New Year’s Eve, 7 pm. Another year comes to its end. Three hundred and sixty-five days. Some of those days have been very happy. Some have been very sad. Some have been days when the Lord has seemed very close. Some have been days when he’s seemed very far away. Yet goodness and mercy have followed me through every one of those days.
At this time each year, I try to look back and count the blessings of the past twelve months. Sometimes I find I’m listing lots of particular, individual mercies: remarkable answers to prayer; striking providences; happy deliverances. As I review this year, it’s not those things which stand out in my mind. Rather, I’m conscious of the kindness of God displayed in everyday ways: the mercies that have just gone on day after day, month after month. Yes, there have been some particular answers to prayer, some thrilling “coincidences”. And I must give thanks to God for them. But the real proof of a father’s kindness is not the occasional gifts he gives his children on special occasions, but the way he protects and provides for them every day.
I often tell the story of a Christian man living in the mountains of Switzerland who arrived at his pastor’s home very excited. He poured out the story of the remarkable way God had protected him that very day, and urged the pastor to join him in giving thanks. He told how close he had comes to disaster when his car’s brakes failed on the steep mountain road. Out of control, the car had hurtled round the hairpin bends, its wheels inches from the precipice, gathering speed as it went. Yet, marvellously, it had stayed on the road, until at the bottom it had ground to a halt.
The pastor listened silently to the story and then nodded. “Yes, a wonderful providence. God has indeed protected you”, he said. “And we must give thanks. But may I tell you my story first? Because I believe he has protected me in a still more wonderful way. I have been driving down that road for thirty years, and my brakes have never failed!”
Well, I don’t know if the story is true, but it makes the point! It is easy to see God’s mercy in occasional, extraordinary events, but to fail to recognise it in the whole fabric of daily life.
So let me list some of the every day kindnesses for which I give thanks as I look back on 2013.
I mustn’t say too much. Anne would be furious if I began to tell all the reasons why I thank God for her. Suffice it to say that when we got married in 2001, I was aware that God had given me a great gift. But with each year that has passed, I have discovered more of what a wonderful gift he’d chosen for me. “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her…” (Proverbs 31:10-11). Read the whole passage if you want a fuller picture!
I thank God that he gave Anne to me. I thank God that he’s protected her. At any time he could have taken her away through accident or illness. And I thank God that he’s guarded our marriage. Every marriage is a union of two sinners. Apart from God’s grace, any marriage could founder. If any marriage survives it’s because God restrains the sins that could destroy it. Thank you, Father, for that daily mercy. Thank you, Father, for Anne.
Again I mustn’t say too much. And again I don’t need to. The psalmist says it for me. “Children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of your youth…” (Psalm 127:3-4). My children weren’t born to me in my youth. But that makes me all the more grateful. Who would have thought that I would become a father of four at a time of life when many other men are becoming grandparents?
Like every parent I find my children frustrating, exhausting, at times enfuriating. But they bring me great joy. And yes (let’s admit it frankly), I’m proud of them.
Thank you, Father, for giving them to me. Thank you for all the ways in which they’re different from one another. Thank you for the ways they’ve grown and developed in 2013. Thank you for keeping them safe every day (even Vicky’s got through this year without accidents!). Thank you that they’re growing up knowing the Scriptures which are able to make them wise for salvation. Thank you that we have the opportunity to have daily family worship with them. Thank you that none of them thus far has rebelled against the standards and routines of Christian family life. Thank you for every hug or goodnight kiss.
Not “my church” in the sense of “the church I own”. “My church” in the sense of “the church I belong to – the church of which I’m a member”. I belong to a church, and it’s a church where I feel at home. Thank you, Father, for that.
I don’t take it for granted. There are believers who are cut off from any church fellowship. There are many more who worship with a church but struggle with some aspects of the church’s teaching or practice. There are perhaps very few who can say honestly, “I’m comfortable with the way things are done here”. But I can.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m conscious that there are many things that need to change about this church. We need to be more godly. We need to be more heavenly-minded. We need to be more loving. We need to be more prayerful. It’s right that all of us should be concerned about those things. But I can still say that I feel at home in this church in a way I might not be anywhere else.
Now of course, there’s a reason for that. I’ve been a member and pastor of this church from the beginning. So I’ve had a great deal of say about the direction the church has taken. But that doesn’t make my gratitude any less.
Sometimes I visit other churches. And often I’m moved by what I see in them – true doctrine, powerful preaching, visible godliness, holy living. But I still feel that it would be hard for me to fit into those churches – often because of some minor point of practice that would chafe on me. In one church, a collection box is passed round during services. In another, the communion wine is served in individual glasses. In another, the singing is accompanied by a mini-orchestra. In another, the word “pastor” is used as a title: “Pastor Jones, Pastor Smith…”. Now, those aren’t great issues – but they are issues where I think there’s a principle at stake. If had to, I hope I could be a loyal member of a church which disagreed with me about those things. But I thank God that I don’t have to be. I thank God that I can be part of a church where giving is secret; where believers share a common cup; where musical accompaniment is kept to a minimum; where I can be called “Stephen” not “Pastor”. I thank God that I have the luxury of belonging to a church where I don’t have to bite my tongue about such things. Thank you, Father, for this church.
And thank you, Father, that we’ve had another year of peace. A year without heated members’ meetings. A year without unhappy departures. A year without heartbreaking discipline cases. A year without quarrels and feuds. A year without public disputes. A year when brethren have dwelt together in unity. “It is like the dew of Hermon falling on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, even life forevermore”.
When David Last moved from us to Leytonstone eight years ago, I felt as if my right arm had been cut off. David was my colleague, doing a huge amount of work in the church, in public and behind the scenes. He was my fellow elder, steering the church through many difficulties and dilemmas. And he was my pastor, counselling me, encouraging me, warning me, praying with me and for me. It was hard to imagine that anyone would take David’s place.
And yet, God was preparing the man who would take David’s place. Geoff is a very different man from David in many ways. But he has the same total commitment to the service of the Lord and his church. He has the same willingness to take on whatever task needs to be done. He’s a wise man, a gifted man, a faithful man.
How often, during 2013, when we’ve talked together about some difficult situation, I’ve looked at Geoff, and said, “I don’t think I can face it. Could you… please??” And how relieved I’ve been when he’s said, “Yes, leave it with me”. Thank you, Father for a co-pilot who’s willing to take the controls when we’re flying into the stormiest weather.
And thank you, Father, for giving me Geoff as my pastor. Thank you for our weekly meetings, for the way he listens to my grumblings, helps me to see things more clearly, encourages me, advises me, prays for me. A faithful pastor is a great gift from the Lord.
Fellow-workers in the church
Too often, I hear pastors say plaintively, “I just can’t get people in the church to do anything”. They feel that they’re left to do everything. Or that there’s a tiny core of workers in the church who are expected to do all the work while others sit back and benefit. I thank God that he’s given to this church so many people who are willing to work. It’s not just Geoff.
There are so many folk who have shown their readiness to take on jobs that aren’t obviously rewarding, which don’t win any applause or public recognition. They’ve done them steadily, uncomplainingly, all through this past year. No. I’m not going to give a list of names. But I thank God for our deacons who serve the church in more ways than I can count. I thank God for our treasurer. I thank God for folk who open their homes and show hospitality. I thank God for Sunday-school teachers plodding away week by week. I thank God for folk who do the gardening, who clean the building, who provide the refreshments after services. I thank God for those who play the piano and accompany our singing. I thank God for church members who are extending the church’s witness into the community, and especially among elderly folk.
Many organisations are dependent on the work of one key figure. If (s)he were removed, the organisation would collapse. That’s true of many churches. But I can thank God that it’s not true of this church. If I were removed, by illness, death, or some other providence, I’m confident that the life, the work, the witness of the church, would hardly falter. Not one of the activities of the church would end, or be done less effectively. Thank you, Father, for that assurance.
Freedom to preach the gospel. Freedom from harassment. Freedom to live according to God’s commands. We’re conscious that Christians across the world are being persecuted. We’re aware that freedoms are being stripped away from Christians in the UK. We’ve heard alarming reports of open air preachers being arrested, believers being sacked from their jobs because they’ve upheld Christian standards, parents being harassed because they’re training their children as the Bible commands. But we’ve been wonderfully protected throughout the past year.
As a church, we’ve been able to witness in all sorts of places without hindrance. We’ve set up a book table on the high street, handed out leaflets, and no-one’s complained. The police have walked by and never questioned our right to be there. We’ve sung carols and given out literature outside the local superstore, and the management have given us an enthusiastic welcome. No, they’ve had no reservations, no qualms about our approaching their customers. They’ve told us they’re glad we’re doing it. We’ve been welcomed into nursing homes, into the local community centre, and given a free hand to preach the gospel in these places. We’ve organised activities for young men from local hostels and the staff have encouraged us, come along themselves, and supported us as we’ve preached the gospel to their “clients”. In fact, when we organised a barbecue for these young men, the staff were so enthused by our speaker’s bold testimony that they arranged for him to speak at their own “equality and diversity day”!
I’m not aware that any of our church members have been forced against their conscience to work on Sundays or to condone immoral behaviour. Nor am I aware that the authorities have tried to restrict our freedom to bring up our children as we think fit. Some of the families in this church home-educate their children – and the authorities have left them alone to do it. Anne and I were invited to talk to a representative of the Local Education Authority. We spelt out our approach, and the fact that behind it all are our Christian convictions – and he commended enthusiastically all we were doing.
Such freedoms may not last. There are storm-clouds on the horizon. But thank you, Father, for allowing us to enjoy liberty for one more year.
Still a believer
Another year gone. And I’m still a believer. It’s a miracle. I’ve been kept. In the face of all Satan’s attacks, all the deceits of my own heart, all the temptations of a godless world, I’m still a Christian. However stumbling my walk with God, I still want to know his friendship. However many my falls, I still ache for holiness. However cold my love for Christ, I can still say, “Lord you know I love you”. God still speaks to me through the words of his book. I still speak to him in prayer. It’s astonishing. “Kept by the power of God through faith for the salvation that’s ready to be revealed in the last time”.
Why am I still a Christian today? Because God set his love on me, undeserved, before he made the world. Because Christ redeemed me at infinite cost, and prays for me still. Because the ever-patient Holy Spirit keeps dealing with me, bringing me back, stirring up renewed repentance and faith. Thank you, holy Father. Thank you, blessed Son. Thank you, gracious Spirit.
Maybe you’ll say “Yes” to some of my thanksgivings: “Yes, that’s been my experience too”. Maybe you’ll say sadly, “No, he’s not granted me that”, but then you’ll add, “but he has given me this”. Whatever your experience as a believer, count your blessings – and yes, it will surprise you what the Lord has done. And above all give thanks that you are a believer. “Rejoice that your name is written in heaven”.
And if the Lord spares us to live in this world another year, may we come to the end of 2014, full of fresh gratitude and renewed joy.