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.

 

 

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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!

 


The gift of generosity

February 17, 2018

I love it when themes come together.

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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.


Click on this!

January 20, 2018

If you are reading this, the chances you are already browsing through the Internet or flicking through Facebook looking for stories. I have less than 20 seconds to grab your attention, so here’s a cute picture of my cat, taken a few years ago:DSCF9076

But seriously, how we engage with social media is not something we tend to think about that much. Yet the more I work and live online, the more I see that actually we all need to stop and think about how this brave new world of communication impacts upon the way we practise our faith. So take a few minutes to scroll down this article, and let me know if you agree with what I’m saying.

‘Cos it seems to me there are three important issues we all need to think and pray about:

Mastery Psychological studies have shown that social media can be as addictive as gambling or alcohol. We have to keep checking on Facebook to see if anyone has liked our post. We want to see if our friends have responded to our latest Tweet. We find ourselves compelled to click onto the latest cute cat or dog video.

All this seem very harmless, but actually it can become a habit that we find harder and harder to break. Yes, we need our down time, but our compulsion to be online can so easy interfere with our working lives, or our time with our family, or indeed resting properly. And anything that becomes a strong habit will inevitably interfere with our devotion to the Lord.

Now I’m not saying that social media is necessarily evil. At the best it is a great communication tool to share prayer requests, to learn what the Lord is doing around the world, to support friends in need. But we need to have the spirit of self-discipline so that social media is our servant not our master. What we find online is virtual reality, not the ultimate reality who is God Himself. It is in our relationship with God that we find our meaning and our fulfilment, and we must not let anything get in the way of that, not even the apparently harmless habit of spending hours, say, on Facebook or Snapchat.

Manipulation More and more we are learning that what we read online is not neutral or unbiased. We talk about the great “information revolution” that happened at the end of the 20th century but now in 2018 we are more aware than ever that not all news is real news. We can be tricked and deceived in all kinds of ways, and we need Spirit-filled wisdom to discern what is good and right and true.

As we are bombarded with more and more news, we also need to be aware of the overwhelming pressure that is put upon us as believers to conform to the world’s point of view. If you’re not clear what I am saying, try posting on a public platform that you believe in the traditional, Biblical understanding of marriage. The downside of such free flow of “information” is that anyone can comment in an instant, and if you are out of step with the times, you can expect all kinds of abuse and vitriol to rain down on you. Paul says in Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world but it is hard when your views put you at odds with what the majority believe. Just look at the example of Tim Farron and how his view on marriage caused his downfall as Liberal Democrat leader.

This is yet one more reason why we need as Christians to support and encourage one another to stand firm on the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just by meeting on Sundays but also by supporting and encouraging each other online. Yet sad to say I find many church members are reluctant to engage with this vitally important area of online ministry. I get far more response to these kinds of articles from those who are not part of St Barnacles. Yet if our voice is to be heard and sustained, and if we are to help our young people avoid being manipulated by the world of social media, this online ministry is not an optional extra, but a vital part of our discipleship.

Meditation To me the biggest challenge of social media to the Christian faith is that it crowds out our space to reflect, to think, to meditate. The church has always grown and flourished when men and women, young and old, have created space and time to pray, to be with the Lord, and to listen to what He is saying. Paul urged the church in Colosse: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly and I believe that is an urgent command also for our day.

Yet social media is causing our attention span to shorten. Once we have read something, we might pause for a moment to share it. But then we go onto another story. We search for the next thing that grabs our attention. If what we find doesn’t grab our attention within about 20 seconds, we discard it, and move on. And I am concerned, really concerned, that we are not creating the space to allow the word of the Lord to get into our lives, indeed that we are losing the discipline entirely of simply reading our Bibles, being still and allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to us.

So here’s a challenge. Before you click off this post, take time to read Psalm 119:97-104 

If you no longer possess an actual Bible, click on the link and ask yourself:

What does it mean in today’s digital age to meditate on God’s law all day long? How far is Scripture my source of wisdom when I browse the net?
Do I let social media or the word of God be the ultimate authority over my life?

For the sake of the gospel, let’s get this conversation going.

 

 


By any means possible…

September 28, 2017

Facebook page

In the past the church has been quick to embrace new technology. This year we are celebrating 500 years of the Reformation, a major religious movement that gave rise to the Protestant (that is, the non Roman-Catholic) church. That this movement spread so quickly and captured so many hearts and minds is largely due to the fact that the Reformers used the recent invention of the printing press to spread their ideas.

When the BBC began broadcasting, one of the first programmes to be aired was the Daily Service. It started on 2 January 1928 and it is still running today. Christian radio is used as means of spreading the gospel across the world, and is particularly effective in countries which are otherwise closed to the good news of Jesus Christ.

New technology is important to reach the next generations for Christ and it seems to me we should use any means possible to communicate the gospel. That is why for a number of years we have been running this website, and most enquiries about St Michael’s and St Barnabas come through this site, or the Church of England platform, A Church Near You

For a long time we have also been asking for folk to help join in with this ministry of maintaining and developing our online presence. The days when the church could rely only on printed leaflets and adverts have long gone. There is a perception that running a website requires a high level of technical knowledge. But with a simple platform like WordPress, which Lynda and myself use, really all you have to do is type and post. Is this a ministry that you could help undertake?

Alongside the website we have also been running a Facebook page for several years. This page is proving invaluable in raising the profile of the church, and when people tell us they are going to an event or are sharing what it is going on, that is immensely encouraging. At the moment we are experimenting with “boosting” Facebook posts to ensure even more people know what is going on here. After the Herald posted an article last week about the “lost” church of St Michael’s that stood on the site for 162 years, we really want folk to know we are very much still in business! (I am, by the way, still waiting for a reply from the Herald).

What is the next step? Maintaining and developing an online presence effectively requires a team, and there’s probably only so much more that we can do. But we continue to try out new ideas. On Monday evening my daughter joined in with our young people’s group, even though she has now gone back to university. She was a virtual presence through Skype and although it was odd at first having a laptop as part of the group, overall our experiment worked. Maybe in the future we could have podcasts of sermons, or a Youtube channel.. who knows?

But in all these things the aim is not novelty for novelty’s sake. It’s about making sure that we are able to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ in ways that connect. And sometimes the old-fashioned method of simply picking up the telephone or writing a letter still works! But will you pray that we have the wisdom to know by what means to reach those who most need to hear the good news; and if you have any further suggestions as to how to extend our media ministry, we would love to hear from you.

 

 

 


My accidental Lent

March 5, 2017
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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.


Why safeguarding matters

April 22, 2015

Last night a group of us spent the evening going through the draft safeguarding policy which will be presented for approval to the church councils in May. It was not the most exciting of evenings, and some material seemed difficult to tailor appropriately to a small church, and I guess it was easy to wonder we had to invest so much time and effort into putting the policy together in the first place (a huge thank you to Lynda who did the bulk of the work drafting and re-drafting the document).

But the reality is, safeguarding needs to be at the heart of our mission statement. It has to be, if you like, one of the invisible strands running through every part of our church life. Why? Because sadly, the history of the church when it comes to safeguarding has been lamentable and as an institution the church has actually hindered people coming to Christ.

First of all, and most shamefully, there have been wicked people in the church who have either perpetrated or colluded in abuse. I cannot imagine how those who have been abused in the way must view the body of Christ, but Jesus must weep for them.

Secondly, the church has not always listened to or believed victims of abuse. Often it takes years for survivors’ stories to come forward, because those in authority have not spent time hearing the stories of the weak and the vulnerable. The damage such a delay brings only adds to the scars that the original abuse inflicted, and we need to repent of our failure to respond.

Thirdly, even when the church has listened, it has not always acted effectively or professionally to concerns raised. But in today’s culture the days when the church could simply behave as well-meaning amateurs are well and truly over. Particularly with our past, we need to be seen to be acting in line with best practice. Nothing less than the reputation of the gospel is at stake.

Perhaps one way to remember the importance of safeguarding is to think of the word SAFETY. This involves:

Security. This includes making the physical environment of the church safe for all who use it, but also creating a culture of love and listening, where people feel secure enough to share their lives, and to seek the grace of God.

Acceptance. This is not the same as tolerance. Acceptance means welcoming all who come through our doors, no matter what they have done, or what has been done to them. But it does not mean we will tolerate every kind of behaviour or condone those who refuse to accept the need to change.

Freedom. We believe that Jesus Christ still heals today, and comes to give life abundantly. So we should strive for a church where people can be set free from the past and are able to face the future with the strength that comes from the power of Holy Spirit at work within them.

Everyone. It’s very easy to think that safeguarding is the responsible of other people, or those with the right training. If we are the body of Christ, then we should all bear one another’s burdens, pray for and love one another, so that all are valued for who they are.

Transparency. We need a culture of open, honest communication where there are no secrets, and everyone knows what is happening. It is in this culture, ironically, that confidences are better understood and respected as there is no fuel for rumours or gossip, and people understand better the boundaries between what is public and what is private.

Young people. Young people need to be accepted for who they are, and the potential they can achieve. In today’s world young people grow up in a state of confusion and uncertainty, often not really knowing who they are or who genuinely cares for them. We want the church to be a safe place where they discover they are of infinite worth in God’s eyes and recognise the gifts and abilities He has given them in Christ.

You will be hearing more about safeguarding over the next few months. Do take the time to listen, and let’s all of us work out what it means to make St Barnabas and St Michael safe churches which glorify God and draw others to a saving knowledge of Christ.