Lenten Isolation

March 14, 2020


The promise of new life

The promise of new life

I have been away on a very special retreat and am now off sick, but it has been impossible to ignore all the news coverage about COVID-19 – indeed there has been a fantastic group of workers here at St Barnacles who have worked so hard behind the scenes making sure we are following the appropriate guidance. I have also read many excellent articles looking at the social, scientific and spiritual impact of the pandemic, and there has been so much information to take in!

One thing I haven’t heard mentioned much is the simple fact we are still in Lent, in the season of the year where we remember Jesus choosing to isolate Himself for forty days in the desert. Having just spent three days not being able to do very much at all, it seems to me that there are two ways we can spend any time of enforced isolation.

We can amuse ourselves by:
– watching all the old box sets we have seen many times before
– playing our favourite computer games until we reach grandmaster level
– expose ourselves to endless daytime TV (believe me, I watched four hours of programmes about traffic police yesterday in a semi-comatose state – the roads are even more dangerous than I thought out there!)
– listen to our radio stations recycling the same stories again and again throughout the day (although we of course need to keep updated)

Or we can spend such time as we can manage in following Jesus’ example and:

– pray for God’s kingdom and God’s will to be done
– go deeper into God’s word
– reflect on God’s priorities for our lives
– deal with the temptations and sins that perhaps we would not otherwise confront

And we must not forget, Jesus’ isolation in the desert was only a season of preparation for a radical ministry of service to others, as He went about in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the good news of repentance and forgiveness, and to bring healing to others.

We perhaps do not have to isolate in the same way as Jesus (but it would be good if we all followed His example more often). We can use modern technology to keep in touch, to develop networks of prayer and care, to spread the Christian faith, all from the privacy of our own room, and indeed over the next few days I will be experimenting myself with some new methods of making contact, as I am able. Coronavirus presents a huge challenge, but also perhaps gives us an opportunity to be a 21st century community of faith that shines brightly in a fearful and uncertain world. Watch this space!

By the way, you will have noticed I have not used the term “self-isolation.” I am not a mental health professional, but there are too many people who already struggle with a sense they are isolated – and not just physically – from others. It reinforces a sense of loneliness and can profoundly affect our wellbeing. As a believer, I am reminded however of the words of the Psalm which tell us that no matter where we go or whatever lies before us, we are never isolated from the presence of God. 

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
(Psalm 139:7-14)

The gift of generosity

February 17, 2018

I love it when themes come together.


Sackcloth and ashes

Last Sunday we talked about the new covenant promised through the prophet Jeremiah. We saw how it was realised through the life and death of Jesus, how He was able to bring about the complete forgiveness we all need, and how when we say “Yes” to Him, He comes and lives in our hearts and minds by His Holy Spirit. Read my sermon for full details.

Then on Ash Wednesday we looked at the theme of repentance. We explored various prayer stations which caused us to consider what repentance means not only for us individually, but also for the life of our church, our local community and our nation. I explained that repentance is not so much what we do as what we receive – a new heart and mind from God which transforms how we see ourselves and the world around us.

Which is all very well, but what does all this mean in practice?

The answer came on Thursday when we looked at the first group study produced by 40 Acts for Lent this year.  (If you haven’t signed up for their individual Lent challenge, then may I encourage you to do so.) The sign that we have responded to the incredible love and mercy of God, and that we have been renewed in heart and mind by His Holy Spirit is clear – it is a pure and simple generosity that flows through the life of every believer and through the life of the church.

So, for starters, the Lord wants us to be generous in our time  – being willing simply to be with one another, to support, encourage and listen, and to make deep Christ-centred relationships. We cannot be the church of Jesus Christ if we do not really know one another.

He wants us to be generous in our money – not giving what is left over, but the first of what we receive and holding nothing back. Too often we say our security is Jesus, but do we believe in our hearts that our Lord blesses those who give whatever they have?

He wants us to be generous in our welcome – drawing in the newcomer and the outsider in simple, practical ways that make them want to come back. Most people make the initial step towards faith not because of what someone has said, but because of the love someone has shown them that has pointed to Jesus.

He wants us to be generous in our hospitality – not giving out the cheapest tea and biscuits, and then demanding payment, but freely giving the best of whatever we have.  We have a God who invites us in to share in His goodness. In some small way we need to reflect that invitation through eating together and sharing fellowship one with another.

He wants us to be generous in our gifts  – every church member has been given some kind of ability by God to use in His service. We cannot properly function as the church of Jesus Christ if some are holding back on the gifts they have been given. To be the body of Christ, all need to be encouraged to contribute in some way because it is only as we work together that the Kingdom of God is truly built.

No doubt there are other ways that the Lord is calling us to be generous, but certainly all the above points certainly challenged us on Thursday evening. We’ll be continuing our series from 40 Acts next Thursday evening – why not join us? And let’s pray we continue to grow in our generosity as a church, and so show others that the Holy Spirit really is at work among us.

How is Lent going for you?

April 8, 2017

As we begin Holy Week tomorrow, now seems a good time to sit down and review how Lent has been going.

For some, Lent seems to be 40 days of doing without, whether it be chocolate or Facebook, or anything else, and by this stage Easter can’t come soon enough! Indeed we may have a few relapses already, and it is only with grim determination that we are going to stay the course.

For others, Lent has been about starting some new spiritual discipline, but by now it’s become clear that taking up a new discipline has been more complicated than we thought. The general busyness of each time, or fatigue or illness, have taken their toll. We may well be wondering by now whether we really want to carry on with it.

I shared at the beginning of Lent that I had two goals for the season. One was to actually start the day by doing something productive, rather than wasting time on the Internet. The other was to try and find some space in each day. I have found the first goal relatively straightforward, and I can see how I really have benefited by concentrating on the task on hand. The second goal, however, has been more difficult to achieve and like many people I guess I can blame circumstances for that.

But I will persevere, because I believe Lent is meant to be far more than a time of denial where we count down the days before we go back to what we really enjoy doing.

After all, the basic standard that the Lord demands of our life is holiness. The people of Israel were told: Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev 19:2 and elsewhere) and this demand is repeated in the New Testament (1 Pet 1:15-16). Indeed we are told in Hebrews 12:14 that without holiness no-one will see the Lord. Why? Because it is the quality of our lives which will prove whether we really are the children of our heavenly Father.

Now holiness doesn’t come overnight. It takes time and effort and indeed is a lifetime’s work. Lent as a season of self-discipline is part of this process of becoming more like the Lord, and it needs to be seen in this broader perspective. So the purpose of each Lent is to produce fruit that will last, rather than serve as an interruption to our normal way of life.

All this can make the Christian life sound like hard work, and indeed sometimes it is. But as we strive to become more like the Lord, we need always to remember He gives us His Holy Spirit. The Lord doesn’t give us a standard to keep and expect us to reach it in our own strength. Rather, as we understand the challenge of becoming more the people He calls us to be, so we are meant to recognise and realise our utter dependence on the work of His Holy Spirit in our lives.

So before we begin Holy Week, it seems to me good that we use what remains of Lent remembering just why we are in need of God’s grace. So that when Easter comes, our greatest desire will not be go onto Facebook or raid the chocolate box (even though we may feel both are necessary) but to offer our lives in thankfulness for all that Jesus has done for us, who underwent the discipline of the cross so that we could become children of our loving Heavenly Father.

My accidental Lent

March 5, 2017

Taking things slowly…

Like quite a few people, I didn’t get round to thinking about Lent until it had already started this year. I could claim I had only just got back from Australia and I was mentally unprepared, but I certainly couldn’t pretend I didn’t know it was coming!

So gradually over the past few days I have decided to mark the season by making two small and not particularly profound changes in my daily routine.

The first is to make sure each day that I actually make myself stop and take a proper break. There is always more I could be doing, but I would be more productive if I actually let myself have some time out. So on Thursday I combined a meeting in Exeter with a walk along the River Exe in bright sunshine. On Friday I had a nap. Yesterday I finally cleared the debris of an old chicken house from the garden.

The second and related change is to use my time in front of the computer more wisely. I work best in the mornings. But the danger of being permanently connected to the Internet is that I can spend, say, half an hour before I achieve anything browsing or catching up on Facebook. I need the discipline of going into the study and focusing on the task in hand.

If there is a theological reflection to be made on these changes, it is this. We claim we will live by grace, yet I suspect that as believers we all too often define ourselves by our busyness. We live in a world which expects us to be busy, and to do more and more. Living by grace, however, means accepting I am not defined how much I do or how much I achieve. God does not love me more if I am busy, and indeed I suspect He would rather I slowed down so I allow myself the space to communicate with Him.

Yet grace does not mean that I can simply fritter away the time as I see fit. I am a steward of the time and gifts I have been given, and when I am busy, I need the discipline to make the main thing the main thing. Cute animal stories and tales of sporting success can wait, they really can. (Although I wonder how England are getting on against the West Indies at the moment … no, my first priority really is to finish this post.)

And as I said last Wednesday, the point of Lent is not to have a season of discipline only to cast it aside when we reach Easter. It’s to take up new habits which will hopefully enable us to spread the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection more effectively. I can’t say my new disciplines will be easy, because they never are. I am already finding I need the strength and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that can only be a good thing.

The living stones challenge

February 11, 2016

Living stones.JPG

So there we were at the Ash Wednesday service. I invited each person to take a black cobble and to think about the stone they were holding. Each was broken, each was  imperfect, each was unique. Each stone was also dark, the colour traditionally associated with sin and wrongdoing.

I then invited each person to come and lay their stone at the foot of the cross as a sign of a renewed commitment to Christ, to seek once again His grace. What I hadn’t realised was that in this way we were creating a powerful image of the church.

Here we are as living stones gathered as one in Christ. All of us have rough edges and imperfections. We may not fit together very well, we may find it hard sometimes to get on with each other. But amazingly we are the material through whom Christ has decided to build His church, even in spite of our weakness and imperfections. In Christ we are being joined together and rising to become a holy temple in the Lord (Eph 2:21)

It was in light of this image we shared the peace at the end of the service. We then had to decide what to do with the stones. After some discussion service we agreed to take our stones home, with the plan that at both services on Sunday I will invite the rest of the congregations also to take a stone. Then at our first joint service on 6th March I will ask everyone from both churches to bring their stones back and we will lay them once again at the cross, as a reminder that we are together one body, the temple of the living God.

I would like to say this was all a master plan, but it was just the Holy Spirit at work revealing more of the truth of Christ in a way that was plain for all to see.



Preparing for Lent

February 5, 2016

At Deanery Synod last night we were reminded of the three priorities that Bishop Robert has set for the Diocese of Exeter:

Growing in prayer
Making new disciples
Serving the people of Devon with joy

I was struck by a speaker who said that of these three priorities making new disciples is probably the most difficult. We can all grow in prayer and we all want to serve others with joy. But making new disciples, that’s quite a challenge.

So why is this, I wondered? I believe the answer comes from the simple fact that so often we are weak in our own discipleship. Not necessarily through any real fault of our own, but maybe because our walk with the Lord has become weak or tired. Perhaps we have been reading the same Bible notes for over twenty years; perhaps we are struggling with the whole issue of prayer; perhaps we feel we are being ineffective as Christians.

That’s why I believe that before we set about new disciples we need to review honestly where we ourselves are before for the Lord. So in Lent my challenge is to meet with as many folk from the church and chat about our faith. I realise, of course, that in one sense this is something I should be doing the whole time as a vicar. But I want to make Lent a particular time of taking stock of our relationship with the Lord.

This year Lent is of particular significance as we are going through a period of profound change in our churches. I believe that for our changes really are to make a lasting difference we need to encourage one another to stay close to the Lord, to focus on Him and to discover His will for our life together.

So get in touch and make an appointment. Or don’t be too surprised if I ask you to make time to see me. Let’s use these new forty days as a time of real preparation, as we journey to the cross together and celebrate new life in Jesus Christ.


Developing Our Mission Action Points

February 16, 2015

I promised in my last post to look further at our four Mission Action Points:

  • Outreach
  • Follow-up
  • Growth
  • Gifts and leadership

Since then, however, I have been rather distracted by thinking about Lent and what our Lent challenge should be this year.

But the more I think about it, the more I can see a link between our Mission Action Points and our Lent challenge. We will be spending 40 days reflecting on Jesus’ command to love each other as I have loved you (John 15:12). And really that command applies to each of those points:

  • Outreach. As we said at the time this involves meeting people where they are, finding the middle ground, accepting, not condoning. Effective outreach involves following Jesus’ example and being prepared to minister to all whom we encounter.
  • Follow-up. We saw how this involves a culture of welcome and invitation, and a willingness to invest time and energy in new relationships.
  • Growth. We considered how this included both inviting in and going out. Jesus shows us that the way to grow in love is through being willing to engage and to witness through our daily activities, whether they are activities of the church, or our own particular daily occupation.
  • Gifts and leadership. This is a response to the love of Jesus, by being willing to offer ourselves in service and recognising that each of us have a gift.

Love, if you like, is the thread that runs through all these points. Of course I realise these rather general observations do not fully explain how we are to put these action points into practice. But as we take up our Lent challenge, I believe that as we reflect on the love of Christ, we will begin to understand more what He is calling us to be and to do. That’s why I would very much value your feedback as I hope together we discern His will and His way for us.

Lent Blog Day 39 – Being out of step

April 19, 2014

I was rather surprised by something I read in a prayer diary this morning: on a day when the earth fell silent, stunned by the dark events of Calvary…

Because the whole point of Holy Saturday is that most of the world was, and remains, completely indifferent to the suffering of Jesus. Today as Christians prepare for Easter Day, the rest of the world is going about its business, quite unconcerned. Today is a day to catch up with the family, or watch the football, or do anything you do on any other bank holiday weekend. Yes, there might be this small bunch of weird people called Christians who will be going to church tomorrow, but frankly, they are just a small minority.

And this to me is the real point of this awkward pause between Good Friday and Easter Day. It’s a reminder that we are singularly out of step with the world, that we live with different values and with a different perspective. That’s what Jesus meant when He told His disciples: you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.

The trouble is, we don’t like being different. We would much rather fit in and rejoice when everyone is rejoicing, we would much rather be enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend than engage with the serious business of death and resurrection. But Holy Saturday causes us to stop and reflect on what all we have learnt from the season of Lent. For come Easter Day, the message Jesus gives us is to go and tell others. We cannot stay in the desert, examining ourselves in solitude and silence. We have to become involved in the world, but willing to live by a different rhythm and a different calling.

And as always, it is Jesus who must set the pattern for us. That’s why as the season of Lent ends, I want to focus on Jesus’ return from the desert in Luke chapter 4. For when He returned and began preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, He astonished His hearers with His agenda (Luke 4:18-19), an agenda prepared by His forty days of prayer and fasting. To me, it’s a reminder that we cannot simply leave Lent behind and move on to the next part of the church calendar. Rather we must allow the lessons of Lent to keep on moulding and shaping us, and we will need to keep on drawing on a discipline of prayer and reflection to faithfully live out the calling we have received.

Because the truth is, as we heed Jesus’ command to go, we will find ourselves radically out of step with the world around us – just as Jesus was radically out of step with His audience in Capernaum. Their reaction which led to their attempts to throw Him over a cliff points to the ultimate fate Jesus would suffer – of hostility, of rejection and of death. And the path we will follow as we will leave Lent behind will involve a cross for us as well.

That’s what we need to ponder as we rest on Holy Saturday, in preparation for the coming day.



Lent Blog Day 38 – The Second Adam

April 19, 2014

It just so happened that my readings this Good Friday turned out to be Genesis 3 and Romans 3. Not perhaps an obvious choice for such an important festival, but a great opportunity to reflect on the differences between the first Adam and the second Adam who is Christ.

The first Adam was given a command to obey and he broke it.
The second Adam never broke God’s law and was obedient unto death

The first Adam blamed someone else for his fall from grace.
The second Adam bore the iniquity of us all and poured out His life as a guilt offering (Is 53:6,10)

The first Adam was naked and tried to hide from God.
The second Adan, stripped and naked on a cross, bore our disgrace (Heb 13:13)

The first Adam bore the curse of disobedience.
The second Adam redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13)

The first Adam had to be clothed by God to hide his shame.
The second Adam clothes those who believe with the new self, which is being renewed in the image of God (Col 3:10)

The first Adam was barred forever from the garden of Eden.
The second Adam promises paradise to the penitent thief (Luke 23:43)

Or as Paul puts it in Rom 3:23-24:

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.How? Well, Paul explains in the next verse:God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. In other words, thanks to the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus, the sin of Adam is no longer the last word. That is why Good Friday is such good news, and why even as we remember such tragic events, we as believers rejoice.







Lent Blog Day 37 – The tears of Palm Sunday

April 18, 2014

Passage for the Day: Luke 19:28-44

In the Anglican lectionary there is always a choice on Palm Sunday, between the Liturgy of the Palms, and the Liturgy of the Passion. There are good reasons for this. Whether or not we follow the lectionary, we do not tend to devote the same amount of time and space in our preaching and teaching as the gospel writers devote to the last week of Jesus’ life, and there are whole chapters we often miss out altogether.

But in Luke’s gospel at least the rejoicing of Palm Sunday and the sorrow of the Passion are starkly brought together in a way that we often do not appreciate. I spent some time looking at images of Jesus riding into Jerusalem that day, but I could not find any of Jesus weeping as He down into Jerusalem. We tend to airbrush those tears out of the story, but they are a most important detail. Even as the crowds rejoice because they see the long-awaited king coming to His city, Jesus is weeping at the inevitable destruction of that city.

However much this crowd is cheering, most of Jerusalem that day is indifferent; a few like the Pharisees are positively hostile, and those  who do turn out to welcome Him will soon abandon Him while others are demanding His death.  But how would Jesus fare if He came to visit our city today? Would the range of reactions be any different?

After all, most people today still remain indifferent to the Easter message. Some are positively hostile. And what about those of us who profess to welcome Him into our lives? When the going gets tough, do we really stand by Jesus? And when we see the indifference and hostility of others, are we prepared to weep like Jesus? For all our talk of mission, we will never truly have a desire to share the good news unless we are prepared to have our heart broken, just as Jesus’ heart was broken as He suffered and died for us on a cross.