Pastoral Letter 70
The more psalms we read, the more we realise that God’s people didn’t always have an easy time. The idea that they believed in a Creator God who was good to them because their lives were running smoothly is false to the evidence that we see in the psalms. These people suffered; they had enemies and life wasn’t easy. Today we are looking at Psalm 28. There doesn’t seem to be any physical threat this time, but there is the threat of the two-faced friend: ‘those who do evil, who speak cordially with their neighbours but harbour malice in their hearts’. The person who is nice to your face, but has a different story to tell when your back is turned.
There is a call for justice in this palm; it sounds like a call for vengeance. And that makes it a very real psalm. There is no point in lying to God when He knows how we feel. God is more pleased with our prayers for someone’s judgement than He is with our prayers for their blessing, when He knows, and we know, that we don’t mean it. He wants us to be honest!
To use a modern analogy, the book of Psalms is like Facebook, or any other social media platform. It used to be that people kept diaries and they would be horrified if anyone read them. Today we have Facebook and you can learn what people had for breakfast; their favourite film; where they are going on holiday; and their opinions about anything from Brexit to Covid. They are usually disappointed if people don’t read and “Like” these diary entries.
And so if the book of Psalms is seen as a public prayer diary then we can understand the feelings expressed there. Life is tough and the psalmist is expressing his feelings about what is happening. And, just like the InterNet, what goes in the Bible is there forever. So we may not know the individuals being referred to, but we know how the psalmist dealt with it.
And once again the way to deal with issues is to recognise God and take everything to him. The psalmist calls God his Rock, the One who has heard his cry for mercy; his strength and his shield. And not just his:
The LORD is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
This is the God who is always there and the God who is able! Able to protect us in every situation. Able to deliver us from all evil.
And so the psalm ends with a prayer:
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
be their shepherd and carry them forever.
That’s an even better picture - the God who is our Shepherd, carrying us through the difficult times. So whatever you may be facing at this time, remember the LORD who is your Shepherd, who will carry you through.
Pastoral Letter 69
Psalm 27 begins like a psalm of praise, but as you read through it you can see the psalmist’s problems: ‘evil men advance against me to devour my flesh’; Though an army besiege me’; ‘though war break out against me’; ‘in the day of trouble’; ‘the enemies who surround me’; ‘Though my father and mother forsake me’; ‘my oppressors’; ‘the desire of my foes’; ‘false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence’
He is not having an easy time! There seems to be nothing but trouble, including from his own family. Anyone would give up under the pressures he seems to be facing, but he begins the psalm with a statement and a question:
The LORD is my light and my salvation -
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life -
of whom shall I be afraid?
Good question! If God is on our side it doesn’t matter how many people are against us. In the early days of my Christian life there were posters - usually with kittens on them - with pithy little sayings and there was one that fits in here: “With God on my side I’m always in the majority”. I always liked that one (even with the kitten!) It doesn’t matter who is against us as long as God is for us.
The psalmist asks one thing of the LORD:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD.
And that is the secret to his confidence. He has confidence in the God he knows; the God he spends time with; the God he meditates on. The better he knows God, the better he knows God, and that gives him confidence and hope.
He finishes the psalm with the words:
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.
He has confidence and hope and he is able to praise the LORD, even though the answers may not come immediately. He is looking at the big picture and trusting in the God he knows. And so with all his difficulties he can still praise God. This is one of those situations where it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
That is our God - someone worth knowing!
Pastoral Letter 68
The next psalm of lament is Psalm 26. In terms of theology this is a very good one. We know nothing of the problem behind the psalm because the psalmist doesn’t tell us. He spends the whole psalm defending himself - and what a defence!
He begins with a plea for God to vindicate him. We don’t know what he has been accused of, but it doesn’t really matter. Life is just not going his way and he is feeling in need of God’s help.
And so he begins his defence: I have led a blameless life. In terms of Old Testament Theology that means he has never knowingly broken any of God’s laws. There were sacrifices for unintentional sins, but not for intentional sins, so he is blameless because the sacrifices covered his unintentional sins.
Then he writes about his unwavering trust in the LORD. He tells God:
‘Test me … and try me,
examine my heart and my mind’.
That’s a challenge isn’t it? Could you ask God to test your heart and mind to see if your trust in him is unwavering? Then he says, ‘your love is ever before me’.
The God of the Old Testament was known for his love. Sometimes preachers lead us astray on this and give us a different picture of God, but those who knew him knew him as a God who loved them. But it isn’t just about trusting in God’s love and living how you like. The psalmist also ‘walk(s) continually in your truth’. His trust is unwavering because he knows his God and he lives according to God’s Word. He doesn’t take the advice of people who don’t know God; his guide through life is the Word of God.
He then lists the people he doesn’t hang out with and continues: ‘telling of all your wonderful deeds’. The God of the Bible is the true God; He performs wonderful deeds. He isn’t distant, or inactive. He is a God of power who wants to work in our lives if we would let him. We just have to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit and we would experience some of those wonderful deeds for ourselves. Some people go to church all their lives and never experience the power of God; this Old Testament psalmist loves going to the Temple because he knows the God to whom it is dedicated.
And he concludes the psalm by again reminding God that he leads a blameless life:
‘My feet stand on level ground;
in the great assembly I will praise the LORD.’
I love this psalm because it was written in Old Testament times, before Jesus died on the cross and rose again, before the Holy Spirit was poured out, and yet there is so much life in it. This psalmist knows his God personally and yet he has never had a life-transforming encounter with Jesus; he has never been filled with the Holy Spirit and experienced that real power of God flowing through his body.
Aren’t you grateful that you live on this side of Calvary and this side of Pentecost? All that the psalmist testifies to in this psalm is ours daily, and more besides.
Everyday, along with this psalmist we should be:
‘proclaiming aloud (God’s) praise
and telling of his wonderful deeds’.
Pastoral Letter 67
This week’s psalm of lament is the opposite of the others we have looked at. Psalm 25 has the hope in God at the beginning and the despair at the end. That is probably the best way to face life: get your eyes focussed on the greatness of God and then look at your problems in comparison. The size of God will diminish the size of the problems.
The psalmist’s problems are loneliness, affliction, anguish, distress, all his sins, the multiplication of his enemies and the fear of being put to shame.
That’s enough of a list to be going on with! You may find any one of those at different stages of your life. And if so it helps to know that God is there. Not just there, but active.
The psalmist lifts up his soul to God and trusts in him, with the assurance that (N)o one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame.
And then to be assured that his trust will be rewarded, the psalmist is aware that he has a part to play:
Show me your ways, O LORD,
teach me your paths;
guide me in your truth and teach me,
He knows that he can’t just choose his own way in life (remember Jesus said, ‘I am the way’); he is aware that God has a way (and again Jesus tells us it is a straight and narrow way). So if we walk this way, we will learn his paths and be guided in his truth. It seems everyone has their own understanding of truth these days, but there is only one reality and if we are living in the world that the God of the Bible created, then living by his truth guarantees us his presence and protection.
And then the psalmist twice tells God that He is good: Good and upright is the LORD. And:
All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful.
And there is a conditional clause:
for those who keep the demands of his covenant.
We do tend to forget the conditions that are found throughout the Bible and then wonder why God doesn’t fulfil his side of the covenant, while we are not fulfilling our side. And yet that is what we find throughout the Bible - a covenant of two sides. So often we hear about God’s side and then when God doesn’t deliver there is doubt and questioning.
It would transform our church if we actually applied the covenant to our lives; it would transform our lives!
Let’s give it a try!
Pastoral Letter 66
If ever there was a psalm of lament, it is Psalm 22. This is a psalm that is known to so many of us as it begin with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The words of Jesus on the cross. Jesus quoted this psalm - He never called God his God; He always called him Father (or dad, to be precise). But Jesus quoted this psalm to get the message across about what He was experiencing on the cross.
He wasn’t actually forsaken by God; but it felt like he was! The psalmist goes on to write:
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
Jesus has just spent the evening in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He concluded his prayer with, ‘not my will, but yours be done’, so we know He didn’t have any doubts about God answering him. But hanging on the cross is not the best place to enter into theological debates about how God answers prayer while also fulfilling his own purposes.
Verse 6-8 of the psalm are then quoted by the mockers at the foot of the cross; v14-18 describes the physical effects of crucifixion and in particular, what happened with the dividing of Jesus’ clothes.
This isn’t just a psalm of lament; it is also a prophetic psalm. And as such we can understand better that Jesus knew what was happening and wasn’t abandoned by God on the cross, anymore than we are abandoned by God - even when it might feel that way.
The rest of the psalm describes the psalmist’s trust in God. Even before he was born God was looking after him (v9). As he looks back in history he sees God at work in his people (v3-5); as he looks to the future he sees God glorified (v22-31).
And, in contrast to v1, verse 24 declares:
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
Jesus suffered in our place, and yet God did not abandon him; He took all our sins and sorrows, and yet God did not abandon him. It may feel that way sometimes, but when that happens, look at this psalm; this testimony of an unknown psalmist, and the testimony of Jesus Christ and take your confidence in God from them. Both the psalmist and Jesus had a relationship with God and that relationship saw them through the worst of difficulties. And if you have that same relationship it can take you through your difficulties too.
Pastoral Letter 65
The psalm of lament this week is Psalm 17. It isn’t until v8-9 that we read what the psalmist’s problem is. He has enemies; people who want to bring him down. He prays for God’s justice on them and then the psalm ends with the psalmist’s assurance of his vindication by God.
But the important part of the psalm is the psalmist’s assurance that he is in a relationship with God Almighty - El Shaddai; YHWH; The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is not religious. You never find any trace of religion in the psalms (mainly because there is no religion found in the Bible).
And so the psalmist begins with his righteous plea, that does not rise from deceitful lips. He knows that he is righteous because he is in a right relationship with God. No prayers of confession from this psalmist because he knows his God. Verse 3 is a statement that all Christians should be able to make:
Though you probe my heart
and examine me at night,
though you test me, you will find nothing;
I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.
That is quite a claim to make to God! But it fits in perfectly with the New Testament understanding of holiness. If our sins are forgiven and we are baptised with the Holy Spirit we can make the same claim.
My steps have held to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
That is a good testimony to have. To live in such a relationship with God that his feet never slipped. And so the psalmist, while lamenting his situation, prays, knowing that God will answer him (v6). He doesn’t hope God will answer him; he doesn’t believe it as a ‘faith position’; he knows for a fact that God will answer him.
That has been the focus of my ministry from the beginning: getting people to know God through Jesus; seeing people’s lives transformed through the forgiveness of sins and the filling with the Spirit; assurance (the first Methodist doctrine). So much better than religion which is all about striving for acceptance and hoping in spite of the evidence. Knowing God; knowing that He is listening when we call to him; knowing that He doesn’t mind us calling him ‘He’.
And then that wonderful sense of God in v8: Keep me as the apple of your eye. Some people will argue against the Bible and the confidence it offers, but isn’t it better to know the truth and be set free by the truth?
Pastoral Letter 64
The next psalm on the list is Psalm 14. It doesn’t look like a psalm of lament - there is no complaining! But to lament does not always mean to complain about our own circumstances; sometimes we can lament the state of the world, or the state of the human race. And that is what this psalm does.
The psalmist can see how people live and he laments: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” The psalmist is concerned, not about the intellectual atheist who thinks he/she has managed to eliminate God intellectually (although they do need our concern), but he is concerned with those who live as though there is no God - his own people!
He laments the fact that The LORD looks down from heaven … to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. And there is no one! That’s the Bible’s understanding of the state of the human race! No one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good. So, yes, this is a psalm of lament that shows us that God has a different view than most of us.
But again we see biblical hyperbole (a phrase I will never use in the pulpit). There are some righteous people: God is present in the company of the righteous, so there are some - a remnant - who know God and understand his ways; some who are seeking him.
And as the psalmist is talking about the Old Testament people of God, so we can apply this to the New Testament people of God, and we can apply his final prayer to the Church: O that salvation … would come…! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people….
We live in interesting times. As we recover from all the lockdowns we are seeing a different church - everyone is older; it’s hard to get motivated again; there has been time to assess and prioritise. And maybe some (but not all) people are asking where God is in all this. What is God saying to us in this?
Should we carry on trying to run the church like a business - desperate to keep the bank balance healthy and forcing people to take on positions so that we don’t have to accept that we are not the church we used to be.
Maybe now is the time to pray that salvation will come, and that the LORD will restore the fortunes of his people. This is not a time for more and more committee meetings. This is a time for prayer meetings. A time to seek God and to look for understanding.
And even though the psalmist doesn’t ask the “Why?” question in this psalm, maybe we should ask it. Why is our church in the state it’s in? why are the people not flocking into our buildings now that they can? They can be useful questions!
Pastoral Letter 63
Psalm 13 asks the questions: How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? This is a desperate cry from someone who’s prayers have not been answered.
And then he gives us a little more detail: How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? This psalmist is suffering in his whole being - his soul! He then talks about his enemies - and we don’t know who they are, or what they are doing to him, but they do seem to want to shake his faith somehow. They don’t like the confidence he has in God.
This psalmist knows his God, as we shall soon see, and it appears that his enemies are those who don’t know God. They are members of the tribes of Israel possibly (the Old Testament equivalent of the Sadducees - the bad guys of the New Testament). Or they could be the Assyrians who after torturing their own people for long enough decided to invade the surrounding nations and eventually arrived at Jerusalem mocking the God of Israel, because (they said) He wasn’t as strong as their false gods (see 2 Kings 18).
But whoever it was, in this short psalm the psalmist soon turns to God:
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
He has absolute confidence in his God, even in these troubled times. He cannot honestly testify that his prayers have been answered - they haven’t! He cannot honestly say that he knows what God is doing - he doesn’t!
But he knows his God. This God has dealt bountifully with him. He is trusting in his steadfast love, because in the good times he maintained his relationship with God. He knows his God will not let him down, even though at the moment he is not getting answers to his prayers.
And in this situation his heart that had sorrow … all day long at the beginning of the psalm shall rejoice in (God’s) salvation. The salvation hasn’t yet come, but he knows it will, because he knows his God.
This is a psalm that tells us to develop our relationship with God when times are good, so that we can trust him when times are bad. It is too easy to ignore God until troubles come and then fire up a quick prayer and then wonder why there is no answer. The only way to have confidence in this world is to get to know God personally and Jesus has made this possible through his death and resurrection.
So follow this psalmist’s example and learn to rejoice when troubles come!
Pastoral Letter 62
This week we are looking at Psalm 10 which begins with the question:
Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
And then half of the psalm is the psalmist telling God what ‘the wicked’ get up to, and how they manage all this without having to face any consequences. And then the psalmist asks God to step in and help the helpless.
This results in the psalmist listing God’s involvement in life. After listing what the wicked get away with the psalmist realises that God is at work after all. And so he tells God:
you, O God, do see trouble and grief
And God does not just see it: you consider it to take it in hand. I find that more helpful than the idea that God is with us in our troubles and unable to help. The real God takes our troubles in hand. And so the victim commits himself to God. The victim doesn’t complain that God shouldn’t have allowed his/her trouble; the victim doesn’t believe God is punishing him/her. This is a much better understanding of what a relationship with God is like. This psalmist knows that there is trouble in the world; he knows that even having God in his life doesn’t make him immune from the world’s troubles. And yet he knows that God is there. And so he commits himself to God, knowing that God will help him.
God is the helper of the fatherless. As with many psalmists, we don’t know who this one is and we don’t know if he is fatherless, but he certainly has a soft spot for orphans - he mentions them again later in the psalm.
He concludes the psalm:
You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed.
I have often said that the psalms are not theology; they are personal testimony. If we take this psalm as a personal testimony, then we can assume the psalmist is writing about his own experience of committing himself to God and discovering that God heard his desire, encouraged him and listened to his cry. And so he puts himself in the camp of the fatherless and the oppressed.
Supposing you were to write a psalm, how would it go? What is your testimony to this God who is described here as King for ever and ever?
Would you be able to write that God has encouraged you? The psalmist starts off feeling negative, but then he takes the time to think about who God is; he looks back on his life and realises that, despite all the troubles, God has always been there helping him. Maybe you should try writing your own psalm!
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 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 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 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.