Pastoral Letter 25
I’ve been thinking lately about motivation and motives - why do we do what we do? I made a first attempt at verbalising this in the opening devotions at the Zoom CLT meeting this week. My motivation then was that it was my turn to do the opening devotions!
But during lockdown I found myself looking at motives - why do we do what we do? Why do we attend church services? Why do we take on positions in the church (or circuit for Methodists)? What is the motive, the motivation, the purpose? I think that’s important to consider because it helps when discouragements come.
Paul, writing to the Corinthian Christians, says: Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all and therefore all died. (2 Cor.5: 14).
We cannot manufacture that love; we are either aware of it or we are not. But it comes from that understanding that one died for all. Once we realise that Jesus died for us, then we realise that there was a problem - Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins; our sins separated us from God; we need to accept the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. We do that by dying to self, and so, therefore all died. When we commit our lives to Jesus we die to self; to selfishness; to our own ambitions; our own desires for glory and power. We serve Jesus as his disciples. And so, realising all he has done for us, we love because He first loved us and so that love compels us to be witnesses to Jesus.
That love compels us to praise God for Jesus. Did you know that none of the world’s religions praise their gods? The Jews are still looking for a Messiah because they don’t recognise that Jesus is their Messiah. The Muslims submit to their god, but there is no praise for Allah. The Buddhists have no god to praise. The Hindus don’t praise any of their gods. Christians praise God because of what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3: 16). It is the love of Christ that compels us to praise God.
It is the love of Christ that compels us to serve in the church, whether paid or voluntary. We don’t do it for the money or the status (the pay isn’t that good, and there isn’t that much status anymore). So when things do get difficult, or when people get difficult, it is good to look to our motives/motivation and remember who we are doing this for.
So, in these strange times, remember the love of Christ and see what that compels you to do - and then go do it! Because we don’t just do things in church; there’s a whole world out there!
Pastoral Letter 24
I was thinking about a couple of verses in Ecclesiastes 3. I don’t know if you read Ecclesiastes very often, but I find it a useful approach for talking to unchurched people about the meaninglessness of life without God at the centre. I’m currently preaching on it every week for my blog.
In chapter 3 there is probably the most well-known passage (made famous by The Byrds in 1965), about there being a time for everything. Having gone through a list of couplets the writer says, He has made everything beautiful in its time. (NIV). I prefer that to the NRSV: He has made everything suitable for its time. But they both work! God has made everything beautiful and suitable in its time/for its time. Our times are in his hands and this is when He has chosen for us to live. Have you ever considered that?
God could have arranged for you to live in the 18th century. It would have been good to see the Evangelical Revival, when the Methodist Church was beginning, with new converts, new disciples; holiness preached and lived. But the toilets and lack of cleanliness wouldn’t have been good. I like living in the days of indoor flushing toilets and electric showers! It would still be good to see a revival and to have holiness preached and lived. Yet this is the time that God has arranged for us to live. And it hasn’t been too bad!
The other verse in Ecclesiastes 3 is (again in 2 versions): He has also set eternity in the human heart (NIV). And: he has put a sense of past and future into their minds (NRSV).
God has given us a sense of eternity - there is more to life than this; which means that He has put a sense of past in our minds. Even with failing memories we can look back and remember how it used to be (the good old days weren’t actually that good; nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but…). There were good times and bad times, but there has been nothing like we are going through at the present. But He has put a sense of future in our minds and so we can imagine tomorrow and realise that one day this too will pass. We are not animals, living just for today. We know that God is eternal and that He can see the end from the beginning. We can’t, but we have a sense of it.
And so as we continue in these strange times think back to how life used to be; think ahead to how life could be again; and take a look around at what God is doing now in the present. I always think Christians with the Spirit of God should be the most contented people during this period because we know: we God; we know what the future ultimately holds; we know what present resurrection life is like, and we have that Christian hope of future resurrection to a new earth.
So have a good week in God’s presence.
Pastoral Letter 23
We are getting close to the time when our circuit churches will be opening up again on Sundays. Some other churches have opened already, and others are not planning to open until next year. Some of you have booked a place for your first Sunday in church and others have decided to stay away until it is safe to gather again.
And no one can say who is right and who is wrong. This is one of those situations where we all have to decide for ourselves what is safe for us. And so we will continue with weekly letters until everyone is back together again, if that ever happens.
In the meantime I thought it would be worth looking at what the New Testament has to say about the church. In the book of Acts we have a record of the earliest (daily) meetings. In Acts 4: 42 we read, They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. They had a talk from the apostles (New Testament reading), they spent time together, they had a meal and they prayed. There was no singing there.
Later on Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians describing what happens in their meetings: When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Cor.14: 26). There was no order of service planned out weeks ahead with hymns sent in by Wednesday! Everyone brought something to the meeting to build each other up. That would be a good way to do it in the ‘new normal’.
But there doesn’t have to be a meeting up. We could see what the New Testament means by worship and look at Romans 12: 1-2, I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This doesn’t require a building, a particular meeting time, a minister, or preacher, or even any singing. The focus of worship is Jesus and He doesn’t require us to worship him the way we’ve always done it.
We can worship God without meeting and without singing; we can meet and sing and not be worshipping God.
So however you decide to move forward from this point, remember that Jesus is at the heart of worship and if you have presented your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God then you have worshiped him, even if you did it at home alone.
There is no way of knowing how things will change, but keep your focus on Jesus and whatever happens next you will have the assurance of his presence with you.
Pastoral Letter 22
I’ve been reading about miracles lately; looking at how philosophers through the last 2,000 years have dealt with biblical miracles, and miracles throughout church history. The definitions and the explanations have been interesting.
David Hulme, sceptical philosopher of the 18th century, said that it’s hard to believe in miracles because we have never seen a miracle take place. He also didn’t believe it would be possible for solid objects to fly through space! It was the 18th century and he limited his beliefs to current science and what he had experienced. On the other hand, Albert Einstein once said, “There are 2 ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
And so we have the choice: Hulme would only believe what he had experienced; Einstein said it’s a question of how you look at life. I’ve seen quite a number of miracles ; my God is a powerful God, not just from what I read in the Bible about Creation, Exodus, Incarnation, Resurrection and Salvation but from experience as well.
Life itself is a miracle; birth is a miracle; the ability to think is pretty miraculous (when you think about it!) And if we have learnt anything during this time when the world has slowed down, it should be that our very existence is a miracle. All those things we take for granted that were taken from us during lockdown - life is a wonder; a mystery, that no scientist has yet been able to explain. There is no mathematical equation that can explain life, no physicist can come up with a formula to explain how it works.
And no liberal theologian can explain how Jesus dying on a cross and being raised three days later can transform a life. And of all the miracles I have seen, that is the most amazing - to see a sinner turned into a saint. I haven’t seen too many miracles of that type lately, but what a difference that miracle makes. People caught in a lifestyle spiralling out of control suddenly finding purpose and control.
There has been a lot of talk recently about ‘getting back to worship’, and ‘how will we worship under these restrictions’, and I tend not to join in the conversations, because I remember Jesus saying, “… make disciples….” I don’t remember him talking about worship. Disciple-making is the greater priority.
A disciple of Jesus is a walking miracle that cannot be restricted. And I think we (if we call ourselves Christians) should be those people who see everything as a miracle. And we should be performing miracles on the people we meet in our daily socially distanced lives.
Pastoral Letter 21
Psalm 13 has that question in it: ‘How long, O Lord?’ We don’t know when many of the Psalms were written, but we can figure out some of them, and so this Psalm was probably written during the exile in Babylon. The psalmist asks God if He (God) will forget him (the psalmist) forever. And it is an interesting question. The psalmist is no longer living in the Promised Land. He is in Babylon, along with his social bubble (everyone else from Judea) and he wonders when this will end.
I was at the gym this morning (Thursday) thinking about this. Our gym in Barton opened on Monday - we are restricted to 4 people in the pool and 6 in the gym, and we don’t have to wear face coverings (think about swimming with a cloth mask for a moment…..) We also have to book in advance - one of the features of the new normal. As I was thinking about writing this it occurred to me that I have a tendency to look at how long it will be before something ends: I had set the Cross-Trainer for 25 minutes, and as it went up to 6 minutes I was thinking ’19 minutes to go’, and so on, until I held on for the final 30 seconds and the end was in sight. I do the same when I’m reading a book. I put the book mark in and see how close to the middle I am, then when I have 205 pages to go I think, ‘If I read 6 pages I’ll only have 199 pages till the end!’ I have even sometimes set a countdown Calendar on my phone for some events (141 days till Christmas, if you were wondering (as of Thursday 6th August). Maybe that isn’t normal - or maybe it is, but back to the psalmist:
He should have known the answer to the question if he was in Babylon. We know the answer. He must have had access to Jeremiah’s writings and Jeremiah said that the exile would last for 70 years. And you find in the book of Daniel that Daniel read Jeremiah and he started his own countdown calendar until the end of the exile (I mention this to give myself biblical justification for counting down!)
But for us the question is not yet answered: How long, O Lord? How long until we can go out again, as before, without fear of infection? How long until we can actually say that this pandemic is over? How long until…? (fill in the blank with your own question).
We don’t have an answer, but we can continue through the psalm:
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
The psalmist didn’t know the answer - although it was there for him to read (this is why we have Bibles!) - but he knew God well enough to trust him.
And that is where we are. We know, from the Bible, that God is going to sort out all the troubles in the world; we know He provides healing and salvation in the here and now. We may not know when it will be sorted, but we can look back on his goodness to us in the past, trust him in the present and hope in him for the future.
Pastoral Letter 20
Well, here we are at the 20th letter! That’s a long time to be doing church differently. And I thought it might be worth talking about what happens from here onwards. In September the plan is that we go back to church, but not church as we know it. I know that we won’t all be going back to church, and for good reasons. If you look at what is happening in Europe, Scotland, Wales and parts of England you will see that when people start to gather the infection spreads. So if you have any vulnerability, be sensible.
These letters will carry on, and in some way or other we will try to make some form of service available, even if it is just the preachers’ notes with the hymns included, to be sent out after they have preached in your church.
I am building up my website every week, for those online; I’m preaching on videos and I’m adding these letters and other thoughts as well to the website. The website will continue for the rest of my life, (which I hope will be longer that the current restrictions).
Going to church will not be as it was - no more tea and cake! (Was there ever cake?) Numbers will be limited (a problem we wouldn’t have considered a year ago). We will have to sign in. We may even have to book. We will be washing our hands more. There will be no singing for a long time. I’m starting to wonder about Carol Services without carols.
It will not be the same, but start to consider what it will be like for you. You may have ventured out to see what it’s like ‘out there’, or you may have stayed in since March. The Bible tells us to not give up meeting together, but this is a time when that instruction has to be interpreted differently. You may not feel comfortable in church on a Sunday, but why not do what Milford are doing and consider meeting in smaller groups - church bubbles? Maybe gather a few others and be like the Methodists and form a small group that can meet on a regular basis (regular doesn’t have to be every week).
While the weather is still good those with gardens could use them; I’ve had several meetings in gardens over the past month (it only rained once) and they have been successful meetings (even with the rain). As the weather changes we can adapt to other ways of meeting.
The thing is that ‘normality’ is not coming back in a hurry, so maintain your relationship with Jesus and remember that the Holy Spirit is never self-isolating.
Pastoral Letter 19
I’m writing this on the day before compulsory face covering is implemented. I have noticed more and more face coverings being worn as the weeks have gone by. It does make me wonder why they were not insisted on at the beginning, or at least a couple of months ago.
We are living in surreal times. I remember when my wife came out of hospital, recovering from bilateral pneumonia: she went to the Doctors’ Surgery in a face mask; everyone in the waiting room was coughing; everyone was giving her funny looks.
She was taking precautions because she was recovering; she is still taking precautions because of her ongoing health problems. And as we get closer to opening our churches I think we should still be taking precautions. We have ticked all the boxes and completed all the forms, but that doesn’t make it safe to go out again. And while there are those who scoff and continue to give funny looks, there is still a pandemic.
I remember when seat belts became compulsory in cars. I didn’t wear one before it was legal; it is automatic now to put my belt on. Seat belts don’t prevent accidents, but they can lessen the effects if there is an accident. It took me a long time to get used to the restriction that a seat belt was (remember what they used to be like). I imagine it will take a long time to get used to face coverings, but I expect to still be wearing one this time next year. There my be talk of vaccines, but so far nothing is certain.
And so what is the Christian response to all this? My first thought was Matthew 5: 41, if anyone compels you to go one mile, go also the second mile. But that sounded too much like: wear two face masks! So then I thought about the argument in 1 Corinthians about meat offered to idols. Some of the Christians had no problem with eating meat that had been offered to pagan gods, while others did, and as they ate together regularly it was causing a division in the churches. So Paul wrote: ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others. (10: 23); So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God (10: 31).
The principle is: consider others! We may feel perfectly safe - others don’t! We may be worried - others are not! We may be somewhere in between. The point is: do everything for the glory of God. As you go out today, consider others and consider the glory of God; if you stay in today, consider others and consider the glory of God.
And don’t forget to fasten your seat belt!
Pastoral Letter 18
You may have heard by now that the circuit has made a decision that our churches will not be opening until September at the earliest, and some churches may be opening even later. Even when we open things will be different because we will have to limit the number of people attending each service, singing will not happen and we are not sure how, or if, communion will be offered, along with many other changes.
This leads me to write about a couple of things that have come to my attention this week: singing to begin with. Can we worship God without singing? Is there any reason to go to church if we cannot sing?
The answer to the first question is: of course we can worship God without singing. This is how it was done at the beginning and this is how it is done in many places round the world where Christians are persecuted and not able to meet. It is also the same for those who are unable to get to church under “normal” circumstances. Also, read Romans 12: 1-2 for a biblical definition of worship.
Is there any reason to go to church if we cannot sing? Again my answer begins with the words, “of course”, but then I have to stop and ask why you go at all if not singing would prevent you from going. Do we not go because the Bible tells us not to give up meeting together? Is it not to worship God, so that our concern at the end of the service should be, “what did God get out of the service today?”
And then there is communion. I read an article in which a Methodist lecturer said that in the absence of communion Christians were being deprived of the grace of God. That had my nonconformist free church hackles rising. The grace of God is freely available to everyone: Christian or not. We do not need a liturgy, or ritual, to experience the grace of God. Yes it is a “means of grace”, but it isn’t grace in itself, and again I go back to the early church where they ate together - a proper meal, as Jesus said; I go to the persecuted church and I go to the Salvation Army - all of these experience the grace of God without a communion service.
In all of this what I am saying is that it is Jesus who is important. Jesus should be our focus. He is who we worship and pleasing him should be our aim. And the ultimate in grace is that old acrostic: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
We all need to experience the grace of God - we all do, whether we realise it or not - but we all need to be aware that (in another way of describing it), grace is what we experience when God gives us what we don’t deserve and doesn’t give us what we do deserve.
So while it will be good to meet together, as the Bible says we should, let us remember why we do it and who is our focus. And for those who won’t be able to meet together from September, remember that God’s grace is everywhere, so take a look around you and see the grace available to you and thank God for his grace.