Sunday, 19 December 2021

Christmas with ....

 Last Christmas many people struggled, some with the virus others just because everything that would normally be Christmas was not possible. Often its not until we strip back everything that we uncover things and we then get back to something more beautiful.

I am sure that many of us will have started decorating a "new" home, taking back wall papers and paint to bare walls only to find cracks, bad or worn out plaster or brick work, that then needs some serious repair or attention. But its not always bad news, sometimes it takes the clearing away of those things that hide the truth or the beauty, to see it. Most have heard of Pompeii in Italy, clearing away and excavating uncovered lovely murals on walls that had not been seen since the eruption. A restoration project in a Tudor mansion, uncovered Elizabethan paintings on the walls that had been hidden for centuries.

This Christmas, 2021, many will have to stay away from families and friends as they cope with infections of the virus and the need to protect others. As a result many Christmas parties, Church activities and family gatherings are either cancelled or reduced in size and numbers. We read in the news and social media of the distress and upset that this causes to business and people. Others are working extraordinary hours to handle the vaccination booster program. My wife had the virus early in December and has fully recovered, I got a +ve test on 17th Dec (result on the 18th), no symptoms initially but must now cancel our Christmas plans and rely on being present on-line in some of my favourite services of the year.

I was asking myself what makes Christmas? Has it been reduced over the years to a massive spending spree where, driven by current trends and social influencers, we rush to buy the right things, the right gifts, attend the right parties and events? Even the church celebrations can drift away from worship of the one that Christmas is truly all about, Jesus as we get tangled up in presenting shows and panto's and having various fund raising things in the hope that folks are more generous at Christmas.

Jesus, the baby, its almost like a fairy tale and for many it seems like that. Why would God, all powerful, all glorious, the creator of all things, majestic in power, why would God become a baby? Vulnerable and dependant upon others, it seems so strange. Yet in his humanity, his teaching, his life, he had a purpose. To build the bridge to God, to pay the price of our wrong doing and build a spiritual bridge that all may cross. This baby as an adult, was crucified for us, rose again to give us hope for an eternal future. This is something to celebrate, just as the Angels did, something to hold in our hearts, even if we don't have Christmas with friends, family, church, or work through it, we can still celebrate Jesus, God with us, God who loves us, God who wants us to know him.

Let me wish you a Happy and safe Christmas, where ever you are and what ever you are doing. Let hope for your future with God be a cause for great joy, laughter and celebration this Christmas.

I hope you enjoy this song which I find helps me celebrate and reflect.

Friday, 29 October 2021

Love is ...

This week in our life group (bible study and fellowship group), we were looking at a passage that is very familiar 1Corinthians 13. The study material is the Bible Societies "lyfe" series, which we are finding really helpful. It got me to thinking again about what I mean by love and how we use the word in our everyday and how that might vary with what Paul was talking about.

Do you remember the series of "love is ..." pictures that used to circulate, which mostly connected with an emotional love? As I reflect on the ways in which I love, I can see that to a degree I express it in ways that show it. Telling Nicola, my wife that I love her and giving her a kiss is one way, although it works better if I do the clearing up, cook or fill the dishwasher. Giving a grandchild a hug and making them feel safe when they stay is another. Doing the things that I do noticed or unnoticed for others and for church, is yet another way.

Do all of these indicate the same love or are they different? The book 5 love languages, which to be fair focuses on human love in relationships with each other, suggests different ways we can show love to those we are in relationships with and that they can show to us. The key being that we are all different and it is really easy to simply show love in a way that we would like it shown to us. I guess that's fairly human.

This is something we use and refer folks to when preparing them for Christian marriage in our church.

But what about what Paul is writing, how does that work or is it different? To gain the context, its worth reading it as a part of the section in which it sits, rather than on its own 1Corinthians 12-14. Taking aside that there are some controversial words in this section, I want to concentrate on what 1Cor 13 has to say about love.

The point is that it is about the use of spiritual gifts in a church context and not abusing them. There is no doubt in my mind that God blesses his church with spiritual gifts to build it and to encourage it, but at times our humanity gets in the way of using them well. At times some even "fake" such gifts, perhaps to big themselves up. 1Cor 13 gives us the key, they should be used with an attitude of love, agape love;

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 

What Paul tells us, I think, is that worship should include these gifts being used, but underpinned with a kind of love that means they are used as God would have them used, not perhaps as we sometimes want. If we check ourselves and our use of the gifts that we have been blessed with, with this, it will help us use them well and appropriately. The focus is on others and not ourselves, on God and not ourselves. When we also practice this love in our relationships it will grow them, enrich them and change us. This passage written for the church and its use of gifts, has application also in our relationships.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Worship Revisited

Hi, Again its been a while since I wrote anything. Mostly just too busy! But having a few moments today I thought it was time to continue with my faith related thoughts.

My current devotional read is a book by R.T. Kendall - Worshipping God. I thought I would refresh my thinking a little on the whole picture of worship and it was something I picked up a Untied 2019 (New Wine) and had on the bookshelf in my "to be read" section. 

The whole COVID experience has also put a lot of pressure on how we do Sunday worship as church, and not all bad pressures either. However, I like to reflect on what God might be saying rather than jump at every new trend. Is online church way forwards or a hybrid as others are promoting? So earlier this year I started reading and reflecting. Possibly the biggest challenge so far has been where is the focus of my and the church I serves, worship?

We all know that often worship really means the songs or music that we use. I think most will know that this is only a small part of worship. Although I would also say an important part of worshipping together and I love music. I noticed that initially having no music in our online services clearly felt like something was missing. Adding online playlists while we worked out who could and would play from home online, helped people prepare and once we could have musicians from home and then later in church it really did help as we came together online.

Much of this has a focus on what we as church expect and want of services when we gather. Was this the right focus, making it all to draw folks together in their disconnected situations at home? Some liked it, some struggled. What if we were unable to meet at all in person or online, how would we worship God then? Would we cease until we could meet or is there something more?

Kendal suggests, and I would concur, that worship begins, continues and thrives through our personal relationships with God. It is this more than anything, in effect our daily, personal, 24/7 worship in prayer, bible reading, listening to God, that forms us for when we come together as church.

I think that when that is our devotional life, it is less important when we we come together what we sing and how we pray than the fact that we are. Whether its the latest popular Christian songs or hymns of yesteryear, live or pre-recorded, whether its expository prayer or prepared, liturgical or less organised services, the key is what we are bringing, ourselves, as people who are and do worship God. If the focus is what we want, we have got it wrong, I think. Our focus should be on Jesus and that I think comes through our daily worship.

As the old chorus says:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full, in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace

As I walked a beach in Dorset recently in the sunshine with the tide receding I found it a delight and a joy to praise God and rejoice that I am his and he is mine no matter where I am, who I am with or what I am doing. As I have spent more time in personal worship it has fuelled and inspired my leading of the church, preparing worship for Sundays and has brought a new sense of inspiration to preparing sermons.

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Resilient Faith handles Curved Balls

 Hi, I have been quiet on my blog for a few months now. Not because I have nothing to say but because I had no time to write it down due to some family issues that needed to be handled. In early February by dad died. Although we knew he was ill it was quite sudden. A definite curved ball that needed to be caught and fielded well. What with planning his funeral, we also needed to work out mum's future as she has a number of care needs, not least of which is dementia. A great help in all of this was my church leaders offering me as much compassionate leave as I needed. They took my curved ball and and helped me field it well.

As the last 3 months have evolved there have been a number of other curved balls to catch and my family team have done (IMO) remarkably well in catching and fielding them. So how does all of this connect with our faith lives?

Firstly, none of us is exempt from life's curved balls. The idea that being a Christian means a sort of fairy tale existence of having all we want, having lots of wealth, health and happiness, simply does not stack up in my understanding, with the bibles teaching and especially that of Jesus. Curved balls come at all of us.. Over the last year many, and that includes many Christians, have lost their jobs around the world due to the pandemic. Christians in war torn countries like Nigeria, Syria suffer the same loss of homes, livings, the same dangers as any others. Christians have died or been badly affected by COVID like everyone else.

Secondly, how we view our faith matters. Because it affects how we field the curved balls that come. James tells us that we will face trials

Jas 1:2  Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 

Jas 1:3  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 

If we believe that nothing testing or difficult will come to us, then when it does it is likely to shake and even break our faith built on sand. If we know that testing will come and are prepared to rely on Jesus, no matter what, we will get through it, with our faith strengthened and our trust deepened. Our faith more resilient.

Facing dad's death and its consequences brought our family closer together, working out things between us, sharing the things that needed investigating or doing and sharing in those first 2 months looking after mum. Day by day I asked God for the strength, wisdom and patience needed. Day by day he gave it to me. God enabled me to conduct dad's funeral and help our family through a difficult day. 

Don't misunderstand me. I don't hold that being a Christian is all about some sort of stoic resilience to the challenges of life. My experience has been one of great blessing from God, but not always in being wealthy or healthy. God has never left me without, always given more than I had any right to expect, but has also led me through some very difficult things in life and often in church life. My trust in Jesus and the direction of the Holy Spirit has led me through those times and made the faith that I have deeper and more firm through them. I believe these each have helped my faith in Jesus to be more resilient,

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Difficulty or Opportunity?

 In most parts of the world this Coronavirus pandemic has been felt. Its impact varies depending upon the severity and spread, but here in the UK, we are into our 3rd lockdown and it looks like this year is going to be punctuated with yet more virus related restrictions and problems.

For many this has presented all sorts of difficulties and challenges, not least to Christian churches. Not well known as early adopters, churches can often be slow to respond to change at best and at worst drag as if they have an anchor buried in the ground. Perhaps we should be seeing things in a different light, after all if God is God, then God can work through any situation to bring good. 

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

It is challenging our ways of meeting, not being able to meet in person, its challenging our online abilities, its challenging the way our finances work, its challenging the way we make decisions, especially those with a congregational view of church governance. 

But is this really an opportunity rather than a difficulty? Is it a chance to explore new paths on the journey? Is it a challenge to rethink our approaches and our ways which we have got so used to? Well that possibly depends upon how we approach things. For me the faith life has never been a controlled, everything nicely in its place journey, its had surprises, bumps and also fun and excitement. 

Last year when all of this started, many churches looked at online presence. We had never streamed or filmed our services. How could we do this, should we? Agreeing this was an opportunity to use the time well we talked to others who were more experienced in this and made choices. We used the empty church to do something that would never have happened normally, moved the sound desk area to a better place with a new enclosure and re-wired our entire audio visual systems as well as putting the church onto the internet. Much of this possible through the generosity of the church with skills, money and time. The result, we are much better prepared for the future, already able to link those who cant come with those who can and did when we were open for a while through the middle of last year. We also took the time to link our hall and chapel to enable larger gatherings in the future oh and re-carpeted the chapel. Not every church has the finances to do these things. Careful use of income and encouraging a sacrificial attitude to giving regularly enabled us to have some savings. but fundamental to our thinking was enabling the church to continue meeting in whatever way we can and spending what we had to achieve that. It has opened up opportunities for the future.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Finance is perhaps the most challenged area for many churches. Where a significant portion comes from the service collections or from hiring the premises out, that has caused big issues. Is this really a challenge to the way in which we support church ministry and staff? Perhaps more use of  regular giving through the bank would help some? But does it really honour God that we, his church, rely on those outside of the church to provide for our activities? Is this an opportunity to re-think how we do this in church life. Let me use a simplistic if imperfect example - If a church was made of 10 couples 5 single people and 5 who have non church partners so might find it hard to give, and based upon the average household income (yes I know there are all sorts of reasons folks can't or don't but all examples have flaws) at a giving of 5% that would amount to £18K a year.  There is the challenge on all Christians (including the churches IMO) to be generous to each other? Giving to support other poorer, embryonic and smaller adapting churches - the UK Baptist Union try to to do this through Home Mission, which could be better supported than it is (IMO). Opportunities abound.

Another challenge to our Church lives is that of meeting in person, many I know struggle with this not happening, wanted to keep the churches open regardless of the potential increase in infection that might cause. I know of many churches where whatapp,  Zoom, Teams and other online apps, used on mobile phones (which a large number have), pads, laptops etc, have increased prayer times and the numbers engaging in prayer. Many churches now able to go "online", some have seen a big increase in their attendance. Now we don't know the future impact of this, but there are many who do not come into church services who are joining online, and in some cases that has led to conversions to the faith and joining the church. Again there are many churches who cant do this technically. If we were truly generous could not those churches with the resources and technical expertise, help those which do not? 

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one

I think this pandemic can be seen as a difficulty to be weathered and then we can return to the old "normal". I hope and pray, that this is not the case. That we will listen to the challenges, learn and adapt as we seek God for a new "normal" and embracing the opportunities. A new way to be the Church that God is calling us to be. To hold on to what is good and let go of what needs to be let go off. An opportunity to shine in a new and different way.

May God bless you as you and your churches struggle and face the opportunities that all of this time can offer.