Pastoral Letter 32

    On my blog, on my website, for the past few months I have been talking about Ecclesiastes.  This is an Old Testament book I have looked at several times over the decades because of its realistic view of life.  The writer begins with, and repeats several times throughout, the phrase, ‘It is all meaningless’.

    This is a phrase he applies to every area of life.  One of the main reasons he gives for this conclusion is that we do not know what the future holds.  He argues that it doesn’t matter what we own - someone else will inherit it (or the charity shops will benefit!)  It doesn’t matter how wise/clever/smart we are - we are going to die, and we don’t know when.

    It takes perseverance to get through his apparent negativity, but if you persist you will see he is not a pessimist - he certainly isn’t an optimist - but he is a realist.

    Think back to this time last year!  Who knew?

        Some of us planned holidays that didn’t happen.

            Others organised conferences that had to be postponed indefinitely.

    Who would have imagined, this time last year, that we would be standing on our doorsteps every Thursday at 8pm clapping the NHS with our neighbours!

    And who had heard of Zoom this time last year?  Now every meeting takes place from the comfort of your own home, without having to drive, get stuck in traffic, and take a wrong turning.

    And who would have imagined that the British government could make us all stay at home for months - and most of us would do what they said!

    As for face masks!  That was OK in Hong Kong, but here?  You wouldn’t have imagined that this time last year.

    In addition there have been the usual run of things that happen in life.  Remember those greetings we give at the start of the year: “Happy New Year”?  No one saw this year coming!

    And that is what the writer of Ecclesiastes is writing about - life is uncertain; we can’t make plans because we just don’t know!

    But his conclusions are good: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (12: 13b-14)

    Sometimes a bit of realism is necessary to keep us going when we finally realise that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

    This time last year we probably thought we knew!

Martin

Pastoral Letter 31

    I went swimming this morning and forgot to log in with my NHS Test & Trace App.  I’m trying to figure out if I should feel guilty about that.  I don’t know anyone else who uses it, but is that an excuse?

    Anyway, it’s hard not to get confused with all the new check-ins (we never check-out!) and regulations about how many people we can talk to and how close we can stand and I got thinking about something I wrote a few months ago in the Milford Parish Magazine.  In that article I described the gospel as being like a pandemic.  It spread quickly, all across the world.  Paul, writing to the Colossians (with a little hyperbole) said (1: 6): This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace.

    And so I thought about how we have controlled this particular pandemic and I wrote in that article that we confined it in specialised buildings where the people only gathered one day a week and that stopped the spread nicely.  But as it seems most people will not be accessing these specialised buildings for another 6 months, maybe it’s worth looking at again.

    And so I thought about the symptoms!  Some people are asymptomatic - you just cannot tell that they have the virus at all.  There are no symptoms manifesting.  There is no joy, no peace, no assurance of the forgiveness of sins, no presence or power of the Holy Spirit, no fruit of the Spirit.

    And that’s worrying, because the gospel virus does not manifest as asymptomatic.  But the vaccine does have similar side effects!  The vaccine is a mild dose of Christendom Religion.  It manifests as joyless, critical, and self-absorbed.  This then is passed off as Christianity and it would appear that the vaccine is widely available.

    I know we cannot mix and spread the true virus, and I’m not sure, once the vaccine has taken hold, how easy it is for the virus to infect people.  But I think if we were all to expose ourselves to the source of the virus then a pure dose may do the trick.

    So if you think you have been exposed to the vaccine, try reading the Bible - for a short-cut start with the New Testament; expose yourself to God in prayer - talking and listening - and ask Jesus to fill you with his Spirit (and don’t give up until He has) and then we could start this pandemic all over again!

    Just imagine if there was a Test & Trace App for the gospel - checking in with the Bible, checking in with prayer, checking in with God.  The App says you will be registered as being in your current venue until midnight, or until you check in somewhere else.  Imagine spending that much time with God.  That could lead to a bad case!

Martin

Pastoral Letter 30

    This is my 30th letter!   The restrictions continue in a strange way: I can have 28 people in Barton Methodist Church on a Sunday, but if it’s a wedding I can only have 15.

    Face masks are still causing problems: do we wear them properly, or just over our mouths so we can breathe through our noses?  And do we take them off to talk?  Because we don’t breathe viruses through our noses or when we talk!

    And is it really about “my” comfort, or is it about caring for others?  This got me thinking about what Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2: 4 NRSV).

    The New International Version Bible that I have had for 30 years translates this as, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”.  I think this is how most people would prefer it, but the NIV has updated it so it reads, as Paul originally wrote it: “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

    Those little words “only” and “also” can make a big difference!  They suggest that we should look to our own interests, and that is an ongoing problem as these restrictions continue.  People are becoming more concerned with their own interests.  The inconveniences have been going on too long.

    I have people on my Friends List on Facebook who believe that the restrictions are part of a bigger government conspiracy to limit our freedom and to destroy the economy (presumably so that we won’t vote them in again at the next election).

    I know a few people with coronavirus - my niece is one - so I’m not convinced by the conspiracy theories.  But I am convinced that most people would prefer the NIV’s earlier mistranslation of Philippians 2: 4.

    Imagine what it would be like though if we all (Christians I’m talking to/about now) lived like that - putting the interests of others as a priority.  Instead of asking, “What will I get out of this?”, or, “How does this benefit me?”, maybe we could ask: “How will this help …? (fill in the blank with whoever comes to mind).

    Remember that time when Jesus was invited to dinner and He criticised the people who went to sit near the top table?  He said the best place was at the bottom, so that we could be moved up - much better (He said) than being moved down the table.

    So there will be things that we are not comfortable with as these restrictions continue, but what about the others?  How difficult is it for people in hospitals on ventilators?  How difficult is it for those with underlying conditions who are still self-isolating?

    Part of the new normal for Christians should be to live like the correct translation of Philippians 2: 4 and not consider our own interests, but to consider the interests of others instead.

 

Martin

Pastoral Letter 29

    I was reading Job 2 this morning and it got me thinking about our current situation.  I don’t like to make exact comparisons with Job, because God’s assessment of him is: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil”.

    He was a special case, but there are principles we can learn from Job’s situation.  In chapter 1 ‘The Satan’ is accusing Job before God, saying that the only reason Job fears God is because God has blessed him with so much wealth and a big family.  So God allows The Satan to take everything away from Job.  The result is that Job still fears God (he still praises God and doesn’t blame Him for the loss of everything).

    So The Satan tries again and suggests that people can live without possessions quite well, and even without a family it is still possible to live a decent life.  But take away his health and then he will curse God.

    And so God allows The Satan to take away Job’s health.  And that is chapter 2.  Job’s response to this (as he talks to his wife) is, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

    Job doesn’t know the back story.  He doesn’t know what is happening behind the scenes.  He doesn’t know that it was The Satan who sent him this trouble.  But he knows that if it came into his life, then God allowed it.  In theological terms we call this “God’s permissive will”.  It isn’t his perfect will, but it is permitted by God.

    And so when people question where God is in this pandemic I am always curious about which God they are questioning.  If we know the biblical God: revealed in nature, revealed in Scripture and revealed in Jesus Christ and experienced by the filling of the Holy Spirit, then we will not be questioning God’s power, God’s goodness; God’s wisdom; or God’s purposes.  We will trust him.

    There are many would-be theologians who want to argue about an All-powerful God who cannot control a little virus, but for that kind of thinking you have to read the rest of Job, where Job’s friends (who have their theology sorted out, without reference to God) try to explain to Job why all these things have happened to Job.  Top of their agenda is blame!  Whose fault is it?  Where did this originate?  Shouldn’t we have responded sooner?

    Human nature hasn’t changed, unfortunately, and when God finally appears at the end of the book of Job He doesn’t explain himself.  But his comment on the theology of Job’s friends is: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”  And later, “ I am angry with you … because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

    God vindicates Job and suggests that his friends need to learn who God is before they continue to talk anymore nonsense about him.  There is a lot of nonsense being spoken about God.  My advice: read your Bible and get to know who He really is.

Martin

Pastoral Letter 28

    Once again the regulations have changed!  And in an attempt to avoid confusion Boris made a statement that … didn’t!

    So if you are worried about what happens on Sundays (or Mondays and Tuesdays in Milford), here is the nearest thing to official that we have:

“ The Archbishop of Canterbury posted on Twitter: "After contact with Government we hear that there is no change to guidance on places of worship. Worship is the work of God - not a social gathering””

    So as long as you don’t bring more than 5 friends to church with you we will be within the law.  But I like the archbishop’s statement that Worship is the work of God.  In the standard agenda for Methodist meetings - circuit meetings and church council meetings - the first main item is: ‘Conversation on the work of God (in the circuit or church)’.  I always like to introduce this item because it allows for a two-minute silence in the meeting!  I do it for fun, but it is a little concerning that when we get to items like: Finance; Property; Safeguarding; GDPR etc. the conversation is hard to stop.  But when we ask: ‘What has God been doing in the church since we last met?’ there is that embarrassed silence.

    When we were in Scotland all our churches were registered as charities (as they are in England), but each year OSCR (Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator) would send out a form on which the churches had to state how they fulfilled the category of charity - it wasn’t possible to just write that we had services on a Sunday with tea and coffee afterwards.  To maintain our charity status we had to act like charities and provide a service to our communities.

    So if we are claiming to be involved in the work of God, how would we answer that question?  What has God done in us and through us since we last met?

    Fortunately England is not as strict on charities as Scotland, but consider the case I heard about many years ago where an English church was prosecuted by the Advertising Standards Authority because they advertised Healing Services, but no one was ever healed in the services!

    How do we know that we are involved in the work of God?  Are we worshipping God?  Is the Gospel being proclaimed?  Are we making disciples?  These are the purposes of the Church laid out in the Bible.

    If we are gathering just be sociable, then we need to limit ourselves to no more than 6.  If we can honestly claim to be fulfilling our purposes as a church, then we are exempt.

    And those who are still isolating, or unable to get out for other reasons: you can still worship God, proclaim the gospel and make disciples when the opportunities arise - and there are no restrictions for you (but no more than 5 disciples at a time!)

Martin

Pastoral Letter 27

    I was thinking about Moses again the other day.  That burning bush is an interesting incident, but one thing I want to take from it for this week is the words of God when He says, “I have heard my people’s cry”.  The people had been crying for a long time.  I have often wondered why they stayed in Egypt before they became slaves.  There was a 7 year famine and sometime during those 7 years they were reconciled with Joseph and the whole family moved in to Egypt.  Then the famine ended; then Jacob died and the whole family went back to Canaan for his funeral; but then they returned to Egypt.  Why?

    Anyway, 400 years later God appears to Moses in that bush and says he has heard their cry.  Maybe they were comfortable in Egypt - it was the major World Power of the day.  Maybe they just got used to the luxury and were enslaved to that long before the Egyptian dynasty changed and they were enslaved physically.

    And then I thought about the other end of the Old Testament where the prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Malachi etc) are making prophecies about God coming ‘suddenly’ to rescue his people.  And then it is 400 years before Jesus appears, preaching: ‘Repent!  The kingdom of God is at hand’.  

    They waited 400 years!  And when God’s deliverer comes, He tells them to repent!  That’s not what they had been waiting for.  They just wanted someone to tell them that God was on their side and everything was going to be alright.  But that wasn’t, and isn’t, the message of Jesus.

    But 400 years - again.  God is never in a hurry.  He sees things from an eternal perspective.  He has a plan and a purpose for his creation and for our lives and He is working to his own timetable.

    We tend to forget that.  We seem to think that if we pray then God is obliged to provide the answer/solution straightaway.  I’ve never had a problem with unanswered prayer, because the very nature of the “problem” suggests that prayer is just about asking for things.

    If we had a biblical worldview we would see the bigger picture; and we would have a more accurate picture of God.  These times we are living through have no apparent end in sight, but God knows the end from the beginning.  He knows when it will end.  But don’t expect him to tell you when that will be.

    Just trust him to fulfil his plan and his purposes and then one day, we will look back and say: ‘Ah!  Now I see!  That’s what was happening!’

    For now, keep hanging on in there.   As the writer of Hebrews would have said (if he was a 21st century American), “When you run out of fantastic, persevere!”

 

Martin

Pastoral Letter 26

    Once again the regulations have changed!  And in an attempt to avoid confusion Boris made a statement that … didn’t!

    So if you are worried about what happens on Sundays (or Mondays and Tuesdays in Milford), here is the nearest thing to official that we have:

“ The Archbishop of Canterbury posted on Twitter: "After contact with Government we hear that there is no change to guidance on places of worship. Worship is the work of God - not a social gathering””

 

    So as long as you don’t bring more than 5 friends to church with you we will be within the law.  But I like the archbishop’s statement that Worship is the work of God.  In the standard agenda for Methodist meetings - circuit meetings and church council meetings - the first main item is: ‘Conversation on the work of God (in the circuit or church)’.  I always like to introduce this item because it allows for a two-minute silence in the meeting!  I do it for fun, but it is a little concerning that when we get to items like: Finance; Property; Safeguarding; GDPR etc. the conversation is hard to stop.  But when we ask: ‘What has God been doing in the church since we last met?’ there is that embarrassed silence.

    When we were in Scotland all our churches were registered as charities (as they are in England), but each year OSCR (Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator) would send out a form on which the churches had to state how they fulfilled the category of charity - it wasn’t possible to just write that we had services on a Sunday with tea and coffee afterwards.  To maintain our charity status we had to act like charities and provide a service to our communities.

    So if we are claiming to be involved in the work of God, how would we answer that question?  What has God done in us and through us since we last met?

    Fortunately England is not as strict on charities as Scotland, but consider the case I heard about many years ago where an English church was prosecuted by the Advertising Standards Authority because they advertised Healing Services, but no one was ever healed in the services!

    How do we know that we are involved in the work of God?  Are we worshipping God?  Is the Gospel being proclaimed?  Are we making disciples?  These are the purposes of the Church laid out in the Bible.

    If we are gathering just be sociable, then we need to limit ourselves to no more than 6.  If we can honestly claim to be fulfilling our purposes as a church, then we are exempt.

    And those who are still isolating, or unable to get out for other reasons: you can still worship God, proclaim the gospel and make disciples when the opportunities arise - and there are no restrictions for you (but no more than 5 disciples at a time!)

Martin

Pastoral Letter 33

    Over the months there have been stories about churches in the USA defying the lockdown rules, arguing that it is persecution, arguing that it is unbiblical.  And now the Welsh have joined in!  A church in Wales had its Sunday evening service disrupted by the police, because the restrictions in Wales say that churches should be closed.

    The pastor of the church is objecting on the grounds of Hebrews 10: 24-25, which says, “24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (NLT)

    These verses are not talking about going to church on Sundays!  When the letter to the Hebrews was written no one went to church - there were no churches to go to!  The new disciples of Jesus were the church.  When they met, they met in each others homes.  If they sang, they didn’t have a choir, or a church organ.

    We seem to associate church with everyone sitting in rows facing the same direction, looking at the back of the head of the person in front of us.  I did that a few years ago and the man in front of me had a fascinating gravity-defying combover.  It was one inch up from his hairline and I sat through that service wondering how he kept his hair up and what he looked like when he woke up in the morning - did he sleep in a hairnet?  I can’t remember who was preaching, what was preached, or what hymns were sung - but I remember that combover!

    Is that what meeting together is about?  Not at all.  Meeting together is about thinking of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works; it is about encouraging one another.  How often does that happen in Sunday services?  We are told to be quiet when we come into the building, we have to be quiet during the service, and then during the tea and coffee afterwards….  Remember those days?

    I don’t think we are disobeying what the Bible says if we don’t meet together.  I think, with 100,000 new cases of coronavirus a day it is a good idea to stay away, especially as the coughing season has started and people are now coughing into their masks in church.

    But don’t get into the habit.  The writer of Hebrews says that some people in his church have developed the habit of not meeting together.  There is that comment Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 11, where he says, “your meetings do more harm than good” - that may well be the case at the moment, although not for the same reasons.

    But let us in this day of modern communication still motivate one another to acts of love and good works, while encouraging one another with the promises of God and the hope that lies before us.

    There will never be a law against that!

 

Martin