Pastoral Letter 61
This week’s psalm is Psalm 7. This psalm has a verse I love: He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment. And this psalmist is aware of his own tendencies in that direction as he asks God to judge him if he sins.
But that is not where I want to focus. The psalm begins:
O Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
save and deliver me from all who pursue me
It is a cry for help with the assurance that help will be given. This is a prayer to the God of justice who brings judgement and salvation. The God who knows the difference between sin and righteousness, and so to this God the psalmist can pray:
Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness,
according to my integrity, O Most High.
This is so different from what we normally read in the Bible. We would expect the psalmist to ask God to judge him according to God’s righteousness. But this psalmist knows he is in a right relationship with God. He knows his sins have been forgiven. He knows that his integrity is intact. And as he writes later, he knows he is upright in heart.
So when it comes to singing, or reading, the psalms, is this one that you could join in with? Are you as confident as the psalmist in your relationship with God? Maybe it was King David who wrote this psalm - the man after God’s own heart. But even if it was, he is still an Old Testament character. We live in the New Testament. We know that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We know that the Holy Spirit lives within us, if we really are children of God. We have that promise from Jesus, that I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.
And with all of that knowledge we are in a better position than this psalmist. Whatever trouble the psalmist was facing he had the assurance that God, the righteous Judge, would deliver him, because the psalmist was righteous, a man of integrity, with an upright heart.
At the end of the psalm the psalmist acknowledges God’s righteousness: I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness.
God is thanked because He is righteous and does what He has promised to do. So as we get away from COVID-19 and get back to all the regular slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (as Shakespeare put it) we can trust in God, not because He’s an indulgent heavenly grandfather, but because of the relationship that we have with him made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So maybe we can join in with this psalm once we have experienced the reality of a living relationship with the living God.
Pastoral Letter 60
This week we are looking at Psalm 6. This is one of those psalms that asks the question, How long, O Lord? The psalmist writes from a position of weakness and possibly illness. He says, O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish…. I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
He is having a difficult time, and the psalms are good for showing us that life for those who are following God is not always full of joy and praise. We get to see so many aspects of life and here we have a person who is finding life really difficult.
At the beginning of the psalm he seems to think that God is punishing him: O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. The psalmist knows God. He isn’t a liberal theologian who spends his time denying that the God of the Bible demonstrates anger. He is a devoted follower of God and so with his knowledge he also experiences uncertainty. He asks himself if his current situation is God’s punishment. Without the benefit of New Testament Theology and a proper understanding of the cross of Jesus the psalmist believes that God is punishing him.
And it is possible to think like that, which is why it helps to have a good understanding of what the Bible teaches about God, as well as a good understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The psalmist doesn’t have our advantage. He lived in Old Testament times. And yet he knows God, because God has made himself known to his people.
And so by the end of the psalm the psalmist is reassured that God has heard his weeping; He has heard his cry for mercy; He has accepted his prayer.
What starts as a psalm of lament ends as a psalm, not so much of praise, but of assurance. The psalmist discovers that God is compassionate, merciful and He is a God who hears our prayers.
This is a good psalm for our day. People have asked where this pandemic came from. There have been those who claim it is from God - those with no Bible knowledge. There have been those who have worried when they have become ill and at such times it is possible that God is not seen as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The psalmist teaches us persistence as he prays:
How long, O Lord, how long?
Turn, O Lord, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
He is not a Stoic, accepting his fate. He is a person who expects God to be a major part of his life. And so this is a good psalm for today. Try it out and see how it helps.
Pastoral Letter 59
Psalm 5 is the psalm I want to look at this week. This one begins by describing itself as a lament:
Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
2 Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.
And again, as with so many of the psalms we don’t know the context; we don’t know what is happening in the psalmist’s life, but we know he’s not happy! He asks God to consider his lament, which turns into some harsh words about his enemies. And the psalm ends:
But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
12 Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
you surround them with your favour as with a shield.
Throughout this psalm the psalmist has the confidence that no matter what is happening in his life God knows about it. He knows that God will listen to him: his lament; his cry for help. Knowing that God is listening allows him to be honest about the fact that he has enemies - that life is not perfect. He is not pretending that everything is OK. He admits that it isn’t. And sometimes we need that honesty.
And he knows that he can turn to God for protection, for shelter, for help. Which makes me wonder how we compare to this psalmist! When it comes to the problems of life do we try to deal with them by ourselves? Do we deny the problems? Or do we turn somewhere else for help?
I find it helpful to have these psalms of lament in the Bible. They show us how we should respond to life’s many difficulties. If we are those who love God’s name then we may rejoice in him. If we are counted among the righteous then we can be assured of God’s blessings, and we can know that we are surrounded with his favour, as with a shield.
The result of this is that we can ever sing for joy. Even with all his problems the psalmist can sing for joy. And how is he able to do this? Because of how he starts his day:
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.
Each morning he prays and then he waits, expecting God to answer. Not just a quick prayer, but expectant waiting. And as result he gets through each day with the assurance of God’s presence and protection. A lament with a solution - God is there to protect us if we are prepared to trust him.
So how’s that working out for you?
Pastoral Letter 58
The next Psalm I want to look at is Psalm 4, which begins with the request: Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. The psalmist is in some kind of distress, so this is another psalm of lament: Give me relief from my distress.
The prayer is one of faith and trust because the psalmist is expecting to be answered. His main problem is with other people. He asks the How long? question, but it is not God he is asking:
How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
This psalm suggests that most people are looking in the wrong places for their help: delusions; false gods; Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”
During the past 12 months or so we have had all manner of experts, in many fields, advising us how we should survive this pandemic. We have had the government laying down the law, while the scientists have tried to explain what they think is happening; the conspiracy theorists telling us there is no virus and the vaccine is dangerous, and we have had to listen to all kinds of weird and wonderful pieces of advice. I’m not sure anyone was tempted to inject bleach even when the then President of the USA suggested it. But there have been ‘experts’ all year long.
And the psalmist has faced something similar. We don’t know his precise situation, but we should know the God to whom he is talking. And while people were looking in the wrong direction, the psalmist had the answer.
He didn’t just have faith that God would sort everything out; he knew his God. His God is righteous. His God has filled his heart with greater joy than when (the) grain and new wine abound. This is not a man who needs a glass of wine when he gets home at the end of a hard day. This is a man who knows his God. His heart is filled with joy.
And then he is able to sleep well at night because, as he says, you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
So it is a lament, but not for himself. He is lamenting the people who love delusions and seek false gods.
For himself there is joy and peace because he knows the One, True, God and that God brings him peace and enables him to sleep at nights.
So that answers the problem of this ongoing pandemic. There may be another wave, we are told by the experts. There are a variety of new variants. We may need Covid passports to go anywhere and everywhere.
But whatever the rest of this year may bring us, we can know peace and joy and rest.
Pastoral Letter 57
As we find ourselves coming out of lockdown I wonder what we will find. The Old Testament has a fairly positive ending as the people of Judea are released from exile in Babylon. They return to their Promised Land and rebuild the temple, and then there is a time of lamenting from the older people who remember the first temple. This one isn’t as good! God doesn’t fill it with his glory! The exile is over, but things aren’t what they used to be!
And so I thought that this might be the time to look at lamenting in the Bible, and I want to look through the book of Psalms. Of the 150 psalms, 48 are psalms of lamentation. I begin with Psalm 3.
The psalmist tells of his problems, caused by his many enemies, but rather than looking at his enemies (and his desire for God to smash their teeth in [v7], I want to look at how God helps him.
While many are saying “God will not deliver him” (v2), the truth is, “You are a shield around me, O Lord.” He is protected by God; the God who bestows glory on him and lifts up his head (v3). This is our God. Have you found him to be your shield? The one who bestows glory on you and lifts up your head? The one who answers when you cry to him (v4)?
The psalmist is able to sleep and wake again because the Lord sustains him (v5). Even when surrounded by his enemies the psalmist is able to sleep without fear.
We have heard a lot about mental illness and wellbeing over the past year. I think we will hear more about it as we venture out once again into a world where the pandemic isn’t actually over. We are only going out again to help the economy, not because the virus has gone. This is our tiny, but deadly, enemy, and so as the psalmist found deliverance from his enemies as he trusted in the God who answered from his holy hill (v4), so we can find deliverance from our enemies.
We can find that while those who do not know God cannot find peace, we can lie down and sleep, and wake again, because the Lord sustains (us) (v5).
We can pray, along with the psalmist, Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! (v7a) And we can know that He will.
This is not a psalm asking, How long, O Lord? We will get to those soon enough. This is an honest psalm where the psalmist acknowledges that life is not perfect (how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! [v1]) He is aware that the odds are stacked against him. But he isn’t despairing! He is trusting in an all-powerful God who is bigger than all his enemies put together.
And that is where we should be as his people. Trusting that the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world (1 John 4: 4).
Pastoral Letter 56
After Peter and John discovered that Jesus was no longer in the tomb John records in chapter 20: 10, “Then the disciples returned to their homes”. They went back home and later that day Jesus called round to see them (John 20: 19).
The other week the churches in Scotland won their legal case to have their churches re-opened. The judge said that online worship isn’t real worship. It made me wonder what that judge would make of the New Testament Church. They returned to their homes and Jesus met them there. I think Jesus demonstrated that He can come into any home and meet with us. The disciples rejoiced and Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit. In their home!
And so in most (not all) 21st century homes there is internet access. We can have a meeting with Jesus on our own, if we live alone; we can meet with Jesus through our televisions (more homes have television than have the internet) and we can meet with Jesus online. There is nothing in the New Testament that says worship cannot be online. And that Scottish judge seems to have forgotten that for many people programmes like ‘Songs of Praise’ were the only opportunity to worship for a long time, before the internet became available.
As we begin to go back to church and as restrictions are increasingly relaxed, masks come off, seats are pushed closer together and singing is allowed - and even tea and coffee afterwards - will we remember what it was like during this year?
How many of us have got into the habit of not meeting together (Hebrews 10: 25)? And how difficult will it be to get ourselves out at 10: 30 every Sunday morning?
I like the detail John gives about the disciples rejoicing. That is what we are supposed to do when we meet Jesus. It would be hard not to rejoice. But we don’t need a big group for that, or a special building. We can rejoice online, if we meet with Jesus.
Imagine every Sunday meeting with Jesus and rejoicing! Imagine then meeting with him every day. Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (4: 4).
We can do that if the reality of that first Easter has come into our lives. If we know the risen, living, Jesus in our lives. And we experience that through the other detail John gives: the Holy Spirit breathed on us by Jesus. All of this happened for those first disciples after they returned home.
As you are in your homes today why not invite Jesus in; ask him to breathe his Holy Spirit into you, and rejoice!
Pastoral Letter 55
The first Easter was held at home! That is what John tells us in his Gospel: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews….”
Some of us will be in church this Easter Sunday, singing quietly behind our masks, keeping our distance from each other. Most of us won’t. And maybe, for the second year in a row this will remind us what Easter is really about. I like that phrase: really about; it has a sense of superiority about it as we talk about Christmas - we know what it’s really about. And we forget that we took over a pagan festival and Christianised it. The same is true with Easter - it was a pagan festival and we Christianised it.
But I’m not talking about origins, I’m talking about the Christian celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead, having paid the penalty for our sins. Raised for our salvation, so that as we commit our lives to him we may know spiritual resurrection now and so that we may be part of the resurrection of the dead when He returns.
We don’t need to be in church buildings for that. We can sing all the Easter songs any time of the year, because, as Peter tells us, “Christ … suffered for sins once for all … in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3: 18). It was once! For always! He is alive forever - all year long. So we can always sing about the resurrection of Jesus, just as they did in the early church.
We can know the reality of his suffering, because our sins are forgiven. That is why, as Christians, we can have clear consciences.
We can know God as our Father, because Jesus suffered to bring us to God. He didn’t suffer to bring us to church.
We can know! In our homes - locked in for fear of the virus - we can know the risen Jesus. John goes on to tell us that even though the doors were locked Jesus still met with his disciples. We don’t have to be in a particular building to meet with Jesus. We can meet him anywhere. Luke tells us about two friends who were walking home to Emmaus and they met Jesus - outside, on a walk.
The doors may be locked, we may be out for a walk. All four gospels begin that first Easter Sunday in a cemetery. Even there Jesus appears to his followers.
However you are spending Easter Sunday this year remember what it’s really about - Jesus suffering so that you (even you) could experience your sins forgiven and find that you have been brought to God. And celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died for you and for me. All we need to do is ask him to take our sins, forgive us, and come into our lives. Even in your own home!
Pastoral Letter 54
This week my thoughts were inspired by that lesser-known prophet, Zephaniah. In Zephaniah 3: 17 it says: The Lord your God is with you.
That is always good to know! The last words of John Wesley, before he died, were, “The best of all, God is with us”. No matter what we may be facing, it is always good to know that God is with us. And especially when it comes to sickness and death.
Zephaniah continues: He is mighty to save. We have a tendency, every time we see the word “Save” in the Bible to think it means going to heaven when we die. Zephaniah is talking about God being mighty to help us in all of life’s situations; all those difficulties we find ourselves in. This is the God of the genuine Messy Church - not that life is full of paint and glue, but that life can be messy and so God steps in to help. And it is useful to know that the God who is with us is mighty enough to help us in our messes.
And then Zephaniah tells us: He will take great delight in you. Have you ever considered that? God just might like you. I was counselling someone many years ago and she told me she knew God loved her - He has to, she said. But she wasn’t convinced that He liked her. Zephaniah, talking to the people of God, tells us that He takes great delight in us. Whatever results were on your school report, God was delighted in you; whatever position you came in that sporting event, God was delighted in you; however much you succeeded (or failed) at work, God is delighted in you; however successful (or not) your relationships, God takes great delight in you. However much you have messed up, God takes great delight in you. We have a Ragamuffin Gospel for Vagabonds of every description. I’ve never been happy with the Methodist Church desecrating the hymn, “To God be the glory”, removing that line, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives”. I believe that the vilest offender still needs Jesus.
And then, Zephaniah tells us, He will quiet you with his love. That’s a good way to finish isn’t it. When all around are stressed and anxious, weary and heavy laden, we can turn to God in Jesus and find that He quietens us with his love.
But it isn’t how it ends. Zephaniah rounds it up with, He will rejoice over you with singing. Imagine that! You make God sing! He rejoices over you. You!
Take time this week to meditate on those words from Zephaniah:
The Lord your God is with you,
He is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
He will quiet you with his love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.
Pastoral Letter 53
Last week someone I knew a long time ago sent me a link to a video that talked about an issue that was going to split the church. I was intrigued. He called it apartheid. I was really intrigued. What was this issue that would divide the church and cause it to almost disappear across the country? I had several ideas in mind before this theological genius told us what it would be. He told us that this was a ‘word from the Lord’, so we needed to hear it.
According to this self-proclaimed prophet the church was going to split because of the COVID vaccine. Apparently we are going to check everyone at the door and if you haven’t had the vaccine you won’t be allowed in. I was fascinated!
When he told us that this was unbiblical I realised I was listening to someone who didn’t know the Bible and I stopped listening.
I’m sure we all know that lepers had to remain separate from everyone else in case they spread the infection, so dividing the infectious from the uninfected is biblical. You may not know that the Old Testament Law also disqualified a wide range of people from entering the ministry (Leviticus 21: 17-21), and another group who were not allowed in the assembly (Deuteronomy 23: 1-3).
So I dismissed this ‘word of the Lord’ and let biblical reality and good common sense prevail. I hope you are all taking advantage of the vaccine (we won’t check). Even Donald Trump says the vaccine is “great”, so that must mean something (I’m not sure what).
But I think the divide is going to be between those who return to church and those who don’t, including those who haven’t been able to attend for a while - those who were not attending before these lockdowns. At the moment the Methodist Church is planning to stop producing their weekly printed services in August. They may be persuaded to continue. I am going to continue writing these weekly letters after church services begin again. Feel free to opt out, but I will not stop writing to those who are unable to leave their homes. I think that these lockdowns have shown us how good the internet can be and how easy it can be to forget those who can no longer leave their homes. And those who have moved away.
I was involved in Fresh Expressions of Church in the early days when we were looking at how to make church for people who found 10/11am on a Sunday an impossible time to meet, and we came up with all kinds of ideas for church on different days, at different times, in different places. And now we find ourselves forced into church that isn’t in a building on a Sunday. I think this is a golden opportunity to keep the focus off a specific building on a specific day. Look at Jesus in the Gospels. He did most of his ministry walking the streets and at meals in people’s homes. If we say we are following him, how did we ever cut ourselves off in religious buildings on one day of the week and start calling that church?
Why not follow Jesus’ pattern and tell our stories wherever we find ourselves in our day-to-day lives?
So whether you will be returning to Sunday church this summer, or staying away, look at what Jesus did and consider how He discipled his followers and maybe in the “new normal” become a biblical disciple of Jesus.