Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Despising the ordinary

What could church do that would enable you to flourish spiritually?  That's the question we began with at Gospel Group last night as we studied Nehemiah 11-12.  It's a fascinating question isn't it because there are so many possible answers and so many of them are dictated by the trends in our society.  But it is a question worth thinking about not least for how it exposes our habit of despising the ordinary God instituted means of flourishing in our faith.  What could church do that would enable you to flourish in your faith?

In Nehemiah 11 and 12 the walls are rebuilt, the people have committed themselves to the covenant having repented of their sins.  And now they put structures in place in Jerusalem that will help them as God's people flourish in God's city.  Firstly 1 in 10 of the people from the surrounding villages and towns moves into the city.  We need others, something that is plainly obvious when you read the New Testament and pay any attention to the one another's.  They put leaders in place who will administer what needs to be administered, who will give direction and be the bridge between good intentions and actual action.  They put the priests in place to make the offerings and sacrifices which we know point to Jesus the great high priest who once for all offers himself for sin.  They recognise the Levites and put them in place, those who read, teach and apply God's word to the people.  They set people apart to be gatekeepers, to provide security from their enemies but also to facilitate purity by keeping Sabbath traders from other nations out.  And they recognise and put musicians in place who will lead the people in recognising, rejoicing in, and responding to the faithfulness and goodness of God.

In Nehemiah 12v44-47 we are told that the people ensure that these groups are provided for materially on an ongoing basis so they can keep on dedicating themselves to their given roles, so that God's people have the trellises (yes I know that's been used somewhere else) which facilitate spiritual flourishing.  Israel commit themselves to having structures and people in place that will enable them to flourish spiritually.  But it's worth noticing that these are the ordinary everyday things that God's people had done for centuries.  It is not a magic bullet, it doesn't guarantee spiritual flourishing (see chapter 13) but it does provide an opportunity for it to happen.

As you move into the New Testament we see similar structures put into place in the New Testament church.  Those who read, teach, and apply the bible to the people, those who guard them (see Acts 20 - elders watch over the flock), musicians to lead us in worship, leaders who help direct us as to where the rubber hits the road with a passage.  And yet because of the sheer ordinariness of it all we are tempted to despise such things, to take them for granted because of their everyday or every Sunday-ness.  Instead we ought to thank God for them and for providing them so that we have opportunity to spiritually flourish and we ought to dedicate ourselves to making the most of the opportunity they provide rather than looking off and wondering about or longing for the silver bullet that will provide instant flourishing.

Friday, 24 June 2016

British Evangelical's blind spot?

I listened to a fascinating, informative and insightful talk by Mika Edmondson on the Black Civil Right movement and the American church's response to Black Lives Matter.  It was impassioned and full of love for people and a concern for the honour and glory of God.  It's well worth a listen.

But whilst I listened I found myself thinking where has the evangelical church in Britain been similarly blind and inactive when injustice is plain?  Where have we failed to be the voice the scriptures and our Saviour would call us to be for people made in his image and for whom he gave his life that by believing in him they might find life?

It is something I want to take time to think through more carefully.  But certainly I found myself initially reflecting on the churches silence, and at times demonising, of the deprived and working class.  Interestingly even as I have reflected on this there have been examples of exactly that over Brexit.  Our society is deeply divided along class lines, with misunderstandings and stereotyping rife among those on each side of the divide.  Opportunities, access to good education, a voice in the political process, job chances, health, and even life expectancy are not equally distributed in our society.  We are not an equal opportunities nation.  Are we an equalising opportunities church?

Are we a voice for those needing it?  Are we providing the opportunities society denies?  Are we holding out the gospel of hope to all regardless of background and which estate they live on?  I'd love your thoughts as I think on this more.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Walking with rather than talking at

I often want to be able to solve a problem quickly.  That's fine when it comes to DIY or even a simple admin job, but it is awful, destructive, and sinful when applied to people.  Part of the problem I think is absorbed from our culture of the quick fix, the instant remedy.  Part of it comes from wanting to remove pain and discomfort from the lives of those I care about.  Another part of it comes from wanting to be thought well of, wanting to be 'successful' in pastoring people, maybe even having something to dow with measurable goals or feeling like a job is finished.  And yet the Bible does not give us a steady stream of pat answers to life's problems and pains.  The Bible is not ordered or indexed or searchable in a way that enables us to look up 'd' for depression, 'a' for anxiety, or 's' for solution and we ought to be grateful for that.  Rather what we see is people walking with others through the story of their lives.

Quick answers, half thought through theology, hastily spoken misapplied doctrine is dangerous.  Just think of Job's friends.  They begin well, they sit and observe Job in silence but the problem comes when they speak and provide answers that are half thought through, received tradition misapplied to Job and his situation.  It would have been better if they had kept silent.  Or think of Nehemiah, he hears of a problem, he cares deeply about a problem, he is moved to help and literally moved to care for God's people, but he takes time to pray it through.  Even when he goes to Jerusalem he takes time to survey the walls and the people and live alongside them as he leads them to build first the walls and then a community with God at the centre within the walls.

There is a lot for us to learn from the Bible's walking with rather than talking at approach.  Think of the difference walking with gospel hope alongside a friend struggling with depression and anxiety would make rather than taking at them with quick answers about a situation we have not experienced or whose complexities and pain we don to fully understand.  Think of the difference walking with would make in any given situation of suffering you or those in your church family are facing; childlessness, infertility, loss, grief, unemployment, infirmity, disability and so on.  That is what Jesus did when he became man, he walked with us through suffering, he wept alongside Martha and Mary, he loved and lost and yet brought hope, it's no accident that we find him in the next chapter in their home again.  He walked with them and talked of hope and salvation as he walked.

Offering quick advice is easier but it is not more productive.  Walking with is longer term, it is harder work, it takes more commitment, and is more painful but it is what we are called to because it is what Jesus has done for us.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The danger of the relentless drip, drip, drip of opposition

We often listen to stories of people facing intense persecution, or hear of the 50-70,000 believers estimated to be in labour camps in North Korea and wonder how they manage to stay strong in their faith.  Wonder if we would have their courage in the face of physical persecution.  At the same time we tend to downplay the relentless drip, drip, drip of secularism that we face in our society, almost as if we believe the lie we tell our children "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."  And yet when you study the Bible you can't help but notice how often it is through weasel words that Satan attacks God's people.

In Nehemiah 6 as the people near completion of the walls of Jerusalem it is not a direct physical assault that poses a threat to them, it is the relentless wearing war of words.  (v2-4)Four times the surrounding governors send messages to Nehemiah seeking to distract him from the work and potentially lure him away from the security of Jerusalem.  When that fails they send the same message but with an open letter falsely claiming that Nehemiah is leading a rebellion.  To what end?  To create fear with their words as the people hear of it so that they are paralysed and stop work.  When that fails they recruit an insider, a double agent who tries with his honeyed words to entrap Nehemiah in cowardice and sin.  And after all that is overcome we read that this is just the tip of the iceberg because others have been trying to intimidate Nehemiah with words.  Words are weapons and can be as effective at intimidating us as swords, clubs or jail bars.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  Jesus identifies words as weapons of mass persecution.  We need to recognise that the words of our society, it's unassailable truths, it's repeated mantras which go against the gospel and fuel words, insults, and falsely saying evil things against Christians are persecution.  Because if we don't recognise it we will simply fall prey to the fear it generates and not speak up for the gospel but withdraw into the Christian ghetto or whither in our faith.

There is an interesting twist in v16 of Nehemiah 6, the people who intended to sow fear and discouragement by their words end up discouraged and fearful why?  Because they recognise "this work had been done with the help of our God."  When they see that their words failed to induce fear and stop the work but that a fear of God motivate the people to serve and love they are fearful because God's people and God's plans are unstoppable.  As we overcome fear of man with fear of God and God's kingdom advances those who seek to sow fear instead find themselves fearful because they see the futility of fighting God as they oppose us.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Sheep rustling or building the kingdom?

I've just had the first of what will no doubt be a number of emails from student/youth/assistant pastors asking me that if we were sending any students to university in their town/city we would direct them towards their church.  I always have mixed feelings when I receive such emails.  Whilst in one sense its great to know that there are churches to direct students towards I almost want to vet those churches.  To email back and ask if they will be sending those students back to us (or any other church) three years hence better equipped and trained, more in love with Jesus and more aware of the need and more determined to see God's kingdom grow in the United Kingdom.  Or whether their students usually stay on with them after graduation, thus growing their church at the cost of churches in non-university towns.

Last year I posted some questions I'd love to ask them but haven't yet dared to:

1. What percentage of students who come to you do you encourage to engage in the work of mission on campus through the CU because you recognise the unique strategic opportunity it presents?  How practically do you encourage and facilitate that?

2. How do you help students gain a vision of God's kingdom that encompasses more than just your church or city or town, but a passion for the gospel to be known across the UK?

3. How do you equip, train and release those students who come to you to serve the kingdom across the world?

4. What percentage of your students stay with you on graduation and why do they stay?

5.  What percentage of your graduates leave to go to gospel deprived areas of the town or city or to serve in gospel work in other UK towns or cities?

There are others but they are the principle five.  Because here's my concern the cost to small evangelical churches of sending their young people to university is staggeringly high because most do not return.  It means that nationally churches outside of university towns are ageing, lose the next generation of leaders, and will eventually die out.

I'm almost tempted to add one last question to those above.  'Imagine, that over the next 5 years every one of your young people left to move to another city and did not return and were not replaced by other young people, how would that impact your church?  How would it effect it's budget, it's children's work, it's bible study, it's pastoral care, it's ability to reach out with the gospel, it's leadership?  What values would you ask the churches where those young people went to instil in them?'

Thursday, 26 May 2016

When life throws you a curve ball, trusting in the sovereignty of God means we aren't thrown by it

God is sovereign.  That absolute fact matters.  Nothing that I face today will take God by surprise.  Whereas life may, and frequently does, spring surprises on me all the time.  Just when you thought things were settled and you knew what the future looked like along comes a surprise.  That would be unsettling were it not for the sovereignty of God and the conviction that God is working all things for good.

The latest curve ball has come in the shape of issues with the building we meet in.  Hiring a school inevitably means that we have to make compromises, compromise over what and when and how, compromise over what we can and can't do, when and how we meet and so on.  We have been incredibly blessed with the generosity of the school and the incredible support of the headteacher, office and cleaning staff who have repeatedly gone out of their way to make us welcome.

But there have been growing pressures in terms of building use.  The area we have for Sunday school is not ideal, especially with large number of children, and we can only use the facilities as and when they are available which largely rules out the day time.  There is also a new and pressing issue, when a child is excluded from school they are excluded from the premises both during and outside of school hours.  Last week sadly this happened which means effectively we have family who are part of our wider church family who are excluded from church as one of their children is excluded from school.  So suddenly the need to find new premises becomes more urgent.  But what is reassuring is that God new even though I didn't that this issue would present itself last Thursday.  God knows even though where don't where we will meet in the future.

And so this week alongside all the usual sermon preparation, visits, assemblies, bible studies, 1-2-1's, admin and making the church family aware of this issue I'm spending time looking for a new home for Grace Church.  There are no obvious venues, the secondary school don't want to do Sunday lettings, there is no community hall in the area, not even a pub with a function room.  But still God knows and is good.  There are some available office units and commercial premises though they are a bit set apart from the residential community and they are expensive but available to buy or to let.

So whilst the future is once again somewhat uncertain our trust is that God knows and he is with us.  Someone from church text me reminding me of our first memory verse of the year this morning: "Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be frightened, and be not dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go."  Again God's timing that one of the verses we have learnt is so relevant at this time.

So we'd value your prayers.  Prayers for quickly finding venue.  Prayers for wisdom as to whether to buy or rent and where to buy or rent.  Prayers for finance whether we buy or rent as realistically our rent needs to be as cheap as it is at the minute and if we buy we need to find external sources of finance.  And lastly prayers for unity within the church family over this issue as we move forward so that others watching on are won for the gospel.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Nehemiah 5 - How unjust is my giving?

Nehemiah 5 is a fascinating chapter both as a study on leadership but also as it exposes the human heart.  The people come to Nehemiah with very real problems; giving up time to build the wall has left them little time to work their own land and families are facing very real hunger problems(v2), a famine has exacerbated the problem meaning some are having to mortgage their properties in order to eat(v3), others are having to put their sons and daughters up as collateral on loans they are obtaining from fellow Jews(4-5), some are defaulting or unable to pay because of high interest rates and therefore sons and daughters are being indentured servants to pay the debt.

Its easy to miss here in Nehemiah but this is not affecting everyone the same way.  Some in Jerusalem are not effected, the nobles and officials are the ones Nehemiah challenges because they are the ones who are well off and oppressing the poor.  The work of building the walls is affecting the poorer workers disproportionately and the wealthy are not giving proportionately to their income.  That is in effect what Nehemiah leads them to do, to not just stop the oppression of the poor but to be generous(v9-11).  To provide proportionately to their income.

As I've studied that it has struck home because I know that same situation plays out in our churches.  If we appeal for money for salaries and other things there are those who will give sacrificially in a way that makes life hard for them.  Whilst others of us give out of our wealth but not in a way that is sacrificial, not in a way that is proportional to what we have.  I remember hearing of one church where they worked out that if every member of their congregation was made unemployed but gave 10% of their benefits the churches income would actually increase.  That is staggering.

Nehemiah also links generosity with our money with fear of God.  Our giving is an act of worship.  It is not disconnected from our worship, it is a core part of our worship.  The same link Paul makes when he speaks to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8).  Nehemiah also warns of the seriousness of not giving generously so that the poor do not disproportionately bear the burden, as he makes them take an oath and shakes out his robes(v13) in a vivid picture of the curse on those who do not stop the oppression and act with generosity.

I know in the UK we are squeamish in talking about money, but the Bible isn't.  It calls us to give generously as we have been generously given to in Christ.  It calls us to closely link our giving and our worship, in fact they may even be thought of as index linked.  Imagine what a difference it would make if we set the example and lead our churches to such generous giving that God's name was honoured.  What would it look like for our churches to engage in proportional giving?  What does it mean for us as individuals?