God’s word.

So this verse isn’t just a nice sentiment, but the words of a craggy-faced old man, who had experienced all of life, wanting to pass on to succeeding generations something worthwhile that he had learned from it all. He had tested other words and ways to live, and they had failed, and he had returned to the ways God set down in his word. And his advice to us, ringing down through the centuries is that God’s word is to be trusted and followed, for in it you find the way to safety and security in a world of uncertainty.

The sad thing I find is that many people leave the Bible unread, and spend their lives searching in the wrong places for the security and refuge that only it flawlessly promises.

Christmas myths

We play a game in our household at this time of year—with Christmas cards, storybooks or TV programmes. It’s called “Spot the mistakes in the Nativity story”. I don’t mean mistakes in the Bible—but in the popular retellings and perceptions that go with the Christmas story. Here’s a few of the common misperceptions:

- No room in the inn? This myth is understandable, since some Bible translations say ‘inn’. However, the Greek word means ‘guest room’. Jews tended not to stay in inns, but houses often had a guest room. Since Joseph had family in Bethlehem, there was probably no space in their guest room, and so they had to squeeze in with the family—not much privacy or comfort for a pregnant woman.

- Jesus was born in a stable? Sorry, but bang go all those lovely images of cattle lowing and oxen looking on lovingly at the little mite in the trough. Families often kept their animals in the house for safety, but on a lower level. Feeding troughs (mangers) were built into the change of level. The animals were probably kicked out and the lower level given over to Mary and Joseph. The manger, cleaned out, would have been an ideal place for the baby—being both convenient and warm.

- Mary gave birth the night that they arrived? "While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" (Luke 2:6). It sounds more like they arrived some time beforehand. Joseph wasn’t stupid enough to make a long journey with a heavily pregnant woman.

- Three kings came to visit? Matthew doesn't give a number. And they weren’t kings. Instead they were magi—advisors to kings, not kings themselves. Also it isn’t likely that they arrived at the same time as the shepherds. Jesus seems to have been somewhere between one month and two years, and Mary and Joseph were living in a house, not a stable (Matthew 2:11)!

- Jesus was born on 25
th December? The exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, but December 25th is unlikely. Nor was it in 1 AD. The first time his date of birth is mentioned isn’t in the Bible, but late in the second century, as November 18, but even that's not certain. Jesus must have been born before 4 BC, because that's when Herod the Great died. The date ‘25th December’ comes from a pagan feast that was ‘christianised’ by the later church.

Many others could be mentioned, but what does it all matter? In some ways not a lot, because it isn’t the Bible that is being disproved, but man-made distortions. The central fact hasn’t changed, God came into our world as a little baby in the humblest of circumstances—this was the start of his great rescue plan for mankind. Yet in another sense it does matter—for too long we have got into the habit of paying more attention to what we are told about the Bible and its message, rather than what the Bible actually says. We can listen to preachers mything the point, yet we don’t check to see for ourselves what the point actually is. It isn’t so important when we look at the beginning of Jesus’ life, but it is crucial when we look at the other end—his death. To misunderstand it is to misunderstand everything.

October’s verse

As I sit to write this column I’m awaiting eye surgery—by the time you read this, I’ll probably be out of the operating theatre. Several years ago I suffered a detached retina, and eventually lost the sight in one eye. In January the other retina started to tear, this time however they were able to repair it, but at a cost. Over the year my eyesight has diminished considerably and this latest surgery is an attempt to restore better vision.

All this is by way of introduction to this month’s verse on the calendar which we gave out at the start of the year. The verse reads:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18

In my circumstances the truth of this verse hits home with extra force, but yet it is true for every one of us.

It’s nice to see the colours changing on the trees, the rich reds and golds of autumn; it’s nice to see the twinkle in my daughters’ eyes as they get up to all sorts of mischief; it’s nice to see Ireland thrash England at rugby. But these aren’t the most significant things in life.

The things that really matter can’t be seen. It’s so easy to focus on the things that we can see—people, job, possessions, status—to live for them, and to let them determine our peace or happiness. The problem is that these things, including people, are temporary. And if we base our happiness or contentment on them, then our happiness and contentment will fluctuate and waver as they come and go.

When we fix our focus on what lasts, and the verse means nothing less than Jesus Christ and eternal life, then, even though the temporary things come and go, our contentment and peace remain steadfast. That’s because, for the person who has placed their salvation entirely in Christ’s hands, nothing can take away either Christ or his gift of eternal life.

So that challenge to each of us is this—Where is your focus? Oftentimes it is times of hardship that reveal to us where our focus really lies, where we look must for our happiness and sense of identity. Are we hanging our happiness on that which is transient, fleeting and passing, or in that which lasts forever and is rock solid?

I can assure you that the treasure of having what can’t be seen far outweighs the wonder of what can be seen.

September’s Verse

Which number 1 hit has the oldest lyrics?

It’s The Byrd’s version of Pete Seeger’s
"Turn! Turn! Turn!”—which takes its lyrics from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-9), written by King Solomon 3000 years ago.

Seeger wrote it as a folk song, The Byrd’s made it rock, and it has been covered by a variety of artists including Bruce Springsteen, and Belle and Sebastian; appearing too in the film
Forrest Gump.

Perhaps you remember how the song opens:

To everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

There is much misunderstanding about these verses, with their repeated refrain “a time to…” often interpreted that there is a time and place for everything, that life balances out. This view is a little too sentimental and idealistic, paying scant attention to the context and lyrics.

The context is a contrast between the relentless, heartbeat-like pounding of the phrase
“a time… a time… a time” and “But God has set eternity in the hearts of men” (3:12). Solomon is saying that our lives are bound by time, yet there is that inner awareness that we were made for much more than time. So the lyrics aren’t a piece of joyous optimism—there have been hard times, but good times are around the corner—instead they are a melancholy reflection on the brevity of life.

But Solomon doesn’t stop where Seeger and others stop quoting him, he goes on to hold out hope. And that is what this month’s verse is all about:

“I know that everything God does will endure forever” (3:14)

If God has set eternity in our hearts, and all he does lasts forever then there is hope for us. But we need to recalibrate our lives and get our focus off the things that are bound by the limits of time—job, wealth, health, status, etc—and get our priority set on the things that last forever. That means the things that God is doing—he is in the business of building a kingdom where one half of the lyrics—sadness, war, hatred—will be banished forever, and the other half will be seen in glorious technicolour, without the threat of time running out.

Do you feel that creeping sadness that comes when you realise that all you have done in life is passing away—then set your hearts on what God is doing, for there you will invest in something that lasts forever.


August’s Verse

Sometimes I have a problem with Bible verses. That’s a strange thing for a pastor to say, but it’s true. In particular I have a problem with verses that are dislocated from their context. These appear scattered over cards and calendars, bookmarks and billboards. For some verses it doesn’t matter, for they are self-contained nuggets—take the very famous John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

That’s more or less self-contained—it tells you all you need to know. Other verses, when dislocated from their context, start to sound like fortune cookie promises, for example:

“God is love” – does that mean he won’t punish sin? Is he only love, or is he also Holy?

“With God all things are possible” – For whom? What sort of ‘all things’?

Such verses are part of an organic whole; they cannot be wrenched from their place and expected to have a life of their own. We need to know who the promise applies to, and what conditions are attached.

This month’s verse is like that:

“The eternal God is your refuge” Deuteronomy 33:27

Who doesn’t want a refuge? This world is a place of storms; storms of doubt, fear, illness, tragedy, heartbreak and many other storms. We need a place of refuge—one that outlasts all those storms, including that great final storm of death and of judgment. So it is a great relief to find that this particular refuge is eternal, for it is found with the eternal God. That also means that the refuge is a personal one, not a case of finding a cold dark cave to shelter in, but rather a warm and tender father to stand guard over you—always.

That sounds fantastic, and it is—if it applies to you.

As it turns out, when we look at the surrounding verses, this isn’t a blanket promise to all, but rather a specific promise to God’s people. This wonderfully comforting statement of eternal refuge is true, but it needs you to first ask God to make you one of his people through Jesus. In fact, that’s what John 3:16 is saying—he perished so you could have an eternal refuge, once you put your trust in him. Once Jesus is your saviour, you will find God a refuge from life’s storms.

No need for gobble-de-gook

June’s Verse
I remember hearing of an elderly lady who heard some great learned man lecturing; afterwards she greeted him enthusiastically, “That was wonderful, I didn’t understand a word of it”!

It’s easy to do—to listen to something that’s over our heads, to feel inadequate, and to assume that it must therefore be wonderful. Sometimes it may well be, sometimes it isn’t and yet we can assume that the fault lies with us, since they must know what they’re talking about.

Perhaps you’ve read stuff from some of the new age variety talking about balancing energies with the universe, or the self-help books advocating claiming your own inner peace, eg. “When I claim my personal power then I can be at peace. When I am at peace I have the strength to claim my power”, or perhaps it’s from religious writers or preachers, and you’ve been left wondering, “I didn’t understand the half of that, but it must have been good”.

It doesn’t just happen when we don’t know much about a subject either. Prof. Scott Armstrong, of Pennsylvania University, did an experiment in which an actor posed as Dr. Myron R. Fox and delivered a lecture of ‘double talk’. He used material from a
Scientific American article, mashed together with contradictory statements, things which didn’t follow logically, and an assortment of jokes and meaningless references to unrelated topics. The audience of professionals reported (through anonymous feedback) that “they found the lecture clear and stimulating.”

Why is it we do that? Why do we assume that if it is to be true or helpful it must be beyond our understanding?

There are issues about which it doesn’t really matter, but the issue where we often listen to unclear or even contradictory messages is that of eternal life—how does a person get to Heaven?

This month’s verse from the calendar answers this question in part. Many followers were abandoning Jesus, and he asks his disciples if they are going to go too, they reply:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” – John 6:68

These men knew that there was one place to get the answer; they knew that it was from Jesus. They knew that listening to his words, understanding them and trusting them was the key to eternal life. It’s not something to sub-contract out to preachers or gurus of whatever stripe, we need to go to Jesus, and to his words. Perhaps that’s why God has given us four accounts of Jesus’ life and words in the Bible. Let me encourage you to read them. It is to him that we must go, not to people who may impress us with their many words.

Death—An unwelcome guest

May’s verse
It has been a week when, once again, we have had to face the intrusive spectre of death. When it is the death of a broadcaster who spoke to you in your own home or car every day somehow it seems more real, more immediate.

I suspect that the very nature of Gerry Ryan’s passing unsettles people because it was so ordinary—as I write this, the post-mortem results aren’t out—he didn’t appear at work, and was found dead in his home. It could have been us.

Once again we are reminded that we are more fragile and mortal than we perhaps care to think about. And although we are surrounded by death daily, there is something about it that should outrage us. We have to hold together these two realities: we will all die, and it is not natural.

Why do I say that it is not natural? Death is an intruder, an unwelcome guest in the universe. There is something deep inside us that rebels against its presence. We have a fundamental sense that this isn’t the way it is supposed to be. But is that just wishful thinking, a deeper echo of some primitive superstition that modernity hasn’t washed away?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ stands as proof of a life beyond the grave. And along with that, in his life he performed a series of miracles, establishing his credentials as the Son of God, but also demonstrating that he had the power to make things ‘the way they are supposed to be’. His resurrection and his raising to life of others are an indicator that death is not going to have the final say.

This month’s verse put it this way:

“Christ Jesus, has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” – 2 Timothy 1:10.

What great news! Death has been destroyed, the intruder defeated; life and immortality are available. It doesn’t mean that Christians escape dying, but it does mean that for them death has lost its sting. The Bible talks about all men being raised, but only some to eternal life, for others it will be to eternal punishment.

This month’s verse tells us how to find such life. It is through the gospel of Jesus Christ that life and immortality can be had. That ‘gospel’ is the good news that Jesus offers to take your punishment in total, so that you can have life the way it’s supposed to be on the far side of death. Will you accept his offer?


April’s Verse - Calvary – the Key that unlocked the door

What is Easter about? We know that it’s about Jesus and a cross—but what was it all for?

Throughout the Old Testament God set up a series of elaborate visual illustrations to teach us important lessons about himself. Some of them centred around the temple, sacrifices and the High Priest. In the temple was a room known as the Most Holy Place. It symbolised God’s place. It was closed off—God was utterly separate from his messed up creation.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the people of God gathered at the temple where the High Priest offered a sacrifice for their sins. Then the High Priest, as the people’s representative, would enter into the Most Holy Place. Outside the people waited with bated breath. Would he/they be accepted or would he be struck down? Then, when the priest stepped out into the sunlight, they knew that everything was alright. God had forgiven their sin based on the sacrifice of another.

And that was only for their unintentional sins, because all through the year when they had broken God’s law they had to make the appropriate sacrifice for that sin. This was the catch-all sacrifice.

That’s how many people still think that we relate to God today. When you sin you need to make it up to God, either with sacrifices appropriate to the sin, or some general catch-all service. But how do you know if you’ve done enough?

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a simpler system? If there was a sacrifice so great that it covered all your sins, no matter how serious, so that you didn’t have to keep going back? The point of all those Old Testament illustrations was to create that very longing in us—a longing for a better way.

April’s verse comes from the book of Hebrews, a book dedicated to explaining that Jesus is that better way:

“He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption”
– Hebrews 9:12

It talks about Jesus entering, like the old High Priest, into God’s presence, with a sacrifice of such stunning worth—“his own blood”—that it would provide a forgiveness that would last forever. Calvary has unlocked the door to the Most Holy Place. Jesus brings us right into the presence of God. Elaborate sacrifice is no longer needed. Instead, Jesus has obtained the redemption (freedom from judgment) that we need. What we need to do, is go to him and ask him to pay for us so that we can have this great redemption.


7 days with the 7 sayings

Although Easter comes around every year, there is something in us drawn to the intensely majestic story of a man dying to save others. Gruesome as the crucifixion is, there is something magnetic about it and the events leading up to it—all the more as we find out what was going on. Why is it that this story of self-sacrifice gets more coverage than any other, for there have been many noble examples of sacrifice over the centuries?

Unlike other situations, something much deeper than self-sacrifice is going on at the cross. Its purpose and meaning can be seen in many places in scripture, but at the cross Jesus himself explains it. Suspended between heaven and earth on a rough wooden cross, amidst his agony, Jesus utters seven densely packed sayings. Dying words usually are important, all the more so when, as in this case, it takes colossal effort to hoist your body up to breathe and hence to speak. Each saying is a window on the crucifixion, revealing its meaning and significance.

These seven sayings demonstrate his mercy, forgiveness, his grace, the depths of his suffering, and his triumph. Central to these is his great cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which demonstrates that more than physical suffering was at stake here. He was being abandoned, so that we might never be abandoned. In essence they show us what salvation is about.

Last year we produced a CD based on these seven sayings with a brief reflection on each one. Perhaps you got one through your door. If so, why not have a listen to it again this Easter? If you would like a copy of the CD please get in touch, or you can listen on the internet at our website. Just go to www.milfordrpc.org and click on the ‘7 Sayings’ button on the left.

It’s designed to be used in the lead up to Easter, listening to one a day. Think of it as seven days with the seven sayings.

Author Garrison Keillor recalls family Thanksgiving dinners, where Uncle John usually asked the blessing on the meal. He thanked God for the food, for the blessings of the past year, but especially the cross. Keillor adds this powerful observation: “All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it.”

If Jesus is who he says he is, and did what the Bible says he did, then it’s something should think more and more about.



March's Verse

Do you ever look over life with regret? So many things you wish you could have done? Abilities you have never had the opportunity to develop, or even discover? Perhaps you feel that you haven’t had a fair chance at life, or that you have so much more to give, or opportunities you’ve missed out on. Perhaps responsibilities for children or aging parents have placed restrictions on you. Or perhaps your life has been irrevocably shaped by wrong done to you, and you look painfully back and wonder what might have been. Or it may have been sickness, or accident, or… the list is endless.

That sense of
‘the way things could have been’ can sneak over us if and when we get a moment to daydream. There’s something deep inside each of us that longs for there to be more to life than there is.

Or perhaps you have looked at moments in your life, moments of deepest pleasure, and wished that they would go on forever. But they either fade away into everyday life, or are rudely interrupted.

And we long for more. Is that longing just the tail-end of wishful thinking, of long forgotten but cherished dreams? I don’t think so. I believe that that longing is a God-given longing.

We weren’t made for a few short years. We were made for something grander, something richer, something more noble, for a time and a place where there would be no disappointment, no sickness, no cutting short of days.

This month’s verse tells us:
“God has set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

It isn’t wishful thinking; that longing is a God-given echo of what we were made for. We were made to enjoy an unending life in perfection. Every joy in this life is an echo of that perfection, every moment is a reminder to us of the unbroken stretches of eternity that lie ahead.

Next time you’re enjoying something beautiful, and find yourself thinking “I wish this could go on forever”, or next time you find yourself thinking “I wish I had another chance at life” – then remember forever is on offer.

That raises the question: Are we ready for that eternity? There is only one way to be ready—through Jesus, the eternal one who came into time and had pain placed in his heart, so that we could have eternity and joy placed in ours. Do you know him?

February’s Verse

(By Jonny McCollum)
Nostalgia’s a big business. The internet is teeming with clips of kid’s TV shows from decades gone by, websites dedicated to yesterday’s toys, and campaigns to resurrect seemingly-forgotten confectionary.
Sometimes it’s nice just to remember how things used to be. For many, childhood was a happy time: free from bills, hassle and responsibility. But things change.
Change can be unnerving. Ask anyone who’s recently moved to a new area. Ask the thousands of people who have lost their livelihoods because of the changing economy. Ask the countless patients who have received devastating news from a doctor.
It’s a fact of life – things change. Our deeply held dreams and everything we hold dear can be shattered in the blink of an eye. Perhaps that’s why we’re so nostalgic – at least nothing can take away our precious memories.
Where can we turn for help when things change for the worse? To our politicians? They’re always changing. So often they get a taste for power and a generous expenses account – and the position changes them.
What about our families? In an ideal world they would love us unconditionally and always look out for us no matter what. But this isn’t an ideal world. Divorce rates tell us that much. Sadly, even our nearest and dearest can change to become almost unrecognisable from the people we used to know.
Where can we turn then? The verse on the calendar this month offers some hope.
“From everlasting to everlasting, you are God (Psalm 90:2)”
The writer of this song looked back through history, he examined the evidence, and he reached a conclusion – “God hasn’t changed. In years gone by, He was faithful to His people, and He is still faithful today.”
Several thousand years have passed since this song was written, and the world has been transformed. Yet God is still the same – He still loves His people, He still has their best interests at heart and He still keeps His word.
In fact, we have even more cause than the writer to celebrate God’s faithfulness because we know even more about His love - Jesus Christ was born into this world to be a servant. He gave His life to serve His people and to rescue them from the devastating effects of sin.
Things change, but God doesn’t. What we need then in a changing world is a relationship with the unchanging God through Jesus Christ.

January’s Verse

Happy New Year!

Like last year, our church has been giving out a calendar around Milford. It’s our way of saying Happy New Year and pointing you to God’s word. This year’s calendar is all about eternity, and the life which God gives which is eternal life.

There’s something deep inside each of us that longs for there to be more to life than there is. Perhaps we feel that we haven’t had a fair chance at life, or we feel that we have so much more to give, or that there are opportunities we’ve missed out on. And we long for more. That longing is a God given longing, and over the course of the year we will be exploring it.

January’s verse is one of my favourites. It’s found in John 10:28, where Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

What I like about this verse can be summed up under three words: gift, certainty, safety

Gift: Jesus says that this great longing in our hearts for more, for a life that is the way it is supposed to be, is met by him. He gives it as a gift; that means it isn’t something we earn, or even deserve. It’s not what church you’re born into, or what religion, or how well you behave that gets you eternal life. Instead it is a gift that Jesus gives—other places in the Bible tell us that he gives this gift to those who come to him in sorrow for sin, and trusting him for his gift of eternal life.

Certainty: As we become increasingly aware of how uncertain our world is we long for a certainty about life. This life that Jesus offers has a colossal certainty about it. “They will never perish” – this isn’t directed at super holy saints, but at anyone who comes to him. Certainty isn’t the product here of pride, but of trust in his great gift. Here is the offer of eternal life that is a cast iron certainty, not a tenuous hope.

Safety: There is something touching about seeing a young child completely at ease in their father’s hands. They may be balanced seemingly precariously on their father’s shoulders, but the child is happily bouncing along giggling, because they know that their father is holding on. That’s the imagery evoked by these words, “no-one can snatch them out of my hand”. Its one of safety, and because the life is eternal it is eternal safety. But more than that, it’s a safety in this life for eternal life. He will keep us safe until we get there. Nothing can snatch those who have put their trust in Christ out of Christ’s hand.

Let me invite you, if you haven’t already done so, to come to Jesus seeking forgiveness and asking him for this gift of eternal life. Ask him to transform you, and to give you this new life that changes, not only our future, but changes us in the present.

December's Verse

I want to introduce you to a young girl, not that old, possibly about 14 or 15. She doesn’t come from a well off family, but she’s happy. The reason for her happiness is a young man. He’s noble, upright, honourable—and they’re engaged.

But her life has been turned upside-down. She’s pregnant. It’s the 1st century, and a deeply religious culture. There’ll be the shame of being pregnant before marriage and then the scorn poured on her when she explains, “It isn’t Joseph’s, this child came from God.” You can almost hear the laughter, the name-calling, the pained look in Joseph’s eyes. In human practical terms, Mary’s life had taken a severe downwards plunge. She could be stoned to death for adultery. At the very least she would be a social outcast forever.

Yet what do we see from this young girl? She sings—not an anguished lament for a lost childhood, but a song of praise. Surprisingly her song is not about her problems—it’s all about God, full of love and praise to God. Instead of turmoil, we see a song that reveals the spiritual strength of this amazing young girl.

The opening lines from her song are December’s verse on the 2009 calendar. The opening lines are startling,
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1:46)

Two things stand out here:

Firstly, although her life has been turned upside-down, Mary is thrilled. Why is that? She has grasped that the promised Rescuer, whose arrival has been waited on since the time of Adam & Eve, has come. At last he has arrived. The one to whom all the sacrifices, kings, prophets, rescuers—indeed the whole Old Testament—had pointed. The answer to the great problem of man’s guilt has arrived. Any wonder Mary is thrilled!

But the second thing we see is this: Mary, the one woman chosen out of millions, the extraordinary blessed one, acknowledges that she needs God to rescue her, to be her saviour. She knows that guilty people cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. But she also knows that there is hope, that God will rescue her and she has evidently asked him to do that for her—for she calls him “My Saviour”.

And if this wonderfully privileged girl needs a Saviour so do we. That’s what Christmas is about—the coming into the world of the Saviour—one who’ll rescue us if we ask him. Mary tells us that we all need a Saviour.


In Other News!
I want to give a mention to the Milford Inn’s Christmas Appeal this year. It’s about supplying presents to those children in our own community whose families are finding things tough. If you’re able to help out, drop in to the hotel and ask for Joanne. Well done to Joanne, Audrey and Caroline and all the staff at the hotel.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or Mark@Milfordrpc.org

November's Verse

(By Jonny McCollum – working with New Life Fellowship)

Ocean, Satchel, Apple, Pilot. What do these words have in common? They’re just a few of the weird and wacky names celebrities have given to their kids. And it’s not just celebrities who are up to it—a New Zealand couple weren’t allowed to call their child ‘4Real’ (apparently names can’t contain a digit) and they had to come up with a more conventional name. Their choice? ‘Superman’.

Why would a parent choose such a quirky name? Maybe it’s to prove a point, or perhaps it’s just to get attention. Most parents choose a name for more obvious reasons—some babies are named after friends or family. Some are named after singers or footballers. But often a name is chosen simply because the parents like how it sounds.

In some cultures names are deeply significant. Names aren’t chosen because of how they sound, but of because of what they mean. The name reflects the parents’ hopes and aspirations for their newborn child. It’s hard for us to grasp just how significant a baby’s name is in other cultures. 2000 years ago, Jesus was born into one of these cultures. So surely Joseph and Mary had a particularly difficult decision to make?

Not really, no.

Months before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Joseph and gave Him instructions. The verse on the calendar this month contains one of these instructions.

“Give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21)

The message was clear—the baby was to be called Jesus. The name means ‘God saves’, and that’s exactly why Jesus was born. He was the saviour that God had been promising for thousands of years. This unborn child was the one who would save His people from their sins. He would deal with the guilt and the punishment that are part and parcel of doing wrong.

Often we can try to save ourselves from our sins—we try hard to be good so we can make up for our past mistakes. But we can never be good enough. We can never get rid of our guilt. We can only be rescued if we turn to the rescuer.

Jesus is the only person who can deal with our sins because he is the only one who has no sins of his own to deal with. Only Jesus can rescue us from our guilt. If we ask him to, Jesus will save us from our sins. It’s what he was born to do.

October's Verse

(By Jonny McCollum, working with New Life Fellowship)

Perhaps you’re familiar with the following scene – you invite some friends around for a meal, or allow a relative to stay the night while they’re in the area. Just before they leave they produce a gift; a box of chocolates, or a bottle of wine. And what do you say? If you’re anything like my parents you’ll probably instinctively say, “You shouldn’t have”.

What do my parents mean when they say that to guests? I suppose they mean, “We haven’t gone to a lot of trouble, we really don’t deserve this gift.” Yet I’ve never seen them give the gift back or refuse to take it. The whole “You shouldn’t have” line is something of a charade – a polite thing to say, but not strictly meant. They may say they don’t deserve a gift, but often they do. In some way, they’ve earned it.

The verse on the calendar this month tells us about a gift:

“The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

What a gift! Far better than a tin of Quality Street or a bunch of flowers! God’s gift to us is life that never ends. More than that, it’s life that’s perfect – life that’s free from pain, boredom or sadness.

Unlike some other gifts, this is a gift we really don’t deserve. We’ve done nothing to earn this gift. In fact, the sentence immediately before this one in the bible says:

“The wages of sin is death”

We don’t earn this wonderful gift by being religious or doing good deeds. No matter how hard we try, we all sin. The only thing we earn by trying hard is death, because none of us are good enough to please God.

And yet God has given us a gift. But how do we get this gift?
Through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ experienced death so we can have life. Jesus Christ was punished so we don’t have to be. If we ask God for His gift then He will give it to us, because Jesus Christ has received the wages His people have earned.

Like all the best gifts, this one comes with no strings attached. There’s no small print. If we ask, God will give. And nothing can take it away again.

September’s Verse

“Every good and perfect gift is from above” – James 1:17

Some people might have the impression that Christianity is about being miserable—after all you can’t do this and you can’t do that. But stop for a moment and think it through:

God is not a dictatorial despot who ruthlessly rules his subjects, making endless demands. God is a Father, a heavenly Father who loves, cares for and understands every need. God is not in the stealing business. He isn’t out to steal our joy. He does not want to rob you of anything. Instead God is a giver. Christ came to give, not to get (Matt. 20:28). The call of Christ is “come and receive,” not “come and give up.”

Rather, God is so much for our joy that he wants us to stop chasing short-term pleasures that end up stealing our happiness and instead to live for long-term delight.

God has given us many signposts of his ability to thrill and delight. All you have to do is enjoy the multi-faceted flavours of an Indian meal, or marvel at the complexity of a snowflake, or savour the vibrant colours of spring flowers or autumn leaves, or thrill at the miracle of a new born baby, to catch the idea that God is not a God of misery.

Everything in the world that is good, beautiful and right comes from God.

As one writer says, “The devil never made a snowflake. He never made a baby smile or a nightingale sing. He never placed a golden sun in a western sky or filled the night with stars. Why? Because these things were not his to give. God is the creator and the possessor of them all and he lovingly shares these things with us.”

Of course, the question we need to ask is “Why did he give them?”

For enjoyment—yes! But also to create in us a longing for more—for more beauty, for more delight. Over every good moment or event in this life hangs the spectre of it ending and then of life itself ending. The best in this life is only meant to be a shop window to draw us in to find greater treasures. The greatest treasure of all is found, not simply in knowing the gifts, but in knowing the giver. And that can only happen through his greatest gift – the life and death of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or mark@milfordrpc.org. You can read more or listen online at www.milfordrpc.org

August’s Verse - Finding Rest

Have you ever watched white-water rafting? You see these fragile crafts hurtling down through some narrow gorge, through the rapids, passengers hanging on for dear life, looking certain to be upended and dashed to pieces on the rocks. And sometimes, you see a guy in a canoe sitting at some crucial point ready to spring into action to rescue some unfortunate once-upon-a-time passenger.

But look at the canoeist—although the river is rushing at a terrifying rate of knots, he seems to be completely at rest with little or no effort. He has found himself a spot behind some rock where the current is reduced to a quiet little eddy. And whilst raft and the river flash past, in varying degrees of control, he is at rest.

The scene reminds me of life. Sometimes I’m the one in the raft, hanging on for all I’m worth, as one thing after another crops up, certain that the point will come when I can’t hold on anymore. Have you been there? Life racing by, on the verge of being out of control, or perhaps past that point of no return where it is beyond your control. The time was when the pace of events was fun, but now you’re worn out trying to hang on. Even when you try to rest, your mind races, tumbling and turning from one thing to another. And all you want is rest, some rest—a moment of calm, a rock to shelter behind.

It’s for such occasions and people that Jesus once said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

He knows what it is like to be tired, to be hurting, to be alone, to live life with a crushing burden, to be rejected and despised, to be swept along towards a crushing destiny. He knows. And he offers to be that rock of shelter that gives you rest and peace, even amidst the storms. ‘Rest’ is one of the most beautiful concepts, and the rest that Jesus offers is deeper and longer than anything that can be found anywhere else.

How? Jesus says, “Come to me”; but note, he doesn’t say, “Bring me your problems.” “Come to me” is an invitation to come personally to Jesus, to enter into a relationship with him, not simply to use him as a problem-solver. And when you trust the King of the Universe because of his relationship with you, rest and peace is an evitable consequence.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or mark@milfordrpc.org. You can read more or listen online at www.milfordrpc.org

When tragedy strikes the Christian

“Where was your God when you needed him?” We live in a broken world, and those who put their trust in God are not exempt from that brokenness. Cancer strikes, accidents happen, depression lurks, tragedy falls on the believer as much as the unbeliever. And to some this seems as good a reason for rejecting God as any. If he won’t look after his own people, why believe?

As a pastor this is a question I face and will continue to face as long as I am in this broken world. I will have to look into the eyes of hurting Christians who seek both answers for themselves, and for those who question them.

And part of the answer isn’t very satisfying—simply “I don’t know.” I don’t know the specific reasons why God allows some tragedy to happen. But that lack of knowledge leads to a more powerful answer.

In life there are situations where, when we look back with hindsight, we see how great good came out of immense difficulty. There are other situations where we know enough at the time to know that it is worth it.

But tragedy doesn’t come with either hindsight, or with insight. What is the Christian to do when they have neither hindsight nor insight? God takes us to the bleakest, most tragic, inexplicable day in human history; one, that had we been there, we would have been like the disciples—beyond distraught. He takes us to the crucifixion. And in scripture God gives us the benefit of his perfect explanation, he gives us insight—and we see how it was for good. And then God gives us the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight—and we see how it has brought forgiveness, transformation, hope and salvation to millions of people.

And so when tragedy comes to the Christian, God says, “Trust me, the day will come when you will have both insight and hindsight into this situation, and you will see its purpose, and you will marvel.” But why should we trust him? At the cross we see that before he asks us to trust him with something monumental, he steps forward, and takes tragedy on himself. He doesn’t ask us to trust him where he has not yet been. And there he shows us, at his cost, that he will the tragic into something glorious.

And so the Christian fixes their eyes on the Cross and says, “I know that He transforms bleak tragedy and I will wait in trust for his explanation, for his trustworthiness is written here in his own blood”.

The Christian doesn’t base their love for God on his, as yet, unexplained dealings with them, but on his explained dealings with his Son for them.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or mark@milfordrpc.org. You can read more or listen online at www.milfordrpc.org

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July’s Verse

“I give them eternal life and they shall never perish” – John 10:28

Sometimes a verse is so clear that it doesn’t really need much explanation. This is one of those verses. No word is hard, no concept is difficult to grasp. Yet this verse sums up all that is hard about Christianity.

Those opening words “I give”—we have a love-hate relationship with gifts. Often we love to get them, but only if we feel we deserve them, as if we have already earned it. Birthday gifts are ok, thank you gifts are grand, Christmas—we’ve earned those by what we give in return. But the gift that comes out of nowhere, undeserved, unasked for, makes us feel uneasy. Have you found that—we splutter, “You can’t possibly… I can’t allow you to pay…” or we make a mental note to find a way to pay them back.

Accepting gifts is hard work. Why is that?

I think it boils down to pride. We don’t like to feel obligated to someone, and we like to think we have earned whatever we receive.

Both these are deadly. Not so much when it comes to presents and gifts here—although it can be a little irksome. You know the person who can’t take something without having to respond with a gift. It defeats the purpose a bit.

But it becomes serious when it comes to what Jesus is offering. Here is a gift that we can’t make a contribution to. It has to be all gift. We can never earn or deserve it. To do our best to earn it doesn’t only defeat the purpose a bit, it defeats the purpose entirely and renders this gift ineffective.

We just have to accept, and that takes humility and a measure of desperation. I say ‘desperation’ because it takes us to have reached a point where we grasp that we really, really need this gift—like a patient needs a bone marrow transplant. The urgency comes out in the closing words of this verse—this gift saves us from perishing.

And what makes it all the more wonderful is that the giver guarantees the effectiveness of the gift.

“I give them eternal life and they shall never perish” – John 10:28

June’s verse

(by Robert McCollum)
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:8

We all love getting presents. Be it Christmas, birthday, anniversary, any occasion will do—we love presents. And there seems to be something in us that enjoys giving presents. We like watching people’s faces as they unwrap their gift. The look on a child’s face on Christmas morning—priceless.

But imagine this scene. You have spent a great deal of time and money on just the right present for that special someone. You give them the gift, and they love it—brilliant! But to your horror, they pull out their wallet and count out how much they reckon it’s worth—as if to reimburse you. They want to pay you back! Somewhat insulted, you try to say, “It’s a present!”, but they press you to take something for it.

Similarly, God tells us that salvation is a gift. It is a present from God. Can you imagine how insulted God feels when we try to buy salvation from him? We try in countless ways to earn his favour. We break our backs to live good and decent lives in the hope that God will save us. But what if it doesn’t work that way? This month’s verse tells us we are saved by ‘grace’.

Grace is a great word in the Bible—it means ‘favour shown to people who do not deserve any favour at all’, or more simply ‘gift’.

God reaches down to hopeless people like you and me and he offers this free gift of salvation. Like a coastguard helicopter, he is encircling us, with the spotlight trained on every single one of us, urging us to grab the lifeline. He is offering a free gift. Do what we like, we can never save ourselves. And we desperately need saved. Left to ourselves we are floundering in murky deep waters. Some feel the strain and can barely keep their heads above water. Some are blissfully unaware of the danger they are in. Some on the other hand, are reaching out and grasping Jesus.

At the cross we see God’s grace. There Jesus took our punishment so that we could be offered a lifeline. We can be saved and put right for eternity solely and entirely by the gift—grace—of God. What a gift! Will we insult God by trying to earn it, or worse, by rejecting it completely?

Can you go so far from God that you can’t come back?

(by Robert McCollum)

Charles Dickens described it as the greatest short story ever written. We know it as the ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’, although it might be better called ‘The Story of Two Lost Sons’. It’s found in the Bible, in Luke 15. Here we find a surprising answer to our question.

A man had two sons, and one day the younger outrageously requests for his share of the family inheritance. In other words, “Father, I’d prefer it if you were dead!” He quickly leaves home with the money, wasting it all in an out-of-control lifestyle. It isn’t long until he’s living in the gutter—forced to get a job feeding pigs.

Jesus has painted the picture of the ultimate sinner. He is as far away from his father as he could possibly go. It is only now that the son realises what he has done. He has rejected his father’s love. Is there any hope?

He decides to go back and apologise. As he returns, his father spots him and sprints towards him, tears flowing down his face. For an elderly man to run in that society was considered extremely shameful, but he cares only for his son. He welcomes his son back with open arms—no questions asked.

Maybe you feel like this son—you’ve gone your own way, rejected God. God says to you, “Come back, I will receive you and welcome you back with open arms—no questions asked.”

But there were two sons. The other was furious when he heard his father had thrown a party to celebrate the return of his brother; he refused to join in. By doing so, he too brought great shame on his father. Yet Jesus says the father also went out to him to invite him into the party. The elder brother was also lost and needed the invite of his father.

Maybe you are more like this son. You think you are close to God but it’s a relationship of slavery rather than sonship. Elder brother lostness is much worse than younger brother lostness.

“Jesus Christ came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10) No-one is too far from God that they won’t receive a welcome, but you can seem so close to God to think that you don’t need a welcome. Where are you?

(You can download the full talk from
www.newlifefellowship.ie under Sermons)


May’s Verse

During the course of the next two months, you’ll notice another voice having a say in this column. Robert McCollum is training to be a pastor and is carrying out a summer placement with me. So as part of his training he’ll get to try his hand at writing this column every other week. Over to him:

Bank Holidays—you’ve got to love them. However, I can’t say that I was thinking exactly like that on Monday morning. I had, for better or worse, agreed to take part in a relay team running in the Belfast Marathon. So, on Monday morning, I joined 17,000 other crazy people in pounding the streets of Belfast.

Looking around the other competitors as I ran, I could see that most of them had prepared properly for the event and were carrying water bottles and energy drinks in their special running belts. Stupidly, I had nothing. I felt such a fool. My head went down and my pace gradually slowed. I was parched. My mouth was bone-dry. I knew I had quite a bit still to run. Then I saw the sign. There it was—a beacon of hope which gave me a sudden burst of energy: ‘Water Station ahead’.

That cup of water beats any other that I’ve had. That feeling of water quenching my thirst was simply something else. Re-hydrated, I could keep on going and finish my leg of the relay.

As I ran on, I was reminded of the calendar verse for this month:

Jesus answered, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 14:4).

Perhaps you too know what it is to experience desperate thirst. At that moment in time, you do not want a three course meal, or money, or a holiday in the Caribbean. Only one thing can satisfy you—a drink of cool, fresh water.

Perhaps you find that you are thirsting for something more in your life, something that will quench the longings of your heart. And maybe you have tried to fill that longing with all sorts of things, like money, holidays, alcohol, work, drugs or sex. Like physical thirst, only one thing can satisfy you—Jesus. He can quench the thirst of every soul. Ask Jesus to fill the void in your life, and you will never thirst again.

Jesus answered, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst”. (John 4:14)


April's Verse

500 years ago Europe was shrouded in the darkness of religious superstition and fear. Then suddenly it was as if the curtains were flung back and the sunshine flooded in. What happened? One man rediscovered a truth that had been known for centuries, but had become obscured.

His name was Martin Luther. He was a deeply religious man, joining a monastic order, not so much to study, but to save his soul. He reckoned that if there was anywhere you could find salvation it was there. He was immensely diligent—he wearied his confessors with confessions lasting several hours, going into every nook and cranny of his soul.

He was a man acutely aware of the awesome purity of God’s holiness, and of his own sinfulness. He was terrified of God, especially of a righteous God. One passage in the Bible particularly puzzled him. Psalm 31:1 reads “Deliver me in your righteousness” and Luther wondered, “What does the writer mean ‘in your righteousness’, surely he means ‘from your righteousness’?” For Luther the righteousness of God was something to flee from. He spent his days trying to be righteous enough for a perfectly righteous God to be happy with him. He pored over the details of God’s law, seeking to keep it, failing, and despairing.

Then light began to dawn; he was lecturing on Romans 1:17 which speaks of a righteousness from God being revealed in the gospel, a righteousness that isn’t earned or achieved, but is by faith. And what he once saw only as a demand by God, he saw was also a gift from God. He saw that what God demands he also supplies. And in a moment he writes, “I felt myself to have been reborn, to have gone through open doors into paradise. Before the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet.”

This right standing before God is grasped, not by effort or obedience, but by trusting in what Jesus has done. And that brings us to this month’s verse:

“If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” (Galatians 2:21)

It comes at the same lesson Luther learned from another angle. If we could be right with God through being conscientious moral people, what on earth was Jesus doing on the Cross? No, the Bible teaches that he died to provide what no amount of law keeping could give. He died to take the place of people who had no standing with God, so that he could offer us the gift of his right standing with God.


7 days with the 7 sayings

Like Christmas and birthdays, Easter comes around every year, but it can be increasingly hard to focus on its meaning. Easter faces the danger of becoming simply a long weekend—an extended holiday.

Yet there is something in us that is drawn to the intensely majestic story of a man dying to save others. Gruesome as the crucifixion is, there is something magnetic about it and the events leading up to it—all the more as we find out what was going on. Why is it that this story of self-sacrifice gets more coverage than any other, for there have been many noble examples of sacrifice over the centuries?

Unlike other situations, something much deeper than self-sacrifice is going on at the cross. Its purpose and meaning can be seen in many places in scripture, but at the cross Jesus himself explains it. Suspended between Heaven and earth, amidst his agony, he utters seven brief, but densely packed, sayings.

These seven sayings reveal Jesus’ mercy, forgiveness, grace, the depths of his suffering, and his triumph. Central to these is his great cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which demonstrates that more than physical suffering was at stake here. He was being abandoned, so that we might never be abandoned. In essence they show us what salvation is about.

As a fellowship we’ve produced a CD based on these seven sayings. There is a reading, a brief reflection on one of the sayings, and a piece of music from the book of Psalms tying in with the theme of that saying. It’s designed to be used in the lead up to Easter, listening to one a day. Think of it as seven days with the seven sayings.

There’s a great line in a Garrison Keillor book where he recalls Thanksgiving dinners. Uncle John usually asked the blessing on the meal, thanking God for the food, for the blessings of the past year, but especially the cross. Keillor adds this powerful observation: “All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it.”

If Jesus is who he says he is, and did what the Bible says he did, then it’s something should think more and more about.

If you would like a copy of the CD, please get in touch. Alternatively, you can listen online at
www.newlifefellowship.ie - just click on the ‘7 Sayings’ button on the left.


March’s Verse

Have you heard people say something like “I’m a good Christian” or some other similar variant? I heard someone use it on Highland radio not so long ago. Ironically the phrase often precedes a statement which undermines the very faith they profess to hold. But it always makes me wonder what is a ‘good Christian’ anyway?

It seems to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the whole thing, and it’s this: No genuine Christian would ever describe themselves as ‘a good Christian’!

Let me explain why. The idea seems to be based on some sort of scale of performance—as if you were asked to rate your Christian performance on a scale of excellent…good…average…poor…dismal…does not apply. Or as if we were asked if we are good swimmers or not—“Oh I’m a good swimmer”. But Christianity is not a performance-based religion.

It’s not about what we do. And that’s where this month’s verse comes in. The apostle Paul writes to a group of Christians who are badly confused about what makes them right with God, and he says:

“A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16)

This term ‘justified’ is a key term in the Bible. It means ‘acceptable to God’, having our sins forgiven—the way I teach children to remember its meaning is: “justified means ‘just as if I’d never sinned’”. And so Paul is saying here that a person’s acceptance by God is not on the basis of their obeying God, in other words, on their performance, but on the basis of something that Jesus has done.

You see, Christianity isn’t about our performance, for we can’t keep enough laws to make up for our breaking of God’s law. Try that with the traffic cops next time and see how you get on—“Oh please let me off speeding, I promise to keep the speed limit tomorrow and the next day”! We are meant to keep the law anyway; it’s not a bargaining tool! And the guilt still needs to be dealt with.

That is what Jesus comes and offers to do—to keep the law for us, and to pay for our breaking of God’s law. And so we can be acceptable in God’s sight, not by our law-keeping performance, but by relying on Jesus’ performance—both in his keeping the law and also his paying for our breaking of the law, for our guilt has to be dealt with.

Christianity is about accepting this offer, in other words, receiving it as a gift, a transforming gift. We don’t exclaim when we get gifts, “How good am I!”, instead we say “How good are you for giving me this”.

So a person who says, “How good am I” or “I’m a good Christian” or whatever variant of the phrase, sadly hasn’t got it. They are missing the point of Jesus.

A genuine Christian is deeply aware of how they disappoint God on a regular basis, and yet they gratefully and joyfully rely on Jesus’ life and death to make them acceptable to God. They don’t talk about being good, instead they point to Jesus’ goodness in giving forgiveness.

February’s Verse

Evangelist Louis Palau writes: After an evangelistic luncheon, an elderly man slowly walked toward me. He introduced himself as a retired university professor once nominated for a Nobel Prize. As we spoke about God he said, “When I was a boy, I had faith, and then I lost it. Now it's too late. God will never take me back.”

“Professor, why do you say that?”

“Because I am so unworthy, that's why. I'm so unworthy.”

I assured the professor that God could take away his guilt—even 40 years worth.
-----------
That’s where this month’s verse comes in. It’s from Romans 4:7, although it is initially found in Psalm 32. David wrote Psalm 32 after committing adultery and murder, and a period of miserable silence when he tried to ignore his past. He writes,

“Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.”


‘Blessed’ means happy, thrilled, overjoyed. And here David is exulting in the clean sheet that God has given him. But how does he get to that happy state where the ghosts of the past no longer haunt him, where his past won’t rise up and accuse him?

He admits something we know from our own experience—“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away… my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” Hiding is not the answer. Sin needs to be taken care of. Either God covers it or we cover it up. There's a big difference. As Rudyard Kipling said, “Nothing is ever settled until it's settled right.”

But when God covers it, it's settled forever.

The solution is not to hide, to pretend we are better than we are, but to haul it all out into the open before God. That’s what David did, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”—and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Ps 32:3-5)

That’s the pathway to happiness. David found relief and happiness in knowing his transgressions were forgiven, his sins covered, and the Lord did not count his sin against him.

But why does Paul quote these verses in Romans 4? Paul has been speaking about the wonder of the gospel. He has been arguing that sin is not something we atone for by our good works, or by self-punishment—instead it is something God deals with at the Cross and that we accept as a gift.

In Romans 4 he says:
“People are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it:
‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.’”

For troubled souls overwhelmed by their guilt, sin, and failure, few passages in all of Scripture can give peace like this one. Psalm 32 and Romans 4 offer the assurance of forgiveness that is found in Jesus alone.

Is the Bible against women?

One of the many popular perceptions about the Bible is that it is like all other ancient traditions—misogynistic, in other words it presents a view that women are to be despised and trampled on with little or no rights.

Whilst this may be true of many ancient societies, the Bible’s teaching on women was completely counter-cultural. It went against the flow. The gospel writer Luke noticed this too, and in his account of the life of Jesus he highlights the equality of women—nearly every major moment or parable or teaching has a male-female counterpart. For example: an angel appears to Zechariah and then to Mary, the parable of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep is followed by the woman looking for her lost coin, the healing of the demon possessed man is followed by the double healing of the sick woman and the dead girl. It is evident that Jesus had women amongst his wider group of disciples, an unheard of thing for a rabbi to do.

All this is by way of saying that the Bible doesn’t fit with the preconceptions, and over the next few weeks in New Life Fellowship we are going to be looking at lessons God taught some of the remarkable women of the Bible.

What do you know of Sarah? Or Miriam? Or Esther? Or Jochebed? Or Martha? Or what about Gomer?

I suspect that you’ll know quite a bit about some of those, but others perhaps not so much, and even those we do know will surprise us.

We’ve just spent a number of weeks at the end of last year looking at Jacob, and now it’s time to redress the balance somewhat. But what does this have to say to men? Is this a series where the men get to stay at home for a few weeks? Certainly not. It doesn’t matter whether we are looking at men or women or children in the Bible, because at a fundamental level the problems of the human heart are the same whatever gender or age you are.

Not only that, but when we look at the Bible we are never simply using it as a scrapbook full of examples—as if all you did was open its pages, find the person in a similar situation and seek to emulate them. That would be to miss the point in a most colossal way—yet that is how many people, including preachers, use it. No, the Bible is God’s story about his dealing with people, and so we are always looking at God and what we can learn about
him in his dealings with people. Since people haven’t really changed that much at the heart level down through the centuries, and since God has no need to change, being completely outside of time, we will find much that is relevant to us today.

So I’d like to invite you, whether male or female, to come along and to hear about these remarkable women, and more importantly their remarkable God. We meet at 10.15 on Sunday mornings in the Day centre off Oliver Plunkett Road.

Looking for a saviour in all the wrong places

As I write this on Tuesday the world waits with baited breath for the inauguration of Barack Obama as forty-fourth president of the United States. He is hailed as some sort of messiah, the bringer of hope, the solution to America’s, and hence the world’s, problems.

He’s young and charismatic—and he comes to the forefront at a troubled time. What colossal expectations perch on his shoulders. So much hype, so much anticipation; much of it seemingly placed there by a country seeking to atone for its racist past and heaping all its hopes, dreams and penance on this one man.

I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a sacrificial lamb.

You know how it is—we unrealistically place all our hopes on someone, and then when they fail to live up to this improbable ideal we turn on them with savage ferocity, disappointed far more at ourselves than at them, but not having the wit to realise it. Just like the English media does every four years when it finds that its football team aren’t world beaters!

And then starts the recriminations, the blaming, the finger-pointing, the criticisms.

We have looked for a messiah, and they have failed.

Brian Cowen and co. are getting it at the minute. The rugby team will likely get it by the end of the six-nations, for we’ll have looked at them to lift our spirits out of recessional gloom. And we’ll fire Declan Kidney for not being the saviour of Irish rugby and for failing to reverse the economic downturn.

Of course the reality is that we keep looking for a messiah in all the wrong places. And when it comes to the one who is the Messiah we look to him for all the wrong reasons.

We look to Barack Obama to solve the global financial crisis, to bring inter-racial harmony, to solve the crime problem in America, to deal with the carnage in Gaza and to bring peace to both Afghanistan and Iraq—tasks that lie more in the realm of what a god could do. Whether it’s our elected representatives or even our football or rugby teams, we look to them to bring about things far beyond their abilities. That’s unfair—that’s not what they signed up for.

On the other hand we look to Jesus for all the wrong reasons—to sort out our dodgy knee, to find us a parking space, to help us win the Lotto, to get us out of this fix or that. It’s not a Saviour we want, but a supernatural personal assistant/medical expert/lucky star. Then we blame him for not dancing to our tune. That’s unfair—that’s not what he came for.

Of course if he really is God, then he wouldn’t be fitting to our agenda, but calling us to fit into his. But we don’t like to think about that, and instead we persist with looking for saviours amongst our politicians or whatever other heroes we choose, and we dump the small-fry stuff on Jesus.

And when neither of them live up to our unfair, unwarranted expectations we hang them out to dry, proclaiming all along that we knew better.

If we really knew better, we’d look in the right place.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or mark@milfordrpc.org. You can read more or listen online at www.milfordrpc.org

January’s Verse

Happy New Year!

As in other years the Baptist church and ourselves have teamed up to give out a calendar around parts of the town. Each year the calendar takes a theme; this year the theme is ‘God’s gift’. Each month’s verse deals with this radical idea that separates Christianity from religion.

Now perhaps you may feel I’m playing with words a little—isn’t Christianity a religion? Yes in one sense it is, yet this whole idea of ‘gift’ places it in a different category from all the other religions. This ‘gift’ idea produces a thoroughly different outlook—it changes how we relate to God, how we see ourselves, how we see our future, how we see others, how we see what we deserve or don’t deserve—but more of that in months to come.

Each month I plan to give a brief explanation of that month’s verse. If you haven’t got a calendar and would like one—please get in touch. January kicks off the calendar with a verse from Isaiah:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6)

Now if we are being honest with ourselves we know that meeting God is perhaps the last thing we want, for we’re not ready. There is much in our lives that would not impress him. So why start off the year with this call to seek God out? Surely it would be much better to call people to tidy themselves up and to straighten out their lives a bit before calling them to look for God?

That’s where one of the differences between religion and Christianity comes in. This idea of ‘gift’ challenges our natural patterns of thought.

One of the things about verses in the Bible is that they have a context—a home, with family who live alongside as it were, they belong to a place. We can’t simply rip them out of their home and look at them in a disconnected way; we need to see them in their natural environment. The natural habitat of this verse is a rich beautiful invitation from God to come to a feast, to come and enjoy what we cannot afford.

Listen to it:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

Then we are told to seek him and search him out. What Isaiah is saying is this: There is a feast available with God (as opposed to the judgment we deserve), but we can’t afford it, but God himself offers to provide what we can’t afford. And what would cost us everything, he offers to pay. It’s a picture of the salvation that God offers, we couldn’t ever afford it, or earn it by being good enough, but instead he offers to pay—and that’s what happened at the Cross—God paid so that we could enjoy his gift.

That’s why we are to search him and come to him while he extends this offer, for like some of the new-year sale bargains this offer is time limited. As the verse says, “call on him while he is near” – there will be a time when he is not near. And so it is the right verse to put at the start of the year.

Coming Soon – December’s Verse

We come to the end of this year’s calendar which we gave out last year along with the Baptist church in Letterkenny. Each month a verse has dealt with the theme “Who is Jesus?”.

December’s verse is from Revelation 22:12: “Behold I am coming soon… I am the Alpha and the Omega.”

It seems somewhat appropriate that at a time of year when we remember Jesus’ first coming that we are reminded about the return of the King.

Although, given that 2000 plus years have passed this his first arrival, you might be inclined to think that ‘soon’ is a bit of a misnomer. Does it mean ‘soon’ like a husband means it when he’s asked when he’s going to fix the broken cupboard door—“Soon”—meaning a fairly vague indeterminate period of time governed by having nothing else better to do?

God isn’t like that—the return of Jesus isn’t like some irksome chore that he keeps putting off. Instead it is the pinnacle of his great plan of salvation. The word that is translated ‘soon’ would better be translated quickly, or suddenly. The idea is not so much that the time between his first and second comings will be brief, but that his return will be sudden, surprising, swift, unexpected. In other words, it will catch many out.

But what’s all this business about Alpha and Omega?

Sometimes people say, “Christianity is OK for you, but it’s not for me. You can believe it, but I’ve got my own beliefs.” That would be fine if the final day of reckoning was like an airport check-in hall, with all the different religions each having their own check-in desk, with their own little deity and his staff seeing to those flying with them.

Alpha and Omega refer to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet—it is a way of saying that Jesus is the A to Z, he takes in everything. He’s the first and the last. He is not simply the letter A, and some other religion is G or Q or Y. He is the all-encompassing one, with whom all mankind will have to deal. He is coming back. And this time it won’t be as a baby—it will be as a judge.

So as we think (or don’t think) about the first coming of Jesus, we need to think about the far more significant second coming of Jesus. People don’t like to think of judgment, it sounds awfully harsh, but the reality is that Jesus came the first time to offer to bear our punishment, to offer a way of escape. If he comes and finds that we have failed to accept his offer—we leave him with no alternative.

“Behold, I am coming soon”

November’s Verse

Some of you may still have on your walls the calendar we gave out last Christmas. If you do, you should now be looking at this month’s verse which reads:

“Jesus said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life” – John 14:6

It wouldn’t be a very popular truth in the post-modern world we live in. The popular view of truth can best be summed up by the title of the Manic Street Preachers’ fifth album, “This is my truth, tell me yours”. It expresses the familiar sentiment of, “That’s true for you, but it’s not true for me” or “That’s ok for you, but it’s not ok for me”.

It is in itself a rather vacuous phrase. Truth is not a personalised thing. It can’t be ‘MY truth”. It can only be ‘Truth’. Truth is truth. Opinion of course is relative and personal—and utterly worthless unless based on facts.

The inclusion of the word ‘the’ is equally offensive to our modern ears. In today’s western world it is not acceptable to say that there is only one way to God. Those who like to think of themselves as sophisticated and worldly-wise refer to our “different traditions” and knowledgably proclaim that they are all essentially the same.

Of course this is awfully patronising to those of differing religious beliefs who know that each of the major religions is mutually exclusive—each makes its own unique truth claims; all cannot be right. They understand that this sort of apparently broadminded statement is a closet insult—because it refuses to take seriously the claims of your religion.

Those who are happy believing essentially nothing would far rather reduce all other belief to a mishmash of nonsense because it means they don’t have to contend with direct truth claims like Jesus makes here. This sort of thing makes them uncomfortable. It’s far easier to appear magnanimous and broadminded, and that looks good. It doesn’t take any real intellectual effort—you don’t need to know anything about any religion; you don’t have to investigate the competing truth claims.

The irony is that the majority of the world is quite happy with the idea of competing truth claims. They know what to do with them—evaluate them to see which makes sense. However it is here in the western world, where we pride ourselves in our science and knowledge, that we refuse to investigate these truth claims and come up with some sort of stumbling side-step about all ways being equally valid.

We need to recover our intellectual integrity and take Jesus’ claim at face value and start to investigate it. Enough of these claims that we are all on the same pathway. There is only one pathway. Jesus claims to be it.

The question is: Do you believe him? If not, why not?

For those who are looking for the answers to life’s questions, looking for peace, forgiveness, acceptance, let me assure you that you will find them in Jesus. Come and investigate him. Come and trust him. He is utterly reliable.

A timely 2700 year-old word

I came across this in my Bible reading the other morning and thought I’d share it with you. People wonder what is going on in this current economic crisis. I can’t give you the definitive answer, but at the very least I think this is part of it. It’s from the book of Isaiah chapters 2 and 5:

The Lord Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted
and they will be humbled,
for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty,
and all the oaks of Bashan,
for all the towering mountains
and all the high hills,
for every lofty tower
and every fortified wall,
for every trading ship
and every stately vessel.

The arrogance of man will be brought low
and the pride of men humbled;
the Lord alone will be exalted in that day,
and the idols will totally disappear.

Men will flee to caves in the rocks
and to holes in the ground
from dread of the Lord
and the splendour of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.

In that day men will throw away
to the rodents and bats
their idols of silver and idols of gold,
which they made to worship.

Stop trusting in man,
who has but a breath in his nostrils.
Of what account is he?


Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.

The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.”

So man will be brought low
and mankind humbled.


Certainly it is without argument that the great nations of our day are being brought low, that those who have set their security in trading, or in property are being humbled, and that we as the celtic-tiger nation have made our silver and gold into idols.

Could it be that God is humbling us to show us that we have been treasuring the wrong thing? Money cannot do what we most need done – it doesn’t heal the hurt in our souls. Only God can do that. We need to humble ourselves as a nation and as individuals, turn to God in sorrow and humility, and ask forgiveness for replacing him with something substandard.

There is a richer treasure to be had, as Isaiah says later on in chapter 33

O Lord, be gracious to us;
we long for you.
Be our strength every morning,
our salvation in time of distress.

He will be the sure foundation for your times,
a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.

1 in 7

I was down at my parent’s house last week and had a nosey through the Newsletter newspaper. Nestling at the bottom of the letters page was a brief letter signed by my two brothers and some of their friends. It read simply, “We wholeheartedly support the statement from 50+ evangelical Christians in the local game who are opposed to football on the Lord’s Day.” They added their names along with three others who play for the same club.

It was in response to the IFA’s decision to play football games on Sundays. Although commonplace in the UK and here in Ireland, this had been a no-no in the north. Why was that?

It’s because for years they’ve taken seriously God’s word which commands that one day of the week be given over to him. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-10)

As with all of God’s commands it comes out of kindness and love, not an effort to make life miserable for us. He knows that we need to take a break. He knows that we need to be protected from those who would have us work all the hours available—often ourselves! He wants us to take a break from work, study, and even play.

But God is not simply concerned that we take a break and rest. When he calls us to set aside one day in seven as holy—it means devoted to him, not devoted to us, or our sport. Not a day of rest centred on us, but a day of rest centred on God.

He knows that we need to take our nose off the grindstone and look up, and that we need to do it on a regular basis for we are far too inclined to forget that we are made for eternity. And so he tells us to take a day in the week to focus on the upward dimension of our lives. And we need this, not just for ourselves, but for our children – they need to see that work and play aren’t the only things in life, but that there is a God worth giving a whole day to.

Yet we tend to think we have done a noble thing if we give him an hour on a Sunday, before doing what we want with the rest of the day. And in some cases we can do Sunday’s hour on Saturday evening so that we can have the whole day for ourselves. I’m not convinced that this is what God had in mind when he said to keep the Sabbath day—not hour—holy.

Of course, to enjoy setting aside a day for God, you need to have reason to be delighted with God. That can only be found when you have personally experienced the forgiveness Jesus offers.

And if the very thought of giving a whole day to God exasperates you at the sheer waste of a day, that perhaps indicates the need to take your nose off the grindstone and take time to reconsider what your priorities are and should be.

So this is not a call to some antiquated practice that has no place in the modern world, but something that is even more essential in the live-for-now, frenetic-paced world we live in.

Those five young men who penned the letter finished it with the promise God makes to those who delight in his day,

“If you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honourable… then you will find your joy in the Lord” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

September's Verse

Bread. Could you live on it?

I have a friend who lives on not very much else. I know the nutritionists among you are already coming up with all sorts of queries—where does he get his protein from? Where does he get his vitamins?

He does tend to spread the butter on good and thick. Other than that and a glass of milk, there’s not much more to his diet.

And he’s not fading away either—he’s strong, and can out-work his family on the farm.

In our modern world of multi-choice, multi-ethnic, multi-flavour foods it just seems a bit odd. Surely a person couldn’t survive on bread.

I suspect we are being overly western, and 20
th-21st century. Our surprise is perhaps more chronological snobbery than anything else. Bread has been a key dietary staple in many cultures across the world, and throughout time.

One article I read says, “Among some people, bread forms the chief article of food and often almost the entire diet, even at the present time. Bread of some description, whether in the form of loaves, biscuits, or rolls, forms part of each meal in most households. This fact proves that, with the exception of milk, it is more frequently eaten than any other food. A food so constantly used contributes very largely to the family's health if it is properly made.”

So perhaps we need to recalibrate our appreciation of the humble loaf, and all its variations.

Going back 2000 years with our better understanding of the centrality of bread, particularly its contribution to the welfare and health of the individual, we can better understand what Jesus was getting at when he said,
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry” (John 6:35).

Bread was what sustained them, bread gave life. And Jesus draws the parallel—I am the one who can sustain you, I am the one who gives life.

The Jews had been asking for a miracle—it was just after the feeding of the 5000, and in particular they wanted a repeat performance. They wanted more bread from Heaven. They were also harking back to the time in the desert when the people of Israel had been hungry and God fed them with miraculous bread. And Jesus says to them effectively “Look bread gives life, but the true bread of Heaven gives even better life. You are more hungry than you know, and I am that better bread that will satisfy your deepest hunger.”

He is. He still satisfies that deep spiritual hunger. Like bread, he seems deceptively simple, but he is deeply satisfying. And he gives a life that will cause us to live forever.

So whether you are eating plain loaf, or baguette, or naan, or soda, or wheaten, or malt bread—stop and think about there being a whole other life, and ask yourself “What is satisfying my spiritual hungers?”

A life in tatters

Defrauded his brother (not once but twice), deceived his father, married twice (at the same time), had two mistresses, had twelve children to the four women, and on the run from his employer.

Having said that, his father tried to do him out of his rightful inheritance, his brother tried to kill him after the second fraud, his wives treated him as a piece of meat, his employer tried to diddle him of his wages, and his father-in-law gave him the wrong daughter (on purpose) at the wedding.

Sometimes we are a product of what others have done to us. And sometimes we have done things to others which have shaped them for the worse. We have been harmed, and we have caused harm.

Is there hope for the harmed and the harming? Where go you go when your life is in tatters?

The man described isn’t a modern day character, yet he could be. In fact he is from about 5000 years ago, and his name is Jacob. You’ll find him in the book of Genesis, and over the next number of weeks in New Life Fellowship we’re going to be studying Jacob. Or more particularly we’ll be looking at how God deals with such a mess of a man, and starts to untangle the mess.

And that’s encouraging for each of us because we need help to untangle the mess of our lives, and here is where hope is found. Hope is found in the God who untangles and rescues. Hope is found in the God who can forgive us for the harm we have done. Hope is found in the God who can take the harm we have suffered and turn it for good.

You see, God doesn’t ask us to tidy ourselves up before we come to him. He tells us to come just the way we are, and then he will start to do the tidying. God loves us as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.

That’s what we see with Jacob.

Perhaps you can identify with Jacob, either as hurt or hurter. Perhaps you identify with some aspect of his life, but not all. Perhaps you don’t identify with Jacob much at all, but you know that you need God as much as Jacob did, albeit for different reasons.

Whatever the case we’d like to invite you to come along and join us for this set of studies over the next 6 weeks or so. We start this Sunday at 10.15 in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road.

The John 3:7 Man

I’ve been asked a couple of times in recent weeks what the guy with the John 3:7 banner at the GAA matches is all about. Or more particularly, what the verse is all about. You see him standing behind the goal on most of the televised matches.

The guy’s name is Frank Hogan, he’s from Limerick, and loves his Gaelic. The first time he displayed the John 3:7 banner was at a hurling match in Croke Park nearly 25 years ago. Since then he has carried the banner the length and breadth of Ireland to hurling and football matches. He is almost as much a part of the establishment as the game itself.

But why? The answer lies in Frank’s own story which I came across on a website:

Frank’s parents had six children. Like his three brothers and two sisters, Frank was baptised and confirmed. They attended church regularly. One day Frank was confronted with the fact that because of his sin he was separated from God, and church membership or sacraments couldn’t deal with the problem. These could not reconcile him to God and save his soul.

September 28
th, 1976 was a landmark day. Frank found out that getting right with God isn’t about belonging or performing; it’s about what Jesus did on the cross. He discovered that Jesus had died on the cross as his substitute, and by doing this had paid the penalty for his sins. At 11 pm, in the front room of his home, Frank turned from his sin and asked Jesus for forgiveness. He put his trust in Christ, believing that Jesus had purchased a pardon for his sins through His sufferings and death on the cross.

But what’s that got to do with John 3:7? The verse reads:
‘Jesus said, “You must be born again”’

The verse simply reflects what Frank found he needed to experience. All of us are like a soiled page before God. Our own efforts at cleaning only rub the stains in deeper. We need a fresh start, a new page to our lives. And this fresh start is not something that comes from within us, but something that comes from God. It is not something we work up in ourselves by effort or devotion.

When Jesus said “
You must be born again” he was speaking to a deeply religious man, and he was seeking to show him that his religiousness wasn’t enough. The problem is more deep rooted than we realise and therefore the solution has to be more radical than we first think.

‘John 3:7’ points us to the good news. It tells us that a new start is wonderfully possible. God can bring about a change of heart in men and women. Jesus can give you a new birth, a new start and a new life. He died on the cross to make the new start possible. He is alive today and can deal with your sin and give you a new start if you will admit your need and seek after Him, like Frank did.

When we turn from our disobeying or ignoring of him, and we put our trust in Jesus for acceptance and forgiveness—then we find God’s fresh start. And when that happens you want people to know. And Frank’s way of raising folk’s curiosity is to hold up his banner that points people to this verse.

Next time you see his banner I hope you will understand it better.

August's Verse

Late in the afternoon of June 20, 1944, Admiral Mitscher of the US Navy had dispatched a bombing mission against the fleeing Japanese fleet during what became known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

Aboard the USS Yorktown, Captain Jennings sat looking out into the darkness in front of the bow. It was pitch black and pilots’ fuel supplies were running dangerously low. First one plane and then another dropped into the sea from lack of fuel. At last the remaining planes approached the carriers. But in the darkness, the pilots could not make out which ships were carriers and which were not. Unless something was done many good men were going to be killed trying to landing the darkness. Slowly Admiral Mitscher got up from his seat and gave the order, "Turn on the lights."

These four words were deadly in meaning. Lighting up the fleet would enable the American pilots to find their way home, but it would also help Japanese pilots and submarines to find the US Fleet. Still, the Admiral believed that it was worth the risk. He had promised he would get the pilots home safe, and he was going to keep his word.

The ships quickly turned on all their lights. High in the air the pilots could not believe their eyes. One returning flyer described the scene as a “Hollywood premier, Chinese New Year's, and Fourth of July all rolled into one.” Here below them were dozens of ships with thousands of men aboard endangering their lives to save slightly over two hundred men and planes. Incredulous, but grateful, the pilots looked for their respective aircraft carriers, but it was confusing. This time Admiral Mitscher broke another rule. He sent the message, "Land on any carrier."

Quickly, pilots jockeyed for landing positions. Still planes had to ditch into the sea for lack of fuel. One pilot approached the USS Yorktown and as his plane caught the arresting wire and came to a stop, it died from lack of fuel.

Of the 40 planes the Yorktown had sent out on June 20th to attack the Japanese fleet, 14 made it back to their own ship, 13 landed on other ships, 11 landed in the sea nearby and their crews were picked up. 38 of the 40 had made it back to the ship. Figures were similar for the other aircraft carriers. All because of Admniral Mitscher’s order to “Turn on the lights”.

When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” (John 8:12)—this is something like what he was getting at. Except, he went one better. We live in a world where there are no safe places to land. He came and, instead of putting himself at risk to guide people home, he gave his life to guide people home, to give us a safe place to land. He took all the enemy fire so that there would be none directed at us.

Perhaps you feel like a pilot running low on fuel, and you are desperately searching for a place to land. Jesus says to you, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.”

June's Verse - Which Shepherd?

On our calendar the verse for June is the words of Jesus:

“I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

Jesus, in saying this was picking up on imagery familiar to his listeners. But it also linked into their musical history in Psalm 23, which, for us, is perhaps the best known ancient song. How many other songs 3000 years old do you know?

I was thinking what Psalm 23 might be like if it had been written by someone today. It sets up quite a contrast with the original.

I am my own shepherd
I am always in need.
I stumble from one task to another,
bombarded by demands and mobile phones,
I don’t have a moment’s peace.
I wander in paths of busyness
seeking identity but never finding it.

When death casts its shadow over my life,
I crawl through the valley,
and I am afraid,
despite all my friends I am desperately alone;
all their gaiety
doesn't comfort me.

People around me trample over me,
in the rush to be first.
I anoint my headache with aspirin;
I drown my doubts in an overflowing Guinness.

Peace and contentment are strangers to me
most of the days of my life
and I will dwell in low self-esteem
for the rest of my life.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.
Thankfully, although times have changed, Jesus hasn’t. And he still offers to be the good shepherd to all who come to him and put their trust in him. Shall busyness, or family, or work, or pleasure lay down its life for me? Can they bring ultimate lasting peace and contentment, a certainty of goodness and mercy?

Which shepherd do you have?

May's Verse

The calendar we gave out this year deals with the all important theme “Who is Jesus?”. Many voices down through the centuries have made all sorts of claims and promises. Many voices in the present make their claims and promises too. They clamour for our attention, call us to follow, believe and commit. How are we to know which voice to listen to?

Each month we look at one of Jesus’ claims about himself. This month it is from John 8:58

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

At first glance these words seem simple and innocuous – perhaps even verging on the unintelligible. Surely Jesus should have finished the sentence with “before Abraham was born, I was” – meaning I have existed from before Abraham.

Was he just bad at grammar? Or is it the fault of the translators?

To the Jews of Jesus day this was not evidence of a poor education, but of a startling and boldfaced claim. You see, the phrase “I am” used in this way harks back to the way God introduced himself to Moses at the famous burning bush – “Tell them, ‘I am has sent you’”. God was saying to Moses that the always-existing one was sending him. What Jesus is doing is claiming to be that always existing one. He wasn’t simply in existence before Abraham like some angelic figure; rather he has always existed. Even the Jewish listeners understood this to be a claim to be God, for we are told in the next verse, “At this they picked up stones to stone him” – the penalty for blasphemy.

But what difference does it make to us?

There’s something immensely comforting to go back to a place and find it hasn’t changed, or to meet an old friend and find they ‘haven’t changed a bit’. That’s part of the comfort that lies behind the unchanging nature of Jesus.

Perhaps we wonder, “Would he forgive me?” We should listen to his words of forgiveness to Peter who denied him. He hasn’t changed. There is forgiveness for all who come to him in repentance like Peter did.

Perhaps we despair at circumstances. We should stand with the disciples in the storm tossed boat and look at the One who has just told the waves to be still. He hasn’t changed. He still calms storms. There is hope for all who come to him.

Perhaps we find it hard to trust Jesus. We should cry out to Jesus, “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:23-24) and see Jesus do just that. He hasn’t changed. There is rescue for all who trust in him.

Perhaps we think it doesn’t really matter what we believe. We should listen to Jesus, “I am the way the truth and the life, no-one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). He is the unchanging one.

April’s Verse

Within the Christian tradition there is a tendency to think of Jesus as the dying Saviour – for some he is always on the cross. There are images and statues and crucifixes all displaying Christ on the cross. Now, while this is a key aspect of what Christ came to do, it is not the focus.

Jesus did not come to evoke our pity or even our admiration at his suffering. He came to rescue a people who would then follow him in glad-hearted surrender. But you can’t follow a corpse.

He came to rescue a people so that they could joyfully live for him because they knew that he lived to transform them and take them to be with him. You can’t live joyfully for a corpse, not for the long run.

If we think only of Christ on the cross it fosters a kind of sour-faced guilt – look at what I have done. It keeps the focus on me and my sins. It robs us of the strength to joyfully live for him here and now.

That’s not how Jesus wants it – if he had, he wouldn’t have risen from the dead. Neither would he have appeared to John the Apostle and had him record for all time these words which appear on our calendar as the verse for April:

“I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever!” (Revelation 1:18)

The Christians that John was writing to were facing savage persecution, and Jesus knew that what they needed was a reminder that he was no longer dead but alive, and alive forever. And if he was alive forever then that meant that he would triumph, and that death was not the end. It is a relationship with the risen triumphant Christ that transforms Christianity from a guilt-ridden ensnaring religion to a joyful freedom-giving reality.

His triumph means I can triumph. His triumph means I can be forgiven. His triumph means strength for today. His triumph means I can defeat sin. His triumph means I can have hope. And that gives joy.

Yes, we must go via the suffering saviour on the cross and have our guilt dealt with, but we are not called to stay there. We are called to follow and live for the risen Christ in glad-hearted delight. “I was dead, and behold I am alive forever.”

(based on the calendar given out by ourselves and the Baptist church)

Jesus did not die to show us he loved us

I was reading ‘The Gospel Truth’ column to the right of mine in last week’s Post about the significance of the events of Easter week. What Father McKevitt said was right, but he left out the best bit.

The crucifixion does show us the wickedness of man and the love of Christ. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus didn’t die because a crowd of people plotted against him. Jesus didn’t die because Romans crucified him. Think about it. The one who raised the dead and calmed the storms could easily have come down off the cross. So there has to be another reason.

And to say he did it out of love for the Father, while true, doesn’t sufficiently explain it. Why did it matter so much for the Father that his Son die? What was happening on the cross if it wasn’t that some bad people killed a good man?

That’s the crux of the matter.

Jesus’ main purpose was not primarily to show us that he loved us, nor to be the victim of a tragic plot. In 1 John 4:10 we read:

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Here we are told precisely how it is that the cross displays God’s love. Jesus didn’t come just to love people; He came to save people.

Jesus stayed on the cross because he was paying (atoning) for the sins of his people. The cross was not a triumph of evil. It was the payment for the punishment that the sins of his people required. On the cross the Father poured out his wrath on the Son, so that the Son could hold out the offer of a wrath-free acceptance from his Father to all who would trust the Son.

The simple fact is – we are all rebels, and someone has to pay. On the cross Jesus offers to pay for your rebellion too. That’s what the cross was about. A Son who loved us enough to stand in our place. And a Father who loved us enough to pour out his wrath on his dear Son, instead of on us.

That’s what I love about the cross. That’s why this is the best bit. Jesus pays for my sin so that I don’t have to. And because of that I get to enjoy the Father’s love. The crucifixion is not some dark tragedy, it is a glorious moment to be celebrated and rejoiced in. Until a person can do that then they haven’t grasped what really happened.

To grasp it we need to do much more than participate in remembering the activities of Easter. We need to go to the Cross and ask Jesus to pay for us too, and to turn us from being rebels into loving, loyal subjects.




February's Verse

(From the calendar given out by the Baptist church and ourselves)

God said to Moses, “Tell them: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)

This year’s calendar deals with the all important theme “Who is Jesus?”. Many voices down through the centuries have made all sorts of claims and promises. Many voices in the present make their claims and promises too. They clamour for our attention, call us to follow, believe and commit. How are we to know which voice to listen to?

Moses had the same question about 3500 years ago. Out minding sheep, he saw a bush on fire – not an uncommon event in the desert, but the fire wasn’t burning itself out. As he investigated, a voice spoke to him from the flames, commanding him to leave his job and rescue the Israelites from Egypt.

Naturally enough you’d have questions, like “Why’s there a voice speaking from a flaming bush?” and “Who are you that the Israelites should listen?”. The voice answered in cryptic fashion, “Tell them: ‘I AM has sent you’.”

What sort of an answer is that? God explained to Moses that he was the great never-changing God who had always existed, who had promised to make a great nation out of Israel, and how this never-changing God was coming to make good his promise.

The name ‘I AM’ came to sum up that eternal, never-changing, promise-keeping character of God. Down through the centuries of the Old Testament the Jews treated the name with great respect, not even daring to use it for fear of dishonouring it.

Then there appears a man making great claims about rescuing people, about being the promised one. Naturally enough people want to know who he is. And in answer to their questions, he takes the long unspoken name and utters it about himself – “Before Abraham was born, I am” – John 8:58. Many of the Jews thought it was blasphemy, that he was a con artist. They ignored the evidence of his life and his miracles. He used the same power that was seen in the rescue from Egypt: he controlled the sea, he provided miraculous food for the hungry crowds.

We mustn’t make the same mistake. Jesus is the great never-changing, promise-keeping God who has come to rescue people and take them out of slavery and death to a promised land, just like he did so long ago through Moses.

January's Verse

For the last few years, along with the Baptist church, we have given out a calendar at Christmas to quite a number of homes in the town. This year the calendar deals with the all important theme “Who is Jesus?”.

Many voices down through the centuries have made all sorts of claims and promises. Many voices in the present make their claims and promises too. They clamour for our attention, call us to follow, believe and commit. How are we to know which voice to listen to?

Every month a verse from the Bible sets out the uniqueness of Jesus Christ – the only ‘voice’ to live, die and rise again; the only ‘voice’ to offer to take our place before an angry God. Throughout the course of the year I intend to explain a little of what each month’s verse means.

January’s verse is found in Revelation 1:8, ‘“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”’

Sometimes people say, “Christianity is OK for you, but it’s not for me. You can believe it, but I’ve got my own beliefs.” That would be fine if the final day of reckoning was like an airport check-in hall, with all the different religions each having their own check-in desk, with their own little deity and his staff seeing to those flying with them.

If this verse tells us anything, it tells us that it will not be like that. There is one God, not many. He is all-powerful. He has been in existence, and will always be in existence. There were no gods in existence before him, and none have come after him. Alpha and Omega refer to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – it is a way of saying that Jesus is before all things, after all things. He is the all-encompassing one, with whom all mankind will have to deal. He is sovereign. And he is coming back.

This verse also means that Jesus is what life is all about. Life is not about getting all you can, or even giving all you can. It’s all about Jesus – that’s what we’re here for. If our lives haven’t been about Jesus, then we aren’t ready for him coming back. Does he pervade your life in every aspect, or is he left on the periphery?

If you would like to know more, or would like a calendar, just get in touch.

www.newlifefellowship.ie

The Bible: Getting the Big Picture

A few years ago I got one of those photo-mosaic jigsaws for Christmas – you know the ones where a big image is made up of lots of little tiny images. What a killer! Probably the hardest jigsaw I’ve done. That type of image was in fashion for a while. You used to see them on advertising hoardings, and as you walked past all you could see were the individual images. You had to get away back from it to see the big picture.

So often it’s the same with the Bible. There are a lot of individual stories that we are familiar with: creation, David and Goliath, the birth of Jesus, his miracles, the crucifixion etc.. But how do they all go together? Or do they even go together?

A jigsaw is always easier to understand when you can see the big picture on the box. And so it is with the Bible. It isn’t just a collection of random unconnected stories. Even though it is a library of 66 different books, written by around 40 authors over the course of 1600 years in three different languages, there is a single plot line that runs through it from beginning to end.

Each of the small pictures, or stories, fits into this greater picture. Quite simply it’s all about the King and his Kingdom. Once you get the big picture then you can understand why each of the stories is included. For example, Jesus’ miracles are no longer just random acts of kindness, but each one displays in a different way the power of the King.

Have you tried to read the Bible and found yourself getting monumentally lost, and eventually setting it aside in frustration or boredom? That’s understandable. It’s a bit like trying to do a jigsaw without having the picture on the lid.

Over the next 6 or 7 Sunday mornings at New Life Fellowship we are going to be looking at this big picture, and seeing how everything fits into it.

If you have wondered what the Bible is all about, why not come along and find out for yourself? We meet from 10.15 to 11.30 in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road.

The Forgotten Side of Parenting

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once fell into conversation with a gentleman who believed that children should receive no formal religious instruction: they should, rather, be free to choose their own religious faith upon reaching a suitable age.

Coleridge did not disagree, but later invited the man into his rather unkempt garden. "You call this a garden?" the visitor exclaimed. "There are nothing but weeds here!"

"Well, you see," Coleridge replied, "I did not wish to infringe upon the liberty of the garden in any way. I was just giving the garden a chance to express itself and to choose its own way."

No matter what well-meaning sociologists claim, a child is not born morally and religiously neutral, as if all they need is to be left to their own devices to grow up untainted and noble and wise. If you just let a child go with their natural tendencies they will become destructive and self-destructive. Watch a 3-month-old child in a rage – they’re mad enough to kill you, but they only weigh 10 pounds and not 210 pounds!

The Bible teaches that children are born with an inherent inclination towards doing wrong. And so that’s why Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4 “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.’

It is not enough to “not exasperate” them, we are to have a positive input into their spiritual and moral upbringing. We are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord”.

What does that mean? It means that, since we have brought people into the world who have an eternal soul that will go to either Heaven or Hell, God holds parents responsible for teaching their kids about him, and about what he requires, and about what Jesus has done for us. It means letting them see that wrong is wrong and will be punished. It means letting them see that God is not just Holy, but loving and has provided Jesus to pay the price for our sin.

This is part of what the “training and instruction of the Lord means”.

Practically, it means that we should be reading the Bible to our children, teaching them to pray, taking them to a church where God’s word is taught and explained. But of course we’ll not want to do that unless we have a right relationship with God ourselves. For otherwise we’d be hypocrites telling our children to be interested in something we aren’t interested in – and that would exasperate them, which we are commanded not to do.

The answer is found not in simply following God’s instructions for parenting, but in following the God who gives them. God has commissioned parents with a challenging but eternally significant role. How will you respond?


More than Conquering your Circumstances

Two old men were sitting watching a heavily loaded van making its way across an old bridge. The bridge croaked and groaned under the weight. As they watched, a starling landing on top of the cab, and immediately the bridge collapsed in a cloud of dust. One of the men turned to the other and said, “Heavy wee thing, that bird.”

Sometimes it’s not the big things in life that get to us, it’s the collection of little things that mount up, and soon you feel up to you neck. And perhaps you find yourself lying awake at night and your mind is racing with the circumstances you find yourself in, and it gets to the point where you are on the verge of panic.

Perhaps it’s the kids, they’re playing up, and you just don’t have the energy for this. Perhaps it’s bills coming in, perhaps it’s reports coming home from school of disruptive behaviour, perhaps it’s worries about a job, work isn’t coming in, or too much work is piling up. Perhaps it’s losing your job, and how then are you going to provide?

Perhaps it’s just that you are caught in a pattern you can’t get out of – you can’t seem to break free. Perhaps something has you addicted and you can’t break free. Perhaps choices you made have left you in a hopeless situation. Perhaps you have been dumped into your circumstances by others, and you are left there and you feel you are floundering, just keeping afloat and no more.

Is there hope?

We can’t always change our circumstances – despite what Oprah and the positive thinking gurus say. But the Bible teaches that we can be changed in our circumstances. In other words we can live in the same circumstances, but with a radically different mindset, and more importantly with the strength of God working in us and through us enabling us to cope. And often it is as he changes us that God does what we can’t do, and changes our circumstances.

The Bible also teaches that those who put their trust in God find that he controls their circumstances for their good. That gives a strength and a peace amidst the turmoil. And, although it doesn’t always happen, often he does lift us out of our circumstances and transform both them and us.

On Sunday evening (10th) we’ll be looking at what the Bible has to say this on topic in greater detail – ‘More than Conquering your Circumstances’. It’s open to anyone. It will be held in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road, Letterkenny at 8pm. Why not come along and hear more?

Getting Past your Past

If you had an opportunity to plan your life – would you be who you are now? Who we are is, in part, the result of the actions and influences of others.

That’s fine if only good has happened to you. But since we live in a broken world there are many who have been shaped by situations and circumstances that have left deep scars across the surface of their souls. It might have been abuse, bereavement, absent or distant parents, alcoholism, drug dependence, or countless other factors.

We only get one life. It doesn’t seem fair that the actions of others in time past can mar and ruin who we are.

Perhaps this is you, and you’ve tried to hide from the past, but you know that it doesn’t work.

It’s possible to live with the past, and yet not cope with the past. It gnaws away at us. We become trapped, thinking that we have to remain victims.

In Ireland we are very good at putting up masks, and hiding behind them, pretending everything is fine. But underneath lies a soul that is still raw. The past is real; it cannot be changed. Yet it can be conquered.

Our past might define us, but it doesn’t have to defeat us.

But how?

As a Christian, and as a pastor I believe that there is an answer. The Bible offers help to the hurting, so that they can emerge like a butterfly from the chrysalis of their past. God makes a promise to hurting people: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

What great words: hope, future, prosper. The hope that the Bible holds out is of a God who sets us free from the shackles of our past, who takes our past and uses it for good in us and around us. Not only does he rescue us from our past, but he rescues our past as well. The years we thought were lost are turned around and made into something profitable.

More needs to be said, and I will be speaking on Sunday evening (20th) on what the Bible has to say about ‘More than Conquering your Past’ at the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road, Letterkenny at 8pm. Why not come along and hear more?

Give us today our daily bread

First it was the power going off, then the water, then the power again. Then our car broke down. It doesn’t take much to bring everything grinding to a halt. What do you do when the electric goes off for a couple of hours? What do you do when the water stops running?

It’s funny how easily we are reduced to nothingness. So much of our homes run on electricity. You think when the power goes off, I’ll just go and phone so and so, only to find that your new digital cordless phone doesn’t work. So you think, “I’ll just sit down with a mug of tea and a good book,” but of course there’s no power for the kettle! And then proud of your creativity you think, “I’ll use the microwave to heat the water”. Nope.

We fancy ourselves as great independent people who can cope with life, but the reality is that we’ve become so dependent on progress that we don’t know how to cope when it all breaks down.

I’ve just started preaching on the Lord’s Prayer on Sundays. One of the phrases in it is, “Give us today our daily bread” which covers much more than bread – all the necessities of life – but seems obsolete in a day and age of supermarkets. After all, we earn the money with which we buy our food, and we drive to the shop in our own cars, and we cook the food ourselves. Why bother asking God? Yet don’t the recent problems with water and electricity show us that it is just as relevant 2000 years after Jesus taught it? God hasn’t become obsolete, just because we have moved a step or two away from the raw materials. Instead of reaping our own corn and grinding it for bread, or walking to the well and drawing our own water, we have it all ‘on tap’ so to speak.

Yet when the supply chain is interrupted we find ourselves at a loss. We find we aren’t as independent as we thought – and that we can’t even cope with a few shortages. Our progress hasn’t made us any more independent; it has only blinded us to our reliance upon God for even the simplest things in life.

We need to get back to seeing the need to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”. It’s humbling, but better to be humble than find God having to humble us for our arrogant self-reliance.