My day began in New Delhi, India, around 7.00. I was due at a school to address their morning assembly. I’d skipped breakfast because I’d been told my colleague and I would have food after the assembly. Delhi traffic was as crazy as ever, but we arrived safely, the assembly went well, and a small group of us gathered in the headteacher’s office afterwards. Breakfast was served – hamburgers. So began the day of seven cooked meals.

It was one of those days when visit followed visit in rapid succession. And at every project and in every home, we were fed. Perhaps a few were motivated to please foreign guests who might provide funding for their organisation. But mostly the hospitality reflected a culture of kindness: guests should be honoured, and honoured guests are served food.

Most of our meals that day were traditional for north India. I preferred that. I had no wish to be given European-style meals when in India. Every stop was another breakfast or a lunch or, as the day wore on, a dinner. These were not snacks. They were substantial meals.

Can you have too much of a good thing? Yes, you can. By mid afternoon I was moving from feeling full to feeling ill. My queasiness wasn’t helped by city traffic. We veered this way, that way, stopped and then roared ahead. Thankfully, each time we arrived at a new destination, I could walk around. Soon I’d be fine again.

After six stops – now at nearly 8.00 in the evening – we paid our final call to thank friends who’d helped organize our day’s visits. We were invited into their home, and politeness required we accept. The inevitable happened. Their politeness meant they insisted on giving us a meal. And our politeness meant we couldn’t refuse. Our seventh cooked meal in one day.

Other days rivalled that one, but happily none ever beat it. I loved the food, and loved the people even more. But if seven meals a day happened every day I’d have been charged for excess baggage for the flight home.

I was shown great kindness by people in many poor countries, and it’s left the enduring thought that they had so little but gave so much. Sometimes we were able, quietly, to pass on a ‘gift’ in thanks, because otherwise their generosity to us would have meant their family didn’t eat for several days. But their kindness was given without knowing there’d be any reimbursement; they simply used the little they had to bless us.

I saw that principle – ‘those who have little give much’ – during my years as a pastor in the UK. Senior citizens, often with little money, were the first to give when the congregation were asked to help the poor at home or abroad. Relative to their means, they were super generous. They reminded me of the poor widow Jesus saw putting a couple of coins into the temple offering. He said she’d given more than any of the rich people because the rich had plenty left whereas she’d given everything she had.[1]

Kindness matters, and there are good principles underpinning it, including these.

As people have done for us, so we should do for others

In America, I finished my supermarket shopping, waited in the checkout queue, the operator scanned my purchases, and I got ready to pay. Then I was told, ‘Your bill has already been paid’. I looked puzzled, and said I didn’t understand. She explained, ‘The person two places in front of you has already paid for the next three customers after him’. I walked away, humbled and grateful.

I’d just experienced an instance of ‘pay it forward’. Pay it forward has a long tradition which has been popularised in books and film.[2] The core idea is that when someone has been good to you, there’s no need to repay them but you should pass on an equivalent kindness to someone else.

How would the world be if everyone followed that principle? We’ve all been helped by others, probably many times. What if the benefit they gave us was ‘paid back’ with equivalent kindness to others who need it?

Kindness means you meet some strange but wonderful people

The culture of the ancient Middle East included hospitality to passing strangers, welcoming them into your home for a meal, and perhaps providing a bed for the night. That custom is the background to a strange Bible verse:

‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2)

Many believe the reference to ‘angels’ is meant literally, that unknown guests may actually be angelic creatures. Others think the Greek word used here – angelos (ἄγγελος) – only has the general meaning of ‘one sent’ or ‘messenger’. If that second view is correct, the guest must still be a VIP++. There’s no reason to call visitors angels unless they are very special messengers, likely messengers sent by God.

I’m not aware that we’ve ever given hospitality to angels, but some who came our way were certainly special. During their stay we were helped, encouraged, motivated and even sometimes guided regarding what we were meant to do. Without these guests, our lives would not have been complete. Kindness introduces you to the best and most important of people.

We don’t show kindness for our own sake.

How could kindness ever be for our own benefit? Surely kindness is always about helping others? It is about helping others, but there can still be the issue of motivation.

In the entrance halls of many public buildings in America – including churches – I’d see a wall of plaques containing the names of those whose gifts had built or furnished that building. The names of the biggest givers were usually in the largest type, with progressively smaller font sizes for lesser donor categories. Outside there might be a pathway with donor names inscribed on the stones. Or a room would be named after a donor. Of course, a very generous donor might have their name emblazoned right across the whole building. Publicising donors’ names isn’t unique to America; I just saw more of it there.

Why would anyone want their name on a building? Or on a plaque promoting how much they’d given? Some motivations will be good. But others perhaps less so. I know from fundraisers that the offer of a donor’s name on a building can be a ‘hook’ to secure a very large gift. So, would that donor be motivated by generosity? Or motivated to be thought generous? Only they could know the answer.

Jesus gave the perfect antidote to seeking glory by your giving – don’t reveal your generosity to anyone.

‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:3-4)[3]

Is that an impossible standard? That we should keep our generosity secret? It’s not impossible.

In one church where I was pastor, several times a couple presented me with a box of groceries and other necessities to give to families they saw going through hard times. I was to pass on the gift, but say only that it came from friends who cared. Those packages fed families with food and also warmed their hearts. Someone had seen and someone had cared. But they never knew who the ‘someone’ was.

Kindness is not about what we get; it’s about what we give.

Our goal must be to provide the kindest, not to provide the finest.

I’ve visited and preached from the northern islands of Scotland to the south coast of England and across to the west coast of Wales. And also in many other countries of the world. Often I’ve eaten and stayed overnight in people’s homes. Some of those houses were lavish; others were very humble. If I was to draw up a list of  the top 20 homes I’m grateful to have visited, none would be on that list because of how grand they were. The best were those with gracious, helpful, thoughtful people who made it clear I was welcome and ensured I was comfortable. I felt cared for, and didn’t mind at all whether their furniture came from high-end stores or charity shops. It was simply a joy to be looked after by good, kind people.

Kindness counts. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to bless people with acts and attitudes of kindness. It may be life-changing for them. And it’s wonderful when we’re on the receiving end of kindness, though it may mean eating seven cooked meals in the same day.

[1] As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’  (Luke 21:1-4)

[2] Nicely summarized by Wikipedia:

[3] Almost all of Matthew chapter 6 is teaching of Jesus about not making a ‘show’ of our spiritual or humanitarian actions. God sees it all, and that’s enough.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Before I began writing this blog nearly a year ago, I decided to avoid highlighting special events or seasons of the year. And then, at the beginning of January, my first blog was about ‘Resolutions’. I failed right at the start!

And I’ve failed right at the end of the year because I could not ignore Christmas, writing two blogs on the odd ancestors of Jesus, that strange family list which culminates in the birth of the Son of God in Bethlehem.

The last blogs of this year had to take account of the season. How could I ignore the birth of Jesus?

So, my original decision abandoned, as Christmas Day begins where I am in the UK, let me say HAPPY CHRISTMAS to those who’ve already been celebrating this day in places east of where I am, and the same to those who’ll celebrate in a few hours in places to the west.

The blog has been read this year in 32 countries. As I post this, those already celebrating Christmas include readers in Indonesia, South Korea, China, Australia, India, Pakistan. Those yet to reach Christmas Day may be in the USA, Canada, Ecuador, Chile, Bahamas. Unsurprisingly by far the greatest number of readers are in the UK (and I hope they’re now in bed!)

Wherever this is read, please know I’m grateful for your interest. This Christmas I’m praying that you know God’s peace and God’s goodness in your life, and that 2022 holds many blessings for you.

With warmest appreciation,

The odd ancestry of Jesus, part 1

It’s often said, ‘We can choose our friends, but not our family’. True. And most families include strange people. Like crazy uncle Henry who tells inappropriate stories at family gatherings. Or cousin Maureen who’s been married six times, divorced five times, and everyone’s guessing how long husband number six will last. Or like younger brother Bert who’s rarely talked about and rarely seen because most of his adult life has been in government funded accommodation. (No-one likes to use the word ‘prison’.)

Every family’s different, but it’s not unusual for some of our ancestors or present-day relatives to be odd.

Jesus certainly had odd characters in his family line. In this blog I’ll select three of Jesus’ ancestors listed in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 1-16. (Some will know that another genealogy appears in Luke’s gospel. I’ll explain at the end why the two genealogies are not identical.[1]) This time, then, three ‘odd’ people among Jesus’ ancestors, and in the next blog another three.

Does ancestry sound boring or irrelevant? I promise these people are neither. Most of these stories are shameful and shocking, more so than many modern dramas. But it’s significant – even encouraging – that they are part of Jesus’ ancestry.

Three short notes before starting.

  1. At the time Jesus was born, genealogy was hugely important. Matthew began his gospel like this: ‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…’ and what follows is a list of who is the father of whom. His story of the events leading to Jesus’ birth doesn’t start until verse 18. Why open with a genealogy? It was because Matthew was writing his gospel for a Jewish audience, and to a Jew a person’s family line was of utmost importance. To show your impeccable descent as a true Israelite was the most significant part of your ‘résumé’. So Matthew lays out Jesus’ ancestry.
  • Several of the names in Matthew’s list are people we regard as heroes of the faith, both Jewish and Christian. People like Abraham, Ruth, David are great names to have in your ancestry, but they are also ‘complicated’. That doesn’t make them any less great. After all, who’s not ‘complicated’? It’s fascinating and comforting that people who did seriously wrong things were and are heroes of faith.
  • It’s all right to talk about this. It’s tempting never to admit our heroes were flawed, or abused, or had problematic backgrounds. But: a) Matthew’s readers knew all that already; b) We need to know that God uses flawed and complicated people. There have never been any perfect saints.

Now on to the first three ancestors of Jesus.

1. Abraham

This is the man with whom God made a special covenant, that he would have a son, and down subsequent generations would come offspring as many as the stars in the night sky. (Genesis 15:4-5)

Abraham believed God, and in most things tried to go God’s way.

But he didn’t get everything right. In particular he made two enormous mistakes.

First, he handed over his wife Sarah to other men. Sarah was very beautiful, and other men wanted her. To save his own skin he pretended she was only his sister, and allowed them to take her. That happened not just once but twice.

The first time was in Egypt. (Genesis 12) Not knowing Sarah was already married, Pharaoh took Sarah into his harem. In punishment God inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household. Then it was discovered that Abraham had hidden the fact that Sarah was his wife. Pharaoh was furious and drove Abraham and his people from the land.

You’d think Abraham would learn his lesson. He didn’t.

In Gerar, again he said that Sarah was his sister. (Genesis 20) Abimelek, the king, took Sarah into his harem. But Abimelek had a dream in which God told him Sarah was a married woman, and he was saved from disaster because he had not yet had sex with Sarah. Abimelek was incensed with Abraham for deceit that almost brought destruction on him and all his people. Abraham protested she really was his sister. That was true. Abraham and Sarah had the same father but not mother, so she was his step sister. But she had become his wife, and from the start of their wanderings he had pressured her into concealing they were married in order to keep Abraham safe.

There was nothing good or acceptable in Abraham’s self-preserving dishonesty. He harmed many, none more than his own wife.

Second, Abraham had sex with another woman so he could have the son he was promised. Years went by and Abraham questioned whether God would keep his promise of an heir. He and Sarah were getting old, and Sarah had never become pregnant. It seemed Abraham would never have a son.

Then Sarah made a suggestion. She had a young Egyptian woman called Hagar as her slave. Sarah told Abraham he should have sex with her so they would have a son through her. Hagar would be a surrogate mother for their child. (Genesis 16)

It’s hard to know what Abraham thought but there is nothing in the story to say he protested or had to be pressurised. Because Hagar was a slave she had no choice and she became pregnant.

None of the three characters in the story behave well after that. Hagar seems to have taunted Sarah because she’d conceived when Sarah couldn’t. Sarah was upset. She complained to Abraham who took a hands-off approach by telling her to do whatever she pleased. Sarah then treated Hagar so badly she ran off into the desert. An angel told her to return, which she did, and gave birth to a son who was called Ishmael.

Abraham and Sarah struggled on. But they’d virtually given up on having a son of their own. Even when an angel of God promised them again that they will have a son, Sarah laughed to herself: ‘An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?’ (Gen.18:12, as paraphrased by The Message)

Not a polite reaction to an angel’s promise, and not at all full of faith. But God’s promise was stronger than this couple’s failure of faith. Abraham and Sarah eventually had their son, and he was given the name Isaac. (Genesis 21)

Abraham – the father of the nation Israel – was undoubtedly a great man. But, perhaps like most great men, he was far from perfect. And he was not the only odd ancestor of Jesus.

2. Jacob

Here is another very significant person in the story of God’s people, the man who wrestled with God and was then renamed Israel. (Genesis 32: 27-28)

But Jacob’s earlier history is not good. (Genesis 25) The problems centred on the relationship between Jacob and his brother Esau. The two boys were twins. Esau was born first, so number one in line to his father Isaac.

In many ways these brothers were very different from each other:

  • Esau was an outdoorsman, rough skinned and covered in hair. Much loved by his father, Esau was the hunter-son who brought Isaac the venison he liked.
  • Jacob was domesticated, a smooth skinned man. He was also the favourite of his mother Rebekah.

Jacob, it seems, hated being second, and, as grown men, his resentment came to a head in two sad and bad actions.

First, Jacob took advantage of Esau to ‘steal’ his birthright from him. Because he was born first, Esau would inherit the whole ‘family estate’ when his father, Isaac, died. That was his birthright. Until, that is, Jacob went to work.

Here’s what happened (as told in Genesis 25:29-34). Jacob – the stay-at-home son – had cooked some stew. Esau, meanwhile, had been wandering the hills, likely hunting for game. He’d been away for some time, and arrived home famished. The smell of the stew hit his nostrils, and he begged Jacob for the food. Jacob shrugged and said something like, ‘I’ll give you stew if you give me your birthright’. Esau – not thinking straight – replied he was about to die from hunger so what good was the birthright to him. Jacob seized the moment. He made Esau swear an oath giving his birthright to Jacob in exchange for bread and lentil stew. It was all over in a moment. That done, Esau sat down and ate his meal.

There’s no doubt Esau was extremely thoughtless and foolish. He showed an impulsiveness which also got him into trouble on other occasions (such as marrying Canaanite wives, which was forbidden).

But Jacob is not guiltless. He did nothing illegal, but his actions were far from commendable. It was ridiculous to take his brother’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. Who would think anyone would sell his inheritance for one plate of food? Jacob would. He could imagine that Esau would be weak-willed and reckless enough to do exactly that. So Jacob took advantage of Esau when he was vulnerable and got away with it, but his actions were utterly unworthy.

Second, Jacob deceived his dying father with help from his scheming mother. The years have rolled on and the twins’ father Isaac is now old and weak. (Genesis 27) He is blind, and recognises his sons only by touch and smell. The day he will die approaches, so Isaac decides the birthright must now be passed from father to son.

But to which son? It’s not clear that the deal done earlier between the twins is valid. It certainly isn’t recognised by Isaac because he is ready to bestow his blessing on his older son, Esau.

Isaac tells Esau to hunt game and prepare a tasty meal just the way he likes it, and then he will give him his blessing. That ‘blessing’ will be the formal moment of passing the inheritance.

Esau’s mother Rebekah overhears, and swiftly gives instructions to Jacob. He is to fetch two goats, bring them to her, and she’ll prepare a meal the way Isaac likes it. Jacob will serve the food, and he will get the blessing. Jacob points out the obvious, that if Isaac feels him his smooth skin will immediately reveal that he is not Esau. His mother has a solution to that. When the meal is ready, she dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes and covers his hands and his neck with rough goatskins.

Jacob goes to Isaac and blatantly lies to his father: ‘I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.’ (Genesis 27:19)

Isaac isn’t so sure – how could Esau be back so quickly? Besides the voice sounds like Jacob, not Esau. But he feels his hands and they are rough. Again he asks if he is really Esau, and Jacob replies ‘I am’. (v.24)  There is one final check. Isaac insists on being kissed by his son, and when he is close he smells his clothes. They smell as Esau’s clothes. And so Jacob gets the blessing of his father, and therefore inherits everything including rulership over his older brother.

Of course the deception is known as soon as Esau returns, but it’s too late. The blessing Isaac has given Jacob cannot be withdrawn. And so the course of history is changed.

There are ways in which the outcome was good. Esau would have had many failings, and children with Canaanite wives would have spoiled the whole line of descent from Abraham. But does the end justify the means? Is blatant lying for self-gain ever right? That is what Jacob did. He achieved his position as an ancestor of Jesus by deceit.

3. Tamar  

Tamar’s story (Genesis 38) could be a script for a scandalous TV drama. The details are unpleasant but important. I won’t be more explicit than the Bible is! Here are the core facts:

  • Judah – Jacob’s son – selected Tamar to be the wife for his son Er.
  • Er was a bad man, and died before they had children.
  • Onan, Er’s brother, was then obliged by ancient custom to marry Tamar and have children with her to continue his brother’s line.
  • But Onan didn’t want responsibility for children who would not be his, so he never completed sexual intercourse with Tamar to make sure she did not become pregnant. That was wrong – it defeated the purpose of kinship marriage – so he came under God’s judgment and died.
  • Judah told Tamar to stay a widow until his next son, Shelah, grew up. She accepted that, returned to her father and lived as a widow waiting to be married to Shelah.
  • A long time passed, which included one event and one non-event. The event was the death of Judah’s wife. The non-event was the promised marriage of Tamar to Judah’s son Shelah. The boy was now a man – Tamar should have been given in marriage to him – but Judah did nothing, a great wrong by the customs of the time.
  • Tamar heard Judah was on his way to another town, so she disguised herself as a prostitute with her face covered and waited at the side of the road. Judah solicited her services, and had sex with her without knowing it was Tamar, his daughter-in-law.
  • Tamar was given a pledge of Judah’s seal, cord and staff as guarantee of later payment for her services. She then disappeared from that place, and Judah could not find the woman to make payment and get his seal and staff returned. He forgot all about her.
  • But Tamar was now pregnant. After three months that was reported to Judah – he was outraged and ordered that Tamar be burned to death. As she was being led out to die, Tamar sent Judah, her father-in-law, a message. ‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these… See if you recognise whose seal and cord and staff these are.’ (Genesis 38:25) 
  • Judah recognised them – they were his – he was the father of her child. And he admitted: ‘She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah’. (v. 26) He had realised she’d trapped him into sex with her only because he had failed to give his last son to her as a husband. Tamar was pardoned because she was the wronged person; Judah was far more a sinner than she was.
  • A few months later Tamar had twins, the older called Perez and the younger Zerah. And Perez – the child of a sexual encounter with a ‘prostitute’, a father-in-law / daughter-in-law liaison – is listed as an ancestor of Jesus. (Matthew 1:3)

Tamar is a victim in this story, a victim of bad husbands and a faithless father-in-law. Her abandonment left her desperate. Her story is told to point out the strangeness of the circumstances that led to the birth of Perez, the ancestor of Jesus. There are times when out of terrible wrong God brings something good.

And that brings me to one closing point. Whether it’s because of personal failure or dreadful circumstances, we may think our lives are beyond God’s reach. Or that what we’ve done means we’re no longer of any use to God. These stories say otherwise. Through people like these and circumstances like these, God does his work. He’s not thwarted, not stopped, not diverted. He is always at work for good, no matter what.

For many people the poem ‘The Old Violin’ by Myra Brooks Welch[2] is a favourite. It’s a copyright item so I can’t reproduce it here, but one of many sites where you can read it is this one:–Old-Violin.html.

Here’s its story. An old violin looked so battered and scarred it seemed worthless to the auctioneer. Sure enough opening bids were low. But then an old man came forward, picked up the violin, tuned it, and played the most beautiful music. When he laid it down, the auction restarted, but now the bids were in the thousands. Some asked what had changed the violin’s worth. And the answer was, ‘The Touch of the Master’s hand’. So the message of the poem is the touch of the Master’s hand transforms lives which are battered and scarred. They seem worthless. Then God takes hold of that life, and the value changes immeasurably.

May that give you hope.


[1] People often puzzle that the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-16 is not the same as in Luke 3:23-38. It is not one hundred per cent clear, but almost all scholars agree that Matthew gives the legal ancestry of Jesus, therefore traced back from his legal father, Joseph, while Luke gives us Jesus’ ancestry through his one biological parent, his mother Mary. Naturally they are not the same, though overlap with several people (most notably King David).

[2] At some point, Welch’s poor health could have ended her writing. But it didn’t. From Wikipedia: ‘Welch was disabled in a wheelchair from arthritis, which later caused her to not be able to play music, such as the organ which she used to play. Her hands were disabled, but she wrote poems on a typewriter by pressing the keys with pencil erasers, despite the pain that it caused.’

Serious business

As I drove past, I barely noticed the broken down car on the grass verge at the side of the road. Except, something had caught my eye. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said to my wife, Alison. ‘Did you see the sticker on the back of that car?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Why? What did it say?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘But if it’s anything like what I think it was…’ I found the first safe place to U-turn, back we went and pulled up beside the abandoned car.

The very prominent sticker on the rear of the car was what I thought it was. In big bold letters it said: Got a problem? Just try Jesus!

I don’t have any issue with encouraging troubled people to turn to Jesus. It’s the right thing to do when you have problems, and even better to do it before you have problems.

But I do have issues with that way of communicating the message.

The least of my issues was that the sticker was a bad advert in those circumstances. That car looked like it had been broken down for several days. ‘Got a problem? Just try Jesus!’ clearly hadn’t got the car going. If I’d driven past it every day, I’d have been thinking, ‘What Jesus wants you to try now is calling a garage or a rescue service.’

However, I had more significant problems with that car sticker.

A 21st century generation isn’t won over by trite messages. Sloganizing doesn’t impress. I’ve come across sayings like these:

  • Why worry when you can pray
  • Know God, Know Peace; No God, No Peace.
  • Let Go and Let God
  • When down in the mouth, remember Jonah. He came out alright.
  • 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given

I almost like the Jonah saying, but it’s funny and understandable only for people who know their bibles. They, presumably, are not the target audience.

 Some slogans are much more troublesome than my examples.

An associate minister told me that, when he was younger, he used ‘conversation starters’ with university students.

‘What kind of conversation starters?’ I asked.

He listed them. I shuddered. The worst was probably ‘Turn or burn’. The rest were nearly as dreadful and offensive.

‘Who did you say them to?’ I hoped they were people he knew well and who wouldn’t be too upset. I was wrong.

‘I’d go up to students in a bus queue, tap them on the shoulder, and let them have it.’

It’s a wonder they didn’t let him have it. He thought his shoot-from-the-hip approach would get them talking. I suspect what most people said was ‘Go away,’ but with less polite language. When I asked him if he still used that technique sometimes, he said, ‘No, it didn’t work’.

Now there’s a surprise.

Some advertisers still sloganize, but many of the best prefer to tell a story or make people smile. They don’t smack them in the mouth with their message. They want people to think, and use subtlety and humour to achieve that. (Do an internet search for john lewis christmas adverts and you’ll see what I mean.)

In what most call the ‘western world’, there are two disturbing truths. One is that few people believe in God in a deep sense. The second is that many people have never even thought about God in a deep sense. We need to make people think, but slogans won’t do that. What’s easily said is easily dismissed. We can do better.

Slogans aren’t appropriate for serious business. And Christianity is serious business. One of the most important conversations of my life occurred when I was 17. I never expected it, and the way it happened was very odd.

My first year in journalism included study, and a few days of the journalism course were spent with other young reporters at a residential centre. The place was no upmarket conference suite; facilities were basic. I was allocated to share a room with John and Graham. I knew both of them already, including a strange peculiarity of John’s. He liked black. He liked everything around him to be black. His hair was jet black, and his clothes were all black (long before that was anyone else’s fashion choice). He told me how his parents had responded when he wanted black curtains, ‘John you’ve already got black wallpaper and now you want black curtains…?’He got his black curtains. John was a likeable one-off.

Late that evening each of us climbed into our narrow, dormitory-style beds, and John switched off the light. He also liked darkness. But the three of us talked, about lots of things and then one of them mentioned God. John was unmercifully direct: ‘So, what do each of you think about God?’ Graham mumbled something about reaching the age of ten and giving up believing God existed. Then it was my turn.

‘I believe in God…’ I said hesitantly. There was silence. They expected me to say more, but I didn’t have anything more to say. John and Graham had studied journalism with me for several months. They knew me. I’d never mentioned God before, and my lifestyle wasn’t bad but no advert for Christianity.

Then John’s voice came out of the darkness. ‘I respect you believing in God, but what I can’t respect is that you don’t then do anything about it.’

I remember nothing more of what was said that night. But John’s sentence stayed in my mind in bold capitals. ‘…WHAT I CAN’T RESPECT IS THAT YOU DON’T THEN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT.’

When those words were still there next morning, and the one after that, I decided I had to talk to the minister of the church I (sometimes) attended.

But the minister went away to another church.

I went away for seven months to report the news in another city.

What never went away was that sentence spoken in the dark, by the unlikeliest of friends. How could I believe in God but do nothing in response to that?

After my seven month exile I returned, and found there was a new minister at the church. His name was Peter, and he seemed friendly. Almost my first sentence to him was, ‘I need to speak with you about God.’

One day every week after that I met with Peter, and  we talked about what lived-out faith meant. Gradually it made more sense. Late one Thursday night – really late – there was a moment when all my thoughts came together. I knew I had to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God. If ‘yes’ my commitment would be everything. If ‘no’ I’d never go back to church. And, in the dark, at 2.40 that morning, my decision was made.

Next day, as soon as work was over, I phoned Peter and said I had to see him as soon as possible. ‘Come now, if you like,’ he replied.

Thirty minutes later I rang Peter’s door bell, was welcomed inside, and I told him what had happened early that morning, and that I’d said ‘yes’. I couldn’t have been more excited. Peter was too. We laughed, we prayed, and from that day on my life changed. A man called John had caused me to find a man called Peter – it sounds so biblical – and now I knew what believing in God had to mean: my life lived for him.

I’ve described that deeply personal story because it illustrates something very significant: Christianity is serious business. We can reject it or accept it. What we can’t do is be complacent or casual about it. We can’t tuck faith away in a corner of our minds, dust it off occasionally, but mostly do nothing about it. It’s far too important for that.

That’s why it’s wrong to tell people to just ‘try Jesus’.

A slogan saying ‘try Levis’ is fine because if you buy jeans and don’t like them you return them to the store or consign them to the ‘rarely used clothes’ shelf in the wardrobe. That’s okay, because jeans are a ‘take it or leave it’ commodity.

God is not a commodity. We can’t try God on for size, and if he doesn’t fit we’ll return him or ignore him. My strange friend John had helped me realise that you can’t really believe in God and do that. Believing in God must mean following God, and that’s a serious business.

A much more serious business than any bumper sticker can communicate.