My friend asked me if I was going to say anything, I shook my head. Eventually he got up and shared an aspect of his testimony and he simply gave thanks for being redeemed. It had a powerful impact on the listeners. It had a powerful impact on me. He knew where he had been and how bad things were and how amazing it was for God to redeem Him from that by His love. He knew God for himself, he had a story of the Redeemed.
This Psalm shares four other stories of the Redeemed. Whether wanderers looking for a city to settle in, or those whose decisions actively placed them in darkness, or those foolish and sickened by their rebellion or those on the season about to be overwhelmed by the storms of their voyage – these all knew what it was to be in peril, what it was to cry out to God and what it was for God to hear and rescue them.
These stories are to inspire us to know we have a story to share. How we were sinking in sin, far from the peaceful shore. How our active rebellion left us in a spiralling cycle of addiction and pain. How we were looking for something to satisfy in so many different areas and things and came up short in all of them. In those situations, some cataclysmic, some internal as we die in quiet agony. Whatever the situation, we have a story to share – a real story – of God showing up and showing out reversing the fortunes of the afflicted and shutting up the wicked.
We have a story to share in word or song. In conversation and in life. A story of giving thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind.
Meatloaf always made me chuckle with the line I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.
For the Meatloaf fans, feel free to let me know how I got the wrong end of the stick and don’t appreciate the lyrical beauty of the piece. It still makes me chuckle.
Anyway, I was reflecting on the redemption stories that focus on family failings. How far a man will go to protect his children because he didn’t protect his wife. Or how much a mother wants to support her daughter because she failed to appreciate her own mother who suffered and died of a broken heart before reparation could be made.
I was reflecting on that and thinking about what lengths we would go to for love. What lengths we would go to for others to live a better life. What lengths we would go to for the wholeness of the family. The lengths we go to for the right outcome.
Two incidents in the space of a week has me thinking again about how we should remember people.
Former radio and television personality and charity worker Jimmy Saville, who died a year ago, has not been accused of a number of incidents of sexually inappropriate behaviour. The charges and allegations have caused quite a stir at the BBC and brought out some other accusations of inappropriate behaviour that was tolerated in media circles.
Then, of course, there is the issue of Lance Armstrong which again has caused headlines after the Usada sent over evidence suggesting that the man who won 7 Tour de France competitions was responsible for being part of one of the most sophisticated doping schemes ever seen in sport. This is the same Lance Armstrong that overcame cancer and used it to be an inspiration to others. Indeed his cycling exploits established him among the greatest cyclists of all time.
When things like this happen it understandably evokes passionate reactions from people. Some prefer to remember people for the positive impact they made in life. They recall the good charity work, the time they invested in helping people’s dreams come true and the extent to which they raised people’s esteem.
Some are all about condemning and castigating the former hero. To have presented a front of respectability which hides something a great deal more sinister is a fall from grace, some people cannot recover from. It hurts like betrayal and it tarnishes everything about them. Anything good they ever did can never be seen in the same light again.
I am not saying which way I go where that’s concerned. I am saying this. When I read about the heroes of faith, some of their ‘indiscretions’ were fairly serious. In fact by fairly serious, I really mean very serious. I mean people being killed kind of serious.
What makes them heroes of faith, though, is that their failings and sins did not stop them from pursuing and living for the God of righteousness, justice, love and mercy. As long as He is on His throne, no matter the level of depths we fall into, there is still redemption. And as long as He is holy and righteous there is no one who can make a claim against someone as though they’ve never been guilty of indiscretions themselves. The argument of not being as bad as others doesn’t cut it in the scheme of things.
Thinking the best about people is a healthy pursuit. The failing, flaws and faults that people have and the traumas they cause are not to be dismissed, I’m not suggesting that for a minute. Yet these things happen and after they happen we have a choice as to whether to be part of the process of healing, restoration and reconciliation or the path that leads to hatred, contempt and bitterness.
It is events like these that really challenges followers of Christ to see if they know and can express the love that covers a multitude. By cover, I certainly don’t mean condone, but it certainly prevents a condemnation without hope for redemption.
Now for me that is a big deal. Before my love of music comes reading. Before my love of writing comes reading. Before my love of football comes reading. I can say to a large degree my understanding of God has primarily come through reading. So for me to go months without reading, as I said is a big deal.
Anyway, the reading fast came to an end recently when I came into some money. (It’s alright, nobody died and left me money in their will, neither did I rob a bank … well that’s the story I’ll tell the police, anyway.) From having read nothing in months, I went crazy and started not one, not two, but five books within a week. That’s right, I started reading five books.
Usually I’m not so impulsive in getting back into reading. My regular habit was to have a main book, with one on the back-burner ready to take the mantle once I finished the main one. Being a phase-reader, sometimes the backburner book can come to the foreground and the main book goes on the backburner.
So with five books on the go, there is a lot of room for different phases to kick in and dominate. It’s good stuff really because the range of books means that I can find one to fit a phase relatively easy. One of the books is on the nature of the church and kingdom. Another book is on kingdom lifestyle and discipleship. One of the other books deals with our attitude to traditions in Christendom and contrasting them with a Jesus-centred approach. Another book is a biography on Margaret Thatcher.
It is the fifth book – which is the main one at present due to the phase I’m in – that has inspired today’s blog entry.
The Prodigal Comes Home
Michael English was a singer with the Gaither Vocal Band before starting a highly successful solo career that crashed and burned when shock revelations were made about him. The fall from grace was heavy and the amount of difficulties he faced were large. By the grace of God he came to himself, returned to his Father and made a slow but significant recovery. He shares the story in the book The Prodigal Comes Home. It’s one I’d already recommend heartily to read if you can get your hands on a copy.
The opening pages reminded me of the amazing grace of God that restores people. Of course that hymn Amazing Grace speaks of saving wretches. A wretch as you can gather is hardly the most endearing commendation to describe your character. What grace speaks of, however, is reaching people whose character may not endear them to others, but God is still able to reach them and love them and change their whole lives around. Not overnight, but His glory can still be seen and experienced through them.
This amazing grace of God works for wretches – even those who have been church members for years. Even those brought up in the church, well steeped in its expectations, and goes through the rites of passage to be accepted in the Family of God and still mess up big time. There is often talk of the God of a second chance, but when you consider how many times we mess up, you’ll have to suggest that He is a God of multiple chances. His patience with us is truly extraordinary.
What is also clear about the grace of God, is that it is able to work even when we don’t want it.
When We Don’t Choose Grace – Grace Still Chooses Us
A lot is made at times about the power of man to choose. Entire theological constructs are based on the supremacy of man’s free will as if that is the be all and end all. Yet sometimes our state of mind, the environment that we’re in and other constraining factors are such that the free will – the ability to choose is severely hampered.
For example, if you find yourself in the depths of a drug addiction or other heavy type of dependency, it’s difficult to really say that you ‘choose’ to be enslaved. That’s exactly because you are enslaved. Forces and circumstances – even if it might be as a result of choices you’ve made, though that’s always the case – put you in that devastating vicious cycle where at your very best, you know you’re only a few moments away from craving those pills or seeking that hit.
Sometimes you know it’s wrong, you’re desperate to do right, but you still find yourself going down that same path that leads to all kinds of mess. You want to be strong. You want to resist. Sometimes it can be all too much for you. You simply don’t have the power. Your free will as it were is enslaved.
Herein lies the awesome power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where your power is insufficient, His grace is sufficient.
There are testimonies of people who look back on their lives and see quite clearly that it is this Amazing Grace that literally saved the wretch that was them. Not their will-power, not their tenacity and other inherent characteristics. It was solely the work of God intervening and plucking out those He calls His own. He redeems.
Conclusion: Redemption Is All God
I don’t dismiss the role of choice and our responsibility. I’m just saying that to put it on a pinnacle of supremacy that we can do from time to time completely ignores the sovereignty and awesome grace of God. The reality, if we consider it, that in as much as we can take the responsibility for certain things that happen in our lives, we must surely also give God all the glory for doing things for us and in us that we could never do – or even choose to do.
This is another reason why it’s so important for those who follow Jesus never to give up on God’s ability to restore people from whatever fall they may have experienced. Rather than write them off, we should forever be grateful that God can redeem, no matter how hard and how long the fall. We should be grateful that God has the fatted calf ready and waiting for prodigal sons and daughters to return home.
Documentaries, I love them. I love how decent documentaries are the very best in true life stories. By best I mean even the best of the worst of human characteristics.
ESPN did a brilliant series of documentaries on various sports stories celebrating their 30 years in existence (30 For 30). One of them was on the issue of Marion Jones. Go Google her if you don’t know the full story. My idiot’s basic guide is that Ms Jones was a brilliant athlete who attained golds at Olympics among other things. Later it transpired that she was taking performance enhancing drugs and she had lied for a number of years denying it until she was caught and imprisoned.
What I liked abut the documentary was the talking points that emerged from it. I love watching these with my wife as we get to unpack the issues and see their relevance in our lives and relationship, etc. Cheating is not something that applies to sport, as you know. Neither is it just about sexual infidelity. Cheating is the glorification of lying.
You may never have cheated a day in your life. Congratulations. That is not my story. Part of my story has included indiscretions for which I have been held accountable and had to acknowledge my responsibility as well as endure the guilt and shame. During those times there are questions that are hard to really answer. When I say hard to answer, I mean the answers to them expose some uglier aspects to the self that are not obviously things you want to dwell on. As long as you can minimise your cheating, then it is not a big deal and not worth people getting upset about. Yet whether you cheat in a small way, or it’s taking steroids in a global sport in God’s eyes (oh remember Him) it’s a big deal. As in it causes a barrier between the two. Barriers between you and God create barriers between you and yourself let alone you and the rest of the world.
The issue between you and the rest of the world, if you’re caught, can be disastrous. You know what we’re like. Immediately we are judge, jury and executioner. How could you do that? That was awful, why did you do that to me? Why didn’t you tell me? How do you ever expect me to trust you again? As a result the two-face engagements become regular and you become a social leper.
That could be unbearable, if it were not for the deal between you and God. I am glad for a relationship with Him that is based on the vulnerability and transparency that encourages confession, repentance and redemption. It does not excuse any sin – cheating, or whatever – it just says now that you have confessed, be cleansed and get on with your life.
There is great joy in knowing that is how God is and it is incredible to see His love through people who I’ve cheated and hurt and have forgiven me and helped me to realise redemption and bear it in mind and heart. It’s especially useful when I come across those who as your KJV informs ‘trespass against me’. Rather than pointing out how much someone has cheated, I can thank God that here is someone who can be redeemed by the grace that sets me free.
At the moment I enjoy my sleeping patterns. In the evening my wife and youngest daughter will retire to bed at a relatively early time and being exhausted by events, I won’t have that much stamina to stay up for that much longer and I’m usually gone before 11pm. Almost like clockwork way before 6am the youngest will call for a feed and that will be a call with my name on it, so that gives me plenty of time not only to attend to the youngest, but then to sort out kitchen domestics and then meself out with plenty of time to focus on the day ahead before heading out for work at about 7:30am.
This morning in particular was especially expedient. The feed call came before 5:30am and whilst attending to the kitchen domestics I put on a playlist of some gospel songs (I am a person who enjoys musical background to chores). One of them was a classic Andrae Crouch called ‘(Take A Little Time To Say) Thank You Lord’ from his Live in London album. The lyrical gist of the song surrounds the retelling of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus with only one returning to say thanks and then relating it to Andrae’s gratitude for key incidents of God’s kindness in his life from salvation to physical healing.
Sometimes there’s a song that will stick in the craw and this was one of those that I had to keep on repeat because of what it triggered. Last night I was in text conversation with a dear friend and he brought up that it was 6 years to the day that Liverpool had won the Champions League. I am, as you should know, a big Liverpool fan and winning the European Champions League is the last great thing the club has won since their reign of dominance in English and European football over the mid ’60’s through the 70’s and 80’s. Something like that should have been a big deal for someone like me, and yet because of that stage in my life’s journey I was hardly around to appreciate it at the time.
I’ve been a ‘professing Christian’ for the majority of my life. In that time I’ve experienced plenty of things that have made me seriously question that professing. At that point six years ago I was in a bad place relationally, emotionally and spiritually. Serious ‘errors of judgement’ had exposed some nasty aspects of my heart and had lead to some grievous consequences. Those impacted my family life and especially had a negative effect on my performances at work. By the time Liverpool were winning the Champions League, I remember missing the match completely being almost completely out of it in terms of functioning properly. It was not long after then that I was relieved of my responsibilities at work and spent almost a year unemployed.
The memories of that time are not pleasant. I am not proud of my behaviour at the time and the hurt it caused those I loved the most. Yet I am tremendously grateful to God for that time. In hindsight that time was crucial for me to brought low to truly understand (or begin to understand) that it’s better to humble yourself rather than be humiliated to appreciate the honour of humility. As a result I always treasure the first beatitude – blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
This was a valley experience from which Jesus miraculously delivered me, restored me to Himself, restored me to my family and those I love the most and established me in what remains the most worthwhile job I’ve done to date working for the YMCA in Stoke-on-Trent. Funnily it was at the YMCA that I made friends with the guy who was celebrating the six year anniversary of Liverpool’s Champions League victory. I would never have made friends with him were it not for that valley experience. It’s no exaggeration to say that I would not be where I am today were it not for that low time in my life.
Also with the funny I always reflect on that Liverpool team that won the Champions League as one of the worst – on paper – to have won the trophy since it existed. The match is known for the team going 3-0 down to a very good AC Milan team by half-team and the majority of people not expecting Liverpool to come back in the match, let alone win the thing. Yet in that marvellous night in Istanbul the team managed to make the greatest comeback in the history of the final and take the game to penalties before winning in dramatic circumstances.
That reminds me of the grace of God in my life through that valley experience – on paper I did not deserve the great things He had given. On paper I really should have been down and out with the pain I had caused by my mistakes. On paper I was in the worst condition. And yet God saw it fit to amazingly turn around the situation and lead me along paths of righteousness for His Name’s Sake and establish me as a winner in life – a winner in having a beautiful wife and enjoying three beautiful daughters. A winner in having good friends with whom I get to share life and help in making me a true follower of Christ. A winner in being gainfully employed in something that helps to change lives for the better. A winner in being gifted to do things like this writing thing. Most of all, however, a real winner and champion of the universe in knowing and being known by Jesus Christ who even in my low condition extends grace and love that restores. Thank God life is not judged or lived on paper.
So like the song I heard whilst doing those kitchen domestics, I just want to take a little time and say Thank You Lord, for all You’ve done for me.
Whether you know the story of the prodigal son or not – and I’m glad that there are other perspectives that suggest it’s probably more the story of the prodigal father – it is a gift to be able to express the word in a way that embeds itself in your heart. Sermons (where did we get that from again? Scripture? Which one? Preach I got, but sermon?) can be effective to an extent, but recite to me the best sermon you ever heard. Go on. Now lets talk about the songs you remember, maybe even the movies you love, the good times with your friends, etc. A lot easier to recount. Why is that?
Anyway, so having the gift to convey God’s Word n dramatic and dynamic fashion is a gift to be valued and celebrated. Being a huge admirer of the work of Keith Green, it is the ideal opportunity to celebrate what this brother did to make the story of redemption come across in evocative style.