Where was God on Monday 15th April?

That evening I arrived home from a run to find my family watching the breaking news about the bombing of the Boston Marathon. I stood dumbstruck at the images that were appearing on the screen. The sight of Jeff Bauman with his feet blown off and several inches of bare bone dangling from his knees where his leg should be is imprinted on my brain. It is hard to comprehend the news that 8 year old Martin Richard was killed, his 7 year old sister Jane lost a leg, and his mother Denise suffered serious brain injuries, as together they waited to watch their father cross the finish line.

26 years ago I ran the London Marathon and relished the atmosphere of fun and celebration. Being a part of thousands of runners, ranging from elite athletes, through club runners to first time runners doing it for a bet or to raise money for charity is a privilege that I thank God for. Just over four hours after the start I crossed the finishing line and received my medal, a mars bar and an aluminium space blanket. Next job was to find my wife and family who had turned out to support me so that we could celebrate my achievement. The Boston runners who were arriving at the finish line would have been sharing a similar sense of elation; joy and relief at completing the run, delight at being reunited with their loved ones, as they looked forward to a shower and post run meal. Instead their world has been shattered by this cowardly atrocity. My 1987 marathon time would have placed me near the finish just as the bomb went off!

Atrocities like this often cause us to wonder as we try and make sense of the events as they unfold. A common response that people have is “where was God in this tragedy?” To give a comprehensive answer to that question would require many more words than I can write here but there are two observations that I hope will help us to draw some comfort at this time.

Firstly the question seems to suggest that God does not care about tragedies like this. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sense of outrage and indignation that we feel is a pale reflection of God’s anger and outrage when men carry out evil attacks like this. The fact that we feel so incensed when events like those we have seen in Boston take place is because human beings have been made in God’s image, and innately we all share God’s sense of right and wrong. God gives humans freedom to make choices, and is grieved when they choose to do evil in much the same way that a parent is grieved when siblings are unkind towards each other. Every person who feels outrage at these events echoes God’s own pain over man’s inhumanity to man.

Secondly stories are coming out of Boston of acts of great kindness and generosity towards victims of the bombing. Whether it is the immediate response of the emergency service personnel on scene at the time, or the householders who provided food and drink, blankets and accommodation to runners left standing in only their running kit, it is in simple acts like this that God demonstrates his love and care at times of great tragedy. More often, God chooses to reveal his kindness through the understated acts of ordinary men and women, than through miraculous or dramatic. I am convinced that God was present in Boston that afternoon; we just need our eyes opened to see how.

By the time you read this the London Marathon will have taken place amid heightened security. I pray it will do so without incident, and that the event will prove a fitting tribute to the victims of the Boston bombs as runners wear their black ribbons. Later this month (19th May) many of us will be participating in our own Hook Fun Run, perhaps you will consider joining me in wearing a black ribbon as we take part.

This blog post featured in the May 2013 edition of Hook Focus

Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes

If you have recently gone past St John’s Church in Hook you may have seen that they have trimmed their trees and hedges. You will notice that their beautiful Weeping Willow tree has been drastically cut back to a bare trunk with just 4 or 5 thick, stumpy branches. All the beautiful willowy fronds that hung down to head height have gone; the tree looks lifeless and denuded. This process is called pollarding and I understand it is vital for the longer term health of certain species of tree. In some cases it can extend their life for many years compared to a tree that is allowed to grow untended in any way. In quite a short space of time the tree outside St John’s will grow back more vigorous than before.

In John 15, Jesus drew his disciple’s attention to the careful work of a vinedresser who prunes the vine tree to maximise its fruitfulness. Fruitless branches are taken away and burned, but branches that bear fruit are pruned so that they become more fruitful. It is this latter observation that drew my attention.

Jesus is teaching us that healthy churches and healthy individual followers of Jesus can expect to experience pruning in order that they remain healthy and bear fruit. He does not tell us explicitly what pruning looks like in spiritual terms, however the pruning imagery indicates that, in the short term at least, the process can appear quite savage and brutal. This suggests to me that any life experience that causes us pain has the potential to be a part of our spiritual pruning for fruitfulness. Sometimes when we are faced with adversity we imagine that it is in some way punishment for sin in our life. That is to forget how Jesus deals with our sin – he offers us forgiveness which in turn prompts us to cut away the sin in our lives. The pruning that Jesus does by contrast is in response to fruitfulness to ensure our ongoing spiritual health. In other words, pruning is a sign of the vinedresser’s approval rather than his displeasure.

What does it mean to bear much fruit? Jesus does not make that clear in this passage. Elsewhere in the New Testament however we see two kinds of kingdom fruitfulness: the fruitfulness of Christ-like character and the fruitfulness of new believers joining the church. Both of these are fruit that are eternal. Difficult seasons in our lives can cause us to retreat and feel sorry for ourselves. A better response is to expect that we become more like Christ and to anticipate opportunities to share his love with others.

This blog post featured in the May 2013 edition of Lifelines

Will you be my facebook friend? – by Tim Chester

WillYouBeMyFacebookFriend Many of us now inhabit two worlds: the online world which exists through a whole variety of social network media such as Facebook, and the physical offline world. Even those people who never use a computer will have an online existence as a result of the legitimate actions of others. Many are concerned about the impact that online relationships are having on offline relationships. For example more than a third of UK divorce filings in 2011 contained the word ‘Facebook’! How do we respond to this as followers of Jesus? Is social networking an intrinsic evil we should avoid or can it be a useful tool for the gospel?

This helpful little booklet explores some of the underlying issues behind social media: image, identity, idolatry and self-promotion to mention a few. Dr Tim Chester addresses these in a clear and concise manner, drawing upon pastoral and biblical wisdom. He asks questions to help us evaluate the impact of Facebook on our lives and concludes the book with 12 guidelines that he recommends to keep it in an appropriate place in our lives.

  1. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say were the people concerned in the room.
  2. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t share publicly with your Christian community.
  3. Ensure your online world is visible to your offline Christian community.
  4. Challenge one another if you think someone’s online self reflects a self-created identity rather than identity in Christ.
  5. Challenge one another if you think someone’s online self doesn’t match their offline self.
  6. Use social networking to enhance real-world relationships, not to replace them.
  7. Don’t let children have unsupervised Internet access or accept as online friends people you don’t know offline.
  8. Set limits to the time you spend online and ask someone to hold you accountable to these.
  9. Set aside a day a week as a technology ‘Sabbath’ or ‘fast’.
  10. Avoid alerts (emails, tweets, texts and so on) that interrupt other activities, especially reading, praying, worshipping and relating.
  11. Ban mobiles from the meal table and the bedroom.
  12. Look for opportunities to replace disembodied (online or phone) communication with embodied (face-to-face) communication.

Buy Will you be my Facebook Friend? from Amazon UK
Buy Will you be my Facebook Friend? from Amazon US