Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The joys of a continuing saga...

I posted last week about some of the things God has been teaching me through my time having to throttle back on life due to illness.  Things have yet to get markedly better, in fact I'm at the hospital tomorrow for 6 more blood tests, it's now not thought to be stress related IBS but possibly either Glandular fever or Post Viral Fatigue.  Neither is brilliant as both will be slow at clearing and really just need rest and to boost my immune system.  But God has continued to be gracious and bless.

One of the greatest blessings and joys has been the chance to spend more time reading the Bible.  When you have to spend a couple of hours in bed in an afternoon it has been great to be able to read whole books of the bible at a time.  You can't help but get swept up in the vast, sweeping, swift paced and action packed story lines of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and Samuel.  Even Leviticus proved a blessing read in two sittings where I could really see God's concern to purge sin from his people because of the dire consequences it would have if they didn't.  Just enjoying God's word and revelling in the history has helped me see God's character clearly in stories that I'm often tempted to dissect and mine rather than simply read and appreciate their sweep.

As I've read it has warmed my heart again to see how great God is, how gracious, how patient, and how concerned for his people's holiness because that is what is good for them and what he calls them to by his grace.  This longer in-depth reading for no other purpose than enjoying scripture and God has fuelled my prayers and praise.  I'm always aware of the feebleness of my prayers, and as I've read more and more of God's word I've begun to wonder if that's because in studying the Bible I have begun to miss so much about God that is praiseworthy, true, and beautiful.  I'm hoping that's another of those lessons that sticks post illness (praying that comes - though after 7 weeks I'm beginning to wonder) when I'm back to full speed.  That I just need to read and enjoy scripture and marvel at the God who has called me and saved me and adopted me as part of his eternal cosmos changing plan.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

God and Illness

I hate being ill.  Let's get that confession out of the way, I know it's not startling but I am beginning to realise that God is using illness to teach me specifically why I hate being ill.  At half term I was laid up for about 7 days with what at the time was diagnosed as a stomach virus, rest was the remedy, after blood tests showed everything else to be fine.  It took weeks to get back up to speed with lethargy and tiredness remaining a problem.  Finally last week I started feeling back to my old self again until the weekend when the same thing hit again, I managed to preach Sunday but pretty much spent the rest of the time in bed, where I have largely been ever since.  The new working diagnosis is a stress related IBS with accompanying medication which has yet to really start working, though that seems a little like a best guess.

God has been using this time laid aside and a little frustrated to teach me a number of things, which I'm hoping are lessons I won't forget when I'm recovered:

My identity is too often formed around what I do.  I know the theology that my identity is secure in Christ, but functionally I tend to live as if my identity is in my role; father, husband, pastor, teacher, governor.  Without being able to fulfil any of those other roles it is easy to see how I have tended to confuse the two functionally.  They are each roles but they are not my identity, my identity is that I am God's child wonderfully and gracious saved in Christ.

I have not been good at rest.  I am a 'yes' man in the worst possible way, not in terms of agreeing to everything someone says but in terms of saying 'yes' to almost every invitation to do something or speaking at something.  Why?  I'm not sure I've fully untangled that one yet, but it will be a mixture of wanting to please, wanting to serve, wanting to be recognised.  When I am back to health I think it is time I sat with good friends and godly leaders as we prayed through what I should and can be saying yes to and what to say no to.  I need to build rest in as part of my ongoing ministry.

Ignoring God's command not to be anxious. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."  Matt 6v34.  I've read it, I've used it pastorally with others but I haven't really rubbed it into my heart and put it into practice in my ministry.  I take things to God but then tend to do all I can to solve them, especially when it is people with problems, which is when the anxiety kicks in that my efforts aren't enough.  It's not that I'm a gibbering wreck, it probably isn't even particularly noticeable to others, but I can now see that as an underlying issue.  It is something I have had to confess to God and repent of and ask his help not to repeat.

I'm sure there are more lessons God is going to teach me either as he heals me of the problem or as I learn to live with it.  But having seen those three things so clearly I am praying that I will learn the lessons and practically do something about them.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Real community?

I've preached on Acts 2 and the nature of the early church a number of times, I love the picture it gives of devotion to God's word, to God's people, and to God's gospel.  I love how you see the gospel central to everything the early church does as they worship together, break bread together and are in and out of one another's home.  It is a gospel community that we long for, there's no isolation, no family units at the exclusion of others, no isolated singles missing out on the meals shared by young marrieds, children see the gospel modelled by lots of adults of lots of ages.

But here's my question how do we contextualise that?  What will that gospel centred devotion look like in our churches and how will it be different from the church in Jerusalem in the first century?  How will it be different in Yorkshire from Wiltshire?  How will it be different in a working class community than a middle class community?

One of the great encouragements over the last few months is to have had a number of new people come and join us at grace church and comment on how at home they have felt, how there's a sense of family in Grace.  That has come from those who have no church background at all and come from a range of home life situations.  They have felt welcomed and cared for quickly, they have been struck by how willing people are to love those who are different from them.  They have found the bible speaks to their everyday lives and struggles and seen others around them working out what the gospel means for their lives too.

Others have come from churched backgrounds and have found the same, they have quickly felt welcomed and loved and part of God's people.  Again it has simply been God's people acting as family, welcoming, listening, remembering names and conversations and following up on them.  It is not rocket science but it is the gospel at work, the gospel makes us interested in others because we love them no matter who they are.  It has been a joy to see that happening more and more by God's grace and for his glory.

What it looks like will differ from church to church, which means that we mustn't be prescriptive about what exactly it will look like, or what exact background it takes place against.  In one place it might look like a very basic shared lunch which provides opportunity for this to flourish, at another having people into your homes for a meal, at another listening to others over a cup of tea after church.  But at root it will always be God's gospel gripped people loving others expressed in a concern and interest in them.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The importance of rejoicing and mourning together

Church is always a curious mixture of those who are rejoicing and those who mourning.  Buried in Romans 12 is Paul's call to the church to "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."  As part of our loving one another we can both rejoice when we weep and weep when we rejoice.  There is phenomenal wisdom is this little verse.  Seeing others rejoicing reminds us of God's goodness and not to judge our God by circumstances but to have an eye on eternity and view this world as our temporary home.  But there is also great wisdom in the call to weep with others when we are rejoicing - it keeps us from associating God's goodness only with blessing and rejoicing, again liberating us from a circumstantial view of God, and it reminds us of the brokenness of the world and that our hope is not in it but in our Father.

Church is always a mixture of the two, the couple struggling with the loss of a child whilst another joyfully announces their pregnancy.  The news of an engagement whilst someone struggles with their marriage or singleness.  Those celebrating promotion whilst another face redundancy and so on and so on.  Rejoicing and weeping with others is a call to love our neighbours as ourselves and be free from self absorption.  It is a call to love god's people rather than wallow in self pity, to focus on God and his sovereign fatherly goodness and care rather than on circumstances.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Pastor love your church

We had our church fellowship meeting yesterday, it was a usual run of the mill meeting, nothing earth shattering.  Financial report - guess what we have deficit and so on..., a report on the last year with its encouragements and discouragements, a look at some new job descriptions and a look at what the next year holds.  But where we did veer off plan was when one of the congregation asked how long our current elders were committed to the church for.  Would we still be there in 3 years time.  That the question came from someone who is unwaveringly committed to the church and the people and the leaders spoke volumes as to that man's concerns and desire to for the gospel.

Here is my answer to that question, in a fuller way than I was able to give it yesterday as I responded on the hoof.  I love Grace church and I intend to be here until I die or you kick me out (that comment prompted interesting discussion about hypothetically how you would do that - at least I hope it was hypothetical).  I love the community which is increasingly being moulded and shaped by the gospel into a loving, breathing, real faith family.  I love the people in it who are generous and gracious and love to welcome all and forgive all readily, who hold the gospel out with open hands to anyone in our community.  I love those who have persevered with my failings in my first pastorate; my desire to do everything right now as we planted, who have awaited and are still waiting for my preaching to develop into maturity, who recognise my weaknesses but don't condemn me for them but pray for them.  Who have patiently waited for me to learn from ministry mistakes and never once said I told you so, who have forgiven and showed grace to me their pastor time and time again, and who throughout it all have loved and encouraged me and prayed for me and my family.

I love that it is a church that challenges me to not be distracted and to focus on preaching God's word faithfully, that it cares for my well being and that of my family.  That members will ask if I've had my day off and protect it for me, that they will ask if I've taken my holidays.  I love that it is a church that doesn't take itself too seriously whilst taking the gospel and our mission so seriously.  I love that Grace Church is generous with their pastors time, encouraging me to serve other churches, CU's and invest in training others and also to serve in our community.  I love that it is not a perfect church, that it is not always a joy to pastor but that through hard times, discouraging times, and painful times it has always looked to God by grace, longing to hear from his word and see again our Saviour.

Above all I am grateful to God that he has called me to be part of his church here, and amazed at his grace and goodness in allowing me to play my part in leading his church as I teach his precious all powerful word to his precious children.  That question has reminded me of the gift of God that his church is and of my call to love God's church.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

It takes a church to reach a community

At conferences we often get the pastor of some ministry up to explain how things are going, sometimes even to share their tips for doing that sort of ministry.  Here's my problem with that, it makes it seem as if one man has all the answers, as if it is a one man work, as if it can be replicated.  Or as if one man or family can just drop into an area and do this or that with these tips.  But here's what I have learnt it takes a church to reach a community.

In our situation that is so clear.  The church loving, welcoming, discipling, supporting and caring for the community has opened the doors of the church to the community.  In fact it has taken church outside of the doors in serving the community where they are by means of coffee mornings, painting peoples houses, doing community projects, and so on.   People are not coming to church because of the pastor but because of the people.  They aren't coming because of my ideas or theories but because they have been loved by the church.  They come because they know they will be welcomed and loved by everyone not just by a few people.  That people in church will look after them and their children, speak to them, and more importantly listen to them and care for them.

Creating this culture within the church is the work of the elders who must model it and teach for it as we apply the gospel not just individually but vitally to the faith family as a community taken up with the gospel.  But it is not exclusively the work of the elders, rather they are just the examples and catalysts for it.  It  takes a whole church to reach a community with the gospel.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Enjoying Proverbs?

I don't think I've ever heard someone preach on Proverbs, well at least not in the way we preach on other books of the Bible.  I've heard preachers preach on certain (maybe their favourite) verses, or a thematic study on one idea like friendship or laziness or work, but never on the whole thing.  Now there are lots of reasons why this is the case, Proverbs is a daunting book in size and scale, and in the way it unpacks things.  But always one to love a challenge (or just plain naive) and convinced that we as a church have been the poorer for not having looked at much of the Old Testaments wisdom literature we are doing a series on Proverbs this term.  Initially we are looking at chapters 1-9 and then later in the year or more likely next year we will look at some more, before returning to it again periodically.

It was with great trepidation that I undertook this series, in fact I spent quite a long time trying to get away from it to any other series I possibly could.  But I kept on coming back to Proverbs, convinced and convicted that it was what we should look at as a church.  And doing so has been both a joy and a trial.  The joy has been in getting into the book, beginning to see its themes and structure, and the brilliant way it simply makes you think about everything, and yet always draws you back to fear of the LORD in all that that entails.  It has been a thrill to see Jesus so clearly within its pages and be able to point people to it.  It has been encouraging to see newcomers who are non-churched engaging with it and finding its descriptions of life without God resonating with their experience.

The trial bit has been in the preparation, no doubt increased because I don't know Hebrew and the language issues in it are quite complex.  It is not an easy book to read and think through, but it is a joy to have the privilege of doing so, to be able to set aside concentrated study time to grapple with this great jewel of scripture.  It has been a trial at times to preach, simply because I have really felt my inability to convey its timeless truths in a way that remotely do it justice.  Ultimately a third of the way through the series I find myself wondering why on earth I haven't studied it more and sooner, why I haven't preached it more often and drawn peoples attention to it more readily.  Because amid all the struggles of preparation and understanding and preaching is the simple joy of seeing who God is and his love and longing for a people of his own who he will guide and lead as they treasure and rely on him, listen and apply his word, and come to him reliant upon Christ and filled with his Spirit longing for his kingdom to come.