Category: Inspiring Discipleship

Church Re-imagined

Ashley Liston,

This post by Ashley Liston was originally published at Seventy Two

It seems remarkable that it was only six months ago that four representatives of our small Baptist Church in Kirkby Stephen attended the first session of ‘Re:Imagine’ which had been organised by the Northern Baptist Association. Alongside leaders from two other Baptist Churches in the North East we were encouraged to consider the culture within our church as well as the culture of the world in which we live today. We resolved to focus on two areas of work which would help us connect better with our community; firstly looking to develop better links with the local primary school that is immediately adjacent to our church building and secondly to engage in a scheme to befriend lonely and isolated people in the area.

I try to imagine what sort of response I would have received from our church if I had suggested that we should stop meeting each Sunday in our church building and start to meet using Zoom. Most would have never heard of Zoom and the concept of leaving the building where Baptists have been meeting for worship for many decades would have seemed preposterous. But then Covid-19 arrived and on 23rd March the Prime Minister announced that we should all stay at home and that public gatherings, including in places of worship, must cease.

From the first week of Lockdown our church decided to use Zoom as a means of meeting together for worship and for fellowship. There were inevitably some technical issues but within a few weeks all our regular attenders were able to connect to the service including members who were in their 80s and 90s. We were delighted to find that many of the speakers who were scheduled to speak still agreed to join us on Zoom. We encouraged speakers to keep their talks to about 15 minutes and we included a variety of new, creative on-line resources which provided us with fresh opportunities to reflect, learn and pray. We quickly discovered that trying to sing together was almost impossible with our voices all being slightly out of sync, but we did find that we were able to enjoy listening to or singing alongside well produced worship songs with the option of being muted or unmuted.

Our usual Sunday service attendance was around 20 people but within a few weeks we found that we were being joined by new people. We had advertised the service on our Facebook page and used the notice board and local paper to promote the fact that ‘The building is closed but the church is open’. It was though mainly through word of mouth and existing church connections that new people were joining us with numbers rising to around 30 by June. We encouraged other people to take part in the service including sharing a brief talk, reading scripture and leading in prayer. What was most obvious was the real sense of fellowship we were enjoying. Most of those attending would log in 10-15 minutes before the service and start sharing news and asking after one another. Everyone would stick around afterwards for at least 30 minutes as, one by one or bubble by bubble, we went around the fellowship asking how people were and how their week had been.

On 4th July it was announced that places of worship could open again, albeit that they would need to observe social distancing, strict hygiene requirements, wear masks and refrain from singing. We felt that the benefits of continuing to meet using Zoom far outweighed those of meeting in our building whilst also recognising the risks of asking members in vulnerable groups to attend a worship service. Over the months we had continued our Bible Studies each Wednesday using Zoom which included the LICC series Life on the Frontline but in keeping with our tradition we arranged a break over the summer months. We are though opening up the church for an hour or so each Wednesday evening to allow a small number of us to meet for prayer, praying for our country our community and our church whilst also allowing us to start the preparations to make the premises safe for public use, whenever that might be.

So, what have we learnt as we have met week by week?

Perhaps most obviously, we have been reminded that the church is about people and not a building. This is something we all know in theory, but in reality the distinction between church and chapel can become somewhat hazy and the idea that the premises are in fact simply a resource for us to use for the work of God is easily forgotten. Before Covid-19 we used the building 2-3 times each week for a few hours. Now it is used for 1 hour each week. We are blessed by having simple and very functional premises, but we are being challenged with the question. How should we be a steward of this resource in the service of God?

We have really enjoyed having new people in our fellowship each week. We have got to know them well and this has brought a new dimension to the fellowship. I have always appreciated the reputation our church has had for being welcoming but these are not just visitors. These are people who we are really getting to know and are now being embraced within our church family. The Zoom format certainly prevents any huddles or ‘in-groups’ forming. We are also recognising that some people are relatively new to church or where English is not their first language so avoiding too much jargon and simplifying the service has been important. And do you know, I think as a result of this we are enjoying it all the more too.

We have recognised that our church has differed from others in the area that have either emailed an order of service, posted a recorded service onto YouTube, put a brief message on their website or, as far as we can see, been invisible. Zoom has allowed us to meet together. It is personal and very real. People have shared their stories and opened up in very personal ways to each other. There have been tears as we have shared with one another the joy and sometimes deep sadness in our lives. I am very aware that this is something that is possible mainly because of the relatively small size of our church. How would we organise this if we had 200 people attending each week? I am sure it would be possible, but I am clear that if I was given a choice between a slick, semi-professionally produced worship service and our simple but intimate gathering, I know which I would choose.

One of our neighbouring churches has described returning to their premises as coming out of exile. I cannot imagine anything being further from the truth for our church as we continue to meet on Zoom. We are gathering together in our homes, scattered across the communities in which we live, finding that God is causing us to Reimagine church life in ways could never have imagined. We will be approaching the primary school again as we suspect they be struggling for space as they accommodate their socially distanced pupils. We are aware that the problems of loneliness and isolation have massively increased during Lockdown. This has been a challenging time for us all, but it is a time where we as a small church in Cumbria have sensed that God is leading us to a new place and our prayer is that we will be obedient to his call and allow Him to work through us to achieve his kingdom work.

Isaiah 43:18-19

Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

19See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

 

For more information about Re:Imagine click here.

 

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Unexpected Blessings

Karen Golder,

This post by Karen Golder was originally published at Seventy Two

Years ago there was a shift in my family’s life.  An unplanned, unexpected transition. A move from one side of the globe, having been there for years, back to the UK.  I went from feeling like a round peg in a round hole, to feeling like I was in the wrong place and not knowing what we were supposed to do – what was God playing at?  What was he thinking?  

We had just got to a good place with our language and ministry and then due to health we had to shift everything back the the UK.  The loss felt huge – health, friends, pets, home, language, role all changed. I was reeling for a long time, and when I stopped reeling, I started questioning.  I questioned – was this God that I’ve trusted more than I trusted any human actually trust worthy?  Does he actually care at all?  And why do I feel like he is sidelining us.
 
We relocated back to the UK and I felt sidelined, and then he moved us to the far South West corner of the UK and I felt even more sidelined (interestingly this is a feeling that people of Cornwall have lived with for years).  My head said ‘God doesn’t side line us, he’s the one who searches for the one.’ But my heart was saying other words!
 
As we struggled to know how to keep ministering and keep true to our calling with a child with disabilities and special needs we felt that God kept saying ‘I still want you on the front lines.’ But in reality it felt like he was shifting us further and further into obscurity.  I told myself off – ‘Who are you to feel like you should be up front anyway? That’s just pride Karen!’  ‘Just be true to what is in front of you. Don’t compare!’ I kept telling myself.  But in reality the geography of where we were meant I couldn’t keep on a national role of our organisation, and contact with people who ‘made things happen’ was less and less. My world had become so so much smaller. Was it his discipline? Was it circumstances? Was it just bad luck to have a child with special needs? Whatever it was. I felt like my wings were being clipped. And my world being shrunk.  We continued to attempt to work at what we believed he wanted from us.  We continued to give it our all, but there was a sneaking thought in the back of my mind, God wants you ‘out of sight and out of mind’.
 
Transition is hard, finding your feet when life has side swiped you is hard, maintaining friendships and ministry with a child with special needs is hard.  We kept going, and God gave us the blueprint for Breathe Communities.  We started this and it has been a joy to work with, become friends with, and minister to others who are willing to say ‘yep, I’m broken too, its only Jesus that holds me together.’ (But Breathe Communities is a story for another day).  And then a strange thing happened – lockdown….
 
Lockdown suddenly levelled the playing field in so many ways.  As a family with special needs, suddenly we had online access to church services and conferences without hassle and angst, without worry of being late or worry of seizures in the service or the worry of a child saying or doing the wrong thing. And without guilt because to be part of the community you should ‘be’ there.  Suddenly being there virtually was enough for everyone.  
Suddenly, accessible activities were happening online and the stress of getting out of the door, wondering about toilet access, sensory issues, safety etc were null and void.  And suddenly we felt part of the conversation again.  Everyone was wondering about how to adapt, and scrambling about what to do, and having gone through massive adaption as a family, we were were part of the conversation again.  Conversations that were happening all over the region and country were accessible to us again, we could join in, participate to give and receive. When it takes an hour and a half to even drive out of the county,  attendance at conferences and meetings around the country didn’t often happen (especially as I work part time in school too).  I suddenly felt like we belonged with others ministering again.  
 
This time has of course been harrowing for many, with huge loss for so many people, we wish it had never had to happen.  But it has shown us new things, it has made us grapple with issues that were on the horizon, but weren’t imminent enough to be grappled with (like technology use), but as lockdown blasted us into this situation I have heard many people and families, who before felt isolated, say that they now feel involved, that they feel part of authentic community.  Meetings, AGMs (like my organisation’s one this morning) and services have been attended by a lot more than usual in many cases and I sincerely hope we don’t just go back to how things were before. 
 
As we step into a new normal, we need to make sure that those for whom lockdown has been hard are drawn back into community, but also, for those that have been given a new lease of life and purpose through this time we need to work out how that continues.  The virtual world has often been viewed, up to now, as second best looked down upon as ‘not real or authentic’ (and as a wife and Mum of gamers I am as guilty as anyone of doing this!) But I have realised during this time, that actually, this virtual world, can be a life line and a wonderful tool for those that would otherwise be excluded. 
I can say that this tool as a family, has improved my well-being, my sense of purpose and fulfilment over this period and we have many comments from those that have been part of our community during lockdown describing what a lifeline it has been. (Not to mention the carbon footprint that has been saved with so much less travel!)  So, if you are a decision maker in your church or community, as part of the demographic of those with disabilities, please don’t shut your online presence down at the end of this time.  Please value it and those that have been involved.  Please notice the voices that have never spoken out loud in prayer in your church, but added prayer points and ‘amens’ to your WhatsApp groups daily.  Please make every effort for all kinds of communication moving forward.  
 
Love is demonstrated in different ways, but it always looks like something. Maybe love, over the next few months looks like reinstating some of the old, but moving into the new too. 
 
If you would like to hear a bit about what Breathe Communities has looked like during lockdown, here is a short video.

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Twelve Steps Towards Freedom: Presence

Dave Gregory,

This post by Dave Gregory was originally published at Seventy Two

I’ve always found the Bible a bit odd.  I mean, the beginning and the end.  No, not the kind of questions it raises when placed aside the story of the cosmos told by science.  I always found it odd in that it starts with a story of a garden.  And ends with a story of a city.  From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem.  I mean, when we are thinking about caring for creation, wouldn’t it have been better to end up the image of a garden as a symbol of a new heaven and new earth?

I guess that it captures the flow of human culture through the ages.  From scattered groups living off their surroundings, through the discovery of agriculture and the beginnings of urbanisation.  Through to today when over half of the worlds eight billion people – expected to rise to nearly 70% by 2050 – live in sprawling, often chaotic cities leaving a huge imprint on the environment and climate of the planet.  Not quite New Jerusalem.

Yet while the garden and city seem polar opposites, look again and you will see similarities.  In the twentieth century there was a trend towards green cities.  The “Garden City” project before the Second World War.  While the post-war new city of Milton Keynes, renowned for its roundabouts and grid-roads has one million trees planted within its bounds.  Looking down on the city from the north, one can hardly see any buildings.  Looking to the future, we are going to have to green our cities, attempting to tackle local and global environmental issues as well as making then good places to live in.

New Jerusalem is a garden city.  Like Eden, there is a river flowing from it – “a river of the water of life as clear as crystal flowing … down the middle of the great street of the city”   (Rev 22v1).  On each bank stands “the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit”  (Rev 22v2).  And in both Eden and New Jerusalem there is no church or temple.  Yet, the presence of God is within them.  In Eden, God is described as “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3v8).  While in New Jerusalem, “the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21v22).  However you look at these images, whether through the lens of rational literalism or metaphorical imagination, they both speak of the presence of God seeking encounter.

While we know that church is not the buildings, buildings often shape our community.  They are the places where we gather, know one another, worship together, celebrate significant moments.  Places where, however utilitarian they look, are the places where God is sought and encountered.  With COVID-19 this has paused in the expression of our faith.  And with the need to keep them COVID secure, looking ahead when we do begin to gather, numbers will be limited, and worship will have a hugely different feel.  Perhaps it is time to discover and respond to the presence of God in new ways.

The penultimate step of “Twelve Steps Towards Freedom” is again not about our actions.  It is about becoming more aware of the presence of God in our lives.  That we seek “through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God … praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”  This bears a striking similarity to Paul’s prayer in his letters to the young churches of the New Testament era, for example that in Ephesians. 

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” (Eph 1v17,18)

For if we are to make a difference to the environmental issues that our world and its people face, it will take more than an awareness of the issues and of carbon budgets or recycling.  We need a change of heart that comes from an encounter with God.  The God who makes, sustains and cares for creation.  If our relationship with God is to develop a focus upon our relationship with creation, then perhaps it is time we left our buildings behind and took time to seek the presence of God within the world of creation.

So, with our buildings closed for the most part, and our activities suspended through much of the summer, why not take some time to see God – the God of creation – within creation.  In your garden, on a walk, in the park.  Whether your setting is rural or urban, God is there and be found through what he has created.  Of course, this thought is not new is it?  Celtic and Franciscan spiritual insights draw greatly from creation.   Seven hundred years ago, in the thirteenth century, the Franciscan Bonaventure encouraged people to glimpse within nature signs of God’s presence and action.  God’s power in the sheer fact that things exist.  God’s desire for relationship with creation in the exuberant creativity of its wide-ranging diversity.  And God’s love in seeing how things relate to one another, working together for God’s good purpose.

So, while we are still not yet fully returned to our buildings, take some time outside this summer seeking the presence of God.  And there, look at whatever vista is before you.  Take in the whole scene.  What does it say about God’s power?  How does this sense of God at work in creation before you, empower you to share in caring for creation?  Don’t rush this.  Take your time.  If you feel powerless before the immensity of it all, then ask him to empower your imagination over what might be possible.  Not necessarily something big.  Remember the mustard seed of Jesus parable.  “Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matt 13v31)

Now, focus upon one particular thing that you see.  Perhaps, the one thing that specially stands out to you.  Take time to look at it.  And then look again.  Look through God’s eyes.  What does he value in what you see?  What does he rejoice over in it?  Let God’s rejoicing feed your appreciation of all that God has made.  Let that rejoicing feed your own desire to share with the creator in his pleasure over creation.

Next, take time to notice how the thing you have fixed your attention on is connected to other things around it.  Insects to flowers.  Trees to air and soil through leaves and roots.  The shaped of hill to rain and the power of flowing water.  The waves on the sea, driven by the streams of air.  How do such things express God’s love and care for creation?  What do they say about his care for you?  About his gift to life to you?  “See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these” (Matt 7v28,29).  Draw upon this gift.  Allow it to cement your desire to share in God’s care of creation.

And discovering new connection with God.  Having a new appreciation of God’s will, ask for God’s power to live that out.  That ahead, whether in garden or building, you grow in being a missional disciple sharing with God his mission to care for creation.


This blog is part of a series from Dave Gregory. To see previous blogs in the series, please click here.

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Never Waste A Crisis

Nigel Coles,

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

‘Never waste a crisis’, a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, is something I’ve heard a few times in recent months. Listening for the voice of the Spirit amidst the myriad of voices clamouring for our attention in the midst of the pandemic, has not always been easy.

What has the virus revealed about who and where we are? Once into lockdown, ‘what is the virus revealing?’ became a key question, both for myself and in relationship with others.

However, we’re now in another phase. Restrictions are easing, mobility (hurry?) is returning … to ‘normal’/’new normal’/????  If we did not spot what the virus was revealing about ourselves and about God during lockdown, we shall return to whatever shape and model of new normal is determined by the pre-dominant cultural tides of our day.

A model from organisations involved with disaster relief provided a helpful understanding in those initial manic two weeks. It highlights what we now recognise, but were then unaware of; there are phases, periods of time, and we need to match our responses and actions appropriately. Response, recovery and reconstruction were the three phases highlighted and it’s a helpful framework to work with … provided our responses and actions are in relation to the right crisis.

Pre lockdown we had begun to talk about a crisis in leadership, discipleship and mission. This is something bigger and wider than Baptists in the UK, but we are far from immune as churches. The virus has revealed more acutely, the extent to which this is apparent. NB the virus has not created these elements of crisis, but merely revealed what was already there.

What this means for me, both as an individual follower of Jesus with personal responsibilities and as a Christian leader with wider responsibilities, is if I simply move into a phase of ‘recovery’ without having examined the foundations, I am increasing the risk of the whole building falling down. We must not invest in the future, without being clear what we’re building on today has sufficient foundations.

I want to highlight two elements of this, namely, the Church and the Bible.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I hope you are committed to the Church of Jesus Christ. There was a time it would not have been necessary to say that, but these uncertain times don’t solely relate to a global pandemic. Frankly, there’s been too much negative energy expended and too many negative words spoken against forms and experiences of church, which suggest we can by-pass and ignore not simply two thousand years of church history, but also the bride of Christ:

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.                                         (Ephesians 5:25-27)

Anyone who suggests the church is finished, when Jesus himself clearly still has plan A very much in focus, reveals the extent to which our biblical foundations have been shaken by the cultural tsunami of post-modernity. In practice, the small group of which I am a member has been much more significant for me than the Sunday worship gatherings (NB. plural – after all, we can think we are a part of practically any one local church, anywhere in the world). In my life, that’s nothing new, as I’ve lived for the last twenty years without being in the same place every Sunday, due to having an itinerant preaching ministry.

The question we should have been asking (pre-pandemic) is: how does belonging to this church empower everyone identifying with it, to grow as a disciple of Jesus?

Our problem has been highlighted. The virus has revealed too frequently this is far from the reality. Therefore, to ‘recover’ where we were in February 2020, is not my focus.

I’ve lost count of the number of conversations over recent years, about the extent of biblical illiteracy among Christians in the western world. However, the virus has revealed in three months what survey after survey, has merely indicated. What percentage of Christians don’t open their Bibles for themselves between Sunday gatherings? I’ve no idea, but it appears to be way too high from what I’ve seen and heard. It’s not surprising therefore, there is a new rising tide of what we used to call ‘liberalism’, but naively thought had disappeared.

As Seventy-two we’ve not been inactive during lockdown. Some of you are already finding the Discipleship Cycle a useful framework to help listen to God through scripture. In relation to the Bible we also believe Jesus is sticking to Plan A:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3: 16)

If we are committed to doing what we can (and we are) to nurture an environment for missional movement, then covenant faithfulness and biblical obedience remain non-negotiables.

Seventy-two is nudging towards releasing an App to enable more and more people who don’t habitually open the Bible for themselves, to not only do so, but to hear God speaking to them through scripture in the regular, everyday rhythms of life. If you would like to be involved in piloting the field-testing the App then please get in touch with us.

 

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Real Change

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

I’ve recently read Graham Greene’s powerful novel, Brighton Rock. At the heart of the book is the question, can a person truly change? Can someone who is evil become good? At one point two of the central characters, Rose and Ida, talk about this. In response to Rose’s assertion, ‘people change’, Ida says, ‘Oh, no they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.’

On one level, the Bible seems to agree with Ida. In Jeremiah 13.23 the prophet coins a phrase which has become a well-known proverb: ‘Can a leopard change its spots?’ he asks, before seeming to answer, ‘no’. Bad people can’t become good people. This perspective resonates with many other passages of Scripture. Our human nature has been marred by our sin and rebellion and, as Paul puts it in Romans 5, we’re ‘powerless’ in the face of this. Deep down, heart, mind and soul change is something we simply can’t manage ourselves. A leopard cannot change its spots. Wherever you bite into a stick of rock you’ll still read the same thing. We need to pause and feel the force of this. On our own we cannot change.

But this is not the Bible’s last word on this subject. Indeed, it is not Jeremiah’s last word. He says that even though God’s people repeatedly broke his old covenant with them, a time is coming when he will do something wonderfully new. God will ‘put his law in their minds and write it on their hearts’. They will all have a transforming relationship with him. The possibility of a new way of living, one which involves dramatic change, suddenly comes into view (Jeremiah 31.31-34).

Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in the coming of God’s Son and the subsequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all who call on him and desire to be disciples of Jesus. And this is truly revolutionary. The New Testament church is profoundly counter-cultural, full of people who are putting their old lives behind them and pressing forward, however imperfectly, to live in new ways. They share their possessions, they care for the poor, they reach out to offer new life to others, they love one another and love their enemies too, their attitudes and actions are reshaped, the barriers between races come down, the oppressed are set free. Real change.

This is the final blog in the series ‘Discipleship in Challenging Times’, although the podcasts of the same name continue. The different posts have been challenging (not least for me!). They have covered topics such as racial justice, holding onto God through depression, vulnerable leadership, knowing God in our weakness, reaching out to comfort and help others, staying faithful in the unprecedented times we live in. None of this is easy. We struggle to live it out. But there is hope. That hope includes the daily forgiveness which is freely poured out on us by our gracious God. But there’s more than this. We are new covenant people! There is power to live differently. Ultimately, we are not like sticks of rock. The pattern that’s written through our lives can change. How has God changed you over the last few months? And how does he want to change you over the coming days, indeed, right now?

 

Click here to catch up with the whole series.

 

 

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Looking in the Mirror

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

The image of Donald Trump posing with a Bible outside a church building in Washington DC has seared itself into people’s consciousness. It’s been everywhere on news media and on social media and it’s been much discussed. To make the photo-op possible, crowds protesting peacefully about the murder of George Floyd and the racism which blights our societies were tear-gassed and forcibly removed from the US President’s path. I believe most Christians were outraged; I certainly hope they were. I don’t normally comment on political events in this way, but Donald Trump’s actions made me deeply angry, I believe rightly so. As the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, has said: ‘[Mr Trump] would be better off sitting down at a round table and engaging with the structural racism that has over the years continued to contribute to a people being so disenfranchised.’ The President was wrong, both in what he did and in what he has failed to do. His behaviour needs to be called out.

A few days after the incident took place I was writing material for some new podcast episodes, working through the book of James. One of the episodes was to be on these words from James 1:22-25:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

It would have been easy reading these verses to focus again on the unacceptable behaviour of the American President. Here is further vindication for how I felt. That would have been legitimate, but this time my thoughts went in a different direction. What about me? I may not pose with a Bible, but there have certainly been times when I’ve opened it and not done ‘what it says’. Actually, many times. I thank God for his grace upon which I depend. Yet I know I should be further forward in the life of holiness, further forward in love, further forward in my commitment to community, further forward in my commitment to be consistently anti-racist, in living for the God who says there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek…for all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). In other words, I should be further forward in doing what the Bible says.

And what about you? What about all of us who desire to live as faithful disciples of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? To develop James’ illustration of the mirror, when we look at the photo of Donald Trump holding a Bible aloft, using it to forward his own agenda, what do we see? If we are honest, do we see an image of how we can sometimes be, reflected back at us? Holding the Bible, professing to believe in the authority of the Bible, but not living out its life giving, life sharing message day to day? These are uncomfortable questions, but questions we need to ask.

This is not to make us feel guilty, but it is to call us to repentance and radical change. Each day Jesus forgives his failing and fallen followers, picks us up, dusts us down and sets us on the road of discipleship once again. Such is his grace. What’s more he is present with us by the power of the Spirit so that real change is possible. So, as we look into the mirror of God’s word what do we see? This is a vital question. But for James it’s not the most important one. The question he would want to leave us with is not ‘What do we see?’ but rather ‘What will we do?’

 

Click here to catch up with the series.

 

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Twelve Steps Towards Freedom: Endure

Dave Gregory,

This post by Dave Gregory was originally published at Seventy Two

I was supposed to be on sabbatical till the end of this month.  But the restrictions on travel as well as the pastoral and missional demands of the COVID-19 lockdown has meant it rightly needed to be delayed.  No, I’m not asking for sympathy.  As God reminded me a few days ago, waiting can be a part of his plan.  My last sabbatical was delayed two years!  And it proved to shape my life and ministry over the past seven years in a way that probably wouldn’t have been the case if it had happened according to schedule.

This previous sabbatical was rather full but wonderfully refreshing!  Ending with a journey to Peru with BMS World Mission with Carolyn to visit Laura Lee-Lovering who works in Nauta on the banks of the Amazon in environmental mission.  Beginning with another journey, a 100 mile walk along St Oswald’s Way.  Down the Northumbria coast from Lindisfarne, via the Northumbria Community, to Heavensfield on Hadrian’s Wall.

On that walk I was accompanied by Eugene Peterson.  Well not literally.  But each day I read and journaled a chapter in his book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”.  A series of reflections on the Psalms of Ascent.  Beginning with the line “I call upon the Lord in my distress and he answers me” (Psalm 120v1).  Ending with the last verse of Psalm 134; “May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion”.  Songs sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem for the Passover festival, remembering God’s act of redemption of freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  A suitable companion to accompany my pilgrimage.

A suitable companion for these days too?  These last months of the COVID-19 lockdown might be described as a “Long Obedience in the Same Direction”.  We have all needed to endure in restricting our movements and social contacts among other things as we have played our part in bringing the infection rate down.  Many things have been delayed.  The launch of BUEN – the Baptist Union Environmental Network – but be assured it is still coming!  And delay in life while painful and uncertain has brought benefits.  As I mentioned before there has been improvement in the natural world around us, which the beautiful weather has brought even more to our notice.

But if we are to continue to enjoy this.  If we are to join with sharing in the mission of God who is the “the maker of heaven and earth”, we will need “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” to be the DNA of our discipleship and church life.  Our concern for the environment and the impacts of climate change upon people’s lives cannot be for a season.  It must be embedded into our individual, corporate and national life as followers of Jesus.

You see, we tend to have short memories.  While we may have enjoyed creation over the past months, how much of what we have experienced will stay with us in the longer term?  How much will be lost when life returns to normal?  Last Saturday night, I watched a film on Netflix – “Like Father”.  I won’t spoil the plot, too much.  Essentially a father and daughter find healing, redemption, perhaps even forgiveness on an accidental cruise they share together.  But at the end as they prepare to leave, the daughter back tracks on her promise to come and visit.  “This is vacation, you know, and I have to get back to real life?”.

“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is not just for lockdown.  Nor just for a long sabbatical walk.  It’s for life.  All the years of our life.  Every area of our lives.  Didn’t Paul say run the race “in such a way as to get the prize”  (1 Cor 9v24).  And “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal”  (Phil 3v12-14, part).  Caring for creation will require a marathon not a sprint.  And strangely is you are going to win in this race, you need to keep going back to the starting line.

The tenth step towards freedom is that we “continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it”.  And that takes us back to the fourth step last December when we were challenged to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”  I said then that was a hard call to dig deep.  Now we need to keep on digging.  But this return to the starting line is not a sign of our failure.  No, it arises from a desire for more of God’s life.  Of wanting more to keep in step with God’s mission to sustain and redeem creation.  We need to engage in the spiritual practice of Examen – Environmental Examen.

Examen is a moment at the end of a day to pause, turn and look back with God.  Recognising where you have been aware of the presence of God; and where you may have missed it.  Where you have walked in step with God; or been out of step.  A moment to recognise blessings and be thankful.  Also, to recognise where we have been less than God calls us to be in Jesus.

In our lives we need to build regular moments of environmental examen if we are to sustain “A Long Obedience in the same Direction”.  Back in 2019, the Baptist Union encouraged us to take part in “Living Lent – Creating a Climate of Change”.  In our household we tried to minimise the use of non-recyclable plastic and reduce the red meat in our diet.  They repeated the challenge in 2020.  In our desire for the new thing, maybe you think that is somewhat unimaginative.  But that misses the point.  After journeying for a year, we needed a moment of examen.  We found it helpful to revisit the challenges, particularly to move further towards a meat free diet.  Regular examen increases our awareness so that when you think about shopping, travelling and energy use you become more aware of the environmental costs of the choices that you make.

In church life too, we need moments of environmental examen.  As I write I am aware that it is Environment Sunday.  A moment to focus upon joining our Lord “the maker of heaven and earth” in caring for creation.  And coming up in September there is Climate Sunday – https://ctbi.org.uk/climate-sunday/.  From the 6th of September, churches are encouraged to hold a service focusing on Climate Change at any time over the coming year leading towards the re-scheduled UN Climate meeting in the UK in the autumn of 2021.

Hold a service, great!  But beyond a moment, think about how the environment is reflected in your on-going church life.  Maybe you have already started on the Eco-Church journey.  If so, then build in regular reviews at least once a year or perhaps to the major festivals through the church year.  How might the environment connect with Advent and Christmas, when we celebrate the God who affirms creation by coming to be a part of it.  And at Easter, do you recognise that Christ died to reconcile to God “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven by making peace through his blood shed, on the cross”  (Col 1v20)?  More regularly, what about communion?  And baptism, a sign of resurrection life; what about the hope of new creation.  Think about the songs you sing in worship – do you include some with a focus upon care of creation?

All these might be moment of environmental examen through our church year.  Alongside theme moments, regularly include environmental concerns in your Sunday prayers,  bulletins and social media feeds.  Encourage people to talk about it in your small groups and ministries, in your leadership teams and church meetings.  Your youth and children’s groups.  Perhaps, with their seeming greater awareness of these issues, you can ask your children and young people to hold you accountable.  After all, it’s their future that we are gambling with when it comes to how our lives today are affecting the climate and environment.

“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”.  If we are going to respond to climate change this is what we need.  Beyond a moment in our lives, individually or shared together.  Embracing all moments in our lives.  Regularly examined, corrected and re-energised.  Embedded into our discipleship DNA.  With the opening line of Psalm 120, calling out to God in our distress over a distressed creation.  Listening for his voice, that we may walk well with the “maker of heaven and earth” for the wellbeing of creation.  And hoping as the final line of Psalm 135 for the blessing and wellbeing of God for ourselves, for the planet and future generations.

 

This blog is part of a series from Dave Gregory. To see previous blogs in the series, please click here.

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God of Justice

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

God is a God of justice and he calls us to reflect this in our discipleship. Put simply, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to be a people of justice.

We often fail to recognise this. When I was writing my book on discipleship, I set out to expound Micah 6.8. The challenge this verse gives would form a central chapter of the book. This is the challenge to ‘act justly’, ‘love mercy’ and ‘walk humbly’ with our God. I turned eagerly to commentaries for help in getting to the heart of the well-known text, but I was disappointed. The way the verse was interpreted and then applied was often limited and ‘pietistic’. I read we are to pay our taxes, be honest when filling in expenses claims, and so on. Indeed we are, but the Hebrew word mipat which we translate as ‘justice’ is both broad and deep. Crucially, it applies to the big issues of society and it insists on the rights of others. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at the failure to apply God’s word to big and challenging issues. For often I fail to do this myself.

So the Bible gives us a ringing call to be people of justice and ‘equity’ (compare Psalm 99.4). But what does this mean in practice? Specifically, what does this mean following the appalling, racist murder of George Floyd? The filming of the sickening killing brought it to the world’s attention. But such events are not rare, neither are they confined to the United States. Racism is a deep-rooted problem. It is a deep-rooted problem here in the UK.

How should we respond? For those of us who are not black, it should involve us listening carefully to black voices. I include a link below to just one powerful contribution. I urge you to take the time to engage with it.

And then we need to be consistently anti-racist. It is not enough to say, ‘I’m not racist’. We are to actively oppose racism. Call it out. The Bible says we are to ‘act justly’. Do something. Speak. Challenge. Recognise the reality of white privilege and the continuing effects of past injustice, especially the unspeakable evil of slavery. In the 1960s Martin Luther King became ‘gravely disappointed’ with many ‘white moderates’. ‘Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will’, he declared. He found many were more concerned with order than with justice and preferred ‘a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.’ Justice – that word again. Are we going to be people who act justly? Are we going to live as disciples of Jesus?

Click here to catch up with the series.

 

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The Upside Down Kingdom

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

2 Corinthians 11:16-33. Take a moment to read the passage.

Strength in weakness is an overarching theme in 2 Corinthians. We see it when Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh, the subject of last week’s reflection. We see it when he speaks of how the treasure of the gospel is carried in people who are like brittle jars of clay. It’s everywhere in the letter. This is a great encouragement, as it’s a theme for these Corona virus times. If you are feeling weak today then you’re in good company: the apostle Paul stands with you. God used him and God can use you in his service.

Given that strength in weakness is so important in 2 Corinthians, 11.16-33 seems to strike a jarring note. Paul even talks about ‘self-confident boasting’ (v 17). Is he contradicting himself? What is going on here? We need to dig a little deeper. When we do we realise the strength in weakness theme is being played out once again, this time with an additional twist.

Paul’s opponents were boasting about their background, their culture and their polished rhetoric. The apostle could easily have done the same. He may not have been trained in the latest, most fashionable ways of public speaking, but he could certainly use words powerfully as these verses show. Yet when he does boast he focuses on his weaknesses, setting out with passion and precision various ways he suffered as an apostle (vs 23-29). His words are deeply moving. Truly, Paul has shown himself to be a servant of Christ (v 23). His example encourages us to get out of our comfort zones and take risks as we seek to follow Jesus today.

Verses 32-33 can appear puzzling at first. Paul’s successful escape from Damascus doesn’t seem to fit with his boasting about weakness. Understanding the Roman background helps us. When an army laid siege to a city, the first soldier to go over the wall and enter the city (assuming they survived) claimed the Corona Muralis, or ‘wall crown’. This was perhaps the greatest military honour a Roman soldier could attain. Astonishingly, Paul takes this image of military heroism and reverses it. He was not the first in but effectively the first out, fleeing over the wall to escape arrest. For people of the day this would have smacked of one thing: weakness. But Paul was unashamed to boast in this ‘foolish’ upside down fashion.

Sadly, in both church and wider society we tend to boast about our strengths (as we see them). In churches this sometimes reveals itself in a ‘celebrity culture’ and in showy, self-promoting ministries. But we serve Jesus whose own crown was made of thorns. We are called to follow him. Paul shows us the way.

 

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Strength in Weakness

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

2 Corinthians 12:1-21

Have you felt weak at any time since lockdown began? I’d be very surprised if the answer was ‘no’. Perhaps you feel physically weak because you’ve actually contracted Covid 19. Perhaps you’ve felt physically unwell for another reason. It may be that you’ve struggled with your mental health. Or possibly you just feel overwhelmed by the strangeness of these times, helpless as you deal with the pain of isolation, or the seeming impossibility of juggling work, home, children, wider family. It may actually be you’ve felt weak everyday since lockdown began, and even as things ease a little for some of us, that same sense of powerlessness remains. If so, be assured that many feel the same way.

Encouragingly, we’re in good company. The apostle Paul felt weak – every day. He tells us about this in 2 Corinthians 12. Scholars have long sought to understand what is meant be the ‘thorn in the flesh’ (v 7, AV). Some have speculated that Paul lived with a painful eye condition (he reminds the Galatians of a physical illness he experienced, and declares they had been willing to tear out their eyes to give to him [Gal 4.13-15]). But it is difficult to say for certain what he is referring to, not least because the meaning of the word rendered ‘thorn’ in English translations, skolops, is uncertain. Ultimately, we are left to wonder.

What is clear is that the situation was serious. We can imagine the urgency and fervency with which Paul prayed for his wretched ‘thorn’ to be removed, and his disappointment when the longed-for answer did not come. But the skolops was important, firstly as a safeguard against pride. Paul had been granted quite extraordinary visions and revelations (vs 1-4). So, the painful thorn kept him humble. Secondly, the thorn ensured the vital gospel principle so central to 2 Corinthians was seen in Paul’s ministry: when he was weak, then God’s strength was most evidently at work (v 9). We shouldn’t be surprised at this principle, for it is the pattern of the cross.

The difficulty in identifying the thorn helps us apply these verses to our own many and varied situations. We may face any manner of difficulties. Some of these have already been rehearsed in this blog in previous posts: the employer helpless as her business slides toward collapse; the employee powerless as he loses the job he loves (and which he needs to pay the bills), the health care professional expected to work without adequate PPE, the teacher with asthma being pressured into returning to the classroom, the person living on their own deprived of physical touch… The list goes on. Insert your own situation here. Paul could be speaking for us. The thorn in the flesh. The pattern of the cross. Weakness.

The thorn could be physical, or mental or relational. For us, it could be directly related to Corona Virus or not. Paul prayed for his skolops to be taken away, and we can pray this for ourselves. However, we may well receive the same answer Paul did (v 8). God sometimes gives us grace to cope with great difficulty, rather than taking that difficulty away. If this is your experience, depend on our gracious God who will give you all you need to get through. And as you lean on him, be confident that when you are at your weakest God will be at work in you and through you in his mighty power. You may be weak, but as you cry out to him and lean on him, this might just be the moment that God is going to use you in a special way.

 

This blog is part of a series. Click here to read previous articles.

 

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