Saturday, 19 November 2016

God's Amazing Coincidences

Sometimes God amazes me as he works out his purposes in my life.

Act One
It was a damp and cold early winter evening in 1962 as John Eaves moved uncomfortably in his chair at home. It was not physical discomfort he felt, though he had been recovering from pneumonia.  It was the urging of the Holy Spirit to go out onto the streets of St Leonards-on-Sea and give out gospel tracts.  Convinced of this call from God and against the advice of his caring wife, out John went from 27a Springfield Road and into the cold evening air.  At first he could find no one to speak to, neither on London Road nor Bohemia Road, the two main roads nearby.  He stepped out of the cold into a shop doorway to pray.  “If you wanted me to come out please send the person you want to have a tract soon; I’m not feeling too well!”

As he stepped out onto Tower Road he spotted a man in naval uniform hurrying down towards him.  He selected a tract at random and held it out.  The man grasped it and pushed it into a pocket as he hurried on.  John went home and told his wife that he had given a tract to a sailor and that he was convinced that God was going to save him and that God had a plan for the man’s life.  They prayed together that night and John sent newsletters to friends asking them to pray for the sailor.

The young man was not a sailor, but a sea cadet.  He was also a person who desperately wanted to sort his life out.  Having rejected his Christian background, he had drifted into an ungodly lifestyle.  Worse still, he influenced his peers into a hedonistic way of life.  Sometime later, in the privacy of his bedroom, he read the tract and found the story it contained curious and bizarre. It was about two young men who had attended a Christian meeting for fun and mocked the preacher.  The preacher prayed for the Holy Spirit to convince them of their need.  Almost immediately they broke down suddenly distraught and with a sense of their need for forgiveness.  Bizarre as the story seemed, it had echoes of stories from the Scriptures that the “sailor” recalled from earlier years in Sunday School.

The two young men only found peace when the preacher spoke with them, quoting from John 6:37, “Whoever comes to me I will never turn away”.  In the quiet of his bedroom a prayer was breathed: “If this is true, please accept me as I am.  My life is a mess.”  Nothing dramatic happened immediately, but a change began to take place.  A few months later he had started attending a Christian youth meeting, mostly because he was attracted to a girl whose father was a former minister.  After a couple of weeks, the minister of the church who led the group announced that the young man would speak on his favourite psalm the following week.  Not wanting to lose face in front of the girl, he agreed.

He wanted to be original and for five days he struggled to find a talk on the only psalm he knew other than psalm 23. It was then he picked up a picture postcard he had purchased on a school trip to the Tate Gallery.  It was of sheep in hazardous situations.  He turned it over and saw it was called “Strayed Sheep” and painted by W Homan Hunt.  He turned to a study Bible he had been given years before and read the notes that went with Psalm 23.  These pointed to other verses of Scripture:  Isaiah 53:6 and verses from John 10 and Luke 15.  The next Tuesday evening he gave his talk and confessed himself to be a lost sheep for whom the Good Shepherd had sought and for whom he had given his life.

After the meeting, the minister restrained him and urged him to be baptised.  There followed a series of preparation classes which he attended with two other young men.  The baptismal service was planned for Easter Sunday evening.  Easter Saturday evening, a woman evangelist had been booked to speak on Hastings Pier.  Sylvia Smith worked for The Evangelisation Society among London’s strippers and prostitutes and it was advertised she would speak about her work.  Unsurprisingly, this sounded interesting to the young man who attended with his friends.  That evening, after speaking about her work, Sylvia spoke on “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.  Taking each character in turn she spoke of Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, Herod’s desire to be entertained, Pilate’s washing his hands, and the soldier’s cat of crucifixion.  After each she quoted the words of Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. 

As he listened, the young man recognised himself in each of the characters she described.  And as he heard that prayer repeated, the love of God took hold of his own heart. The gospel he believed intellectually became a profound experience as he sang as the meeting closed, “Love so amazing, so Divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

The following evening, he was baptised before a packed church.  He started to witness to friends and family, leading some to the Lord.  A few months later he applied to join a mission organisation and went on to ordination and many years of fruitful ministry.  Many months after his baptism, he found that tract and re-read it.  He recalled the night he was given it and went off to share his story with a Christian friend who ran a shoe mending business in the town.  The show mender listened then produced a newsletter he had received asking for prayer for a sailor who had been given a tract.  It was from John Eaves and bore his address.  That day John received a visit from the man for whom he had prayed.  You will imagine his joy.

I was that young man.

Act Two
About a year ago I was booked to speak at a Torch Fellowship Group meeting in Melton Mowbray in last Monday 14th November 2016, and had chosen to share my testimony but to explain how the pathway followed sometimes brought sadness and frustration as well as blessing.  I entitled it “Rehoboth: Journey into Space” and based it on the story of Isaac’s frustrated journey as recorded in Genesis 26.  As the meeting was about to start, an elderly man came into the room.  He was unknown to all but had seen an advertisement in the local library.  I suspected that he had not realised it was a Christian meeting, so I said a little about the work of the Torch Trust to introduce the fact. 

He explained that he had not realised it was a Christian meeting, and was a little embarrassed as not only was he not a Christian but that some life experiences he suffered as a young man had stumbled his faith when he was preparing for ordination in the Church of England, turning him away from God.  Instead of pursuing a pathway into ordained ministry he had spent his adult life working with troubled young people living on city streets, some of whom worked as prostitutes. 

Members of the Group quickly put him at ease and I started my talk.  We were sitting around a table and he was on my right out of my vision.  As I got to the part about the meeting on Hastings Pier, the host of the meeting stopped me.  Pointing at the stranger she said, this man has something to say.  Apparently, she had seen a shocked expression on his face.  We turned to see him shaking his head.  “I can’t believe it” he said.  “In 1963 I was visiting my Gran who lived in St Leonards.  I saw the posters for the meeting on the pier and because the speaker seemed to be doing similar work to me, I attended that meeting.  But what drew you actually pushed me away”.

Had he not been able to provide further evidence I would never have believed his story.  He had moved into Melton Mowbray from Leicester only a few months before.  He had attended a meeting he had never been to before where he met a man he never knew giving a talk he had planned some month’s previously, only to find that both he and the speaker had been in the same meeting some 53 years previously.  I assured him that although he had lost his grip on God, God had never lost his grip on him.  He was already reminded of the prayer of Jesus for forgiveness so I reminded him that Jesus had also said that whoever came to him he would never turn away.  Will you please pray for Jeff as John Eaves and others prayed for me?  God has a plan for Jeff’s life, just as he has had a plan for mine.  Please pray that after the years of rejecting the gospel, it will now bring life, peace and joy.

More from the Diary
Please pray for my work in the prison, and for all chaplaincy staff at this time of stress in the prison service. Last Tuesday my regular visit was cancelled.  I am due in again this coming Tuesday.

This Sunday 20th November I am taking the service at Clarendon Park Congregational Chhurch, Leicester.

Later in the week Doreen and I will be staying with her sister in Kent.  While in that part of the world I have meetings planned in Dunks Green, Kent and in Hastings, East Sussex.

On Friday I shall be attending a service of thanksgiving for the life of a former collage, Heather Stainer.  Philip and Heather worked with Doreen and me in Mission for Christ: Rural Evangelism, for many years.  Please pray for Philip and the members of their family at this time.

Please pray for my colleague in Rural Mission Solutions, Katrina, as she is laying the foundation for a meeting next Spring for those leading children’s work in rural churches in the Southeast of England.  This is part of the process of picking up on the work previously done by the late Monica Cook.  Please also give thanks for the faithful support being given by friends of Monica to enable this ministry.

May God bless you abundantly as he works out his purposes in and through your life.

Barry


Thursday, 10 November 2016

The Blessing of Old Hymns

A few days ago, when contemplating what I might write here, an old favourite hymn came to mind, causing me to meditate afresh upon its words. So, I shall share that with hymn with you here.  Much as I love some short contemporary expressions of worship, I still value enormously many older hymns which reflect on scriptural truths.  My only hesitancy in using them in public worship is the presence Thee and Thou where in all other parts of the service I am careful to use contemporary English.

For me, hymns that I find useful either apply truth to my heart or enable a deep sense of communion with God.  The latter is a spiritual experience and quite distinct from a merely emotional response.  It is not that an emotional response is not acceptable; it has its place.  Indeed, there are some hymns and songs, old and new, that have moved me to tears or made me laugh.  But I suspect this has only happened because there has been a truly spiritual engagement first.  It is reasonably easy to discern whether something read, said or sung has led to an encounter with God, as distinct from just engaging the mind, or an emotion.  It is that deeper engagement that I value and seek.

As a child, I attended church activities and learned choruses and hymns. Some I remember vividly, are choruses we sang on film nights as the reels were being changed on the 16mm projector half way through the film (this was highly technical back in the fifties!).  They included, The Best Book to Read is the Bible, I Will Make you Fishers of Men, and Throw out the Lifeline.

I was intrigued to read in a niece’s latest blog how she has been reflecting on Count Your Blessings, another golden oldie.  The hymn I have chosen to share with you was, I believe, first brought to my attention in the National Sunday School Union Hymn Book.  It is based upon Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) but includes an allusion to the journey of the People of Israel through the wilderness.  If my memory is correct I would have sung it before the age of 10.  It became precious to me once again at the age of 17.  I remember writing out the words and displaying them on the wall of the office where I worked after leaving school.

Father hear the prayer we offer:
Not for ease that prayer would be,
But for strength, that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.

I am not sure that many contemporary hymns take seriously the fact that the call to follow Jesus, is an invitation to hardship.  Many Christians would prefer to ask for an easy way, full of joy and peace.  But this hymn brings a challenge from its first verse.  For me, it resonates with the prayer of St Ignatius Loyola, which was used in my Primary School Assemblies:

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will.

From an early age, I clearly understood that the call to follow Jesus was not a call to ease.  Please take a few moments to meditate on that first verse and those that follow here:

Not for ever in green pastures
do we ask our way to be ;
but the steep and rugged pathway
may we tread rejoicingly.

Not forever by still waters
would we idly rest and stay;
but would smite the living fountains
from the rocks along our way.

Be our strength in hours of weakness,
in our wanderings be our Guide;
through endeavour, failure, danger,
Saviour, be thou at our side.

The hymn was written by Love Maria Willis in 1864.  I have wondered what might have brought it to my mind.  It is possible that one contributing factor was a service taken recently for Elstow Bunyan Church, Bedfordshire, where my theme was Peter’s feelings after the death and resurrection of Jesus, as recorded in John 21.  Here we see the same impetuous Peter, but one who is challenged about himself and his love for his Master.  I suspect he went through an emotional roller coaster that culminated in hearing chilling words about his future, along with the refreshed challenge to follow Jesus.

Since childhood I have been familiar with the lives of Christians who have made a difference in this world and helped to advance the Kingdom of God.  In every case, there has been a price to pay.  Yes, there are blessings with mountain-top experiences, but there have also deep valleys and tears. 

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is known for its call to rejoice.  But it was written from a prison by a man who was prepared to endure all things for the sake of Christ.  So I challenge myself afresh today with Love Maria Willis’ hymn, and make it my prayer that each day I will choose the narrow way over the broad way.  Green pastures and still waters exist alongside dark valleys.

From the Diary
October ended with a disaster.  On 29th we were due to run a webinar on Ideas for Mission over Christmas and the Winter months.  Sadly, ninety minutes before it was due to go out, we discovered that we were unable to connect to the host system from our computer.  Despite all our efforts, including a long trans-Atlantic call, the event had to be cancelled.  Three days later we managed to get it fixed and we rescheduled the Webinar for the following Wednesday evening.  This was recorded and converted into a video.

There are a lot of useful ideas and suggestions in this video, and I recommend taking 45 minutes out to watch it from the Rural Mission Solutions website by clicking this link which will take you to the relevant section.  You will also find several helpful free items you can download from thispage.   Please help yourself.

Another recent activity was linked with the Rural Evangelism Network.  A mailing has been sent out, two new members received in, and I am now running a series of online conversations with REN members as we explore what we can do together to promote rural evangelism.

Toward the end of October, I shared in the teaching for the Salvation Army safeguarding course.  The feedback from this was fantastic and so encouraging.  Following this I have been invited to do a similar piece of work with the Baptist Union of Great Britain & Ireland and will be providing input at an event in Birmingham this Friday 11th November.

Thank you for your prayers supporting activities over the past two weeks.  This Sunday is a free day but during next week there are mission activities most days of the week including speaking at a Torch Fellowship Group on Monday, my regular ministry in prison on Tuesday, an event for children and families on Saturday and ministry in Leicestershire on Sunday 20th.  Prayer support appreciated for these please.  Please uphold the work of prison chaplains at this time of under-staffing levels in prisons.

Together with one of our trustees we are seeking to develop the Children & Families aspect of Rural Mission Solutions, ably led by my colleague Katrina.  There will be some planning activities over the next week.

Thank you.


Barry Osborne

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Please Knock Louder

A few years ago we added a front door to our home.  We did have one previously, but it is inset within a porch.  So we now have two front doors.  The new one was a great improvement in keeping us warm but I have never moved the doorbell to the new outside front door, though it does have a knocker.  Most people who call either step inside the first door and use the bell or knock loudly.  But recently I missed a parcel delivery because neither my wife nor I thought that the timid noise we heard was coming from the front door.

This frustrating experience came to mind recently when, in a Christian meeting, we were encouraged to pray for any for whom we were especially concerned.  I began to pray for family members who, as yet, have not discovered the wonder of coming to know Jesus as a personal Saviour.  You are probably familiar with the famous painting called, “Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt.  It depicts Jesus, standing with a lit lantern outside a door which is rather overgrown, and which lacks an outside handle.  It clearly draws on the words from Revelation 3:20. In the Authorised Version it reads

“Behold I stand at the door and knock.  If any man hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and feast with him and he with me.”

Of course, it is not gender specific.  Jesus knocks at the door of women and children as well as men.  However, the context of this verse is a letter to a church which, somehow, had failed to keep Jesus in the heart of its life.  But like countless others I have quoted this verse in an evangelistic context, urging people to open their hearts and lives to the wonder that is knowing Jesus.

As I prayed for those whom I so long to open the door of their lives to Jesus, I found myself praying, “Please knock louder.  Please knock louder!”, as I remembered my missed parcel delivery.  The problem is that many fail to open the door because there are other things going on that drown out the sound of his knocking and the call of his voice.

In the days that followed I have found myself wondering how God might answer my prayer.  When and how does he knock, and call out?  There is a brass knocker on my outside front door.  It is far more effective than just using knuckles or tapping with fingers.  I began to wonder whether it is the witness and testimony of faithful Christians that are the means by which God knocks at doors and calls out for admittance.  In asking God to knock louder was I hearing God reply, “Be a faithful witness”?

I suspect that many find that the hardest place to share the gospel is within the closest circle of family and friends.  We are afraid of a negative reaction.  Perhaps we realise that they know us well and know our imperfection, and that this will count against us.  Whatever the reason, we resort to simply praying that somehow they will hear God’s knocking and calling.  But what if I am meant to act as God’s door knocker?

Asking God to “knock louder” has challenged me and in the next few days I hope to respond and will value your prayers. Does God want you to be a door knocker for someone you care about?

From the Diary
As I shared in my last communication, last week was exceptionally busy with a lot of travelling.  I am glad to report that all journeys and meetings went well.  Coming into this week I took the morning meeting for Elstow Bunyan Christian Fellowship, Bedford where we found a warm welcome and responsive congregation.  This was a first visit to minister at this church and we are looking forward to a further visit next February.

In the activities of the previous week I managed to pick up a very nasty cold and cough, which has taken out a few days this week.  Sadly, I have managed to pass it on to Doreen.

Meanwhile my friend and colleague, Capt Gordon Banks of the Church Army has been working on the online seminar this Saturday at 9.00.  This webinar features suggestions and ideas for mission for small churches through the winter months.  He has also been battling a cold.  So please pray for us both as we labour to put the finishing touches to the presentation. 

New registrations are coming in daily, but there is still some room for more.  Please pray that all spaces will be filled and that this will prove helpful and encouraging to all.  The webinar lasts about 45 minutes and is ideal for rural or smaller urban churches.  It is free to attend but advanced registration is essential.  All that is needed is an internet connection with sound.  Why not register yourself in time for Saturday?  To register please click here

Katrina, Rural Mission Solution’s Adviser for Children and Family Work will be leading a webinar soon.  I have also met up with ideal people to lead webinars on working ecumenically and finding it fun, enabling lay ministry, and the ministry of Christianity.org.uk (a website for enquirers).  We hope to publish the dates for 2017 ahead of time.

Activities this week include a service at HMP Gartree on 30th, School Assembly on Thursday and a Mission Support Group meeting on Saturday 5th November.  I have a lot of administration to catch up and hope to do some writing during the week.

Please keep in touch.  Thank you for your prayerful interest.

Barry

Sunday, 16 October 2016

How would you like to be blessed?

One of the things that annoy me slightly is hearing people praying for others that they will be blessed.  What I mean is simply using the phrase “We pray that you will bless them/her/him”.  I find myself wondering whether such a prayer annoys God as much as it annoys me.  I can imagine God scratching his head and wondering, “Whatever am I supposed to do?” (purists please forgive my anthropomorphism and gender suggestion!). “Do I heal them?  Do I guide them? Do I provide them with a new wardrobe of clothes?”

The trouble is it seems so general as to be vague, when what God might want is for us to be more specific.  Perhaps from God’s point of view such a general prayer is heard but then God’s wisdom decided what might be appropriate.  But I can’t help thinking it is a slightly lazy way to pray, and that with a little prayerful thought we could home in on what is really needed an be specific.  Could it possibly be that such general prayer is so vague as to be a waste of time and end up in the spam filter!

Solomon was pretty specific when he asked for wisdom (1Kings 3:4-16).  Hannah was pretty specific when she asked for a child (1Samuel 1: 1-20).  Nehemiah was pretty specific when he asked for the King to be favourable to the scheme he had in mind (Nehemiah 1). Bartimaeus was pretty specific when Jesus asked what exactly did he want Jesus to do for him (Mark 10:46-52).  Some of my most interesting answers to prayer have been when I have been specific. 

The reader may have heard me tell of one of my first specific prayers.  I was a young man in full time evangelistic work and having to look to God for most of my personal needs.  I needed a new suit for work and fancied I would look good in a grey suit.  So instead of praying that the Lord would give me a suit I asked specifically for a grey suit.  A week later, one of my colleagues turned up wearing a smart new grey suit.  I was quite convinced that somehow things had got confused and Alf had ended up with the suit that should have come to me (howbeit what fitted Alf would not have fitted me!).  I shared my concern with God and repeated my request.

I need not have worried.  About a week later we were staying with Pam and David near Cardiff while working in that area.  I was still struggling to look smart in a blue tired blue suit that quickly became crumpled and attracted dirt as soon as I put it on.  Then, one day, Pam’s brother visited on the way to Rhoose Airport.  He explained that he was going on holiday and had been packing his bag when he noticed an almost brand new suit he had hardly worn but would not now fit him.  As he had reflected on what to do, apparently I came to his mind.  I had told no one what I had prayed.  He asked me if I would be embarrassed if he offered me this suit.  I couldn’t resist asking what the colour was.  He replied…. Yes, you’ve got it…. grey!  And the amazing thing was that it fitted me perfectly.

A few years later and the grey suit was beginning to look worn.  This time I prayed for a navy blue suit with a stripe in the weave.  I knew exactly the pattern and asked God if he would provide me with the suit in this particular pattern.  Then, I wondered if I was being presumptuous so I added, ”But Lord, I will accept whatever you provide”.  No sooner than I had prayed that when I thought that God’s sense of humour could result in my having to accept and wear a pink suit!

Again I told no other person what I had asked of God.  Within a matter of days, I was the recipient of two suits from separate sources, and I could have worn the jacket of one with the trousers of the other.  They were both navy with the exact pattern I had in mind.

Both scripture and my experience teach me that wonderful things happen when we are more specific in prayer.  I would like my readers to be blessed but as some of you I do not know, and some others I haven’t seen for a long time, I’m not able to be specific.  So, in this situation, would you mind putting in the specificity and as I pray that you will be blessed through reading this, please ask God for a specific need in your life to be met.  Now, not all our prayers are immediately answered with a positive response from God, but please do give it a try, and let me know when God has answered your specific prayer.  You might find it helpful to wait on God first and ask him to help you to know what your greatest need is at this time.

Next I want to ask you to pray for a friend or neighbour to be blessed.  It doesn’t matter if that person is not a Christian.  Tell them that you want to pray that God will bless them, and ask if there is anything special they might want you to pray about.  Please assure them that you will be discreet about anything they mention and this will remain a personal prayer.  Try to discourage being asked to win the lottery, or get a brand new Porsche (or husband).  But there may be a real need behind a flippant answer. Incidentally, don’t be surprised if you are already the answer to their prayer!

From the Diary
It was good to be at the Germinate Conference yesterday. About 180 people attended including many who are Christians living and seeking to serve God in rural areas.  I was one of the exhibitors and we had a large number of people who either took resources and information, or with whom Gordon Banks and I had useful conversations, as we sought to bless them.  Please give thanks.

Please pray for our friends at the Arthur Rank Centre who organised the event on behalf of the Churches Rural Group.  Specifically, please pray for Jerry, Jill, Katrina, Elizabeth, and Louise that each will have an encouraging week. Give thanks for their friendship with us.

This Monday (17th) I shall be travelling to Stoke on Trent, as I join with my good friend and former colleague in mission, Alfred Lavender as we give thanks for the life of his wife, Sylvia, whom the Lord has called home. Pray for Alfred and family.

Please pray for Sue and Tony Newnham, also good friends and former colleagues in mission, as Sue has started her chemo treatment for ovarian cancer.  There are encouraging signs of answers to prayer already.

On Wednesday I shall be taking part the Churches Rural Group Meeting at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire.

On Thursday I shall be taking part in the Group for Evangelization meeting in London.

On Saturday I shall be teaching on the Salvation Army’s Safeguarding Course in London.

On Sunday 23rd I shall be taking the morning service at Elstow Congregational Church, Bedfordshire.  This is John Bunyan’s village.

Please pray for these activities, for safe travelling, and that God will cause me to be a blessing in each situation.

Finally, Gordon Banks and I are preparing material for the webinar (online seminar) on Saturday 29th at 9.00.  Please visit the Rural Mission Solutions website for details and, if you can spend 45 minutes with us, you will find the link you need to register in advance.  The specific prayer linked to this is that at least 50 people will attend the webinar and find it helpful.  The theme this time is suggestions for mission activity through the winter.

Thank you.

Barry

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Too Much on Your Plate?

Do You Have Too Much on Your Plate?
I’m not sure where this English idiom originated but it expresses the feeling when we have just too much to do or to worry about at a point in time.

Doreen and I recently ate at a Toby Carvery where you can select from various meats, add a large Yorkshire pudding, and then help yourself to as much (or as little) vegetables including roast potatoes, carrots, peas, cauliflower, broccoli, mashed potato, etc.  It is tempting to take too much, and Doreen has a smaller appetite, but I think I judges it right, and we very nearly cleared our plates.

After a while a young couple with a baby joined us at the next table.  While she sat with the baby, he went off and returned with two plates of Sunday roast piled high.  I was not surprised to note, when they had finished eating, that they had left uneaten more than half the food on the plates.

As I looked at this terrible waste of food I found myself wondering whether what I was seeing was a metaphor for my life.  It might be true that my workload has been large, but I have been comfortable with it, having a good appetite for Christian work of all kinds.  More recently, I am trying to be careful about what I take on, and have started laying down various ministries so that I can focus the largest part of my time on promoting appropriate and effective strategies for rural evangelism.  I am sure that you are familiar with the adage, “Do less but do it better”.

By putting too much on their plates, the young couple were putting their health at risk and contributing to a scandalous waste disposal problem and global food shortage!  It really does matter how much we have on our plate.

It has been my privilege to exercise a range of ministries throughout my life.  My original calling was to evangelism.  But the organisation I worked in while still a teenager also needed someone to look after the accounts.  Because I was good at maths and English at school, I was soon spending a large amount of my time doing administration.  Then a need for someone to do pastoral ministry and Bible teaching developed and I was delighted to respond.  To all of these and other ministries was visionary leadership.  I don’t regret any of the roles I have filled, and have enjoyed the enriching experiences that have come my way.  Most of these ministries (possibly all) I continue to exercise from time to time.

I notice from scripture that the apostle Paul commences ministry as a new Christian by engaging in evangelism.  To this is added Bible teaching.  He is then listed among “prophets and teachers” at his church at Syrian Antioch, and ultimately is defined as an apostle.  Such development in his life, and in mine, is not about advancement or promotion.  It is about growth and new ways of service for which God equips all Christians.  It is not normal for a Christian not to have some engagement in ministry (though most churches are appalling at helping their members identify this).  It also seems to me that it is not normal for there to be no further development in the ministries to which God calls us.

But we all would be wise to check occasionally as to what we have on our plate.  It could be too much or it could be too cluttered, or it might not be enough!  I remember one Bible School lecturer who several timed declined the invitation to become principal of the college.  He did so because he was convinced that what God had gifted him to do and called him to do would be inhibited if he assumed the role of principal.

At a recent meeting of the trustees of Rural Mission Solutions, the trustees discussed the activities in which the staff members are engaged.  They urged us to focus on a few activities and also to seek to do them really well.  In my situation, we considered the growing ministry of providing advice and guidance for rural mission using technology and the internet.  We started with online seminars (webinars) to which we added follow through online forums for discussing the webinar topics.  To this we have now added videos available on a YouTube Channel, where anyone in the world can see them at any time.  To help make these more easily accessible, we have made some changes to our website so that people can easily find the webinar topics and all the free handouts. The latest venture in this programme is turning material I have used for church away-days into short linked videos.

But some of the early stages need improving so we are exhorted not to run before we can walk!  The other issue is that additional activities have to take up space ‘on the plate’ so it might be necessary to consider leaving something else ‘off the plate’.

Similarly, in looking at the various tasks confronting my new colleague, Katrina, the trustees recommend focusing on just two main tasks and I will be working with her to get both of these up and running over the next few weeks.  As she is only part-time with us we don’t want her to have too much on her plate.

I wonder whether you know someone, perhaps in your church, who has too much on his or her plate.  Sometimes this is because it makes us feel important.  Sometimes it’s because we do not know how or what to delegate.  Sometimes it’s because others do not offer assistance.  I once heard a pastor of a church describing that kind of situation like a football match where 22 men are intensely busy for 90 minutes, while several thousand idle people watch from the side lines shouting either advice or abuse.

While the last thing I would want to do would be to imply that the reader is like such a match spectator, I would be interested in hearing from anyone (young or old) who does not have too much on their plate and has a little room for more.  In Rural Mission Solutions we are looking for people with a heart for rural mission who might be willing to offer some time to help us fulfil the vision.  For example, a Christian who has recently retired but would like to use some time in Christian service might be just the right person to meet a need we have.  If you think you might be able to give some time, please get in touch to start a conversation.  You can email me at barry@ruralmissions.org.uk or phone 07720 322 213.

From the Diary
Give thanks for a good CTE Enabling Group residential.  My shared presentation seemed to be well received.  I was given a card and ovation thanking me for my past service (very nice!).

Thursday 6th – Editorial Meeting for Country Way (I have some copies of past issues of this splendid magazine and will send you a copy if you would like to see one).

Saturday  8th – East Midlands Area Executive meeting for the Congregational Federation.

Sunday 9th – morning at Clarendon Park Congregational Church, Leicester; afternoon taking part in a thanksgiving service celebrating past blessings for a church at Little Irchester, near Wellingborough, Northants. The nature of the community around Little Irchester has changed and we cannot see a viable future for the current church so this is the final service.

Tuesday 11th – HMP Gartree

Wednesday 12th – Online Conversation on Contemporary Issues for Rural Evangelism for Rural Evangelism Network.

Saturday 15th – sharing in the Germinate Rural Conference in Coventry.

Thank you for your fellowship.

Barry


Friday, 23 September 2016

Diotrephes Could Harm Your Church

Beware of Diotrephes
There are some characters in scripture with whom it is a privilege to likened.  To be called a Timothy, or a Mary or a Martha could be flattering.  What you would not want to be called, is a Diotrephes.  I first heard someone called a Diotrephes when I was a teenager bursting with enthusiasm and frustrated because my church at the time seemed generally lifeless (at least to a critical teenager).  I cannot be sure exactly who the person I was speaking with was referring, but I know the kind of person she was describing.

Diotrephes gets just one brief mention in the New Testament, in 3 John verses 9 and 10.  Since he gets this mention, and his character and conduct also get described in detail, I presume that the Holy Spirit wants us to know about him, understand him, and avoid becoming like him.

His name is interesting as it means ‘nurtured by Zeus’.  We can conclude that he was a gentile Christian.  Zeus, the god of thunder, was the king of the gods of Mount Olympus, ruling with a rod of iron.  I find myself wondering whether Diotrephes had admired, or even worshipped Zeus before becoming a Christian.  His own behaviour is rather Zeus like. It certainly seems to me that he might well have brought something from his pre-conversion culture into his Christian life.  He likes to be seen to be important, and loves that important status, while exercising his leadership role in an autocratic – even dictatorial – manner.

We note first that this is contrast to the character and behaviour of Jesus.  He is the king who is gentle and comes riding on a donkey.  This is the one who entered the world in a stable, and who sought no glory for himself.  This is the one who humbled himself, divesting himself of the majestic splendour that was his by right.  This is the Master who washes feet.

We also note that this was contrary to the teaching of both Jesus and the apostles.  Jesus was clear that among his disciples there was no room for anyone who might seek to lord it over another.  On one occasion he spoke about the seating at a feast and the folly of claiming superiority.  Paul emphasises humility in Philippians 2:1-4.  In Romans 12:3 Paul encourages the Christians not to think of themselves more highly than they ought. The very principle of fellowship (Greek: Koinonia) is based upon essential equality.

Diotrephes’ longing to have the pre-eminence is not his only weakness.  He has also made himself the gatekeeper for the church of which he is a part.  He controls who or what may gain admittance.  The apostle John finds himself excluded.  In this respect he is not prepared to have his authority challenged, so anyone who does not fall in line with his decisions, he expels from the church.  No room for dissent.  He is an extreme example of what we usually call a control freak.

To these two bad characteristics is added a third.  He spreads around malicious nonsense.  No doubt to reinforce his own position and opinions and defend himself from any criticism he employs slander and gossip. Here then is a man who has an inflated opinion of his own worth, is dictatorial, controlling, and instead of speaking words of love, tells lies to deliberately hurt the innocent.  No wonder that John feels that it is important to call attention to his misdemeanours and urges his readers not to imitate what is evil but what is good.

I was once taught that in any social group there will be one or some who will take the lead.  When I asked how these could be identified, I was told look for the ones who others listen to.  These comments were made to me regarding small rural churches where it is often claimed there are no leaders.  We are currently living in days when authority is regularly challenged, and assertiveness is often praised.  Trying to provide leadership in churches is not a science but an art.  Diotrephes stands in scripture as a stark example about how not to do it.  In character and conduct he is a contrast to the character and conduct of our wonderful Saviour, whose model we are called to follow.  Unfortunately, that might also lead to some kind of crucifixion.

It seems to me that the spirit of this age is rebellion against authority.  For those of us who are Christians, dissent should always be tempered with love, and those in leadership must not stifle the opinions of others.  In God’s economy, all are valued.  If we can get our relationships right, seeking to prefer one another, considering others better than ourselves, we will be a light in the darkness. Beware Diotrephes, for he can emerge from anywhere within our churches.

From the Diary
Give thanks to God for an excellent time at the Rural Likewise event in North Nibley, Gloucestershire last Tuesday.  Thirty people registered mostly from small rural churches.  I heard much that was encouraging and even exciting.

This Saturday, 24th September I shall be taking part in the Congregational Federation’s Mission and Society Committee in Nottingham.  This is an important committee so please pray.

Much of my time is currently being spent preparing for various upcoming events.  On Thursday and Friday, 29th and 30th September I shall be taking part in the Enabling Group for Churches Together in England.  On the Thursday evening I have the privilege to talk about the Congregational Federation and chose to share this with my friend and colleague from the United Reformed Church as both traditions share a common history marked by courage and conviction and which has led to the blessing of many.  Please pray that what is said and how it is said may glorify Jesus and bless all.

On Saturday 1st October (where has this year gone!) I will be leading an online seminar on the theme of the powerful influence of image.  Tragically, the failure of many churches to recognise the importance of image means that the message they long to share with others is drowned out by the many unspoken messages we give out daily.  There is still time to book your place for this event if you have not done so.  It is free.  It starts at 9.00 and runs for 45 minutes, with a lot to think about.  All that is needed is an internet connection with sound.  This is really an important topic so in addition to praying for it, please encourage others as well as registering yourself at https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7965285920768011533

Sunday 2nd October starts a very busy week which includes, among other activities, a trustees meeting for Sunrise Ministries, the charity title for Rural Mission Solutions.  In the midst of this busy period I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther who suggested that at times like this one should spend more time in prayer.

Thank you for your prayers on my behalf.  It means so much to me
.
Barry



Saturday, 10 September 2016

Children and Church - Are they Disadvantaged?

Over the last day or so in the UK there has been concern expressed politically about how we educate children, about their potential, and about what they should be entitled to receive as they grow towards maturity.  Strangely, for the latter part of the week I had already decided to focus on children and church as the theme for this week’s Praise and Prayer News.

I have various thoughts running around my head, which I hope I will be able to express meaningfully within the limits of this e-letter.  But the bottom line is that we seem to get it seriously wrong in so many of our churches.

We might pay lip service to the value that God seems to place on children.  We might refer to the words of Jesus, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  We might tell with wonder of the little child prophet, Samuel, or of the way that Timothy grew up knowing the scriptures from childhood and, while still relatively young, became a Christian leader.  One of our favourite stories is certain to be David and Goliath.  Though we do not know David’s exact age when he felled the giant, we tend to present him as no older than a young teenager.  Then there was little Miriam and her role in the life of her baby brother, Moses, and the little servant girl who brought about the healing of Naaman.  God clearly works in and through the lives of children as well he does with adults.

But in the life of our churches, children are usually marginalised, poorly taught, excluded from Christian service, and frequently barely tolerated.  One reason for this is the discontinuity between the kingdom of God and our churches, which we have institutionalised.  Instead of modelling our churches on the principles of the kingdom of God, we have modelled them to reflect our preferences as to how we like to worship, who can minister, and the style in which this is done. Adults today are still often doing what those early disciples did to the children (see Luke 18: 15-17) and denying them full access.

In a special service for welcoming a new minister to a Methodist Circuit recently we were informed that he had chosen the hymns except for the second hymn which his toddler daughter had chosen.  It turned out to be an action song, “Sing a song, sing a joyful song”.  When we got to the verse, “Clap your hands, clap your hands like this….” Several in the congregation clapped to the rhythm.  But when we got to the verse, “Jump up and down, up and down and around…” there was only one adult who seemed to be prepared to make a fool of himself, and sing this worship song to Jesus the way it was intended.  The rest remained dignified!  I wondered what the new minister’s family, which clearly valued the place of their little girl, might have thought if the whole congregation (or at least as many as possible) had jumped up and down, up and down and around!  What would it have signalled?  If we want to take children seriously, sometimes we need to be prepared to have a bit of fun with them, unapologetically.
In Rural Mission Solutions we try to put high value on our ministry to and with children.  My former colleague, Monica Cook, and I wrote a paper entitled Releasing the Potential (availableon the website)I am delighted that our current Children and Families Work Adviser has the same view. Our vision is to help churches developed programmes for both adults and children, that help people come to faith, grow in faith and go in faith.  Part of doing this effectively will be having some measures in place to test progress (but I’m not advocating church stats!).  But unless children are able to articulate their faith (in their own words and ways) how will we know if we have effectively communicated the gospel to them. How can we determine whether they are growing in discipleship if they are held back from opportunities to exercise the gifts and ministries that God gives to them?

At the service at Fleckney Baptist Church last Sunday I was specifically informed that one of the children would bring the offertory prayer.  He did so brilliantly. In one of my churches I occasionally had the bread and wine served by children to adults.  In an Essex church I attended once I found over 50 children running a prayer meeting before Sunday School.  In a Primary School in Sussex, Christian children asked teaching staff if they could start a Christian meeting during the lunch break.  When they were told that there would not be a teacher available they told the head teacher that was OK as they were capable of running it themselves.  And they did so!

So I appeal that we make more space in our churches for children, and that we run well designed programmes that have those three aims built in.  Let’s help children come to faith, to grow in faith and to go in faith.  Let’s make church more like the kingdom of God.  But be warned:  if we get it right, the adults might have difficulty keeping up!

From the Diary
We give God thanks and praise for the blessings on our ministry on Sunday and through the week.  We also give God thanks for some progress made at the recent Court hearing to resolve a difficult Trust management issue relating to a Will.  The trustees (of which I am one) are seeking a more manageable situation that ensures a better and safer future for a beneficiary.  But it means change – and that is resisted.  Prayers for grace and wisdom are appreciated.

This Sunday, 11th September I will be taking the morning meeting for Newark Congregational Church.

On Tuesday 13th I have a school assembly to take and my regular work in HMP Gartree.

On Thursday 15th I am taking part in a visit to a small rural church in Northamptonshire which looks likely to close.  We need to assess this situation carefully.

On SATURDAY 17th Katrina Thomas and I are holding a meeting at Herstmonceux, East Sussex in the morning, in order to introduce Katrina to friends and supporters in the area and to share the vision for her part in our ministry.  We have had a lot of apologies sent so I am hoping that there will still be a reasonable attendance.  We intend to follow up this event with some gatherings for those responsible for children’s work in rural churches.  This is part of re-launching this aspect of ministry.  This is a key activity for your prayers please.

On Sunday 18th I will be speaking at St. Leonards Baptist Church where I grew up, came to faith and was effectively sent out in ministry.  It will be great to spend time there and I hope that I bless them.

Thank you for your prayers and gifts for the work.  Please do not leave the issue I have raised about the place of children in your church (or their absence) to others.  We all need to examine our attitudes and get a serious discussion going.  Katrina and I will be happy to help you with that if needed.

May the Lord abundantly bless you.

Barry