The True Church in Lockdown

Dear friends
I pray for you, as I pray for myself, for patience whilst we wait for the return to normal (whatever it is that “normal” means!). It is sometimes said that patience is the gift that is most needed when it is exhausted. It is a gift from God, too, so let’s ask Him for it: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12).
God has made us a part of His body, and put us among the people of God, so we may grow in Christ likeness and wait expectantly for Jesus to return for His Bride. “…we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2.13-14)

This Sunday, 31st May, is the Birthday of the Church – Pentecost Sunday.
On this day, we remember that God poured out his Spirit, and constituted the living Church – which has spread out throughout the world, all through the ages.
As we continue to live with lockdown, and expect that Church – as we once knew it – will not return any time soon, I have been reflecting on the hallmarks of true Church, from Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost.

Acts 2.42-47: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

i.  What is the Hallmark of a True Church?
Learning v42
The teaching and learning function of Church works quite well via YouTube and Zoom. Obviously, we miss the relational side of learning, but generally, evangelical churches (with a higher priority on preaching and Bible Study) have adapted well to newly acquired pedagogy!

Caring v44f
Telephones, letters, acts of kindness, and, again, zoom, have meant that we can still connect well with each other. But it’s not just grannie who longs to be hugged, and lockdown can still be very isolating for many. I have been impressed with the care many of you have shown to each other.

Worshipping v46 (private and public)
Oh, we miss singing don’t we?!
And, there is something about the communal, gathered nature of Church which is so important

Reaching v47
There have been some opportunities to reach out to people (Akeel’s recent talk, Christianity Explored Courses), but guest events, such as Gerald Osbourne reading Mark, and the Jonathan Veira concert, are on hold for now.
However, we should not forget the role we each play in being salt and light in this dark world: As John Stott wrote, “Come to Christ for worship; go for Christ in mission” (John Stott, the Living Church).

ii. What are today’s challenges to being a True Church?
We expect some kind of return to gathered Church worship soon, but:

–  Initially only small groups so socially distancing can happen.
– Initially, no Sunday school; No refreshments.
– Many Seniors will choose not to come for now.

The reality is that, even when we are allowed to meet together again (from July), there will be some core parts of worship which are missing.

iii. Can we continue to be Church online forever? 
Well, we do the best we can within the constraints we have. But let us be mindful of some of these implications of being a True Church:
– We are called to be worshippers not consumers.
– Belonging to Christ and one another – so, not just for my upbuilding but to build others up too.
– We need to find ways to reach out and make mature disciples.
– Sharing the Sacraments are inevitably public and communal acts.

(I found this article on the topic quite helpful https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/whats-special-church/ )
Please pray for those of us seeking to navigate the future, and trying to faithfully serve God and His Church.

8 key words to pray out of lockdown

I have been meditating on 8 key words in New Testament this week: “…not my will, but your will be done” (Mark 14:36).

They come from Jesus, on the night before he died, in the prayer to His Father in the garden of Gethsemane.

What He was about to face was truly horrifying. Tom Holland, in his masterful book, Dominion. The Making of the Western Mind says that one of the reasons why we have so few accounts of this barbaric method of execution is because of the humiliation and horror associated with it:

“Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely”.

Jesus was not the only person in history to endure such excruciating agony, and unyielding torture.
But, those of us who know the end of the story – which all 4 Gospel writers record – resonate with Mrs Alexander’s wonderful Hymn:

We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

Despite all that Jesus knew about the impending physical, mental, and spiritual suffering, He resolved above everything, to do the Father’s will.

Like all Christians, I am oh-so-grateful for Jesus’ obedience. I am glad that He loved us to death. I am so pleased that He chose to do the Father’s will above all else. For in His obedience is my life.

That is what I have been meditating on lots this week. Am I prepared to lay aside my will, in order to do His will?

I don’t just do it once. Every day, I need to pray this prayer again.

Maybe that’s why Jesus said this: “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).

Who knows what the future looks like for you, for me, for our world, for God’s Church? Keep praying this prayer: “…not my will, but your will be done”.

Or, maybe add special emphasis to this line in the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen.

ORDERING YOUR PRIVATE WORLD

I have been asked to prepare a talk for Royal Holloway Christian Union, entitled, “Serving God in our free time”, and I thought I would share some of my thoughts with you.

“Free time” is an interesting concept really. Of course, many of us have more free time on our hands than we would really like. We cannot visit our favourite restaurants, shops, or friends. And our social circles are limited to those in our household. So in one respects we have more free time than ever before.

But at the same time, a biblical orientation might make us rethink the category. Time is a gift from God, and thus, like all his gifts, we are called to steward it wisely.

During lockdown, we have found it hard to be focussed, despite being given the gift of time. Might I suggest that this could be because we tend to think of time as something we spend and use as we wish?

The bible distinguishes between chronos time – chronological time; and Kairos time – critical, or opportune, time. These categories might help us at this time.

A sense of Kairos time calls us to “make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (or, as other translations put it “redeeming the time”, Eph 5:16). For this we need that sense of God’s call on our life. Time, like everything else, then, becomes a gift to steward.

One of my reading projects is a book by Gordon MacDonald called Reordering Your Private World, which I first read in the mid-eighties when it was published. He addresses the challenge of busyness. In particular, he pops the bubble that says: “I must be important because I am busy”. It feels particularly pertinent just now!

Our private world needs to be reordered: our use of time, our sense of call, our sabbath rhythm, our productivity, and our relationships, to name but a few.

I have been particularly struck by how he challenges our drivenness, and what we miss when we lose a sense of call. Called people have a keen awareness of stewardship; they know who they are, and therefore their lives have a purpose. He points to John the Baptist, who spent his formative years in the desert. It was there he heard God’s call. For him, the desert wasn’t to a place of dryness, but rather, where he heard the Father’s direction. I am not talking about social distancing from the fridge (your dessert?!), but rather ask: how is your desert experience?

My hope and prayer for you, and for me, is that as we emerge from lockdown, we will not just return to life as it was before. Rather, will we have a fresh sense that our time is not our own, but rather, a gift from God, to be used for his purpose and for His glory? Perhaps allocate a bit of time each day to ask God to make you freshly aware of His call on your life.

Keep Focus – May 2020

Keep Focus

Here’s one key theme to bear in mind as the UK thinks about the future:
“Keep Going by Keeping your Eyes Fixed on Jesus”

I don’t think I am the only one. Early this week I felt like someone had sucked all the energy out of me. “My get up and go, got up and went”.

Many people recognise “Zoom fatigue”, anxieties about the mid to long term future, and our concerns for our own and other people’s health.

As I have said before, this is a marathon, not a sprint. But so too is discipleship.

One of my favourite Bible Passages is here in Hebrews 12:1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

The writer encourages us to think about all those who gave gone before us, how they have endured, and where they are now, finally at home in heaven with their Father.
But supremely they are to look to Jesus: fix your eyes on him.
He is a model of one who deferred instant gratification, forgoing pleasures in this world, for the sake of the joy that was ahead.
As we look to him we will not grow weary, and we will not lose heart.

Try it: it works! Look to Jesus! He will fortify you. He will motivate you to endure. He promises Joy ahead, even if in the short term life is tough.
Can you find a quiet corner in your house, or outside, where you settle your heart, and fix your eyes on Jesus?

And it’s not just for your own sake: the world needs Jesus.
I am praying that, somehow, as we slowly emerge from lockdown, God will have re-awakened the world to the fragility of putting hope in the temporary passing things of this world, and will instead look to Jesus.
Our job is to make sure that Jesus is centre stage in everything. Hence: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32).
Let’s pray that this is so, for our own sakes, and for the sake of the world.

Easter 2020 in the light of COVID-19

Making Sense of Easter

For many people, Easter means a few days of, and a chance to overindulge in chocolate. Indeed, that is good news!

Little did we expect up to 12 weeks of self-isolation!

Nevertheless, however we chose to mark the approach to Holy Week, we should ponder the really good news of Easter and its abiding message of hope for all who come to put their trust in God as their king and rescuer.

Let me explain: and to do that, we need to go back 2,000 years, and 2,000 miles, into the land of Galilee and Judea. This was the home of the Jews, but suffering under harsh Roman rule, eager for someone to liberate them.

The four gospels are the records of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, but each with their own unique emphasis, helpfully providing us with a rich perspective of his interactions and teaching.

One particularly interesting feature of all four, aside from some detail about his birth, they don’t really pick up the biography until his public ministry at the age of about 30. Moreover, each gospel spends roughly half of their volume on the last 7 days of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Maybe that is why we call the commemoration of this week, Holy Week (this year, 5th -12th April), and why we still have holidays (i.e. holy days) around this period. They were days with religiously charged meaning and significance.

The church has built up a language to explain the key events the last week of Jesus’ time on earth, and during Holy Week we walk step by step through His final hours.

Palm Sunday

So called because Jesus was welcomed and hailed by an excited crowd, waiving palm branches and carpeting the streets with them – that’s how they rolled out the red carpet! He arrives in the capital city – Jerusalem – for a coronation of sorts. But he is not on a trusted stead, but rather, a humble donkey. And he has no plans to overthrow their political tyrants, but has his eye on another kind of victory.

Maundy Thursday

The word maundy comes from a Latin word meaning “command”. The particular command it recalls is the words of Jesus to his disciples that they should “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). It was, as Jesus celebrated the Passover supper with them, on the night before he died, that he pointed to the full extent of His love. He took the bread and broke it, telling them to remember his broken body; and similarly, with the cup, to remember his blood shed for them. His death – which we still celebrate each week in Holy Communion – recalls the offer of forgiveness to all who seek the spiritual significance of these events.

Good Friday

And so to the day of his death. The Romans knew how to execute, and cruelly, with maximum humiliation. Hence, stringing their victims high on a cross until they were asphyxiated, no longer having the strength to hold themselves aloft.

So, why Good Friday? The eyes of faith can see, in that conspiracy and barbarity, God was finding a way to deal with humanity’s lostness and estrangement from God. Mrs Alexander put it so well:

There is a green hill far away,

Without a city wall,

Where the dear Lord was crucified,

Who died to save us all.

 

Oh, dearly, dearly has He loved,

And died our sins to bear;

We trust in His redeeming blood,

And life eternal share.

 

We may not know, we cannot tell,

What pains He had to bear;

But we believe it was for us

He hung and suffered there.

 

He died that we might be forgiven,

He died to make us good,

That we might from our sins be freed,

Saved by His precious blood.

 

There was no other good enough

To pay the price of sin,

He only could divine life give

And dwell Himself within.

 

Easter Sunday

Of course, the story does not end there. We meet on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It was hardly what those first disciples expected, despite Jesus prophesying it happening.  A huge crowd testified to its veracity, and millions meet to celebrate each Sunday in perpetual memorial. The origin of the name Easter is obscure, probably referring to an ancient god Eostre. However, it has always been the day to celebrate all that Christ achieved during that most holy of weeks.

Our hope is that this Easter “holyday” you may find some time to explore the meaning of this most Holy Week.

Our Easter celebrations will be as following

  • 12 noon – Good Friday An hour at the cross
  • 30 Easter Sunday celebrations

Please join us online as we livestream these events www.cc-vw.org

Yours in Christ

Reading the Bible in 2020 – 6 thoughts

Have you set a new goal for 2020? How do you read with 2020 vision?

Christian resolve often includes a fresh commitment to read the Bible.

Robert Murray McCheyne has served us very well: four chapters a day, covering all the Bible once, and the psalms twice. This can be viewed here, along with his advice on how/why to use it effectively https://www.mcheyne.info/calendar.pdf

More recently, Nicky Gumbel’s app, which includes the audio of David Suchet reading the Bible text, has been brilliant (see http://www.bibleinoneyear.org/) .

Whatever you resolve: do remember we live by grace, not guilt. And, Bible reading is about edification, not competition!

For what it is worth, here are my six reflections on Bible reading this past year, and my resolve for 2020.

  1. Using the Nicky Gumbel app is excellent. The arrangement of the readings, the common linkage of themes across readings through Nicky’s commentary, and, as already mentioned, David Suchet reading the Biblical text: all very user friendly, and edifying. Moreover, I like the fact that you can opt to hear Bible passage read to you, which is much closer to the design of Scriptural ingestion (having multiple personal copies of Bible text is a (relatively) recent luxury; in the past, most heard the Bible read aloud).
  2. Again, personally, reading the Bible in a Year is too quick. I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years and have had a daily “quiet time” pretty much every day since. However, this is only the second time I have succeeded in reading the bible in 12 months. I appreciate the discipline, and satisfaction, of completing it in that time scale, but I worry that sometimes it became a target to fulfil, rather a daily devotion.
  3. Do what works for you: I have usually taken 2 or 3 years to read the Bible. Alan Stibbes “Search the Scriptures” takes you through the Bible in three years, with reflective exegetical questions on the passage, and is a good alternative.
  4. Two things I missed when reading at speed: First, I skimped on reflective devotion. The Psalmist wrote “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). Burying God’s word in our deepest recesses takes time, meditation, and reflection. So, this year, I want to slow down a bit.
  5. Secondly, I missed my Greek. Biblical languages are not my strong point. But, with the aid of tools (and Dr Plummer’s daily offering http://dailydoseofgreek.com/), I have enjoyed slow reading of the New Testament. That has fallen by the wayside somewhat this past year.
  6. Finally – and this applies to any and all your New Year’s resolutions – make them practical and realistic, and commit to them for the whole year. But, most of all, enjoy! A healthy, godly, routine should help us relish God’s presence, and allow Him to guide and control our life. Again, Psalm 119 – “How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life.” (v40).

Joy Story – the message of Advent and Christmas

The clocks have changed, and the dark nights are with us.

I have some sympathy with CS Lewis’ picture of life living under the spell of the White Witch in Narnia, Beaver said to the children, here it is “Always winter, but never Christmas”.

However, the relief from the darkness of winter is found in the new light of Advent, then Christmas, and it will be here before you know it!

Oh yes, it’s nearly Christmas.

Cards to write and send; presents to choose and wrap; food to buy and eat; music to love and sing; and family and friends to meet and greet.

It’s easy to bemoan the commercialisation of Christmas, and we worry, don’t we, that the CHRIST of Christmas gets buried beneath a mound of wrapping paper.

I certainly feel that nagging cynicism as we all get caught in the build-up. But, there is one commercial Christmas tradition that I love, and that is, the latest Disney or Pixar film release.

Among the “must-have” toys this year, apparently, are lots of furbie, cuddly-type toys. And, surprisingly really, Buzz Light Year. He first made an appearance 25 years ago. Buzz Light year continues to attract with clever catch phrases such as “to infinity and beyond”, which raises a deeper longing! Remember what St Augustine prayed, some 1600 years ago, “Our hearts are restless, till they find their rest in you”.

And the theme tune “you’ve got a friend in me”, resonates with men, women and children, as all long for deep friendship, and an answer to aching loneliness.

Toy Story 4

So, this half term we went to see Toy Story 4, with our Granddaughter. How clever that it still enchants us!

The latest film introduces a new toy, called “Forky”. He is made by his toddler-owner, out of pipe cleaners and a plastic fork. She is distraught when she thinks he is lost, and the army of other toys launch into action seeking to find him and return Forky to his maker.

As ever, the film raises some clever and searching existential questions.

Forky thinks he is trash, with no right to exist along with all the other toys. He assumes he belongs in the bin.

Even a child watching this film is forced to ask: Are we made by someone? How do we know we are not just refashioned trash?

They, and we, can hear the challenge: Doesn’t the fact that someone loves me, give me some significance?

And so to Christmas

Isn’t the abiding attraction and annual return of this event amazing?! Yes, there is a lot of merchandise attached, and sentimentality, with a tinge of cynicism. We long for a feel-good story – is that all that Christmas is? And, once the season is over, do we return to life as normal?

Or, could Christmas, in fact, provide answers to the meaning for our existence? And, do we see in Christmas, the very definition of love from our creator, who affirms that we are not “trash”, by being fashioned in human flesh, to be with us?

Christmas is not a children’s story. Nor, as history demonstrates, is it around for a short-lived season. It is a promise to us all, that as we worship at the feet of King Jesus, we may know the answer to life’s deepest questions.

Joy Story

I pray that this Christmas, you may know the joy, that was first promised to those shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

I do hope that this Christmas you may know something of the joy of Christmas, and hope amidst the gloom around us!

In (Christ) was life, and that life was the light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

What joy there is in this story!