These are words of Pope Benedict XVI, quoted by Pope Francis in his challenging book, “The Gospel of New Life.” If you are someone who finds it difficult to believe that God’s grace is in the Catholic Church, then forget it was any Pope that said it, and pretend it was John Knox, or Dr. Martyn Loyd Jones, or Bill Johnson, or….. or give up your prejudice or pride and accept two things. Number 1, truth is truth whoever said it. Number 2, it may surprise you to know God does not actually believe all you believe about Him nor does He necessarily share your every interpretation of every Scripture verse, nor your thoughts on other people, nor your estimation of whether they are out or in His family and Kingdom. I have heard Protestant Bible teachers, even reformed Sottish Presbyterian ministers I greatly admire, say things that I think are wrong biblically. In fact I have heard preachers at times teach what in my opinion and understanding of the Bible is patent nonsense, but it doesn’t make me think they have never spoken truth or never will again! Nor do what I consider errors make me think they are unsaved or the Antichrist. No doubt in time I will look back on these blogs of mine and see things that I consider not quite right, but that won’t make me judge myself unsaved or make me feel I need to label myself a heretic or false teacher. I am saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, full stop! All of us who have ever lived have made mistakes with our tongues according to the letter of James, save Jesus Christ alone, Perfect Man. No doubt come Judgement Day there will be a few surprises and one of the biggest for those of us who love theology more than God or people, may well be to discover that God loves us not because we were so right all the time, but because He so loves us. It is best to focus on our own story, remembering that when Peter asked about what would happen to his fellow disciple, John, Jesus replied curtly I believe, “What is that to you? You follow me!” If that involves too much humbling of yourself in one day, then just forget the possible word of God to your heart in these first few lines of this blog, till you can humble yourself under His mighty hand, another time, and for now try and calm your flustered soul and quieten any anger by thinking of this simple Bible truth. “Desert” is a theme and a fact of the story of the people of God recorded in the Old and New Testaments. Sometimes that desert is literal, sometimes it is metaphorical and sometimes both at one and the same time. The intriguing thing is that often the desert is somewhere where God takes his people in the mystery of His good, wise, loving and perfect will: It is where the Spirit of God led God’s Son, Jesus.
There in the desert, our values as to what really matters, are re-calibrated aright. Gold, silver, or precious stones, or fame or achievement or applause of any type would soon seem pretty useless. I guess topmost felt needs would be for water and somewhere to shelter form the blazing sun. Since having to step back from life and work as I had known it through illness, I have come to value certain things more than ever. Let me share two treasures found, or re-found, which I have come to appreciate more, discovered in what for me and for those who love me most, has not been the easiest of experiences or places to be.
1: The kindness and tenderness of Jesus, my friend. He does not despise weakness. Today I found myself remembering a time in recent Church of Scotland history when a New Hymnbook (CH3) was being compiled. It was decided that the much loved hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus” should be left out. I think it was probably a mistake so to do, but again not necessarily a sufficiently grave sin to consign that version of the hymnbook to the flames to which many did indeed condemn it and condemn it still even though we have actually moved on from that edition of the hymnbook to a more recent one still… well some have and some have not, some may and some have decided they never will. Such is church life. What Paul calls “party spirit” which ultimately means a divisive spirit, is alive and well and flourishing strongly in the church at large!
Anyway, ranting sermon over… for the time being… back on track now! Why was that particular hymn discarded at that point? If my memory serves me right, I think it was felt to be too personal and individual in its language and did not reflect strongly enough the fact that as Christians we are a body of people together. But at times that truth of being a body of people, can be pushed to the point of simply being the spiritual equivalent of politically correct nonsense. It can be pushed to the extent it becomes an error, as every truth out of balance can easily and dangerously become. Nowadays through the most current Christian books and conferences and week to week Sunday Preaching, it can seem as though we should be so much part of a company of people and so much involved in the Church’s mission and service in the world of today, that “me and Jesus” is almost frowned upon. It is not spiritually/politically up to date, or considered daring enough.
Well, it may or may not be. All I know is that in “the desert,” the place with few if any familiar landmarks, I have discovered in a fresh way that Jesus really is my friend who sticks with me. As I have negotiated changes in this season of life, and at times have felt anxious, so often by His Spirit, Jesus just reminds me He is there, with me, watching over me, sticking close by me and He loves me. His friendship means more to me now than ever, as does this astonishing fact: He wants my friendship! Having asked Simon Peter twice over “Simon Son of Jonas do you love me with sacrificial love?” as they walked together on a beach one morning after the Resurrection, He then asked him, “Simon Son of Jonas, do you love me as a friend?” Personal friendship with sheep He knows by name seems to matter to Jesus. We are a body of people, but individually we are never just one of the crowd. He does not see all Americans simply as Americans, or all Mexicans simply as Mexicans. Have you undervalued a personal friendship with Jesus Christ? Have you ever begun one? Does it not amaze you that He offers His friendship and wants yours? Friendship is a lovely thing. It implies enjoyment of one another’s company. It implies warmth and affection, not just loving one another because we have to, by some duty. Does it seem a strange idea that Jesus may actually like you? If it does, you may have to ask Him to help you see what He sees as he looks at you. Seeing “you” through His eyes may surprise you…
2: In the desert, the place without familiar land marks I am coming through, I have also come to value the kindness of other people and come to a new acceptance that I need others in my life. Kindness has at times come from fellow believers, but at time it has come from people whose spiritual life I have no knowledge of any more than I know the spiritual pulse of anyone reading this blog. I have met incredible kindness, concern and compassion through health professionals; from those whose theology is at the opposite end of the scale from mine; from those who have simply listened and helped me with wise counsel and fresh outlooks; from those who have taken me for a drive, eaten breakfast with me and laughed and joked with me; from those who sent a text or an email at the right time and persisted when they did not get the encouragement or the courtesy of a reply from me! I am not sure I would have noticed the value of all of this without this illness. Please hear me. I am giving the illness no credit, and thank God there are many still praying for me to be healed. But, I want to say to those of you who pray for me, I have been blessed with much care and kindness in this time. It has been a very humbling thing and I am learning to receive it all with gratefulness. In the presence of illness and weakness which at times have the feeling of an enemy about them, I have found that God has spread a table before me so many times. Often I have tasted His goodness through people.
I guess I am saying that I I can genuinely say that I can understand at least in part why God said of Israel through the prophet Hosea, that He was going to take them into the desert and allure them all over again. He has wooed me to Himself in a new way and also to things that matter most. I perhaps find myself looking back with this strange mixture of thoughts: “Lord, in some ways I feel I am allowed to say to you that I wish things could have been different in this or that aspect, but I thank you they have been as they have been.” That is easier “felt than tellt” as we would say here in Scotland from where I am writing, but if you need to get to that spiritual place of honesty t and peace too, I pray God will hep you get there. When you get there, you will discover a new sense of purpose, strength, and even a sense of destiny destroying any hovering and darker notions of fate.
Beloved, whoever you are, I humbly want to share the bread I have found in the desert in the form of two questions I offer to you to think about:
Has anything, even a good thing like church or mission or whatever, replaced friendship with Jesus at the core of your being?
Have your learned to recognise His presence and help in others?
Notice Him, notice Him in “them” today and thank “them” and Him.”