I’ve signed a letter

August 12, 2017

Most of the time I do not discuss church politics with St Barnacles. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. First of all, such discussions can take a lot of energy and effort from our primary task which is to lovingly communicate the message of the Bible, the good news of Jesus Christ, in word and in deed. And even more importantly, it has to be said that the way such discussions take place often do little to bring credit to the church, and often undermine the very message we are seeking to share.

(By the way, when I refer to the church in this article I am referring to the Church of England)

But recently I have signed the following letter.

Letter

What is this all about?

For the past twenty-five years or so the church has been looking at the whole issue of sexuality. On the way we have listened to the voices of those who have been hurt by prejudice, hatred and bigotry, and hopefully we have learnt important lessons about compassion and humility.

At the same time society’s attitude to sexuality, to marriage and to gender has undergone a profound shift. It is now very rare to find a celebrity who supports a traditional understanding of marriage, for instance. Institutions like the BBC and the National Trust now celebrate sexual diversity, and those who are not in favour of embracing such diversity are routinely labelled as intolerant and “-phobic”.

So how should the church respond? Should it in the name of love and compassion embrace the sexual revolution or should it continue to teach and live by a traditional and Biblical understanding of sex and marriage?

It’s instructive to look across the Atlantic to what has happened to the equivalent Anglican denomination in the United States, the Episcopal Church. This church long ago abandoned a Biblical view of marriage and it now shows every sign of jettisoning other key doctrines as well. Once you decide that the Biblical teaching in one area no longer applies, why should Scripture have authority anywhere?

So a few years ago a separate Anglican denomination, the Anglican Church of North America, came out of the Episcopal Church. Despite the many obstacles it has faced, this new denomination continues to grow, while the Episcopal Church continues to lose members. This is hardly to be wondered at, because once Christians decide that they can dispense with orthodox Biblical teaching, they rapidly lose the distinctive message of the gospel.

This year the Scottish Episcopal Church also voted in favour of same-sex marriages. Again, there are orthodox congregations who have taken the painful decision to leave their denomination. However they wish to remain distinctively Anglican, so a new missionary bishop has been consecrated for them by an organisation called Gafcon, even though officially such a move has been condemned.

Gafcon stands for the “Global Federation of Confession Anglicans”. It is made up of the majority of Anglicans worldwide, including most African and Asian Anglican Christians. It is rapidly becoming a more and more important movement in the worldwide church, and its confession of faith, the so-called Jerusalem Declaration has become a powerful factor in uniting Christians in the West who want to preserve and promote the faith entrusted once for all to the saints.

What of the future of the Church of England? There is at the moment an unedifying struggle going on between those who wish to revise the church’s teaching on sexuality – in the same way that has happened in the United States and in Scotland – and those wish to continue to uphold the authority of Scripture, which is the primary issue in the whole debate. Sadly there is no longer any middle ground in these discussions and although I would like to simply concentrate on bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the streets of Stoke and Devonport, we are fast reaching a time when we need to make a stand.

This isn’t going to be easy. As I explained at the beginning, society has changed so much over the past twenty-five years. To a watching world it is incomprehensible that we would want to uphold a traditional understanding of marriage, let alone claim that the teachings of the Bible have any kind of authority.

In the meanwhile there are some very important things that we need to do.

First of all, it is important that we ourselves are living under the authority of Scripture in every area of our lives. Too often the church has been very hot about the issues of sexuality and marriage, but failed to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ in other important areas. A church which upholds marriage between a man and a woman, for example, but does not practise radical forgiveness dishonours the gospel as much as the church down the road who has a different understanding of marriage but seeks to show compassion in all that it does.

Secondly, we need to pray for the Lord to have mercy on His church. We all know the headline figures about the church, and its ongoing decline, and we probably all pray for revival and renewal. But how can the Lord renew and revive a disunited church? Is it too late to hope and pray that in humility and repentance the whole church will turn back to the Lord? Or we approaching a time when like our brothers and sisters in the United States and Scotland we will need to separate? These are key questions about which much prayer is needed.

Thirdly, we need to pray for our bishops and those who hold public positions in the church, that they will speak with clarity and boldness. To come out and uphold the teachings of Scripture will invite scrutiny and ridicule and there may come a time when legal action will be involved. But then again, for all of us, maybe we need to look afresh at what Jesus says about taking up our cross and following Him. Maybe our present crisis is a way of Him refining and purifying us, and asking just what we prepared to give up for the sake of loving and obeying Him.

Please, therefore, do read this letter carefully and pray for those who are making a stand in this way. If you want to add your voice, please do speak to me. But as I also said, let’s make sure we keep our focus on what the Lord is calling us to do here, and our mission here at St Barnacles.

 

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When life changes…

July 8, 2017

We all need a routine and a rhythm to our life. That’s why we have diaries and calendars. It means we can reasonably predict what is going to happen, and are able to stay on top of things.

But from time to time our lives change and for a while our routines disappear. As many of you know, there’s been a fair bit of upheaval here at the vicarage over these past months – which is why this blog has been a bit neglected. Thank you to all who have prayed and offered to help  – it has been much appreciated.

So how does our faith help us in times of turmoil? Here are a few things that have helped us recently:

Keep up your daily walk with the Lord. In the good times, when everything is going well, we may find taking aside time each day to read the Bible and pray a bit of chore sometimes, or an unwelcome distraction. But keeping up the discipline in those times helps you to prepare for the bumps in the road when it’s harder to keep a straight course. You may have less time to pray, or be alone. But you find that, say, even just 5 minutes reading a passage of Scripture, really helps to keep you going. It is no coincidence that sometimes just a verse read fleetingly really speaks into your situation and helps to re-focus your thoughts beyond your immediate circumstances.

Find the joy in your situation. This has been Lynda’s motto over the past few weeks, and her insight has been of great benefit to us both. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy, and we should expect to find something for which we can give the Lord thanks each day. We have discovered that on occasions this has been, for example, the timing when something unexpected or unwelcome happens. Yes, we may wish things turned out differently, but we can see that, had things happened at another time, they would have been a whole lot worse.

Praise the Lord for what you have done and leave in His hands what you haven’t been able to do. Each week I draw up a to-do list of things I think I need to do in the coming week. I have found that rarely I manage to achieve them all, and it can be very easy to have a sense of guilt. But then again there is always more that you could do. You simply have to accept that in times of upheaval your time and energy are limited. Allow the Lord to set your priorities and trust Him for the rest.

Some verses our daughter gave to us recently, from Psalm 27:13-14, have particularly spoken to us:

I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

We may not like waiting. We may want everything to change for the better overnight. But my experience is that the Lord can be trusted, and everything happens in His timing according to His good purposes and plan. Certainly I know He is the one who has given me strength recently and in Him I can take heart again and again.

 

 


Claiming Christ’s victory

April 27, 2017
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The sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:18)

What do you think of when you hear the words “spiritual warfare?”

I guess some of us are quite uncomfortable with the term. We don’t like to entertain the idea that there may be unseen forces ranged against us, and we don’t want to have a faith which contains any idea of a spiritual battle. Yet it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that there really are dark forces in the word; we can just look at the news headlines, for example, or even what sadly sometimes goes on in our own city. The apostle Paul reminds us our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Yet, as in most areas of our Christian faith, we need to have a right balance. There are some believers who see dark forces behind every misfortune, every suffering, every wrong decision.  The danger here is that in seeing spiritual warfare in each and every turn we focus too much on the opposition rather on the person and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So when it is right to identify spiritual warfare at work? My answer would be when we see a series of events that appear to hinder the purposes of God and the growth of His kingdom.

A specific example: we had tremendous Easter celebrations this year and the church was packed on Easter Sunday. The following week a whole load of people found at the last minute that circumstances prevented them from getting to church. This week two of our small groups have had to cancel due to unforeseen events. Surely the timing is not coincidental. The tactics of the evil one are always the same: to try and disrupt, discourage and disturb.

That’s why I found this verse, from Colossians 2:15, so helpful when we gathered for Evening Prayer yesterday. Talking of the finished work of Jesus Christ, Paul writes:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Isn’t interesting that Paul talks about spiritual forces as powers and authorities? The forces of evil would like us to believe they have power (or the right to rule) and authority. They would like to us to believe they are in control. But on the cross Jesus defeated them once and for all. His very public death was a very public defeat of their ultimate power.

So at Evening Prayer we claimed this verse and simply prayed that the victory which Jesus won at the cross would become real for us. Can I ask you join in this prayer?

  • That nothing would prevent people from joining us for worship each Sunday and hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.
  • That as we prepare for Thy Kingdom Come we would be united in prayer and so disarm whatever powers and authorities pretend to hold sway in our area.
  • That as we make plans for the growth and mission of the church we would be guided only by the Holy Spirit to make His Kingdom come.

Because engaging in spiritual warfare is not an optional extra when it comes to the Christian faith. Let’s then focus on Christ’s victory so that we can see His kingdom come and His will done in Devonport and Stoke as in heaven.

 


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.


What do we need to keep?

October 29, 2016

me-aged-5

Recently Lynda and myself have been sorting through the archives. We have found so much stuff! Old photographs, school reports, diaries etc. And it’s been a real dilemma knowing what to keep. We haven’t room to keep everything. But we want to keep some memory of the past. I am sure when we go through what’s left we will wonder why we kept some things and threw away others.

Churches, I believe, face a similar kind of issue. There are some churches which cling very rigidly to the past, where any change is seen as a threat and a challenge. There are others which simply get rid of any tradition and try to reinvent themselves from scratch. I’ve always tried to get a balance between the two extremes, but I suspect there is never a completely right and wrong answer to the question of what to keep and what to let go of, along the way.

On a practical level, I never cease to be amazed at just how much stuff a church can accumulate in a very short space of time. If we ever have to clear St Barnabas, then I think we will be surprised just how many things we have gathered over the past 13 years. Again, knowing what to keep and what to let go will involve some difficult decisions.

Are there any Biblical principles to help us? In the Old Testament the people of Israel were given detailed instructions about the furnishings they should make for the tabernacle which they carried about with them before they entered the promised land. When the temple was built, equally detailed instructions were given about how this was to be equipped, as a reminder that God had chosen to make his dwelling right there among His people.

The problem with the Israelites was that too often these furnishings became an end in themselves. So, for example, they carried the ark into battle as if it were just another national god (1 Samuel 4). The bronze snake Moses made for the Israelites’ healing became an idol worshipped in its own right (2 Kings 18:4). Why was this? Because they neglected the most precious thing of all they were supposed to carry around with them – the word of the Lord. By the time of King Josiah the book of the Law had been completely forgotten, and was only discovered when workmen were busy renovating the temple (2 Kings 22).

In New Testament times the church did not have any physical buildings. But the first believers, aware of the history of Israel, were conscious the one thing they needed to do was to pass on the word of the Lord faithfully from one generation to the next. So the apostle Paul was careful to pass on the essentials of the gospel as he had himself received it to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3). His concern for his “son” in the faith, Timothy, was that he would guard the deposit of the teaching entrusted to him and pass it on to reliable witnesses (2 Timothy 1:14, 2:2).

No doubt as churches became established, the question of physical buildings and their furnishings became a live topic. But it seems to me that as we go forward, it is so important we remember the priority of passing on the word of God. Churches as institutions are very good at investing resources to preserve the fabric of their buildings. But they are only of importance in as far as they tell the story of the faith passed on from one generation to the next. And if there is no passing on of the faith, the church simply becomes a museum and a tourist attraction.

We need to remember this particularly at this time when nationally the Church of England is under pressure to alter the faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3), as issues of human sexuality are being debated at the highest level. I love the history and the sense of mystery found in our churches, but the reason why our churches have lasted from generation to generation is that they have heeded the teaching passed on by Jesus to Paul to Timothy to reliable witnesses and ultimately to us.

I still haven’t solved the issue of what to keep and not to keep. That remains a tough one to answer. I rather like the picture of me aged 5, though!


Will you be a costly sacrifice?

July 27, 2016

On Sunday I will be celebrating Holy Communion at St Michael’s. I don’t usually plan that far ahead for the service. I know the words I will recite, and I will follow the usual liturgy. I don’t exactly do everything by rote, because I find that through the service Jesus always draws near to me powerfully . But I guess I don’t often stop to think how costly and dangerous my actions might be.

On Tuesday July 26th Father Jacques Hamel was murdered while presiding at the Eucharist in a suburb in Rouen – about which our own Archbishop has spoken so clearly. Sadly he is only one in a long line of priests and ministers murdered while celebrating Holy Communion – Oscar Romero is another name which instantly springs to mind.

So this Sunday as I prepare the table I am reminded that what I am doing is remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross where his flesh was broken and his blood poured out. And I am reminded that I too am called to be a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1-2) as I offer myself totally and fully in the service of my master.

Of course as we are all priests within the church of Christ, it is not only the presiding minister who is called to be a living sacrifice. Everyone who bears allegiance to the name of Jesus is called to deny himself and take up his cross and follow him (Luke 9:23).

So here’s my challenge. Cancel whatever else you are doing this Sunday morning. Come and offer yourself at the Lord’s table. And in so doing, express your solidarity with Christ and the suffering church across the world. For this seems to me the only effective response to the random acts of terror we hear about so often: to affirm that no matter what may happen we are not ashamed to bear our cross and to lay down our lives for our Lord and Master. We will carry on proclaiming the good news of His love in a world of hate. And we will be His one body rejoicing in our sufferings in order that one day we may share in His glory (Rom 8:17).

Then at the end of the service we will pray:

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us
with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out
in the power of your Spirit
to live and work
to your praise and glory.
Amen.

 


Taking a look at Habakkuk

March 8, 2016

Be honest – when did you last look at book of Habakkuk? Or even try to spell it? It’s been a while since I last read it, but over the past few days the Lord has spoken powerfully through this little book and it has been a source of great blessing.

Habakkuk is a prophet with a very modern problem. Chapter 1, verse 2: How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Isn’t that exactly the sort of reaction we have when we see the terrible things going on in the world, or indeed in our streets and neighbourhoods? If the Lord is indeed Lord, then it is only natural that we ask for evidence of His saving power. Because the headlines seem to suggest that He is not as in control as we would like Him to be.

So Habakkuk lays his complaint before the Lord. But he certainly doesn’t get the answer he’s been expecting. Chapter 1, verse 6: I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling-places not their own. That’s not the sort of comforting promise that he was no doubt looking forward to. The Lord’s answer to violence and injustice turns out to send a foreign superpower to march through the land and wreak terrible havoc.

But to Habakkuk’s credit he doesn’t give up on the Lord at this point. Because somehow he still retains a faith that the Lord is in control, and that even though the news is terrible, somehow His purposes will prevail. Chapter 1, verse 12: O Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die. O Lord, you have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.

Yet just because Habakkuk has faith, this doesn’t mean he is unafraid to ask questions. Indeed, it is through his questions that his faith grows and deepens. For in chapter 2 the Lord reveals that in His timing the Babylonians will in turn be subject to judgement. Verses 13 and 14: Has not the Lord Almighty determined that the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Even though the immediate and medium term horizons are injustice and invasion, there is another dimension to all that’s going on. Not even the corruption of the Israelites or the wanton destruction of the Babylonians is the final word. The ultimate reality is a world at peace when the Lord is over all and in all.

So how to live in the meanwhile? There is a clue in Habakkuk 2, verse 4 but the righteous will live by his faith. In the New Testament this becomes a key phrase for Paul which illustrates the proper response to the gospel – not to seek salvation in our works but through faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 1:15-17, 3:10-11).

However, it is important to understand that a saving faith does not simply mean a theoretical belief in all that Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. It also means a faithfulness to Christ even when every circumstance is against us, and a commitment to pray against the greatest odds. And we can see that illustrated in the wonderful prayer of Habakkuk in chapter 3.

Listen to these wonderful words from verses 16 to 18: I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

If there was a nation about to invade my land, I am not sure I would be waiting patiently, let alone rejoicing in the Lord my Saviour. But Habakkuk has that eye of faith that sees beyond the headlines and understands God’s biggest picture.

And this doesn’t mean that he is simply passive. Listen to these wonderful words from verse 2: Lord I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.

This was the verse that I brought to our united prayer meeting last night (if you weren’t there, where were you?). For it seems to me the message of Habakkuk is so much a message for our times. The question is whether, like Habakkuk, we will wait, we will rejoice and we will pray.