On a dark wet July night in Scotland, I stood under a big Sycamore tree and for the first time in my 33 years of life, I spoke to God. Some would say it wasn't a prayer, but I have learnt that anything you say meaningfully to God is, so I guess it counted!
What did I say? Well, I am now and always have been a very straight forward person. So what I said was "Well God, if you are real perhaps it's time you and I got to know each other".
Those few words represented a life change, I don't mean a make over or a bit of a change in attitude, I mean a total change in motivation and priority. In fact, those words meant I had become Born Again.
John chapter 3, that's the reference where we can find Jesus explaining to Nicodemus (a very religious leader) exactly what Born Again means.
Nicodemas, despite being a very traditional and religious man, could see in Jesus something different. He knew He was connected to God but not in the same way that he had ever seen before.
The truth is that God sent Jesus because religion didn't work. God knew there needed to be something different, a relationship through Jesus to God. God lives and that is why religion doesn't work, it didn't work then and it doesn't work now. Why? because religion is dead.
In my walk with God I have travelled extensively, worked with drug addicts, planted churches, been a prison Chaplain, preached in churches of 4 to 4000 and seen many lives changed as God has moved. Has it been easy? No, not at all. But then nowhere in the bible does it say it would be.
In the storms of life, if I am honest, I have sometimes wondered if God was there... and I guess if we are honest with ourselves, then we have all had 'our mooments'!
The biggest "storm" I faced was when in 2015 I awoke from 9 hours of back surgery having been in a car crash, and being told that my injury would probably be "life changing".
"OK God. so where are You in all this?" The big question that i guess we all ask at some point in our lives. But what are we really saying?
"Why me?" "Why did You let this happen?", "Why, why, why...?", "Where are You?" "What's going to happen now?"
There are so many scriptures that I could write here but the one that stands out is at the end of Matthew where Jesus said "Behold I am with you always until the end of time".
All our questions can be answered by this statement. This is truth, the truth! Actually, what provokes these questions in us are feelings and the truth will change our feelings but our feelings will not change the truth. (There is a whole sermon here, but let's move on!)
So nearly five years later, ramps, wet rooms, wheelchairs and adapted cars are just a part of my everyday life. So is it life changing? Well, it depends on what you mean by 'life' really. If you are talking about the way a life is lived practically, most certainly - big changes!
But if we are referring to a life in Christ, in reality, whether I stand up or sit down makes no difference at all. What does change, and this doesn't happen over night, is that i realise that in the biggest of storms He is with me (despite what I may feel or think) and His call on my life has not changed!
If we look at the first 10 verses of 2 Corinthians, we read about Paul's deep understanding of 'really hard times'. The key is found in verse 4 'to allow Gods comfort to comfort me so that I can comfort others with that same comfort'. So what God gives me in my hard times isn't actually for me to keep - it is for me to give away, its an equipping!
So if God allowed our walk with Him to be comfortable and trouble free, (as some believe it should be...) then how could we gain the experiencial wisdom to minister to others?
As I came to terms with my wheelchair, I had many lovely well meaning folk telling me that 'Jesus loved me and he was with me'. Nothing wrong with that at all, but that was the extent of their experience and they were speaking truth.
However, the stand out moment for me wasn't these well meaning folk, or the wonderful physios or doctors or nurses or even something that happened in a church.
The unforgettable stand out moment was a man I met in a shoe shop (ironically). He told me that he knew it wasn't easy and that I would need strength and courage and that I should never give up. He said a lot of other things that I clearly remember, and why do I recall these things so readily? Because this man was in a wheelchair having sustained the same injury as me.
So now I pastor a church and I am a Chaplain in a mental health centre. To see Him touch and change lives is what gets me up in the morning albeit slowly!
But there are two questions that probably stand out above all the others that perhaps life would cause us to ask.
1. Why am I not healed?
In some Christian circles people would accuse me of being in sin so bad that it stops God touching my life, or that I don't have the faith to believe that God could heal me or perhaps that I am not a real Christian or need to have some kind of deliverance. (I had a well meaning Christian try to cast out demons of paralysis once!) So often I feel judged and found guilty by those who claim to be in 'fellowship' with me.
Please don't misunderstand me here, I know that these, in some cases, are genuine reasons as to why folk are trapped in difficulties in their lives and consequently really need our loving support to discern how God would best have us minister too them.
BUT! It is absolute folly to assume that 'one size fits all'. All ministry must be person centred, everyone is an individual with unique circumstances and situations. Ultimately, we can damage peoples faith by driving our ill conceived ideas through fragile lives.
Just supposing for a minute that I (or you) are not healed of our disability or sickness so that God can prove to people through us that true contentment is not found in what we are - or in my situation, if I can walk or not, but that true contentment is found in who He has made us and our identity in Him.
I have heard many quote Isaiah 53;4 'by His stripes you are healed' and although I spend my life in a wheelchair, I have to agree!
This whole verse relates to things of the spirit, Christ died and rose again in 'spiritual victory' and so this healing firstly relates to our spiritual healing - that takes place when we are born again! This is not to deny physical healing but lets not muddy the waters of priority!
Spiritual healing, our connection to God through Jesus is the only way that we can receive true completeness and contentment and many seek that through a physical healing, they seek the healing rather than the healer. Often times when that healing doesn't happen, folks turn away from God in disappointment and frustration and are then in danger of never finding the truth.
2. God, where are You?
I recall the account of Jesus dying on the cross when He said "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
Did God really forsake His own Son in the darkest part of His life? Well that is a discussion for the theologians, but what I understand in those words of Jesus is that at that moment of darkness and pain, He could not sense the presence of His Father.
For me, that feeling of separation from God the Father is the closest I could come to hell. There is an emptiness and a sense of hopelessness that is beyond anything I have experienced in my life.
The reason for this is that God has created us all to have a relationship with Him. If we can use our imagination here, within each one of us there is a 'God shaped hole' and we can choose to allow God to fill it, or leave it empty, understanding that nothing you try to fill it with, except God, will fit. Absolutely nothing.
As I close, the well known poem 'Footprints In The Sand ' comes to mind:
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
"Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You'd walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."
He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you."
For me, I have received the comfort of 'being carried' in some seasons of my life, and now I desire to be someone who can direct folks to the one who carries.
2 Corinthians, 1 verse 4 'to allow Gods comfort to comfort me so that I can comfort others with that same comfort'.
Often things happen in our lives for the benefit of others, Jesus being the greatest example who gave His life on that wooden cross that we might live...(1 John 4:9)