Angry Jonah

by Tara Norton –

I wonder – what did Jesus have to say about mental health? How does God our Father address it throughout scripture? The concept of ‘mental health’ as we understand it is a modern one, so we can’t expect Jesus to be expressing it using the same kind of vocab as we do. For example, whilst it doesn’t specifically say that Peter suffered from an anxiety disorder, it is clear from Scripture that fear overwhelmed him at times. In the Western world we have divided mental and spiritual well- being as separate areas of concern. If we stop thinking of spirituality and mental health as different things, and if we look behind the vocab that the Bible uses, might we find that God, actually, addressed it many times throughout Scripture?

I really connect to the story of Jonah, and how he must have felt, but the biggest part of this story, that stands out for me, is Jonah’s anger towards God. Let’s look at the man himself:-

Despite the emotional and physical rollercoaster that Jonah experienced – right from the beginning, God had a plan for Jonah’s life. We know this because Jeremiah 29:11 says, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” He knew Jonah’s character! He knew how Jonah would react and He knew exactly what journey He had to take Jonah on! Perhaps, too many times, we question why God’s leading us in a direction we don’t want to go? Not seeing beyond our own circumstances and trusting that God has a plan for our life too? Jonah was a man who experienced severe swings in emotion and his mental well-being, one minute riding high in God’s favour, the next in the depth of depression, anxiety, self-pity and even having suicidal thoughts I believe that, in Ch 1, we see signs that Jonah was anxious.

I believe this because God had asked Jonah to go and tell the Ninevites to repent but he didn’t want God to forgive the people of Nineveh because it was the capital of Assyria, the biggest
enemy of Israel, God’s chosen people! Did this contribute to his decision to run? I believe it did. Was he anxious about where God wanted to place him? I feel his actions were a result of what was happening in his head. Jonah believed and was convinced that the Ninevites didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness! So what was Jonah’s response? He ran! – ran away from God! and not just ran! but ran in the most over the top way possible! He goes to the coast and doesn’t only buy a ticket on a boat, he charters the whole boat!, and its crew, to sail to the other side of the known world! We can’t run from mental illness. One in 5 suffer from a diagnosable, but not always diagnosed, mental illness at some point in their lives. You, or someone you know, will probably be struggling with mental health issues right now.

I wonder, how often do we do/not do something because of what’s happening in our head? We, like Jonah, would sometimes rather go our own way than go God’s way, we’d rather run away when that way doesn’t look too appealing, or safe.

Jonah was at war with his emotions. As we see in Ch 2 when Jonah’s in the belly of the big fish, despite what Jonah was going through -overwhelmed by the stench; the darkness, the loneliness, little oxygen and, in his own words, “locked out of life and imprisoned by death”, when Jonah prays to God in the belly of the big fish, he says, “when I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord”. What a lesson for us to learn! How often do we praise God when our circumstances are overwhelming us? Lets have a quick look at the reality of what Jonah was going through at that moment in time. We see children’s story books portraying a similar image to this one, as though Jonah and the big fish are Bessie mates and as though they’ve had a whale of a time! But, in reality, can you even begin to imagine what Jonah must have been going through; physically and emotionally?

But, despite all this, Jonah doesn’t express his anger to God, he actually prays and thanks him! Saying, “for how can I thank you enough for all you have done! I will surely fulfil my promises” I really admire Jonah because, despite his frustration and anger, he still showed his true loyalty to God, and God gave him a second chance. I remember when I experienced severe anxiety attacks, I felt my whole body rise in anger towards God – literally screaming out, “WHY are You allowing this to happen to me if you love me so much – why do I feel so unloved by You?” I wish, at that moment in time, I’d had Jonah’s strength to focus my eyes and my heart in the right place! Looking back, I now see God’s plan for me but, in that moment, I felt abandoned and angry because of it.

Once Jonah saw beyond what God was putting him through and he followed God’s command and went to Nineveh to preach, they immediately repented! It says in the bible that Nineveh is that big that it would take 3 days to walk around it. In the first day of Jonah preaching, people repented and word got to the King who commanded that all people to repent. God, true to His word, forgave them. If a whole town responded to my sermon and repented – I’d be absolutely over the moon!!! but – this change of plan made Jonah very angry! Jonah wanted God to confine His love and mercy to Israel. Far from being delighted that his message provoked such a fantastic response, all he felt was fury! Sometimes, our mental state, whether its anger; bitterness; fear etc. stops us seeing, or acknowledging, the bigger, long term picture. Jonah had extreme highs and extreme lows on his journey; times of praise and prayer; God’s plan worked out and yet – Jonah, for the first of 3 times, was in a suicidal state! I believe, at the beginning of Jonah’s journey, it was about him being stubborn – don’t forget God wanted him to go to the place that persecuted Jonah’s people. But, throughout all that Jonah endured, let’s remember he was a real person with real emotions! By this time Jonah must have really been emotionally drained.

Jonah’s anger took over his clear thinking and, driven by this anger, he sat on the East side of the city under a leafy shelter, waiting to see if anything would happen to the city. Can you imagine – just sat waiting to see a whole city come under the wrath of God! The anger must have been intense.

But, despite Jonah’s emotions, and the anger which consumed him, when his leafy shelter withered away, God still showed grace by providing a vine to grow quickly and shade Jonah’s head. This made him comfortable and, for the moment, grateful. But God was teaching Jonah a valuable lesson – and sent a worm to eat through the plant so it withered and died, leaving Jonah scorched from the sun and, for the second time, pleading to die! In his moments of anguish – he really felt that God was unjust. I can also relate to this, my anger for God came from a place of desperation, things weren’t going the way I wanted it to and I couldn’t understand why, the anger the frustration was overwhelming and I took out on God, who didn’t deserve that anger.

God challenged Jonah’s anger and, for a third time Jonah pleaded for death. But God explained His plan of grace, kindness and forgiveness towards both Jonah, for being disobedient, and the Ninevites for their utter ignorance for God and His laws.

Conclusion
So – what does God teach us through this story? I think there’s lots to take from the story of Jonah but believe He’s saying, “its OK to not feel ok!”.

God defused Jonah’s anger – with grace and kindness and guided him to still fulfil his purpose. Through all Jonah said and felt, God continually showed His love and grace – and He will do that for us too! I’m sure, during these last 12 months, there have been times when we too have felt overwhelmed by our emotions. I’m sure we’ve acted, or not acted, as we know we should because of how we’ve felt. Very often, when anxiety grips us, our thinking can be distorted; we don’t always keep our eyes focussed on God and we don’t always praise Him as He deserves. But that’s absolutely OK! because God knows who we are, how we feel, why we suffer and how we cope and you know what, He loves us no less, His Love for us overflows – always.

The story of Jonah reflects the rollercoaster of how our lives can be at times. Perhaps you feel as though you’re on that rollercoaster right now? I’d really like to encourage you to re-focus on God, as Jonah did – to thank Him, as Jonah did, and to praise Him. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “…give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” It’s not always easy and, sometimes, a challenge we find difficult to take on – but God knows that too! God knew how Jonah was feeling every step of the way, and yet He still showed Him nothing but
grace and kindness.

I think it’s important to remember, Jonah wasn’t thanking God for the bad things that happened but thanking Him for getting him through them. Sometimes, when bad things happen to us, it’s easy to blame God. The enemy loves it if he can make people believe that God’s failed them, or deserted them and uses different areas in our lives to destroy our faith, and trust, in God
As I mentioned earlier, at times I really did feel abandoned by God, my mom wanted to pray with me, and share encouraging scripture with me when I was in the deepest darkest anxiety attack
and I didn’t want to know, I was too angry at God. But in reality II had good things that God was doing, He did show me He was there still loving me when I read my bible, went to church but, I
was just too angry to see them, I was too bitter to realise that the enemy was using me and targeting the sever anxiety disorder I already suffered with. But the most interesting times were
when I was at peace with God because right there in that moment God was showing me He hadn’t abandoned me and its only now after all this time that I see that. When I was happy in God’s presence I had a few go to verses to remind me, one that really spoke out to the abandonment that I felt was from Psalm 56:8 “you have counted all my sorrows, you have collected all my tears in your bottle and recorded them in your book” this reminded me that even though God felt far away my tears weren’t forgotten, my cries weren’t ignored. Every one of them mattered, every cry was important to God.

Through all this, the most amazing thing is, and definitely the most important thing, despite all what Jonah did, and said, and thought, God still used Jonah to fulfil His purpose. Despite all that we do and say and feel – God will never abandon us or disown us – Actually He will always forgive us, guide us and love us through His grace and kindness! Amen

We have seen the Lord

by Rev Philip Barringer

John 20:19-29

Seven weeks ago, we started our series ‘God’s Story, Our Story’ by hearing how Mary Magdalene became the first person to meet the risen Lord Jesus, and was then sent by Jesus to tell others about it, and in the intervening weeks we have heard stories from various different people from within our Rivers Team congregations sharing how they came to know the risen Lord Jesus.

There are, I think, some common threads to all these stories and all the gospel encounters with the alive again Jesus.

Firstly, the initiative is with Jesus, he is the one who shows himself. When the women went looking for Jesus that first Easter Day, they found an empty tomb, when the menfolk arrived a short while later, they didn’t find Jesus.

Instead, it is Jesus who finds them and reveals himself. He appears and speaks to Mary in the garden, he appears on the road to Emmaus and walks alongside Cleopas and his companion, he appears through a locked door to greet the disciples on easter evening, and he comes back specially a week later to meet with Thomas who had not been there the first time!

It is not us who find Jesus, a bit like ‘Where’s Wally’ or spot the ‘Easter Egg’, rather it is God in Christ Jesus, who seeks us out and makes himself known.

Secondly, this revealing of himself is unique and personal, because God longs to be in relationship with us personally and, because God knows us completely, knows what we need to hear and respond.

Take Thomas for example. He missed out on meeting Jesus on Easter Day, we don’t know why he wasn’t there, but he was otherwise occupied. But when the others, rather gushingly tell him “we have seen the Lord!” Thomas rains on their parade! Making it clear that he does not believe them, and that he will not unless he sees Jesus for himself. In fact not just see, Jesus, but be able to see his wounds and touch him to be sure it was really Jesus and not some magicians trick.

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Thomas, in my work life I have to check things to make sure they add up, I have to look at evidence in order to form judgements and make decisions, and it is part of who I am.

So Jesus comes back the following week, just for Thomas, determined that Thomas should not miss out on the good news. Jesus makes himself known to Thomas, and in doing so satisfies his need to know, and Thomas is able to declare ‘my Lord and my God’ – a profession of faith that goes beyond just believing that Jesus is alive, it takes on the full implications of who Jesus is and what that means for Thomas.

Thirdly there is an echo of familiarity that leads to recognition. For Thomas it was seeing Jesus’ wounds that identified Jesus. For Mary it was the familiarity of hearing Jesus call her by name, for the 2 people on the Emmaus road it was the familiar action of breaking bread, for some of the other disciples it was the familiarity of an extra-ordinary night’s fishing that led them recognising Jesus.

Most of those who have shared their story over the past weeks have said that when they looked back, they have been able to see that Jesus was there all the time, a part of their lives even before they knew him. If this is the case, then it is perhaps not surprising if we find an echo of familiarity when we finally recognise him. He has, after all been standing at the doorway to our hearts, calling after us and waiting for us to respond.

On that first Easter morning, God could have chosen to make the news of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection known in any number of ways. However, God chose ordinary people, with personal stories and imperfect words, to tell the greatest news there has ever been. And God continues to use people like you and me to share the life-changing news of the gospel of Jesus. We are the ordinary people through whom God is bringing about a revolution of his extraordinary love.

As we seek to live the story of the gospel, we are privileged to reveal his extraordinary love in ordinary ways, putting our name to his story and inviting others to join us as we do so. There is no task more urgent or wonderful than this.

I hope that as we have journeyed through lent you have been encouraged by the stories we have heard and feel more confident that you also have a story to share, and that people might want to hear it.

The joy and peace of the risen Lord Jesus be with you.

Happy Easter. Rev. Philip

Found by Jesus

by Laura Smith

We’ve been really blessed along our journey through Lent, through the sharing of individual faith stories. Hearing about the positive effect that knowing Jesus, has had in
real lives, today – I hope you agree, has been very encouraging. Hearing about the many different ways people come to faith is the focus for today and at the moment we are hearing a lot about road maps, routes, journeys – and ways out of lockdown.

But when it comes to describing events around coming to faith it is fairly usual for people to describe one of two ways things happened for them, that both involve journeys along roads.

First, the road to Damascus, where Paul experienced a sudden conversion to faith, like a lightning bolt, his eyes were literally opened to God. An event so powerful and significant for Paul, it changed his life, as he described to King Agrippa in Acts 26. Conversion is the key word here, relating to a sudden change of mind about something,
sparked by something or someone, which prompts a change of perspective or different way of thinking.

For Paul this was the work of the Holy Spirit but maybe you’ve heard an inspirational speaker or have seen someone do amazing work, that has completely changed your mind.
The second is the road to Emmaus, which is more a steady growing in faith, over time. This experience is written in Luke 24:13-35, here Jesus appears almost unnoticed, walking alongside two of the disciples after His resurrection, they walk and talk like old friends would do and Jesus gives them much needed reassurance, but its only later that they realise it is him and understand that he was actually with them the whole time.

Rather than conversion to faith, this scripture helps us to understand finding faith as a process of evolving discipleship.

Neither way is better than the other, and both can have the same outcome in the lives of individuals, should they choose to follow Jesus themselves. I wonder if either of these ways of coming to faith are similar to your own story. Maybe a combination of the two, or a different road altogether would better describe your relationship with Jesus.

For me, it’s definitely been a gradual thing, guided by knowing and learning from some amazing people in my life and of course spending time in prayer with God and reading the bible.

The story of the road to Emmaus reminded me of that brief phase in child development, where babies believe an item has disappeared when it is hidden out of sight, that time
when games of peekaboo are so much fun.

This is soon replaced though with a growing understanding that objects haven’t gone just because you can’t see them. Like the pictures in a children’s lift the flap book, it is always there, and always the same, just like Jesus.

Developmentally this knowledge is what leads to the acceptance, that other people can have different needs and views to that of our own, known as Theory of Mind.

On reaching full maturity, and encouraged in loving and trusted relationships, this later goes on to support things like compassion, respect, and empathy, towards others.

I suppose in terms of our spiritual development journey, our Heavenly Father provides the nurturing and encouragement needed to flourish in these areas. – Ok, enough psychology now Laura, I hear you say. In today’s reading, ‘long time or short’ declares Paul to King Agrippa – he knows that it doesn’t matter how long it takes for someone to come to accept Jesus as their loving Saviour, that is out of our hands because God is always ahead of us.

Time is an interesting concept when considered through the lens of faith. We know that God has a plan for each of our lives and that He works according to this, rather than in terms of how we measure time.

In today’s fast paced, technologically advanced world, ‘long time or short’ has a whole new meaning.

How often do we get frustrated at our phones or computers for taking more than 20 seconds to load, or at that buffering icon holding up the instant results and answers from
our search engines?

Because God has things planned and under control, doesn’t mean we can play a completely passive role, and are compelled to share the gospel and increase God’s family.

In the book that this series is based on Hannah Steele the author, suggests that we should think of our role in helping people find Jesus, as steps along a path.

And that having this mindset can relieve the pressure of responsibility that we can sometimes feel – because we want to see the whole story of people coming to faith and
living with Jesus in their lives.

The first step may be to find out where abouts someone is on their journey, perhaps not where we assume, they are. And like Reverend Phillip teaches us, God is ahead of us,
preparing the way, so we can expect the unexpected.

I always like a story with pictures so I’m going to share some family photos to help illustrate some of the things to think about as we support people along their journey of faith.

Is the road smooth, and clear, with no major obstacles? Or is the path muddy, rough, or even a bit dangerous?

In either case we can pray for people, and live a life following Jesus, sharing our stories about how we live a God centred life – in all circumstances. Maybe we can offer a hand to someone in need, help them over a hurdle with words of encouragement, or simply listen to them for a while.

Could you be the one to offer more than that, and are ready to pick them up and carry them over a really tricky patch?

When we walk alongside people at different times and places on faith journeys, it might not always be obvious who is holding who up.

We are all learning from each other along the way. When we see someone has fallen, are we prepared to help them back up or even to help them, help themselves.

Or simply be there and have the courage to hold someone’s hand and face the waves together.

Listening for Echoes

by Denise Teal

Acts 17: v16-34

Journeys, visits… a long way from back to normal, aren’t they? But here’s a question: What do you like to do when visiting a new place? Beach? Touring? or interesting buildings? On his first visit to Athens, Paul went sightseeing. It’s a big place and judging by the awesome ruins there now, would have been jaw-droppingly beautiful to see. Theatres, market places, temples, (they had 5,000 gods at least) with marble and gold icons of what people invested in at the time… many gods. Built to impress. And it did! Paul was walking through thousands of years of historical indulgence… the city of
philosophers debating the meaning of life.

And yet, Paul wasn’t in awe of all this sophistication and grandeur; quite the opposite. He saw something else…. he saw people lavishing their worldly goods on man-made icons that represented those gods in the hope that this one or that, would give them a meaning to life and what they asked for to make it better. And this wasn’t just troubling Paul. To use the words of verse 16: “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Not distress like the anxiety when you’re lost or hurting. It was paroxyno; (Where we get paroxysm from) a very strong response, like a seizure. Paul, a devout Christian, was physically distressed by what he’d seen.

Pondering is a human thing. We look up at the stars and wonder: “Who am I?” “What am I here for?” “Where will the future take us?”

We all search for answers at some time in our lives, don’t we? These questions have been asked and debated for thousands of years and the great philosophers of Athens like Plato and Socrates were no exception. So, it’s no surprise that in Acts.17:21, we find the people there “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” Searching for something new, something better to hope for. And today, there is still that thirst for a meaning to life… though the idols have changed. I wonder, what do people today set their sights by…at a price? That lucky trinket, a
bottled health cure, surgery to look younger or a great get-away? Do they provide answers in the end? In verses 26-29, Paul was making it clear that we are God’s creation, he can’t be ours. How can something we made create us? God isn’t made in our image. We’re made in His.

Paul saw idols as a God substitute, filling the gap in our hearts, in the part of our lives that God wants to fill. If we put something into the temple of our hearts, where God should be, if that single-minded desire takes over in our lives… that’s idolatry. And, without God in our hearts, working His will, we forget what we really ARE here for.

How did Paul tell the people of Athens about what Jesus can do for us?

First, Paul trusted God, not himself. In chapter 18, God sends him to Corinth and says “don’t be afraid keep speaking… don’t be silent…for I am with you” Second, Paul’s message was a masterpiece of communication because he saw clues in everyday life to start talking about Jesus… connecting through familiar things and people listened because their “God-substitutes” couldn’t relate to their lives. Paul was an observer and a listener. In Verse 22, Paul connected using one of their icons: “The Unknown God.” drawing inspiration from their own talking points… a thirst for new ideas and an unknown god. Today, there are lots of things around us, common ground, familiar things that people talk about; like: “Did you see “Les Miserables” on TV? Looks like it shows the power of faith that changed that convict’s life. What did you think of it?”

There will be challenges. Paul had them. The cynics, (v.18) Those missing the point (V.19) and some will leave because it’s outside the comfort zone (Matt.19:6-30) but some will want to hear more (v.19-20). And believed (Acts17:4;34).

Paul knew that if we don’t speak of Jesus and what he did, people won’t get that choice in the first place. We’re told in Romans.10:14… “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” How are they going to hear today, if we don’t speak up? We all carry in us that spiritual thirst to tell people about their unknown God; to tell the wonderful news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and what he’s done for us… something we can all receive. It’s the same loving God that changed Paul and God will provide that moment to speak of our faith, and be with us as we do. People will always hear a story and our faith is part of our story on this earth, isn’t it?

And, the answer to those questions? God has them, starting with Rom.8:29-30: “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son.” We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him…in Jesus. Amen.

His Story, our story – Sharing the Story

By Denise Cryer

Acts 8: 26 – 40

I’d like us to start thinking about this passage – not at the beginning – but at the end of! Strange place I know, but I believe it’s what happened after Philip was taken away from the Ethiopian that’s most important. But first, just to recap – Philip is prompted by the Holy Spirit to seek out this man – and then God gave him clear direction where to go. Again, prompted by the St Philip was able to explain the scriptures the Ethiopian is pondering over and incredibly, the man then asks Philip to baptize him! How amazing is that! We’re then told the Ethiopian went on his way “rejoicing” – I bet he did!

I can’t for one moment believe that Philip could, in any way, have imagined how this encounter was going to turn out! When we come across a chance conversation with someone, we can’t know the impact our words might have, or what seeds are being sown. Seeds that may well bear fruit in places we’re not aware of. We need to take every opportunity that comes our way and trust the Holy Spirit to be at work.

The Holy Spirit directs US, as He did Philip, to the place we might encounter those He needs us to share with. The Holy Spirit gave Philip this opportunity that he couldn’t have created for himself! Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you unexpectedly had the opportunity to share, either the Gospel story, or your own faith story?

Many years ago, after a particularly hard day, I was laid in the bath up to my ears in bubbles – it was wonderful! I’d been there about ten minutes when I heard a voice in my head which I realised was God, say “get out and go and visit Dolly”. Now Dolly was an elderly lady at church who hadn’t been a Christian very long but was a faithful member of the St. Lawrence family. Bearing in mind I’d been looking forward to this bath all day, I thought “no, He can’t be asking me to do that!” But the words wouldn’t leave me and I remember disgruntledly getting out of the bath, getting dried and dressed, and walking the short distance to Dolly’s flat. I knocked on her door and tried the handle, expecting it to be locked but, surprisingly the door opened and I shouted Dolly’s name. A little voice from the kitchen shouted “I’m here – on the floor”. Dolly had slipped on some water on the kitchen floor and couldn’t get up, she’d banged herself quite badly actually. As I helped her up and onto the sofa she said, “I knew you were coming – God told me, so I didn’t panic, I just waited for you to get here” Now I found it incredible, God’s perfect timing at its best, so you can imagine how Dolly felt! She’d not really had any experience of the Holy Spirit but I can’t tell you the difference this made to her faith and her life, as she realised how the Holy Spirit could speak to her, and be active in the situations she faced. There’s no other explanation other than that God put me in the right place at the right time. And the wonderful thing was, despite the circumstances being a bit embarrassing for her, she absolutely bubbled over with joy at what had happened and more than happy to share her story with other people! especially her family who weren’t Christians. I suppose the question that comes out of this is, “are we prepared to follow where the Spirit’s leading, even if we think it’s crazy? Or feel uncomfortable or out of our comfort zone?

Just as the Holy Spirit created a situation for Dolly where He could speak to her, and through her, can you imagine the story the Ethiopian had to share after HIS encounter with Philip? What would he have told his friends? his family? Anyone who would listen? On his way home from worship, this Gentile had stopped to study the scriptures then, before he knew it, Philip came out of the blue and only a short time later – he was being baptized!

Can you imagine the joy in his heart as he went back to his hometown? He must have been absolutely bursting to share his story! I wonder, do WE have this same joy and enthusiasm? Are we ever so in awe of God’s work in our life that we’re just bursting to share with those God puts in our path?

I know on my own faith journey, there have been times when I’ve not listened to the prompting of the Spirit and, sadly, and regrettably, someone, somewhere has missed out on hearing the Gospel or how God’s been working in MY life, how He might work in theirs. In the book of Acts we see numerous times when the Holy Spirit propelled the first disciples out of their comfort zones to encounter people who they suspected might be beyond the scope of the Spirit’s work. How often do we think “there’s nothing can be done about such and such a person?” How often do we give up on people, KNOWING that God never will? It’s too easy, I think, for us to give up on people/situations that are beyond where we feel comfortable, or what we consider possible.

I think the problem we have with sharing our story is the fear of it not being listened to, but unless we take the risk, we’ll never know will we? Sometimes taking a risk makes us vulnerable, especially if our story is deeply personal and perhaps takes us back to a painful place in our life – but it’s often out of these painful places that our testimony becomes powerful in the lives of those who might be going through the same, or similar, circumstances. There have been times in MY life when the testimony of others, having gone through the same as I have, have given me great encouragement to trust that God has it in hand. There are times when someone has shared a piece of scripture with me, not understanding or realising it’s relevance at the time of sharing, but for me, it was EXACTLY what I needed to hear! Sometimes we might share something and not even begin to know it’s relevance and I wonder if sometimes we look for the dynamic when all God wants us to share is a word; a passage; it might be a small act of kindness or a listening ear.

We need to make sure we’re in the right place at the right time, as Philip was, the place where God guides us to be. I’m sure the Ethiopian would have like to continue his journey chatting more to Philip but we’re told he didn’t – he went on alone, with the HOLY SPIRIT – rejoicing, with courage and power back to his own country to preach what he himself believed. And so it went on…. And it should for us too. Our stories are changing continually as we seek and serve the Lord, we always have something to share and, despite being discouraged sometimes, we should never give up.

I’d like to finish with a little story from the book “Living His Story”. Its author, Hannah Steel recalls visiting the village of Kayunga in Uganda, where a great Pastor and pioneer of the faith had lived, and planted a church. The current Pastor, Felix, was eager to show them the gravestone of this faithful man of God, which was behind the church building. The gravestone was nothing impressive to look at, embedded in the ground, simple and rough, with a thin layer of orange dust covering the top, beneath which were the words, roughly inscribed: “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, I have finished the race, How about you?”

Amen.

Communicating Like Jesus

by Chris Butler

Did you know that the 2nd most common way for people to come to faith in Christ is by talking with a Christian. It is 2nd only to being brought up in a Christian family. Speaking with others about our faith is more effective even than reading the Bible or attending church. There are ample opportunities
for witnessing today and thanks to social media, the internet and telephone we can speak to plenty of people even in the middle of a national lockdown. However many of us, although we know the truths of
Christianity, struggle to effectively communicate them to others. Effective communication is therefore a vital part of evangelism.

One way we can be better communicators is to learn from the example of Jesus. Our desire, as Christians, should always to be like Jesus. So we can also follow his example when it comes to speaking. Jesus never conducted a media campaign, or took a course in public relations, yet people were always deeply affected by the things He said. Thousands of people gathered to hear him speak, even following him into remote areas of the country. And His words that are recorded in the new testament have profoundly influences millions upon millions of people – more than anyone else in the worlds.

In Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, we see some examples of Jesus’s methods, which we can take away and apply to our own conversations. Firstly he took advantage of a problem. Jesus started the conversation through a common need. They both needed water. And after asking for a drink he soon moved the conversation onto spiritual matters. When problems occur, we often need the help from other people, or other people may need help from us, and that personal involvement often leads to opportunities to initiate a conversation about our faith. The next thing to notice is that Jesus did not discriminate. In those days it was considered inappropriate for a male Jew to speak to a woman in public. And they also had no dealings with the hated Samaritans. But here Jesus breaks down both those barriers. Jesus was happy to speak to women and Samaritans, to thieving tax collectors and prostitutes, to lepers, the disabled, beggars, children and the elderly. Despite receiving criticism for it, Jesus was more than willing to connect with people different from himself. And so should we.

Another thing that Jesus did was adapt his conversation to his audience. He didn’t speak to the Samaritan woman in theological language, as he would to the Jewish leaders. Instead he chose to connect with her on a level that was appropriate for her. Likewise we should adapt our conversations to the different people we meet. When Jesus spoke to the woman he used language she could understand. He used the analogy of water, their common need at the time, to make a spiritual application about himself as the giver of living water. Jesus often used such illustrations to help others to think spiritually. We can also use illustrations to help explain the gospel – such as a Lifeguard coming to save you at the expense of his own life, or a courtroom judge personally paying the fine for the crime you’ve just been convicted of.

Jesus also told stories. Lots of stories. Over a third of his teaching was given as parables. A parable or a story forces us to pay attention. They are relatable, easy to remember, and communicate our message in an engaging way. They can be fictional like the parables or stories from real life, where we can draw on experiences from our own lives or from those of others. Our own personal testimony on how we became Christians can be a particularly influential story.

Lastly Jesus was frank with people. Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak to the Samaritan woman about her sin. Without being judgemental, He nonetheless pointed out that she was living in sin with another man. And we shouldn’t be afraid to tackle the issue of sin in our discussions either, and how our sin separates us from God. In fact if we don’t then we are not really giving the gospel. The definition of the gospel, which literally means good news, is given in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 and can be summarized in just 5 words – Christ died to save sinners. Of course people are not usually happy to hear that they are sinners, so we need to avoid being judgemental, just as Jesus did. What I usually say is that I too am a sinner. And that we both need a saviour, which avoids the impression that we are judging them.

That’s just a small selection of the techniques that Jesus used in his conversations with others. You can find many more biblical methods and ideas for evangelism in the Church of England LiveLent resources.

Transformations

by Alison Shaw

One of my favourite television programs is DIY SOS. The owners move out of their house for a few days while a large group of professional tradesmen come in and renovate the house. Now we’re not just talking a bit of painting and rearranging the furniture, oh no, we’re talking knocking down walls – a total transformation. The house is then revealed to the owners, who are always delighted with the changes that have been made. They frequently say it is much better than anything they could have imagined.

I’ll tell you something else that is better than anything you could have imagined, and that is being a Christian. As Christians we accept the verse from John chapter 3 verse 16 which says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have eternal life”. Now, we’re all human and we all make mistakes. But instead of punishing us God shows us mercy through his son Jesus Christ. And He wants us to live with Him for ever, for eternity. That really is good news! That sounds quite simple, but if you’re like me, you might find it very difficult to tell people this good news. In a job interview situation there’s one question that I always dread being asked, and that’s “why do you want this job?” It’s a fairly standard question but even so, I still find it hard to answer. I get concerned about how others
will judge my answers, and that makes me nervous. So I try and focus on what are the benefits of moving to a new job, and that helps me work out what to say. There is another question that I find really hard to answer, and that is “why are you a Christian?” There again, I go back to thinking about the benefits of being a Christian. So let me tell you a story – my story.

I came to faith in my mid-20s and I would say that being a Christian and having a relationship with God gives me comfort in the present and hope for the future. Life has had many ups and downs and God has been the rock that I can turn to. He is the same yesterday, today and forever and so I can turn to him in prayer. Whenever I feel lost or unloved, the Bible reaffirms that God loves me and wants what is best for me. He has looked after me during periods of mental ill health, putting me in places surrounded by supportive people. He gave me hope that I would come through the dark times.

God is also my hope for the future – I am assured that when I die and leave this earth, that isn’t the end of my story. I’ll be in heaven with Jesus with no more sadness, just joy, for eternity. Who doesn’t want something like that to believe in! Just like being in a job interview we can get anxious about how people are going to judge our story about why we are Christians, but today’s Bible passage can give us some pointers.

The reading was Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. He describes the difficulties and hostility that people had shown him and his fellow disciples, but he didn’t let that put him off spreading the good news about Jesus Christ. We note that Paul was not concerned about whether people believed what he had said, just that he was telling the good news accurately. We can’t convince others to become Christians, they have to decide for themselves, but we can make sure that what we are saying is accurately based on the Bible.

But telling people the good news isn’t the only way we can share it. Have you heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words”? Paul gives us a few pointers on how to demonstrate that we are Christians by our actions. Are we caring for others in the way a mother cares for her children – by being considerate? Compassionate? Helpful? Patient? Supportive? And are we being like a father with his child – Gently guiding not condemning? Do we challenge things that are wrong? Do we whisper encouragement? Paul wants us to demonstrate that we have no false motives. We need to ‘talk the talk AND walk the walk’.

The more I think about what God has done for me, the more I notice the transformation in me that is prompted by the Holy Spirit, and the less anxious I become about sharing my story. If you want to explore your story, have a look at the Rivers Team web page where Laura has put some wonderful resources for you to consider.

Where has God been at work in your life? Look for these moments of change, of transformation. They may be tiny transformations which only you can identify, like putting the cushions straight on the settee or organising your sock drawer – small changes, but you know it makes a difference. Or you may have moments where the transformation has been radical and visible to everyone – your equivalent of knocking down walls and rebuilding your house. Either way, I encourage you this week to reflect on these moments and give thanks to God. This is your basis for telling God’s story – your story.

Catching up with God

By Tara Norton

Redeemer – I think this is a very interesting word especially as we move into the Lent season, guiding us towards Easter. In the dictionary its definition is “someone who repays, recovers, saves, exchanges something for someone else”. Wow – THIS is our God of Love! As it says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, so that whoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have eternal life ) Just reflect on that for a moment: For God so loved the world!….” the sacrifices God made, the lengths He went to, to show His love for us, and how precious we truly are to Him.

Have you ever lost anything really special to you? And how far would you go to look for something that’s precious to you? Perhaps your car keys? Or a ring? How many times have you searched your house? Got family members involved? Blamed your children? Or, like MY family, searched the Cornish sea-bed for car keys? Or, if you’re like Mary Poppins, you’ve looked in the “place where all the lost things go”

Let me tell you about the time I lost something:- I’ve been a part of God’s family all my life. My Mum had me Christened when I was a baby, and raised me to know, and love, Jesus. But – I wouldn’t say I’ve been a Christian all my life. What I mean by that is that a Christians is someone who FOLLOWS Christ It’s not a title you are given from baptism or because you go to church every Sunday. When I reached about 14, like the sheep, I wandered off. Most of my church friends had moved away and I was fed up with the odd comments I’d get a school – so I left. Left church, left God, left Christian life really. By the time I was 20 I had a decently paid job and lived in a penthouse apartment suite, but felt there was something missing – a gap I couldn’t seem to fill. I just couldn’t put my finger on it – like when you go on holiday and you get the feeling you’ve forgotten something and it niggles at you – most of the time it’s just your toothbrush or phone charger, something simple, but it niggles away.

It was making me feel SO unhappy. Then one day, on the bus to work, I was listening to worship songs, something I’d not done for a long time. Instantly I was in floods of tears and I suddenly realised what was missing to fill that gap – (Jesus?) God. Whilst still on the bus, I rang Mum and told her that I needed to go back to church and ask God for forgiveness. She gathered some Christian friends at my house, and they prayed for me. From then on, things changed. I knew that God had left the 99, as in today’s passage, to search for His lost sheep, and bring it home!

Not long after, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. OK – I know that doesn’t sound positive but it definitely was! I finally had answers to why I was feeling like I did – spiritually and emotionally. I then received CBT which gave me the tools I needed, to deal with what I had. For the first time in a long time, I saw very clearly – I knew I had to leave the job that I got so very little emotional reward from – my focus had shifted. All the time I thought I’d lost something when, actually, it was me that was lost.

My journey with God hasn’t been an easy one and I’ve faced many storms. Daily, I felt worthless; led to believe I was a bad mum; felt I didn’t deserve to be loved or cared about but, through it all, although I didn’t always recognise it, God never left my side. It doesn’t matter how far we’ve strayed, how lost we’ve become, God will leave His 99 to find us, because that’s how much He loves us and how precious we are to Him.

Jesus told the story of the lost sheep to a group of highly religious people who fancied themselves as the 99 sheep who’d never go astray – and they couldn’t understand it! After all, nobody risks losing 99% of anything for the sake of 1% do they? Its insanity! Nobody does this – except Jesus! Because when a soul is lost, a soul is missed. But these men weren’t impressed at a God who spends all His time going after the sinner, when they thought (He should be spending His time with them – the well behaved ones who, seemingly, never left His side). I wonder how many people feel that God shouldn’t be wasting His time on them, that the ‘well behaved’ should get all His focus?

How many times have we heard some people say, “oh they’re not worth it!”? I wonder how many think God’s not bothered about non followers? that He IS only interested in the “well behaved”??? But in reality we’re all sinners aren’t we and we’ve all, at some point in our lives, in some way or another been lost.

So why do we become lost? When I say lost I mean not following the shepherd. Sometimes we get distracted by the temptations of this world like wealth, pride and jealousy. For some it may be out of pain, anger, bitterness. Sometimes we can’t understand why something has happened. How many have heard or said “well if there was a God why would that happen”? I know that loss or grief can send us in a different direction. All these distractions imprison us and separate us from God. Our father in heaven longs for a relationship with us, He has a greater plan for each and every one of us and doesn’t want to see us broken. But with brokenness He can transform us into something new, we just have to trust Him and His Love For us. 2 years ago God healed me of the anxiety disorder which had held me captive for so many years, but I couldn’t help wondering – Why now? And what did He have planned?

I was soon to find out! I would soon discover why God had searched me out, the lost sheep, and brought me home. It was because I wasn’t worthless; wasn’t a bad mum; I WAS worth loving! God wanted ME back in His family; back where I belong – where He planned for me to be, right from the beginning. A wise man once told me that my Wounds no longer give out pain, but shine God’s glory.

Here I am now, preaching my testimony, in front of a camera; sharing my story; and it doesn’t end here, I’m sure God has so much more planned – I’m sure there’ll be many more storms for me to face but now – we’ll do it together. I will always be thankful for that day I heard God calling me back, and even more thankful I didn’t ignore that call. So – how far would YOU go to search for something that was lost? (pause) At what point would you give up? In truth – we’re human and we have our limits, but God has not. Our God is the God of the lost, and the God who celebrates when the lost are found. Luke 15:7 says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” – “Heaven rejoices” when 1 lost sheep is found!

WE might give up searching for something we’ve lost but God will never give up on His lost sheep – He’ll light up every shadow; climb up every mountain; knock down every wall; tear down every lie; to find His lost sheep. It’s not something we earn or deserve – it’s the never ending love of God for each and every one of us.

Amen

The Greatest Story of all Time

By Eddie Short

Last summer, we spent a week on holiday in the Lake District, staying in a secluded house in the countryside. My parents were with us, and – over the course of a series of afternoons – I interviewed my father, asking him to recount the story of his life and the many tales that have become folk law in our family. I hope to one day use the recordings of those interviews to write a book, not with the intension of it ever being published, but just for my family, because these stories are important to us. Our family stories can help us to understand who we are, where we come from, and give us a sense of belonging.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a story too, the greatest story of all time. It’s God’s story, and it is unlike any other story we will ever encounter. It too helps us to understand who we are, where we come from and where we belong, but in a much wider, deeper and more profound way. God’s story is the living story that makes sense of all the other stories in our lives.

On the first Easter Sunday morning Mary went to visit Jesus’ tomb but she didn’t find a battered and broken body, she found empty grave clothes. Peering into that empty tomb, she began to grasp that something in the fundamental structure of the world had changed. Though she didn’t fully realise it in that moment, she had seen a glimpse of a new world, one where death had been defeated, and sin no longer had the final word The empty tomb is an invitation to all of us to enter into a new life in Christ, where death is not the end. The gospel is the good news of the risen Jesus. And it is a story we are all called to share, one that we should be excited to pass on, but it isn’t always that easy.

In church, we call the passing on of the gospel story ‘evangelism’, which is a word that can carry a lot of baggage. If I were to poll everyone in our church family on what comes to mind when they think of the word ‘evangelism’, I’m sure that there would be some common themes.

Perhaps you instantly think of gifted communicators like Billy Graham, Luis Palau or J. John, speaking engagingly about Jesus to crowds of thousands. Or perhaps you think of street preachers, shouting down megaphones in crowded places, as people pass by oblivious. In either case we run the risk of assuming that evangelism can’t be something we are called to do, either because we don’t have the skills or gifts required, or because we simply couldn’t imagine ourselves doing something that feels so unnatural and awkward.

There are definitely those who do have the gifting and calling to be ‘evangelists’. But it’s important to remember that evangelism isn’t just for the keen and the called but something we are all invited to be a part of. The word ‘evangelist’ only appears three times in the New Testament, much more common is the word ‘witness’, which occurs 23 times in the book of Acts alone. Repeatedly, we see ordinary people experience the impact of Jesus – witness what he has done – and then share that with others. That was how the early church grew, and it is how the church continues to grow today.

Another concern that you may have about Evangelism is that it doesn’t have a place in the pluralistic society that we live in today. Where dozens of religions and worldviews live cheek by jowl, we can feel uncomfortable with the idea of persuading someone to our way of thinking. Perhaps we are fearful of coming across as bigoted or judgemental. Indeed, evangelism done badly can be manipulative and coercive. However, evangelism as modelled by Jesus and His disciples is very different, because it is alway invitational. Witness in the new testament has more to do with sharing personal experience
enthusiastically than judgement.

Time after time in the Gospels we see ordinary people drawn to Jesus. Unlikely people like tax collectors and beggars find themselves irresistibly pulled towards him. They find themselves welcomed and loved when others had rejected them. Evangelism is an invitation to meet the Jesus who loves the sinner and the broken and who welcomes all. An invitation, freely given, that can be accepted, rejected or simply ignored.

Throughout lent we’re going to go delve deeper into the idea of evangelism not as something for the few, but for all of us; not about persuading others to believe what we do, but as an invitation to those around us to discover God’s story, by sharing or own.

As Christians, we all have our own faith story. Of how we discovered God’s story for ourselves; the impact it had on our lives when we first heard it and the way it has shaped our lives over time. Evangelism can be as simple as sharing that story with others. It doesn’t have to be from a platform, in fact it will probably be more effective one-on-one. It’s not about telling people what they should believe, instead it is sharing our experience, of how we discovered God’s story, and how God is at work in our lives

The Transfiguration

by Denise Teal

Mark 9:2-9

Our bible reading last Sunday took us to a mountain top experience for Jesus and for three of his closest disciples. The experience became a spiritual lesson for the 3 disciples that were closest to Jesus. Imagine, seeing someone you thought you knew, starting to glow … brighter than anything this earth can make, shining through the human Jesus, from the spirit inside and it really scared them all. They all saw it too… it would be hard to explain away; and there were two others with Jesus that they know died long ago. I wonder, how we would react to the experience?

When anyone climbed a mountain in the bible stories of the Old Testament, it was usually a quiet place to be still and meet with God. We need quiet places, because God doesn’t shout. In the bible, these are all defining moments and a turning point for the person there; where God issued guidance and instructions for how they (and through them, their people) were to serve Him. This happened for Elijah (through prophesies) and Moses (the law). Both with similar ministries to Jesus because under God’s guidance, they were destined to free their people from oppression. These echoes of the past would be well known to the disciples where God would save his people by raising up great leaders like David that fight their way out of oppression. That was the human way to free people. Would Jesus do it this way? But these great battle leaders were not standing there on the mountain top with Jesus. It was two unlikely leaders that obeyed God’s instructions despite their own weaknesses and misgivings… something that Peter especially, would be able to feel an affinity with as Jesus makes his way to the cross.

Peter can speak for so many of us, can’t he? In so many ways, when something happened, he didn’t “get it” and his responses often highlighted this. He hadn’t been able to accept the path that Jesus had to walk that led to a cross. I mean, who heard of a saviour of the world dying on a cross! That wouldn’t get the job done, would it? The disciples had been seeing Jesus the human, doing miraculous things. Perhaps, Peter was expecting Jesus to save his people the human way too. Peter had to be corrected a few times in Jesus’ ministry, for not “getting it”. We see this in a moment of frustration for Jesus in Matthew.16 when Jesus talks about dying and Peter can’t accept it… Jesus says “Get behind me, Satan! …you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Oh dear. Trying to understand Jesus the human way.

I wonder, are we sometimes like Peter in what we expect of God in our Christian lives? Do we expect God to sort our needs the human way instead of just giving him our worries and then trusting what HE can do about them? We might pray “Thy will be done” but then tell Him what we expect to happen. What would we ask God to do, I wonder?

The Transfiguration would be a defining moment for the 3 disciples, a private experience, changing the human way they thought of Jesus into the spiritual saviour that he was born to become. Until now, they’d seen miracles coming from a fellow human that they believed was the Messiah. But, for Jesus’ disciples, the history of God’s plan for humankind was now starting its final journey…a spiritual one into human hearts…to open up the faith to people everywhere that willingly ask Jesus into their life.

Now, the disciples would see with their own eyes the spiritual Messiah shining through the human part glowing with an unearthly light and Godly brightness that couldn’t be ignored. This would change their understanding of Jesus’ ministry…and prepare them for where it was going to lead him…and them. For us, too, without the spirit’s guidance in us and Jesus’ inspiring words, we’d just be sorting all our battles the human way. But these experiences are God’s way of drawing us back into a spiritual relationship with Him to help our ministries on Earth.

But there’s a second echo from the Transfiguration story. It’s how Jesus wants his followers to be… when God says “This is my son… Listen to Him,” get close to him in prayer and trust his quiet voice. God gave an important instruction to the three disciples on the mountain top. He said “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him”. This time there’s no mistaking who Jesus was or how disciples are meant to respond to Jesus’ call.

We are to listen. But it can take a while to listen to Jesus… to “get it”. How did Jesus do it? He read God’s holy book and he made times to pray. We listen when we read His inspiring words in the bible, pray and focus on that still, small voice to follow a Christian path. God can do the same for us as he did for the disciples. We’re part of that plan… a plan that echoes down through the bible and the last 2 thousand years. We continue his story…God still gives those mountain top experiences when we need them and when we listen to him, flaws and all, we find the path we are to follow.

I’m sure we can all remember a mountaintop experience of our own; a defining moment when we saw something clearer than before or something we were struggling with and then we “get it”. For some, it is the day they asked Jesus in to their life or maybe something in a bible-reading that speaks to us and we feel the Holy Spirit’s touch.

Today, we live in a fast, busy, media dominated world with even more things to draw us away from finding a quiet place and listening to God and the still, small voice. The Transfiguration story was a defining moment, an invite to “get it” to understand what Jesus is really about for the disciples and for us, today. And when everything else is trying to sort our needs the human way, the bottom line…is to listen to Jesus.

Amen.

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