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.
There is something heartening about stories of redemption.
Following football (or soccer if you must) as I do it, is often that players come along who develop a reputation. Assisted by fans and the media, that reputation seemingly forever shapes how the player is regarded. If that reputation is positive the player may on occasion gain an unfair advantage due to officials taking the reputation into account. Likewise if the reputation is negative, the player may be hard done by on occasion because of what has gone on before.
For a number of reasons the bad boy reputation never seems to give the person a break. Soon they themselves believe there is little else to do but live down to the reputation. Thus continues the ongoing cycle of defeat.
Thank God for hope. Hope of redemption.
This is the unrelenting hope in God who is able to take those bad boy reputations and turns them on their head. The indefatigable hope in God who will not give up on His creation even while others have written us off because of what we have done.
Those redemption stories are not just about sportspeople. I have witnessed people from messed up homes with a messed up past discounted by the education system and rejected in society come across loving people who support the individual. Over time the rebellious energy is channelled into something more constructive.
More than this is the greatest story of redemption that sees rebellious humanity given the chance to live like the children of the Creator.
It’s tough believing anyone can change, but the hope of redemption is what keeps us going in spite of the failure. It’s what stops us from going cynical and hostile to the people we serve.
What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols. Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns.(Jeremiah 2:5, 11, 28)
Whether it’s the pursuit of money or material gain, grasping for power and control, straining for popularity and acceptance, chasing celebrity and credibility I sometimes wonder if we’re no less idolatrous a people as Judah.
If we are, there is still a way to return to God.
If you, Israel, will return, then return to me,” declares the Lord. “If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray,and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ then the nations will invoke blessings by him and in him they will boast.Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, (Jeremiah 4:1-4a)
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.
I did not know about Michael English until the turn of the century. While doing some work in Nottingham, a friend had some videos and on them were some Gaither Homecoming and Gaither Vocal Band stuff. First I heard or saw them, despite the fact that with songs like Because He Lives, I’d been singing Gaither stuff since I could sing.
I never took up interest in Gaither stuff until around 2008, where I just got into them in a fairly concerted manner. I was particularly interested in the Gaither Vocal Band and the variety of formations they had over the years. they have been tremendously blessed to have had some fine vocalists and superb combinations in their run, and one of the outstanding vocalists who rejoined them soon after their 25th anniversary, is Michael English.
From the top, I have to brazenly state quite clearly, this was a superb read. Truly brilliant. Good reads give you the impression you are listening to the writer speak to you in their voice. You don’t have to know them – I don’t know Michael English – but the way the book is written opens you up to who he is. It is a true personal work. Even if he had assistance with the writing of it, this enhances his voice, not detract from it. You are not reading the works of Shakespeare or Dickens, you’re not meant to be impressed by the wide vocabulary. You are caught up with how this guy grew up and dealt with the many issues in his life that threatened to take him under.
The read gave a good insight into his struggles from childhood, and how those things that a child suffers with, can be the framework that affects them in adulthood. It remains amazing how the attitudes of adults can have such damaging impacts on children. It is a true saying that hurt people, hurt people because we’re hurt, people.
What the book also does well is allow us to get inside English’s thinking during the events that took place, whether it was finding acclaim as a singer with the Gaither Vocal Band initially and then in his solo career, and then the circumstances surrounding the fall. He is fairly open and accepts responsibility for his part in affairs, and I couldn’t read it without looking at my own heart and recognising some similar issues that I can more than relate with.
One particular poignant aspect of the read should act as something of hope for addicts of any kind. English’s descent into addiction, and his struggle overcoming it and staying clean, then the variety of responses from the church are vivid and evocative. Reading the journey he makes is filled with such a range of emotions that I sometimes want to share this with everyone I come across and say, “Read this, this is what real Christians suffer with. Take away the mask of civility, and we’re all struggling inside, and we need help!” Really excellent stuff from English as he endeavours to be as transparent as he can.
He also shows that the way back is not always that straightforward. Some can boast of instant and complete healings, but the story that English relates is one where there are setbacks and relapses. His very return is one that he fully appreciates is a day-by-day by God’s grace experience. That as well is refreshing to read.
The book has the tagline “My story of failure and God’s story of redemption. When you read it, however, the God’s story aspect is rather amazing looking at how certain characters remain faithful to English even in the depths of his addiction, when things were really rough for the guy. People who were around and virtually saved his life are so impressive in their acts of kindness that it says again that God’s story of redemption works through people, even if the mess we find ourselves in is worsened by people. Human beings – what complex creatures.
There is so much to be said about what the book highlights and what people can learn from it, that I could not recommend it enough. It’s a book rooted in real human experience that people can relate with in many ways. English evidently wrote it so people could see the glory of God in helping people return from the darkest pits in life. I am grateful for him writing this book. I am grateful to God for rescuing him and giving him a testimony that will help others to similarly know that the Father’s heart is to see the prodigal sons and daughters come to their senses and return home. If you get the chance, purchase the book read it. Then give it to someone else.
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.