Pastoral Letter 16
Pastoral Letter 17
Pastoral Letter 16
Pastoral Letter 17
As we consider opening our churches again we have seen information from the Methodist Church and the URC. There are questions we are asked to consider, about things like: buildings - do we need them? What have we missed and what would we not like to see start again?
There are plenty of other areas of life where we can ask the same type of questions, from family to finances; from paid work to volunteer work.
And it is too easy to compartmentalise our lives, which is a big problem for Christians. Are we really Christian if God only features in one compartment of our lives?
We used to have a saying many years ago: “If Jesus isn’t Lord of all, He isn’t Lord at all”. It’s a good saying and it is true. We can compartmentalise our church-going. It’s what we do on a Sunday. There are 6 other days in which lockdown affected us, and they weren’t just one hour out of the day. There has been the inconvenience for those self-isolating; there has been the isolation for those who haven’t been able to see family or friends; there has been the private grieving for those who have lost someone during this time. All making a bigger impact than missing one hour on a Sunday.
And that’s where this compartmentalising idea comes in. Where does God fit into all of these areas? Exodus 20: 21 talks about Moses approaching “the darkness where God was”. I love that idea. 1 John 1: 5 says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all”. I love the paradox seen here. God is light; there is no darkness in him, but He is in the darkness. Which reminds me of what John writes in his Gospel about Jesus: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. The God who is light, who has no darkness in him is in the darkness and, more than that, He shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
So you may have enjoyed lockdown and had a good time through it, in which case, thank God. Alternatively, you may have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, in which case look for the light that is shining in the darkness, obliterating those shadows. There may be a fear of what happens next as there is no clear direction ahead. And again the Bible has a solution: Psalm 119: 105 says, “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”. The idea of the lamp is that it shines on each footstep, while the light helps us to walk so far ahead, without seeing the final destination (although if you read to the end you’ll find that!)
We don’t know what is going to happen next, or how long it will be before a vaccination is found, or when we will be able to stand next to each other again, but in all the thinking and planning don’t shut Jesus out, don’t put him into one compartment of your lives. Let him shine in the darkness and bring hope, whatever you are facing at the moment.
I wonder what we will talk about when we all get back together. I wonder how long it will be before we are tired of hearing about ‘the new normal’. I wonder when we will stop asking the question: “What did you learn from your experience of lockdown?”
Well, it’s not that time yet, so: what did you learn? About yourself? About God? About life, the universe and everything?
I keep reading about what, as a Christian, I am supposed to be experiencing; what, as a minister, I am supposed to be missing; and what, specifically as a Methodist minister, I am supposed to be missing. I’m not!
I don’t think we can generalise. I like that phrase: “ We are in this together, but we are not in the same boat”. That fits this current situation. This is a worldwide situation, but we are all experiencing it differently. There are extraverts and introverts - each will experience this differently. Older people will experience this differently from younger people. Techno-philes will experience this differently from techno-phobes.
Some will have made the most of the solitude, while others will have wasted the time wishing it was over so they can get back to their lives.
And each reaction tells us something about ourselves, our relationship with God, and our understanding of life, the universe and everything.
God knew this was going to happen! He is from everlasting to everlasting; He knows the end from the beginning. And He is in your boat!
You didn’t know this was going to happen! If you had advanced warning, what would you have done differently (apart from buying more toilet rolls!)? Who would you have spoken to? If you had known that that Sunday was to be your last one in church, what would you have done differently?
How do you view the world now? We have seen the benefits to the environment that lockdown brought, and we have seen the mountains of rubbish generated as soon as people were allowed back on the beach (not to mention burning the forest with barbecues).
How have your priorities changed? What is important? I think this has been a useful time to consider that. The writer of Ecclesiastes had the privilege of being able to examine life and his conclusion was: “all is vanity”. Without God, he concluded, life has no purpose, no meaning. He finishes with the advice to remember our creator and maybe that is the best lesson to learn from lockdown. Remember Jesus Christ, as the New Testament puts it. Just a thought!
Pastoral Letter 15
By now you will have heard that although the coronavirus is still spreading on a worldwide basis, we are being allowed to go out. But those who are vulnerable and self-isolating are not, and we are not allowed in gyms and indoor swimming pools. That should tell us something. It still isn’t safe out there! The virus hasn’t gone away! There will be another spike, just like in all those other countries that have eased the restrictions!
So, what do we do about church? The Methodist Conference is meeting this week in some form and they will make a decision, which I’ll tell you about next week, if we have heard by then. We had a circuit staff meeting on Zoom yesterday and from what everyone said it looks like it will be September before we resume meeting on a Sunday. It will take us that long to make sure all Risk Assessments are properly carried out and all necessary precautions are taken and with the number of vulnerable people we have, it would be better to wait. There will need to be hand sanitisers, sitting in different seats from where “we’ve always sat”, no handshaking, no communion, no tea and coffee after the service.
But that doesn’t mean we cannot meet. Those with big gardens could invite people round now. Outdoor church in the garden would work - a time of just being together, talking about how you’ve coped and maybe even praying together. There are many of you without gardens, living in flats. This is where we act like the Jerusalem Church in the book of Acts and those who have share with those who haven’t.
God has been good to us with the weather during this lockdown, so why not give it a try; start meeting together (if it’s safe for you) and set up regular meetings. This is not house church, this is garden church! We were going to be having another garden party this year, but that’s off because of this situation, but if you’d like to come and see my progress give me a call and I’ll let you have a tour by yourself, shouting to you from a distance.
Let’s continue to count our blessings and as people are becoming more mobile let’s remember to be careful out there.
Pastoral Letter 14
During this time of lockdown, there has been one person who has provided some comic relief - Donald Trump. Before anyone accuses me of being political, let me point out that Trump is not a politician. According to the Constitution of the USA the President doesn’t have to be a politician - and he isn’t. I know he has said some dangerous things, but it’s the way he tells them that make them so funny: inject yourself with bleach was a classic! But the other day he said one that I thought was worth commenting on. In one of his press interviews he said that America was looking bad because their testing for cases of Covid 19 was the best in the world. His solution was to stop testing. Stop testing and the virus will no longer be a problem! I heard it with my own ears.
And that made me wonder if we do that sometimes, or if we could try it: the Methodist Church in Britain is the fastest declining church in the world - what if we stop counting!
Our church used to have X number of members, but now…. What if we stopped counting! Would this solve the problem? Would our church miraculously grow?
Then I thought about Psalm 14: 1 which says, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’. Not ‘in his head’, but ‘in his heart’.
I know that Donald Trump is aware of the coronavirus, but, in his heart, he wants it to not be there. There are many of us who believe with our heads that God is real, that the Bible is true, but in our hearts we tend to live as though God is not there and the Bible isn’t true. Although, at certain times in life there are those who would like to hope that God isn’t real and the Bible isn’t true.
The best time to read the Bible is when everything is going well. that’s when to memorise it and apply it, so that when times are bad it will be there, memorised and ready to use.
The problem is that we tend to do the opposite. Remember Agur son of Jakeh? He wrote:
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
or I shall be poor, and steal,
and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30: 8-9)
Agur knew that if life was going well he would probably forget God, and, having forgotten God, once life became difficult he would profane the name of his God. If we can put God at the front of our minds, instead of the back, then whatever the statistics look like we will know God. If we have memorised some of the hundreds of promises in the Bible, then we can rely on God.
And even if life isn’t how we would like it to be at the moment, we will know that God is still in charge. Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves of that.
It’s a much better solution than closing our eyes, clenching our fists and hoping it will all go away. Give it a try.
Pastoral Letter 13
The book of Acts ends with Paul in prison. He has finally made it to Rome, which is what Jesus told him early on. Jesus also told him he would suffer during his ministry, so the fact that Paul doesn’t arrive in Rome as a visiting preacher, but actually as a prisoner, would come as no surprise to him. And that may have been the end of it. But it isn’t the end of his ministry. Acts finishes with Paul “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance”.
Paul is in lockdown. He can only see a small number of people at any one time, and he uses that time and that situation to talk about the kingdom of God and about Jesus. And he does it without hindrance.
Imagine if we used the time in the same way! Instead of having conversations about, “When will it be over?” and “What will it be like?” What if we spent the time talking to those few people we can see about Jesus?
I don’t know what it will be like, or when it will happen, afterwards, so a couple of weeks ago I bought a camcorder, and last weekend I built a website. It’s my website, it isn’t Methodist and it isn’t for any particular church. It’s a website where I can write things, where I can post videos, where I can publish these letters - unhindered.
It’s early days, but I have a couple of videos of short talks already. I have a couple of articles I’ve written in other places.
I just thought that I should go out there into the WorldWideWeb and see what it’s like out there. I am already on social media, but that is restricted to those who are also on social media. This is a website and so it’s accessible to anyone. My intention is to fill it up eventually, not necessarily regularly, but just as often as I can.
So have a look at it. The address is: www.acceptedatlast.com. If you are reading this on a computer of any kind you can click on it directly and it will take you to my home page. As I said, at the moment there isn’t much on it, but it will be added to. I won’t be putting music on because of copyright issues, but I have been preparing talks for weeks now that will be recorded and go on.
At the moment the gospel is unhindered and all the evidence suggests that more people are accessing church services online, and maybe this will be the new normal. In a digital age maybe the church will become digital. And if this ever ends, those who couldn’t get out before all of this will still have some contact with what we are doing.
And if we are only allowed to meet in small numbers, as Paul was in Rome, maybe we should make the most of every opportunity we have do what we, as the church, were called to do in the first place.
Pastoral Letter 12
There is a lot of talk at the moment about when churches can re-open. Some are claiming that it is illegal to keep churches closed, others are saying it is an infringement of human rights. This puts us in a similar position to those Christians who are persecuted around the world. Similar, but not the same! We still have our church buildings! They haven’t been confiscated, or burnt down! We still have our Bibles.
There is the hope that churches may be open soon for ‘private prayer’, and this gets me back to my usual subject of: do we need the building so that we can pray? How did Jesus manage without a church building? How did the Church for the first 300 years manage? Can we not pray anywhere?
Jesus established his disciples as a flexible group who could meet anywhere, anytime, and the government are not going to stop us. Jesus told us to eat together and remember him while why did so. Yes, we made it into a ritual and said a minister has to say magic words over it and it could only take place in a dedicated building. But what if we went back to the simple teaching of Jesus and did it to remember him, instead of focussing on ourselves? What a difference that could make! Can we not remember Jesus over a bowl of soup, or strawberries and ice cream? That was what He intended when they were all sitting (reclining) around a meal table.
There are a lot of passages in the Bible that talk about ‘one another’, indicating that we are a community, not just individuals who gather on a Sunday morning. Most of those ‘one anothers’ cannot happen during a church service while everyone is sitting in rows facing the same direction. The ‘one anothers’ require relationships and relationships involve getting to know each other. I have been in churches where there are notices telling everyone to be quiet when they arrive, because talking is disrespectful. And I wonder about those churches.
It doesn’t matter, in one sense, whether we can meet together in church on a Sunday morning. Our relationship with God, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, does not depend on church liturgies or rituals. It depends on having a relationship with God, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. Romans 12 tells us how to worship God, in verse 1. Offer your bodies to God; offer him all of yourself: your family, your friends, your neighbours. Everything that makes you you. Offer that to God and you are worshipping. And no lockdown can prevent you from doing that.
The familiar is comfortable and I know there are those who want to go back to the familiar and comfortable, but it may be a long time before that happens, so use this time to work on that relationship with God, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit; look up all those ‘one another’ passages in the Bible and grow in your relationship with God and come out of this spiritually stronger than when you went into it.
Pastoral Letter 11
I started thinking about how much the Bible has to say about social distancing and how easy it would be to pick out passages. Think about Jonah - self-isolating in a big fish! Think about that priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan - walking by on the other side. Or Jesus instructing his disciples to ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves… (Mark 6: 31). Or the apostle Paul instructing the Christians in Corinth: ‘come out from them, and be separate from them’ (2 Cor.6: 17).
But the one I want to look at for this week (seriously) is Acts 1: 4. Jesus having been raised from the dead instructs his disciples to stay in lockdown in Jerusalem until they received the ‘promise of the Father’ - the Holy Spirit. And when the Day of Pentecost came, that is where we find them - together in one place.
The early church - the first church - were told by Jesus to stay in isolation until they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Pentecost has happened. It doesn’t happen every year; it was a one-off. The Holy Spirit was given to the Church; the Holy Spirit has never been taken away. But we each need our own filling with the Spirit. Paul writes to the Ephesians, ‘keep on being filled with the Spirit (5: 18). This is something we all need. It doesn’t matter how long you have been going to church, or how many positions you have held on the church council. We all need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
For the disciples it took 10 days of waiting and praying. 10 days in lockdown doesn’t seem too bad! But when they came out of it they were different: Peter was no longer making rash promises he couldn’t keep. He was filled with the Spirit - read Acts. Thomas who is unfairly labelled as a doubter (they all doubted; read Mark 16: 11) was now certain of Jesus. James and John were no longer ‘sons of thunder’. They had all been radically changed and they turned the world upside down.
In our day there are church movements that are growing and making new disciples, planting new churches. They have gone back to the Bible and organised church accordingly (not according to CPD). They are relying on the Holy Spirit and they are seeing life, new life, growth. They don’t tell stories of how it used to be; they tell stories of how it is and how it could be.
While we are in lockdown maybe we could read the Bible again. Maybe we could open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. Maybe when we come out of this we will be different and God will be able to use us to turn our world upside down.
‘Wait for the promise of the Father’ and then…!
Pastoral Letter 10
It’s hard to believe that this is my 10th letter since this all began. It will end soon, hopefully, and, in fact, if you go out and about you will get the impression that it’s all over. I drove to Poole Crematorium last Friday and the roads were back to ‘normal’. I was on Marine Drive in Barton yesterday and there was no room to park because there were so many cars - and an Ice Cream Van selling ice cream to queues of people.
A few weeks ago people were saying they hope things won’t go back to ‘normal’; I have had people say that to me. Yet as soon as we were allowed out it seems the first thing we wanted to do was go back to ‘normal’.
What was so good about ‘normal’? We had pollution, which is not so bad now. We had people rushing around, which we don’t have now. And we had a declining church. And we did nothing about that. We talked about the old days when … (how many?) people were in the congregation and we had a Sunday school and a youth group. And we forget that between then and now there were days, weeks and months. We look back to … (how long ago?) and say, this is how it was. But we never question why it changed. Why did we not produce more converts, make more disciples, plant more churches? Why were we relying on people moving into the area and hoping they would come to our church so that we could keep going?
When did we forget the primary purpose of the church is not to sit in buildings, but to make disciples? I don’t want to go back to that kind of ‘normal’ because it is not ‘normal’ as I remember it. I want to see evangelism at the top of our church council agendas (and circuit meeting agendas). I want to see discipleship as more important than all those things the government is telling us to prioritise. I want to see the church run in a more church-like way, instead of in a business-like way (we are a church, not a business). I want us to look outwards instead of inwards. I don’t want rotas of people doing things, I want to see a releasing of the spiritual gifts so that the right people are in the right places. I don’t want volunteers, I want people ‘compelled by the love of Christ’ (that’s in 2 Corinthians 5: 14). Let’s get away from doing it because we’ve always done it - it didn’t work!
Let’s spend this time in the Bible listening to God, asking him what He would have us do. All those things that were interrupted by this lockdown were interrupted and we can’t just pick them up again and carry on. Things have changed, and for once let us, as the church, not be lagging behind. Let us be the church of Jesus Christ, not stuck in the past wishing it was 1950 again, but looking to the future, learning from those who still have young people in their churches, who are growing new disciples and planting new churches.
And let us create a new ‘normal’ where we see the Spirit of God at work in his people. This is the ‘normal’ of the book of Acts. Let’s go back to the beginning as we head into the future and normalise Spirit-filled Christian churches. That will be worth going out for.
Pastoral Letter 9
I am continuing with the theme of resurrection, following on from last week, because the New Testament was written in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus physically rose from the dead the early church was able to understand and appreciate Good Friday. If Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead there would be no New Testament. Resurrection comes first. Easter Sunday needs to be experienced before we can understand Good Friday; before we can make Bad Friday into Good Friday. That is how the first disciples experienced it.
Paul writes about this in Philippians 3, when he writes, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings”. He knows that he cannot share in the sufferings of Jesus without the power of the resurrection.
And that is what is available to each of us, if we know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
If you looked up 1 Corinthians 15 last week you would have seen that it talks about what N T Wright calls ‘life after life after death’. The Christian hope of the resurrection of the body, and then Paul in chapter 15 concludes with: ‘therefore… always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’. In other words, in the light of the resurrection, knowing that God is going to renew all things, live as though the resurrection of Jesus makes a difference to your life now - because it does. It isn’t just about what comes afterwards.
If you know Jesus, then everything you do for him will have eternal implications. Every conversation, every deed, however insignificant it may seem. All the way through the New Testament we read about living in the power of the resurrection of Jesus - a power that is available to all of us, if only we would trust in Jesus. It moves life from just mere existence to LIFE. It takes away the sense of futility that so many live with. Read the book of Ecclesiastes and you will read about life as so many people today live it: ‘Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’. But read the New Testament, find Jesus and his resurrection and discover that God has a much better plan. And this is life that can be lived even in a pandemic during a lockdown.
Use this time wisely, so that when the restrictions are eased and we can go back to ‘normal’ we will know what normal is for a Christian living in the power of the resurrection and maybe things will change for the better.
Pastoral Letter 8
I thought this week I would write about “the Christian Hope”, but I think this may upset a lot of people. But that is what Jesus wanted us to do - not upset people, but offer “the Christian Hope”.
By now many of you will think I’m talking about “going to heaven when you die”. Those of you who have heard me teach the Bible will not be so fooled. But I think in this time when people are anxious and fearful we, in the Church, have an obligation to offer this hope and to warn of the dangers for those who don’t have this hope.
I have conducted 100s of funerals and I have heard the most bizarre beliefs. My dad, who was an atheist, died in January. I mentioned to someone in the church that he was an atheist - I was told, “It doesn’t matter”. It does! Someone else in the church told me, “He’s at rest now”. He isn’t!
How is it pastorally-caring to deny the truth and give people false hope? This is the job of Donald Trump, not the Church of Jesus Christ. We cannot say the Bible is full of “fake news” and then call ourselves Christians. If we believe in what appears to be an Anglo-Saxon Folk Religion, then let’s be honest and say so.
But the Church should talk about the resurrection of Jesus, which makes possible our resurrection if we have a relationship with him; and then realise that “going to heaven” is not resurrection. The Bible tells us that only God is immortal (1 Tim.6: 16), but that Jesus has brought immortality to those who trust in him (2 Tim.2: 10). So those who follow Jesus have a future hope and that hope is resurrection to new bodies (1 Corinthians 15) in the renewed earth (Revelation 21, 22).
People will tell me, as they have, that this is my opinion. It isn’t. It is what the Church believed and preached (on and off) until the 20th century when ‘heaven’ became popular and all you had to do to get there was die, no matter what you believed or how you lived.
My aim is to offer the Christian Hope, not wishful thinking. I know there are those who believe they don’t need Jesus because they have gone to church every week, but church is closed. If that is the basis of your faith, what are you going to do?
There are those (usually American evangelists) who believe God will protect them from Coronavirus. I can’t claim that, or promise it, but I can offer Jesus who offers eternal life, not on a cloud, not living on through our children, not as “a thousand winds that blow”, but in the resurrection. It is in all the creeds: “We believe in the resurrection of the body”. And that comes through Jesus - not through a made-up religion.
So let me appeal to you: commit your life to Jesus. There is no other way to find peace; there is no other way to assurance. Give up the pagan beliefs of heaven and trust in the truth of the Bible.
Pastoral Letter 7
Psalm 91: 1-6 (The Message)
You who sit down in the High God’s presence,
spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,
Say this: “God, you’re my refuge.
I trust in you and I’m safe!”
That’s right—he rescues you from hidden traps,
shields you from deadly hazards.
His huge outstretched arms protect you—
under them you’re perfectly safe;
his arms fend off all harm.
Fear nothing—not wild wolves in the night,
not flying arrows in the day,
Not disease that prowls through the darkness,
not disaster that erupts at high noon.
I liked this passage when I came across it because of the reference to the disease that prowls through the darkness. The Psalms are a funny section of the Bible because they do not contain hard and fast theology; they are testimonies to the psalmists’ experiences. There are psalms where we hear that the righteous never go hungry (but they do); there are psalms that say the wicked always suffer and others that say they will get their comeuppance in the end. And then there is this one.
This psalm is good because it reminds us where we should place our trust - in God, more precisely in Shaddai (God Almighty). The psalmist tells us that as long as we trust in God we will be safe from all deadly hazards, from all harm, all the flying arrows in the day and the disease of the night.
This is not saying: ‘Trust God and you’ll never be sick’; it is saying, ‘Trust God and He will keep you safe, whatever comes your way - fear nothing!’ And as Christians that is where we should be - fearing nothing. ‘Perfect love casts out all fear’ is how the New Testament puts it (1 John 4: 18). And that isn’t just John’s testimony; that is good theology. If we trust God then we will know, as 1 Corinthians 10: 13 tells us, He will not test us beyond our ability to endure. So as you listen to the daily report of how many people have died in hospitals in the past 24 hours, to which is now being added the figures from care homes remember that God knows each one of them by name. Remember that death was never God’s plan for us (too many Bible passages for this one), but He did send Jesus to pay the penalty for sin, so that if we do repent of all wrong beliefs and false views of God and turn to Jesus then we will have the assurance that we are right with God and so there will be nothing to fear, no matter how long this disease that prowls through the darkness continues. God was not taken by surprise over this pandemic; He knows your life; He knows his purposes for you. And as the psalmist says: His huge outstretched arms protect you— under them you’re perfectly safe.
Pastoral Letter 6
Since the lockdown began I have been carrying on preparing for my Bible Teaching each day because my goal is to finish the New Testament, and as much of the Old Testament as I can, before my time is up. And in my reading on Acts I came across an interesting historical fact about the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups encountered Jesus: the Sadducees didn’t like him at all; the Pharisees couldn’t understand him - they invited him to their homes for meals, they warned him when he was in danger, and in the book of Acts several of them became Christians, but they couldn’t understand him. No Sadducees became Christians. But both groups were Jews.
In AD 66 the Jewish War against Rome began and in AD 70 the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. The Pharisees survived AD 70 because their focus was the Law of God; the Sadducees didn’t survive because their focus was the Temple and all the financial and political institutions that went with that.
The Pharisees believed the Old Testament, and tried to live by it. Jesus said, ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The Pharisees developed into the Rabbis. We know about Rabbis - they are the spiritual descendants of the Pharisees.
The Sadducees were the Temple people; they went along with whichever way society was going, because they didn’t want to upset the prevailing powers - they followed the Romans because they were in charge, and their morals were those of the Romans. And they don’t just fade from history; they suddenly disappear. Their purpose was gone.
On this type of scale where are you? I read a lot of interesting ideas on the InterNet about where God is in all of this and what God is doing and I just wonder. I don’t know; I just wonder! I have often asked congregations during my 30 years as a minister: ‘If your church burnt down tonight, how would it affect your Christian life?’ (And some of you know that I always carry a lighter in my pocket just in case I’m inspired). Well, the church hasn’t burned down, but it is closed. And now we can’t be Christian for one hour on a Sunday. So, are we like the Sadducees and suddenly disappearing; or are we like the Pharisees and adapting to a new world situation?
In Romans 12 Paul tells us that our true spiritual worship is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, to no longer be conformed by the world around us. If that is so, then we are to worship God by being like the Pharisees, not the Sadducees.
And so I continue to wonder if God wants us to be different now that the world has changed. I wonder if He wants us to read our Bibles and listen to what He says. Someone accused me once of taking all my ideas and thoughts from the Bible. I was pleased with the accusation!
So maybe this can be a good time. Take a portion of each day and read the Bible; maybe a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New and read it and think about it. And if there’s anything puzzling give me a call, or a letter, or email, and let’s see what God says to us from his Word.
Pastoral Letter 5
Last week Matt Hancock told us to stay in for the Easter Weekend. He said we would have to make a sacrifice of a different kind. I know he didn’t mean what I’m going to say, but I just couldn’t get the phrase out of my head, because it sounded so much like giving up chocolate for Lent.
A different kind of sacrifice! His comparison was intended to be with Jesus who made some kind of sacrifice at that first Easter. Did Jesus sacrifice a good weekend picnicking with friends and family? He did like to eat out, but I’m not sure that was the sacrifice.
Did He have to stay in during the good weather? Well, no, He went out and possibly experienced some sun burn, hanging on the cross.
I know Matt Hancock didn’t mean this, but it is something we tend to say: ‘We all have our cross to bear’! Hardly the same thing!
Jesus told those who would follow him to take up our cross and follow him. That does not mean that we are to look at every difficulty in our lives as ‘our cross’. It doesn’t mean that we focus on ourselves. And yet hasn’t this lockdown demonstrated a certain amount of selfishness?
What Jesus meant was that we should crucify ourselves and follow him. That is the focus - following Jesus.
Not asking: ‘What would Jesus do?’, but asking where Jesus wants us to be and what He wants us to do, and then going there and doing it.
As I have said before, for many people staying at home is not unusual and for others social isolation is not unusual. It is the lack of freedom that seems to cause the most problems from everything I have read. We are no longer allowed to do all the things we do and go to all the places we go to. We are having to stay in our homes (and maybe thank God for the homes we have) and stay with our immediate family. I like the comment from the man who said that during this lockdown he has just discovered that his wife no longer works at Woolworth! Is that a cross? Is it so difficult?
For some people doing is what makes them feel worthwhile; being is not enough, and this can cause distress. But Jesus advises those who follow him to crucify self and follow him.
So as we think about the sacrifice that Jesus made, as we think about the sacrifice that God made, for us, let us think about the benefits of a couple of months off.
Let’s take the time to consider our lives. What is important? What are we living for? When it is all over (life that is) what will we say was important? There is that old saying that no one was ever heard to say on their deathbed: ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office!’
Bu when it comes to face-to-face time with God what will you say? I think we should look at the positives of this current situation and ask ourselves if we are following Jesus, having crucified our selves. And if not … well the office will maybe open again one day.
Pastoral Letter 3
My text for this week is Mark 1: 12-13. Many of you will know that I don’t practice Lent. I find the whole idea strange, but I have been thinking about Lent this week. It used to be about giving up chocolate, or bread, or cakes, to identify with Jesus (who never gave up chocolate!); and then it was changed to doing something extra for Lent. But really we never identify with Jesus until the Spirit drives us into isolation and we are cut off from human companionship, with no phone, no emails, no texts, no social media of any kind and … well, isn’t that where we are now?
This is everyone doing Lent! We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent 40 days in social isolation, but I imagine when He started out He didn’t know it would be for 40 days. There probably wasn’t an end in sight, and unlike Lent He didn’t get Sundays off. He was isolated!
So how is it working for you as we begin our third week of isolation? 40 days is approximately 6 weeks, and Mark tells us that during those 6 weeks Jesus was tempted by Satan. Have you found that yet?
Satan, we know from the other Gospels, asks Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God why is this happening to you?’ Have you heard that question yet? I read on social media that many people are struggling without the usual forms of social interaction and you may be among them. Or you may be like me and for now enjoying having an empty diary. My reading list is going down nicely and my Bible Study preparation is going very well.
Then Mark tells us that Jesus was with the wild beasts. I’ve never heard anyone preach about that - I haven’t preached about it either. We have our dog - she isn’t wild, but she is a beast, and I’m still walking her every day.
Anyway, Mark also says, and the angels waited on him. Maybe you have experienced that? Maybe you haven’t. But the point is that when Jesus went into social isolation He discovered that He was never truly alone. And I hope that you will discover that during this period of lockdown.
Maybe as there are fewer places to go to and as your diary empties of all of those life or death meetings you have to attend; as the social gatherings stop; maybe you will hear the voice of Jesus telling you, ‘I’ve been where you are - and I came out of it stronger’. In Luke’s Gospel, after his isolation Luke records, ‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee’. It was a good outcome for Jesus because He used his time of isolation to open himself up to the Spirit.
There will possibly be no better time than this to just sit back and open yourself up to the Spirit of God, and who knows…?
Pastoral Letter 4
John 20: 1-18
Just before dawn, while it is still dark, Mary goes to the tomb. She isn’t alone, but she is in the dark. So many people are still in the dark; no idea where they are going; no idea what’s going on around them, particularly today. As far as Mary was aware the light of the world had been snuffed out! But the light was about to return! A new day was dawning, even though she didn’t know it yet!
It was dark and we can assume that she didn’t look into the tomb, because she wouldn’t have been able to see.
What Mary testified to was the fact that the tomb was open. Jesus later appeared in rooms when the doors were locked, - the disciples were self-isolating! So the stone wasn’t rolled away to let him out; it was rolled away to let the disciples see in. And Mary saw that the stone was rolled away. She assumed that the body was gone. ‘They’ had taken it away. This was the first indication of a physical resurrection – the body was gone!
She runs to tell Peter and John; they run to the tomb (2 meters apart). John gets there first and stands at the door; Peter runs straight in and sees the grave clothes and there is no comment. Then John comes in and although he is no Bible expert he believes.
We don’t run so much these days to tell people that the tomb is empty! In the early days there was excitement. They had seen him arrested; John and Mary had seen him crucified; they knew He was dead. And now his tomb is empty. Well, not completely empty! The grave clothes are still there. They are lying there as though the body they had held had passed through them.
The grave clothes are evidence that the body wasn’t stolen – why would you unwrap a body before stealing it?
And they were excited and running about. And we are so dull and boring! We’ve made it about ritual and order and doing everything right and making sure nothing is left out. We are so wrong! Where is the excitement?
If Jesus is alive everything is different; you can drop that boring religion that makes you so introspective, always looking for sins to feel guilty about; if Jesus is alive you are free.
Forgiveness only comes through the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this is what happened that first Easter morning.
And then the disciples go home: (Jn.20: 10). If you look at what the other Gospel writers say you can see a similar report: (Mk.16: 8); (Lk.24: 12). Matthew is the exception.
What else could they do? Mark leaves them afraid! I bet they were! Jesus was no longer in his tomb and they didn’t know what to make of it.
Jesus is alive! What do we do about it? Go home! This is where 3 of the 4 Gospels leave the disciples. The tomb is empty; Jesus is alive. Now what?
What do we do with the eye-witness accounts that are backed up by 2,000 years of Christian testimonies to the difference that the risen Jesus has made in the lives of those who have followed what Jesus later said to Thomas: Jn.20: 29?
Answers on a postcard please!
But it doesn’t end here!
We need to experience the reality of the risen Jesus for ourselves and then tell others about it so that they too can experience the resurrection and life that we have.
This is why we celebrate Easter! The early church used to celebrate Easter every Sunday - all those tears; all that excitement; all that running around! As we find ourselves in lockdown this Easter let’s remember Jesus - He never isolates and He can get through your locked doors and bring that message of ‘Peace be with you’. Let’s get a fresh understanding of that early Church, first Easter, experience: Jesus is Alive! Death has been conquered!
And may it transform your current isolation to know that there are no doors, locks, or walls that can keep Jesus out of your life!
Pastoral Letter 2
Psalm 23 is familiar to so many people, although I’m not sure how many could recite it all from memory. It begins by reminding us that The Lord is my shepherd. And that’s a good beginning: God doesn’t need to self-isolate, so He is always available to us.
But there is another line in that psalm that I think is worth considering. It is a line I have used with people who have been hospitalised, or suddenly find themselves housebound. It is the line that says, ‘He makes me lie down’.
A favourite phrase among many people today is along the lines that we all live ‘such busy lives’. I have people apologise to me before they speak because, ‘I know you’re busy’. It had reached epidemic proportions! But not now!
Now things are different. Now we are being told to stay in, to not go to work, to not visit. So how are you managing?
Churches are looking at ways to get messages across to all our newly house-bound people and that’s good. I haven’t gone down the road of preaching to my i-phone or i-pad because most people I know would not be able to access the results, so I’m sticking to paper/screen.
But there are a number of people for whom this is not new! There are many of you who cannot get out to church under ‘normal’ circumstances, and that makes me wonder what we will do when this is all over. Will we go back to ‘normal’? I really hope we don’t. I hope we remember this sense of isolation and this uncertainty about tomorrow, because in all our ‘busy-ness’ we can so easily forget God.
Let’s take this time, while He has made us lie down, to appreciate the green pastures. Let us take this time to question why we do what we do; who our shepherd is; what our priorities are; and even: why were we so busy, when really none of it was so important after all. Life has gone on.
And if you are finding the isolation difficult, thank God for all that you have - this has come to pass, but for many people this is normal - no one calls, no one phones.
As you are being forced to lie down allow God to restore your soul, as the psalmist describes it. And remember that you are not alone. And if you do call me, don’t apologise - I’m not busy!
Pastoral Letter 1
While He was hanging on the cross Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I was planning to talk about this on Good Friday at the Open Air Service on Milford's Green.
That will not be happening, like so many church events. But it seemed like a good question to ask and consider during this time of the Coronavirus.
There are different ways of emphasising what Jesus asked:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus had been forsaken by his followers who had all left him when He was arrested and now He is asking why God has forsaken him.
He was feeling abandoned. And you may be feeling abandoned as well during these days when there are so many conflicting stories about what we can and cannot do. Well, the church has not abandoned you. While it is true that all our meetings have had to be cancelled, we have no authority to close our buildings. We can still be open for people to come in to pray, to listen to music, to just be somewhere that isn't our homes. That may change as time goes on, but this is how it is at this point.
As your minister I am still available. My phone number and email address are not protected by GDPR so it is easy to contact me if you need to and I am still prepared to talk to all of you - this is still allowed at this point.
More importantly, God has not forsaken you. As Jesus cried out those words from the cross He was quoting Psalm 22. At this point you need to go get your Bible and read that Psalm. Jesus always called God 'Father', so the fact that He now calls him 'God' lets us know He is quoting.
Psalm 22 has a good ending, after the description of suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, the psalmist writes:
"From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him."
And that is true for all of us - if we cry to God He will not hide his face from us and He will hear us. And so we will be able to praise him.
2."My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is where it becomes personal, especially for those who are self-isolating. When you are home alone with no one else in the house and no one calling at the door because they have been advised not to, then it can feel very much 'all about me'. And to some extent it is. It is about all of us. We are all in this - maybe not together, but we are all in this! And again if you need to talk to someone, we have telephones, some of us have emails and mobiles for texting.
My point in all this is that you haven't been forsaken by God, or by the Church. Just call out if you need us.