No Man’s Land

I am sure we are all familiar with the concept of ‘No Man’s Land’, land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties or warring factions who leave it unoccupied to establish a zone of neutrality and control.  I have some very close friends in Germany, and as a result of the creation of the inner German border on 1st July 1945 (which was the boundary between the Western and Soviet occupation zones of former Nazi Germany), they suddenly found that their wider family and relatives were divided.

Some of the family lived in West Germany.  Some of the family lived in East Germany.  For many years, due to restrictions in contact and before the availability of mobile phones, the only way the respective family members could communicate was by visiting the border fences, separated by ‘No Man’s Land’, and taking along a pair of binoculars and waving at each other. 

It’s hard to imagine isn’t it?  What made this even more horrific was that one of the family from East Germany was visiting relatives in West Germany at the time the border control was established.  Her family back in East Germany told her to stay, since she would be safer and have better opportunities.

I often visited my friends in Germany as a child, and one holiday they took me to the border, to the exact place where they used to go to have such limited contact with the rest of the family.  I could see the guards with rifles on the border patrol towers, I could see the guard dogs, and as I gazed out over ‘No Man’s Land’ I could even see a minefield. It was very distressing; I felt overwhelmed with so many emotions.  I remember standing there with tears running down my face.  I am sure you can imagine how emotional it was when the border finally came down and West and East Germany were reunified in 1990.

‘No Man’s Land’ is an interesting place.  It’s a place of transition, a place of change, a place of potential, a place of division, a place of sadness and a place of hope.  So imagine this.  In our Gospel account we are told Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem, but he chose to travel along the border between Samaria and Galilee. Galilee was Jewish; Samaria was occupied by Samaritans, who were despised by the Jews.  The antipathy between them would have been clear.  Jesus was effectively travelling through ‘No Man’s Land’.

He came across a village, where by virtue of its location the residents will have been without clear identity, and outcast from society.  As he was going into the village, he was met by ten men who had leprosy, and as we are later told one of the men was a Samaritan.  So here in this area lived both Jews and Samaritans alike.  Since they suffered from leprosy these men will have been doubly outcast firstly because of Jew and Samaritan being together and secondly, they were considered unclean, and unable to come into contact with other people or attend the temple to worship.  It is in ‘No Man’s Land’ that we see these ten men united not by some noble common aim or purpose, but united instead by the brokenness of their condition.  A test of our character is how well we maintain our integrity and friendships not only as we journey through those places, but also when we emerge from brokenness.

Out of respect, and reflecting the nature of their condition, the lepers called out to Jesus.  They clearly knew who Jesus was – even in ‘No Man’s Land’, Jesus is known.  They had a hope of restoration and healing.  If a leper thought his leprosy had gone away, the leper was supposed to present himself to a priest, who could declare him clean (Leviticus 14). Jesus sent the ten lepers to the priest even before they were healed; we are told that their leprosy disappeared “as they went”.  Jesus did not touch these men or even speak words of healing as he had done for most of his healings. This time he simply gave them the command to go…to the priests.  If I had been a leper and been told to go to the priests before I was even healed, I am not sure how I might have responded.  Jesus was asking these men to respond in faith knowing that by their obedience and through the power of Jesus, what they desired would happen. All the men responded in faith, and Jesus healed them on the way. Is our faith so strong that we act on what God says even before we see evidence that it will work?

The healing of these 10 men was of huge significance.  No longer will they have been outcast and ostracised by society.  No longer will they have needed to wander in ‘No Man’s Land’.  Yet only one of them – the Samaritan, hated by Jews – came back praising God and thanked Jesus.  It is so tragic that the other 9 men received such a blessing with an ungrateful heart.  No wonder Jesus said “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” It’s not simply about the lack of gratitude.  Yes, the other nine men were healed from leprosy, but they also had an opportunity to know salvation and enter into a deeper relationship with God.  It was an opportunity that they wasted. 

Jesus said to the Samaritan, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” He not only had a restored body, he had come out of ‘No Man’s Land’ to that deep place of faith.

I cannot stress enough the importance of seeking an attitude of gratitude in our lives; we should never take people for granted.  We should never take God for granted or the many blessings we have. It is quite likely that on the edges of our lives, at a distance, and not too far a distance we may find needy people whom Jesus loves.  I see and know that often in our local communities.  People who through circumstances in life find themselves in the ‘No Man’s Land’ of society.  People who need an invitation to ‘come home’.

So Lord, soften our hearts and open our eyes to see your wonders and the many blessings you have given us.  Give us a heart for the lost and all who journey in dark places.  May we carry the Christ light and shine a way leading people home.  Amen

Forgiveness and faith

The disciples’ request to Jesus to increase their faith at the beginning of our Gospel reading comes after Jesus shared with them some challenging teaching about forgiveness. If we glance back in the Bible to the beginning of the chapter we can see it was certainly a hard message, “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”  Have we always been willing and able to demonstrate that kind of patient forgiveness, and to demonstrate it repeatedly?

I’ve thought about this a great deal. I know I have a very pronounced sense of justice and can be strongly opinionated about whether something is morally or ethically right or wrong.  Living in a time where there seems to be very little accountability doesn’t help either.  But it’s important that I qualify what I mean by a pronounced sense of justice in a number of ways:

  1. There is a profound difference between being judgemental and having a strong sense of justice.  I am not saying I want to decide what consequences should be imposed to bring about justice; I have no desire, no qualifications and actually no right to appoint myself as some judge or arbiter.  Ultimately that right belongs to God.  What I am saying is that when a wrong is committed, there should (in my opinion) be accountability and consequences.  That’s why restorative justice for example makes a lot of sense to me, in which perpetrators are brought face to face with the people they have wronged.  They become much more aware of the impact of their actions and the consequences thereof.
  2. We are called to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak with a prophetic voice and take a stand against social injustice, oppression and persecution.  It’s really important to try and understand and empathise with the context in which people we encounter in our communities might find themselves.  We can be far too quick to jump to assumptions and judgement calls about people, perhaps people who in reality don’t know any different, don’t know any better and don’t know how to speak up and speak out.  We must be prepared to speak out for those who have no voice.  In the past I’ve had some involvement with the Wellsprings Bradford charity which hosted various Welfare Reform Impact Bradford sessions in which some myths about people on benefits could be set out.  It also helped to bring some understanding of the nature of oppression that comes out of bad implementation of benefits reforms.  That’s one of the many reasons why the work of the foodbank here is so important.
  3. It can be incredibly challenging for us not to try and determine whether someone’s repentance is genuine.  Have we ever felt remorse about doing something wrong, and then found ourselves sometime later doing precisely the same thing again?  Was the remorse and repentance we felt insincere or genuine?  The point I am making is that if our only measure of repentance is if people don’t ever sin again, then our only conclusion would wrongly be that people haven’t ever genuinely repented.  At the end of the day only God knows our heart.  When I look back at my walk of faith there are things I used to do which I simply don’t do now – one example of this would be that before I became a Christian I wasn’t averse to swearing.  I just don’t swear anymore.  There has been a heart and mind change in me that has made that possible; but it didn’t happen overnight.  There are other things which are works in progress, perhaps areas of my life where I know I need to improve which I invite Jesus to help me deal with.  In both cases I know genuine penitence.  Lord, give me strength to prevail and grace and mercy when I fail.
  4. Finally I don’t think we are always able to forgive in our own strength.  That’s where faith comes in, a radical faith. We see that in action when Christians are able to forgive people who have committed horrific crimes against them.  That comes from us having a total and unconditional dependence on God and total unconditional submission to Him and obedience to His will.

With that context in mind, let’s take a look together at the illustrations Jesus gives.  Well firstly he shared an illustration about us having faith as small as a mustard seed.  It’s an illustration he also used in Matthew’s account where he said to them “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you..” And here he says “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

I am sure you’ve heard before about how small mustard seeds are; Jewish texts compare the knowable universe to the size of a mustard seed to demonstrate the world’s insignificance and to teach humility.  Mulberry trees can apparently grow as high as 35 feet.  So the point Jesus is making is that the apostles didn’t need much or even more faith; a tiny seed of faith would be enough, if it were alive and growing because it is God’s power that works miracles.  The limit on what we can accomplish for God’s Kingdom is often limited by our faith.

The next illustration that Jesus shares speaks into the nature of our Christian service.  We are not in Christian service because of what we get out of it; we cannot enter into discipleship with a sense of conditional entitlement.  We are in Christian service because it is privilege.  We do not do what we do because of vanity, pride or the pursuit of praise and recognition.  Our service is not something extra done for God; it is the duty of anyone who desires to be Christ’s follower, coming from a place of knowing that the primary reason for our existence is to worship and be in relationship with God.  Do we have that understanding and sense of duty in our walk of faith?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, in this crazy mixed up world there are 5 things we can pursue together in our faith as we seek to run the race.  Those 5 things are clear from our Psalm today:

  1. Trust in the Lord…and do good;
  2. Take delight in the Lord…and he will give you the desires of your heart;
  3. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun;
  4. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes;
  5. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.

Remember

“Remember, remember the fifth of November; Gunpowder, treason and plot, I see no reason, why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

This is a time of year when we are presented with many opportunities to remember.  We remember the dear departed in various Memorial services.  We remember and commemorate the ending of the First World War on Remembrance Sunday, and we remember those who gave their lives for our freedom during the two World Wars and beyond.  We remember too the historical events of the 5th of November on Bonfire night or Guy Fawkes night.

The Bible has a lot to say about remembering and remembrance.  The Lord’s ‘book of remembrance’ (Malachi 3:16) was of “those who feared the Lord and thought on his name.”  “Do this in remembrance of me,” said Jesus in the institution of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).  Yet the people of God have been forgetting their past for centuries, for millennia, and time and time again prophets spoke out to restore the people’s relationship with God. In Isaiah 62 we read “I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth.” (Isaiah 62:6-7)  Other translations speak of watchmen and ‘remembrancers’ (here translated simply as those who “call on the Lord”) – those who remind or put the Lord ‘in remembrance’.  The list goes on…

Why is remembering so important?  What are we to remember and are we to remember everything?  A famous philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist called George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  So we can certainly learn from the past; the past is anything but irrelevant and it does have an impact on us.  We can learn from experience, and we can learn from the ‘great and the good’ who’ve gone before us as we remember their life and testimony.  We can also remember and call to mind the wisdom and insight from the Bible – “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

There are however some things we need to ‘remember no more’, to forget!  Even God does that; here are some examples:

  • I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:25)
  • For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12)
  • Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”” (Hebrews 10:17)

It seems clear that we need to learn to ‘forgive and forget’, to forgive and ‘remember no more’ those who have sinned against us.  This is important.  We pray in the Lord’s prayer “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  We are asking God to forgive us our sins in the same way as we have shown forgiveness to those who sin against us.

We live in a time when perhaps more than any other we need watchmen and remembrancers; not simply those who put the Lord ‘in remembrance’, but also those who remind us of ‘the things of God’ and often speak with a prophetic voice.  I am sure there are people like that in your Church; if there are, then give thanks for their ministry, whether lay or ordained. If there aren’t, pray that God might raise up people like that.  And if you’re going to forget anything, forget the wrongs people may have done to you in the past and instead remember God’s promises and the inspiration of those who have gone before us.

The parable of the lost sheep

Our gospel reading today begins “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”” Let’s take a look at each of these groups of people in turn:

  1. Tax collectors had a very bad reputation and for good reason; they were often Jews who worked for the Roman Empire in collecting Rome’s taxes from the people, and they often charged more than was required, and pocketed the difference.  They were thought of as traitors and were pretty much outcast from society.  I am sure we are all familiar with the story of Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector who lived in Jericho.   He’s the guy that was struggling to see Jesus because he was so short and ended up climbing a sycamore-fig tree to get a better view.  He came to a place of repentance, turned his life around and began to follow Jesus.
  2. The sinners will have been people who through their own poor choices had become known in society for their sinful life, even if we are not given specific details about what kinds of sin they engaged in.  This group of people will also have been shunned by society.
  3. The teachers of the law were the Scribes. They were knowledgeable in The Law of Moses as well as rabbinic traditions.  Scribes often read The Law to people, which was a valuable service since most people could not read or write. Scribes could also draft legal documents (such as contracts for marriage, divorce, loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, and the like). Every village had at least one scribe.  They were known to speak into situations regarding interpretation of The Law.
  4. The Pharisees were members of a religious party that believed in resurrection and in following legal traditions passed down through the generations that were not in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Like the Scribes, they were also well-known legal experts: hence the partial overlap of membership of the two groups. It appears from subsequent rabbinic traditions, however, that most Pharisees were small landowners and traders, not professional scribes.

The key issue in this passage is that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were upset with Jesus and grumbled that he was spending time with tax collectors and sinners.  In Jesus’ culture, sitting down and having a meal with a person showed a certain amount of identification and welcome. If Jesus was eating with such people, then he was guilty by association. In stark contrast, the Pharisees would not even go near such people, not even to teach them the law or point them to God. They retreated into their holy and pious facade and spent time on their own attempts at righteousness rather than helping others toward God.

There’s often an imbalance between truth and grace.  It’s all too easy for people in today’s society to be a bit like the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, declaring the truth (as they see it) in the absence of grace.  Surely if we have the privilege of being recipients of God’s truth and love, we should do all that we can to help others on their journey?  The Pharisees and teachers of the law abused their knowledge and status and did nothing to win the hearts and minds of the tax collectors and sinners.  Instead they condemned them.

It does make me wonder what did they expect? Bearing in mind their background and status they should have known better.  If they really knew Scripture, they would know that all have fallen short and that we all need God’s grace and mercy and with that in mind of all of the people who needed help the tax collectors and sinners certainly did.  Their criticism of Jesus is like criticising a doctor for seeing patients!  No wonder Jesus said earlier in Luke’s gospel account “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)  Sadly they didn’t “get” the message then and in the passage we have heard today they still didn’t get it.  Jesus was not in any way condoning the behaviour of the tax collectors or sinners; instead he was calling them to repentance.

In response to the grumbling and muttering of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, Jesus once again shares parables to convey a deep truth. The lengths that God will go to in order to find us are beyond our greatest imaginings – they are extraordinary.  We are reminded of that in the first of the parables which is about the lost sheep.   God always carefully and intentionally seeks out the lost, and he does that until he finds us.  And in that finding there is such great joy.  Jesus said, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

We may find it easier to understand God forgiving sinners who had come to him for mercy. But a God who tenderly searches for sinners and then joyfully forgives them, must possess a truly extraordinary love! This love prompted Jesus in his earthly ministry to search for lost people and save them. This is the kind of extraordinary love that God has for each and every one of us, for you! If you feel far from God, don’t despair. He is searching for you.  This is the kind of love that was so absent from the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were bound up by legalism.

It may seem strange that in the parable the shepherd leaves the remaining ninety-nine sheep in the open country. But the shepherd knew that at that moment the ninety-nine were safe and together in a flock, whereas the lost sheep was alone and therefore in greater danger. It’s also possible that the other sheep were left in the care of a fellow shepherd in a makeshift shelter.

There will be times in life when we find ourselves taking on either role – the lost sheep, or the shepherd.  If we have wandered off the “straight and narrow” and find that we have lost our focus on God, we are a bit like the lost sheep; and in those times we need a Shepherd-Saviour to bring us home. In the role of the sheep, if we hear our Saviour’s voice, it’s about how we respond and follow Him home.

If we are right with God and encounter people who are lost, then just like the shepherd we have a job to do in encouraging people to get right with God once again and know his love, his grace and his mercy, bringing them home safe in the knowledge that all heaven rejoices when we find a lost person.  It is when we are in that role of a shepherd, it might involve us taking a step beyond our comfort zone and out of our “bubble” today. It could involve starting a conversation with a stranger or saying hello to a neighbour on the other side of the road.  I know in my ministry I have met with people who in many ways are worlds apart from me due to life choices.  But I am willing to seek them, to journey with them and invite them to walk with Jesus.

In the second parable, Jesus shows God’s great love for people who fall into a life of sin. They are lost, disconnected from their true owner, God himself. But their owner (the Creator of the universe) doesn’t give up on them. Instead, he compassionately searches for them, freely offering them forgiveness through his Son, Jesus Christ. He reaches out to them. And when they accept his offer, a noisy celebration breaks out in the heavens. A sinner has come home; a person has been reconciled with his or her Creator. Today God still reaches out to sinners. Through the preaching of the gospel, he offers salvation.

In Jesus’ time, Palestinian women would often receive ten silver coins as a wedding gift. Besides their monetary value, these coins held sentimental value like that of a wedding ring; so to lose one would be extremely distressing. Each coin was of great value. The ten coins could have been this woman’s life savings, meant to support her in a time of need. One coin would have been a tenth of that nest egg. Upon discovering that one of the coins was missing, the woman would light a lamp in order to see into the dark corners, and sweep every part of the dirt-packed floor in hope of finding it. Although the woman still had nine coins, she would not rest until the tenth was retrieved. Her search was rewarded—she finds it. Like the shepherd, she shared her joy with her friends and neighbors so they could rejoice with her.

What both of these parables have in common is the value of that which is lost, about repentance and coming home.  Even if repentance is one of the words we might all be familiar with in our walk of faith, I believe that its so easy to overlook the nature of repentance and how significant it is.

The Greek word for repentance is ‘metanoia’, which literally means turning away from sin and sinful ways AND turning to or towards God.  So significant is repentance that we are told “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” I hope you can recognise the extraordinary love of God and the superabundance of his grace in which he seeks out the lost and calls us home.  If you are lost, listen carefully for God’s voice.  If you’re not right with God, turn away from whatever it is that causes you to be in that place and turn towards him, mindful of his extraordinary love and his constant seeking and searching for the lost. Amen

Count the cost

One of my favourite pastimes is walking.  I’m a member of the National Trust and on days off and during holidays I always try and go to visit some of its properties – places like Brimham Rocks, or Fountains Abbey.  These places are dog friendly too, and my dog really loves going for days out to these places.

Many years ago I decided to do a long distance walk to raise money for a cancer research charity – and I ended up walking a grand total of 275 miles.  Even though I was quite fit at the time, I knew that walking long distances every day for 3 weeks wasn’t something that I could just turn up and do.  I had to make sure I had the right equipment – a compass, water bottle, snacks, maps, rucksack, good walking boots and waterproofs.  I also had to make sure I trained.  So there was a lot of training, and preparation that I needed to do before I could even start the walk.

There are many times in life when we need to train or prepare for something.  It might be practicing for a test at school, working extra hard if we are learning to play a musical instrument and want to get the next grade, or making sure we have everything packed and ready and getting up early if we’re about to go away on holiday – there are many examples.

At the end of the day we know that putting in that extra time and effort will get us closer to the goal of being the best that we can be, or being able to relax on holiday knowing that everything is in order and we have everything we need to enjoy the holiday.  All of these things don’t necessarily come easy; there is a cost involved, not necessarily costing money, but certainly time, effort and dedication – but the reward is definitely worth it! 

In our Bible reading today, Jesus talks about the cost and commitment necessary to be a Christian. He is talking to large crowds of people who are traveling with him. He said, “Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it?” (14:28).  He goes on to say, “Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other?” (14:31)

Jesus makes it very clear that there is a cost to being a Christian. It is not easy. A commitment must be made to put Jesus first – in every part of our lives. That decision requires that we try to make good choices every day to help us reach that goal. We may have to give up things we would like to do or have at the moment to have something better in the future. That is the cost. But, if we do that, Christ promises to be with us to help us — always.

I’ve been a Christian for 31 years; I wouldn’t be stood here now if I didn’t think for one moment that the cost was worth it.  I am so glad that Jesus is my friend and he loves being friends with us! Amen

Those who humble themselves…

You may be familiar with times years ago when our parents might have said something like “What would the neighbours think?” whenever there was a family scandal or upset.  It’s a distant time when we may also have heard grandparents and perhaps great grandparents say “Children should be seem and not heard.”  I know that I heard these kinds of expressions when I was very small.  At their heart I think there is something to do with shame and honour.

Shame and honour certainly have less significance in today’s culture – we don’t tend to hear those kinds of expressions anymore.  But I’m sure that despite this, we are all familiar with the idea of giving guests the special seat at the table when they visit and join us for a meal – like when we invite people back for Sunday lunch. That brings us to our Gospel reading – it’s interesting in this passage that we are told it was the guests who picked the places of honour even though it was not their right to do so. You don’t go into someone’s home as a guest and assume that you can automatically sit at the place of honour at the table! The fact that the guests in our passage today were jostling for position was actually both rude and inappropriate.

There’s another issue too. In Jesus’s time, some people had got into the ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ habit, trying to invite people for dinner who would have been of a higher social status than they were simply to elevate their own standing in society. They knew that in doing so they would in turn be invited to dinner by those people in return.

I’ve seen something similar to this in one or two churches that I’ve visited in my years as a Christian, where people have been very possessive of their own seat, even to the point of asking visitors who have sat  in their seat to move in a very rude and abrupt way.  The point is that even in today’s time, we can experience similar kinds of behaviour – people are people at the end of the day, no matter what era they come from.

Jesus tells us that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. I want to be very clear that there is a world of difference between being humbled and being humiliated. We can be humble and carry dignity in our humility; we lose our dignity if we are humiliated.  Being humble is a choice; being humiliated is not something any of us would choose.

There’s a double responsibility here; firstly of the guests and how they are to behave, and secondly of the host and who they should invite. Everything we do should not be about self; no self-centeredness, no self-serving behaviour, and each other’s needs to prefer.  It’s important and even more important when we consider how we should behave in being invited to the heavenly banquet. 

A very simple example which we are all familiar with might be how our Wardens often make sure that everyone else has received communion before they do.  Another example would be how when I was a student some Church members invited me to join them for lunch and they were both willing and able to do that without expecting anything in return.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the passage from Hebrews tells us to “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters “ and not to “forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” I believe that there’s something really significant about hospitality. I’d probably even classify hospitality as a gift of the Spirit.  Henri Nouwen said “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life)  He also said “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbour into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories, and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free….not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”

There are several ways in which we can exercise hospitality, most of which we already do:

  1. How we might welcome people who visit church
  2. If we invite people to church socials
  3. Being willing to offer up our seat to someone
  4. Offering to help people, whether members who might be involved in getting the Church ready before a service, visitors who might need a hand where to find things in a service, or members who might be involved in clearing things away after a service.
  5. Serving refreshments after a service

In the passage from Hebews, we are also told we must “not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased”.  So may you be encouraged in the hospitality that you give and receive, and may you have the courage to invite God to create a humble heart within you, and if you already have one an even humbler heart.  “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Amen

Bent out of shape

One of the hardest things I think we may encounter in life is oppression.  It’s very topical – you only need to watch the news to see reports of people living under oppression or in oppressive regimes.  Oppression is something that can happen at a national level, it can happen at a local or community level, but also at a personal level.  But no matter what level it may happen, the outcome is the same – we begin to see people who are dehumanised or begin to lose sight of their humanity.  There is an expression you sometimes hear in America called ‘bent out of shape’.  People who are oppressed become bent out of shape; if you look at this spoon, you get the point.  When it is all bent out of shape it becomes very hard to use it properly.

If you want a poignant example of someone living under oppression, then we only need to turn to our Gospel reading today.  This woman “had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years”; she too was bent out of shape.  Note that Luke says she had been crippled by a spirit rather than simply saying she had been crippled.  All the Gospel writers clearly distinguish between those who were physically & mentally ill and those who were demon possessed or oppressed by spirits.

If even oppression is something that may be rooted spiritually, it might be manifest physically, as is the case here.  The woman’s twisted body was “bent over and could not straighten up at all”.  The woman’s condition will have wreaked havoc on every aspect of her life: physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, spiritually, etc.  We too may find ourselves in circumstances where we become bent out of shape too in some aspect of our life.  The woman’s hurts and bondage in some way symbolises all of the hurts and needs that we might have too.   

Have you noticed how so often today, people blame God for the brokenness of this world?  But the source of brokenness and oppression is not God.  God loves this world he created and he loves us.  The source of oppression, the source of this woman’s pain, is Satan and the sin that follows.

Oppression can not only rob people of their dignity and humanity, but it can also rob people of hope.  After 18 years of living with this terrible condition, this woman must surely have begun to lose hope.  She could not straighten her body, so she could not look upwards or forwards.  Physically she was unable to lift her eyes to the hills and know where her help comes from. (Psalm 121:1-2)  She couldn’t even look upon Jesus, but she could hear him and acknowledge who he was even though spiritually she must have felt so battered and challenged.  

But let me throw a question out to you…knowing all of this, WHY was she at the synagogue?  A worldly response would be that she was crazy! How could there be a God, and if there was, He must surely have deserted her.  What I find inspiring about this woman is her faith and dedication.  I believe of all of the places where she could have been, she was in absolutely the right place.  Somehow she persevered, year after year after year.  I wonder if in the depths of her oppression her faith is somehow captured in today’s Psalm:

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits— who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Are we able to praise the Lord and give thanks when things are not going so well for us?  Maythe words of that Psalm be our prayer when we stumble and fall, and when we have hard and testing times.  We should never think that Jesus is unaware of our situation or unmoved by our tears and cries.  Jesus is not indifferent to or willing to ignore our pain.  We may feel far away from God at times but God is not some far off distant God.  He steps into the brokenness – he always does.  He isn’t hesitant in getting his hands dirty.  If you want evidence for that, simply look to the cross.  Jesus was not indifferent to the oppression, hurt, pain and despair this woman was going through. She did not go unnoticed by Jesus even though we are given no indication that she tried to get his attention. Jesus has an eye for the hurting. He noticed and called the woman forward, over into the centre of the synagogue, from where she had been standing.   He reached out to her in the midst of her pain because He was aware and concerned with her hurts; he is aware and concerned with all of our hurts too.  Jesus reaching out to her at that time and in that place was an incredibly unusual thing for a religious leader of Jesus’ time to do. In a patriarchal society, Jesus invited her into the centre of the room and responded to her need both immediately and publicly.

We may not necessarily understand many things that we go through or have to endure, the challenging times and the testing times…but we can be in no doubt that God notices and cares about our pain.  Our God notices the hurting and has compassion on the bound, the burdened and the broken.  Jesus bound up her brokenness and loosed her to be all that she could be in him; he restored her dignity and her humanity.  He told her that she was “set free from her infirmity.”  Once again, she was able to look upwards and forwards. It was not just her body that was healed, but her spirit as well. Her immediate response was to praise God.

As a body of believers, when we encounter the brokenness, the wrongness in this world, we are called to pray into these desperate situations and into the lives of the people concerned.  We are all called to live with the dignity and value that being created in God’s image and likeness entails.  We are all called to try and see each other through God’s eyes, and not through our own – it is all too easy for our own baggage and prejudices to get in the way. We should not be like the synagogue ruler, indifferent to the hurting or unresponsive to the sorrowful and troubled. When we gather we should take the time to give attention and sympathy toward those in need. When we pray we should care enough to genuinely pray for those who are oppressed, hurting, confused, sick or in pain. These people should not be an afterthought in our prayers or our daily lives rather they should be our first priority.  In prayer and ministry we are called to bind up the brokenness and loose people to live lives of worth, dignity and value just like Jesus did all the time.

Jesus rebuked those who ignored hurting people. This synagogue ruler was more focused on religious rules and order than in showing the compassion the Hebrew Scriptures called the people of God to show.  I would like to suggest that that in his own way, the synagogue ruler was also bent out of shape. Some people say that the synagogue ruler perhaps knew the letter of the law but had forgotten the spirit of the law.  I don’t think he really knew the letter of the law; for him the law had become a straightjacket and means of condemnation rather than a releasing into grace.  What was different between the synagogue ruler and the woman was that she seemed to recognise her poverty of spirit.  When everything is stripped away, what matters first and foremost in our faith is the kind of relationship we have with God.  If we have the right kind of relationship with God, we recognise our spiritual poverty and we drink deeply from the water of life.  There are some people who in God’s grace and in their humility call out to God and there are some people who simply do not recognise their need for him in their lives.

Jesus argued that if you could water an animal on the Sabbath (which was allowed) then you should be able to help a woman who was ill; she needed the water of life.  Jesus’ argument is that the Sabbath is a day set aside for people to praise God. If what you are doing praises God, shouldn’t it be allowed?  Jesus was not alone in holding this opinion. Several other Jewish rabbis at that time taught that the Sabbath was made for people’s benefit, and should not be a burden for people.  But the synagogue ruler had no joy, no praise, and no relief at this woman’s healing; there was an absence of the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus was greatly angered by this uncaring, indifferent response.

What can we take away from this?

  • God notices and cares for the oppressed and the broken.
  • God is powerful enough to take, transform and redeem brokenness, bringing hope to the hopeless.

We are challenged to look at how we too may sometimes find ourselves bound up by bureaucracy and red tape, and to give ourselves a spiritual health check. When we are bent out of shape, God can lead us through the wilderness to a place of blessing and new life in Christ.

A wakeup call to faith

Words can be very powerful, can’t they? I am often surprised by what reaction I have when I read the Bible. There are times when I find myself feeling reassured and comforted, times when I find myself feeling hopeful and expectant, and times when I find myself feeling challenged and encouraged – often in equal measure. But there are also times when I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable.  Today’s gospel reading is one of those times.  It’s hard reading.

Let’s consider the passage in the context of Jesus’ day.  The Jewish nation believed their promised Messiah would overthrow their enemies and reign in victory and peace. Yet it was always God’s intention for Jesus to have to come twice; firstly, as the suffering servant who sacrificed himself for us all; and secondly, as the risen and exalted conquering King.  Jesus confirmed to His disciples that His first coming would not bring peace but would instead cause dissension among families and friends.  So challenging was Jesus’ message to status quo and the religious authorities in his day that they plotted to kill him and crucified him.  Jesus came to transform lives by the power of his Holy Spirit. John the Baptist knew this all too well when he said, “I indeed baptize you with water … but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16) Given the great emphasis on family harmony and community in Judaism, Jesus’ words here would strike the hearers strongly. Extended family lived in the same household more frequently than today, although not everyone would have had in-laws present.

Jesus’ coming forced people to make a choice; you can either accept Jesus as your Lord, Saviour and Redeemer or you can reject him.  It is probably one of the few truly binary choices in life; there can be no shades of grey when it comes to following Jesus.  Nevertheless, we still have a choice.  In choosing to follow Jesus, there was a possibility that some would have to pass through the refiner’s fire and know some measure of persecution.  His followers needed to be prepared to follow him even in persecution or when encountering the unbelief in the world.  Salvation has always been free, but it’s never been cheap!

In today’s context, we are incredibly blessed in this country to be able to live out our faith in freedom.  There are no restrictions or limitations that prevent us from coming together in fellowship.  Churches in general are still viewed quite favourably by most communities; our service to the community is recognised and in many cases appreciated. It can be difficult because of that to engage with this passage; persecution for our faith is not necessarily something we are personally familiar with.  Christian values are gradually being eroded though.

It’s not the same in all countries though.  For many years, I have been a supporter of a charitable organisation called Open Doors. Open Doors works in over 60 countries, supplying Bibles, training church leaders, providing practical support and emergency relief, and supporting Christians who suffer for their faith. In the UK and Ireland Open Doors works to raise awareness of global persecution, mobilising prayer, support and action among Christians.

Its website features country profiles along with a ‘World Watch List’ which is Open Doors’ annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme levels of persecution. To give you some idea, according to Open Doors the 3 most oppressive countries for Christians are:

  • North Korea

In North Korea, Christians are considered enemies of the state because they dare to believe in a higher authority than the Kim family. The North Korean regime demands absolute loyalty and obedience, and the Kim family are worshipped like gods. Portraits of the Kim family must be hung in all homes and schools. The first words parents must teach their children are ‘Thank you, Father Kim Il-sung’.

If a Christian is discovered in North Korea, they will be arrested and imprisoned in one of North Korea’s terrible labour camps. In the camps, Christians are worked liked slaves and often tortured; most are never able to escape.

  • Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a tribal society, and loyalty to your family, clan and tribe are incredibly important. Islam is seen as part of Afghan identity, and leaving Islam is seen as a betrayal by families and communities. It is illegal for an Afghan person to leave Islam.

Those who decide to follow Jesus in Afghanistan must do so in complete secret. Those who are discovered may be sent to a mental hospital – their families believe no sane person would leave Islam. They may also be beaten or even killed by family members, or members of Islamic extremist groups like the Taliban.

  • Somalia

Islam is an important part of Somali identity, and for a Somali person to decide to leave Islam and follow Jesus is seen as a huge betrayal. Where the Middle East has the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Horn of Africa has the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. This group has stated publicly that it ‘wants Somalia free of all Christians’.

Most Somali Christians keep their faith completely secret. If al-Shabaab find someone who has become a Christian, the militants will often kill them on the spot.

There are certainly many parts of the world in which becoming a Christian means severing all ties with family. Sometimes, these families have even conspired with the government in the person’s death sentence. In more tolerant countries, families may deeply resent converts, shunning them and disinheriting them.

With perhaps a couple of exceptions I don’t know anyone in this country who has faced serious persecution and oppression for their faith.  We may have heard of “religiously motivated” killings on the news, but I don’t think the perpetrators genuinely represent the religion they profess to follow, and their acts of atrocity have been broadly condemned by all faith groups. 

In my own life, when I first spoke to my mother about exploring a call into ordained ministry her immediate reaction was that she was very upset.  From her perspective I had a great job which I was clearly successful at and enjoyed – so why on earth would I want to turn my back on that to enter into ordained ministry?  It didn’t divide the family though and after coming to various services I was leading she begrudgingly accepted that “I was in the right place.”

What has kept people in the persecuted church going is their faith, even under extreme adversity and that’s precisely what the passage from Hebrews speaks into. It speaks of “others [who] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

It’s a great reminder that we should not seek to live our faith simply based on our experiences in the here and now.  We have to live our faith mindful of what happens next and the glories of heaven. We have to live our life in light of the first coming of Christ and what he accomplished but mindful of his second coming.  Jesus distinguishes between those who will not see his crucial place at the centre of human life and history, and those who as his disciples are beginning to glimpse, however dimly, the meaning of it all.  We are to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Amen

Making an idol of wealth

In our Gospel reading today, a brother feeling aggrieved, and perhaps with a sense of entitlement asks Jesus to instruct his brother to divide their inheritance with him.  To put this into perspective we must bear in mind that it was common practice in Judaism for the oldest son to receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17) and the oldest son was responsible for dividing up the rest after his father’s death. The passage seems to suggest that the younger brother wanted more than his share of the estate.

I may not be that old, but I’ve certainly lived long enough to have witnessed a number of relatives and closer family members passing away.  There have been distant aunts and uncles, grandparents and more recently my father.  When I think about these experiences, I think it’s probably fair to say that without exception when it came to dealing with the inheritance it brought out the worst in some people, and in some cases caused tremendous upset in the family.  I came face to face with avarice and greed, and I saw the destructive effect that had on people. It actually really upset me, and in all honesty I found it profoundly disrespectful to the person who had passed away.  People’s pursuit of wealth can become all consuming and all defining, causing people to lose sight of the things that really matter in life. When a loved one passes away, what is actually the most important thing?

At the end of the day, pursuit of money is chasing after the wind and it’s often all about self – self gain.  Yet there are numerous studies which have been carried out in which researchers have plotted the relationship between wealth and happiness.  All of the research reaches the same conclusion, with the plot featuring 3 distinct sections:

  • In the first section, which begins with zero wealth and zero happiness not surprisingly, happiness rises quite sharply as our wealth increases.  This section of the graph is where our primary or basic human needs, like shelter, food, safety etc. are met.  Our primary human needs are fundamental to our existence.
  • But then in the second section, the gradient is less steep as happiness rises less sharply as wealth continues to increase.  This section of the graph is where our secondary needs like televisions, refrigerators, furniture, books etc. are met.  Our secondary human needs might bring us some measure of fulfilment and pleasure, but at the end of the day we can get by without them.
  • In the final section, happiness does not change even as wealth continues to increase.  There is a plateau or point of saturation.

If our primary and secondary needs are met, accumulating more money beyond that makes little if any difference to our quality of life and happiness. Apparently, John Wesley’s rule of life was to save all he could and give all he could. When he was at Oxford he had an income of £30 a year. He lived on £28 and gave £2 away. When his income increased to £60, £90 and £120 a year, he still lived on £28 and gave the balance away. The Accountant-General for Household Plate demanded a return from him. His reply was, “I have two silver teaspoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate which I have at present; and I shall not buy any more, while so many around me want bread.”

Perhaps being mindful of this, Jesus shares a parable which speaks into the use and abuse of wealth.  Luke, like his Lord, was keenly aware of the dangers of selfishness, avarice and greed. He presented this story from the teaching of Jesus to indicate the utter folly of the rich man’s course of action. The moral that Jesus pointed to is quite plain, a moral that is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was in the first: “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God” (12:21).

The rich man in the parable that Jesus shared was doubly blind, and I don’t mean physically.  He was doubly blind in 2 ways.  Firstly he never saw beyond himself and secondly he never saw beyond this world.

The rich man’s pursuit of wealth in the parable Jesus shared was such that he never saw beyond himself. No other parable is so full of the words, I, me, my and mine.  Just take a moment to look at the passage again to see for yourself.

When this man had an excess of goods the one thing that never entered his head was to give any away. His whole attitude was contrary to Christian teaching about stewardship. Instead of denying himself he aggressively affirmed himself; instead of finding his happiness in giving, he tried to conserve it by keeping and amassing more.

The second way in which he was blind is that he never saw beyond this world.  All his plans were made on the basis of life here. There is a story of a conversation between a fiercely ambitious youth and an older man who had considerable life experience. The young man said, ‘I will learn my trade.’ ‘And then?’ said the older man. ‘I will set up in business.’ ‘And then?’ ‘I will make my fortune.’ ‘And then?’ ‘I suppose that I shall grow old and retire and live on my money.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Well, I suppose that someday I will die.’ ‘And then?’ came the last stabbing question.  We cannot take our accumulated wealth and possessions with us when we die.

It is important to say that the Bible does not condemn money in its own right, but it does condemn the love of money, the point at which money and wealth become an idol in our life, much as it had for the rich man in the parable. We are called to be stewards of what we have.  We need to learn how to shift focus from the “I want more” to the “I’m satisfied with what I have”.  At the end of our earthly time, how would we like to be remembered?  What legacy would we like to leave behind?

The rich man in Jesus’ story died before he could begin to use what was stored in his big barns. Planning for retirement —preparing for life before death—is wise, but neglecting life after death is disastrous. We cannot take wealth and possessions with us; but we can make a difference with what we have, no matter how little, in the here and now. Jesus challenges his people to think beyond earthbound goals and to use what we have been given for God’s kingdom. Faith, service, and obedience are the way to become rich toward God and allow us to store up treasure in heaven.

It’s no wonder that Paul instructs us to set our hearts and minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God and not on earthly things.  In this earthly life, we are to seek to put to death all those things that belong to our earthly nature which can so easily become our idols and diminish us and distract us from God.  In Christ, we have taken off our old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

Some years ago, when I was leading a house-group at my local Church, one of the members asked if they could have a chat with me after the Bible study.  So, at the end of the evening, as everyone was leaving, I invited him to stay behind to talk, giving him an opportunity to share what was on his heart.  He hadn’t been a Christian very long, and he was clearly quite upset. I asked him what was wrong.  After a few moments he shared how difficult he found it to pray. He said he felt inadequate, guilty and was not always sure how to even pray. Prayer is not easy for everyone. 

We spoke more, and he went on to say that he didn’t think he was ‘very good at prayer’; he struggled to find the right words, and constantly had those little internal debates in his mind which I am sure if we are honest we can all have at times, times when we might think:

Can God really hear me?

Is He there at all?

Are my prayers simply bouncing back off the ceiling? 

What will He think of my prayers, my fumbled words? 

And if I’m praying in a group, what will other people think of my prayers? 

It is as if there are times in our mind we have a view of what prayer should be like, complete with big, flowery, complicated words and faced with that perceived gap we feel inadequate and are tempted to simply give up.

The person then said that he felt guilty because that he didn’t think he prayed enough.  He wanted to pray, but every time he sat down to have a time of prayer, he kept getting distracted, or found that his mind was wandering.

Finally, he said that there were times when he quite simply felt overwhelmed and lost for words.  He didn’t know how to pray, or even what to pray for.

I thought about all of these things and after a while I asked him a question.  The question was this…“Do you think that the disciples found it easy to pray?”  It wasn’t a question he expected, and the words I share with you now are the words I shared with the member of my house group.

Let’s think for one moment about this time and this place when Jesus was with his disciples.  We are told that Jesus was “praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”” (Luke 11: 1).  Even the disciples wanted to learn how to pray!  The disciples had heard Jesus praying to His Father; prayers of faith, prayers of hope, prayers of truth and prayers of intimacy and love – not some formal, stuffy, high-minded, complicated prayers with lots of flowery words.

I tend to think that when Jesus heard the disciples’ request “teach us to pray”, His heart must have rejoiced.  He must have had a huge smile on His face. So not only does Jesus indeed go on to teach them how to pray, we also get a sense of his delight when he goes on to say, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.”  God wants us to come before him in prayer in reverence yes, but also with expectancy and hope.  I wonder what the disciples expected Jesus to say, how did they expect Him to reply?  Is Jesus’ reply what YOU might have expected?

In reading Jesus’ teaching on prayer, I really want us to be encouraged.  We would be deceiving ourselves if we didn’t think that Jesus sometimes has hard and testing things to say to us in the Gospels.  But on prayer, I am pretty sure that the last thing He wants for us are feelings of guilt or inadequacy. His teaching is hugely encouraging.

Before the longer version of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that we should not pray like the Gentiles, who ‘babble on’, and ‘heap up empty phrases’, and who think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Neither should we pray like the hypocrites, who make a public show of prayer.  The way we should pray then is as Jesus’ example in the Lord’s Prayer.

It seems pretty clear from Jesus’ words in our reading that he was encouraging his disciples – and us – to pray in a way that shows intimacy with and reliance on God.  Jesus tells us to use that very personal and intimate language “Father.”  Jesus using ‘Father’ as a title is highly distinctive; it is not a title given directly to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, although it is occasionally used as a metaphor. The Aramaic word for ‘Father’ is “Abba” which is a term of endearment and intimacy. St Paul writes in both Romans and Galatians that as sons and daughters of God, we cry out Abba, Father.

Questions to consider:

Why do we pray?  What is our expectancy when we pray? 

We pray because we have a good Father, who gives good gifts to his children.  Our asking is not a heavy pleading with, or an anguished persuading, but the natural response to a loving God who cares for us. When we pray, let’s simply pour out our heart.

Lord, teach us to pray.

So, when we pray, let us not be like the hypocrites who make a public show of prayer. Let us not be like the Gentiles, who babble on.

Rather, let us use the Lord’s Prayer as our model and inspiration, keeping it short and direct.  Engage our heart, so that it can never be ‘empty words’.

Let’s ask our Father, with all the tenderness and trust and intimacy that the name Abba encapsulates.

Let’s:

  • Pray that God’s name may be hallowed or made holy.
  • Pray that his kingdom may come on earth.
  • Ask him for the necessities we need for life.
  • Ask him for forgiveness, and the grace to forgive.
  • Ask him for protection from, and deliverance from, evil.

And you know, however weak and inadequate we might feel at prayer, Jesus himself takes our poor, hesitant prayers, and perfects them by joining them to his own perfect and complete offering of prayer to the Father, which is why in the Christian tradition we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Our prayers really do make it!  And, as St Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit – the good gift the Father gives us when we ask him, himself prayer deep within us, with inarticulate groans of desire. Amen