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.

No automatic alt text available.

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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Charlie Brown, the eternal optimist

Usually this blog is based around what I’ve been preaching on- my own thoughts and reflections on a passage from the Bible and the things that are going on in life. You may have noticed that some weeks I appear to have no thoughts (or at least nothing worth sharing)… and while this may be true, the reason nothing comes onto the blog is because someone else has preached at our Sunday worship times. In one of our churches those talks are recorded and uploaded onto our website and itunes, and you can listen to them or find them here– you can also download them from itunes, I suggest you go via our website rather than searching on itunes or click here if you want to subscribe. Anyway, in the other church those talks don’t get recorded or uploaded, instead we just allow people to remember them, or not.

A few weeks back a friend preached, and it a real good’un, and so I’ve asked her to give me the text to post here- so, a guest post by my good friend Jo Pay, based on chapter 6, verses 25-34 of Matthew’s Gospel-

IMG_2093

When I was a teenager the Daily Mail used to run the Peanuts comic strip and I used to cut out those that I thought were apt, I occasionally come across them stuck between pages in books. There was one with Charlie Brown and Linus, where Linus is asking if Charlie Brown is worried about tomorrow; he answers no – he’s still hoping that yesterday will get better! This little cartoon strip perfectly illustrates the theme from our 2 readings today – Worry and Hope. I tried to find the comic strip, but although I flicked through a number of books I couldn’t locate it – never mind it’s around somewhere.

Now at times I can be a bit of a worry wart; am I packing the right clothes for this holiday, will the meeting at work today go alright, will I catch the train this morning as I’m running a bit late! Not huge all the time sort of worrying, but odd and quite specific concerns – probably quite trivial in the grand scheme of things.

Our reading today tells us specifically not to worry. I find it really refreshing that Jesus recognised this inbuilt trait in humanity to worry. Also it’s quite reassuring that it was prevalent enough then to warrant a mention, and there’s us thinking that we have the monopoly on things to worry about?! Times obviously don’t change that much.

So worrying, why do we do it? Is it because we think that by making a real conscious effort and dwelling on something we could possibly make any difference to a situation, or to the outcome?

Let’s look at the reading – it opens with ‘do not worry about your life’ and goes on to say ‘is not life more important than food’? This made me think about planning, just because God tells us not to spend time worrying about our life, it doesn’t mean that we can’t plan, or map out our lives. Now I might think that I do this, but oh no I’m just a mere amateur compared to some! When I worked at Wrafton Labs in the Development Team we had a gap year student, who had planned exactly how he wanted his life to be. He was working with us for a year and then studying Chemical Engineering at University. He had decided that he wanted to work for BP, he’d even decided at what age he would marry and when he would have children, and yet at that time he didn’t even have a girlfriend – wow! I’d never met anyone like that before to have such strong views on how his life would be, I remember thinking at the time what would happen if it didn’t turn out like that, maybe that wouldn’t be the case as he was so determined! In comparison my life is a bit more ‘unstructured’, allowing space for God to steer, or push. I have aspects of planning as for an example, from quite a young age I was determined to work for ICI at Plant Protection Division, and I did, however when I look back the ‘steer’ from God can be quite visible, although when you are there in the moment, it doesn’t feel like it. We don’t have to just sit there and worry about how our life will turn out, or what will happen to us – we can plan and turn it prayerfully over to God and relieve ourselves of that worry.

I was thinking of this passage as I was in the garden at the weekend filling up the bird feeders. Yes lots of people now help God out and feed the birds, however some of my shrubs still have some berries on them, and the blackbird was having a good old root around in the leaf mould finding insects, so there is still plenty of God given food for them. So why do we feed the birds? I think that it is because we care for them, enjoy them visiting the garden; Not worrying doesn’t mean not caring. Maybe some people feel that the only way they can show care for somebody is to worry for them, or about them. But we need to develop a better way of showing we care to relieve ourselves of the worry. Our heavenly Father cares for us, it says that he knows what we need. We need to sometimes give ourselves a shake and remember exactly how much God knows us, he knows the number of hairs on our head, he knit us together in our mother’s womb – put your cares back onto God. Stop worrying and enjoy the life that God has given you, know that it is all within his plan for you.

So now we’ve managed to consider our worrying habits and think about bringing it back into perspective and under control we can consider the second reading – we can have hope for today and tomorrow.

Now this reading is a bit more challenging, I’ve been doing some reading on it in preparation and one author stated that we need to read chapter 8 as the Victory chapter, the turning point in Romans where Paul tries to show us what is awaiting us. But if we are just considering the passage in question and especially thinking about hope I found a really good analogy which I will share. This passage was likened to watching a football game, or your sport of preference, between the team you support and a n other team. Your team isn’t doing well and so you are groaning, probably shouting at the TV. Part of you wants to hope that it will turn out to have the result that you want, a win for your team, however at the moment that hope is unfounded and you are in despair. Then, suddenly in the last few minutes of the game your team turns themselves around, the crowds are cheering them on – you are on your feet in the living room, shouting and screaming as they score the final winning goal. The hope you had in them has been realised. However you feel emotionally like you have gone through the wringer, yet if you watch any of that game on the highlights later on, you will have a completely different outlook all the way through, your despair is not so deep because you know the outcome.  Well this is what Paul says we should be like, our despair, our pain, our worrying should not be too deep because we know that God sent Jesus to die in our place. We can have that hope that it won’t be too bad, we can wait patiently because we know it will be good. However it is worth remembering that this hope needs to be our attitude to life, it won’t always be easy, life happens to us in all its glory and some of it can be a bit tough, we have those worries about those specific things in our life that can swamp us at times. We need to pray daily for hope to arise in our lives, to know that those things that make us worry and feel hopeless have been overcome by Christ’s death on the cross.

So let’s try this all together, praying daily for hope, kicking our worries into touch so that we shine with God’s light flooding us from within – maybe even changing what Charlie Brown thought and having hope for today and tomorrow.

 

 

You, in the tree…

Greetings- its been a while… since I last posted some awful things have happened in the world and some great things have happened- the attacks of late July in France and Germany, the celebrations of the human spirit of the Olympics… Also for us there’s been a lot going on- mostly really good with some holiday time as a family and a week at the New Wine conference in SW England (which needs a series of posts on its own…), and then back to ‘normal’ with all sorts of things going on alongside the occasional sunny day and even one sneaky surf at the weekend.

What’s been bugging my head and my heart, however, is something to do with the depth of our response to the Gospel of Jesus- whether it penetrates deep into us and shapes our thinking and our behaviour from within or whether we’re ‘Gospel-proof’… like a brand new coat where the rain beads and runs off… The big problem with a waterproof coat is how do you wash it clean, when it doesn’t let water penetrate? How do we allow the Gospel of peace to penetrate into us, when we spend so much effort toughening and protecting ourselves?

This week’s passage, from Luke chapter 19, gets right to the heart that question… as with the last month its using some ideas from Karl Martin’s book ‘Stand’… highly recommended reading.

Jesus comes to Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem for the last time- he has predicted his own death, he’s shown his power to heal… the passage we heard comes just before his triumphal entry into the city just 5 days before his crucifixion. This is Jesus the superstar- surrounded by crowds who’ve come to see what he’ll do next and at least to be witness to it. And even the sinners are interested- Zacchaeus, not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector… He would have had guards, men who could have ‘found’ him a space at the front of the crowd… but for some reason he doesn’t take that option… instead he goes incognito, hiding in a tree (though possibly not alone) to see for himself what this Jesus is all about- whether it’s the stories of the healings, the way that Jesus has spoken against the scribes, the pharisees and the teachers of the law (the ones who would have most loudly accused Zacchaeus of being a sinner), or if he’s heard about how other tax collectors have met with Jesus and been forgiven for their sins… (what’s the deal with tax collectors anyway? They get lumped together with ‘sinners’ throughout the Gospels because in taking on that job they had to work as collaborators with the Roman authorities, imposing their law onto their countrymen, and also the expectation was that they would profit by making money- either bribes or extortion… so no one likes them, no one trusts them, but no one can get rid of them…) Whatever it is, something has intrigued him enough to find out more.

But he’s not quite sure, so he hides… maybe he, like us sometimes, knows the theory- Jesus can forgive sins, and believes it in practice- Jesus forgave their sins, but struggles to believe if for himself- Jesus can forgive my sins, and he has… so he hangs back, hiding in the tree.

But Jesus spots him, and knows him, and calls him by name. Now, although there are the great long lists of names at points in the Bible, considering how many people Jesus meets, and how many people God speaks to, there are a lot who’s names we don’t know- the leper, the centurion, the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, the woman at the well, the man freed from demons etc… and there are even fewer called by name- In the Old Testament the story of Samuel who is called by God stands out, and here in this passage- ‘Zacchaeus, come down’. Zacchaeus, who maybe wasn’t sure that God could love him, finds out that in Jesus God sees him, God knows him, and God loves him.

At this point he’s still a sinner- he’s not asked for forgiveness, hes not made amendments for how he has mistreated those around him, but Jesus has invited himself to dinner- just as with Matthew and Levi sometime earlier. Here though, things play out differently- even before Jesus gets to Zacchaeus’ house the muttering starts in the crowd- All Zacchaeus’ doubts come back… its now or never time for him. Ok- I give away half of everything I have and repay anyone I’ve cheated 4 times over… Now I’ll leave the sums to you but that sounds like he’s emptying his pockets AND making reparation to those he’s hurt…

When Jesus encounters people he gets to the cause of their problems- if someone is unclean he makes them clean, if someone is on the edge he welcomes them, if someone is sinning he warns them not to sin… There were various reasons why someone might be called a ‘sinner’ but for Zacchaeus it was all to do with money- you wouldn’t take on the job as a tax collector unless money was more important than people or God. Zacchaeus knows it, he may have known it for years, but that doesn’t make it easier to change.

And then in a second, because of Jesus, his life is changed. However much he loves money and the things it can buy, he knows that he needs forgiveness, he needs God more.  The best of intentions without the power of God may lead to nothing, but with God even our little efforts can transform lives.

Today salvation has come to this house… When Jesus heals the paralytic he not only heals him, but also forgives him. And it’s the same here- Zacchaeus receives healing that is beyond the physical- thank you, sorry, I forgive you… really important words that can bring healing to hearts if they are meant- Z trusted that Jesus meant what he said, J trusted that Z meant what he said… And he is healed in his heart, he is saved, he is given life.

Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost. We as a church exist to help those around us find Jesus- we do that through our worship- saying and singing the greatness of God. We do that in our encouragement of one another- not to give up, to press on towards the goal. We do that in our outreach to friends and neighbours in our community- whether its in the building of friendships with people at the Fun Day, the chat on the corner, the discussions at work or with those who come to Pints of View or other events we plan.

But that has to start with ourselves and our church-  and I mean two things by that- I was challenged by someone in the last week about how welcoming a church genuinely is, and being as honest as possible I said ‘when we get it right, we’re more welcoming than we are exclusive, we don’t always get it right but we try to’…  we, asking God to help us, try to be a place and a people where anyone and everyone are welcome… and when we fail or give up, we try again…

And secondly, we each need to know the truth of what happened to Zacchaeus. That God’s promises are true for us. That the crazy logic of the kingdom- I have sinned, Jesus paid on the cross, I am forgiven, is true today for each of us. And as it is true we each need to respond to it- in our prayers and our worship we don’t only proclaim how great God is, but also thank him for his love and mercy shown to us- each of us. And we might also need to do some stuff- we might have to make reparations- there may be people we need to forgive in our heart, that we need to speak to or write to… there may be people we need to thank, or need to ask for forgiveness… because we have all been lost, and the Son of Man came to seek and to save each one of us, that we might follow him, and as part of his people be witnesses of him in all the earth.

Another of God’s ridiculous ideas…

This week we’ve continued to look at how the first generation church grew and spread- in Acts 16 Paul and Silas have arrived in Europe, and we’ve seen the first church founded in Northern Macedonia… and now here we are for the next instalment…

Today’s reading follows on from last week- It’s a great passage with so much in it that I struggled to decide what to speak on, so we’re just going to work through the passage and see where we get to…starting at verse 16 in chapter 16 of the book of Acts.

At the heart of it, this passage is about faith and power… who do we have faith in, and where does the power lie?

We have Paul and Silas, men of faith who, as we heard last week, were used to listening to God and following his guidance, and people in Philippi are beginning to put their faith in God too, and in doing so are trusting in God’s power to save them and bring transformation to their lives. And we have the slave girl– she has no power of her own, and yet people come to her, pay money to hear what she says. Her masters and the spirit control her, and make her work for their purposes. She is a reminder of those things that exist- spiritual forces that are not of God such as mediums, psychic healings, fortune tellers- those things that can have power over people- that can have power over us if we let them, and material things in the world, in our own lives that can, without us realising it, limit our lives. It might be things from our past- unforgiveness, rejection, anger, issues with violence, relationships etc. It might be that we have dabbled in occult spiritual things at some point… and as with the slave girl, these things can follow us around… and they will not stop until we choose to declare God’s power in our lives, as Paul does. Later in the summer we’re having a series on living the Christian life, based on the book ‘Stand’ by Karl Martin- as in the last few years we’ve used a book to support our teaching series, and it addresses these things that are stopping us from flourishing as Christians…

But what of her words- these men are servants of the most high– they are correct but only to a point- in John 15 Jesus says ‘I no longer call you servants but friends’, and in John 1 ‘children of God’- not servants but so much more. Whether this spirit is deliberately lying- in the same way that we see Satan challenging Jesus by distorting what God has said and the serpent challenging Eve by questioning God’s will for humanity, or just cannot grasp the relationship that these men have to God… friends of Christ, sons of God?? How can this be, and yet it can- Whatever power this spirit has to discern who Paul and Silas are, God’s power is so much greater– firstly in that they are not servants, but have been made friends and brothers of Christ, with all the privileges and responsibilities that brings, and secondly in that Paul’s words- simple, plain, matter of fact- would that our prayers were like that, and as effective! Paul has faith, and his words have power- Lord’s Prayer– archbishop’s call to pray for our nation, using the Lord’s prayer- this week- please pray specifically for our nation to be changed and our community to be transformed… for individuals you know- and if you find yourself unsure of how to pray for those things, use the words of the Lord’s Prayer to get you started, write down on a piece of paper- maybe your notice sheet from today the names of 5 people who you want to know God more fully in their lives- people you care about enough to pray for each day.

What happens next- these things happen, the fear of what might happen must not stop us from living out our Christian lives to the fullest extent- this is our only stab at this, so why hold back? I’ve heard of several occasions over the years and have experienced it myself here and elsewhere, that if a church is trying to draw closer to God and to serve him in the community and prayerfully working to bring about transformation through the gospel- then there will be problems, and difficulties.  Fear of what might happen if we do what we know in our hearts is right… that’s a rubbish reason to keep our faith toned down.  If we are not sure about what we believe, then take the opportunities that are around to you sort that out- the bible study groups that already exist and are being started here… Start course… invite a friend, come with them if you like. If we have other things in our lives that demand our attention and time- that’s ok for a time… in that none of us really like our wheelie bins, but we know that we need them, and that we have to put them out, put them back and occasionally clean them… but to accept that things will always keep us from growing and flourishing as Christians, that’s like saying that its reasonable to leave your wheelie bin in blocking your front door and climbing over it every day… it just isn’t… so don’t live that way.

But the road isn’t guaranteed to be an easy one- If we believe the good bits in Scripture, we have to believe the tough bits too- Paul and Silas were beaten, flogged, mocked and imprisoned… and they took it- they didn’t say or do anything, they sat in their chains. Now Paul knows about Peter’s escape, but he also knew about James’ death… Ultimately they trusted God more than they feared man, they knew that their lives were his, that living or dying wouldn’t change that.

And then- the earthquake, the decision not to run, and the words of the jailer- both ‘how will I get out of trouble’ and ‘save me!’ The decision to remain in their cells was made because Paul and Silas wanted the glory to go to God- earthquakes happen- not infrequently in Greece, and if they’d escaped that night the magistrate and jailer and the city would have had them marked as escaped criminals and hunted them down. But by remaining they are able to speak God’s word into the lives of the jailer and his family– This is probably not how Paul had hoped or expected to see things develop… the continuation of the unexpected- Lydia last week- as someone pointed out to me a dealer in cloth was not just a shop assistant, purple cloth even less so, but still not necessarily your strategic choice… here, God’s word is shared with another unlikely candidate, but once again its someone who is ready to respond- the jailer has seen how Paul and Silas were at peace… I was reading just yesterday ‘you can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response to your circumstances’… their peace and their manner spoke as much as their words…

As we reach the end of this passage we see two interesting and important things- there’s been an earthquake that has brought down the doors, but Paul and Silas are still beaten and bruised- God has power, but leaves work for us, He doesn’t do all things… God is glorified through the earthquake, but people are still able to make a difference and help one another- Paul’s words bring the man to a place where he wants to respond, and the first thing he does is to help Paul and Silas… and then is baptised- once again, we see that there doesn’t need to be a long time left… if you are drawn towards God, then why hold back? What must I do? Believe in the Lord Jesus- that he is the son of God who can forgive our sins- not just an academic, intellectual belief, but a belief that includes trust and faith- believe in him in the same way that you believe in a chair that you lean back in… commit yourself.

Ultimately- God is glorified and the kingdom grows… faith, and power. May it be the same in our time, in our community, in the lives of those we know, and in our own lives.

 

Thuffering Thuckertash! What do you mean, its not all about the suffering?

We reach the end of the book of Job, and this week, at last, God shows up. Never apologises for his timing does he… (- maybe that’s where Tolkien got his inspiration for Gandalf’s ‘wizards are never late, they always arrive exactly when they mean to’ from Lord of the Rings). And when God speaks in chapters 38-41 -which is one of the longest pieces of speech ascribed to God anywhere in the Bible, we here his side of the story.  I’m going to post my text from yesterday, which was also recorded and posted onto the website here, but below I’ll also put a blog that came across my radar from Morning Story and Dilbert– I hope you can see the connection.

This morning we return to the book of Job- this passage taken from the conclusion of the book is the climax of God’s response- by the end of the various speeches Job has reached that conclusion that God is wilful, weak or absent as far as he is concerned. He’s refused to curse God, but has equally refused to acknowledge himself as guilty. As we said last time, its that action- claiming perfection for himself over and above God, standing in judgement over God, that is his sin- in all areas of his life God has seen that Job is righteous and holy; and when his prosperity and health are lost, he doesn’t immediately blame God. In fact, its only when his friends point the finger at him- you must have done something wrong, that Job responds: at first proclaiming his innocence and calling God to judge him, and then gradually reaching that point of self-justification and anger, and ultimately arrogance.

Here’s a question to mull over for a moment- when things are going wrong for you, what can those around you do that really helps- and what doesn’t help?

At times, we may want a solution- someone to come to our rescue

Sometimes we may want an explanation- its ok if we can understand why

Sometimes we may want someone to blame- it may not matter if they are or not

Sometimes we simply need someone to be with us- not to speak, explain, solve or accuse but to be with us in the difficult place. If you’ve been looking at the readings through Job this month you may recall that Job’s friends sat with him in silence for a week before saying anything…  Sometimes that is the response we need to offer to those around us, and to know that its ok. We may feel the need to ‘sort things out’, and as Christians may feel that our prayers are the way we do that… but when we don’t know how to pray, what then? Paul wrote specifically to this when he said in his letter to the Romans ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us’ (8.26)… our tears, inarticulate groans and silence all speak eloquently to God.

The passage speaks about justice- God questions whether Job would discredit his justice in order to make himself feel ok… and God is also asking ‘Do you have any idea who I really am and what I do?’… in one way it makes me think of a caricature- a parent and child, or a pupil and a headteacher… why do I have to eat my peas/go to bed/be nice/sit still in class/take my exams?  What Job knows of God is that God is fair and just… and so the question he raises is ‘how is this fair?’ As we read God’s response to Job we see God’s creativity- God’s outpouring of love in the act of creation… and for us the easy thing to do is hold these things in tension- as if God is struggling with these two sides to his personality… on the one hand God is full of love, and on the other hand God brings justice… but its simpler than that: God is just and God is loving… not one or the other. Its not a question of one winning over the other but how to reconcile those two equal parts of God’s character with the world, and with the way that we act and live and speak ourselves.

At the outset, we may think that the book of Job is about the question of suffering, but as we reach its conclusion we discover that it is equally about knowing the character of God- Job knew of God, and was living by the rules that he had observed- do this, avoid that and you’ll be in the right with God… and that sustained him through much of his sufferings. However at this point Job is beginning to really know God- and while we might easily say that its more important to know God than to just know about God- that belief and discipleship are vastly more important to the Christian life than knowledge and attendance… it does raise the question- is it worth it? Is a full, committed faith with all the highs and lows that it brings better than a consistent low level ‘ok-ish’ one? Without the commitment and the vulnerability we cannot appreciate the highs and the full extent of God’s love for us… But the answer is yes- just as much here, when we talk about faith, as it is for anyone who has taught anyone, cared for a child, and in many other ways- when we make ourselves vulnerable and open, we allow others to hurt us, but we are also more truly alive because we feel more fully. And in becoming open to others we’re also more able to know them… if I keep you at a distance from me, you cannot get close to me with all that entails but neither can I know you… and the same is true of God.

If we do allow God to come close to us, and intentionally come closer to God- whether through a daily pattern of prayer and Bible reading, or through attending events at Lee Abbey or New Wine, through our worship here and the prayer times we have each week… if we come closer to God, we will have a right understanding of the relationship between us and God… that recognition of who God is… which leads to conviction of our own unworthiness, appreciation of the grace of God, is outworked in worship and a desire to serve God, but above all is expressed in humility. Job, having once been humble, has been humbled and now finds true humility- not to suggest that his previous behaviour was like that of Uriah Heep, Dickens’ master villain who ate ‘umble pie with an appetite… Job now sees God more clearly, and his self-justification disappears… he realises that his previous claims are as nothing… and he humbles himself before God- as the song goes ‘you are God in heaven, and here am I on earth’.

It’s a tricky thing to remain fully humble- if we serve God and our community, and things don’t work out, then we can become discouraged. But if things work- if we manage to do a few things and see some fruit… we have to consistently point past ourselves to God- AND mean it… And that is the heart of it- as people begin to gather around a community that proclaims the Lordship of Jesus, we need to maintain that Lordship- the best thing we have isn’t us, our building or our coffee… its Jesus, knowing him in our lives, knowing God as our Father, knowing ourselves as sent into the world by the power of the Spirit… that is the challenge and the call to us as we read the book of Job alongside the rest of the Bible… not to deny suffering or reduce its meaning, but to put alongside it God’s love and to live humbly as those who know that love in our lives.

so that’s what I said yesterday, or near enough… and here’s what landed on my laptop this morning:

Man: God, can I ask You a question?

God: Sure

Man: Promise You won’t get mad …

God: I promise

Man: Why did You let so much stuff happen to me today?

God: What do u mean?

Man: Well, I woke up late

God: Yes

Man: My car took forever to start

God: Okay

Man: at lunch they made my sandwich wrong & I had to wait

God: Hmm

Man: On the way home, my phone went DEAD, just as I picked up a call

God: All right

Man: And on top of it all, when I got home I just wanted to soak my
feet in my new foot massager & relax. BUT it wouldn’t work!!! Nothing
went right today! Why did You do that?

God: Let me see, the death angel was at your bed this morning & I had
to send one of My Angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep
through that .

Man (humbled): OH

GOD: I didn’t let your car start because there was a drunk driver on
your route that would have hit you if you were on the road.

Man: (ashamed)

God: The first person who made your sandwich today was sick & I didn’t
want you to catch what they have, I knew you couldn’t afford to miss
work.

Man (embarrassed): Okay

God: Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was
going to give false witness about what you said on that call, I didn’t
even let you talk to them so you would be covered.

Man (softly): I see God

God: Oh and that foot mas-sager, it had a shortage that was going to
throw out all of the power in your house tonight. I didn’t think you
wanted to be in the dark.

Man: I’m Sorry God

God: Don’t be sorry,  just learn to Trust Me…. in All things , the Good
& the bad.

Man: I will trust You.

God: And don’t doubt that My plan for your day is Always Better than your plan.

Man: I won’t God. And let me just tell you God, Thank You for Everything today.

God: You’re welcome child. It was just another day being your God and
looking after My Children…

hmmm... it gave me one of those moments...

E100- all quiet on the heavenly front

So you live in a society where God apparently guides you, and is the leading force behind your people’s culture. Where for a period of time the leaders understood themselves as standing in the gap, hearing God for the people and with the responsibility to lead the people towards God, and where on occasions they had understood that blessing to be for and on behalf of the wider population- the whole region rather then just their own people group… but its all been quiet for a long time on the heavenly front. No kings, no judges, no prophets, or at least none that were shown to be faithful to God by their words and actions.

What does it mean to be the people of God when God seems to go quiet? Does it mean that you’ve been given all you need, all the guidance that a people can reasonably expect and so now you just need to get on with it? Does it mean that God has turned away and left you for good this time- and if so why? Is it a test? Is it just one of those things- you have to wait for some things in life, like exam results or the sunrise.

And then, in the silence, a voice speaks- first in one place, and then in another- first in the Temple to a priest (where you might expect it) and then in hicksville to a young woman (which was definitely unexpected).

You know how at the end of the night, when the sun has yet to appear, things often go quiet, and the light changes so slowly and night shifts imperceptibly towards day… and then there is the first moment when the sun itself peeks over the horizon.

The passage I’m referring to is Luke chapter 1– the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus. The priest is Zechariah and the young woman is Mary and the beginning of the new day is the message that the great prophet John the Baptist is soon to be born, and the dawn that is coming is the birth of Jesus- a new day dawning on the world, the coming of the kingdom of God in a new way where there is no silence between heaven and earth.  And we still live in the beginning of that kingdom- on the brink, with sorrow and fear and tragedy and loss beside us even as we see the growing signs of the light, the love, the healing and the life of the promises coming into being around us each day.

And I’m aware that this all sounds a bit crazy, as if I’m living in Narnia or another fairy land. But the thing is that I know in the last day, in my normal life, I’ve seen God touch the life of a sane intelligent man, I’ve prayed for miracles in the lives of desparate strangers, and I’ve had my own prayers answered through conversations and phone calls. God works in the ordinary and the humdrum, bringing his Kingdom into our lives… and the sound is breathtaking.

What does it prophet a man if he is held by fear?

No, not a typo- prophets and fear, not two ideas we often put together because we see the prophets in the Bible as the wild-eyed fearless types.  But what if they were afraid? Surely that never happened? Take a gander at the beginning of Jeremiah, before he gets going on the prophecies of disaster that will unfold (and btw he was right), and you’ll see, in chapter 1, that Jeremiah was full of fear. Until…

Well, that’s what I was speaking about this morning, at our all-ages service with 40 guests from a family new to the church, and so I couldn’t have a full script to talk from with the children right there… more of a vague map to give me a direction and a starting point.  Which is a slightly nervy place to be when you’ve a church-full… And not to mention that I’d had the daft idea of asking God to speak to us today- so not only was I going to be without a script, but I was also expecting God to show up and get me out of trouble.

Anyway, here’s the scribbled ‘map’:

This morning we’re thinking about what young people can do and how we can hear from God, and we’ve just heard a really famous example- Jeremiah, one of the prophets in the Bible, was a man who felt nervous and worried because he was so young. He thought people wouldn’t listen to him. God spoke to him and encouraged him- I knew you before you were even born, before you were even formed in your mummy’s tummy… I had a plan for you right back then… and that helped Jeremiah.  I guess that most of us have been encouraged or helped by someone- maybe our parents or friends, or a teacher- often we think it’ll be someone older who helps us, but sometimes it can be someone much younger than us…

When I became a Christian- sharing faith with my own parents… what really mattered was the change they saw in me (not that I was perfect, far from it)- If my mum’s reading this I’m sure she’ll put me straight on this and remind me that I became a truly awful child for the next two years.

When Rob and Kate first came to this church, it was Harry that brought them!

When my own first child was born, even before she could do anything, she showed me how powerful love is.

When I’ve listened to the prayers that children write, sometimes they make me smile (Dear God, can I have ice cream for tea and can Man U always win) but often I’m amazed, challenged and encouraged by the faith they show- the trust that God will hear and can respond.

God doesn’t seem to have the same understanding that we often do that with age comes greater understanding and improvement- the phrase ‘elders and betters’ isn’t in the Bible, though respecting parents is! Instead God takes those who are willing, whatever their age, and equips them for the work, for the things that he calls them to. Jeremiah was to be a prophet before his whole people, speaking God’s words at a really difficult time.

Children ministering/praying for their parents is something I’ve seen a few times… it’s a real privilege to be prayed for by someone who trusts God like a child… who better than an actual child?

When I’ve finished I’d love to hear from anyone, particularly the children- tell me something that you found interesting or surprising in what I’ve been saying, so listen really hard for anything that stands out to you- grown ups might want to write something down on your notice sheet…

And the coolest thing was, that although I had to leave pretty much straight after the service, one of the kids came up to me before I left with a prayer that she’d written for peace in Afghanistan- we’d not mentioned it at all during the rest of the service… thank you God.

When love came to the mountain- Exodus 19

Preach from Sunday 13th July… well, at least the bare bones of what I said…

Those of us who’ve been working through the daily Bible readings from the E100 series have now reached Exodus… and although we’re only 2 books into the Old Testament we’ve taken nearly 5 weeks to get here, because this stuff is the foundation of our faith. If you look at Exodus 19, you won’t see any hidden mention of Jesus, but repeated again, there is this thread of a promise growing- first made to Abram, then to his son Isaac and to Jacob… and now repeated here to the people of Israel. The promise that the people of Israel would be treasured by God, would be a kingdom of priests has a follow on… if they’re priests, who’re the congregation? Once again, the idea that God’s love flows through them to others… just as the promise of forgiveness flowed through Jesus to all who believe, and so as the seeds on rich soil multiplied 30, 60 or 100 times, so the blessing, the forgiveness, the love of God flowed out and continues to flow out.

 

But within the passage from Exodus 19 there’re also a couple of challenging ideas we need to engage with. There is this idea of a chosen people- God clearly chose the people of Israel… does that mean God didn’t love anyone else? The more recent questions around this are to do with election and predestination- can anyone chose to follow God, or only the ones that God has already chosen- or in other words, do we really have a choice about this at all? The way that I have always understood this idea is that God calls to us all- through the beauty of His creation, through his presence in people around us, through the message of the Gospel that we might hear, through the depth of prayers and hymns that we sing or say together as we worship… God calls and has always called to everyone. It is up to us whether we respond. The part that the people of Israel played, and that Christians now play is to stand in the gap between God and the world, and to point out, to highlight, the work and activity, the presence and word of God, for others to be blessed by coming into relationship with God. So its not a case of ‘some are called/chosen by God’ and neither is there a valid case that Christians can simply leave it up to God to call others to faith… God calls, we help people to hear and to respond. One very poignant way that I see this happening is when people look to me as a minister to help them understand their own spiritual experiences- often ones that have happened outside of our gathered worship… and that’s what it means when here it speaks of a holy people, a nation of priests- people who can help others to understand.

 

Often we can get caught up with thinking about the Old Testament in terms of either the Law- starting with the 10 commandents that come in the chapter following our reading, or in terms of the Land- the promised Land, the kingdom etc… but its important to notice here that God’s love for the people of Israel comes before the Law or the Land… their relationship to God is the most important of the 3. Its only after God has declared his love, and that the people have responded, that God then says ‘if you want to honour me, to follow me, this is how others will notice- this is what will make it obvious’… the Law is to help other people see the difference. And the Land comes last of all- material things are less important than relationships or values. We know that to be true in our own lives- who you go on holiday with and how you feel about things is more important than where you go… and its not something limited to the Old Testament and the people of Israel- its true in our faith.  The challenge is to ensure that our relationship with God is right- that our values and actions are based on a true understanding of our relationship with God- that’s why we’ve started quite so slowly with our progress through the Bible this last month- because we need to get these basic things in place-

God’s love, God’s promise, God’s activity, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness. Our acceptance, our response, our relationship with God- creator, saviour, Father, Spirit.

Actions that are in line with stated beliefs, that are based on strongly held values… integrity.

And when we build on that, putting our own discipleship as the first building block… our own relationship with God- basing our prayer and personal devotions around that relationship rather than anything else, then other questions become, if not easier to answer, at least easier to look at, because our values become clearer and in line with God’s. And then our actions and our stuff (the equivalent of the Law and the Land) become more in keeping with God… and people will start to notice. As I heard someone say recently- ‘when people around the world see Christians starting to behave how they think Christians should behave, that changes the conversation’.

 

For us this week, as we seek to live our lives as followers of Jesus, lets make sure that we get these simple things in the right order… so that we can build on firm foundations as we draw others into the blessing that is a relationship with God.

Genesis chapter 12- trust, promises and being an idiot

This morning I was talking about Abram’s journey, God’s promise and how things went pear-shaped in Egypt in two different places- the first was with a group of parents and children at our ‘Early Bird’ breakfast service, which involved telling the story and pausing for questions, while distributing toy animals and people to represent the increasing size of Abram’s household as he journeyed, and the second was with one of our congregations in a more normal situation. The ‘script’ for the story journey isn’t really intelligible, so i won’t post it here… but you can have a look at what i said later in the morning…

This week in our Bible readings we’ve been looking at the story of Abram (as became Abraham), and his descendants… we’ve been reading about promises, trust, betrayal, loss and above all God’s consistent love.

If the snapshot of last week was about how we’re created in the image of God, and our failure to live up to that, then this week is about God’s first steps to bring reconciliation- God starts to make peace with us, in the first instance through a relationship with one man- Abram.

God could have appeared with power and wonder in the city of Haran, causing all people to fall on their faces… but that isn’t the nature of God- thinking back to the garden of Eden, God’s relationship with Adam and Eve was that he walked in the garden, looking for them- not swooping over or summoning them into his presence. And so here, and repeatedly through Scripture and in our own lives, God comes at the most personal level that people can respond to- Abram hears God’s voice, see’s God and walks and talks with him; Jacob dreams of him and wrestles through the night… if we’re wanting to know God and are wondering why we struggle to hear him, the simple question is are we expecting to- are we waiting and listening, and are we responding when God has spoken to us? A friend shared that often people ask him what God might be saying to them… and the first answer is ‘this- the Bible’. This is one thing that God has said to us all, and if we’re struggling to know what God wants us to do, how to live etc… have we failed to look at his Word, and to apply it to our lives?

So, what is revealed in this passage that was true for Abram, and is also true for our lives?

Firstly- God made a promise. Abram didn’t ask for it or extract it… God started this. And Abram was willing to respond. A couple of questions I had as I read this- Did Abram know exactly where he was going? (No) What was God asking him to do? (Leave his familiar surroundings and step into the unknown) How do you think Abram felt as he left his hometown? (a mixture of feelings, but definitely nervousness was in there).

Few of us have probably had that direct call to leave our homes to follow God, but there is a parallel that we can each draw- when we come to faith, or commit to follow Jesus as a disciple, or actively decide to deepen our faith at some stage of our lives, we are making that step of leaving the known, and stepping into the unknown. God never told me where I would end up when I came to faith 26years ago- not in terms of place or the things I’d do. Its been a case of trusting him and seeing a short distance ahead- enough to continue things but not so much that I have my whole life mapped out in detail.

And then, as Abram is journeying, he pauses in Canaan- this is the place I shall give to your descendants… that’s great, but where do I go? Might be an answer, but Abram has grown to trust God, and so he worships- through the narrative of his life we hear of 7 different places where he stops, builds and altar and worships God- he’s not limited to one place, he certainly isn’t constrained by others, and his response to the things God puts before him is to worship. God is beginning to show Abram the answer, the promise, that Abram can trust him, and so he worships God. When God reveals something to us, either of his character or his promises to us, our human instinct may be to analyse it ‘how will that fit with everything else I’ve got going on?’ ‘how will my family/colleagues etc view this?’… but God asks us to trust him, and put him as the foundation in our lives that everything else rests on- not competing with them for time, but looking at everything from a perspective that starts with God- so we worship and pray and share our faith because to do anything else makes no sense; but we do worship and pray and share faith in the place and with the people around us, for them…

But in the midst of this, Abram feels that God’s promise is falling apart- there is a drought which leads to a famine- he can’t feel the presence of God and is uncertain of what to do… he’s no longer sure of the promise and can’t wait- maybe he feels the pressure of providing for his household, maybe there are others giving advice and so he goes to a place where he might find food- Egypt. Note that God didn’t say ‘don’t go there’, but neither did Abram ask for direction… as I read this I reflected that this might be one of those things that are neither perfect or terrible… its all in how we act in a situation like this. And that is where the problem comes. Abram now compounds his doubt that God would provide for him, with a fear that God will not protect him. And rather than holding back or waiting… he comes up with a plan which involves lying and deception- from right back at the beginning we know that God hates lying- that’s what led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the presence of God.

In Egypt things get confusing- the lies don’t seem to cause too much of a problem, at least not immediately- Abram isn’t killed, Sarai ends up living in the palace, Abram is even treated well… but of course there’s one basic problem- Abram’s wife is now living with another man, and this has been caused by deception, and how is God’s promise going to be fulfilled in this situation? All too often, we resort to our own human thinking when God’s plan doesn’t seem to be working out, or at least not from our viewpoint… Abram is confused, and resorts to old habits. Its interesting to see how God responds… not with fire, brimstone and destruction- with something that Pharaoh understands and the Egyptians will respond to- we don’t know whether Pharaoh had ignored a recurring dream or other signs, but he seems to have understood immediately that the cause of the diseases affecting his house is his connection to Sarai and knows that she is Abram’s wife… And in a way that foreshadows the events of the Exodus, Abram and his household leave Egypt, with more than they arrived with…

Abram was in the middle of things, and its hard to keep your perspective there- you have to balance the immediate with the long term, the personal with the big picture. As we look at the Bible we can more easily see the whole big picture- the beginning of God’s restored relationship with humanity, starting with Abram and his descendants, the promise of a blessing for all people that would eventually come in the form of Jesus, and the restored relationship with God that is now available for anyone who asks.  For us, here in Bishop’s Tawton, its important to know that we are within that narrative, each of us, and this church, that God’s promises to Abram hold true for us, that He will be with us, will lead us on, and will bless others through us if we trust him.

Have a good week, huge blessings