I’m re-reading a childhood favourite of mine right now; Pilgrim’s Progress. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it (the modern English version which is free on Kindle right now or if you prefer print no doubt Colin can find you a copy). At one time it was the most read Christian book after the Bible because it paints such an imaginative picture of the Christian life as a journey full of adventure and threat. At the start of Christian’s journey one of his neighbours decides to journey with him excited about all the benefits but as soon as he finds himself struggling through a bog he quits for home, muddy and ashamed. The treasure was not worth the trouble.
One of the saddest things for me over the past few years of building church in the community has been the number of people just like Christian’s neighbour. Their initial discovery of faith with all its sparks and late night discussions quickly fades the moment it gets difficult or boring. This caught me by surprise but recently I realised we weren’t doing something that Jesus did which was to make clear the cost. He was clear that this new life would take top priority, that there was nothing out of bounds, that it would involve suffering and that there would be no looking back and one time explicitly stated that only an idiot would start a project without costing it first (Luke 14:25-34). Suffering, obstacles and sacrifice are all to be expected when we follow Jesus, it shouldn’t take us by surprise or be seen as the exception but it is the way of the cross as we head towards resurrection. We need to remember this daily and also be upfront when we’re welcoming someone to this glorious adventure; there’ll be struggles but it’ll be worth it.
It’s recorded in Acts that the disciples performed miracles and many signs and wonders. Is there a difference between them, and if there is, is it important? In Acts chapter 5, Luke says the sick and those possessed by evil spirits were healed. Such examples were miracles.
Earlier in the chapter it says the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. It’s been suggested by more informed people than me, that these signs and wonders were to do with the kindly, loving and constant response the followers of Jesus had towards individuals in their society who were considered outcasts: the disabled, the widows, those individuals suffering from diseases such as leprosy. The early Christians continued to live where they were and were recognised as people who welcomed and cared for the outcast. Such behaviour was unheard of at that time.
If you, I and others witnessed a miracle today how would we respond? Would it increase our faith and result in thousands of converts or would many just want to see an even greater miracle? Whatever the answer is miracles come and go. Of more importance is the regular, loving caring attitude and hands on response of the many among us who are willing to work with, care for and promote the welfare of today’s oppressed, whether in this country or overseas. Many in our church and others have been performing these signs and wonders for years. God loves us for it.
Take time this week to pray for those we know, and you might be one of them, who are performing signs and wonders in this generation by working with, helping and in many other ways, assisting individuals whose legal status, physical and mental incapacity and homelessness can sometimes make them inconvenient to society.
Love. God is love
It’s a phrase we hear again and again, rising from the printed pages of scripture, from the mouth of the preacher or the pray-er.
Love. God is love.
But what does that mean? I mean genuinely? What difference does that make? It’s all very well being told God loves you but what difference does that make when you’re at work or visiting your grandparent in a nursing home, when you’re celebrating or when you’re sad, when you’re deciding what to do with your life or what to have for dinner.
Love. God is love.
And where does Jesus fit into all this? Being born surely doesn’t solve everything. I’ve had plenty of friends who are parents and having a tiny baby appears to be messy and tiring, it doesn’t heal their insecurities or guarantee a joyful glow for eternity. If Jesus was fully human then surely this means there was also mess and exhaustion. So then love isn’t magic, it doesn’t turn life into a Hallmark card.
Love. God loves us.
Love isn’t a sensation, it’s flesh and bones and activity. It’s not static or fleeting, blown about by the wind, it’s physical and costly. If this is the case, then God’s love isn’t just found in the cuteness of a baby, it’s found in the life of Jesus because love has to be lived. So this is it, this is the beginning, we’re here with the shepherds and the prophets and the wise men and Mary, waiting to see what love looks like. The baby is here, but this is just the beginning, we need to look at his life, not was said about him or how cute he looked.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.’ It’s time to work out what love looks like, it’s time to pick up a Bible and read about the life of Jesus.
We often speak of the wilderness as a place of rejection; being in the wilderness seems to speak of rejection, being lost or having no contribution to society. Thinking about it, I’m not sure that many of us would choose to head off into the wilderness. And yet, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Paul and
John the Baptist all headed off into the wilderness more or less willingly! The
wilderness was a place of preparation and of encounter with God. It is as if there
is more time in the wilderness for minds to slow down enough for God to speak
with us, a quietness for God’s “voice of utter silence” to be heard above the
hubbub of daily life.
In our age and country, however, we avoid the wilderness. We are so used
to comfort and company that we would do anything to avoid the discomfort and
loneliness of the wilderness. We seem to have learned that “fullness of life”
involves happiness with life, that being a good church means amazing things
happening and growth in numbers: success. These are misleading lessons! The
wilderness is about the complete opposite of success, and we struggle with that.
The wilderness is not only a physical place. We find the wilderness in loneliness,
in struggling at work or the breakdown and loss of relations. And it is not only
individuals who experience wilderness and exile. I would suggest that western
Christianity is heading into a wilderness period with little assurance about our
future success or influence.
God showed Moses the way out of the wilderness, but it wasn’t going to be
quick. It would be slow but sure. Moving into the Promised Land would take time.
It will, I fear, be the same for the church in Western Europe. Faith is the
assurance of an outcome. Hope is a confidence in Him who walks through the
wilderness with us. It is hope that we will need in the coming years, for love lives
in the wilderness.
So once again we start a new year in Church Calendar terms. The first Sunday of Advent
is the 2nd December and so starts our time of preparation in hope of the arrival of Jesus
into our world this coming Christmas. Of course, we have lots to prepare for Christmas
festivities and parties and family visits, but will we also make time, above and beyond our
own practical preparations, to prepare our hearts and minds for a greater infilling of
Jesus? How will you do that? Will you share that with others in your family or among
your friends? There are all sorts of published devotionals you could use, or do you want
to do something more practical? What might that be?
One of the ways we are preparing at St Luke’s is by making sure we have Advent before
Christmas in our worship times. One of those services will be the Toy Service on the 9th
Dec. which is when we can remember quite definitely that we have enough and others
don’t and that we can prepare the way for God’s love in their lives by giving of our
comparative abundance. At this service we will collect toys for a child and pass them onto
SWACA or Sefton Helping Hands and they will give them as Christmas gifts to children in
need. Or you can use the Foodbank Countdown Calendar to put together a food box of
the things most needed in the foodbank. They will use what we bring to Church on the 9th
Dec to feed hungry families this Christmas. The toys will go around the Communion
Table for allocating and sending and the food bank collection will go under our Christmas
tree in the Welcome Area (which will be decorated by the children from Stepping Stones/
Pram Club this year) and will then go to the foodbank in South Sefton on Monday 10th
Dec. If you’d like to help with the distribution of the toys or food on that Monday then
please see Agnes Law or Amanda Bruce. The Christmas Tree will then have renewed
space under it if you want to continue to collect for the foodbank or the Seafarers Mission,
which Eric Deninson is collecting for too – please place offerings under the tree, clearly
labelled to be sent onto the right people for giving away.
In our practical collecting of needed food and toiletries, hats and gloves, and presents for
gifts, we are giving of God’s love to others. This love, in them and us, prepares the way
for the love of Jesus to be a settled part of our lives and the world around us. Let’s
prepare well for Christ this Advent and so welcome him on Christmas Day with grateful
and open hearts.
As I sit to write this the part of my work uppermost in my mind is our review of the Mission Plan for 2019. I have had a number of conversations reviewing this now and need to start pulling those together. My conversations have included that which we had at the Leaders’/PCC’s day away. This included the clergy and Lay Readers, the PCC and Small Group leaders together for a day and much of the discussion looked at the legal parts of being a church, the detail of running church and ministry, as well as some of the cultural development of church too, especially thinking about ‘family’. Then last Saturday I met with the ILT, or Interim Leadership Team. This is a group of people I’ve asked to meet with me occasionally, drawn initially from those Pete took to a learning community on church growth and culture, so that the big picture thinking about culture and growth learnt at the learning community don’t get lost in the business of maintaining church life, buildings, ministry and structures. So we looked at the Mission Plan from the point of view of how the culture and vision for growth is written into this, thinking particularly about Welcome and Hospitality, the Church Community and Mission. I want to talk to a few individuals who head up practical areas of church maintenance and mission as well. Most importantly though, I want to challenge each one of us who make up St Luke’s to be thinking about the values, vision and mission we have as a church. You may want to start with your own values as a Christian and sense of vision or mission as one who belongs to God. And then I’d love your input into the Church Mission Plan. We are together the church so this is your mission plan in a corporate, community sense. So please do think about what we are called to do and be as a church and how that’s reflected in the life of St Luke’s as you know it. God calls us, in Habbakuk 2.2, to write the vision we have down and make it plain for others to read and share, so that’s what we’re doing. Please do join in this process by writing down your thoughts and letting me have them.
Many American Christians believe Donald Trump is a modern day Cyrus and should be supported, despite his obvious failings and lack of Christian faith. Cyrus defeated Nebuchadnezzar, thus allowing the Jewish people who had been exiled to return to Israel. Back in Israel, they rebuilt the temple and began worshipping God again. These same Christians see the American decision to move their embassy to Jerusalem a necessary stage towards Israel having their temple rebuilt: one of the last prophecies before Jesus returns. It seems to me that they believe the end justifies the means.
Consider President Trump’s means. Denying almost every immigrant a safe haven, sending parents home from American internment camps and leaving, in many cases, their children in those camps for months and I could go on but rather than that I pose the question what would Jesus say and do? Jesus, who with his parents, had been a refugee in a strange land, would speak out against the many world leaders whose actions lead to people fleeing their countries and demanding they treat all their people with justice. Turning to Israel He would welcome Israel having their own land but would be vehemently critical of its government’s appalling treatment of the Palestinians.
Turning to the individual, that is, you and I or President Trump, he would remind us of the two great commandments and in their reflected light he would expect our thoughts, our plans, our actions to be God centred. In God’s light there would be no room for misogyny, for selfishness, pride, envy and other sins. Being a good neighbour will stop us justifying ourselves in wrong actions but will help us to see a clear way forward to spread God’s welcoming love to others.
We all regret things we have said and sometimes wish we could go back and start again. Once we have spoken, our words are out there and they cannot be recalled.
There are some things that I would like to highlight about the things we say. First of all our words are our responsibility. We do not have to repeat things. Jesus said that it is what comes out of our mouths that defile us because they come from the heart (Matt 15:18). If we are living by the Spirit our speech should reflect this. If our thoughts are evil then they will be reflected in our words. Our motives are very important. We can speak truthfully but without love. What we say can either build up or be damaging. In Ephesians 4:15 we read that we should speak the truth in love if we are going to build up the body of Christ.
Wisdom is a great gift and if we have insight into the situations and problems of others, we will choose our words carefully. Much has been said about political correctness. My view is that if we are being encouraged to think more about the effect our words have on others, then this a good thing most of the time.
This week Eugene Peterson died, he was an incredible man famous for The Message translation of the Bible. But apparently Peterson never set out with the intention to publish a book that’s sold over 50 million copies, instead his work of translating the Bible into contemporary language began as a tool to help members of his congregation pray when they were struggling. The Message started with the psalms because according to Peterson the psalms demonstrate that ‘praying isn’t about being nice before God.’
This is why I love Eugene Peterson and why I love the psalms because when you spend time reading them you realise the psalms aren’t pretty, or smooth, or nice, but they’re honest and I think need to find ways to help us be more honest, which is very hard in our culture. The pressure to be polite or fake it when you walk into church can feel very real, but this pressure is not from God, He’s not interested in you pretending you’re okay, He longs to be in a relationship with you and this starts with honesty.
Worship was never meant to be an escape from reality and the Psalms demonstrate this by expressing both sides of this conversation of faith; there is nothing out of bounds, nothing inappropriate. Prayer and worship are supposed to be a conversation of the heart, so start with where your heart’s at and sit there for a while, but don’t stay there. This dialogue is between our honesty and the truths about who God is, His faithfulness, power and promises, like tiny lights, flickering in the darkness guiding you out of the pit.
‘According to the psalms the primary use for prayer is not for expressing ourselves, but of becoming ourselves – and we cannot do that alone.’ Eugene Peterson
Whether we are Christians or not we will have witnessed and been on the receiving end of God’s kindness many times. One of the greatest things we can do for anyone is to pray for them. Prayer is the easiest thing in the world but can also be the hardest. It’s about making space with God and deepening our relationship with him. We don’t know what pattern of prayer Jesus had but we know that it was important for him to withdraw from his ministry to spend time alone with God to listen, receive support and guidance from him. Sometimes we don’t pray because we feel we don’t know how.
There have been many books written and there are many ways of praying but prayer to me is just a conversation with an old friend. How do you find your space for God? Are you an early morning person who finds space when it’s quiet or a night owl who spends time with God before bed. Maybe walking the dog or fetching the paper or if you have youngsters then escaping to the bath for a long soak or finding space at lunchtime is when you find your peaceful place.
When you’ve found your solitude with God, what are you going to do with it? Well, “Pray as you can – not as you can’t”. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Spending time with God is never wasted so don’t feel guilty about “doing nothing”. There is no right or wrong answer in the way we pray, no success or failure we just need to be as open to God as we can.
Whatever you do keep going even when you feel discouraged and feel as though you’re praying to the ceiling or to a brick wall. God is always there even when we think and feel that he is absent.