Monday, 12 December 2016

A Thought for Christmas

Joh 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Joh 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Joh 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

The birth of Jesus on that first Christmas, was the ultimate act of God who loves humanity. If we put it in the context of ourselves …

Who would put their only child into a place of extreme vulnerability and danger, if they could avoid it? Who of us would be prepared to let that child die to offer peace, reconciliation and eternal life to a humanity that in most parts was not going to be interested and did not care? I think none of us.

But God's love for humanity is so awe inspiring in its magnitude, so beautiful and rich in its expressions, so wonderful and amazing. Consider what he has created for us to enjoy, the entire universe and everything in it, it is difficult to understand such love. We can try to reduce it to what we know – comparing it to human love, which, while it can be good, giving and generous, is often fragile, self focused and broken. We can reduce it to a love for something like food or a car or a film. Nothing near the same as God's love for us.

Through that vulnerable child, born to Mary, God poured out his love for us. Drenched us in its perfume and wonder. A love that has no boundaries, a love that cannot be measured in any way that we know of. A love that forgives and restores, a love that breaks down barriers, a love that makes an end of hostility and violence, a love that calls all to the greatest wonder of all – God.

John tried to express it in his first letter -

1Jn 4:9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
1Jn 4:10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

All who accept that love from God, become God's children, love beyond measure is our blessing. But such love cannot, should not, must not be contained within us alone. It is poured out to us so that we might share it. So that the meaning and importance of that first Christmas would bring to life each and every person as we share God's love with them.

Because God, so loves humanity, he has, through Jesus, made it possible for anyone to know him and to be set free from the cost of sin. Those of us who know that can show it to others. Paul tells us in Romans 5 that God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. We have been given the tools to do the job ...

Perhaps the most beautiful way in which we can show God's love this Christmas is to express it to someone who has no experience of it. The way in which we do that will depend upon the person and their experience of love and what their needs are. But a simple way is to tell them, show them that they are loved. Go and tell the good news to all people that God loves them.

(spend a moment reflecting on who God may be asking you to show that love to)

1Jn 3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Who are we?

Identity is still an important thing to most people - what we belong to, which groups we are a part of, how we identify with those groups and people.

For some its a uniform, for example medical professionals, care staff, military folks and some ministers. For others its the language they use, the things that they wear or the music that they listen to.The list goes on, but you get the picture I hope.

I recall my first week at university in the mid 1970's, everyone on freshers week delighting in the ability to leave school uniform behind (most at that time in sixth form colleges had uniforms). Yet the first thing most did was go to the students union and buy a complete set of denims, a sort of freshers uniform. I wasn't big on denim so tended to favour the military trench coat and flared trousers.

To some extend the church has been, in my opinion, rather too busy trying to merge with culture, and become in parts, almost invisible, attempting to be more acceptable, less different. That too is an identity thing, who are we in Christ and what are we called to be? How are we called to behave and what does that mean to the identity that we carry with us and live out in our lives?

Peter when asked at the trial of Jesus if he knew him, if he identified with him, denied it from fear of reprisal. I wonder if that is one of the reasons we can tend to be timid about who we are as Christians and want to blend with the landscape, and yes I know that can be tricky as we have different views on many things across churches.

I wonder if you were asked by a friend,  colleague, a school or university friend or even by someone in a social setting, who are you? Would we answer, I am a Christian? I am sure some would say "yes, I would answer like that", but I am equally sure that for many Christians such an answer would be far too out there to reply with. In part, like Peter, I guess there is fear of how others will react to us, but also I wonder if it has more to do with who we are in Christ and how secure we are in that, how we identify as Christians and how we want others to see us.

Jesus asks us to be salt and light - to me that seems like he means us to be noticed, for others to know who we are and for them to be affected by who are are. That says to me that our identity should be obvious to others by the things we do, how we act and what we say. Our identity in Christ is one of total commitment and trying not to be embarrassed about how others view Christians but instead showing folks that we are going to make a difference and we are going to promote Christ in the way our lives are lived. I am happy with my identity as a Christian and am happy to tell anyone who asks, I aim to be salt and light wherever I am and in whatever I am doing in the hope that it might help some search for Christ for themselves. How about you?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Old and New

We are all familiar I expect with the popular story of Aladdin and his lamp. A supposedly old lamp that looks a bit battered becomes one of Aladdins' prized possessions, after his false uncle tried to trap him. His wife falls for a ploy of the false Uncle to exchange new lamps for old, she thinks to please Aladdin with a brand new lamp. The problem was that the old lamp had far more value to Aladdin than any new lamp, as it was the source of his wealth,

Its a common problem in any group that some want to hang on to the old because it can seem safe and understandable and is what they have invested in. Others hanker after something new and want to ditch the old rapidly and forget it.

Jesus in his teaching tells of not putting new wine into an old wine skin, which all of his listeners would have known was daft since new wine would burst an old, already stretched, wine skin. He had not come to simply patch up or refill the old religious traditions. However he also had not come to throw away the God's law.

And just to make things more complex, Jesus also tells us that a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die so that it can in time germinate and produce a great increase of seeds. The old seed must die to produce the new. They are not separate but interconnected, The new could not exist without the old.

New can be dazzling and attractive and tick the boxes for us, but the old often has value which we may not fully understood. The seed carries the DNA of the plant that it will "die" to become, the new in effect is a product of the old, without the old it would not exist. Understanding that connection is perhaps crucial when we look at changes in church life.

Change in church life is a fact and is constant, the pressures around us to adapt, to include, to infuse to produce new ways to do things, are immense. The difficult part is discerning what of the old to let go of and what to keep, what to let "die" so that something new can germinate from it. Even more difficult is letting go of something that we have nurtured and put huge effort into only to have to watch it fade and go. But it is sometimes the only way that the new can take shape and grow and blossom and produce a new crop, a new harvest.

Managing such change is also a skill, not too fast, not too slow, carrying at least the majority with the changes and handling the disappointments, concerns and resistance of others.

One person told me after I have been Pastor of the church for around 4 years, "you don't seem to have changed much in your time here". I smiled to myself as I reflected on all that had changed, slowly, gently and hopefully helpful to our faith journeys as a church. In the changes some things had had to go and others grew from them, Most of the changes have worked well but some changes we have got wrong and have needed to adjust. Often in getting it wrong we can learn and so improve.

The old is important if we are to better understand how to handle change, the new is important as we discern God's direction for the church we serve. Embracing both is an art.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Justice mitigated with love

We live at a time when culture can tend to dictate trends and attitudes. The church continually struggles with what that means to long held and theologically wrestled with views of scripture and how Christians should live it out in their daily lives. We struggle with what scripture says and what society says when they don't seem to add up together.

Is it so different a time, I wonder, from what we read of in the Bible? Take the Hebrews who in the desert soon reverted to the cultural norm of worshiping animal shaped gods when Moses was up on the mountain, a practice they had learned from years in Egypt, I suspect. The Israelite's struggled continually with God's call on their lives to be set apart, to be Holy and righteous and to keep his commands. They struggled with the religions and cultures around them and ended up caving in and adopting those ways, demoting God. As result God's judgement on them was played out in separation; the prophets talk in terms of unfaithfulness and divorce (take a look at Hosea for example).

God, as the Bible tells us is, among other characteristics, a God who is just and his works perfect. However we read the Bible, that message comes through in the New and Old Testaments. Justice suggests judgement which at times is pretty hard for us to stomach. The rebellions in the desert of the Hebrews resulted in swift responses and at times only Moses intercession seems to have averted total disaster for them. God's justice was visited on King David for his blatant abuse of power in claiming another's wife and having the husband killed. We don't like a God who punishes and corrects and yet its a part of who God is, a God who judges our actions and is just and Holy.

And us, what about us today? The Bible tells us that Jesus came to save humanity from the price of sin, the things we do that offend against God's ways, that rightly and justly deserve the penalty. In Jesus' words if we don't turn from sin and turn to God we will die.

So what about culture and cultural pressure for Christians to adopt new ideas or change their theological positions? We are inevitably and, in my opinion rightly, slow to change, if we change at all in some situations. Scripture must be wrestled with and not simply looked at with a new cultural agenda or lens or with a view to a quick fix, after all that would be, as Paul puts it, like being blown here and there by every wind of teaching ... Through the centuries the Church has had to wrestle with change in its understanding and often for good reason, but not everything can be changed, some things are in God's word to us for good reason even if we don't like them or if they challenge our views.

Gods justice is mitigated with love, love that knows no bounds, love that pays the price, love that offered a sacrifice to end all sacrifices, Jesus, in our place. God's just punishment for our sin, paid in full so that we might be set free, in Christ.

However I look at scripture I see love and justice going together, God is creating with his people a holy priesthood, a royal nation, modeled on his ways, not ours, our template? Jesus Christ. Living with cultural pressures to change means that what is acceptable to some will not be to others and there is a need for the church not to move with every wind and pressure, but to seek faithfully to know God's heart on each issue - after all Jesus told us that he was sending, and I believe he has, the Holy Spirit to lead us in all truth.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Living sacrifices

Recently we have been looking, in church, at the Holy Spirit and us. One of the things that has been coming up in my studies preparing the sermons on this is the call to be a "living sacrifice".

Rom 12:1  Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--this is your true and proper worship.

Tozer in his book "Life in the Spirit" talks about separation, which occurs when believers are filled with the Spirit, his example is the disciples after Pentecost. This point being that the Spirit brings a separation between believers and the world. Not physically but spiritually, this separation is a part of the living sacrifices that we are to be. He goes on to tell of the Moravians in 1727, who having experienced this filling with the Holy Spirit, became some of the most enthusiastic evangelists of their day, giving up the comforts of their homes to spread the good news.

Being a living sacrifice suggests a need to put something before our desires and wants - Jesus, the one we are called to imitate as best we can, with the Holy Spirit's help. But there is an obvious problem for most of us, we don't want to give up the things that we have come to like, trust, put our faith in, so that we can devote more time to knowing God, serving him, going wherever he asks us to. What we often want is a mission that means we can stay at home, have our job and enjoy the fruits of it, a life not too disturbed by sacrifice.

Sacrifice comes with a call to let go, to hold loosely to some things, to offer all that we have, our bodies included, to be where God wants us. A couple of missionary friends have just gone to Central Africa, the wife being pregnant, for a short trip to see how things are and what their mission might be when the baby has been born. That, to me, is sacrificial.

Does this concept of being a living sacrifice embody other types of sacrifice? For example, opening our homes to others, or lending treasured possessions to others, or maybe making meals for others even inviting them to our table. What about giving up a significant part of our time and of our income to God's work, that would be a sacrifice? I am sure there are many ways.

In a culture where me, my and I tend to come before anything else when we are looking at life  -my new car, my holidays, my home, my security, what I want, what I deserve - it is, I think, getting more and more difficult to be living sacrifices. And yet as Tozer says, the Spirit separates us from the world and Jesus tells us:

Mat 16:24-26  Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

We must lose our lives in Christ, be living sacrifices, and then we will find the joy and wonder of true life in Christ. I think it was exactly this that allowed Paul to write that he was an offering being poured out, a sacrifice, as he imitated his Lord and Saviour who gave himself as a sacrifice for Paul and us.

Another book I have been looking at is "The Wind in the house of Islam", a detailed survey of people coming to faith in Jesus, in predominantly Muslim parts of the world. The thing that is repeated over and over is the sacrifice of many such believers, their love for Jesus has reshaped their lives, often requiring huge sacrifice and danger, but they seem not to turn from it, they embrace it. There is an example for all of us in that of being living sacrifices.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Have we lost the plot?

As I engage in debate with other Christians and theologians and church ministers, I keep wondering "have we lost the plot?" Are we spending so much time dealing with these apparently important questions and cultural skews on the gospel message that we are truly loosing the plot when it comes to Christianity? Have we lost the simplicity of the message?

We discuss all sorts of aspects of theology or things like being the best at music, inclusion, having welcoming premises, giving an attractive message or a challenging message, using the latest techno wizardry even whether we should hand out decent coffee or instant coffee before or after church activities. But how do they fit with the message we have been charged to give? Aren't all of these ancillary to the message we are called to give, the message that still seems to hit the spot for many who hear it? And are they any substitute for giving our best to giving out that message?

Jesus seems not to have had food to feed the 5000 or the 4000 let alone coffee, and yet they all ate and were satisfied, men, women and children. The sick and possessed came to him and found healing, the sinful found release and recovery through him. In Jesus the religious (and anyone else who wanted it) found a new track to follow that gave them truth and freedom and hope. He is our example.

Over the centuries theologians and other clever folks have written countless pages on their interpretation of scripture but it seems to me that understanding of scripture is open to all not a reserve for the educated. It is open to all through the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said ...

John 14:26  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 

Joh 16:13  But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 

I struggle at times to understand why if we are, as Christians, filled with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of unity, we cannot agree on so many areas of scripture and its interpretation.

Eph 4:2  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Eph 4:3  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Eph 4:4  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;

Jesus' prayer for the church includes this ...
Joh 17:23  I in them and you in me--so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (my emphasis)

Perhaps our biggest issue is that our learning and reading and disputing, sometimes driven by our pride in what we "learn" and apparently understand, gain greater importance than relying on the God of the universe to lead us in all truth and righteousness. My right is better than your right can be the cry."Be still and know that I am God" comes to mind.

I am not trying to offend theologians and those with higher education (after all I have what is considered higher education) but to challenge the way we seem to do things. I struggle with the way in which it seems that God can lead one group to believe that his truth means one thing while leading another to believe the exact opposite? Doesn't this suggest that we simply have not got it yet? Can we not accept that? Must we be right in our understanding to the exclusion of all other interpretations? Are we in danger of and have we (the Church) been in danger of, fitting our understanding to our desires and aspirations (and I include myself in this) or of shaping our understanding to fit the situation or our latest piece of learning?

Some of the most able preachers of the gospel and effective evangelists that I have come across in recent history seem to have been relatively uneducated and yet were greatly used by God (Tozer, Wigglesworth, Hudson Taylor are just some I recall). Often, it seems to me, the simplicity of their approach worked well.

 Have we or are we loosing the simplicity of the message we are called to proclaim by being so polarized in our views?

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Good Friday Poem

I shared this poem yesterday at our Good Friday reflection, we live in the knowledge of the resurrection of Christ, but its good also to remember the price paid for our freedom in him.

Have a great East, celebrating the greatest of all events - "He is risen".

The jeering crowd like jackals stood,
To see what must be done.
Though once they thought this man was good,
They didn't see God's Son.
They called Him Rabbi, Teacher, Lord,
Yet now He was Rome's slave.
So all His claims were now ignored,
For who was He to save?
The nails were driven deep inside...
More drops of blood soon fell...
Once lifted, hoisted, crucified,
His life was just like Hell.
Torment and torture lay ahead.
Excruciating pain.
His scourged back stung and bled and bled
As briars bruised His brain.
His mother wept each passing hour.
'Dear God, have pity, please! '
And yet there came no sign of power,
No rescue, no release.
The soldiers gambled for His clothes.
One wash and they'd be clean.
His life and death the Father chose,
Thus stays the Nazarene.
'It is finished! ' the Saviour screamed
With one great final sigh...
Though not defeated as it seemed,
For Jesus had to die.
To think, the Holy Spirit shares
Forgiveness in His Name!
No other man on Earth compares.
Not one could do the same.
For all have sinned and gone astray
Like sheep in darkest night.
But blessed are they that find the Way
And walk within His light...
He died for you. He died for me.
God's Son fulfilled God's plan.
From Calvary came clemency!
Behold the Son of Man!
Behold the blood! Behold the Lord!
For this man was the Christ!
The Lamb of God! His heart outpoured!
The Saviour sacrificed!
Oh, who can count the callous sins
That Jesus suffered for?
Behold the precious Prince of Peace,
The King of Love and more!

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Intentional Surrender

Surrender has very negative connotations. For folks like me who love looking into history and especially military history, surrender suggests loosing, being weaker or somehow being less than others.

Intentional is a little simpler and easier to go with, something that we do with consideration or intent, something we decide rather than getting into it accidentally or in some way fall into.

Put the two together and it makes a strong and yet difficult phrase. "Intentional surrender."

In the context of the Christian faith, Jesus gave us the extreme example of this. Choosing to put aside his status ...
Php 2:6-7  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Intentional surrender to the task in front of him, led Jesus to follow God's plan for his life, his ministry and ultimately to his death on the cross. As we approach Easter, it is worth reflecting a little on what that says to us about our attitudes, our ways of life and that phrase "Intentional Surrender".

Who or what do we live for? What is important to us? How do we handle being part of a church, if we are? How easily do we accept the leadership of others, even others who seem to us to be the wrong people by our judgement? What if you are a high powered executive or someone who runs their own business? What if your perceived spiritual or leadership experience in church life appears to be extensive? How well do you take being led by someone without your apparent experience?

God's ways are often hard for us to understand,

1Co 1:27  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

We need to be reminded that God does not see things our way and we need that reminder as we consider Intentional surrender to his will, In my understanding it means Intentional surrender to those we are in fellowship with in our churches, Intentional surrender to those God gives responsibility to. It is in our weakness that we best recognise our need for God.

Christ did not surrender because he was weak, he surrendered to the cross because he was strong and made an amazing choice, for each of us, to die in our place. Intentional surrender requires strength on our part, its not about giving up, its about intentionally surrendering to God's will and plan and then actively giving it all we have to support, encourage and lend our skills and abilities to those God has called to lead or organise his people.

If there were more intentional surrender in churches, there would, in my opinion, be a lot fewer church problems with control, leadership, splits over control and our churches would be far more harmonious places, living out God's will for us, together.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Rich Conversations

Over the last week I have had some conversations that each in their way have caused me to think because I engaged with the other person / people, heard what they were saying, responded and enjoyed the discussion. What I call rich conversations because from each I gained something important. Let me share a few:

I wonder if you consider the kinds of conversations that you have with others, at home, at work, where you socialise? Conversations can be quite throw away, passing the time of day and not really taking in much because we are mentally off to the next thing or texting / emailing at the same time as talking.

We are running an Alpha course at the church where I am the Pastor and the discussions after the meal and video are really good. Talking about things which, church folk often take for granted or assume that all other church folks understand anyway. The concept of the Holy Trinity and how you explain it was one such. And no matter the examples people use to try, it is for me something that is but cannot be adequately explained. A part of the mystery of God. But discussing it helped the group understand that not everything in faith has nice neat answers.

Then there was the discussion with a regular at the church on the nature and content of the New Testament, in the bible. It all seems the same, with the same themes was the starting point. The bottom line being that it seems we really don't need it all. However when we talked through what was actually there, the nuances and differences and what would be lost if you reduced it, the person wondered why we don't talk more about this in church. A bit of a challenge for me. But again a very useful conversation.

A last example was a chat at a minsters breakfast with another minister where we considered what people take in from a typical sermon and the way in which people seem all too often to dismiss what they don't like the sound of or the challenge of. It made me realise that one of the things I miss in Pastoral ministry is the deeper conversations that we had when studying for ministry at college. Perhaps I need to encourage these in church?

So different conversations, in various settings and yet each with gems for me to look into or learn from.

So much of Jesus' ministry was conversations with his disciples and would be disciples, encouraging, teaching, challenging, honing their skills so that eventually they would be able to go out on their own and spread the word. The gospels are full of the accounts of these conversations. Some dealing with very human things like who might sit alongside Jesus in heaven and who would be the greatest in his Kingdom, while others dealt with the need to be clued up and ready. One of the conversations that I love reading is that between Nicodemus, a religious leader, and Jesus. Nicodemus hears but cannot understand, he listens with a particular mindset and struggles with Jesus' words.

Often when we hear each other in conversation, we don't truly hear or understand. We come to the conversation with out own word filters, placing our own understanding on them rather than giving time to fully understanding what the other is saying and meaning. Rich conversations take time and focus and a desire to go deeper with them, to find the richness. Try it yourself, it is rewarding.