Planning Ahead

July 26, 2017

When I arrived in the parish nearly 15 years ago, one of the most fundamental decisions I had to make was to consider what kind of ministry I was called to undertake. One thing about being a vicar is that there is no set job description, and it is important to prioritise from the off where you are going to invest your time and energy.

For me, the most essential part of my ministry always has been to teach and preach the Bible as the living Word of God. This isn’t to deny the very real and very practical issues that so many people in our parish face. But the danger can be that by seeking to meet all those needs all your time and energy gets focused on the immediate concerns that lie before you, and you never get round to preaching the good news. Your ministry becomes that of another voluntary agency seeking to do good, but probably with rather few resources and doing it far less well than others more qualified than yourself.

Yet what should be distinctive about the church is that it should seek to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, because ultimately the real need of every single person in our parish is for a living relationship with Jesus Christ. This does not mean we ignore the practical issues that confront us, but we make it clear that we do so in the name of Jesus Christ who died in our place for our sins. Because actually the greatest act of loving service we can offer anyone is to point them to the one who alone can bring hope and peace and forgiveness to whoever turns to Him – sometimes by words, sometimes by simple deeds of humble service.

Of course before the church can proclaim this good news, it has to know the good news for itself and see how it relates to everyday life in Devonport and Stoke. And this is where my role as a vicar comes in. My aim and my mission is to bring the words of the Bible to bear on every meeting, on every decision, on every pastoral encounter in the church. For it is only as the whole church is fed and nurtured by the living word of God that it can be confident in the message it proclaims.

That is why every so often I take time out to plan preaching programme for the next few months. I want to discern where the church is at, how it needs to be fed, and what the Lord wants to say to us. For me, putting this programme together is at the very heart of my ministry.

Recently I have put together the next preaching programme from 3 Sep to Easter Sunday, 1 April. What factors have guided my thoughts?

From September to Advent, we are moving from Mark 7 to Mark 13 and seeing how Jesus helps us answer some very important questions – everything from what it means to follow Him to why marriage is so important. For those who have recently completed Christianity Explored this will also be a further opportunity to engage with Mark’s gospel.

After Christmas until Lent, we are looking at a prophet we have never studied before, Jeremiah. The whole book of Jeremiah is very long and not particularly cheerful, but we are just taking a few passages to look at some of his warning and see how relevant they are to us today. For example, “Don’t be a Sunday Christian”, “Don’t worship idols”, “Don’t ignore God’s word”.

During Lent we are going to do something rather different. I have always been concerned that so often we rush through whole swathes of the gospel in the week leading up to Easter and never really spend the time we should looking at the arrest, trial and condemnation of Jesus. So we are going to linger in Mark 14 in particular and look again at the journey to the cross and our response.

I very much you are going to join us in our journey through Scripture. Why not use the summer to read ahead? And please would you pray that it is God’s word that is faithfully preached, and that many recognise their need of Christ? Thank you.

 

 

 

 


Vicaring about

July 23, 2017

 

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No this isn’t an expression that really means something else. It’s a phrase I picked up from a vicar I was shadowing when I was at college (nearly 20 years ago!). It simply means going around being a presence, and seeing where the Lord leads you.

Yesterday it was the Stoke Traders and Residents Fair. It wasn’t the right event for open proclamation of the gospel, but it was wonderful just to be able to sit and talk with whoever came past. It made me realise how even after 15 years how many people do not know who I am. It also made me aware that for some people the church has made a real impact. One young lady talked warmly about the pancake party this year and hearing the Christmas carols, another about getting married at the church well over 40 years ago. And as is often the way with things, my time ended with a significant and long overdue pastoral conversation that might well lead to further contact.

But having all these conversations made me realise how much more effectively we need to engage with the local community. Stoke is facing some significant issues. The library is closing permanently in September and the Post Office at least temporarily on 19 August. For many people this will spell the loss of a real presence in the community. How are we as a church called to respond?

That’s a question I believe we all need to pray about as we plan our mission and outreach for the next few months.


How to poison the body of Christ

March 23, 2017

bottle of poison

Often I am asked by outsiders, “Why can’t I see Jesus?” There are many ways you can answer that question. But the model answer ought to be that we can see Jesus in the local church. As I have said many times, the church is the body of Christ. Its calling is to be the visible presence of Jesus of the wider world.

For the church to fufil that calling, however, there needs to be open, trusting and loving relationships. Our love for each other shows that Jesus really is Lord in our lives. And it involves more than simply being nice with each other. It involves being honest with each other, recognising our differences and yet being committed to respecting the other person as someone for whom Christ died.

This is why gossip is so poisonous. Gossip often comes from the most unlikely of sources, from people who would be considered mature Christians and yet betray their maturity by the way they speak about other people. Such people, in my experience, would be horrified if they thought they were called gossips. They would justify their sharing of information as providing fuel for prayers, expressing concerns in confidence, wanting just to let you know “in case”.

But I want to name gossip for what it is – a dark and ugly sin that poisons the whole body of Christ. Any form of gossip goes against the Lord’s command to love your neighbour as yourself. It involves saying something about someone else you would not say to their face, and passing your judgement to a third party. Often that person sharing the information does not themselves question their source. So gossip feeds half-truths, and deception which spreads and spreads and spreads. It produces cliques of those in the know and those who feel excluded, vaguely aware without being able to get to the bottom of it all, that someone somewhere is talking about them. That is why a gossiping church cannot be a gospel church.

The Bible has plenty to say about gossip, particularly in the book of Proverbs.

A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret. (Prov 11:13). In other words, anything shared in confidence stays in confidence. If you feel to have to share something said, ask the other person’s permission first.

A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. (Prov 16:28). This needs no comment – words thoughtlessly about spoken about another person destroy relationships again and again.

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts. (Prov 18:8). Like most sin, gossip is something all of us enjoy from time to time. But just because you enjoy something, it doesn’t mean it’s right. And gossip is as much as what we post on social media as anything we share we face to face.

A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much. (Prov 20:19). One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. Someone who is desperate to share with you the latest titbit of news needs to avoided or challenged. It is rare for that person to have a genuine concern for whoever they are gossiping about.

Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. (Prov 26:20). Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet time after time we see churches rent asunder by warring factions, and so often gossip is at the heart of the issue. We need to learn to listen, to really listen to one another. We need to learn to repent and recognise when our words have offended others. We need to invest our time in building other people up, rather than looking for opportunities to take them down.

Recently I have several times been told information about someone from a third hand source who themselves were not directly involved in the issue in question. I respect people who share genuine concerns with me, and I am always willing to hear these concerns in confidence. But if those concerns come to me only by a very indirect route, I immediately become concerned as to who else knows and who else doesn’t know what is going on. In any situation and in any organisation the shortest line of communication is best, and the longer the chain, the more likely it is that gossip has broken out. I would far rather hear news face-to-face than third or fourth hand.

So for the sake of the mission of the church, for the sake of those who are dying to see Jesus, let’s make every effort to avoid gossip. Some of the fruits of the sinful nature are dissension, factions and envy (Gal 5:20-21), and we must be clear – gossip plants their seeds. Let’s rather keep in step with the Spirit and make sure our words to one another reflect the good news we all long to make known.


In the Upper Room

March 26, 2016

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have been for me very special events this year.

On Maundy Thursday we had long planned a  fellowship meal followed by a simple act of Holy Communion. How exactly the evening would run was another matter. But the nearer Maundy Thursday drew near, the more we sensed we wanted to create something of the atmosphere of the Upper Room, and not just in the sharing of the bread and wine.

Whatever else may have happened there, we know Jesus celebrated the Passover, read the Scriptures and taught His disciples. So during the course of the meal we tried however faintly to follow this example. We read through Matthew 26, and on each table we put out cards with questions about forgiveness, for folk to use as they saw fit.

How the evening would turn out, I had almost no idea. But what I found fascinating was how through the words of the Bible, and the conversations one with another, the Holy Spirit was so clearly at work. As folk openly and honestly shared real life situations, so we began to understand each other so much better and deepen our sense of unity as the body of Christ.

Nobody, I think, found the whole subject of forgiveness easy. We all could tell stories of when it was hard to forgive, and when our efforts to bring peace had failed. But certainly for my part, as we discussed the issues we faced, it made me realise what a mighty work God achieved in Jesus Christ by forgiving us our sins. We so often and so lightly talk about the forgiveness God offers, but the cost to Jesus was painful and it was real.

After all, as I shared briefly, Jesus on that night was betrayed by the chief priests (who should have welcomed the Messiah), by Judas Iscariot, even by Peter. When He took His friends into the garden of Gethsemane, they fell asleep instead of supporting Him in prayer. When He was arrested, all the disciples deserted Him and fled in terror. It’s hard to imagine such a lonely, terrible experience for Jesus, and all that even before the beating, the insults and crucifixion. Yet Jesus went through it all so that in Him we could experience the forgiveness of our Heavenly Father by dying in our place for our sins.

It was only natural, then, that our conversations led after the meal to a act of Holy Communion, and a simple act of passing the loaf and cup to one another reinforced our sense of belonging to Christ and to each other. We ended up by singing, “When I survey the wondrous cross”, and for me the evening was summed up by the last lines of that hymn which took on a new and profound significance:

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul, my all

 


Do we know what the Lord is doing?

November 12, 2015

Some of us have been reflecting recently on the verse quoted by the Archdeacon at the end of his sermon at the recent induction service:

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)

The archdeacon’s focus was very much on the Lord doing a new thing. But I have been thinking a lot about the question that follows this statement. If the Lord is at work, why would we not notice it? A few suggestions:

    • It could be that we have quite simply gotten out of the habit of listening to the Lord. The complaint the Lord made in Isaiah’s time to His people was that your ears are open, but you hear nothing (Isaiah 42:20). It can be so easy to go through the motions in our relationship with Lord, without keeping in step with the Spirit. It’s hardly surprising then if we fail to hear what the Lord is saying to us.
    • Or again it could be that our spiritual vision is affected by some sin we have not confessed, or indeed may not yet be aware of. In Isaiah’s time the besetting sin of the Lord’s people was idolatry, and while we may not worship blocks of wood, we may still have other priorities in our life that have a higher affection than our faith – our work, maybe, or our family, or our friendship. Isaiah’s words in 44:6 should cause us to reflect: This is what the Lord says –  Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. That being the case, are we really giving the Lord the chance to speak to us?
    • Or it may simply be that we are afraid of the new thing that the Lord is doing. We are comfortable with the present, or at least it is more certain and more known than the future which lies in store for us. Yet as we have seen in our readings from Hebrews, faith is about stepping out in full trust and assurance in the Lord, knowing that He has a better future for us. That’s why in the verse before Isaiah 43:19 the Lord tells us: Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. Not because the past is unimportant, but because it is past, and we are called to press on to the goal to which Christ has called us (see Phil 3:12-14).

And what is true of us as individuals is also true of us as a church. What is the new thing that the Lord longs to do among us? That’s a question I believe we all need to ponder and discuss among ourselves.


Lessons I am learning about faith-sharing

July 7, 2015

Ah yes, sharing your faith. That most difficult of subjects that most Christians squirm about, something we know we are to called to do but don’t know how. Let me let you into a little secret – I also struggle in this area. I am not a natural born evangelist, and I know have stronger gifts in other areas. But slowly over the years the Lord has been working in me and teaching me a few lessons about faith-sharing which I am still trying to learn. So very much as work-in-progress, let me share some of the most important things I am learning about sharing our faith:

Practice grace. What do I mean by this? Well, it can be very easy to fall into the trap that when an opportunity presents itself you have to get the words exactly right, or present the gospel in that particular way, or use all of those key words that are so important to the Christian faith. Anything less, you feel, and you are somehow failing to put across the gospel. That may be how some promote faith-sharing, but actually, it doesn’t all depend on you. Yes, we are to make the most of every opportunity (Col 4:5) but we do that by relying on God’s grace. And that means trusting He can use the faltering words, the conversations where we miss out some key part of our faith, even the admissions we are not really sure on one or two points. People respond more readily to an honest, imperfect testimony than a slick presentation.

Have faith. That may sound an odd thing to say when talking about faith-sharing. But if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, you can get into the habit of thinking whatever you do or say won’t really make a difference. You just happen to live with an unbelieving family or work among hardened colleagues, and nothing is ever going to change. The Lord however promises that His word will never return empty and will accomplish what He has purposed (Isaiah 55:10-11). We may not see the results, but that is besides the point. Faith is about trusting the Lord to be at work even when we do not see visible results, and we need to be able to leave our conversations in God’s hands, knowing that we are only unworthy servants called to do our duty.

Have humility. There is unfortunately a tendency in all of us to boast. We see increased numbers for two Sundays running and we tell everyone how our church is growing. Someone responds to something we say and we start talking the language of conversion, maybe even revival. I think it is appropriate to say we have seen the Lord at work, but let’s be careful the credit really does go to Him and in our spiritually hungry age we do not exaggerate what He is doing for our own ends.

Keep on loving. More and more, I realise that the best evangelism springs from a loving relationship with those you are seeking to reach. We can sometimes be in such a rush to share our faith that we fail to enter their world, to listen to their cares, to understand the language they use. This is something of which I have been particularly guilty in the past. Using instead a simple questionnaire to help folk articulate what they believe has completely transformed my pastoral work. We need to be secure enough to let them set the agenda, and see where the Lord leads by His Spirit. So when Jesus sat down by the well in Sychar he spoke with the Samaritan woman about a subject dear to her heart – water (John 4). When in Athens Paul started quoting from the Greek poets (Acts 17:16-34). Faith sharing starts with where people are at, not where we would like them to be, and recognising that fact is a proper response of love.

Cover yourself in prayer. One-to-one conversations are by their nature individual and personal, and it would not be appropriate to share the details of such discussions. But when you are about to have such a conversation or have just had one, then again I am increasingly realising how important it is to have people who are supporting your faith-sharing in prayer. We are after all the body of Christ, and when we are on the spiritual frontline it is so important to have your fellow believers holding up their hands on your behalf. I am so conscious that Paul the first great missionary of the church always worked as part of a team, with close fellowship alongside Him and besides Him. The early church grew because there was this network of prayer, and if we are not praying for one another, then we will see little fruit to our labours.

Train others. Jesus sent out the 12 (Luke 9) and then the 72 (Luke 10). He prepared them by sharing His life with them, and by giving them specific instructions to carry on doing the things He was already doing. When He was about to return into heaven, He passed on the great commission to people who already knew what it meant to make disciples, baptise and teach  (Matthew 28:18-20). Now so far this is an area where I haven’t yet made a lot of progress. But one day I hope with all my heart there will be people who feel called to share in the work of baptism preparation or lead a Christianity Explored course, for example. As I said earlier, God uses our honesty and our imperfections, and it is far better that some try rather than one person continues until it is time for him or her to move on.

I am sure there are other lessons still to be learnt, but this at least is a start! But what is your experience? Let me have your thoughts and feedback, and maybe we will return to this subject another time.


Love feasts

June 28, 2015

It was great to gather together for lunch at St Michael’s today and something truly unusually happened for us. We had eaten, washed up and tidied away by two o’clock: usually we would only be sitting down to eat by that time. But even more importantly, it was great to see so many people staying behind eating, chatting and learning new things about each other.

In the very early church Holy Communion was always celebrated as part of a wider meal. The meal or love feast was a sign of sharing one with another and a symbol of real fellowship. It was also a very practical means of meeting the needs of many church members who otherwise would have very little to eat, or perhaps because of their work were unable to eat before the service. It was around such meals that Christians found the support and the encouragement to live out their faith in a world which was hostile and suspicious of followers of Jesus.

Sadly, the love feast soon disappeared and Holy Communion became just another part of the liturgy. You can see some reasons for this if you look at 1 Corinthians. Rather symbolising unity, the meal ended up underlining the inequalities between church members (1 Cor 11:20-21). Church members were inviting judgement upon themselves by failing to recognise others as the body of Christ (1 Cor 11:28-29) and satisfying their own appetites instead (1 Cor 11:33-34)

The idea of a shared meal has never really taken hold in mainline denominations since, although some Christians groups have reintroduced the idea of lovefeasts, and others hold meals with Holy Communion on special occasions (for example, when celebrating the Passover). But it seems to me that so often the simplest ideas are the best, that instead of a great deal of preparation and organisation we simply decide to stay behind and share lunch together. That to me seems a practice well worth re-introducing, to affirm that we belong to one another and are members of one body.

So look out for the next date when we have lunch together and aim to be there! Part of our mission action plan is about being with each other – what better way than to eat together and have fellowship in Christ’s name?