Sunday, 19 March 2017

Unforgettable Characters

It has been three weeks since the last Praise & Prayer News.  I think this might be the longest period of silence from me!  It has been caused in part by a particularly busy period, sometimes most intense at the weekends when I usually write.  It has also been caused by some uncertainty as to what I should write.  I do take time to pray before sitting down at the laptop, and usually ponder over a topic for several days, hoping that what I write will prove relevant to as many as possible.

As I have passed through this period of uncertainty, some thought seeds have developed and came to fruition this morning – Sunday 19th March 2017.  What I plan to write now will have some echoes of a previous item written about a year ago.  So, I hope you will not mind a little repetition.  That also reminds me that in the interim I repeated a talk (I hate the term sermons) I gave in several churches. One former colleague called it serving up cold meat with hot gravy!  But in each case the repetition seemed to bring a lot of blessing, so justifying it.

I grew up in a home with copies of the Readers Digest.  I loved this publication, read the funny quotes that were at the bottom of some pages, the page of jokes and various articles.  But my favourite section was called “The Most Unforgettable Character I Met”. Various authors shared their experience, and I lapped it up.  I guess it might have sown the thought about what makes someone unforgettable.

One of the activities during my recent ‘silence’ was leading a Prayer Meeting in the prison where I serve as a voluntary chaplain for a few hours each week. One of the men shared some thoughts based on the account in Acts 19 about the seven sons of a Jewish High Priest who tried to drive out an evil spirit “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches”.  The surprising response was “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?”  Clearly, in the demonic realm Paul had become an unforgettable character.

This weekend brings two unforgettable characters into sharp focus.  Both had impact on my life as a child and teenager.  The first is Dame Vera Lynn with whom I often sang along as her recordings were frequently played over the radio at home.  Dame Vera is about to hit her 100th birthday.  The second character is Chuck Berry, whose death was announced this morning.  As one of the first generation to be called teenagers, I embraced his music with enthusiasm.

These various threads then combined with the invitation to speak at a church anniversary service this evening.  Anniversaries provide opportunity to look back on a journey taken.  I found myself reflecting on the unforgettable characters in my life.  For almost all reading this, the names will mean nothing, but I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you about them.

Miss Hatton lived six doors from our family home.  She had a knack of recruiting young children and taking us to and from Sunday School.  She invented a competitive gave relating to the registration of new cars, which we played through the week.  She also provided us with a chocolate ├ęclair when we reached her home on return. I started Sunday School with Mrs Roberts and Miss Osgood, who were apparently saddened when I reached an age when I could move out of the primary department.  This brought me into contact with Miss Betts (Superintendent), the two Miss Mathers, and Mrs Young who was my favourite.  I can’t remember anything they taught me but their characters made an indelible impression and played a vital part in my faith journey.

During this period our church was served by an energetic and enthusiastic Scottish minister, the Rev Angus McNaughton.  He gave fantastic flannelgraph illustrated talks on Sunday mornings, ran film shows on Tuesdays evenings, and made moving pastoral visits to our home where he knelt and prayed before giving me a ride on his motorbike around the streets where I lived.  Most especially, I remember his loving visits to me during a time I spent as a young child in hospital.

To these names I could add others such as Alan and Ame Tarling, and Brenda and Margaret Wayling.  All these are unforgettable for their love of Jesus and their Christlike service to children.

On hitting my teens, I graduated out of Sunday School and into the wider world.  As the former Christian influences in my life waned, my life style became increasingly ungodly.  But a new unforgettable character came into my life.  It was Robert Dingwall, the RE teacher in my secondary school.  He was great because he had ways of linking science with faith both through his love of archaeology and regular Fact and faith Film Shows after school.

About the time my lifestyle had degenerated the most another unforgettable man gave me a gospel tract to read.  We did not know one another, but his obedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in going out that dark and damp evening to give out tracts set me a powerful example.  I was the only person he gave a tract to, but so confident was he that the young man who took it was going to be saved and used by God, that they prayed through that night and sent prayer requests to people in far off places, until the day I knocked at his door to tell him his prayers had been answered.

At this stage in my life, new unforgettable characters, whose names will mean nothing to you, came into my life.  They included Gordon Hunt who tricked me into my first public confession that I was a Christian.  Still later, Eric and Grace Kilby and Syd Thayre, and especially Alfred Lavender left their mark on me.  They are unforgettable and I thank God for them. What made each of them (and there were others) unforgettable was that they were excited about Jesus and had a strong commitment to share in God’s mission. 

I don’t suppose any of them will have a biography written about them.  Almost all they said to me and taught me are long forgotten.  But these were living messages of the good news about Jesus – my unforgettable characters.  Each had their own separate lives, but in God’s plan he wove our lives together to produce the pattern he planned.  They are the ‘warp’ through which my life has been the ‘weft’.

Who are your unforgettable Christian characters whose lives have been significant in your journey?  If they are still alive, please tell them this.  Take a few moments to remember then and give thanks to God, who gave them to you at important times.  Then take a moment to ponder on your own life as your pathway crosses those of others.  What impact are you having?  What lessons are being taught and learned?  You may consider yourself to be unimportant, but if we get it right, God can make us someone’s unforgettable character for his purpose in the lives of others.

From the Diary
These have been very busy three weeks and I am so thankful for the blessing God has given me and Doreen and the fact that he has also given us opportunities to bring his word to others and to be of service in other ways.  I could write many pages about this but will not do so here.  But please give thanks with me.  Give thanks also for colleagues who have shared, especially for Gordon Banks, one of our trustees.

The diary is full to the end of the month and we value your prayers each day for sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as we seek to be led by God.  Doreen has a cataract operation on Friday.

May God’s peace overflow in your life.


Saturday, 18 February 2017

Why Three Stories?

I wonder whether you have ever had a eureka moment.  One came to me unexpectedly but it was so very exciting.  I would like to share it with you here.  I have used it a few times when taking church services, and was inclined to not spread it around too much.  But I think the time has come for me to share with you what I believe God shared with me.

But before I get into it, I want to encourage you to join me in the webinar (online seminar) Saturday 25th February 2017 from 9.00am to 9.45 GMT.  It is free and there is no need to get dressed up and to go out.  You can watch and listen to it at home, and I won’t even know if you are still in pyjamas!  Seriously, Gordon Banks and I will be talking about simple ideas for rural or other small churches that can be used to share the love of God and the story of Jesus through the Spring months.

Please sign up for this today, if you are not otherwise committed on that day and time.  You need to book your place in advance, and it costs you nothing.  Once you have reserved your place, I will send you an email with additional helpful information. CLICK THIS LINK TO RESERVE YOUR PLACE.

Thank you.  I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Now, back to my eureka experience.  I found myself wondering why Jesus told three super stories on the theme of lost and found, when one might have been sufficient.  You will find these in Luke 16. The stories were a response to criticism of Jesus because he was keeping company that zealous Pharisees and teachers of the law considered inappropriate.

Story one is about a man who had 100 sheep but found he had lost one.  So, he went and sought until he found it, brought it home and shared his joy with his neighbours.

Story two is about a woman who lost a coin.  It was worth a day’s wages, but it might have had some other value.  Clearly recovering it was important as she diligently swept the house until she found it.  She also shared her good news with her neighbours.

Story three is about a man with two sons.  The younger son is selfish and wants his share in the eventual inheritance to come to him immediately.  He cannot wait for his dad to die.  His share would have been one third of the value of the estate. So, with his share in his hand he set off to a far country where he wasted it on parties and prostitutes. When he was at his lowest, he finally came to his senses and realises how stupid he had been.  He returned home, a somewhat changed man, and his father ran to meet him, and welcomed him back.  He threw a party, much to the annoyance of his older brother.  There is so much more that we could write about this third story, but my question was, why three stories. Surely any one of them was a good enough illustration.

The stories are about people repenting.  Both Hebrew and Greek thinking had different ways of understanding sin.  I’m not going to trouble you with the original Greek text.  One understanding was what we often call original sin.  This is our inherited fallen nature.  As Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” Roman 3:23.  Our very nature comes short of the holiness of God.  The coin was lost but that was its estate, and it had no culpability.

Another understanding of sin is iniquity or waywardness.  Most of us will have got into sinful behaviour by fallowing the crowd, or drifting carelessly.  Sometimes I find myself breaking the speed limit, not deliberately but because I was careless.  Isaiah speaks about this in chapter 53, where we read, “All we like sheep have gone astray…”. When other sheep had been safely gathered in, one was still out on its own, vulnerable to be preyed upon by wild animals.

A third understanding of sin is transgression.  This is the deliberate breaking of the law.  It is the choice to sin.  It is about knowing where the line is drawn and deliberately stepping over it.  The son knew what kind of life his father would want him to live, but he deliberately chose the other lifestyle.

So, by using three different stories, Jesus illustrated the wonder of the gospel.  Whether our sinfulness is the consequence of carelessness, whether we might claim it is not our fault, or whether we have deliberately chosen to sine, we are loved and sought by a gracious God.  Does that thrill you?  It certainly should.

But it didn’t end there.   More recently I reflected on who was doing the searching.  For the lost sheep, it was a good shepherd who sought and found it.  Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd”.  For the prodigal son, it was the father who was looking for his son’s return and met him and welcomed him back.  For the coin, it was a woman who diligently swept the dust and dirt away. For me this sounds so much like the work of the Holy Spirit, who reveals to us our need of salvation, and does the regeneration and sanctifying aspects of our salvation.  Of course, God does not have gender but Hebrew scholars will be aware that in the Hebrew Scriptures the Holy Spirit is referred to with the feminine gender.

So, Jesus illustrates how all three persons of the Trinity share in saving the lost.  By now you should at least have given one hallelujah!  But, we are not finished.

In the parable of the lost coin, it is about the recovery or regaining of a treasure.  You are so precious to God, and he wants you safe.  In the parable of the lost sheep, it is about rescuing from peril and danger.  Continuing in sin leaves us in a state of peril.  In the parable about a lost son, it is about the recovery of a precious relationship.  So, in seeking and saving you and me, God reveals how he sees us as precious to him, saves us from the consequences of our sin, and draws us back into his loving arms, restoring the relationship that was lost.

For me, this has been a mind-blowing journey of discovery.  And I am not sure that it is fully ended.  As John Robinson said as he bade farewell to those who became known as the Pilgrim Fathers (and mothers, of course), “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy word”.

I hope that these insights have been a blessing to you.  We have such a wonderful Saviour and story to share. Let Gordon and me help you find some ways to share it, by signing up for the webinar.  If you missed the earlier link, here it is again.
Items from the Diary
Thank you for your prayers during the past week.  I have had some precious experiences through the privilege of bringing God’s word to others.

Saturday 18th Feb. I shall be sharing in an Area Executive Meeting for the Congregational Federation.  There are some 30 churches, and we are encouraging them to plan at least one outreach this year.

Sunday 19th Feb. I shall be taking the morning service for Elstow Bunyan Christian Fellowship.  This was John Bunyan’s home village.

Tuesday 21st Feb is my regular time with some of the men in HMP Gartree.

Wednesday 22nd Feb I chair an online meeting of the Congregational Federation’s Inter-Church Board.  This is a responsibility I am in the process of laying down. Prayers are valued as its future is uncertain.

Thursday 23rd Feb  I shall be sharing in a Chaplaincy Team Meeting.

Friday 24th Feb I shall share with others in my new spiritual home (Market Harborough Congregational Church) as we seek to share with other users of the premises that there is a living and loving church meeting in this building, and to which they would be welcome.

Saturday 25th Feb is the webinar at 9.00am.  Through the week I shall be putting the finishing touches to this presentation.

Sunday 26th Feb in the morning I shall be taking a Family Service for Goodwood Evangelical Church, Leicester.  Later I will travel to Chelmsford, Essex to meet up with Gordon Banks, ready for…

Monday 27th Feb Rural Mission Consultation hosted by the Diocese of Chelmsford. See more.

It is so encouraging to know that we are supported through your prayers.


Saturday, 11 February 2017

Moving a Mover

In a previous Praise & Prayer News I wrote about a hymn that meant much to me. It sparked off a lot of communications, as people identified with what I had written.  As I wrote at the time, I draw much blessing from older hymns, but also enjoy many contemporary hymns and songs.

The fact is, that if our hearts are open to God, he will use all kinds of things to bring his blessing into our lives.  In the first church where I was a minister, a lady brought her granddaughter one Sunday evening when we were singing a lively Sankey-type hymn.  It had a clap-along chorus.  Granny had given little girl a tambourine, which she bashed out of time through all the verses as well as the choruses.  After two verses, I felt I could take no more, so I was about to publicly suggest that she was stopped from banging it at least through the verses, when I felt God say that he was happy to accept the little girl’s worship and I should be too!  From that moment, I found what had been annoying became pure joy!  Is there a lesson here for those of us who are picky about worship material?

In that church, we used the old Redemption Hymnal.  It has remained my favourite for many reasons.  It has plenty of older hymns (Watts and Wesleys abound), hymns from the Sankey era, and hymns from the Pentecostal Revival.  This last group demonstrates a deep spirituality, and it is one of these that I want to share with you here.  It was written by ECW Boulton, an early Elim Minister, who once stayed in the home of a dear friend (now in Glory), Alan Blythe.  Alan was very musical and innocently asked Pastor Boulton whether he was too!  He later said it was one of his most embarrassing moments.

The hymn I have chosen to share with you speaks to me as someone engaged in public ministry.   The inherent danger when one is standing "up-front" is the temptation to perform; to present our ministry in a way that we hope will impress the congregation.  Of course we want what we say and do to have an impact on the hearers and that will mean using an appropriate style, but we should always want people to see Jesus and not us.

Perhaps one way of avoiding falling into the trap of allowing too much of ourselves into our ministry is to remind ourselves of the words of Jesus in the allegory of the vine and branches.  Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” 
(John 15:5).  Some versions state “without me you can do nothing”.  Of course, relying wholly on ourselves, we can achieve results, but this will not be the fruit God looks for.  Some people like to relate the fruit bearing to the passage in Galatians about the fruit (singular) of the Spirit (See Galatians 5L22,23)  But I think it refers to every aspect of our lives and ministries for him.  Nothing that is of God and of eternal value can be achieved without his life in us.

So, here’s the hymn.  Please take time to read it and ponder on each verse.  It is the ideal hymn for those in public ministry, but we would all benefit from making this our daily prayer.

Move me, dear Lord, and others I shall move to do Thy will;
mould Thou this life into a vessel fair Thyself to fill;
no charm with which to draw do I possess,
in Thee I find the secret of success.

O touch these yielded lips and through them pour Thy living thought;
I would not give to hungry souls the words that man hath taught;
shall they who seek the bread a stone receive?
It is God's Word alone that can relieve.

How wonderful a channel thus to be, to those forlorn,
a messenger of peace and joy and hope, to them that mourn;
O grant that I Thy risen life may share,
the virtue of Thy name to others bear.

Under the anointing daily let me live, a priest and king;
relying not on fleshly energy Thy smile to win;
a simple soul in contact with my Lord,
in whom all fullness is forever stored.

O teach me, Lord, henceforth with Thee to walk in union deep;
whilst tending other souls not to neglect my own to keep;
a separated soul unto the One
whose grace and love for me so much have done

As far as I know, this is now ‘Public Domain’.  The fact that this hymn is not more well-known might be because Marjorie Helyer’s fantastic tune for this hymn is set in five flats!  Please let me know if anyone want’s the music.  It is not difficult to adjust the words into more contemporary English.  I hope it blesses you.

From the Diary
Thanks to all who prayed through the Court hearing on Wednesday.  It felt as if progress was made, though we still have some way to go as we seek to secure a good future for an elderly lady beneficiary under the Will of a former friend and colleague.  This has proved a difficult journey, calling for wisdom and grace.

Through this week, Capt Gordon Banks and I will be putting the finishing touches to thenext Webinar on Saturday 25th February, with Suggestions for mission activity for Spring into Summer.  Like all our online seminars it is free. All you need is an internet connection with sound.  While this is ideal for church leaders (ordained or lay), it is of value for all Christians in rural or small churches.  The webinar starts at 9.00 and lasts no more than 45 minutes.  You can watch and listen in you PJs, while eating your breakfast or drinking a coffee!  Advance booking is essential.  
Click here to reserve your place.

Other Activities: 
Sunday 12th – Morning Worship, HMP Gartree, Leics.
Tuesday 14th – HMP Gartree
Wednesday 15th – meeting with CEO Village Hope
Thursday 16th - Thanksgiving Service for Peter Couling, Northampton.  Peter was a member at Yelvertoft, a super inspiring Christian, who lived out the principles of the hymn quoted above.
Friday 17th - Interment Service for Peter Couling, Yelvertoft, Northants.
Saturday 18th – Area Executive East Midlands Congregational Federation
Sunday 19th – Elstow Bunyan Christian Fellowship.Beds.
Yours prayers for these activities and our ministry day by day will be very much appreciated.


Saturday, 4 February 2017

“All that glistens is not gold”

Recently, I received an enquiry from a ministry colleague who had discovered that someone in whom she had placed her trust was not all he seemed to be.  It had landed on my desk because the person concerned and his history is known to me.  The result was that several hours have since been spent on providing advice and ensuring that others who needed to be alerted were put in the know.

Since the man concerned is a professing Christian and presents himself as a trustworthy church leader, this is a very sad situation.  Nobody likes to speak badly about a fellow Christian, and I am also always careful that I do not put myself at risk of litigation. But sometimes the common good, and the work of the kingdom is best served by negative honest reports.

This is one of the hardest things that people in Christian leadership find they have to do.  Most responsible Christians would prefer not to speak negatively about someone else, and especially if that is another Christian.  Various verses from scripture stick in our mind, such as the one about not judging others in Matthew 7.  Also, James in his letter has much to say about the damage words can do (James 3:1-12).  James 4:11 cautions about speaking evil about another. In addition to what the Bible says about how we speak, there is the principle of love.  To speak negatively about someone does not seem to be loving.

You may be aware of the three gates principle of testing what you might say about another by asking yourself, is it true, is it kind, and is it necessary.  While not a quote from the Bible, it is a helpful piece of social advice.  But while all this is good, there remains a danger that hesitation to say something bad about someone else could be seriously wrong.

Take, for example, the situation that started this reflection.  What should be done where a person, known to cause havoc for churches and charities, and to act criminally, and having shown no evidence of repentance, presents himself as a trustworthy person seeking opportunity for Christian service?  To keep quiet might well put others at risk of harm.

On the other hand, and in a totally different context, I know that I spoke about another Christian, inappropriately.  In this situation, I had been a victim of slanderous accusations some years before.  Later, when asked why I was not demonstrating fellowship with this person, I said more than was necessary.  It is all too easy to fail.

But the Bible contains examples where individuals are criticised.  Jesus did not hold back from declaring some people to be hypocrites (Matthew 7:5).  Paul writes at length in his letter to the Galatian Christians about Peter acting hypocritically, stating that “he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11-14).  In some of his other letters, Paul praises some while pointing out the failures in others (Alexander the Coppersmith, for example).  In these examples, what was said or written was apparently true and apparently necessary to be said or written, even if it might not have passed the “kind gate”.

Some readers will remember David Dawn, an American Christian who came to the UK to train with us in rural mission.  David used to have a splendid looking pocket watch which he usually wore on a chain.  But it was only a fashion accessory as it did not work. He used to say that it was a failure as a watch but that it had great pretentions!  Over the years, I have met many professing Christians who set themselves forward as leaders, appearing very impressive, but whose lives lack integrity.

Is it possible that an understandable aversion towards speaking badly about someone might have led to subsequent hurt to individuals, to the life of churches and to the testimony of the gospel?  All that glistens is not gold, and when necessary we need to be prepared to expose that which is false.  If we changed one of those three gates form “Is it kind” to “Is it loving”, that might be helpful.  Speaking the truth in love, sometimes means speaking critically.  It also sometimes calls for special courage.

From the Diary
Over the last two weeks there have been various opportunities to bring God’s word, to counsel and advise.  This is a wonderful privilege and we give God the praise where people have been blessed and lives changed.

This Sunday and the coming week is comparatively free of ministry activities but I value your prayers for a Court hearing on Wednesday.  This relates to actions that a fellow trustee and I are seeking to fulfil the obligations imposed on us through a will.  To do so, we believe, requires us to act contrary to the wishes of someone who has benefited enormously for the past 37 years, but who now finds our proposed actions not to her liking.  We are seeking to act in her interests but her resistance has meant several court appearances and a spiralling cost which is currently being met from my colleagues and my personal limited incomes.  Please pray that this protracted situation will soon conclude in a way that will be for her good, and relieve us of a very difficult burden.

Thank you.


Saturday, 21 January 2017

Being salt and light is not an option

Many years ago, a well-known Anglican wrote a book about mission in rural areas in which his main point was based upon the words of Jesus to his disciples about being salt and light.  While there was much in the book that I was pleased to read, I was unhappy that he presented the two similes as possible alternatives.  Jesus did not say, “You can be light or salt”.  He said, “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5: 13-16).

The point that he was making was that rural contexts are such that the subtler influence of salt is probably preferable to the challenge of light.  Salt is absorbed into the context which it then changes.  It is what is sometimes referred to in a missional sense as ‘presence evangelism’.  On the other hand, light is a contrast to darkness and can sometimes be uncomfortable.  There are two aspects of his argument that I wish to challenge.  The first is the premise that salt is less disturbing.

To an observer, the introduction of salt when cooking might seem to be having a subtle affect, but that is not the case as far as the other elements are concerned.  Salt has a chemical and mechanical effect on the other ingredients.  The presence of a holy and righteous person (such as a Christian?) into a group of ungodly people, will always be disturbing, even if they say nothing.

The second aspect of his argument is the one about which I feel more strongly.  He presented it is two possible approaches to mission.  But we need to be clear that there is no sense in which there is any option.  Jesus said, “You ARE the salt… You ARE the light…”.  When we become Christians, being salt and light are not optional extras to which we can sign up if we wish. Whether we are effective salt and light is another matter, however.

In the days when Jesus spoke these words, salt was almost certainly used for preservation of food and for bringing out flavour in cooking (rather than adding flavour).  As a preservative, it inhibits the development of harmful microorganisms.  There is much in the world that is harmful to individuals and society.  Living with such values and saying nothing is unlikely to do much good.  God expects us to challenge injustice and sin.  Salt is added during cooking, primarily because it has a wonderful way of bringing out flavours.  Similarly, even among the worst of people there are some good qualities, and Christian influence can bring these out.

But too much salt added has a less than pleasant effect.  In this sense the analogy of salt when considering mission can be every bit as disturbing as light.  The challenge of what Jesus said was to ensure that we do not lose our salty properties.  In 21st Century UK we need to ask whether Christians are not impacting the world around because the salt is too often in the salt pot rather than spread around.

The presence of light brings benefits.  I once took a school assembly with a dirty mark on my forehead.  The children stared but politely said nothing.  Eventually I got a child to tell me what was wrong, and then suggested that a lack of light in the bathroom meant that I failed to see myself as I was.  Of course, this was a set up and that was explained to the children.  They took the point.  Light can help us see what is wrong, as well as journey through life safely.  If we are the light of the world, then we need to be shining appropriately inti the world for the benefit of others.

I inherited a torch from the previous owners of our house.  It has a rechargeable battery.  Charged up it emits a light that can be quite blinding if shone into someone’s face.  That would be an inappropriate use of the torch.  On the other hand, it has annoying habit of the battery running down just when it is needed it.  Some Christians are like that.  Charged up by attendance at a conference or a poor course on evangelism, they dazzle others they might wish to win for Jesus.  But then as the influence that charged them up begins to wane, the light grows dim.

Some Christians are like some power-saving lamps.  They take time to warm up and give a poor light at the start.  Others are like fluorescent tubes with faulty starters.  The flick on and off all the time instead of giving out a steady light.  Still others are more like the lights on Christmas trees, very attractive and drawing attention to themselves, but otherwise not much use!

So, the challenge is not to be too bright and dazzling, not so dim as to be no use, to shine consistently, and to ensure that the light shed is helpful to others and does not simply draw attention to ourselves.  And we need to remember what Jesus said about not hiding our light.

Salt can only loose its saltiness if it becomes contaminated or overly diluted.  Lights in Jesus’ day depended upon a steady flow of fuel and a clean wick.  In our day, light powered by electricity can become dim because of dust and dirt, or poor contact with the power source.  Effectiveness in both similes can only be determined by good outcomes it has on those around us.

Remember these are not alternatives and it is not optional.  Christian disciples ARE both salt and light.  The question we need to ask ourselves is how effective are we?  Often the benefit of salt and light is not recognised until they are absent.  I ask myself, if I were not present, or if my church did not exist, would it make much difference to those around?

Dear Lord, you called me to yourself so that I might be a light to help others.  You know that I do not always shine as brightly as I should. Sometimes the circumstances around me cause my light to grow dim just when it is needed to be bright.  Sometimes I neglect to seek to be constantly filled by you, and my own neglect causes my light to fail.  Fill me afresh, Holy Spirit.  Help me to shine as brightly as needed to give light to others without dazzling the.

Lord, you have declared that I am the salt of the earth. Help me to be effective, driving back corruptive influences, bringing healing, and influencing others to bring the best of taste into your world.

You know, Lord, that I cannot be in my own strength what I am meant to be. Please take me as I am, and make me all you would want me to be.  Amen

From the Diary
Give thanks for the blessing of the past week, for moments of inspiration, and the opportunities to open up God’s word to bless others.  Especially give thanks for an effective day of teaching at the Salvation Army’s William Booth College, on the Safeguarding Course

Sunday 22nd – Nottingham Congregational Church
Tuesday 24th – HMP Gartree
Thursday 26th – Country Way Magazine Editorial Team
Saturday 28th – East Midlands Area (Congregational Federation) Meeting
Sunday 29th – HMP Gartree

Please do not underestimate the value of your prayers day by day.  Please keep us in your prayers asking God to keep us walking close with him and faithful each day in living out the ministry with which he has entrusted us.  Your prayers and support are vital.

May God bless you and make you a blessing to many through the coming week.


Saturday, 14 January 2017

God's Love Agenda

I am always grateful to receive comments following the e-letter/blog, and was especially grateful to receive a generous letter together with a paper challenging the use of the term, “Unconditional Love”, which I had used in the last piece I wrote.  My friend, David, pointed out that this is not a phrase that is used in the Bible and he also quoted various Bible passages that imply that God only loves where certain conditions are satisfied.  It made me think, and I hope will make you think too.

Before I reflect further on this topic I would like to state that while we might want to assert that God’s love is unconditional, his forgiveness is certainly not unconditional, calling for genuine repentance, which ought to include appropriate actions.

Probably, both words, unconditional and love need some unpacking.  Let’s start with love.  The simple definition form the Oxford English Dictionary is A strong feeling of affection”.  There is further definition but this will suffice for the present.  It is probable that our understanding of what love means is derived from our experience in giving and receiving love.  This might be the experience we have within family or among friends.  In some situations, it might be entangled with sexual attraction, and the concept of being in love.

I recently watched a TV programme that showed various animals acting in a loving way, both towards partners, offspring, and in a situation of tragic death.  It would be impossible to describe the behaviour in any other way than loving.  Many reading this will have benefited from the loving devotion of their mother or another adult who cared for them as new-born babies.  At a time of extreme distress as a child in hospital I felt love from a staff nurse, whose concern for me made that time bearable.

While we rejoice over such expressions of love, we also recognise that this is a love that is the response to something we observe in another.  We also recognise that it can vary in degree and might not endure.  The behaviour of someone we have loved might cause us to no longer feel that deep affection.

While there are biological explanations for the production of love, the theological explanation is that we love because we are created in God’s image.  John tells us that God IS love.

The Bible uses two Greek words for love.  These are philia and agape.  The love of which I have written above is mainly the philia love.  The Greeks in the time of Jesus, used the word agape to describe the highest and purest form of love. This is the word used to describe God’s love towards humankind.  It was used to describe the strong affection that is not evoked by the merit or actions of another.  It is the love that is described by Paul in 1Corinthians 13.  Essentially, this is a love that endures even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, and unworthy. In this sense, it is unconditional.

You may already be aware of the interplay of these two Greek words in the conversation between Peter and Jesus recorded in John 21.  Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  After all, at the Last Supper Peter had assured Jesus of his devotion, but had failed to prove it when tested.  The first two occasions, Jesus used the word agapao in his question.  But Peter could only respond using the word phileo.  It is as if Peter knows that his love for Jesus is not as strong as it should be.  The third time that Jesus asks Peter he uses phileo, as if asking Peter if he could be sure of that much love.  No wonder Peter was distressed as it seems he had to face up to the reality of his limited love for his Master.

In the light of the extravagant generous love of Jesus, our love for him will always seem poor.

But what do we mean when we speak of God’s love (always agape) being unconditional.  We need to be clear that God’s amazing love does not cause him to be tolerant about our sin.  If we were to say, “Because God loves me, it does not matter how I live”, we have missed the whole point of love.  God’s love is always intentional.  That is to say it has purpose.  In John 15 Jesus speaks about ”abiding in his love”. This is linked to keeping his commandments. But this does not imply that God ceases to love us or that he loves us less if we fail.  This is about our dwelling in that love which he has for us – making it our home.  It is we who move out of the centre of his love; not that his love becomes less or imperfect.  Keeping his commandments is like moving out of the shadows into the sunshine.

Love is a big theme for John and on several occasions in his first letter, he speaks about love becoming perfect. (See 1John 2:5; 4:12; 4:17).  John, here, uses a wonderful expression in the Greek.  He uses the word, teleioo. In this context, it means the fulfilment of its goal.  Just as a loving parent’s love for their children wants only the best for their, would keep them from harm and do well in life, so God’s love for us embodies his desire that we achieve the best.  So, just as deliberate disobedience moves us out of the fullest experience of God’s love, similarly, living in full obedience places us where his love longs to bring us.  But again, it is not the character of God that changes.

Perhaps we do need to be careful if we use the expression, “God’s unconditional love”.  The gospel reveals for us a God who is not casual about sin, but whose love for sinners is so strong that God the Son freely gave his life for us and our salvation.  I certainly do not believe that this is a love that arbitrarily picks and chooses those who will benefit from it.  But it is a love with intent. By comparison our love for God is weak.  It is a responsive love, evoked by the wonder that God first loved us.  If the love is true it will draw us ever close to God through the glad surrendering of our wills to his, so that his love for us achieves its goal.

And if we are wise we will do all we can to make the fullness of that love our dwelling place.  1 John3:1 says it so well: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” Three hundred and fifty years this revelation inspired Samuel Crossman to write my favourite hymn.

My song is love unknown
My Saviour's love to me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
O who am I that for my sake
my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

From the Diary
Most of the coming week will be used for writing.
Tuesday January 17th – HMP Gartree
Wednesday 18th – Churches Together in Harborough
Thursday 19th – William Booth College, London (teaching on Safeguarding Course)
Saturday 21st – Mission Support Group, Narborough, Leics.
Sunday 22nd – Nottingham Congregational Church

Thank you for your fellowship.


Saturday, 7 January 2017

Living with failure

One of my favourite subjects when I was at school was technical drawing.  I was a keen mathematician and technical drawing seemed to grow out of that.  However, I have never had good control over my hands and drawing neat lines was a problem. It ought not to have been a problem since we used a tool called a clutch pencil and mistakes could be erased.  But that was where things always seemed to get worse.  My attempts to erase failure always seemed to leave behind the evidence.  As much as I loved the subject, my messy work let me down time and again.

I intended to entitle this article, ‘starting afresh’, but ‘living with failure’ seemed more honest.  I thank God that his mercy endures for ever, and that he gives the opportunity for fresh starts again and again.  However, even if we managed to never make the same mistake twice, we often find that, from our perspective, something of past failures remain in our lives, rather like the evidence left behind when I tried to erase my mistakes on the drawing board. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

If we have let ourselves and God down (and anyone else), it is wonderful to know that God completely forgives when we repent.  From his point of view, it seems the evidence has been erased.  So, we talk about what God forgives he forgets.  However, I’m not sure that it is that simple.  Jeremiah 31 speaks about the New Covenant and in verse 34 God promises that in that day he will not remember the sins of his people any more.  But I’m not sure that the doctrine of forgiveness and justification grows out of an inability to remember.  Is it that God cannot remember what we have repented of, or that he chooses to forget them?  Surely the wonder of salvation is that God knows all too well our weaknesses but so forgives us that it is as if we had never sinned.

I used to look at my technical drawings with huge disappointment.  The more I tried to erase my mistakes the worse I seemed to make it.  Of course, I should have been using my mistakes to make me extra careful in future.  That way living with failure would have led to a positive outcome.  These days, the essential tremor that affects my hands means that I type rather than write, and try to be careful if carrying anything with liquid in it, like a hot cup of coffee.  I recognise I have a weakness and learn to live sensibly.

Many years ago, when I was living in community, we had a well-known painting of an English, blonde Jesus staring knowingly out of the picture frame.  Beneath it were the words,” The Lord turned and looked upon Peter and Peter remembered”. The picture was inspired by words from Luke 22:61 and record a moment as Jesus was led from the house of the High Priest where he was on trial for his life.  Peter had adamantly assured Jesus that he would never let him down.  But, in the pressure of the situation in the courtyard, he had three times denies knowing Jesus.  What was in that look that Jesus gave to Peter, that made Peter remember, then go out and weep bitterly?

Doreen and I once attended a performance by the Rev Frank Topping of The Impossible God.  It had a powerful impact on me.  The dramatization of this story I knew so well gripped me in a new way.  It seemed to grip the audience in the Stables Theatre in Hastings, possibly as many had not realised the message and purpose of the performance.  I found myself beginning to understand how Peter must have felt.  I was also moved by the scene of Thomas meeting the risen Jesus.  There is a line which goes something like, “Those were not nail prints; they were chasms of love”!  Wow!

Prior to this I used to state that it was the baptism of the Holy Spirit Peter experienced on the Day of Pentecost that made him a different man. But then I saw things differently.  How important was it that Peter made such a dreadful mess of things and knew that he could never put it right?  How important was it to hear again loving words and receive loving looks from the One he had failed, and who knew his failure?

I do not believe in the so-called doctrine of sinless perfection.  I am not glad that I fail and mess things up between me and the Lord, but I think that living with failure in the light of God’s unconditional love is important.  In my teens, I was a zealous Christian who tried to be a better Christian than others of whom I was critical.  When I heard about the baptism in the Holy Spirit, I started attending special prayer meetings where people met to seek this experience. I saw many of my peers receive the Holy Spirit just as people did on the Day of Pentecost.  But I left these meetings disappointed.  I could not understand why God blessed others and not me when I was sure that I was at least as good if not better than them.

Some months later, in a church meeting and listening to a sermon from a man whose life I could see was marred by a critical spirit, God met with me.  As I rehearsed his failings before God and asked why he had the audacity to preach at me, the Holy Spirit withdrew from me.  In a moment, I knew why.  The faults I found in him were also in my life.  I prayed that God would take the bitterness from my heart and baptise me in his love.  Immediately I was baptised in the Holy Spirit, just as the disciples had experienced in Jerusalem so many years before.

My failure to see myself as I really was, had become the reason I was failing to experience all that God wanted to do in my life.  There is an important balance to be struck in the aspect of forgiving ourselves.  God does not want us to cart around unnecessary guilt when he offers forgiveness and reconciliation.  However, it is important that we acknowledge that we do mess up from time to time.  God does not look at you and me through some kind of divine blinkers.  The wonder of grace is that he sees us as we really are, yet still lives us and offers us forgiveness.  We also need to see ourselves as we really are as we take hold of that love and forgiveness.  Facing up to my mess, helps me to move on with God, and deepens my awe of him.

From the Diary
Tuesday 10th – HMP Gartree
Wednesday 11th – Churches Rural Group (representing the Rural Evangelism Network and smaller Free Churches)
Friday 13th – Interviewing a student moving into ministry.

Thank you for your fellowship.