Happy Bible Sunday, Happy 500th birthday to the Reformation!

So in some churches there’s loads going on about how on 31st October this year it’s 500yrs since the start of the Reformation in Europe which, depending on your point of view, marks a point in history when one group of superstitious fools became very upset with another group of superstitious fools; or the date when an individual’s right to assert their understanding of the Bible was fully asserted against the presumption that an ordained person’s view was above contradiction; or even the date when faith and politics began the journey that has led to the US, the EU and Brexit…

8 Reasons We Don’t Read the Bible - Bible Study

In other churches this same date isn’t really being mentioned- in the Church of England the Reformation didn’t really reach a climax until about 50yrs later when Elizabeth established the Church of England- several decades after her father had declared independence from Rome and the violent times that followed on. Instead, we mark this Sunday each year as Bible Sunday- one of the other gifts that the Reformation brought about was the translation, publication and distribution via mass printing of Bibles in languages other than Hebrew, Greek or Latin- not only could Christians talk to God in their own language and hear worship led in their own language, but they could hear God’s word in their own language… For us, we celebrated by having a display of Bibles in our church- some over 100yrs old, some much newer… and here’s what I said based on Matthew chapter 24 verses 30-35 and Colossians 3.12-17 (or at least most of it- there were extra bits of course, which you can listen to here

‘Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’… Jesus words, originally spoken in a language that is no longer used, first written in a language that is no longer used, then translated into another language that is gone, before finally being translated into English almost 1500yrs after he spoke them and published in the King James Bible, the first English Bible that many of us would recognise.

This autumn Churches around the world remember that it is 500yrs since the Reformation began in Germany, when Martin Luther made his proclamations that led, among other things, to the Bible becoming available in a reader’s native language- up until the reformation, and the establishment of the Lutheran and Baptist churches in Europe and the separation of England from Rome by Henry VIII, a Bible in German, French, Swedish or English was an academic oddity or heretical.  Before then, only the highly educated and privileged had access to the words of Jesus- which is great, because much of what Jesus said needed to be heard by the rich and privileged… if only they’d listen.

Jesus’ words are to teach us, and also to challenge us… to help us orientate our lives to follow him.

Today is Bible Sunday- you’ll have seen a collection of Bibles on your way in, some of you have brought your own Bible with you today…

Pop quiz- who’s ever opened the Bible outside of church or an RE lesson?

Great- so that’s a whole load of us who’re ‘Bible readers’- and are ahead of all those who, 500yrs ago had no access to the Bible in their own language.

Ok- who’s read any of the Bible this year, or if you’d say you have a favourite verse or passage of the Bible?

Now, a bigger question- have you ever read the whole of a Gospel- not listened to it Sunday by Sunday, but read it yourself?  Have you ever read the whole NT/OT or the whole Bible?

Before you think we’re onto major guilt trip time here- I’m reading the Bible this year, you may recall I said as much in January, and I’ve not managed to keep completely up to date- I’ve probably missed 3weeks over the year… mostly when I’ve been on holiday, if I’m honest… I’ve been a Christian for almost 30yrs, and this is only the second time I’ve read the whole Bible. There’re chunks I’ve read many times, and others not so much…

A bit about how to read the Bible at this point…

What does it mean to read the Bible? What does it mean to not read the Bible?

If I’m a Christian, what does it mean to read the Bible? It’s the first point of reference for my understanding of God, of Jesus, of their actions and character- when someone asks me how or why Christians behave in a certain way, it is the Bible that is my starting point… all Christian tradition- our prayers, hymns, ways of being church, much of our legal system (the expectation of justice), our scientific method (the universe is logical) stems from the Bible… it’s completely possible for me to live my whole life as a Christian without reading a verse from the Bible for myself- millions of Christians have done so… but now that it is available to us, why not read it?

It’s rather like a man who hears that a world famous theatre company are coming to perform in his home town, but chooses not to buy tickets. And then on the night of the show stands outside asking the audience what it was like… he’ll gather something of the experience, he may already know the plot and some of the characters, he may have visited the theatre previously… but he will have missed out.

Reading the Bible is how we understand God, and how we experience God- in the Psalms, Job and Lamentations we sit alongside those who’re suffering, in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges we march through the desert and struggle for identity alongside the people of Israel in a harsh. In the Prophets we listen to the voices calling God’s people back to him when they have gone astray… throughout the Old Testament we hear God’s repeated call- if my people will but hear my voice and come back to me, then I will bless them… all the way from Abram in Genesis to Malachi in the last pages of the Hebrew Bible.

And then we encounter Jesus- the word of God that has been present but unseen throughout the Old Testament, and the promise of the blessing is widened out to encompass all people, and the invitation to become holy children of a holy God is offered to each one of us…

In our passage from Colossians Paul wrote ‘Clothe yourselves…’

For his first century listeners, becoming a Christian- a little Christ, involved taking off and putting aside certain things, and putting on new things- and this is true for us today… choosing to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient- forgiving one another… today we don’t have quite such obvious temples calling for us to worship the idols they contain, but the pursuit of money, of power, the idolisation of possessions and sex, our love of sport or even family- every one of these things has its place in life, but none of them are God… The Bible helps us to enjoy life, by helping us to enjoy life with God…

In life we need guides and role models, instruction books and how-to manuals…

If we look around the world we see a culture of arrogance, selfishness and greed, of ‘me and mine first’ and no one else matters, that denies the existence of God and the value of peace… we’re not called simply to say ‘after you’ and become doormats, but to challenge in our lives the status quo- and to do this we need to use the gifts, the tools that God has given us- the Bible and the Holy Spirit- the word and the helper.

As Paul wrote to the Colossians- ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts’… as we individually and as churches pick up and use the gifts God has given us, we will flourish as his children, and his grace and love will become more apparent to those around us…

The Bible, in our own language, available for us to read and understand, is what makes it easier for us to know God, enjoy God’s presence, and hear from God…

Or would we prefer just knowing a bit about God, being aware that others are in God’s presence, hearing about others who’ve heard from God?

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Harvest generosity

We had our harvest celebrations this weekend- with much food consumed at a BBQ, at coffee time, at lunch. We also celebrated in our worship- giving thanks for the harvest that has come from the fields and the sea. We’re a ‘sort of’ rural community- on the edge of a small town and a largeish village, you can see fields from pretty much anywhere and there is fresh caught local fish available if you know where to look, but not that many of us rely directly on the land for our livelihood- a few, but not heaps. Harvest is, then, not so much about giving thanks that the wheat crop has come through or that the cows are calving well, though both those are present; but about the simple fact that we have food on the table. And so we reflect on and take action to help those who are struggling with that- the traditional bringing of harvest produce has become a collection of dried food goods that goes to the local Foodbank while fresh produce is given to a local charity that cooks lunches during the week for homeless and vulnerable folk. Add to that a collection taken up for Wateraid, going to fund their work building boreholes in small communities in Southern Africa, and we’re doing ok- almost smug… uh oh.

Why Should I Give My Money? | Brad Hoffmann's Blog

Of course, that’s the dilemma- do nothing about the needs of others and you either feel guilty or learn to ignore them… which is not a direction I’ll be heading in myself, thank you; or else you do something and feel a small glow of pride- I helped someone, we saved a life… and that path leads to smug self-congratulation. Some might say we should just keep quiet about the good we do- which is a valid point, but if there’s a need that I know about, is it right that I just keep quiet about it, or should I invite others to help me make more of a difference?

And in the midst of all this, you get our Bible reading for the day- someone (probably me), just googled ‘harvest’ in their Bible and shoved it in (It’s from Luke 12, this is the Message version):

Jesus told the crowd this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, ‘You fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

21 “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

Jesus continued with his friends, “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

25-28 “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

29-32 “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

So what does this all mean?

As conditions get harder for many people all around the world- whether that’s rising sea levels, drought, job security, violent conflict or anything else, we need to hang on to what we can do- the rich man in the story Jesus told isn’t berated for being rich, but for trying to hold onto more than he had- for his greed. Elsewhere Jesus talked about the generosity of a widow who gave the smallest coin in the local currency as a gift to the temple in Jerusalem- it wasn’t the size of the gift, but what it meant- she gave out of her scarcity, the rich man tried to keep more even when he had plenty.

Jesus then went on to speak of a different way- instead of trusting yourself, trust God, and then you can be at peace. Not just relax and put your feet up, but relax and not worry. I can’t make the rain come, I can’t make myself taller, I can’t affect certain things, so why am I worrying about them? What can I do, with what I have?

There’s a quote, attributed to John Wesley, which goes like this- “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Whether Wesley said it or not, it’s a great phrase, not a bad motto at all, and as we celebrate and give thanks for what we have, I can think of worse things to have in my head.

BTW, if you’re wondering what happened to the actual sermon notes from yesterday, the early morning service had a preach based on this passage that went miles from my notes, the main service had a different preacher, and the later service had a family talk about vegetables, droughts and grandmothers… and no, there were no notes that made any sense!

Generous Giving- in everything, with everything

Yesterday I preached with only around 50 words written down, and someone thought it was really good… which does beg the question of why I write things down most weeks; but then again, at least you lovely people can access the printed/posted word, whereas the stream of consciousness ideas that aren’t even recorded in one of our churches are lost/released/set free (take your pick, depending on how whimsical you’re feeling). I was speaking about how what we believe has to make a difference in what we do- how we’re called to conduct ourselves, to live our lives, in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel- of the good news of life and hope that Christians have been given. Actually that is true of us all- our lives reflect what we believe. If we project fear and anger onto the world, that is an outworking of ourselves and our perception of the world around us. Or to put it another way, if we want to see world peace, we have to start with ourselves.

Words of Wisdom for the Class of 2012 - Jillian Harris

However, last week I was speaking at the end of our series on worship- the different aspects of our gathered worship that we’ve been looking at over the past few months. And having had a reading from the life of Elijah where he’s kept alive by trust in God’s provision, and from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel about the risk of prioritising material things, we’d reached the subject of giving-

When people talk about money, there’s often a certain shuffling of the feet or a blanking of the mind. When people talk about generosity we tend to underplay our own, while sometimes gushing our thanks towards others’. As I come to speak today I’m conscious that I don’t want to only talk about money, but I want to be clear that I am talking about money in the context of generous giving. I’m talking about it partly because the PCC have asked me to, and partly because it’s a significant part of our lives, and if our faith doesn’t connect with the things that play a big part in society and our own lives, then it is rather missing the point…

What we do with our time and our money, for those who’re Christians or who’re exploring the Christian faith, needs to take account of who we say God is- We proclaim and sing that God is the one who has called the universe into being, and sustains all that is- and our response is to be thankful. We talk of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how forgiveness and eternal life are available to all who ask- and the word we use to describe our understanding of this is grace… As Rowan Williams said ‘Jesus giving his life for us is the ultimate demonstration of God’s generosity and grace’.

In this, as in every part of the Christian life, we each make our own decisions, our own responses. As I’ve talked this summer about prayer, about deepening our knowledge of the Bible, as Rose, John, Cathy and Dave have shared their experiences and wisdom, each one of us is responding at our own level- and that is how it should be. If the Christian faith is about our relationship with God, and how that is outworked in the world, it has to have our own personal response as part of it, rather than a proscribed check list or a flow diagram. However, if we are serious about exploring this faith, about living our lives as believers in and followers of Jesus, then we do well to consider those aspects of our gathered life as church, and reflect on how we’re living them out…

If we sing amazingly and love music, we love to read the Bible and feed the hungry, but count the cost of every minute and every good deed done, then we have hearts of stone and our relationship with God is limited- and similarly with all the others… if we refuse to worship, to confess, to engage with God’s word, to proclaim our faith, to pray or to live generously… any one of them, then we are chained up and held back, we cannot grow or flourish as Christians, as the people God made us and calls us to be.

Jesus says ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is too’, and ‘you cannot serve both God and money’… not disregard it, but be aware of how it affects you.  Money is a tool, that is to be used, not a God to worship or a hobby- what good can I do with the money I have? The Bible, apparently talks more about the evils of money and how to be wary of it than it does about sex- I’ve not checked, but there are a number of passages talking about how believers, in the old and new testaments, should think about money and other material possessions.

The key is generosity- God has been generous in creation, in sending his son, in our own salvation…  and has ultimately given us all we have. So let us be generous in turn.

At this point I do want to emphasise that I’m talking about time, skills, effort and so much more as well as money… but the principle of generosity applies across them all. So when I said ‘what good can I do with the money I have?’ I also mean ‘what good can I do with the time I have and the skills I have?’…

In much of life we live with a tight budget, a scarcity mentality and with the word ‘austerity’ ringing through our ears. However in God’s kingdom we see grace, abundance and generosity.

Elijah, in the middle of a drought, has finally left the stream where he’s been fed by ravens bringing him food each day, and finds a woman and her son, preparing to die. He asks her for a drink and a bite to eat, she explains her situation. Elijah’s comment is somewhere between lunacy and genius- carry on with your plan, but if you could just make me some food before you die that’d be lovely. But the following verse is crucial- ‘This is what the Lord says…’ Elijah had a deep faith, a strong relationship with God in every aspect, and spoke with authority. And God provided. The oil and flour didn’t run out until the day it rained. God didn’t turn her flour into a larder overflowing with sweetmeats and pastries… God blessed what she had, and it was enough.

When we gather together we take up an offering- maybe we should make more of that moment in the service, but we’re English- I’ve come to the conclusion that our Englishness is at the root of many problems- something we inherited from the Victorians maybe, an inability to talk about death, money, emotions or faith… anyway, when we gather together, we take up an offering- a gift of money that is representative of our response to what God has given us, and is our giving to help sustain and grow the ministry of our church both here in Newport and beyond- contributing towards churches in Devon that are in the poorest parishes and supporting our mission giving to Shelterbox, Amigos amongst others…

Now, our prayer and our faith is that God blesses and uses what we offer, and that when we give and act in faith, it will be enough.

Our understanding is that God blesses what we have, not what we don’t have, so we give out of our means rather than re-mortgaging the house for our Sunday offering. But we also give generously and sacrificially… what this all means is that there is no membership fee for a church, but we ought to notice the difference in our wallet at the end of the month…

Practically there’re ways to do this- we’ve mentioned the Parish Giving Scheme, some folk use one-off gift aid envelopes or standing order, but ultimately this is about what difference it makes to our lives- we become more generous people as we become more generous in giving of our money, time and skills- we grow as we give. Our giving isn’t just about making the finances add up, though that reduces the headache of any church treasurer, but its about us growing as people of God.

Prayer- an expression of vulnerability and trust.

There are times when you discover that you’re on the same page as God- when you’ve been meaning to speak about things for a while and everything seems to nudge you in that direction… when everything is trying to tell you something. That was yesterday- with the way that 2 sermons by different people fitted in synch with each other, and everything else, down to the unplanned comment about ‘if you want me to pray with you at the communion rail and it takes 10minutes’, which was followed by someone turning up late for the service who, guess what, needed to spend time with God. Huh. Sure, it could all be coincidence, it’s just a lot of coincidences, all happening one after another, in a week when I’m talking about God hearing our prayer. Yup.

So, as usual, what I said doesn’t match with what I wrote, but here is the plan I had at the start of yesterday morning, based on James’ letter to the Christian church and a passage from Matthew’s Gospel (Bible references are James 5.13-18 and Matthew 13.54-58). The audio version is as always available on-line here

Having just come back from the clergy conference I want to share with you over the next few weeks some of what we were talking and learning about. Not so much the details of staying at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester where prohibited items in rooms specifically mention shotgun ammo and birdscarers, but rather the nature of the diocesan priorities that we were reflecting on. If you’ve had a letter from any of the staff or been on the website this last year you’ll probably have noticed- Pray, Grow Disciples, Serve with Joy… these 3 things are the priorities that are shaping the plans and activity of the diocese. They are the means by which we hope to see churches grow in confidence, faith, and numbers. We’ll come back, over the weeks ahead to the ideas of growing disciples and serving our communities with Joy, but this week we’re continuing in our own teaching on prayer.

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Last week we were thinking about prayer for the world (which we often call intercession) and our own relationship with God that is reflected in our prayer life. As I said, how close we feel to God, how aware we are of what God is doing, how broken our hearts are for the troubles of the world, all stem out of how much we take on Jesus’s teaching on prayer- calling God Father, praying for his kingdom to come in all things and seeking his guidance in our lives.

This morning we’re thinking about another aspect of the life of prayer- prayer for each other. We sometimes call this prayer ministry, we might also think of it as a type of intercessory prayer if we’re more comfortable with that language, or just simply ‘praying for you’.

Our two readings highlight the tension that exists around praying for people we know, or having people we know pray for us- If we look at James, it’s very simple- if you’re happy, sing songs of praise, if you’re sick, get folk to come and pray with you. Mark’s Gospel is described as the blunt, Ronseal account of Jesus’ life- the short tabloid read to the lengthy broadsheet account of Matthew… in which case James’ letter to the Christian church is the equivalent among the epistles of the New Testament. Not a different letter for each church, no need to write several letters… just this- control your tongue, care for widows and orphans, be like Jesus, and here: praise God in the good times, seek help in the bad, confess your sins and you will be forgiven.

Our passage from Matthew’s gospel offers us what might be our response to this- it’s all very well to say that but- our family and friends know us too well. Just as Jesus was not able to heal many in his home town, so we know that among those closest to us it can be hard. They know our flaws, they may be wary of revealing their inner struggles or needs to us- I know there’ve been times when I’ve deliberately sought out a stranger to pray for me about something, because it’s painful or complicated to ask someone who knows the situation to pray into it… and there are times when that is ok. However, it may be that I’m simply avoiding the situation- if it’s Sandra I’ve offended or who’s upset me, it isn’t that helpful, in the long term, to ask Pete to pray with me about it… the broken relationship can’t be healed by him.

Praying for one another involves a degree of trust and faith- in God, of course, but also in each other. It involves being somewhat vulnerable, and so we must practice being trustworthy just as we must practice trusting. When I bring something to an individual who’s offering to pray for me I have to know a few things-

  • That they’re connected to God- there’re some people who I just feel more comfortable praying for me because they’re obviously on God’s wavelength; but God is on everyone’s wavelength, often it’s just me that hasn’t noticed. You may or may not have come across the results of surveys earlier in the year which show that over half our nation now say they have no religion- as far as those folks are concerned everyone here is more connected to God than them, not just those who lead prayers at the front. Also, while we’re here- the NRSV translation of James 5.16 says ‘prayer of the righteous’, so gender isn’t the issue here, its our personal relationship with God… just to be clear on that.
  • I have to know they care- being prayed for isn’t a check box, or a production line! Something is bothering me, whether big or small, and I find myself asking for prayer… I don’t want the person I ask to reply ‘It’s fine, God knows your need, sit there while I pray’… and after 10 seconds of silence, or a short catch-all prayer that God would ‘help me in all I face’ to ask me to move along as someone else want the chair… And I want them to remember they’ve prayed for me- not to shout about it the following week while we queue for coffee, but to ask how I am…

There’re other things too, when and how to pray with young people and those of the opposite sex, when to pray out-loud and when to be silent, but ultimately this is the most important thing- most of us can pray for someone, and to most of us have something going on that could be prayed for… There is no barrier of age or experience that can’t be worked through, there are no clever words…

It feels timely to me that this summer I’ve been reading several books on prayer, while at the same time both Carolyn and Cathy have been talking about having the church open for prayer and producing prayer resources to allow mid-week visitors to pray, someone’s just given me a pile of books on prayer after I’d written in my to-do list ‘create library of prayer books for the church’, I’ve been reminded of my licencing here when I said that my highest priority was to lead us in prayer.

There are some terrible things going on in the world, there are some concerning things going on in the life of the wider church, and yet, here at this time, it feels as though our response is this- we need to pray. To come closer to God so that we can carry God with us into the world. To pray for the needs of the world and for each other. To allow others to pray for us, whether in celebration or sorrow.

Later on, as we have communion, there’ll be a chance for us to be prayed for and pray for each other in several ways- first of all, as we sit and wait, I hope we’re able to take the chance to pray for those around us- I used to pray for people going up while I was waiting, and not just that they’d hurry up. Secondly, there’ll be the opportunity to be prayed for at the back of the church or at the communion rail- whichever you prefer. Stay at the rail after you’ve had wine and someone will pray with you; or go to the font at the back, and someone will pray with you there. Lastly, when the children come back in from Sunday School, they are going to lead us in praying for each other after we’ve finished receiving Communion- they might stand near to you, or walk past you- you might find a small person puts their hand on your shoulder. And after we’ve finished the service, there’s no rules that say you can’t continue to do this- turning to those near you or finding someone else and asking for prayer. There’s no time like the present.

Prayer- the relationship at the heart of everything.

We’ve reached the subject of prayer, you know, that thing that Jesus did a bit of, and our Bible passage this morning was where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. In our all age service this was acted out as 4 of the disciples shuffled their feet and looked at the sky until one of them plucked up the courage to ask Jesus. As you’ll read below, it may have been less embarrassing than that, but maybe not…

As I was preparing for today I received 2 specific prayer requests- not that unusual, you might say, but often prayer requests are either vague, or global- prayer for someone who’s depressed, or prayer for those affected by the war in the Yemen, for instance. These however were for people I know, and were very specific- one for a friend’s recovery from surgery and healing from suspected infection of his blood, and the other for safety and good waves at a local surf comp being organised by my mates in Christian Surfers. They really made me think, this is what it means to be able to pray- I can talk to God about my friend who’s ill in bed, and I can talk to God about the wind, weather systems and tides at the beach down the road; and God cares about both, and is able to respond in both situations.

I was also reminded of a story my mum used to tell me (and she’ll tell me how inaccurately I remember it, I’m sure), about how Christians in Romania would put a handkerchief on the floor before they prayed in church- they had no chairs, let alone kneelers, but the handkerchief would prevent them wearing through what might be their only trousers as the prayed on stone or concrete floored churches for half an hour… I spoke about this and the importance of our bodies in our prayer life, but I’d not written any of that down, so you’ll have to make do with what notes I did have…

Every week when we gather together we spend time in prayer- our formal liturgy is almost entirely prayers, our intercessions, our use of the Lord’s Prayer, our times of silence, our informal prayers in response to today… and yet many of us might feel that we’d echo the request of Jesus’ disciples- teach us to pray. One of the aspects of discipleship was, and still is, to learn how to do things the way your master does, and so this was a natural request. Jesus’ disciples had attended the synagogue and been to the temple, even if they were uneducated in many aspects of the Jewish faith, they knew the prayers of their people, just as many today can join in with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. But ask them to pray out loud, with power and confidence?

What to pray, how to pray, why to pray… if we can take some steps towards answering these, then we’ll be doing ok…

What to pray- In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus prays for God’s kingdom to come- in the version we have from Matthew it includes ‘your will be done’… we pray for God to act in line with his character and will- If we’re wondering what that is, look at the life of Jesus- he only did what his Father told him to do, so if we’re wondering about praying for healing, or for the hungry, for those who’re spiritually oppressed, look at what Jesus did… We can pray prayers asking God to act, asking for his protection- interceding on behalf of others, we can pray prayers of thanksgiving and praise for what God has done and is doing. We will each have our own concerns, and so when we lead others in prayer we bring those with us, but we’re conscious that others come with theirs too- allowing silence and leading gently in prayers that encourage us all.

How to pray- The Lord’s Prayer and other prayers that we find in the Bible give us starting structures- as we thought about earlier in the year though, they can become words that we’re so comfortable with that we lose our sense of their power… Jesus teaches his disciples here not just to pray one prayer, but that they can a- come to God almighty as Father, b- come to God for forgiveness themselves without needing any intermediary, and c- come to God for guidance.

We can pray with words- clearly. We can pray in silence and stillness. We can pray in the Holy Spirit. We can pray through the gifts that we each have- how do we express ourselves best? Then use those abilities in prayer.

We pray persistently and with expectation- not like a whinging child but a hopeful petitioner. We are reliant on God’s power and mercy, but also confident in his promises and love. And so we do not give up.

Jesus went to a certain place- in other passages we read he went to hillsides, got up early in the morning, stayed up late at night… interestingly Jesus seems to have been alone with God for these times. He was with the disciples when he prayed for them, he was with people when he prayed and spoke words of healing over them, but mostly he went by himself for times of prayer… Many of us today have lost this practice, and our attempts to cultivate a life of prayer involve coming together for prayer meetings and breakfasts etc- these serve a good purpose as they get us to pray, but they don’t replace personal time with God- just as going to a party with a friend isn’t the same as spending time over a cuppa.

But Jesus was also always with God- he was in the presence of his Father at all times, and he still sought out times of intimacy. As I wrote this I was in the same house as my family, and could hear them in the background, but I was not paying close attention to them. Brother Lawrence described this as practicing being in the presence of God in all things, the cooking of soup, the digging in the garden- in all of these practicing being aware of God in those places.

Why to pray? Our faith is essentially an expression of our relationship with God. And prayer is the chief means by which we develop that relationship. Reading the Bible? Worship? Outreach? Gifts of the Spirit? All wonderful, all important, but prayer is the most foundational aspect of our relationship with God. If I want the Bible to mean more to me, I pray before and after reading it, I praise God because of answered prayers or a sense of his presence in my life, I share faith with others because God has revealed himself in my life, If I have any gifts from God, they have come through prayer…

Prayer is also the way in which God’s power is connected to the world- The Holy Spirit of God connects to the world that we see around us through the prayers of God’s people; or not. If we see God at work, it’s because we pray. If we don’t see God at work… the answer is simple.

So, enough talk. We’re going to spend a few minutes in prayer now- in silence, using that pattern which Jesus taught his friends- asking for God’s kingdom to come, asking for forgiveness, asking for guidance in our lives.

home prayer prayer

God is with me, even in the midst of it all.

These last few weeks have been pretty crazy in the world- most days I’ve avoided reading the news too much as it’s just been beyond my imaginings, and alongside that we’ve had a fairly full on month- From a week at New Wine (14,000 Christians at a conference that is part music festival, part worship, part learning seminars, part camping holiday- amazing but tiring), baptisms of 2 friends children, 3 funerals (all of which were close to me), and fortunately in the midst a few days off…

Somehow, in the midst of all this, God has to make sense still. Somehow,  God has to help me make sense of all this even while I’m in the midst of it. If faith doesn’t make a difference in the crazy and the rubbish, then this God isn’t worth anything.

I’ve found that God hasn’t let me down- I’ve had energy and time for all that’s been essential, have managed to get enough sleep (just) and even been sane with my family (mostly). I have, also, in the midst of all this, found time for my own prayer life and to spend some time in quiet with God- and I genuinely think that might be what has helped me get through this month- I’ve actually put into practice the idea that in order to do things well I need to prioritise being spiritually prepared- my own prayer life is like the warming up of an athlete…

Oh, and in the midst of it all I managed to attend an evening at the World Athletics Championships- here’s Wayde van Niekierk doing his final warm up prayer before winning the gold medal in the 400m…WP_20170808_21_50_43_Pro

The thing that has really struck me is that our faith in God, our understanding of God, has got to be relevant- to make sense and make contact with our everyday life, and there’s so much in the life of the church and the Christian world that just doesn’t quite connect- it almost does, but doesn’t- so people are looking for mindfulness, meditation and self-help, while Churches and Christians are offering prayer in all sorts of ways- but somehow there’s this gap… this is the thing you’re looking for, but you can’t understand the packaging, or something like that.

Anyway, with that in my mind, as I took the funeral of my friend who loved sports in general, and netball in particular, I looked for a version of Psalm 23 that would speak more relevantly into her life and those of her friends. I couldn’t find anything anywhere, so here’s my stab at it- Psalm 23, for those of us who know more about sports than sheep:

The Lord is my coach, he makes sure I have my kit.

He makes me warm down and rest after good training, he points me towards hot showers and calms me when my nerves are frayed.

He keeps me playing by the rules, for I am on his team, and I wear his strip.

Even when I compete in the toughest events, and I feel like I’ll never make it through, I will not be afraid, because you are with me; you have trained me for this and are with me in every struggle.

My God, you prepare a plan for me and encourage me even when I only see the problems. You tell me that I can make it and help me to do what I never thought I could.

Surely I will compete well, and fairly, for as long as I live- for I am on the Lord’s side and there is a place for me in his team forever.

written in memory of Jo Elliott, died 23rd July 2017.

I believe, help my unbelief

Last Sunday we continued our series of services where we’re exploring different aspects of what it means to worship and be part of a church- we also welcomed a lovely little girl into our church family at a baptism along with many of her family and friends who came to join in. The service contained probably more chaos and screaming than most, and at times felt close to the edge, but there was a lot of realistic honesty going on!

In the midst of it all, I was speaking about what it means to believe, based on the account in Mark’s Gospel of a father who seeks healing for his son, which you can find in Mark 9.17-24.  Here’s my script, but for what I actually said, you’ll need, as always, to listen to the podcast

Wouldn’t we all like to know for sure? About, everything… I’d like to know that my cooking will turn out tasty, I’d like to know that my gardening efforts will come to fruit- literally… I’d like to know that my kids will turn out alright, that my parents will stay well… I’d like to know. But we don’t. And yet, we cook food and eat it, we plant seed and water the soil, we parent, we let our own parents off the leash… (bag with cookery book, potato, photo of Sam, climbing shoes, battery, phone).

This week, we’re continuing our series of summer services exploring the different parts of our worship, and today we’re thinking about what it means to believe. Each week, in one way or another, we say ‘we believe’- some Sundays its in the words of a prayer called the Nicene Creed- written by Christians who met in Nicaea, in Turkey, almost 1700yrs ago; other weeks we use different prayers taken from the Bible, or we use a form of question and answer- the service leader asks a series of questions, and we reply ‘I believe and trust in him’…

In life we want to know what lies ahead, but actually we’re used to not knowing for sure- we’re used to living with a bit of uncertainty and a bit of faith… Every one of us, I guarantee you, has some faith. If you’ve sat down on a chair, driven in a car, switched on a light, cooked to a recipe or sent a text message, then you have faith. If you have ever flown in a plane, been a passenger on a train or a boat, then you’ve had faith in someone you have never met and probably never seen… Some of us take this further than others- jumping out of a perfectly good plane, diving off a bridge, walking off a cliff- trusting in someone else’s ability to pack a parachute, sort a bungee or arrange an abseil. With all of these things we are used to believing and trusting. And in each one of them we don’t just believe with our heads- knowing the facts, that someone else just did it fine, that it worked last time etc, we trust with our hearts, our feet- we do something. We don’t only abseil with our heads; we don’t only put one foot onto the train- we do it completely, or not at all. We’re at liberty to make that decision- the train, boat, plane will go without us, we don’t have to follow a recipe or sit down… but the result will depend on our decision.

In faith we find ourselves in the same situation. Do we believe and trust in the promises of God? Do we believe that God exists, that he sent his Son Jesus to solve the problems of our mess (which we call sin) and the things we do (the little things we do and the big things we see on the news), that Jesus took the blame for all those things, and that he has the power and authority to declare that we are free if we want to be. If you’ve ever been scared of something you’ll know this situation- part of your mind is saying one thing, another is saying the opposite- you want to listen to both. You might know which is right, but it’s hard to do it. Sometimes we have to be broken, at our wits end, before we’ll ask for help or make the decision- like the father in our Bible passage. Many of us know what it’s like to be in this sort of situation, worried sick but not sure what to do…

And Jesus speaks into this paralysis, telling the father to have faith- I believe, help me overcome my unbelief… Just as a coach helps us to achieve what we could not previously do by ourselves, or an instructor guides us through the seemingly impossible until we find ourselves parachuting, climbing or whatever, Jesus helps this father’s unbelief… and his son is healed. In a few weeks time we’re going to look particularly at prayer, both for the world and for each other, and we’ll be thinking then about how and why it may feel that our prayers aren’t always answered, but at this point I want to offer something I recently read- if we pray and have faith, we see prayers answered and some are healed… if we do not pray and have faith, we do not see prayers answered and no one is healed, so what should we do?

[It’s really helpful to be thinking about this today, as we welcome a new member into God’s family and welcome all her family and friends to be with us for her baptism- when an adult is baptised we celebrate with them that they have taken that step of faith, and have decided to respond to God’s love and His call on their lives by saying ‘yes, I believe’… For all those young children and babies who’re baptised here and in other churches, we celebrate the beginning of a journey- the first steps taken by a family as they say, ‘yes, this is the direction we’re heading in’… its not the destination but the start. Each of us who’ve been baptised need to keep on making that commitment each day to believe and have faith.]

For all of us ‘help my unbelief’ is still true… I can recall a time when I was climbing in Spain, a good height up a cliff, when I suddenly found myself stuck- for around 20 minutes. I couldn’t move. The fact that I’d already climbed 50ft up a cliff with no problem didn’t make any difference at that moment, that I’d been climbing all day, that I was on a climbing holiday and that I loved climbing… I was stuck. We have those times when we’re stuck. In our faith as well. And what do we do at those times? For me I had to listen to the right voices- the friend on the ground, the voice of my own experience, and not the ones that were telling what might go wrong. Ok, when you’re climbing and it goes wrong it’s painful, but in terms of faith, what is the worst that can happen? If we’re wrong and this is all there is to it, there’s no one going to be laughing at us!

The reality is quite simple- often we know the truth, and yet we find it hard to accept it and act on it. Just like I had to get over my fear and make that next step when climbing, so I came to a point where my faith in God outweighed the questions I had, and I said ‘yes, I believe’. No one can force us, we have to come to that place ourselves. And once we do, we find ourselves looking back and saying ‘was it really as easy as that?’ Coming to faith, making that step doesn’t smooth out the rest of the path- there may still be cliffs to climb, but it gives hope in the destination, companions on the way and the support of God when our strength fails us… I believe, help my unbelief.

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Playing catch up part 2- You’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Rome…

Ahem, apologies for that awful link there, but my mind has been filled these past few weeks with songs and script from the Wizard of Oz which has been our kids’ end of year school production.

We’re nearly at the end of the book of Acts (this week we were on chapter 25), both in our daily readings and our weekly preaching, and Paul is about to set off on his journey to Rome, as you’ll see…

You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you will go! With those words the next chapter in Paul’s journey commences- Last week we heard how Paul, at the end of his missionary journeys, had returned to Jerusalem and was seized by the crowd whilst praying at the Temple. He was rescued by the Roman guard, and gave his final public speech as a free man- proclaiming once again his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation, and proclaiming that God had called him to go and share this message of hope with any and all- regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. It was one thing to claim that Jesus was the messiah- this had been said before, and as had already been said, if it was not true things would die down of their own accord, but quite another to suggest that God’s love was not limited to the Jews. We’ve all heard of, or experienced first hand, situations where love can turn into jealousy and anger- I won’t share! And this is what happened here. Paul’s opponents began to plot and plan for his murder. Eventually Paul is moved to Caesarea- away from the Jewish centre of power to a Roman city, where he is imprisoned for 2yrs because no one will make the decision to free him- he’s not worth a ransom, won’t offer a bribe and its not politically advantageous to let him go.

And so, to our reading today- Governor Festus is replaced by Goveror Felix, and we go round again- the plotters attempt once again to get Paul transferred to their power, then when that fails they make accusations in the court, and Paul makes his defence. If you’ve read the account of Paul’s previous trial, you’ll notice there are some differences here, however.

Paul, on this occasion, doesn’t preach to the court- he doesn’t mention Jesus, or his vision, or the resurrection. He simply says that he’s done nothing wrong. Maybe he’s learnt that preaching to the last governor didn’t do him any good, maybe he remembers that talking about the resurrection caused a riot when he was on trial in Jerusalem… whatever the cause, he speaks to the legal situation- If I’m on trial, I’m on trial, find me guilty or innocent, but don’t hand me over to these folks who’ll just kill me. And then his appeal to the higher court of Caesar- if you can’t make that decision, send me to your boss.

Is Paul scared here? I don’t think so. It feels to me, reading this passage and those that go before it, that Paul has already decided his intention. He knew before ever arriving in Jerusalem that he’d face problems there- prophets had spoken to him, he felt it himself, and it was fairly obvious; and then after his arrest God spoke to him in a vision- you’ll testify in Rome in the same way… how would this happen? Paul knew that as a Roman citizen he could appeal to the courts of Caesar in Rome, which was the best option for him. Having been led by God’s Spirit, and through his ministry been supported by other believers, Paul also uses his common sense.

The story goes of a man out swimming at sea who encounters difficulties, and realises he’s too far from shore… so he prays ‘Lord, save me!’ Within a few minutes a rescue helicopter buzzes over- he’s been seen by someone from shore and they phoned it in… over the roar of the engines he calls out ‘thank you, but the Lord will save me!’ And so they go… but as time passes he feels his arms weakening again ‘Lord save me!’ and skimming over the waves comes a kayaker who happens to be passing this way… ‘climb aboard and I’ll take you ashore’… despite his fatigue his voice is strong ‘no, the Lord will save me!’ the kayaker shakes his head and paddles off… as the man continues, getting weaker and weaker, he calls out a final time ‘Lord save me…’ and as he sinks under the waves a dolphin swims past, pushing him back to the surface and supporting him on its back. As he recovers his breath, he starts to speak, but suddenly the dolphin looks over its shoulder at him, and says ‘Look, do you want saving or not, because frankly I’ve had just about enough of this!’

God gives us common sense and intelligence as well as spiritual insight and discernment. We, like Paul, should respond wisely to the situations we find ourselves in- while still trusting that God is with us in all things. We take responsibility for the things around us, for our own lives and actions, for the resources we have to hand and our relationships with people we know, whilst allowing God to be at work in those things too- we are not anxious, but we are not naïve. As our gospel passage puts it, we do not allow ourselves to be burdened by things- yes, there is much that faces us; some of it in our own lives, some much wider and seemingly bigger, but our response to these is the same- today, I choose to live, so far as I can, in a way which demonstrates the love of God which I have known, the forgiveness I have received, and the hope which I have, and where I cannot, I will pray that tomorrow will grant me opportunities which today did not.

Paul- imprisoned for two years, has a moment to speak, and he chooses to continue along the path that God has set him on- I will go to Rome… So may we not be afraid, may we not stumble, may we not feel burdened by what is ahead or weighed down by what has gone before, but may we live our lives this week in joyfilled response to God.

 

Playing catch up part 1- Following my leader

Posting a few of the talks that have been delivered in our churches this month but somehow haven’t made their way onto the blog, here’s the notes from an all-ages service right at the start of July… podcast still available on the website, but here is the text, based on Acts chapter 22:

Paul was following one set of people, then something happened- he met with Jesus, and Ananias came and prayed for him, and then his life changed direction. He had a new path, he was listening to a different voice. He had a decision to make, and he made it. It changed his life, but he would say it was worth it. If you’re not sure, read some of his writings in the New Testament- his letters to the churches in Ephesus or Galatia for starters.

In his life as Christian Paul was encouraged by various people, chief among them was Barnabas who took him under his wing for some time, but the first, the one who got him started, was Ananias- who if you look to his version of events in Acts 9, you’ll see is distinctly nervous about their meeting- almost suggesting that God might be mistaken when he has his vision- its not ‘I must be mad!’ but ‘are you sure?’

So, who has encouraged you in your Christian journey- wherever you are- was it a Sunday School teacher, a member of your family, someone who showed you unexpected grace, or someone you’ve never met?

And what parts of the Christian faith do you love most? Some of us are worshippers, others love to pray. You may prefer to act- to be God’s hands in the world, or a conversation with a friend about faith may be your thing?

The passage we just heard is Paul’s final speech as a free man- if you’re reading through Acts with us at the moment you’ll know he’s already faced threats and persecution in various places. He’s about to be arrested, and put on trial in different courts for his faith in Jesus. Paul, of course, pleads guilty to that faith, but argues whether he should be imprisoned for believing and proclaiming something so important and true…

Ok- if you were being charged with the crime of believing in Jesus, what would be the key piece of evidence against you? How would the prosecution find you guilty?

Last thing- we’ve thought of the importance of being encouraged by others to grow in our faith, and of those things about the Christian faith that we connect with most, but we need to remember, that the Christian faith is so much more than a support group, or a hobby, but it has at its heart Jesus, the Son of God, who died and rose again…

Following The Leader

So, what happened?

Apologies, it’s been a long week. There’s been a lot going on, and I know I should have got in touch sooner, but you know?

Somehow it’s Friday, and I’ve managed to get through the meetings and the paperwork, and have done all the things of life and work that are part of the week. Phew. Except of course, here we go again… Am I behind at this stage, or have I managed to get ahead of the curve? The fact that I’m writing a blog during the day is a good sign, the fact that my notes from last Sunday are what I’m posting isn’t…

Anyway, to the point- what happened last Sunday? It was great! Folks turned up at both our services (of course, more could have come, but my internal optimist/pessimist meter always looks at the empty seats!), worship was GOOD, people responded to the testimony given by someone at one of our services (yay Sally!) and engaged with the opportunity to remember and reflect on their own baptism that was part of our celebration. In short, not a bad day at the office.

Jo preached over at one church (stonkingly good, but not recorded, I’m afraid), while the other church had to put up with me- it was recorded, so you can listen to it here or read my notes below. We were looking at part of Acts chapter 19- as we read through this book in our daily readings we’re also preaching through some of the later chapters, which folk seem to be really enjoying.

So here’s what was said-

Today we’re celebrating the birth of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of our churches here in Newport and in Bishop’s Tawton; and in both our churches we’re joining in a baptism and also reflecting on our own baptism- we may prefer to use the term Christening or baptism, they are identical, except that one is the word we find in the Bible, the other is an English slang- to baptise someone is to ‘Christian’ them… it’s what the earliest Christians did when someone came to faith in Jesus, growing out of the Jewish tradition of washing- baptism as a symbolic action for cleansing from sin- John’s baptism in the river was rooted in the Jewish law and made perfect sense to his listeners- you become spiritually unclean with all the mess and muck in your life, and as a sign of what is going on in your heart you wash yourself as you turn towards God.

As we talk about Baptism and Christening we use all sorts of imagery- some of which the children are thinking through over at the tables now, but one of the most powerful that John the Baptist spoke of was the need to turn- to change the direction of our lives- to repent. It’s not about changing the person you are, but about the direction you’re heading. The result of that turn is that things in our lives change- we have a different perspective, but we remain who we are- I am me, wherever I’m standing. The difference that this change makes is in how we view God, and in how we view the world- God becomes at once more awe-inspiring, but also more accessible- He is the God of all the world, and yet I can approach him as Father. The world is no longer something I want to extract as much as I can from or a place where I need to ‘win’, but something I want to see flourish- I place where I want to ‘give’.

And finally when we think of turning, and of changing perspective, we realise that repentance is about starting- sometimes a fresh start, sometimes a restart; but its never the endpoint. We turn from something, towards something else… and then what? We move in that new direction.

What Paul, in our Bible passage today, realised, was these people he was meeting in Ephesus had been given the first parts of this, but not the whole- they didn’t know there was more than the turning away, that there was anything more- they were completely unaware of Jesus, or his promise of the Holy Spirit- that gift of God which helps us to continue… to receive the gifts that he gives us as we try to pray, to worship, so serve him, and to see the fruit of God’s life in us throughout our lives- to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things are like lightbulbs switching on, and at the same time the work of a lifetime- we can experience moments where something happens in us, where peace breaks out or gentleness is unleashed, but we know that these things will fully flourish in us over the years.

When we think of Christening, or baptism, and particularly when we think of how it’s been part of our history in the UK, we might be tempted to forget that it is part of mission- but when Jesus sent his friends into the world he sent them to baptise and make new disciples, and as the church in this place, worshipping in this church named after John the Baptist- who went out of the city and spoke to all who’d listen, we stand in this awesome tradition- we follow in the footsteps of those who despite opposition and being ignored did not give up, or shut up. And neither should we. We have been given a precious and wonderful gift to share- light in the darkness, hope in times of despair, healing for the broken hearted, release for the captive, a rescue for all of us. Those of us who have called ourselves Christians for many years are in no way superior to anyone else- we have only recognised that the peace, the hope, the healing which we seek- and that we see in so many wonderful ways around the world, all has its source in God, and in his son Jesus we are invited to know that source- so why settle for anything less?

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And the plan for next year? Do it again, but bigger! See you there.