Blog: Day one – looking back on our anniversary weekend

October 9, 2018

Photos will appear from day three onwards!

It has been a truly extraordinary weekend at St Michael and St Barnabas. I must thank and praise the whole church family who worked so hard with such good grace and in such harmony. Your dedication and effort was a tribute to the gospel.

Even more importantly I must thank and praise the living Lord who has brought His church into being and called us into His service.

For first of all He is a faithful God. To see so many people at our anniversary service going back so many years reminded me of how the Lord has been at work over so many years and remained the same through all the changes we have experienced.

Secondly our God is an active God. It was very special to have Bishop Robert come and confirm Sarah and Kelly in their faith. To see these two ladies publicly affirm their faith proved that God still changes lives today.

Thirdly our God is a global God. So often our vision of Him can be so small, so parochial. Tonight we joined in the worship of Jay and Pam’s former church in Bracknell. Tomorrow we are travelling to Thika. Wherever we go, He is already at work building His church.

So this evening on day one of our adventure I simply want to give Him the honour and glory that is due His name. To Him be praise forever and ever. Amen!

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The end of a chapter

September 26, 2018

Today we signed contracts for the sale of St Barnabas.

St Barnabas Cross
It was a bittersweet occasion. On the one hand, there was sadness at the loss of a church that has meant so much to so many people over the years. There are members who grew up at that church, and who came to faith there, and others in the wider community with a whole host of special memories. But on the other hand, there was thankfulness for all the Lord has done over the years, that time and time again He has proven His love, His faithfulness and His mercy.

And we could today also give thanks that the church will continue to be used in the service of the gospel. The buyers are Redeemer Church who will be using the building for midweek activities and for general office administration. So today was not the end of the story, merely the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. After all, what is important is not which denomination owns a particular building but how that building best serves the purposes of making Jesus Christ known.

It also seems significant that we are exchanging contracts in the same week as we celebrate 175 years since the foundation stone of St Michael’s was laid. Of course what we are marking is not the construction of a building – we are by now onto our third(!) church on the same site – but rather the story of how the Lord has led and guided His people from 1843 right up to the present day.

Buildings for all their special associations and wonderful memories are ultimately gifts from the Lord which we must allow Him to use as He sees fit for His kingdom. Our task is to make sure we are good stewards of whatever we have been given.

And this is why on this special day I want to pay particular tribute to those people who have worked so hard and so tirelessly as faithful stewards at St Barnabas over so many years. They are the ones who through hard work, often unseen and unknown to others, have served to build God’s kingdom in that place. It is thanks to their labours we can hand over this church for others to continue their work. So we pray for Redeemer Church as they take on this responsibility, that the Lord will grant them wisdom and grace for the next chapter of the story.


Why celebrate an anniversary?

August 21, 2018

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As many of you will know by now, on Saturday 29th September  we will celebrating 175 years since the foundation of the first St Michael’s church was laid. We will have tea at 4pm and an act of worship at 5pm. And then on the following day, at our Sunday morning service, Bishop Robert will come and lead the celebrations, which will include confirmation for two of our church members. There will also be a bring and share lunch!

But why are anniversaries so important? First of all, it is good to be reminded how God has led and kept His people over so many years. The tale of St Michael’s is a remarkable tale of survival, not told as far as I am aware in any history of Devonport or indeed Plymouth. It has survived complete destruction during WW2. It has undergone complete demolition and redevelopment. It has faced many, many challenges over the past 175 years yet the church community continues to stand out as a testimony to the goodness and the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. That surely has to be worth celebrating!

Secondly, it is good to be reminded of the vision which led St Michael’s to be built in the first place. The first committee who met in the late 1830s wanted a “poor man’s church” to serve the growing population of Devonport. And so they envisaged a church where all could come and worship the Lord, no matter their background. It is remarkable to see how that vision still is at the heart of the church all those years later. That’s why, as we celebrate, we need to honour that vision not just through our celebrations but by developing our welcome and our hospitality so that indeed all feel able to come and join us in worship.

Thirdly it is worth also pondering how St Michael’s has related to the local community over the years. During the late Victorian era the vicar and other members of the congregation were prominent on the Devonport School Board and were responsible for the foundation of many local schools that still stand today. During the First World War, the church offered comfort to the many families who lost loved ones. As we have seen, during the Second World War,St Michael’s shared in the suffering caused by the widespread destruction of the local area.

Times of course have changed, and here is perhaps one danger in celebrating an anniversary, that we imagine some golden period where everyone went to church and St Michael’s was at the centre of the local community. So while it is right that we celebrate our past, we must not be held captive by it. We must not imagine that if we turn back the clock somehow everyone will come flooding through our doors. Nor must we hold on the way things were done in the past, as if by holding on to our traditions, we are somehow being faithful to the vision of our forbears. After all, building a new church was a radical decision in its day, and those behind the project certainly didn’t intend to create a museum!

So our anniversary forces us to look forward. Because if we are to survive and indeed thrive for another 175 years we need to renew our vision and see what the Lord is calling us to do now. Yes, we are probably not being called to erect a physical building. But we are being called to pass the faith down to the next generation and commend the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that speaks to life in Stoke and Devonport in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean abandoning or changing the good news we have ourselves received from those who have gone before us. Instead if we are truly to honour the faith we ourselves have received from those before us, we need to hold on to it, proclaim it afresh and above all live it out in a way that shows the real difference the presence of Jesus makes, even today, even in the lives of very ordinary people going about what may seem like very ordinary business throughout the week.

That to me is the challenge that our anniversary gives us. How we live up to that challenge – well, this is where I would draw your attention to our current sermon series from Colossians. Paul’s words there are all about a community focused on Jesus, rooted in His word, living out the good news. That is the type of community St Michael’s has been over the past 175 years; let’s ensure it remains that way, and let’s encourage one another to keep on building the Kingdom of God here in this place, for His good and His glory. And maybe, just maybe, in another 175 years time there will be another great anniversary that will celebrate all the Lord has done through us! Now there’s a thought…

 


What is God’s word saying to us?

July 24, 2018

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One of the most important tasks I face as a minister is preparing the preaching programme for the next few months. It requires a lot of planning and prayer to discern which passages or themes we need to look at next. But somehow the Lord always manages to use whatever is chosen, and I have been particularly struck by how appropriate the teaching material has been over the last few months. We have all learnt (myself included!) from our series about why we come to church, and the current series from the book of Colossians has taught us so much about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ and why it is so important if we call ourselves a Christian to belong to His people. If you have been away and missed a sermon or two – head over to the ministry page, you won’t want to miss out!

So what about in the Autumn? Well, first of all there will be plenty of special events – our 175th anniversary weekend of 29th to 30th September (details out shortly), Harvest, Remembrance Sunday and the run-up to Christmas. But through all of it we are going to carry on in Luke’s gospel and look at what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We may have looked at this theme before but there is always so much more we can learn about what it means to be a disciple, serving and loving Him each day.  And with the start of Remembrance Sunday we are going to prepare for Advent as we consider what it means to say Jesus is coming back. Finally over Christmas we are going to ask, in the words of a well-known carol, What child is this? I hope you can see that in all this our aim is to promote Jesus, to inspire all who come to know and love Him more.

I haven’t yet put together a programme for the New Year but at the moment my plan is to work through the early chapters of Genesis as we answer questions such as:

  • Has science disproved God?
  • Why should I care about the world?
  • Why can’t I work 24/7?
  • What does it mean to be made male and female?
  • Why is the world in such a mess?

As always if you have ideas about what we should cover, or particular themes, then I am always willing to hear them. And let’s pray that as God’s word goes out, lives are changed for good, to the glory and praise of Jesus, who as we discovered a few weeks ago, is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15)


How do we talk about it?

April 28, 2018

In my last post I gave six reasons why we need to talk about sex and relationships in church. So how exactly we do this?

In one sense, the answer is as for any other issue – in our Sunday morning teaching, in our small groups, and in our personal discipleship. Let’s think a little more about each of these areas:

Sunday morning One of the guiding principles of St Michael’s and St Barnabas is that we teach the “whole counsel of God”. That means we aim to cover every part of the Bible. When we do that, we will find inevitably that we will cover passages that talk about sex and relationships. We don’t force the issue, but we aim to let the Bible do the talking.

This isn’t always easy, because on a Sunday morning we teach people with a whole range of backgrounds, some known, some unknown. This means our teaching has to be gentle and winsome, and connect with the gospel of repentance and grace. At the same time we always need the conviction that what the Bible says is of the Lord, and pray that the Holy Spirit will bring about real change and transformation in people’s lives as they hear. That is, incidentally, one reason why gathering before the service in prayer is so important. We need to pray that all of us don’t just hear the word, but really listen and act on it.

It may well be of course that as people hear teaching about a subject that deeply affects them they will have all kinds of reactions and questions. Sunday mornings are rarely the appropriate occasion on which to meet such questions.

This is where small groups come in. We need networks of small, safe gatherings where anyone can in confidence ask questions and share their experiences. These don’t happen overnight. We need to work hard at developing bonds of trust and security, and we need to work hard against sins such as gossip and slander which can destroy these bonds so easily.

But when someone is asking questions about sex and relationships, in my experience this shows that the Holy Spirit is touching their lives at the very deepest level. As I said in my last post, the greatest challenge people face to their faith is this whole complicated and messy area of relationships, and it is incredibly hard to face up to the fact, for example, you need to stop sleeping with somebody, or you need to break this or that bad habit. So in our small groups we need to have the real gift of friendship to support and encourage, through listening, through wise words, and above all through prayer.

This is where inevitably personal discipleship will come in. We need wise, godly men and women who can invest time and energy in those who are broken and hurting. This requires immense love, care and patience, and also wisdom to make sure proper safeguarding is in place. And the aim in all of this of course is to see how Jesus can be Lord over every area of our lives, even those that are most private and most difficult to deal with.

So much for the theory – what about the practice? I am at this point reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well recorded in John, chapter 4. It took place on neutral ground in the middle of the day. The woman would no doubt have known from the teaching in the synagogue what was expected of her life. But all the teaching in the world didn’t stop her from having a series of disastrous relationships. The disciples wouldn’t have understood why Jesus would want to speak with her, so they are not on the scene when the meeting takes place.

When Jesus tells her to fetch her husband, the whole sorry story comes out (verses 17-18).  Jesus doesn’t judge her. But He lets her know He knows all about her, just as indeed we need to be always that no matter how private we think our lives are, Jesus knows already everything there is know about us. The woman’s reaction? She goes on a tangent about the right place to worship God. But Jesus lovingly and patiently leads her to the point. What this woman needs is an encounter with Him that will change her at the place where she is most broken and, dare I say it, most sinful.

And the result is, that having recognised Jesus as the Messiah, the woman returns to her village and spreads the good news. For this is the good news we all need to take on board, that in Jesus change and transformation is possible. Yes, we may find it hard to admit our need of change. Yes, we may not know how to change. But there is no area where Jesus cannot work by His Spirit to bring repentance, healing and transformation.

 

 


Let’s talk about it!

April 21, 2018

As a church we talk about so many different things – faith, sin, heaven, prayer, the weather, Plymouth Argyle… But when was the last time we had a really good discussion about the whole subject of sex?

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The elephant in the room

Well, I realise this whole subject is intensely personal and for many people extremely difficult. I am not exactly that comfortable bringing up the subject. Yet in our discussions last Thursday evening it became very clear that this was an area we simply can’t simply avoid. Somehow we need to find a way to approach the whole topic in a healthy, open and honest fashion, so that Jesus becomes Lord over every part of our lives.

But why mention it at all? Let me give you six reasons for starters:

First of all, the Bible says a lot about sex and relationships.

It starts with the story of Adam and Eve who are joined together in one together in marriage. It goes on to tell how the Fall affected their relationship, and has affected relationships ever since. As the Bible goes on, we hear tales of adultery, incest, rape and prostitution, which are definitely all signs of a fallen world. But the Bible is not wholly negative about sex. The book of Song of Songs is a wonderful erotic poem about human love. Jesus Himself affirms the goodness of marriage, and the Bible ends with the image of the church as the bride of Christ.

Secondly, sex is the issue that is dividing the church at the moment.

There are some, like myself, who remain committed to the teaching of the Bible as the supreme authority in this area. There are others who while respecting what the Bible says would redefine what is and is not permissible for practising Christians. Because the church has so often failed to teach in this area, many folk are simply confused as to what they should or should not believe. Too often debates boil down to one person telling their story, or someone sharing their feelings. That is the not a good basis for any kind of reasoned discussion.

Thirdly, we live in a culture that is obsessed by sex.

I have been watching some episodes of Grey’s Anatomy recently. It is an American drama set in a hospital where the main characters have sex first, and then work out the consequences of their actions. It is very much in step with the times where sexual freedom is seen as good and healthy, and the act of intercourse a bodily function simply to be enjoyed. The motto of our age is “if it feels good, do it”. But as the characters in this drama, and I suspect many people in real life discover, acting on your impulses never brings the fulfilment you are hoping to find. There is still a God-shaped hole which no amount of pleasure can fill.

Fourthly, the digital age is promoting all kinds of unhealthy behaviour.

When I prepare couples for marriage, one thing I always says is that when you make your vows, “forsaking all others” doesn’t just mean avoiding other physical relationships. It also means being very careful what you watch or enjoy on social media and the Internet. The percentage of people who are addicted to online pornography is truly staggering, and the number of children who are exposed to it from an early age is heartbreaking. Virtual reality is very good at promoting fantasies, and the deeper you get into these fantasies, the more harm you are doing to yourself and potentially to others. Yet where is the church clearly and forcefully addressing this issue?

Fifthly, those who come to faith bring all kinds of baggage with them.

We all fall short in the area of relationships. Some are very damaged. Others are trapped in ungodly patterns of behaviour they cannot easily escape from. We need as a church not talk about sin and forgiveness in abstract, cold terms. We need to talk about the saving power of Jesus Christ and the liberation that repentance brings that actually sets people free and enables them to become all that God wants them to be. As a church we have the good news that others need to hear.

Sixthly, without discipleship in this area people will fall away from the faith.

It is sometimes said that the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet, and we often use this slogan when we want to encourage more giving. However the greatest challenge folk find in their faith is when someone new enters their life, who may not share their faith, who seems to offer the happiness they are looking for. It can be so easy as a church to condemn, but how are we training folk to think Biblically about relationships and to remain faithful to Christ? If we are not, then we should not be surprised when some of our number fall away.

So how and where do we start this conversation? I would love to hear your answers. In the meanwhile, I will be putting down some thoughts myself in my next post. Contributions will be welcome!

 


A time to tithe

November 25, 2017

Emperor+Tiberius+Denarius+Tribute+Penny

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
(Mark 12:17)

In October the PCC passed a very significant resolution. We agreed to tithe the income of the church from 1 January 2018 and donate that tithe to mission.

In some ways this is quite a risky decision. We have major financial obligations as a church. We need to find nearly £20000 a year as our share of ministry costs payable to the diocese. We need to invest more in our children and young people’s work. We need sooner or later to redecorate the building. Paying a tithe will be quite a challenge.

So why make the decision? Let me give you three reasons:

First of all, our tithe is a response to the grace of God. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 we read: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. As a church we owe everything to Jesus Christ. He is the one who called us into existence, to be His living presence here on earth. Our giving is first and foremost an expression of thanksgiving and praise to the one who gave up everything so that through Him we might receive our identity as children of the living God.

Secondly, when we tithe we are recognising who really controls the finances of the church. When gifts were brought for laying the foundation of the temple back in the Old Testament, David used some words which we use even now most Sundays, in 1 Chronicles 29:11: Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendour, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Tithing acknowledges the reality of these words. The name on the bank account may be St Michael’s and St Barnabas, but actually the funds are the Lord’s, to be used in His service.

And thirdly, our tithe is an expression of our faith. Again, in ancient Israel the people were commanded in Exodus 23:19 to Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God. In a farming society, giving your firstfruits to the Lord involved a risk. You didn’t at that point know if you would have any more crops to feed yourself and your family. But you gave the best of your firstfruits in the expectation that the Lord would provide and would bless your sacrifice.

In 2018 we are celebrating our 175th anniversary. There seems to me no better way of celebrating our faith, than putting into practice all the Lord commands. Of course paying our tithe as a church will be a challenge. But then the PCC decision asks all of us to consider just what our faith in Jesus Christ means, whether He is in fact as much Lord of our money as of any other part of our life. Surely our anniversary has to be a year of Jubilee, marked by genuine Spirit-filled generosity and a new commitment to His mission in the world.