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St. Thomas – Patron Saint of Questioners and Pessimists?

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His name is on the noticeboard, but how much do we really know about Thomas?

He’s mentioned in all the gospels, but it’s only in John’s gospel that we really find out anything about his character, and I like him a lot – probably because he seems to me to be a bit of an introvert and someone who doesn’t let certainty come too easily (a bit like me) as well as being a man of great faith and courage (as I’d like to be…).

We don’t know much about his background before Jesus called him to follow, though tradition says that (like Jesus) he was a carpenter or builder. He’s sometimes called ‘The Twin’, but we have no real idea about who his brother or sister may have been. He was probably from Galilee, like most of the other apostles, but we can’t be sure.

Faithful, but not exactly cheerful!

The first time that we meet Thomas as an individual is in John 11:16. Jesus has just told his disciples that he is going to the home of Lazarus and his family, near Jerusalem. It will be dangerous, and the disciples try to persuade him to stay in Galilee. He insists, and Thomas says to them all ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ Not the most positive and cheerful companion perhaps, but it’s clear that his devotion to Jesus was so great that he would rather die with him than live without him.

Perhaps that’s not a bad test of the depth of our faith – when it comes down to it, how far would we go to be with Jesus? How much will we endure because we are sure that we are on the right path in life, before sitting down and letting Jesus go on without us?

The one who dares to question

You probably remember some occasion, perhaps at school, when you were in a group and a teacher or someone else had explained something – or at least, thought they had explained something – but you didn’t really understand. And you didn’t want to embarrass yourself by admitting that you didn’t understand, because you assumed that everyone else did. Perhaps you also remember – or can imagine – the relief when someone else spoke up and admitted to not understanding, so that the teacher explained again. Probably at least half the class shared your relief!

Thomas was the pupil who’d ask. At the Last Supper, in John 14:1-6, Jesus speaks of how he is opening the way for his disciples and for us to come to the Father. He says ‘you know the way to the place where I am going’ and the other disciples all nod sagely, hoping that someone will explain later. Thomas speaks up. ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ That leads Jesus to his wonderful words, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’ and to the promise that he will not leave us to find our own way to heaven – he will take us there.

Jesus then goes on to his longest recorded section of teaching in chapters 14-16, preparing his disciples for life after Easter. If Thomas hadn’t spoken up, how much of this might we have missed!?

I think part of being St Thomas’ Church is being willing to speak up when we don’t understand something about faith and life – almost always to find that we’re not the only one who’s confused!

Slow to believe? Or Deep in understanding?

The best-known incident in Thomas’ life, and the one which is shown in the window above the sanctuary, is of course after Jesus’ resurrection. For whatever reason, Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus came to them on the evening of Easter Day. Perhaps he’d been sent for the chips, or perhaps he just needed to be on his own for a while. He missed Jesus’ return, and announced that he would not believe until he had the evidence of his own senses. A week later, he was there when Jesus returned, and immediately worshipped Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God.’

I think he refused to believe what he desperately wanted to – that Jesus was alive – because he, more than the others, realised what it would mean. Jesus’ defeat of death showed him to be more than a carpenter, more than a rabbi or even a prophet. Thomas’ reaction to Jesus was not one of relief, but of awe and joy.

Is it part of being St Thomas’ church to be willing to admit our doubts? I think so – for the real doubts we express are often the signs of a real faith that seeks understanding. The only doubts that really cause a problem are the ones we use as excuses not to act on what we do know!

Sent by God

After Pentecost, we don’t read of Thomas in the Bible, but there’s a lot of tradition and evidence that he travelled to South India (modern Kerala) where there are churches who trace their history directly back to him. A good reminder, in a multi-cultural town, that Christianity was planted in India before the gospel was ever heard on these shores. Tradition tells us that he was murdered with a spear – an echo of the wounds which brought him to worship, perhaps – and buried near Madras, though his body was later moved to Rome.

Maybe a third strand in being St Thomas’ Church in more than name is this – to be willing to be led and sent by God to wherever he may want us to serve. That may be Kerala, or it may be next door. But let’s serve God and honour our patron saint Thomas by living an honest, questioning and courageous faith as he did.

Don’t believe everything you hear!

Thomas’ name appears in a lot of texts from the second century onwards which come out of the Gnostic tradition which ended up with some ideas very different from those of Jesus and the apostles. The best known is the Gospel of Thomas, which isn’t a gospel at all, but a collection of sayings, some from the gospels and some reflecting Gnostic ideas from much later then Jesus. It’s not a secret, whatever Dan Brown says – let me know if you’d like to read a copy! But it’s not a good source for understanding Jesus and Christian faith. – it tends to take us out of this world, as if faith was something just about our thoughts and prayers, not how we live day by day.

Why did so much end up being written in Thomas’ name? Perhaps his name was a safer one to take and use around the Mediterranean than those of the other apostles  who’d actually founded churches there rather than a thousand miles away in India! Perhaps, then, Thomas can remind us of one last thing. Don’t believe everything you hear, even if you want to, but check it out before you act on it!         The Rev’d Nick Watson

This article was first published in the St Thomas’ Church Magazine, June 2016

3 December – Meet Mary!

Today we come to the start of Mary’s story, as she looks forward to marriage. What are you most looking forward to, perhaps in the coming year?

 

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.

2 December – Gabriel visits Zechariah

Angels are holy, good and amazing – but not always comfortable to be around, as Zechariah found out! How ready are you for God to do amazing things in your life?

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.

Abraham: Following God’s Promise 2 – Fear Versus Faith

This sermon was preached at St Thomas’ Church, Wednesfield, on Sunday 25 June 2017 as part of a series based on the study book ‘Abraham: Following God’s Promise’.


Genesis 12:10–20 (NRSV)

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. 17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.


Introduction

Last week we left Abram and Sarai in Canaan, the land God had promised them. But I said that the story wasn’t finished yet, and straight away we go on to them leaving the land God had promised to them.

Famine wasn’t unusual in the Middle East. Animals and crops depended on regular rain to stay alive, and in areas with few rivers and lakes so did people. And when famine came, Egypt was the place to go. Egypt already had a thriving civilisation by this time in history; the last of the Pyramids were being built around then. And that civilisation was based on the confidence that twice a year the Nile would flood to water the plains. Famines were rare there, and the land was rich. So Abram decided, probably with hundreds or thousands of others, to become a migrant.

A hard choice – and a wrong one

Now remember, Abram is a man who’s having to work out what it means to live faithfully as he goes along. There’s no Bible, no learned wisdom from older generations to tell him how to pray, what it means to rely on God or any of that. The people around him are still worshipping the gods of rivers and hills, and living in constant fear that the gods will forget about them if they don’t offer the right sacrifices – but not really expecting the gods to be involved in their daily lives. Abram doesn’t have the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit which we take for granted so much of the time.

So we don’t blame Abram for choosing to leave the dry, desert land that God had promised him to seek a safer place in Egypt. We probably shouldn’t blame him for not praying for rain, or for God’s guidance. But we can blame him for what happened next. It’s often the way that when we rely on our own judgement, we take a path that seems right at the time, but which leads to problems and worse decisions.

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

Sarai was obviously looking good for her age! I’m not going to get into the details of the consistency of the story, that’s not the point. The point is that Abram is willing to lie and to get Sarai to lie – because he’s afraid of the Egyptians. And he’s also willing to accept rich gifts from Pharoah as the supposed brother of one of the women of the harem.

We gave Abram the benefit of the doubt when we were talking about prayer and trust in God, but I don’t think you need much theology or Bible knowledge to realise that there’s something wrong with this picture – the great father of our faith living in luxury because Pharoah has fallen for his wife and thinks he’s looking after his new girlfriend’s brother. It would cause a scandal on Eastenders, let alone in church!

So God steps in.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Often our fears are far worse than the reality

Often our fears, the fears that push us into making wrong decisions in life, are far worse than the reality will ever be. Pharoah is a better man than Abram expected. Abram was afraid that he would be killed because of Sarai’s beauty, so he deceived Pharoah and lived off that deception – we don’t know for how long. But for however long he lived there, how do you think he felt? What kind of dread must there have been that he would be found out? And Pharoah’s household suffered because of Abram’s lie. But even then, Pharoah didn’t have him killed. He didn’t even take back all he’d given him. He sent him back to Canaan richer than he’d been when he left.

How often have you found that the thing you feared turned out not to be nearly so bad as you expected? That someone you didn’t trust turned out to be a better person than you’d hoped? That someone of a different faith or of no faith showed more of the love and goodness we call ‘Christian’ than those who claim the name of Jesus for their own? I’m sure you can all recognise that at least once or twice in your life.

When we take a wrong road in life, to avoid something that we fear, more often than not we cause ourselves more problems and more fear than we would have had if we went the right way in the first place. That’s what Abram went through.

God’s faithfulness accompanies our efforts to be faithful

But God got Abram out of the mess he’d got himself into, and got him back on track. And he didn’t lose the promise God had made to him. God didn’t look at his sorry specimen of a disciple and decide to choose someone else through whom to save the world. He stuck with the man he’d chosen – and I’m sure hoped that he’d learned something through all of this. Abram goes back to Canaan richer than before – and relieved to be alive.

And there’s something else worth noting. This incident is never mentioned again in the Bible. Abram’s story comes back again and again as an example of faith, but once we’ve been told about it, his wrong turn into Egypt is never brought up again. God doesn’t hold our failures against us. So long as we come back to him, we may have to deal with the consequences of our mistakes, but we never have to carry their guilt and shame. God puts the past behind us when we set him in front of us.

So What?

So this week leaves Abram travelling back to Canaan. Where does it leave us? I’m going to suggest three things.

  • First, whenever you’re unsure which way to go in life, whether it’s a big decision or a smaller one, ask God to help you before you decide. Stop and pray, and then think, and be open to God guiding you in all sorts of ways. There’s no guarantee that you’ll hear him right, but you’ve got a lot more chance of receiving his guidance if, unlike Abram, you ask him for it.
  • Second, don’t let fear drown out faith when you’re deciding which way to go in life. If you’re avoiding doing the right thing because you can’t face someone yelling at you, or because it’ll cost you more up front, imagine Abram living in Egypt going to bed every night knowing that Sarai was in the harem, and terrified that the next day would bring the soldiers to arrest him instead of the postman with a new gift from Pharoah. I read somewhere the saying that ‘the coward dies a thousand times. The hero dies only once.’ For every lie you tell, you live in constant fear of the truth. Once the truth is spoken, you face the consequences free and then they’re done with. So do what’s right in the first place. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain in the long run.
  • And third, when you’ve messed up, and taken the wrong path, and even if your lies have caught up with you, don’t give up on yourself. God hasn’t given up on you. Remember that we’re told about Abram’s mistakes once, so we don’t need to be told about them again. He will still be the father of the faithful, the one in whose family all the nations of the earth will be blessed. We need to know he got it wrong, precisely so that we can see that when we get it wrong, God’s love and faithfulness don’t give up on us. If you’ve gone wrong, then ask God’s help to get back on track – and please talk to me or Rev’d Ness if we can help you trust in God’s love for you and get your life back on track.

It worked for Abram. It can work for you if you let God help. Amen.

Abraham: Following God’s Promise – Week 1, Genesis 11:27-12:9

A sermon preached at St Thomas’ Church, Wednesfield on Sunday 18 June 2017 as part of a series on Abraham, based on the Faithlife.com course ‘Abraham:Following God’s Promise‘.


What would you do if God spoke to you—if out of the blue, He said, “I need you to pick up and move. Get your stuff together, and get packed. I’ll tell you where to go later.” Imagine explaining this to your partner, parents, or best friend. They would look at you like you were crazy. They would protest. They would doubt you had really talked to God. They’d do their best to talk you out of it. But that’s how God called Abram – he wasn’t ‘Abraham’ just yet.

God said to Abram,

 “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Now Abram wasn’t an eager young man, looking for adventure. We don’t know really what to make of ages in the early parts of the Bible, because people seem to have lived to incredible ages. But the fact that the writer tells us that he was 75 years old suggests that we’re meant to see a mature man here, if not someone who should have been settling down into retirement. It’s to this man that God speaks out of the blue, tells him to get up, move out and start a new life.

Now if God called me to drop everything and start a new life, I’d want a bit of detail. Where am I going? How will I know when I get there? Where will I live? What will I do when I get there? Could you just explain why it’s so important?

Abram doesn’t ask, and he isn’t told. The call is just to leave where he is and go to the place that God will show him. And Abram doesn’t even say anything. He just does what God says, and takes his family and his possessions into the unknown. I’d love to know what Sarai said about it, but the writer diplomatically leaves that bit out.

So my first real question to you is this. If you knew beyond doubt that God was calling you to do something new, something that would shake up your life; and if you knew only that he was calling you to get started, without knowing all the details; would you get packing? Abram did.

There is one thing, though, that probably helped. At 75 Abraham had no children. He’d taken his nephew, Lot, under his wing as if he were a son, but in that culture, to be without a son to carry on the family name was not just as painful as it is still for those who long for children. It was a disgrace. It was as if the gods had judged that your life wasn’t worthy of having a future. So when God promised Abram that he would not only have a son but that through that son the whole world would be blessed, he gave Abram a future as well as the promise of the joys and pressures of parenthood. And he promised him land in which that family would grow. A future and a place. And that promise would keep Abram going through all the rest of the story.

So the second question – what hope do you hold on to? What is it that you’re looking towards, what future are you longing to build? Not many of us have such a clear call or such a definite promise from God as Abram did, but we all have a future with God. So what is it that you’re looking towards? It’s worth working it out prayerfully with God. Lots of wise people who’ve written about how we get things done have made the same point – it’s knowing what we’re working towards, having a clear vision of what’s most important to us, that helps us to keep going through all the uncertainties and apparent wrong turns along the way as we try with God’s help to follow him. So what’s your hope?

Abram cared more about the future than he did about the past. He knew that his future was with God, and he trusted the promise that that future included his family blessing the world.

God cared more about the future than the past, too. It’s interesting that we’re not given any kind of hint about why God chose Abram to call. Centuries later, the rabbis tried to fill the gap, and stories about Abram’s younger days, stories that gave a reason for him to deserve to be called by God and to become the Father of faith, started to do the rounds. But the Bible avoids any of that. God chose Abram because he – well – chose Abram. I think he probably already was a good bloke before the story started, but that’s not actually important. God knew where he was taking Abram, and that mattered more than where Abram had already been.

So if you don’t think that you’re the kind of person God would call to do something new, don’t count on it. You’re no less qualified than Abram was. We’re talking here about an unqualified pensioner with no kids who God chooses to lead on a journey that will change the world. So what makes you think that God hasn’t got something great in store for you?

Anyway, Abram set off. You can see from the map in the welcome sheet that it was quite some journey, but eventually Abram got to the place that God had promised.

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

And what’s Abram’s first action in answer? He builds an altar to worship the LORD. One of the things that can really help us to stick to God’s path for us is to mark the places of encouragement and peace along the way with worship and prayer; and perhaps to do something physical to help us remember that worship too. Maybe it’s worth taking a picture of a place where you’ve been particularly aware of God’s presence, or writing a short note of how you’ve felt, and leaving it in your Bible to find from time to time. Build an altar; a marker and a place of worship to come back to.

Because God hasn’t finished with Abram yet, and the chances are that he hasn’t yet got you to where he wants you to be. Abram now knew where he would end up; in the land of Canaan. But that didn’t mean that the journey with God was over. On a human level, he couldn’t settle in the land of Canaan because the Canaanites were already there and they weren’t keen on new neighbours.

On God’s level, it wasn’t time for Abram to settle down yet. His journey had been a long one, but it was just getting started. He’d come a long way – geographically and spiritually – but he had a long way to go in finding out about what it really meant to trust God and walk with him.

So if you feel as though God’s got you to where he wants you to be, don’t think that means that the journey is over yet. God may well have more to show you, and I hope you’ll find more of that through the rest of Abram’s story in the next couple of months.

But one more big question for this week – and there are some smaller questions to keep you going through the week, printed inside the welcome sheet. I’ll put them up on Facebook through the week as well – feel free to join in the discussion there!

But that big question – are you willing to let God call you to something new? You might end up in a very different place in life. Or you might end up coming back to where you already are – but changed forever by the journey.

Abram had all kinds of reasons to ignore God’s call. He didn’t deserve special treatment, he was old, he had a comfortable life, he couldn’t ask Sarai to move house at her age… but above all of them he had a trust in God and a hope for the future. So he started walking.

Will you? Let’s pray.

Abraham: Following God’s Promise – Introduction

Over the next few weeks we’ll be following a series of sermons at St Thomas’ about Abraham, the Father of our faith. I’ll be posting my sermons (and those of other preachers in the series if they’ll let me!) after each Sunday service.

I don’t normally write out sermons as a full text, and it’s entirely possible that what I preach may not be exactly what I’ve written, but we’ll see how it goes!

Anyway, here’s the introduction that’ll be in tomorrow’s pewsheet…

Introduction

Over the summer, we’re going to look at what we can learn from Abraham, The first of the ‘Patriarchs’ (the ‘Fathers of Faith’) from the book of Genesis. Each week we’ll include some notes and questions to think about during the week on the pewsheet. I’ll also post these questions on Facebook each day. Some of the things we think about may be very personal and best kept to yourself, but there may be some things where it helps to respond in writing on Facebook or talk to one another and share ideas. Hopefully the whole church will be thinking about the same questions on the same day, so we should be able to help one another! These questions and illustrations are adapted from the book ‘Abraham: Following God’s Promise’ which is available online through Logos.com. You might find it interesting, but there’s no need to read it to understand the series!

The first 11 chapters of Genesis have been set in a mythical past, as God deals with the whole world as one. If you have time, you might like to reread them to set the scene in terms of the Bible story.

At the end of chapter 11, the focus changes and we meet Abraham. For the rest of the book of Genesis, the story is about what God does for and through Abraham and his family.

Week 1 - journey map

Abraham lived in the city of Ur, probably around 1800 BC. We can’t be completely sure where that was, but most people agree it was in what would become Babylon, then modern Iraq – the southeast of the two options on the map. He was surrounded by a bronze-age pagan culture, and of course he didn’t have the Bible as a starting point for knowing about God! So as we’ll see, he finds out who God is step by step, and along the way he sometimes gets things right and sometimes wrong. And we might even find that when he gets things right it looks wrong to us… And just to warn you, his name changes along the way. He starts as Abram, not Abraham.

But let’s start on the journey with Abra(ha)m and see where it takes us!


Looking ahead…

From our current parish magazine, here’s the list of themes and readings for the whole series, so you can look ahead if you’re interested!

Sunday Text (Genesis) Theme
18 June 12:1-9 1. Setting out in faith
25 June 12:10-20 2. Fear versus faith
2 July   St Thomas’ Day
9 July 14:1-24 3. Active Faith
16 July 15:1-16:16 4. Dealing with Doubt
23 July 17:1-18:15 5. Promising the Impossible
30 July 18:16-33 6. Bargaining with God
6 August   The Transfiguration
13 August 20:1-18 7. God’s Forgiving Faithfulness
20 August 21:1-5, 22:1-8 8.  Of Sons and Sacrifice

Where your treasure is…

Yesterday I read about the finding of the ‘Leekfrith Torcs’ shown in the picture above (linked to the Guardian site) – Iron Age artworks from the 4th-3rd centuries BC, found in a field in Staffordshire by two friends who’d got bored of searching there 20 years ago, but had just gone back to metal detecting. You can read the story here – it’s worth a look!

At the Eucharist today we read Matthew 4:1-6, 16-21. It’s part of the sermon on the Mount, and we read it at the start of Lent largely as a reminder that the fasting and discipline that matters to God is that which is within us – ideally without making a fuss about keeping Lent, just getting on with it.

Jesus talks about fasting, about charitable giving and about prayer. With each, it’s clear that you can get what you’re really trying for. If your purpose is to impress others, then you might succeed in that but your fasting, your giving and your praying won’t impress God, and it won’t do you any lasting good. It’s something I usually remind people about at the end of the service, as we leave church with ash on our foreheads. Lent is between us and God, not us and the crowds.

Looking for the treasure

When I read that passage this week, though, it wasn’t the first part that caught my attention for once. It was the ending.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Mt 6:19-21)

The hard work of self-discipline, study, prayer and giving which make up a good Lent can feel like a burden if we forget why we’re doing it. We’re looking for buried treasure.

We’re looking for the likeness and the presence of God within ourselves – and in others. We examine ourselves with God’s help not just to look for sin but to look for the self, made in God’s image, that is there deep within. We look for the signs of God’s Spirit at work within us, renewing his image and likeness.

We discipline ourselves with small things to help develop our ability to choose and live like Jesus; not driven by appetite and instinct but led by love and truth.

We worship and pray with others to encounter God in each other and beyond ourselves as we support one another.

Sometimes it can feel that we’re going over old ground again – ways of praying we used to find helpful but have forgotten, perhaps, or a habit of service that’s got squeezed out of life recently. But going over old ground can be just what we need, as those two friends found in Staffordshire.

There’s treasure there within you. You may have gone over the surface above it many times, without even realising that it’s there. Why not ask God to run a spiritual metal detector over the top of your life this Lent, and then get digging?