Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Praying the parable of the sower as you approach God's word

The parable of the sower is one of the best known parable of Jesus.  But it is also a helpful parable for us to pray through both as we prepare to preach, prepare to listen to preaching or for ourselves and our church family in the hours and days after preaching.

In the parable Jesus identifies 4 different responses to the gospel as he explains the parable in Matthew 13:
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

What a challenge to pray through this as we prepare to preach God's word, not for others but for ourselves.  'Father, as I read and study your word do not let the evil one snatch it away from my heart by making me focus purely on others without going the hard yards with this passage and my own, prone to wandering, heart.  Speak to me and do your work in me so that I do not lightly treat its message but embed it in my heart so that it produces change and lasting fruit to your glory.  Father, you know the pressures and struggles I am facing, you know the things that battle in my heart and would rob me of my joy in your word and keep me from producing fruit.  Please help me understand your word and apply to myself so that I can teach it better to others and be an example of the fruit it can produce.  Amen'

Or alternatively what a great prayer to pray as we come to listen:  'Father, I recognise as I come to hear your word the battle that is raging right now.  A battle for me to dismiss your word lightly, to harden my heart, to apply it to others or to be too taken up with the pressures I am facing or the pleasures I am enjoying to really dwell on and work through what you want to say to me.  By your Spirit please produce fruit from your word, prepare my heart, make my conscience tender, engage my mind, and make me willing to respond and act as a result of yours Spirit's work through your word.  Amen'

Or in the days after hearing or studying God's word what a great thing to turn into prayer for our church family as well as for ourselves.  A prayer longing for God to produce specific fruit from his word, just praying that helps us to meditate on God's word in a way that causes us to dwell in it and sink our roots down deeply into it.  Obviously you want any such prayer to reflect on the specifics of the message preached and the word of God heard and brought home by the Spirit, but even in a more generic form there is something worth praying:  'Father, thank you for your word.  Please don't let Satan snatch it away from me I pray, don't let troubles or worries choke it to death, don't let them rob me of the joy of the fact I am your child whom you love, speak to and call to live as your ambassador.  Father, thank you that by your Spirit you spoke to us, may we, your church, produce fruit this week as we respond to your word to us by your grace and for your glory. Amen'

Friday, 29 January 2016

The tyranny of being ministry busy

'Better to be busy than bored.'  I've lost track of how often I've said that.  And there's a sense in which that's right, we should never be idly twiddling our thumbs in ministry.  There is always more to pray through (often squeezed out), the long term strategy to think through (sometimes squeezed out), people to visit, reading to catch up on, advanced study (what's that you say?) to do and so on.  Busyness in ministry is a good thing.  Provided that we know the difference between our load and our limit.  Our load is what is long term sustainably health for us and our families, our limit is the pace we can work at for a finite period of time in a crisis.  Don't confuse the two.

But busyness in general in ministry is not what I'm thinking about.  I'm thinking about the busyness that says ministry busyness is the only sort of busyness there really matters.  That frowns, shakes its head and sighs at the notion of someone in secular work being busy.  It's easy for those of us in full time ministry to forget that our lay leaders work as hard as we do if not harder and then voluntarily give their time to be elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, and youth leaders on top.  I addition to that they have all the same family pressures we have.  But they also have the added complexity that they serve God in a secular workplace with all the extra pressure and scrutiny that involves.  Those of us in ministry would do well to remember this and to allow that to drive us to grateful prayer for those who serve in that capacity.

We also need to take practical steps to ensure they can serve well.  We may have had hours and hours to pray through the upcoming agenda or to think through the new ministry we're launching but they haven't had the same head space we are afforded, though many endeavour to give it.  How practically can we help?  Detailed explanations of the whys and wherefores is important and helpful.  Provided in time to give them the space to think about it over an extended period is even more so.  Schedule meetings to fit around them rather than around you, if that means flexing on your time off, do it, that is a great privilege of working in ministry.  Cancel meetings that are unnecessary and remember to thank them and let them know you appreciate being surrounded by a band of committed brothers and sisters.

But above all we need to remember 'Ministry Busy' isn't the only busy in fact in our churches it may not even be the most busy or harried or pressured.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Lord I need you...

This is a new song (for us) we are going to be learning on Sunday.  In light of our series on prayer the chorus simply reminds us that we need God in everything and the verses that we can always come to him because of his grace.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Is the key to a happy marriage really date night?

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man on his soapbox rant; I can't believe how ubiquitous the idea of 'date night' has become.  I've read about it's importance in books and blogs and heard yet again in a sermon I listened to on line about 'date night' - apparently two words that could save you from divorce.  It seems to be becoming the new buzz word when Christians talk about marriage, the new go to, the silver bullet that will ensure you don't take each other for granted as you grow older together.

If as a couple you confess that you don't have a date night you get a shocked look from Christians that seems to say 'Really, I fear for your future marriage.'  Date night may be a helpful idea for some, it may be a means of ensuring you don't take your wife or husband for granted.  But it is not the eleventh commandment.  It will not in and of itself ensure you have a happy/lasting marriage.  It cannot and must not replace the gospel as the thing we centre our marriages around.

My fear with the 'date night' phenomenon is that we are substituting it for establishing a real gospel intimacy in marriage.  Marriages that take the covenant vows we made before God seriously all the time.  Marriages that are about serving and loving our spouse and presenting them to Christ blameless and without fault.  Date night might be helpful if we view it in the way it was originally meant but my fear is it is becoming idolatrous.  It may end up replacing the gospel as the thing we put at the centre of our marriages.

By all means enjoy your date night but don't impose it on others.  By all means enjoy your date night but do not assume that alone will maintain your marriage and save you from taking one another for granted - sin is not that easily cut out.  By all means enjoy your date night but as the question how can I maximise the grace filled opportunity marriage is not one night a week but use that night to fuel a grace filled life?  How do we regularly build forgiveness, honesty, intimacy, and gospel transformation into life lived together?

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Is there really a connection between godliness and reading?

Let me preface this post by saying that I love reading.  At the moment I have four books on the go ranging from Chris Wright's 'The Mission of God' (an excellent read), through  J I Packer's 'Knowing God', and Dever and Dunlop's 'The Compelling Community' to David Baldacci's 'Split Second'.  That's pretty normal, the heavy book I tend to take slowly, the others I skip through at a fair pace.  And I always have at least one fiction book on the go.  But here's what I want to challenge, the idea that there is a connection between godliness and reading and godliness and literacy.

Now books are tremendously helpful, they stimulate ideas, confront issues, spur us on to change but that doesn't mean that books are the only way to do that.  I can't help wondering sometimes if we pass someone a book, or recommend one to them to buy if we're stingy with our books, rather than challenge or encourage someone face to face.  I wonder sometimes if they are a cheap replacement for vulnerability, openness, and real relationship.  But I'll leave you with that thought because that's not what I have in my cross hairs in this post.

Here's my problem with conflating reading with godliness or a stimulus to godliness.  What about those who cannot read?  Or who have been put off reading by scarring school experience, or who have dyslexia or other reading barriers?  Are we saying they cannot be godly, or that it will be harder for them to be godly?  What about those who live in parts of the world where books are not readily available?

The advent of the printing press is an historically recent phenomenon, what of the early church and the church between then and the advent of the printing press?  Oral tradition mattered, teaching was passed on by word of mouth and remembered and relayed to others.  Who learnt that teaching so that they could pass it on to others.  I can't help thinking about the enormous benefit that would be to us, because sometimes the welter of new ideas that comes from reading book after book after book means we skip the benefit of properly chewing on and meditating on what we have read.  Anyway that's another

Books are a tremendous gift to the church but they are not the barometer of someones godliness.    We need to think long and hard about how we teach truth to those with a non-literary lifestyle, to those for who a book is not an opportunity but a barrier.  Yes we need to address that barrier over time.  But how do we flex and become all things to all men, how do we become as a non-reader to reach the non-reader with the gospel.  How do we adapt our church services to be less reading required but still remain word centred?  How do we change home groups so that we grapple with the word whilst not making those who struggle with words feel awkward and incapable?

Monday, 18 January 2016

Classist - It's easy to be blind to our church prejudices

Sometimes it takes leaving your culture and country behind for a while to give you new eyes when you return to it.  I'm just back from a few days in New York, a surprise present for my big birthday (so others tell me thought I though 21 was no big deal).  It was a great time of relaxation and rejuvenation.  It wasn't massively restful in one sense - we often walked 15+ miles in day neighbourhood rambling and seeing the sights and the less well seen areas of Manhattan and parts of Queens.  I'm not going to make any observations about America because a four day visit doesn't qualify me to do so, beyond saying New York is one of the friendliest places I have ever been to.

But it did make me realise something on my return.  We are blind to our own prejudices, because we have grown up with them or because they are just part of the fabric of the society we grow up in, part of the air we breathe.  If you've read anything of my blog you will know of my concern that Christianity in the UK is a middle class faith, it is a religion of the comfortable.  Now, don't misunderstand me, the middle class need the gospel as much as anyone, and it is hard work because they often don't realise it.  But you only have to plot churches on a map, or chart where churches are closing or struggling in a city or town to see that Christianity is a middle class faith and as such it has swallowed middle class prejudices that prevent it reaching the working class and deprived with the gospel.  But my time away has made me realise that we are more blind to that than ever. 

With a few notable exceptions where is most of the church planting taking place in the UK?  In middle class or student centres of population.  It is among the affluent and educated.  Why?  Because we are blind to the need on the council housing estates and the working class areas, or because we want to plant churches that grow into independent congregations so we can plant another, or so we look successful and that's harder to do in deprived areas.  I love pastoring the church I am privileged to pastor with it's very mixed congregation and it's working class and estate links.  There is a richness about the diversity in our church family.  There is a sense of barriers being bridged, though we still have so much more to do.

But there is so much more for the church in the UK to do in terms of reaching the working class and estates.  And what has struck me again is that quite simply most churches don't even see the need.  We all tend to want to see those we know - our friends, family, and colleagues - saved.  That is only natural and it is right, in one sense.  But it is also wrong if like Jonah we are not prepared to go to those who are not like us.  For Jonah it was nationality that limited his compassion and grasp of grace, for us in England is it class?

I've had a few conversations recently that have deeply saddened me.  One where someone has struggled to find someone willing to be mentored and coached to pastor a church on an estate desperately in need.  Another where someone else has spoken about reaching the working class and deprived being a generation or two into the future, where we almost need to gradually work our way down to reaching those areas.  Both of those conversations have broken my heart and left me discouraged and angry.

So my prayer as I return to work is that the church in the England would wake up to the millions who are sleep walking into a lost eternity in our estates and working class areas in towns and cities in England.  That God would stir up in us compassion for the lost, that he would destroy barriers as he had to for the early church and the Apostles (Acts 10) and that he would give us a heart for the lost and a belief in the gospel and his spirit that emboldens us to leave the comfortable in order to win the lost.  In short that the gospel would break through our prejudice - class.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Seeing differently

There is always something nice about having a break and getting way from it all.  I'm just back from a few days in New York - a surprise present.  But being away also has a way of helping us see things about our situation more clearly.  Seeing another culture makes us more aware of our own.  With that in mind I'm going to be blogging on a few things that have struck me on my return to the UK.