Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The book of Ruth - Kinsman Redeemer?

If I was to ask you what the theme of the book of Ruth was my hunch is you'd answer kinsman redeemer, or redemption.  If I asked you who is the figure that points to Jesus, again my hunch would be that you would point to Boaz.  And Boaz is the kinsman redeemer, he is the one who buys Naomi's land and marries Ruth back.  And the redemption theme is big in Ruth and huge in the overall arc of the Bible's story.  So that has always been the way I've read Ruth.

But I just wonder whether in focusing on this theme we are in danger of excluding another.  Last week in studying the book of Ruth for our weekend away I was struck again and again by the love of Ruth.  Ruth who (ch1) will not leave her mother-in-law, who leaves her family and her home and chooses to become an alien and foreigner in Israel.  Ruth who because of love chooses death and discomfort rather than the ease of home.  Ruth who is slighted by Naomi, (1v20-21) who describes herself as empty, when Ruth who is standing right beside her has given up so much to bind herself in love to Naomi.  Ruth who (2v2)is the one who gets up and provides for the family day by day throughout the months of the barley and wheat harvest, expressing her faithful love day by day in practical and costly dying to self ways.  Ruth who will marry Boaz to redeem both the family land and line.  Ruth who gives her son to Naomi, who cares for him and whose is counted as her son (4v16-17).

Throughout the book Ruth continually chooses to love at cost to herself, chooses again and again to die to self to bring life to Naomi.  It is Ruth's love that drives the book, that leads her to leave home, to listen, to endure alienation, to labour to provide life to another.  Maybe Ruth points us to Jesus as much as Boaz does.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Debilitating, isolating and depressing

God has graciously been using my prolonged period of illness to teach me lots of things about both illness, myself and caring for others.  Some of those lessons have been hard and painful to learn but it doesn't mean that they won't be useful.  One of the most helpful has been the experience of just being unable; unable to go out, unable to do, unable to contribute.  In that context what is debilitating becomes isolating as it cuts you off from people you see in the normal run of the mill.  Others are busy and they are not seeing you as the normal context in which your relationship plays out is removed.  Without a real conscious intentional effort that you can't make and often others aren't aware is needed someone who is ill can quickly become isolated.  Then isolation can very easily lead to depression, either very mild or potentially more serious.  Such depression can easily lead to bitterness.

Experiencing this sense of debilitation and isolation hasn't been easy, but I am grateful for friends who took time to send cards, write, text or ring to minimise the sense of isolation.  But that has taken real effort on their part, it has involved an intentionality, a breaking of routines and norms.  It has cost them.  But this is what the Bible pictures a church community doing.  It should be normal in the church, but often we are just too busy to stop and think about who needs a call, a letter, a text.  I'm praying that as things get back to normal I don't let the busyness crowd out this valuable lesson.  I need to live with margin, a space between my load and limit, both for myself and for others, so that I have time to stop, think about others and recognise need and ways to break or minimise the isolation of others.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Why we're studying Acts this term

This Sunday sees us start a series on Acts.  Up until Christmas we are going to be focusing on Acts 1-6v7, apart from communion Sundays when we're doing a short series on Communion and Baptism.  But why are we studying Acts?  Is it just that was what the leadership fancied?  Was it just because that was where one of the elders was up to in their reading plan?

I'm kind of hoping that you know the answer is 'No!'  That the preaching programme isn't arbitrary or the result of a whim.  This list isn't comprehensive, there are other reasons too, but it is a start.  So why are we studying Acts?

It is our history
I know history isn't particularly fashionable and I have a love for it (after all why else would you train to be a history teacher).  But Acts is a key part of our family tree as believers and the church.  It shows us our origins as a people gathered round Jesus, it focuses on those early formative years after Jesus resurrection and ascension.  We need to know our history as the church.

Our society is Acts-like
Our society mirrors the society in which the early church flourished in many ways: it was multicultural, it was polytheistic, it was tolerant so long as you held to one key mantra - in their day emperor worship in ours worship at the altar of 'no truth'.  It was a society of inequality with the very rich growing richer and the poor struggling to survive.  It was a time of persecution and opposition from both government and other religions.  It was against such a backdrop that the believers filled with the Spirit boldly proclaimed Jesus, witnessing that salvation was found in him alone.  We need that conviction!

The church was under pressure
As you read Acts you read of a church under pressure from within and without.  Not only was there external persecution but there were pressures from within. Sin within the church (5:1-11), doctrinal debates (Acts 11 and 15), and distraction and division (Acts 6:1-7) were all threats to the early church.  As a church we need to see how the Apostles identified and faced up to those issues because we will face them too.

God has not changed
Acts reminds us again and again of the sovereignty of God and his plan for the world.  It reminds us of the wonder of the salvation that is ours in Christ and the privilege it is to share it with a world in need.  And it reminds us that Jesus has poured out the Holy Spirit on his people to equip and empower his church to confront a lost world with its need and call it to salvation that is found in Christ alone.

Our community needs Jesus
Acts shows us people, communities, cities, and nations loved by God and in need of Jesus.  Our community, individuals within it and our world shares that same need.  My prayer is that as we study Acts God by his Spirit through his word will remind us of what he has done for us, how he has equipped us, and call us to go out on his mission, filled with his Spirit, for his glory to reach our needy community.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Am I an eagle or a turkey?

A friend of mine once said "It's hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys."  It's a quote that comes to mind from time to time, particularly when I see someone who claims to trust, love and follow Jesus doing something which to my mind undermines the gospel.  But then I have to take myself in hand because of the arrogance of that position, it assumes I'm the eagle and not Christmas dinner in waiting!

I can't help but wonder if often we think like this.  We look at other Christians and sigh or wring our hands, or more likely, today, take to our keyboards and vent via keystrokes.  We are quick to assume the worst of others, quick to pass on what sliver of information - however patchy or sparse - we have heard to others.  Slow to think the best or reflect on what someone else's struggles reveal about our own hearts.  

The internet simply makes that tendency worse.  We are overloaded with information which we don't seem to filter in the same way, rumours and innuendo swirl unchecked and at the speed of fibre optic without sources being verified.  We tend to read one side of a story or account without checking the other, and we tend to assume to worst.  And then the internet cuts our response time; we don't have to take time to think about things or to find out more, we don't draft and redraft we simply comment or post or tweet a response, without editing or filtering or time given to sleep on it or consider it.  What we wouldn't say in a group of 8 or 9 friends because it isn't fully thought through or we would say and they would help us think it through - challenging  and questioning us - we say on-line because it feels more impersonal.

When we hear of someone else's struggles with sin, be it pride, a lack of humility, or a perceived harshness our first response ought to be to examine our own hearts for those self same things.  I know when I hear of it in others often it is in my own heart whether I have recognised it or not.  Secondly these things need to be dealt with in relationship, if I don't know the person I probably shouldn't comment but entrust it to others God has placed in their life to do that.  I certainly want to take time to pray reflectively through what I am reading.  I want to ask questions; why is this here?  Who has posted it and why?  What good does it serve?  Is it advancing the gospel or weakening it?

And I want to pray.
Father, forgive me for my prideful tendency to assume the worst of others and blindly the best of myself.
Father, expose and reveal my sin and then help me hate it as you do.  
Help me never get comfortable with it or become blind to it.
Thank you for using _______ to show me my need to repent and of grace again.
Thank you for continuing to work in me despite my sin as you remake me in the image of your son.


Friday, 22 August 2014

Seven years in...

So continuing on from yesterday I want to continue to share a few of the lessons we/I have learn't from planting Grace Church.

1. Launch, learn, plant.  Then learn, relaunch and replant.
No matter how much preparation you do in terms of area studies, interviews with key people, none of it will ever prepare you for the reality of serving/living in an area.  You only really learn about the area, the need, the barriers to the gospel, the community DNA as you live day by day within that community.  That means you need to be flexible and be ready to adapt as you relearn things.  It also means you need to be clear on what the things you will flex on are and what you will not flex on and why.

There is a second area where you relearn and relaunch and that is in the church, as the church grows (whether in number or maturity) its needs will change too.  There has been much joy in being in a church where there are few traditions, where people are keen to flex and change.  I pray that God will keep us flexible as we look to take the gospel to a changing community and as we continue to change as a church in terms of needs, gifts, and comprehension of the gospel.

2. Area matters
There would be some debate on this but for me in our experience area matters.  I know people talk about us living our lives in networks but in planting a church area trumps network.  I think network functions more in cities but in our area community is key.  God in his grace has overruled mistakes we made early on as a church in meeting in one location but living in another.  But that made it impossible for us to reach the people who attended the school we met in.  Whereas since we moved Sunday mornings to the area we live in, where our boys go to school, where we shop, where we play, we have seen the benefits of being connected and plugged into the day to day of the community we love and long to see come to know Jesus.

If I had my time again I would insist that all those who were coming to plant lived in the area or sent their children to the local school we were going to meet in.  Why?  Because nothing says we care about people like presence, like committing to live our lives alongside them.  My prayer for Grace Church is that more and more of our congregation would move into the area we now serve, whilst we wait for that to happen in God's timing we need to provide the opportunities for connection between our church family who live out of area and our friends in area.  I think this living alongside of is vital, it's one of the most important things we have learnt.

3. Commitment matters
Planting a church is hard, however, you do it.  The excitement and adrenaline rush of day 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on give way to the more mundane service 156, 157, 158.  Growth is often slow after an initial buzz.  In our early days people who weren't happy at other places of worship came to join us as did some who hadn't been anywhere for a while.  Some stayed, some didn't.  That loss was felt keenly by those committed and excited by what seemed like early growth.  At other times people new to the area and looking for a church came along to taste test the church, each one felt like a potential cause of rejoicing or discouragement depending on what decision they made.  I think looking back I'd want to say to myself don't put your hope in growth, and take more time to teach the church to trust God long term.  

When people leave it should hurt.  If it doesn't hurt something is wrong.  Family leaving home is painful, even more so when we feel we have failed them, or don't understand why they've left, or when we later hear hurtful things that we didn't realise at the time.  Don't give up, persevere, keep going.  I'm not saying put your head down and ignore criticism, or don't stop and think about the situation.  But don't despair and give up, there have been times over the 7 years when that's been a temptation; big budgetary holes, personality clashes, family fallouts, and my pastoral failures have all led me to endure nights when sleep is hard won, when I've had to recognise my failings and ask for forgiveness from those I've failed.  Commitment matters in those times, a conviction that failure isn't final but that there's grace for our mistakes and that God will teach us through the pain.

4. You are a church from day one with all those pressure, joys and struggles.
In some ways this is the biggest lesson and the one I've been slowest to learn.  I wanted to plant a church which would reach those who didn't yet know Jesus, I wanted to be out there, to be building gospel capable friendships, defeating defeater beliefs, finding the wandering sheep, seeing the lost found.  But on the very first Sunday we met, we met as a church not a church plant with all the pastoral needs and care necessary to pastor a church.  I have been slow to recognise that, keen to keep on doing the out there, the building bridges in the community, when I needed to better balance the out there with the in here.  Pastoral care has been patchy because of that, others often stepping in to pick up what I've been too busy/distracted to do.  But when God calls us to plant he calls us to plant a church.

If I could go back 7 years I'd tell myself to spend more time on pastoral care, to feed the sheep well on Sunday yes, but also to take time to show them how to feed themselves during the week, to take time with them to water them, lead them away from danger and so on.  I'd spend as much time setting up a pastoral care team as an outreach team, because God's call was to set up a church.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Seven years in

On the first weekend in September it will be seven years since Grace Church was planted.  Over those seven years we've known ups and downs, joys and sorrows, but through it all can testify to the grace and goodness of God.  It has in many ways been the hardest seven years that I have ever known.  I had no grey hairs 7 years ago, and certainly more hair and fewer wrinkle!  If I had known then what we would face together as a church family I probably would have run a mile.  But my recent sabbatical has given me time to stop and think about some of the things I would do differently, some of the lessons we have learned and re-learned and relearned because God is a patient teacher.  I'm not sure these'll be of any use to anyone else but they have helped me as I think about them, here's some of them with more to follow:

1. God is great and gracious
I know that goes without saying.  But looking back I am amazed at where we are.  We began in one area and then moved to another.  We started with one leadership team and God has graciously brought us another as others have moved on or stood down.  We have grown and shrunk and grown and shrunk but we are still hear.  Above all God has time and again led the church to be patient and gracious with my leadership with all its flaws and failings.  And despite our imperfections and failings God has led people to new life in him and many others to hear the gospel.

2. Local context is key
Before and as we started out I visited many planters and many church plants as well as reading many books.  It was helpful up to a point but I was slow in recognising those limitations.  When we read of a great model we tend to want to put it into practice.  Here is the problem with most of the literature on Church planting: it is either American or if it is from the UK it tends to be focused on University cities.  That isn't to say there's nothing we can learn from these but rather that we need to work hard at differentiating between the principles that are transferable and the other things that are not.  There are very few churches planted into a context like ours - most of our young people will leave and go to university and not come back.  We will not have many young twenties, people in our community aren't asking questions that young twenties ask.  We will not have the man power that a student/young twenties church has and that is God's will for us because he has called us to this context.  Our growth will be slow not spectacular, our funding will likely have to be part external for a long time.

That context needs to colour the lessons we learn.  I've found it helpful to think carefully about our area in the following ways:
County - we are ministering in Yorkshire and that means we need to be a church that is for people from Yorkshire with all their God given uniqueness!  Yorkshire is a unique county with a unique people and history, that must be reflected in the way we do church and share the gospel.  City churches are more cosmopolitan than we will be, with people from across the country in more of a melting pot than our local area will be.  We need to be a Yorkshire church for Yorkshire people in everything we do.

Town - What is unique about our town?  What does it celebrate?  What does it do well?  What are its aspirations?  What is its history?  How does it feel about church?  What barriers are there to hearing the gospel and following Jesus?  Answering these questions has been immensely helpful and insightful.  It has also helped me to love where God has put me.

Community - We minister in a community, it is a smallish community with a unique history even within Doncaster.  That history is important to understand in order to connect with people.  For us where we are the days of the area being an RAF base still has huge influence.  It influences where people live and how those areas are thought of.  It influences many of those who live here who have some past connection with the forces.  Involvement in the community has been key for us, listening to peoples stories, building friendships, defeating defeater beliefs one at a time over years, serving people without strings, committing for the long haul, and loving the community not bad mouthing it have all been important lessons we have learnt.

3. Love tenaciously
To be tenacious is to cling tightly to something, to refuse to let go of it, to steadfastly resolve not to give up.  Peter writes this: "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins".  We are a broken people and we make mistakes, we sin and others bear the consequences, others are broken and they sin and we bear the consequences.  In that context ministry tales place, in that context a tenacious love is essential.  A love that doesn't cut and run at the first, second, third, fourth or seventy seventh sign of trouble or sin.  Love that forgives and welcomes.  Love that keeps building relationships even with those who initially want nothing to do with the gospel.  Love that humbly enables us to recognise and repent of our mistakes and to receive forgiveness for them.  Love that motivates us to visit, to rebuke, to challenge, to comfort, to rejoice, to mourn, to act.

There are times we have got this right as a church and times we have got it wrong.  There are times I have got this right and others when I have gotten it wrong.  But tenacious love doesn't allow itself to be shunted aside by past failure.  It doesn't say I got it wrong then so I can never do it again.  Tenacious love doesn't allow us to say I was hurt then so I'm not doing this now, or I'm not loving them now because of the past.  What enables us to love tenaciously?  Because that is how we have been loved:

"In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!"
Phil 2v5-8

Monday, 18 August 2014

Applying lessons is when you learn them

Twelve weeks seems like a long time when you haven't felt well.  It is now twelve weeks since I had to leave church before preaching and hit the sack, the weeks since have varied in how tired or ill I've felt, but it is twelve weeks since I felt 100%.  I'm much better than I was, I even managed to play football and cricket in the garden with the boys yesterday afternoon.  But it is also twelve weeks that God has been to continue to teach me about himself and myself.  Today sees me back to the doctors again and we'll see where that leads.

But now comes the hard part, it's one thing to learn the lessons that God has been teaching me through all this in the comfort of home it is another thing to put them into practice in life.  I may have recognised that I'm prone to saying 'yes' to everything, and that I am prone to find my identity in what I do but it is another thing to say 'No' to opportunities and people.  I'm grateful to God that he has put people in my life who say 'No' for me, 'No' I don't want you at that, 'No' we can manage without you.  But I am also having to learn to say no to good things for myself, my hunch is this is going to be an ongoing struggle.

I'm taking some time to work out some priorities so that when an opportunity comes up I have a set of filters to run things through before I respond or get involved or not.  But the challenge is to make those priorities Biblical, loving and God honouring.