Hidden

A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding, having spent everything she had on doctors, and she could find no cure. Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped.
“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.
Everyone denied it, and Peter said, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.”
But Jesus said, “Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.”
When the woman realized that she could not stay hidden, she began to tremble and fell to her knees in front of him. The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed. “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” Luke 8:42-47 NLT

Hidden. That one word describes this woman’s problem, and in a sense describes her. She had a problem that she hid from the world, and so in a sense, she was hiding her true self. Vaginal bleeding was not a subject that people talked about openly in that culture and age. Furthermore, when a woman was bleeding she was regarded as ceremonially unclean, and so therefore could not engage in the normal religious activities that were an integral part of the society and culture. If she was bleeding continuously, she could never engage in such activities. Twelve years is a long time to be on the outside of the normal social life of the community. It is a long time to be regarded as unclean. It is a long time to be avoided by others, for according to the rules of Leviticus, any person who touched her would also be regarded as unclean (Leviticus 15).

So this woman was an outsider. She was likely unmarried, since a man would not want a woman who he could not touch. If she had been married then she may have been abandoned. I like to think she had a husband who loved her and who stood by her side regardless of her awful affliction. But I know that may be wishful thinking. The likelihood is, therefore, that this woman was lonely, poor, and depressed. Not to mention very tired. She must have felt that God had abandoned her.

But she had heard about Jesus, the healer. Perhaps she had seen what he was doing with her own eyes. Perhaps someone had told her about the miracles he was performing. And for some reason faith grew within her. It is hard to imagine why. After all, she had spent everything she had on doctors, and they had not helped her. She could be forgiven for thinking she was a hopeless case. But something about Jesus sparked hope in her, and her hope grew to faith.

There was one problem. Jesus was a rabbi, a holy man. Some were saying that he was the Son of God, but she hardly knew what that meant. Whatever, she knew the rules: her affliction made her ceremonially unclean. How could she expect a rabbi to touch her? If she walked up to him and begged him for healing, as she had seen other people do, he might ask her what the problem was. There was always a crowd around him. She would be forced to reveal her uncleanness to everyone and she wasn’t sure she could cope with the embarrassment. And she was not quite sure how Jesus would respond.

She was worried for him too. She didn’t want his reputation to be tarnished. She feared what people would think and say about Jesus if he did indeed touch her, and heal her. Would they shun him for touching her, when they realized his compassion had made him ceremonially unclean? Would they be angry at her for spoiling it for everyone else?

But she longed for his touch. She had not been touched by anyone for years. She believed his touch might heal her, might free her from her prison of loneliness. She suspected that the power that was in him could heal her, even if he was not conscious of it. So she came up with a plan. “Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped.”

Of course her plan misfired somewhat. Jesus knew, immediately, that the touch he had experienced from this woman was intentional, not accidental. He stopped and turned and sough her out. Suddenly all the attention was on her, and her problem, much to her distress. Jesus could have said nothing. He could have kept that knowledge to himself, knowing that confronting her would bring embarrassment. But he didn’t. He called her out. Why?

Jesus knew the rules too. He had read Leviticus, had it taught to him from childhood. He wanted people to know that sometimes rules had to take second place to mercy, that there was no medical problem that would prevent him reaching out and touching a person who was suffering. He wanted people to know that sickness would never be a barrier between people and God. He wanted people to know that even things that had always been thought to make a person unclean were not a barrier to them receiving his healing touch. Jesus was not afraid of menstrual blood, any more than he was afraid of leprosy or any of the multitude of other illnesses that could make a person unclean. His touch neutralised the power of such things to separate a person from God.

I think Jesus was making another important point too, that women, in a society that regarded them as second class citizens, were equal to men, regardless of gynaecological realities. He loved them and valued them as much, not less, not more. He did not differentiate between them in the way that society did. He made a point of affirming this woman’s faith, in contrast to the somewhat disparaging remarks he had made about his own (male) disciples’ lack of faith just a short time before (during the storm on the lake). Jesus was setting an example, showing us the divine order of things, an order that humanity has so often forgotten, both then and now.

The faith of women is a strong theme in this chapter of Luke’s book. Though Jesus had chosen his “apostles” from among men, Luke is careful to point out that Jesus had female followers too. These were women from the extremes of life: from a young Mary Magdalene, previously demon possessed but liberated by Jesus, to a scorned prostitute whose life was transformed by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness, to a group of wealthy older women from the higher social classes who gave generously of their time and money. Then there was this woman, ostracised for years because of her chronic gynaecological problems, and a twelve year old girl, dearly loved but deathly sick, restored to life even as death had its claws in her.

The men in the chapter, apart perhaps from Jairus, do not come up as beacons of faith. The disciples, caught in a storm on the lake, were characterized by fear, not faith. The Pharisees, in their self righteousness smugness, were shamed by a sinful woman’s devotion.

The woman of this story could not stay hidden, and she could not hide her problem. In a sense she is no different to all of us. We go to great lengths to hide our problems, our sins, from the world, afraid that we will be ostracised or judged by our communities. None of us want our sins, our failures, our dirty little secrets, to be made public for the world to see. We are expert at hiding our bad side and only presenting the scrubbed up, squeaky clean version of us to the world.

But when we come to Jesus we cannot stay hidden. We are forced to confess our failures, our sins, as much to ourselves as to Jesus. We are set free, released, healed, and we can go on our way rejoicing. But acknowledging what we really are, who we really are, is important if we are to grow and develop into the people he wants us to be.

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Faith

Then a man named Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come home with him. His only daughter, who was about twelve years old, was dying. Luke 8:41-42 NLT

As a doctor, when I read an account like this I can’t help wondering what the girl was dying of.  It was an era when infectious disease was the main cause of death, especially among the young. But she could as easily have been afflicted by cancer, or diabetes, or something equally incurable.

But this is not a story about disease or it’s treatment in the ancient world. It is a story about love, and risk taking, about faith and healing. Though in some ways the central person is a young girl, it is primarily a story about two men – Jairus and Jesus. As such it is a story about an interaction between God and humanity.

Jairus was a leader in the synagogue, and would therefore have been held in some esteem by the local community. He would also have had a relationship with the religious leaders, the Pharisees. Ordinary people were excited by Jesus and were flocking to hear what he had to say and see what he was doing. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were skeptical, and apparently felt threatened by Jesus. Jairus must surely have felt caught between these two groups in the community.

But his life had become dominated by anxiety. It is hard to know how long his daughter had been sick or what he had done to help her up to that time. But one thing is clear. He had come to the end of his resources. Her time was up. He could see she was dying. So could everybody else. The Pharisees, who had always been his source of wisdom and guidance, offered him no hope of a change in this situation. Maybe Jesus could help.

He had heard about Jesus. He may have seen the results of Jesus’ ministry. But he knew that Jesus was controversial. He had heard what the Pharisees were saying about Jesus, and he knew that if he went to Jesus it might well have consequences for his career, for his position in society, for the Pharisees were powerful men.

But his love for his daughter was stronger than his fear of the Pharisees, or his pride in his reputation. So he turned to Jesus for help. The result for his daughter was her restoration to life. The story doesn’t say if there were any negative consequences for him.

Jairus was a man caught between two worlds, the world of the natural, and the supernatural, the world of respectable human religion and faith in the unconventional Jesus, a person who claimed a special relationship to God. He made a decision to risk everything and throw his lot in with Jesus because of the failure of the conventional to meet his deepest need at that point, a sick daughter who he loved desperately. His love for his daughter drove him to Jesus, the only one who could save her. It doesn’t say how either the girl or her parents responded, but presumably their lives were so impacted that they became followers of Jesus. They put their trust in him. They chose him over all other people or institutions to be the object of their faith.

It is so that many of us come to Jesus. We recognize that we have needs and desires, that the world cannot fulfill, and we turn to Jesus, who can and does. We take a risky step, put our faith in him, and he comes through: we find new life. But there can be consequences, not least for doctors, in a medical world that is increasingly skeptical and hostile toward anything that smacks of faith, or the supernatural. But the truth is that medicine, with all its wonders, does not meet our deepest needs, any more than conventional religion could meet Jairus’ longing for healing for his daughter. Only Jesus can offer us the deep healing that we need and long for.

The interaction between faith and healing is fascinating. As doctors we see ourselves as practitioners of health and healing. But we are not taught to see faith as part of this. Yet for ordinary people faith has everything to do with healing – faith in a doctor, faith in a treatment. And if we are honest, we know that sometimes people recover when they should die, and sometimes people die when they should recover. Healing is something that involves more than nature, and our man made interventions in natural processes; I believe that most people know this intuitively. When we say that we operate only in the realm of science, and not in the realm of faith, we are denying a part of reality that, if we are honest, we know to be true.

For Jairus the result of this interaction, this meeting with Jesus, and this new found faith, was that the Pharisees forever saw him as at best a bit odd, at worse a menace. For he never stopped talking about Jesus and what he had done. Or so I imagine the effect on Jairus’ life. But I don’t think Jairus cared what the Pharisees, or anyone else for that matter, thought. He had got his daughter back. He would see her grow to womanhood, marry and have a family.

For those of us who have had the privilege of such a life changing experience at the hands of Jesus, it is often the same. We cannot leave him out of our lives, and we are prepared to put up with the puzzled stares, even the outright hostility, of our friends and colleagues, because we have found a better way. We have found a person who changes us, who surpasses all our human systems and wisdom. No matter how well we understand and work in the natural world, we can never discount the supernatural, the so called heavenly realms, for that is where Jesus is king, and we have seen heaven come to earth.

So we never stop praying, as Jesus once taught us, “your kingdom come, your will be done, as it is in heaven.”

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A lesson in demonology

… a man who was possessed by demons came out to meet [Jesus]. For a long time he had been homeless and naked, living in the tombs outside the town… This spirit had often taken control of the man. Even when he was placed under guard and put in chains and shackles, he simply broke them and rushed out into the wilderness, completely under the demon’s power. Luke 8:27-29 NLT

What is this? A man possessed by demons? We live in a world which is sceptical about such things. When we see a person who is homeless and naked, apparently supernaturally strong enough to break physical shackles, who rushes around behaving in bizarre ways, we do not explain the phenomenon by saying he is demon possessed. We say he is crazy, suffering from a psychiatric illness. What would the modern psychiatrist say about this man who lived among the tombs in the region of the Gerasenes? That he was psychotic (disconnected from reality) is not in doubt. Severe mania definitely. Paranoia also evident. And no doubt DSM IV has a description that precisely fits this man.

The thing about modern psychiatry is that it is largely a descriptive discipline. It describes patterns of behavior, thoughts and emotions of people who are sick. Different constellations of abnormalities are given different names. Psychiatric research has also described biochemical and neuroanatomical abnormalities that are associated with such syndromes, changes that can be observed through sampling and analysis, or with various imaging techniques such as MRI or PET scanning. But what causes these changes? What is the underlying problem?

While neurological diseases are attributed to a multitude of factors such as physical trauma, infectious or toxic insults to the brain, circulatory insufficiency, or lack of oxygen supply, the main aetiological factors that are suggested for psychiatric disease are genetics (it runs in the family) or severe emotional trauma or deprivation. But why are some families seemingly cursed by psychiatric ill health? And why does emotional trauma and deprivation cause the problems that seem so common today? Why can we not just shrug it off and get on with life? Why do we get so crushed, so broken, and develop so many destructive or bizarre behaviours as a result?

I suspect it is because like the ancients we have a sense of the supernatural. It is built into the human condition. The evolutionists no doubt have an explanation for that but as a Christian I believe it is because we are in fact spiritual beings as much as we are physical beings. I believe that there is a reality that cannot be seen, experienced, measured or analysed according to scientific method, which only works with the physical world. The sceptics may say that I have succumbed to the attractions of magic, which is not real, and “hocus-pocus.” But my worldview is different and comes from the Bible, which is the most objective account of the supernatural worldview that I have to hand.

It is certain that there are many other accounts of the supernatural, the spiritual, which are not “Christian,” not least our own experiences, which can be quite bizarre, eerily other worldly, and for which we search for explanations. There are many other explanations of the nature of things that come from other ancient religions and traditions, from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism to the Viking gods and European paganism. So why do I believe the Judea-Christian account?

Simply because of Jesus, the man who lived two thousand years ago and who apparently ascribed to the Jewish worldview. Jesus, of course, was very different in many ways to the Jews of his time (and ours), somehow outside Judaism at the same time as being a part of it. He criticised and interpreted the traditional Jewish laws and practices in what was an often controversial and confronting way. But he did not challenge the worldview of a universe created by a God who was outside it, at the same time as being a part of it, above and beyond it at the same time as subjecting himself to its natural laws, the very laws that he had himself written.

But why should I believe the account of this wandering Jew who saw himself as the Son, and indeed the essence, of this creator God? In modern psychiatric terms he would be seen as at best quietly delusional, at worse, dangerously psychotic. But I believe in him for one reason only, and that is that he rose from the dead. He defeated the natural order of things, and thereby made himself credible.

Of course, by now the average psychiatrist, not to mention modern secular scientist, has written me off as much as they have Jesus, for my professed belief in the impossible. But to believe in the supernatural is in my mind no less rational than to not believe in the supernatural. Much of our existence comes down to belief, and that is a choice that God has given us. God created us with the potential and the ability to reject him, to write him off as fantasy, to disbelieve. But he wants us to believe, which can lead to us knowing him. An extraordinary idea.

So the idea of demons and angels becomes less crazy than we might have once thought. It doesn’t change the fact that understanding this whole supernatural dynamic and how it impacts human beings in their daily lives is difficult. But as a human being, and as a doctor, it give me a broader and richer view of things than my secular atheistic colleagues and friends.

So this story of the demon possessed man who lived in “the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee,” becomes a fascinating study, both of the psychological and behavioural disorders that can afflict humans, and of the power of Jesus to heal and deliver people from such afflictions.

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Real danger

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger.
The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?”
The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!” Luke 8:22-25 NLT

We live in an age of technology. We have endless gadgets to assist us in our daily life, which has made life easier in many ways than any age that has preceded this one. Definitely the biggest change that has occurred in my lifetime is the immediate availability of almost endless amounts of information to the masses of humanity. A tiny phone which I carry in my pocket gives me access to a worldwide library of data about every subject imaginable.

The result of this is that there is very little that is unknown. Wherever we go, someone has been there before, and they have recorded words and pictures of that place to give us an idea of what to expect. Before we embark on any venture we have access to real time information about what we are about to do which can inform our decisions about whether to do it.

In theory this makes our lives safer, more predictable, than ever before. In theory this should give us a greater sense of control, which should reduce our fear and anxiety in life, make us feel safer and more secure.

Yet as doctors we see an epidemic of anxiety taking hold of our patients, indeed many doctors are themselves affected, with indecision and paralysis the result. Rather than life becoming easier, it seems to have become harder. When it comes to health in the Western world, infectious disease has receded as the main cause of illness, being taken over by chronic diseases of lifestyle and aging. But in recent years the main cause of suffering, especially in the younger generations, is neither of these, but rather mental afflictions, psychiatric illness. We live in the age of depression and anxiety – of apathy, hopelessness, and fear. The technological age has accompanied this. It is easy to wonder if it has caused it.

The disciples of Jesus were eager to follow him wherever he went, to go wherever he asked them to go. On this occasion that meant embarking on a voyage across lake Galilee, an inland body of water that was known for its sudden storms. At least some of his disciples were seasoned sailors, but even they could not predict the weather all the time. If they had misgivings on this occasion Luke did not record them. They simply got in the boat and started out. They did not know what lay ahead.

Jesus, on the other hand, probably did have an inkling of what was going to happen, though he didn’t tell them. He knowingly led them into “real danger,” into harm’s way. Then he promptly went to sleep. As the storm arose the disciples’ anxiety turned to fear and they no doubt began to discuss amongst themselves what they should do. If there was a sail, they would have reefed it and manned the oars. But they quickly realized that they were too far from the shore, and before they could ever get there they would have been swamped and sunk. Life jackets did not exist then, there was no rescue service, and even if there was, no one had a mobile phone or a radio to call them. Even distress flares were a technology that was still a thousand years in the future.

The disciples had nothing to fall back on, there was no hope of rescue, and they began to realize that they were staring death in the face. They were gripped by fear. And there was Jesus asleep in the boat, the spray from the waves splashing over him. They woke him in desperation. He fixed the situation.

Why did anxiety not affect Jesus? Because he had something that try as we might, with all our technological marvels, we do not have. That something is control. Jesus could control the wind and the waves, he could command the storm to stop and it did. He could fix the situation with a word. In so doing he got his disciples out of trouble.

Having done so, he asked them a simple question, “where is your faith?” The disciples were still getting to know Jesus. They had seen him heal, they had seen him cast out demons, but they had never seen him command the elements. They were overwhelmed and though before they were fearful of drowning, now they were terrified. Who was this man they had thrown their lot in with? What couldn’t he do?

There is much we can take from this story. Not least is that we live in a dangerous world, and that sometimes Jesus leads us into danger. A life following Jesus is not always “safe” – there are risks involved which can provoke as great an anxiety for us as the disciples experienced. How often we cry out like the disciples, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” This story teaches us something about how to approach such situations, and indeed might contain some keys to how to cope with anxiety in general. It is timely for us in an age of anxiety.

It is natural to respond to anxiety by striving for control. But there are limits to the extent of our control. Despite our technology, we are not God, as much as would like to think we are. Disaster can unexpectedly affect any of us, at any moment. We cannot anticipate every possible scenario, much less control it. The insurance industry is built on this premise, and it is a thriving industry.

What this story teaches us is that though we have little control, Jesus does. And we are his friends, or we can be, if we follow him. If we trust him, he will save us. The key to anxiety is not insurance, nor technology, nor being always in control. It is trust. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asked his disciples. He asks us he same question.

Does that mean that following Jesus gives us control over our circumstances? Does it mean that following Jesus is an insurance policy that always pays out, guaranteeing a life free of suffering or pain? Yes and no. Our ultimate fate is sealed when we put our trust in Jesus. We have the promise of heaven. But though we are encouraged to pray “your kingdom come,” and we are challenged to live by kingdom principles here and now, the fullness of heaven is something that we will not experience before Jesus takes us there. We catch glimpses, of course, and they give us great joy, and increase our hope and faith. But for most, perhaps all of us reading this, the real thing will be after we have died and not before. How and when we die that natural death is uncertain for all of us. What is sure is what awaits us after, if we are followers of Jesus, if we have handed control of our lives over to him.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the answer to anxiety lies in how we think about our own death, how we cope with the reality that we will all die. We live in an age of technological triumph and medical marvels, but they have not helped us cope better with death. In many cases they have made us less resilient, because they deceive us into believing that we have control, when in reality we don’t. Jesus offers a solution to the cause and the reality of death, a solution that nothing and no one else does.

What will we put our trust in? Our technology? Our medicine? Our insurance policies? Our own wisdom and ability? Our achievements? Our goodness? I don’t think Jesus is opposed to any of these. But they will not free us from our deepest existential angst, for we will all die. Jesus challenges us to see all our achievements realistically and not expect them to give us what we long for most deeply – eternal security. That is the ultimate solution to anxiety, and that is something that only he can give. Jesus is the only one who has defeated death, and he holds the key to us doing the same. Whatever boat we are in right now, whether it is on calm, or stormy seas, he says to us, “Trust me. I’m in control.”

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Hearing and obeying

…the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.
“No one lights a lamp and then covers it with a bowl or hides it under a bed. A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house. For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.
“So pay attention to how you hear. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.”
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get to him because of the crowd. Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to see you.” Jesus replied, “My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.” Luke 8:15-21 NLT

Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that he wanted his followers to “bear fruit.” The parable of the farmer scattering the seed is all about the obstacles to bearing fruit. Jesus explains what we should avoid, what to resist, what to be on the lookout for. But his teaching about a fruitful life does not end there, with what we should not do. In the paragraphs that follow he goes on to explain the other side of the task: what we should do, what behaviours we should embrace, if we are to see a harvest. He gives us four keys to a fruitful life: clinging to the word, shining the light, listening, and obeying. They could be called “the four habits of highly fruitful people.”

Clinging to the word

…the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.

After hearing God’s word, that is hearing Jesus speak his life giving message to us, the first thing to do is to “cling” to it. Different translations of the Bible use different words to describe this habit: the NIV uses the word “retain,” The ASV and ESV say “hold it fast,” the KJV says simply, “keep it.” How easy it is to be tempted by other voices, to get distracted from the amazing message of Jesus by other promises of happiness and success. In an age of information overload, how easy it is for the Internet, the TV, the radio, even newspaper, magazines and books, to occupy hours of our time every day while God’s word contracts to only minutes, or even disappears completely in the barrage of words that enter our minds. How easy it is, as life goes on, to be overwhelmed by the cares and responsibilities of life, and to forget what Jesus has said, to look to other sources for guidance and comfort, or simply distraction.

Jesus, speaking about the gospel, the good news, knows that each one of us faces these obstacles, and he says simply, “cling to” God’s word, keep it in your mind, hold on to it, retain it. Don’t forget it. There is no doubt that the key to the Christian life is the “word of God.” We need to hear God’s voice, and we need to get it into our hearts and keep it there. That is the key to knowing how to live, what to do, how to speak, how to think. Every day, as the business of life crowds in, we need to come back to God’s word, remind ourselves of the wonder of what he says to us, and ask his Spirit to speak to us afresh.

There is no better way of doing this, than to read the Bible. There is so much talk these days of God speaking in different ways: through impressions in our minds, through dreams and visions, through circumstances, or the words of others. I do not doubt that God speaks to us in many and various ways. But the yardstick to use to decide if the messages we receive every day are the voice of Jesus or not is the Bible. Unless we have the words of this book well and truly embedded in our consciousness, we have nothing by which to judge the many other impressions that come to us, nothing to enable us to decide whether those voices are God speaking or something else.

Cling to the word we must. If we have laid the Bible aside in the midst of the cacophony of voices clamoring for our attention, we need to pick it back up and start reading and meditating on it again.

Shining the light

A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house.

The second key to a fruitful life is to “shine the light.” This is such a well known image, and I like to think of it as Jesus’ challenge for “public Christianity.” It is particularly timely in the post Christian Western world of which many of us are a part. There is increasing pressure on Christians to remain silent in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world. Christians in many countries feel brow beaten by secular society to keep their knowledge of Jesus and his words to themselves. Religion, the secularists say, is a private thing, not to be talked about openly. Growing numbers of voices blame religion for the problems of the world, making it the latest scapegoat for the mess of human society we increasingly see around us. In a world that pays lip service to freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, Christians especially are singled out as troublemakers for speaking out what they believe, and for trying to convince others that the words of Jesus hold the key to life.

But Jesus says we should be constantly speaking his words into the public arena. We need to understand how his words, what he taught, apply to the world we live in, and shine that light in the darkness. But what does that mean? Are we talking about preaching, about evangelistic campaigns? There is no doubt a place for such activities, but we are not all preachers. Most often shining the light means simply letting God’s words speak to others through the actions and attitudes of our lives and “always being ready to give an account of the hope that is within us,” (as Paul the apostle later put it).

Shine the light we must. If the word of God in us has been progressively pushed aside and hidden by the academic or politically correct “wisdom” of the world, then it is time for us to reveal this wonderful resource again to the world, and let its light push away the darkness that is enveloping us. We need to become “public Christians.”

Listening

To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given.

Jesus says that we should be careful how we hear. If we hear without listening, our understanding will be taken away. We need to focus, we need to ponder, we need to nut it out. The words of Jesus need to be our daily meditation. But so often that habit, which is of such comfort and joy to us when we first encounter Jesus, dies as the years pass. Do the words of Jesus lose their power, their brilliance, their relevance? Surely not. But our ears become jaded, we feel we have heard it all before, we go looking for new “wisdom” from other sources, we are drawn away by other voices. We start to live as if reading the news on the Internet, or articles linked to our social media, will be more helpful to us in surviving the struggles of life than the timeless words of Jesus.

But there is a consequence to this, Jesus says. The less we listen to Jesus, the less relevant he will seem to be. We need to make an effort. It is like marriage, or parenting, or cultivating an orchard, it doesn’t just happen. We need to tune in, we need to take notice. Sure our efforts may not save us, but they will make a difference in our bearing fruit. We must be careful how we hear, and listen with all our hearts and minds. Otherwise even the little we thought we understood will be taken away from us.

Obeying the word

Jesus replied, “My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.”

The fourth key that Jesus gives to bearing fruit is simply this: obey the word of God. Often we lament the fact that we don’t hear God speaking to us – through the Bible or any other way. We say we long to hear his voice. We long for that thrill we felt once when we first met Jesus, when he never seemed to stop speaking to us. We wonder what happened, what went wrong, what changed; almost without us realizing it he seems to have become silent.

I suspect that this little passage holds the key to this unfortunate phenomenon. Somewhere along the line we stopped obeying the still small voice of Jesus. Jesus words are not just philosophies on the meaning of life; they contain within them instructions on how to live, how to speak, how to think. Instructions are to be followed, but we so easily ignore them, especially when they are uncomfortable (“love your enemies,” for example!).  However, I suspect that when we stop obeying, Jesus badgers us for awhile, but finally gives up and stops speaking.

If we obey, on the other hand, we experience the joy of becoming family. We enter into the purposes of God for the world. We join his mission, we become part of his message of hope and healing, we begin to bear fruit. We become, as Jesus explains so succinctly, part of his family, taking on his identity, developing a family likeness. That fills him with joy, and results in fruit being produced.

The harvest

So Jesus has taught us what we need to do – and what we need to avoid – if we are to bear fruit. But what exactly is the fruit that Jesus speaks of? This little teaching of Jesus says much about that too, but the fruit he speaks of is not necessarily what we think of when we think of “a huge harvest.” We have a tendency to focus on numbers: people converted, churches built, people groups reached. But I think that the harvest Jesus speaks of is much more than that, and his words provide a clue to that.

First, and perhaps the greatest fruit of clinging to the words of Jesus, is that our relationship with God continues, rather than withering away. It would appear that God’s intention in creating humanity was for friendship with him, and so if that friendship grows and thrives we are living as God intended. The result is joy, deep joy, and a peace that passes all understanding. We become the honest, good hearted people, that Jesus speaks of. This is the fruit of holding fast to God.

The second fruit is light shining in the darkness, and this too is something to be celebrated in a world messed up by human pride, self-centredness and corruption. Since the time of Jesus his teachings and his presence in peoples’ lives have been making a profound difference to the dark world we live in. This is as true on a personal level, in the little circles of our individual lives, as it is on a societal, national, even international level. We are called to shine the light in our families, in our workplace, in our communities. The light of Jesus in us makes the lives of the people around us better, as much as it improves our own. There are times when it seems evil – the darkness – is winning in the world. Those are times to hold fast to Jesus and his words, to steadfastly obey his radical commands, as hard as that might be, for then the darkness is pushed back.

But there is more to be had from this life of faith: a third fruit of clinging to the words of Jesus is that our understanding and wisdom grow. For me as a doctor I realize that much of my understanding of people and illness and the nature of things comes not from my medical textbooks and the wisdom of man, but from the words of Jesus in me, accumulated from years of listening to him. For this I am forever thankful, and I believe it makes me a better doctor.

Finally, but not least, as we follow Jesus, diligently listening and bravely obeying, doggedly living out the life he shows us, we gain a sense of belonging, satisfying one of the most foundational human needs. We belong to Jesus, we belong to his family. We gain identity, purpose and meaning. This too brings great joy.

So the harvest that Jesus speaks of is not just about growing the church, extending the kingdom to every people group on the planet. It is also very much for us: a growing relationship with our Creator and our fellow humans, a peace that passes understanding, a growing wisdom and deepening joy, the experience of living in the light.

Many years after Jesus spoke these words one of his most well known followers wrote a letter in which he unpacked this whole concept of the fruit that comes from knowing and following Jesus. He called this “life in the Spirit,” and it worthwhile reading his exposition. His name was Paul, and the letter he wrote was to Jesus followers in Galatia, a region of the ancient world. He summarized the “harvest” as follows:

The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

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Obstacles

Luke 8:4-15 records a parable Jesus told about a farmer scattering seed. Like all of Jesus’ parables it is well known:

“A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. Other seed fell among rocks. It began to grow, but the plant soon wilted and died for lack of moisture. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up with it and choked out the tender plants. Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted!”

Jesus goes on to explain to the disciples what he meant by his parable. It seems straightforward, but it raises many questions for me.

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is God’s word. The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved. The seeds on the rocky soil represent those who hear the message and receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they believe for a while, then they fall away when they face temptation. The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity. And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.”

There are two ways of looking at this parable. Firstly, it could be seen as an observational study of different responses to God’s word. The seed is the message of Jesus, the gospel, and the gospel is the same for everyone. Objectively speaking, it is good news: God has reached out to humanity to make a relationship with him possible, to bless us, and to show us a better way to live.

How can such a message fall on deaf ears? How can such a message lose interest with the passing of time? How can such a message lose its relevance? But this is exactly what seems to happen for some who hear it. This parable acknowledges this reality, and offers reasons. It is not a story about people who have not heard the gospel and therefore can’t respond, which is the challenge of missions. It is a story about people who have heard the gospel and respond in different ways, and presents other challenges. It is describing the reality of two groups of people: those in whom the message takes root so they produce fruit, and those in whom the message does not take root and no fruit is forthcoming.

The difficult question for me has always been, why is this so? The parable speaks about obstacles that prevent fruitfulness. But why do such obstacles effect some but not others? Jesus says that the fruit bearers are “honest, good hearted people.” So what are the others? Are they somehow intrinsically different to the good hearted people, so that they are more affected by the pressures of the world? Are they weaker (but aren’t we all weak)? Are they more sinful (but aren’t we all sinful)? Or is it just that they are not chosen?

Why does the good news of Jesus grow into something beautiful in some, but not in others? What do we do with this parable? Is it just a depressing observation, or is it Jesus’ intention to teach us something more? I believe that it is the latter, and this second way of looking at the parable is the most helpful for me. So what does this reading of the parable teach us?

The second way of looking at this parable is to see it as a warning of what can go wrong, what factors can change the life transforming message of Jesus into an irrelevant idea. It contains challenges both for those who are charged with the planting and cultivation of the seed, and for individual believers who are keen to stay strong in the faith (the “honest, good hearted people”), to avoid falling away. This second way of looking at the parable is the most helpful for me.

So what are the obstacles to maturity? What are the things that prevent the message of Jesus from taking hold in a person’s life, becoming a life transforming force, and “producing a harvest?” What challenges does the knowledge of these obstacles present?

Sin, the world and the devil

Jesus lists three hazards: the devil, temptation (leading presumably to sin), and “the cares and riches and pleasures of this life.” Each of these justifies an essay of its own, and it is worth reflecting and meditating on how they affect us individually and personally. However, I do not intend to write an essay on each. Just some short reflections.

I am reminded as I read this parable of the Anglican baptism liturgy, in which a person being baptized is challenged with the following words:

I sign you with the sign of the cross [the priest makes the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead] to show that you are to be true to Christ crucified and that you are not to be ashamed to confess your faith in him. Fight bravely under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to your life’s end.

I love this acknowledgement that when we choose to follow Jesus we enter into a spiritual battle against forces that can overwhelm us: sin, the world and the devil. We forget the spiritual battle at our own peril. We need to be aware of the enemies of our faith, guard against them, stand against them, fight against them, lest they drag us away from the wonder and joy of knowing God our father.

I am reminded too of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples,

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory for ever.”

It’s all there – sin, temptation, evil (the devil). We are even to pray for our daily bread, for when our needs are met it is easier to avoid being overwhelmed by the cares of this world, which can easily lead to the god of materialism and wealth (riches), with its companion of the god of pleasure. That is not to say that riches and pleasure are wrong, but when they become our focus, and make us forget Jesus, they destroy our faith and any fruit that might come from it.

These then are the obstacles of our faith, according to this particular parable: the devil, temptation to sin, and the cares and riches and pleasures of this world. These are the forces that will either prevent us receiving the message, or alternatively choke out the message of Jesus after it has taken root in our lives. The challenge is to be on the lookout for them, to fight against them, to pray against them. We need to recognize that this is a spiritual war we have entered, that evil has a name – the devil – and that it is personal. As we fight these battles and by God’s grace triumph against them, we will grow to maturity and our lives will bear the good fruit we long to see.

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Women and men

Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples. Luke 8:1-3 NLT

Jesus lived at a time when the status of women in society was not equal to the status of men. The disciples he chose were all men, but Luke the doctor is careful to record that he had many female followers. Why did he not choose “disciples” from among these women? What was it that attracted them to him enough for them to follow him from town to town supporting him with their finances and their service? What kind of relationship existed between Jesus and the women he met?

The first thing that I notice from this passage is that “he took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women.” I do not get from this an impression of Jesus wandering through the towns of Galilee with a whole lot of male and female “hangers on.” Jesus’ actions seem more intentional, more planned than that. He took his disciples and some women. The word “took” suggests to me that Jesus chose these people, men and women, to come with him. The men he took were the followers he had designated apostles. As such they would become the future leaders of the Christian movement. The women he took were just as much his followers, but they had not been given the role of apostle.

This differentiation, with men given leadership roles, and women apparently left with support roles, causes all sorts of trouble for the modern reader in the age of feminism. Was Jesus establishing a norm here? Was he implying by his actions that leaders, his closest friends and followers, should be men and not women? Was he saying that women should only ever be servants, that leadership is male? There appears to be a certain group of Christians today who believe so.

But I find this hard to accept, because of two things: first, because of Jesus’ obvious high regard for women, and second because of how he thought about leadership, as being a servant role (which comes out later in his teaching).

Jesus’ high regard for women

In the chapter before this we read of how Jesus praised a prostituted woman as a model of faith for the Pharisees. The confronting thing here is that she was a prostitute. How could he lift up such a sinful person as an example to be followed?

The fact that she was a woman reflects more about the nature of society at the time than his opinion of women: then as now women were in many cases more exploited than men. Prostitution was a business that existed only because there was a demand. That demand was from men, and it was surely the demand that was the greater sin. People in a position of weakness and subservience are generally the suppliers of such demands, not primarily because of their sinfulness primarily but because of their need, their desperation. Few women (or men) choose prostitution as a career out of preference or passion. They are forced into it out of need, or exploitation. When Jesus lifted this woman up he was lifting her up as one who was oppressed and needy. He never denied that she was a sinner, but he saw her “sin” in a completely different light to the Pharisees.

And her sin was not that she was a woman. She was oppressed and needy because she was a woman, and that had led her into behaviour that was wrong. But that wrong behaviour was more the result of the sinfulness of men than the sinfulness of women. It was not because she was morally inferior, even if she was socially and economically oppressed in that patriarchal society. Jesus could not have treated her the way he did if he believed women were naturally inferior. His treatment of her indicates to me that Jesus had a very high view of women, including those who had found themselves trapped in the tragedy of prostitution.

Why not female apostles?

So if Jesus had such a high view of women, why didn’t he choose his apostles, and therefore the leaders of the early church, from among the “fairer sex”?

I believe that what is depicted here is simply a reflection of the society and culture Jesus lived in, which appears to have been a patriarchal rather than matriarchal society. Jesus was born into a particular historical and cultural context, and though he challenged people to think in unconventional ways, in this particular area, he followed the social conventions of the time.

But only to a certain extent. I suspect that having women at all – from varying levels of society – among his followers was somewhat unexpected, even slightly scandalous, at the time. And Luke makes sure to include this fact in his written account. He wanted it recorded for posterity that Jesus accepted women, as much as men, as his followers.

But then, as now, the relationship between men and women, especially in younger people, was complicated by sexuality, a reality of which Jesus was acutely aware. Jesus was a man, and as such a close relationship with a woman, or with a group of women, was not possible in that cultural and historical context. Even today close relationships between men and women are by nature different, and in some cases more difficult, to close relationships between people of the same sex. Close relationships between people of opposite genders are complicated by sexuality, so it was best that Jesus’ closest relationships were with men, to avoid such complications.

However, that Jesus was a male does not mean that God is male, though he is described as a father and the male pronoun is used in references to him. My understanding is that God is as much female as he is male, since both males and females are created in his image. Everything that is conventionally female comes from the nature and character of God, just as everything that is males does. God could have just as easily chosen Jesus to be a female, in which case the apostles would doubtless have been women. But it would have been hard for a female Jesus and female apostles to do what Jesus and his apostles did because of the way society was structured at that time and in that place.

God’s choice of Jesus being incarnated as a man – and he had to choose one or the other – has had all sorts of unfortunate results for how subsequent generations of believers have viewed the roles of men and women. In our cultural and historical context I can imagine that God could make Jesus a woman and achieve his purposes, but that was not as easy for when and where the historical Jesus came into the world. But I believe that we have to be careful not to draw wrong conclusions about the nature of men and women based on the historical social context of the Bible. It is a mistake to believe that God is male because Jesus was, as it is a mistake to believe that leadership is male, because the first apostles were.

Jesus and the status quo

It is clear from the Biblical records that Jesus challenged the normal view of women in his society, by ministering to them and loving them, indeed, by interacting with women in general in much the same way he interacted with men, even if he did not choose women to be his apostles. But he did not challenge the status quo of gender roles in society any more than he challenged other social structures, such as social inequality between the rich and the poor. He may have sowed the seed of the idea that all people are created equal, but he did not state it unequivocally, nor did he challenge people to defy the status quo and rebel against social norms, any more than he challenged his followers to rise and take up arms against their Roman oppressors.

Jesus loved people and people – both men and women – loved him. His love was not of a sexual or romantic nature. He loved people the way a father loves his children. The message of the Kingdom was as relevant and attractive to women as to men. Jesus healed and delivered women of their demons as often as he did men. To Jesus, people were neither male nor female, they were simply people. In short Jesus treated men and women the same, and so should we.

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Recognition and grace

After John’s disciples left, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people who wear beautiful clothes and live in luxury are found in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!” (Luke 7:24-28 NLT)

 

“Of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John!” That is a pretty amazing recommendation. Jesus was generous in his recognition of greatness, unlike some leaders who are more interested in blowing their own trumpets than blowing the trumpets of others.

Why did he say this of John? What had he done to get such praise from Jesus? At the time of this pronouncement John was in prison, waiting to be executed. Clearly the person who put him there (Herod) did not share Jesus enthusiasm for the fiery desert preacher. Neither did many of the authorities of the time. The Pharisees, who were the respected spiritual leaders of the time, had not embraced John’s teaching and held him at arm’s length with suspicion.

But the common people, the so called “man in the street,” liked John? Why? Jesus asks some rhetorical questions: Did you go out to see John because he was weak? No, because he was strong! Did you go to see him because he was rich? Obviously not, because everyone knew he had given up everything, and had nothing. Did you go out it to see him because he was a prophet? The answer then was a resounding Yes! Just as today people long to hear people who offer explanations and solutions to their problems and the world’s, people in Jesus’ day longed to hear the words of a man who reputedly spoke for God.

But Jesus implies that rather than John’s strength, his poverty, or even his prophetic gift, it was his willingness to be messenger, and preparer, for Jesus that made him great. If we aspire to greatness in the eyes of God, that is what we should give our lives to: preparing people to receive Jesus (whatever that might entail) and then presenting the message of Jesus, who he was, why he came, what he did, and why he did it. That, in a sense, is the greatest task in the world. That is what John did, and Jesus recognized him for it. Jesus gave credit where credit was due.

But is it credit that Jesus is after in us? Is he measuring our daily thoughts, actions and words, to see if we are great enough to receive his recognition, his affirmation, his accreditation. It would be easy to think so, but for what Jesus said next: “Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!”

It is almost as if Jesus is saying, in the world’s way of thinking, where the highest score defines the winner, John comes first, because he gave his life to the most important task of all. But in the Kingdom way of thinking, all are winners, because the least is greater than the greatest. Jesus says that these are the things that make a person great, but the person’s greatness does not make him or her higher in the Kingdom than anyone else. For in the Kingdom all are equals under God. The only thing required for greatness really is to be in the Kingdom.

So we see two characteristics of God that make him so unique and so worth giving our lives to: recognition and grace. God recognizes greatness, and affirms the people who demonstrate it, but he has no favorites. Whether you have done everything “right” in God’s eyes or nothing, he loves you just the same. The highest achiever, and the lowest, are recognized and affirmed and loved equally, not because of what they have done, or not done, but because they have entered the Kingdom, and become God’s children, his family. He does not love us for what we have done but because we are his.

If you are looking for something ultimately worthwhile to give your life to, there can be no greater or more fulfilling task than preparing people’s’ hearts and minds to receive Jesus, and telling people who Jesus is, what he did, why he came. That task can take many different forms and can happen in every walk of life. By this definition of greatness, John was by no means the last great person to live. There have been countless thousands, perhaps millions, such men and women down through the ages, and I have known many myself. God recognises and affirms their greatness.

However, if you are looking for recognition, affirmation and unconditional love from God, you do not have to be a high achiever in the greatness stakes. The key that unlocks the door of God’s love is simply to enter the Kingdom and become one of God’s children. It is not very hard, it is a free gift, and it is available to everyone. Once you are in, God loves you as much as he loves John, no matter what you have done or not done.

As the writer of another gospel said, “to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

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Is Jesus the One?

John’s two disciples found Jesus and said to him, “John the Baptist sent us to ask, ‘Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else? At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind. Then he told John’s disciples, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” Luke 7:20-23 NLT

Most of us, from time to time, have reason to give an account of ourselves. For me lately that has been part of the process of applying for various jobs. I have a curriculum vitae (CV), an outline of my working life, what I have done, where, when, and with whom. As the years have passed the list of things and places and people has grown longer, but at the beginning of the document there is a paragraph that summarises my professional life, so that those who read it can get a snapshot of who I am and what I have to offer.

This little paragraph in Luke’s gospel contains the same kind of summary for Jesus. This is what I do, Jesus says. He was answering a question of John the Baptist, but he could just as well be answering ours. Who are you Jesus? Are you the one? The answer to all my questions, the fulfilment of my hopes and dreams? Are you God? Can you save the world?

John had met Jesus, he had talked to him, he had seen something of what Jesus was up to. He had seen him perform miracles, and he had heard Jesus say that he had come to set captives free. But now John was in prison, and he was beginning to wonder. His circumstances did not measure up. He had acknowledged Jesus as “the One” and now he was facing death. How could that be?

It can be the same for us. We “meet” Jesus, we put our faith in him, then things go wrong. Things happen that shouldn’t happen. We find ourselves the victims of a world that hates God, and we wonder where Jesus went when we needed him most.

John was having second thoughts. Had he got it right? Was Jesus a fraud? He was faced with a decision. Would he continue with Jesus or not? Sometimes we are faced with the same decision, when our circumstances suggest to us that he has forgotten us. How will we respond to Jesus? Will we continue with him, or abandon him? Are we going to testify to his goodness, or grow bitter because we feel he has failed us? Will we “fall away,” as Jesus says?

Perhaps circumstances, and the feelings they bring, are the commonest reason to doubt Jesus, the most frequent reason people fall away, turning their back on him. It certainly came close to that for me, when I was 18 years old and my best friend was killed in a motorbike accident. I was angry and sad, and doubts flooded in. I had to decide. Would I continue to believe in Jesus, or would I abandon him?

How did Jesus answer John? He simply related what he had been doing: healing, raising the dead, preaching. He presented, in a sense, his CV. Then he left John to make up his own mind. He did not explain to John why he was in prison. Jesus must have known what was going through John’s mind. But he didn’t refer to that struggle. He said simply, look at me. He directed John’s attention away from his own circumstances and tried to refocus him on Jesus’ words and acts, preaching, healing, resurrecting.

Our generation is not very impressed by preaching, but healing and raising the dead never fail to impress, though reports of such in our day routinely produce a response of scepticism. But these things were happening in Israel (and even then there was no shortage of scepticism), an outpost on the periphery of the Roman Empire. The man Jesus was in the centre of it all. His extraordinary actions, and confronting teachings, were turning Israel upside down. Eventually they would turn the whole of the Empire upside down, and then the whole world.

This then was Jesus’ answer to John’s spoken question (“Are you the Messiah?”), but implicitly also to his unspoken question (“Why am I in jail?”). I feel sure that Jesus knew what John was really struggling with, just as he knows each of our struggles. I have a Christian friend for whom everything seems to have gone wrong. While discussing her situation with a mutual acquaintance, the question came up, where is God in all of this? Why do the righteous suffer? Is God real? Is Jesus really who he says he is?

Often it seems Jesus does not answer such questions directly. He says to us what he said to John: look at what I am doing, listen to what I say, and decide for yourself. At the same time he is often silent about what he is not doing, why he is not rescuing us (or others) from painful or frightening circumstances. He challenges and encourages us: “try not to fall away because of what I am not doing,” even though that may be foremost in our minds. He doesn’t say that it will be easy, but I believe it is the only way we can survive the temptation to abandon Jesus when things go wrong.

John’s response to what Jesus said is not recorded. Luke recorded Jesus’ answer to John so later generations – you and me – could make their own assessment of Jesus. What will your response be? What is mine? For those of us who were blind but can now see, who were deaf but can now hear, who were wracked by disease but are now whole, it is hard to ignore Jesus. For those of us who have allowed the “good news” of the kingdom to answer the deep longings of our hearts, our answer is clear.

But Jesus is aware that not all of us will be in places of happiness and wholeness, as he was aware of John’s suffering. Even then we are faced with a decision, how to respond to Jesus. Will we base our answer to that on our circumstances, or his actions and deeds? Our answer to that will decide whether we become people of faith, or unbelievers.

Jesus was, and is, more than just words. He was a man of action. He lived what he spoke. He showed by his actions what he claimed to be true in his teaching. Often the things he said were hard to swallow, often he didn’t do what people thought he should. The result, then and now, is that some are more offended than challenged, more indignant than amazed. Some then, and now, look at their circumstances or the circumstances of others, and decide that Jesus is not real, is not trustworthy. Jesus said however, that “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.”

What will you decide? Will you believe in him?

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Compassion

When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said. Luke 7:13 NLT

There is a story about Jesus coming to a village called Nain, in Galilee. There was a funeral procession coming out of the village as he approached, and the man who had died was the only son of a widow.

There is nothing to indicate that Jesus knew this woman. She was overwhelmed by her grief and was probably only slightly aware of the crowd coming into Nain as she and her friends made their way in the opposite direction, to the burial place.

Jesus may well have asked the people around him who she was. He may well have been told her story, and he thus became aware of her plight. To be a widow in ancient Israel could not have been easy. For at that time a woman’s value in society was so often determined not by herself, but by the men in her life. She had already lost her husband, who had given her both social standing and economic security. Now she had lost her only son, whom she loved.

Who was this son she had lost? The text says he was a young man. There is no indication that he was married or had his own family. There is no indication of what he did, or what he was like, or what had happened to him, only that he was dead. Presumably he lived with his mother and provided for her from whatever work he did. Presumably his death was not only a deeply distressing blow for her emotionally, but also economically. The future she was faced with was one of loneliness and poverty.

When Jesus restored her son to life he was addressing both her emotional needs and her economic needs. It is easy sometimes to think that Jesus is only concerned for our spiritual needs, our eternal salvation. But this story challenges that notion. He did not challenge her spiritually, he did not invite her to put her faith in him. He simply responded to her need and her pain. With compassion.

This story says so much about Jesus. It says that he saw and cared deeply for the plight of women in a society that saw them as second rate citizens. We live in a world even today where many women feel that they are undervalued simply because they were born female.  We live in a world where if women are valued it is often because of their youth and beauty, or sexual potential, rather than for their humanity. Jesus was not like that. He valued women as highly as he valued men, not for how they looked, or what they could be used for, or what they produced, but simply because they were people. He paved the way for the feminist movement that has changed our world over the last hundred years.

The story also says that Jesus cared both about people’s physical needs and their emotional needs. He knew the implications of this boy’s death for the older woman. He knew that there was little chance she would find another man to be with her or provide for her at her stage in life. He knew she would be lonely. He knew she needed her son. He responded to that need. He is still the same. He sees our needs, and he cares about them, and he intervenes in our lives to help us, if we let him.

Doctors are faced every day with both the physical and emotional needs of people who present to them. Traditionally it is physical illness that is our thing. But in my day to day work it seems emotional and psychological needs are often the bigger burden for people. I live and work in a society where physical illness is still a huge threat to people’s sense of wellbeing, and I have an arsenal of medical interventions to help them fight those battles. Partly because of that, in this age of human history we live longer and healthier than ever before.

But there is an epidemic of emotional and psychological illness which is harder to address. Yet such illnesses affect people’s wellbeing just as deeply, perhaps even more, than their physical maladies. Sometimes it seems that this is the most depressed and anxious age that humanity has ever known. In a few weeks I will attend a day long workshop on suicide prevention. Depression is killing young and old in our society, and anxiety is paralysing many, holding them in bondage.

Jesus cares about this. He will intervene, if we allow him. As doctors we have limited resources to respond: medications to try to alter our patient’s brain chemistry, a referral pad for psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, to provide more specialised therapies. But as a doctor who has grown up in the knowledge of how Jesus can change our outlook and response to our psychological and emotional burdens, I am often struck by how much more I have to help me through the struggles of life than the many people I meet who have no faith.

However, I live in an age and a social context that frowns upon, even forbids me in many cases, from telling people of the hope and healing I have found in knowing Jesus, and this is a struggle for me. I am told that to share my faith is unprofessional, and an abuse of the trust people place in me, unduly applying pressure on people to change their belief system. It is because Jesus is seen as a religion, and not as a person. Religion can be so divisive, and has done so much damage, so the thinking goes. I could say Jesus is not a religion, but a person… but that is a difficult discussion.

In my context the main thing for me to do is treat people in the way Jesus treats me, and then leave the rest to him. I cannot heal people miraculously, or raise them from the dead, much as I would like to. But I can, like Jesus, treat all people with respect, regardless of sex or ethnicity or age, regardless of wealth or appearance or achievement, regardless of their “goodness” or “badness” in the eyes of society.  For every one I can be as concerned for their emotional, economic and psychological needs as I am for their physical illness, even if I often feel powerless to “fix them.”

The key, I believe to being like Jesus in my job, it not to follow his example in raising people from the dead, or miraculously healing the sick, as much as I would love to be able to do so. The key lies in adopting the attitude of Jesus toward the people he met. This story tells us that Jesus’ heart “overflowed with compassion.” “Don’t cry,” he said. This is the example I need to follow, for this kind of attitude changes lives. Yet it is so easy not to care, but simply to go through the motions. To do what I have to, without any emotional involvement on my part.

There is a song of Keith Green’s that I have been listening to lately as I drive to work each day. It says simply this:

The end of all my prayers, is to care like my Lord cares
My one and only goal, his image in my soul…
We are his workmanship, created for good works in Christ…

This story teaches us the good work we are created for as Christian doctors and nurses, to have hearts that “overflow with compassion,” and to speak gentle words of comfort. “Don’t cry!”

Gentle words are a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:4

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