Pastoral Letter 52
This is letter number 52. That means I have been writing these letters for 52 weeks - a year! Who would have believed that we would still be here a year later?
It was the 4th March 1918 when the first recorded case of Spanish Flu was found, at Funston Army Camp, Kansas. I imagine they had no idea how bad it was going to be for them either. The First World War hadn’t ended, and it had been bad enough, but 50 million people were to die of this flu - more than died in the war. And more than have died in the past year. I say that to put things in perspective. But it was a significant time that resulted in many people losing their faith in the God that they had formerly believed in. The problem they had was the God they had believed in was not the God of the Bible, so with war, followed by disease, and with so much death and suffering, their God was found wanting.
The God of the Bible is known from the Bible. In the book of Revelation, chapter 6 we read about the Four Horsemen who were sent out to conquer, to take peace from the earth, to bring famine, and to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth. These horsemen have been riding throughout history; this is not a future prophecy. This is life seen from God’s viewpoint - not out of control!
And when life turns out the way the Bible says it will we find that people lose faith in the God made in their own imagination.
And so people have questioned why their God would allow the Coronavirus, because He doesn’t allow bad things. But apart from Job we never find anyone in the Bible who questions why things happen. The psalmists ask how long several times, but they never question why God allows trouble. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, James, the first apostle to be martyred, the persecution under Saul of Tarsus; none of these incidents caused the followers of God to question where God is, because they knew their Scriptures. They knew that sin had come into the world causing dis-ease and death.
And from Genesis to Revelation we have the consistent message that the Holy God is working out his purposes of bringing salvation and restoration to his creation. And so the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a garden-city. It begins with God walking in the garden with his people, and ends with God with his people in the garden-city.
We live between the times but we do have the Bible to guide us and let us know that in all things (good things and bad things) God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8: 28). That is our hope - not that nothing bad will ever happen, but that God is working in all things - usually in ways we cannot understand - to bring about good.
I find the biblical idea that God is at work a great comfort: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord (Isaiah 55: 8). And the fact that (T)he secret things belong to the Lord our God (Deuteronomy 29: 29).
We will never be able to explain why 2020 happened the way it did, or why God allows what He allows, but if we know the God of the Bible, and the Bible of God, then we can trust Him to work his purposes out, knowing that He will always bring good out of everything.
Pastoral Letter 51
I have been thinking about Easter this week. It was the turning point in history, what we find in the New Testament as the But now moment when everything changed.
Others have seen the Renaissance as the turning point in history, when we left the Middle Ages behind.
Still others have seen the Enlightenment as the turning point, when science became the new religion of so many.
I wonder if we will see the end of lockdown as the latest turning point; when we begin life in a new way because we know now that life is fragile and we cannot guarantee tomorrow. Maybe we will be more cautious and keep on washing our hands and keeping our distance.
Or maybe we won’t! Maybe once we have become accustomed to being ‘out there’ we will just forget and go back to how life was before. We have a tendency to do that. That is why what Jesus accomplished on the cross doesn’t have as much impact on our lives as it should.
We forget! And maybe this time next year we will have forgotten. At the moment it seems impossible that we could forget a year in lockdown, but there is a tendency to forget the past and then repeat yesterday’s mistakes. We can forget the good things just as easily - more easily in many cases.
And we can forget what God has done for us. Whatever our background and experiences none of us lived before the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We have all lived in the period of the But now; the New Covenant. It was a single event, never to be repeated. There was one Good Friday, there was one Easter Sunday morning, never to be repeated. We don’t (despite popular teaching) need to go through Good Friday to appreciate Easter Sunday. We were born after Easter Sunday and because of what Jesus achieved we never need to experience Good Friday.
Imagine if we said the same about the Renaissance - you cannot appreciate the benefits of the Renaissance unless you go back to the Middle Ages. Or: you cannot appreciate the benefits of science and technology and computers unless you back to the time before the Enlightenment. It doesn’t make sense.
Sticking with the Enlightenment: you may not drive a car that talks to you (mine does, I think; but that could just be me); you may not have a computer with InterNet access, but these things exist and are freely available (when I say ‘freely’ I mean there are a lot of them - they cost a small fortune!) Just because we haven’t experienced the benefits of these changes doesn’t mean the benefits are not available.
The same is true with the COVID-19 vaccine. It is available (free!) and if you have chosen to not take it, that is your choice.
The life that Jesus made available: relationship with God the Heavenly Father; filled with the Holy Spirit, free from sin’s power and penalty, a life lived to the full, as God intended, all freely available (free, and there’s more than enough to go round) is for us to choose. If you choose not to avail yourself of all that Jesus bought for you on the cross you cannot blame God if life isn’t as you think it should be.
So consider the life-changing benefits of the vaccine and the sacrifice of Jesus. If you haven’t booked an appointment with Jesus, book one today; there are no waiting lists, there is no age limit. And begin to experience life in all its fulness.
Pastoral Letter 50
John Milton’s, “Paradise Lost” ends with the words:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Milton is describing Adam and Eve leaving Eden after The Fall. They go out together into a world that has been afflicted with illness, viruses, pain, disease, war and death.
It occurred to me that we may have similar thoughts as we begin to lift restrictions. It isn’t Eden that we are leaving - we were never in Eden. Only two people lived in Eden. But the way people are talking about getting back to normal you would almost think we had left paradise in March 2020.
But imagine what it was like for Adam & Eve: God had evicted them! They had known his daily presence with no distractions: no Netflix; no InterNet; no Mobile phones. They are the most common ways people survived the lockdowns, but not Adam & Eve. They spent time with God. And now! Now they were going out into the unknown. God had told Adam there would be thorns and thistles (and he had no idea what God was talking about, but they didn’t sound good). Eve was going to be blamed for everything from Patriarchal Dominance to Feminism- whatever that means!
It was an unknown world that they were going into. They only had the animal skins that God had provided for them. They were covered with the sacrifice that God had offered to himself as He killed those animals to provide those skins.
Who knows what we will find as we go out into this (hopefully) Post-COVID-19 World. But by the time we get back out there it should be Easter, (or just after,) the time when we remember that God provided a sacrifice, of himself, to himself, to cover us in this weird and wonderful world.
Milton talks about Adam & Eve making their solitary way through the world, guided by Providence. That is the state we find ourselves in - guided by Providence, but sometimes feeling alone. Milton wrote a sequel: ‘Paradise Regained”, which ends with Jesus taking Adam’s ‘chosen sons’ “Home to his mother’s house private returned”. It’s a good complete ending - no chance of making it a trilogy! We are between the times - Eden to the New Jerusalem. We each write our own story, but we know that if we are guided by Jesus, if we are ‘Adam’s chosen sons’, then as solitary as we may feel we will know that we are never truly alone, whatever we find outside of Eden.
Pastoral Letter 49
I’ve been thinking about masks this week. With all the talk about the end being close and the hope that there will be no more lockdowns and that eventually all restrictions will be lifted that must mean the end of masks! Surely we won’t have to wear masks once everyone has the vaccine, and even if COVID-19 is here to stay, surely masks are not here to stay? Many companies will lose their income if that is the case - there are so many different styles available.
And so, naturally I thought about face-coverings in the Bible. There is one: Moses wore a veil over his face when he came down from Mt. Sinai. I’m going to ignore Paul’s interpretation of it in 2 Corinthians 3. I talk about that in my blog on my website (www.acceptedatlast.com), so I’ll not repeat myself.
In Exodus 34: 29-35 we read that every time Moses met with God his face radiated God’s glory, so he covered his face with a veil, because the people were afraid. The people were afraid to see the glory of God on the face of Moses. The New Testament tells us that, as Christians, we are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory (2 Cor.3: 18). Does it show on our faces? The atheist philosopher Nietzsche made that complaint about Christians; to paraphrase him, he said that if we wanted people to believe in our redeemer we should look a little more redeemed. In other words, our faces should show it.
With the face masks that everyone is wearing at the moment the only facial features that are exposed are the eyes. Jesus tells us, The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light (Matt.6: 22). So really, that’s all we need exposed. But I wonder if your eyes are reflecting the glory of the Lord? I wonder if you are aware of that ever-increasing glory?
Paul writes, I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people (Eph.1: 18).
Do you know the hope to which He has called you? I’m not asking if you believe, or if you have faith. I’m asking if you know! There is a difference between faith and knowledge that has been forgotten in many of our churches and yet it was the essence of early Methodism. We don’t have faith that God will save us; we know we are saved. We don’t believe that we are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory; we know!
Maybe it’s time to take the mask off and have a look. Do we radiate the glory of God? I have seen people’s eyes light up when they take Jesus into their lives as the glory begins.
May we experience that in our own lives so that when the masks are removed the glory of God will be exposed.
Pastoral Letter 48
I have been inspired again for this week’s letter, this time by Dawn Colwill of Milford on Sea Methodist Church, who said how much Joshua 1: 9 meant to her: “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
These are the words of God to Joshua. Moses had just died on the edge of the Promised Land and Joshua had taken his place. Imagine stepping into Moses’ shoes! All those comparisons: ‘Moses didn’t do it like that!’.
And it seems a good passage as we consider stepping into a ‘new normal’, as more people are being vaccinated and the possibility of no more lockdown looms. What will it be like?
Joshua and Caleb were the only two people left old enough to remember the salvation that God had brought to the people 40 years before: the plagues in Egypt; the opening of the Red Sea; Mt Sinai and the 10 Commandments. The 12 spies who had gone into Canaan had given such a report that the people decided it wasn’t for them, so God made them wander the desert until all the adults, except Joshua and Caleb, had died.
These people that Joshua was leading hadn’t seen any miracles, except for the daily supply of quail and manna, but once something happens everyday we forget about the miraculous quality of it and take it for granted.
But now was the start of a new beginning and to begin with they had to cross the River Jordan and conquer the military base of Jericho.
And that was the message that Joshua needed to hear: ‘do not be frightened or dismayed’. ‘the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’
Whatever happens in the next few months we will be entering a land unlike any we have known before. We have wandered for 1 year, not 40, so some things will look familiar, but there will be differences. Some of us will be going in alone, others have moved house. Even the familiar will be different!
But whatever happens that promise of God to Joshua applies to us: The LORD our God is with us. We just have to be strong, courageous, not frightened, or dismayed.
Joshua had battles to fight, there were some defeats, but he did it, as the conclusion of his book tells us: ‘not one thing has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you; all have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed’ (23: 14).
All Joshua had at the beginning was his relationship with a miracle-working, all-powerful God, and that was enough for him. It should be enough for us too.
Pastoral Letter 47
At this week’s staff meeting I heard (from Revd. Phil Dixon) that Kindle say that the most underlined Bible passage for the last 12 months is Philippians 4: 6-7, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”.
It’s an appropriate passage for the times we live in, giving us the two options set before us: We either worry about anything, or pray in everything - with supplication and thanksgiving, telling God what we want.
Of the two options the second one has the result that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The longer you spend in company with Jesus the more the second option becomes your default-mode. Our natural tendency is to worry; our supernatural tendency is to talk to God and experience his impossible-to-understand peace.
Easy to say; easy to write. But maybe not so easy to switch from worry to trust. It takes a bit of practice and a lot of trust. When we worry we are trusting in our own abilities to get ourselves out of the situation we find ourselves in, so in a viral pandemic we trust our scientific knowledge and our own medical expertise, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that much. When we choose to pray and trust God to sort it out, then we are leaving a creation problem in the hands of the Creator. But you need to know the Creator to trust him. Maybe during a pandemic isn’t the best time to start trusting, but this is where we are, so no time like the present.
We have a God who created a perfect world where everything was in balance - honest physicists will testify to that. Unthinking biologists will tell us it all happens by chance, but they can’t explain how it all started. The Bible tells us that God created everything ‘very good’, but sin came in and caused sickness and death. But (and the New Testament is full of ‘Buts’ - apologies to the Americans) God set up a plan to reverse it all: Jesus. He was to bring Shalom - health, healing, life and peace; a peace that passes understanding.
If you have already committed your life to that God through Jesus then you have the Holy Spirit living within, who gives you access to the throne of grace, so that has to be better than worrying about anything.
I don’t know who has been underlining that passage, but whether you underline it or not, trust in it and put it into practice and see what happens!
Pastoral Letter 46
This week we have heard the reports of 100,000 dead in the UK from Covid-19, along with 100 million cases around the world. We are not as bad as the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 but we are getting there slowly.
And if we were to make the comparison with Spanish Flu, as has been done over the last 9 months, we can see some significant differences. We began the 20th century with the understanding that we had outgrown God; science had taken over and evolution explained everything. Then we had the inconvenient war, which we called, “The war to end all wars” as we moved into a war-torn century.
And then came the Year 2,000 which we had all heard so much about. This was going to be even better, because now we have computers, the InterNet and Mobile Phones. And then 9/11 happened and we were back to where we started - the world will never be the same after 9/11, we were told. And so a ‘new normal’ started for us. It was supposed to be a new normal in 1900 as well, but we are not good at new normals!
But in all of this there was a general trend to think that we are immortal. We are living longer than we used to. With every birthday I realise I should be wearing a flat cap by now to cover my comb-over, but we stay younger longer, so the flat cap will have to wait another decade or two.
But even though we attend more funerals each year, there is that general understanding that maybe we will get out of this world alive. Maybe if we eat our 5 a day (or is it 7 now?); exercise a little more; and have a more positive mental attitude, we might just survive.
The truth is that 100% of every generation dies! We need to be reminded of that. As the writer of Hebrews tells us: “… each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment”. And “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard”, combined with “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Death is inevitable, but eternal life is a gift for those who want it. The gospel message is still the opposite of our culture’s values and understandings. The common misconception is that eternal life is inevitable and death is something to be avoided at all costs, and probably the government’s fault.
So with all this news about death let us remember the good news that the free gift of God (it doesn’t have to be earned) is eternal life (life with purpose that goes on forever) through Christ Jesus our Lord (who has done all the work for us.
Pastoral Letter 45
Following on from last week, I am looking at Lamentations again; this time a few verses from chapter 3:
"I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
21 Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
therefore, I will hope in him!”
25 The Lord is good to those who depend on him,
to those who search for him."
And again it sounds like something we could say at a time like this. The pandemic seems to be worse as the daily figures are so much higher than they were in the first lockdown, even though the vaccine is now available.
Is this a time that we will ever forget? Probably not. How could we? How could we forget not being allowed to go where we want, when we want, with whoever we want?
There is a lot of grieving over loss - loss of family members; friends; jobs; sense of purpose. But not hope! We can still dare to hope. And we have reason to hope, if we remember those words that may be familiar as the words of a hymn. Great is Thy faithfulness!
Every day God’s mercies begin afresh; every day is a new day to experience the faithfulness and mercies of God (I like that ‘mercies’ is plural).
So yes, an awful time that we will never forget, a time of grief and loss. But if we search for God in this time we will find that He is good to us as we depend on him.
Is that where you are? Do you dare to hope? Many people are trying to figure out what it will be like when you are let out to play again; but maybe we should be looking at our present experience, so that when we do get out it won’t be such a shock.
During this time if we find God to be faithful, what will it be like when there isn’t the same fear; when the grief is eased; when there are more good days than bad days? Wouldn’t it be good to hear testimonies of God’s faithfulness - hearing how God was with us even when we didn’t have a church building to go to! Hearing how a relationship with Jesus really does make a difference to our daily lives.
I can always hope!
Pastoral Letter 44
One book of the Bible I have never spent much time with is Lamentations. With a title like that it doesn’t sound like a book of encouragement, or praise. And it isn’t! But it may be useful to look at during these times. It was written just after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. So I thought I would offer a few verses from the first chapter, to see how we identify with the writer, beginning in 1: 1, How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! This was more accurate in the summer when the roads were deserted, but if you take a walk around the high streets with the shops mostly closed, this is how it seems.
Then v4, The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals. We had this with Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. That had to be the smallest congregation I have ever had at a Carol Service. I’ve wondered about the importance of Christmas with the will we/won’t we anticipation. There was little concern about Church services going ahead - they were allowed anyway. The concern was with whether we would see family. I would have expected a bigger congregation on Christmas Day - at least some time in the day when we didn’t need to be alone! Christmas has become more of a family festival than a Christian festival.
And then v16, No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. This verse may be the one that applies in all 3 lockdowns. The isolation, the aloneness. I’ve always liked the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the Christian Hermits. I’ve found those people easier to identify with. But it seems that most people identify with the dogma that we are social creatures and isolation is bad for us, so I bow to the majority.
Lamentations is lamenting the judgement of God on Israel for her repeated sins. I don’t believe Covid-19 is God’s judgement for the world’s sins, but it is part of the judgement of Genesis 2-3. We have, as a world, and sometimes as a Church, excluded God from our lives, from our thinking, from our planning. And now we find ourselves facing a pandemic that has us questioning our security, our present and our future. I have heard people with blind faith say that God will not let them get sick, but that is just delusion. We have a responsibility to live in a way that keeps everyone safe.
We now know the truth found in the letter of James, Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ (4: 13-15).
So maybe Lamentations is a book for our times. Maybe we should lament about the way we have lived without too much thought for God - if that is the case.
Life for the author hadn’t gone the way he had thought it would; his plans came to nothing. And life is like that. He considered the Word of God and considered his life and this book was the result.
This is a good time to consider life. Is this where we expected to be? What happened to all our plans? John Lennon once said, “Life happens while you are making plans”, and so it does!
Maybe you are not where you thought you would be, or should be, at this stage in your life. But do you think God didn’t see this coming? I like those verses that remind us that God is outside of time, like Isaiah 46: 10, I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.
So keep on trusting in the God who knows what He is doing - even when it looks like it’s all going wrong. Even when we don’t know tomorrow, remember that God does. And lamenting is OK. And remember Psalm 30: 5, weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Pastoral Letter 43
On any normal Sunday as we sit in church we don’t know what the people sitting next to us, in front of us or behind us are feeling. Anything could have happened since we last spoke to them. They could have received good news or bad news. And regardless of this, in the Methodist Church at the start of the year it is the custom to have a Methodist Covenant Service. John Wesley began this custom in 1755 and it continues to this day. And as we are now in 2021 I want to look at the promises we are told to make, with all that happened in 2020 in mind:
I am no longer my own but yours,
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
I wonder if you made that promise last January and then expected the year to unfold as it did? Did you expect to be put to suffering? Laid aside? Brought low? I wonder, if we were to have a Covenant Service this year, would you be more cautious about making such sweeping promises?
If you arrive in church on the Sunday when your church is having the Covenant Service I imagine it is easier to make those promises if you have just had a good Christmas, your family is healthy and your friends are still talking to you. If life is not so good, I expect it would be difficult to make the promises sincerely.
I think if we have learned nothing else from 2020 we should at least learn to consider how fragile life is; how easily everything can fall apart. At the end of his Sermon on the Mount Jesus made a contrast between those who build their lives on the shifting sand of popular culture and those who build their lives on the solid rock of his teaching. The advantage of the teaching of Jesus as a foundation is that we can make these promises and know that no matter what this year brings we will still be standing at the end.