Category: Inspiring Discipleship

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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Family Meal

admin,

This post by admin was originally published at Seventy Two

In Luke 8:19-21 Jesus’ family come to see him, but Jesus does not treat them as we would expect, instead he talks about a new family that goes beyond the barriers of flesh and blood. I don’t feel he was rejecting his family, merely stating that family, for Jesus, was a much broader concept than we consider it to be.

As a father of an adopted child, although we tried for and failed to have a “birth” child, I know that adoption was not and never will be second best for us. We treat our child no differently than if they were a birth child, our love for her is not any less. Flesh and blood is not as big a determining factor to what family is as we might think.

I read online, and I wish I could remember where, that church is like a family meal. In a family meal you all bring something to the table, you serve each other; while someone does the cooking, others might clear up, wash up and dry up. Family meals are joyful, but there can be disagreement but the meal is marked by mutual love for each other and a willingness to serve each other and forgive each other. Families are marked by being communities of generosity, hospitality and joy.

But sadly, for many people, their idea of church is more like a meal at a Restaurant, it is a transaction. You are ushered to the table, your order is taken, the food is cooked, served to you, cleared away and the plates are all washed. You may not ever know the name of the person who served you, cooked for you or cleaned up after you. If you go often enough you may get to know the staff, but very rarely on a deep personal level, you will never love them nor they you. At the end of the time you leave your payment, and if you are feeling generous or that your expectations have been met, a tip.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love a restaurant trip, particularly with good friends or family, but church is not meant to look like that, and sadly too many churches have professionalised every part of the service. All you have to do is turn up, the worship is lead by the worship pastor, no need for you to bring anything, your kids are conveniently taken away, by the paid kids worker, so you can focus on the word being preached. The Pastor/vicar brings an uplifting, but never too challenging message, they don’t want to make you uncomfortable, and at the end you leave a tip, collect your kids, have a cup of coffee and leave.

I wonder if this is really what Jesus intended for people who he called to follow him? I wonder if we have lost the idea of community, family and friendship (in the Gospel of John, Jesus calls his disciples his friends). I wonder if we genuinely lived in this way, whether we would see more people want to come to know Jesus?

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The God of all Comfort

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

‘The God of all comfort… comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.’ (2 Corinthians 1.3-4)

The ‘God of all comfort’ is one of the best-known phrases in 2 Corinthians, and the idea of comfort is clearly important in the opening chapter of the letter, with Paul mentioning it explicitly seven times (vs 3-6). The repetition is interesting in and of itself. It’s Tom Wright who comments that Paul sounds flat, indeed depressed. He repeats the same phrase, over and over, as depressed people often do. This insight has transformed my reading of these verses. I think back to some of my own conversations with people in my darker moments: my comments were monotone, lacking in liveliness, dull, flat, repetitious – probably far more so than I realise. Obviously 2 Corinthians 1 is much better than any rambling monologue from me! I believe with all my heart that – as is the case with all Scripture – this great chapter is God’s word to us. But as well as being the breathed-out word of God it also reflects the personality and circumstances of the human author. That’s God’s genius and God’s grace: he uses frail and fallible humans to accomplish his purposes. Such is his amazing love.

What is being offered to us in these verses? We want to be comforted, and we certainly need that at this time. But we can easily misunderstand what is being said here. Our view of comfort might relate to ease or even luxury, yet the word translated comfort in the NIV, paraklesis, has nothing to do with this. It could easily be rendered ‘encouragement’ and carries the sense of someone being alongside to help. Paul has experienced hardship and distress and even ‘deadly peril’ as he has given himself to cutting edge mission (v 10). God comforts him by being alongside by the power of the Holy Spirit and ‘delivering’ him. This deliverance comes not so much with Paul being taken out of his situation. Rather, God walks with him in it, and sees him through to the other side.

This is a vital principle for all Christian disciples. Suffering will come and on our own we will not be able to keep going (v 8). Yet God promises to be alongside to strengthen and save.

As far as our current situation is concerned, it’s almost unnecessary to apply this. Many who are reading this will be suffering because they have followed Jesus faithfully and sought to engage in his work. Many will be suffering right now because Covid 19 is a wretched virus, and these times are a tough context in which to serve. It was really hard to find an image to accompany this post that didn’t involve touching or hugging! In the end, we’ve gone for a picture which does show physical touch. It provides a good accompaniment to Paul’s words but it shows us what we’re missing. Given these socially distanced times, you might not even be able to summon up a flat monologue to articulate how you feel. That doesn’t matter. As C.H. Spurgeon has said, God hears the cries and the sighs of saints in distress. Reach out to God for his compassion and help in hardship. And reach out with confidence, because our wonderful, gracious ‘God of all comfort’ is more than ready to listen and respond.

And there is a postscript. God may help you very directly or his encouragement may come through a fellow Christian. This reminds us that as we receive comfort we are to play our part in the cycle of encouragement by comforting others (v 4). God has been so good to us in Jesus, pouring his grace into our lives. Having received so much from our God, our call is to let this ‘overflow’ in comfort to others (v 5). God used this weary, beaten down, depressed apostle to comfort and strengthen others. If you feel at all similar to him take heart. Who knows how God may use you today?

 

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Travelling through the Darkness

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

Psalm 23 is the surprising Psalm. That statement – in and of itself – might seem surprising. Surely this is the best known of all the Psalms. Most readers of this blog will be familiar with it.

Yet that very familiarity means we often miss what is really here. We are used to being soothed by readings of Psalm 23 which present it as pastoral and gentle. We focus on the green pastures and quiet waters and romanticise the life of the shepherd and his sheep. But if we read more closely, we see this is a Psalm where evil is present. The Psalmist is walking through the deepest, most dangerous valley, with unseen enemies waiting in the gloom, ready to strike. The phrase translated ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ may in fact be better rendered ‘the darkest valley’. Whichever phrase we use we get the picture. This is a Psalm that deals with the tough, gritty realities of everyday life. It is in fact a Psalm for our times, a Psalm for the Covid 19 ward, for the single mother cooped up with young children wondering how she’ll pay the rent, for the furloughed employee and for the employer whose business is collapsing. It is a Psalm for the care home, for the grieving family unable to arrange a proper funeral and for the person battling the deep darkness of depression. This is a Psalm for how many of us feel. That’s the first surprise.

The second surprise is that God is with us in the thick, seemingly impenetrable darkness. Is that surprising? Perhaps not, but in the worst of situations we struggle to believe it. My blogpost last week on my experiences of mild depression generated an amazing response, firstly of empathy and encouragement (thank you!) and secondly from people who go through something similar or, in many cases, far worse. Yet a feature of many forms of depression is that we feel utterly alone, isolated from others and – if we are disciples of Jesus – isolated from God.

Yet we are not alone. Not only are there many other people who are walking the same path, God is with us. John of the Cross, who teaches us about the ‘dark night of the soul’, felt that for him God had become distant, unreachable. But those were his feelings. For John, God never actually withdrew, it just seemed like it from his perspective. Psalm 23 shows us that is a biblical insight. Even at the lowest point of the valley, with evil all around, the Lord who was the Psalmist’s shepherd was with him. This truth is perfectly fulfilled for us in Jesus, the good shepherd. He lays down his life for the sheep (John 10.11). The darkness he endured on the cross for our sakes far outstrips anything which will happen to us. He understands what we suffer, and he is with us by the Holy Spirit. These are familiar truths and it’s so easy to skim over them. As we lose our capacity to be surprised by Psalm 23, so we lose our capacity to be surprised by the cross and the love of God. Take a step back today and wonder afresh at God’s amazing grace to you in Jesus.

And there’s one further surprise. God will bring us through. In the Psalm we enter the darkness, but we don’t stay there. We come ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’. The sheep are led by the shepherd to a place of safety and abundance. The disciple’s cup is not just full, it overflows. Here is outrageous grace. In Jesus, who is risen from the dead, suffering does not have the last word. Day always follows night as resurrection light penetrates the darkness.

The experience of many Christian disciples who have travelled through the ‘dark night’ is that they have again seen the ‘goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27.13). The sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader Jakob Hutter said this, Be comforted then, for God…makes us sad and joyful again; he gives death and also life; and after great storms he makes the sun shine again. Praise God this can be echoed by many. May God surprise you by bringing you wonderfully through your time of darkness so you dwell in the green pastures once again.

There are some however who experience darkness throughout their lives, perhaps through a series of calamities, perhaps because of a predisposition to severe depression, perhaps through the terrible injustices that blight the lives of so many around the world. Is there a word here for such people? I confess I hesitate to speak. But the Psalm does speak, of God’s presence and help and of a glory that defies description that is yet to come. Notice the certainty of the final verse of Psalm 23. God will never leave us – either now or in the age to come. This is our hope. And the God of surprises will not let us down.

 

This blog is part of a series from Peter Morden. To see previous blogs published, please click here.

 

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Twelve Steps Towards Freedom: Restore

Dave Gregory,

This post by Dave Gregory was originally published at Seventy Two

I spent some of my daily exercise out in the bluebell woods near my home a week or so back.  A wonderful carpet of blue, a heavy scent filling the air.  What a wonder – life being restored as the exceptionally warm April brings new life once more.  A wonderful surprise on a colder Saturday a few weeks back too.  With my wife, I was out on my bike delivering CDs of the Sunday service to those who cannot watch on the internet.  I approached one door, there was rustling in the bush next to me.  Out stepped a small Muntjac deer, rather bedraggled after the heavy overnight rain.   With the slowdown in traffic and less people on the streets, like other animals, they are encroaching the urban environment.

Perhaps like me you have had your own similar experience.  Or you have seen stories of goats wandering around the streets of Llandudno.  Deer wandering along the roads north east London boarding Epping Forest.  Nature abhors a vacuum they say.  A sign of the ability of nature to restore itself as human activity is scaled back.  Out on my walk today, speaking at a suitable distance from my neighbour he told me of the oak trees by the main road.  The leaves fresh and green, while in past years they curl up brown due to traffic pollution.  A reminder of the impact of humanity upon the natural world.  Signs of hope that we need to hang onto, that it is not too late to restore the damage we have done to the Earth.

The COVID-19 lockdown has had a large impact on our way of life and livelihoods.  It has reminded us of the fragility of our lives and society.  The fragility yet robustness of creation also.  There is something positive in this moment.  A sense of wellbeing as I see these changes.  A renewed sense of joy at the wonder of creation that is God’s gift to us.  And sighing, not of longing over something lost, but in appreciation of what is gained.  A sabbath?

Of course, it may be short lived – there are growing calls that we need to get back to some form of normality for the sake of our personal and national wellbeing.  But it’s a reminder of the direction that we need to go in the years and decades ahead if we are to seek the wellbeing of society and the Earth itself in broader terms than just thinking about money on our pockets.  A stimulus not only to awareness, but also action.

That is where the next of our twelve steps leads.  As we face our own COVID-19 emergency, the last step challenged us to become aware of the people who face the immediacy of the climate emergency today.  The next step moves us from awareness to action.  A vital step for allowing God’s spirit to transform our lives inwardly and outwardly.  For as James reminds us, one is not complete without the other.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2v14-17)

Beyond awareness, the next step takes deeper into discipleship.  Into practical action.  With regard to the people we have harmed through the damage we have brought to the Earth, “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible”.

A few weeks ago, we lost a remarkable voice who has championed the cause of and inspired climate action over many decades.  A voice that shaped research and scientific knowledge, impacting government policy nationally and globally, as well the thinking of Christians and the church.  Professor Sir John Houghton, a Baptist Christian, well respected for his scientific insight, integrity, and compassion, sadly died.  He led the Met Office when I first joined in the mid-1980s and then one of the United Nations Climate Panels for many years.  He founded the John Ray Initiative, an environmental education charity that continues go encourage Christians to grow in awareness and action of the environmental crisis, and which I have the privilege of being involved with.

Although I did not know him well, I am grateful for the stimulus he brought to my own thinking about science and faith and seeding my own Christian thinking about climate change.  I still have one of the slides (see below) that he used in his talks, which I adapted into my own presentations over many years.  A simple slide with a chilling message that I have found has brought home to children, young people, and adults the shocking imbalance and injustice of the climate emergency.

Frankly, the lives we have been living before COVID-19 have been the opposite of the Robin Hood story.  We have been robbing the poor to feed the lives of the rich.  A small minority of the world’s population is the most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and their impact upon the natural world and environment.  If you want to talk about climate footprints, then the rich have the biggest boot, and the poor get the biggest kick.  While we might enjoy the restoration of nature that we have seen these past months, we need to repair the injustice that our lives and climate change are causing.

Restoration is part of redemption.  In the Old Testament, if someone stole from a neighbour, they were to “return what had been stolen … make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it to the owner”  (Leviticus 6v4,5).  This was on top of the guilt offering they needed to offer to God, which was costly too – a ram that was top of the range.  And Jesus’ encounters with people say that we need to go further than follow the letter of the law if we to work with God’s redeeming, restoring Spirit.  Think about how Zacchaeus, a cheating tax collector, in with the powers of his day, whose middle name was “injustice” responded when Jesus turned up in his neighbourhood.

‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’  (Luke 19v8)

That’s not a fifth of what he had cheated people out of – twenty percent.  A whopping twenty times more – four hundred percent.  And not just the best ram from the flock, half his wealth as well.  And how did Jesus respond? ‘Today salvation has come to this house’.

The Paris Climate Accord has mechanisms in place that provide a transfer of funds from rich nations to the poorer nations who are getting the biggest kick.  But like much of that agreement, promises given to grab headlines are struggling to be put into practice.  The Green Fund aims to mobilise 80 billion pounds a year to help developing nations adapt and mitigate against climate change.  So far, by this year, only 8 billion pounds had been raised.  Compare that to the cost of the COVID crisis is the UK where the government has provided 100 billion pounds in grants and loans to businesses over a couple of months.

Today, many Christians are campaigning for a fairer climate deal for those for whom the climate emergency is a present reality, including Christian Aid whose national campaign to raise awareness this month has had to be curtailed because of the lockdown.  Why not find out what they are doing on their website – https://www.christianaid.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/resilience-climate.  How might you and your church contribute this year, especially if you are unable to do your usual street collection?  Baptists too play their part.  BMS World Mission offsets staff travel to fund the  “Eco Challenge Fund”, supporting mission projects with an emphasis on creation stewardship.  The installation of solar power systems for hospitals in Chad; sustainable agro-forestry training in the Peruvian Amazon.

The world may be in lock down for a moment, allowing us to see creation being restored.  But while it won’t be forever, the climate emergency will go for many people.  As we move beyond survival mode of the present time, as we seek the wellbeing of those traumatised by the COVID-19 emergency, don’t forget the underlying trauma of climate change for people and the planet.  In reshaping your church vision and missional agenda, put the issue of climate justice before leadership and church meeting.  How might your church raise its voice and play its part in restoring the Earth?

What will it mean for you as later in the year you look ahead towards 2021?  As you begin to set your priorities and budgets?  I know that may be tough for many churches.  But in the year our country hosts the postponed global climate summit?  In the year that we look to rebuild the world economy, hopefully in a more environmentally responsible and just way.  What voice will we bring to the table? What we will say to Jesus as he sits with us in our house?  And will he say back “Today salvation has come to this house’.

 

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

 

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Discipleship and Darkness

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

On 18 June 2018 my wife Anne died of cancer. This blog is not about her life and her courage. I know I could never begin to do justice to her extraordinary faith and witness, especially in those final days. This is not even about how I felt at the time. Rather, it concerns what happened to me six months later. It’s offered here in the hope the story might help someone else, especially at this time of Covid 19 and lockdown. I’m writing it because the church – in common with wider society – still finds it hard to talk about depression. And I’m writing it because times of deep darkness – what John of the Cross called ‘dark nights of the soul’ – are part of Christian discipleship for many.

I knew I was in difficulties at the beginning of 2019. Christmas had been really tough, new year worse. I was invariably tired and flat. I was well supported and couldn’t understand why I was struggling so badly. Darkness is definitely the best image I can find to describe how I was feeling. Surely, as the days passed I would shake this off. But I didn’t.

And then one morning I found I simply couldn’t get up. I really couldn’t move; it was as if I was glued to the bed. I’ve experienced low mood at different times in my life, not least when Anne was going through her first cancer in 2012. But this was different. I was just stuck. Thinking back to that day is still very difficult.

Eventually, somehow, I rolled out of bed, and crawled across the floor. By about 11.30 a.m. I found that I could function – just. So began a daily pattern: the mornings were awful, the afternoons slightly better, the evenings tolerable. Then the daily cycle began again. Still, I led meetings, led our staff team, preached and pastored the church.

To my amazement and embarrassment I found spoken prayer almost impossible. I simply couldn’t find the words. With other people I just about managed, but on my own I couldn’t. I felt like a hypocrite.

A few things helped me. One was the so-called Jesus Prayer, rooted in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. This had been part of my prayer life for many years, ever since I discovered it in the early days of my teaching at Spurgeon’s College. I found it brought me back to the simplicity of the gospel, anchoring me as a disciple of Jesus, one whose specific calling meant that words – often quite complicated words – were his stock in trade. But now I was praying the Jesus Prayer for a very different reason: it was all I could manage. The phrases I knew so well were a lifeline. But sometimes even this was too much. All I could say was, ‘Lord, help.’ Other times it was just a sigh. I thought I wasn’t really praying. Perhaps the truth is that I was praying like never before.

I knew I needed help but I’m stubborn! The breakthrough came when I went to the doctors for something quite minor. In the surgery waiting room there was a magazine containing an article with extensive quotes from the actress, Emma Thompson, about her own battle with depression. I have the article in front of me now as I type. She spoke of the ‘mild depression’ she periodically experiences, depression that became overwhelming following the breakup of her marriage to Kenneth Branagh. Everyone’s experience is unique, but to my astonishment she basically described how I was feeling. The struggle to get up, the tears, the forced cheerfulness, the reluctance to seek help: it was all there. The description ‘mild depression’ is important. There are many who suffer far worse. But she had needed help, and so did I. I decided not to bother the doctor with the minor ailment. Instead I would talk about the real problem.

By God’s extraordinary grace, for me, slowly the darkness began to lift. Here’s a few of the things that helped.

Realising I was not alone

We know this from the Bible. Psalm 88 is an example of a lament from someone exhibiting the symptoms of clinical depression. A quick glance through Christian history also shows us we’re not alone. C.H. Spurgeon, the nineteenth-century Baptist preacher, is just one who fought this battle with depression. And in this time of lockdown many are facing struggles with mental health, whilst others have had to deal with this for many years. One of the things about depression is that it often isolates. We feel everyone else is coping, that we are the only ones who are not. Yet when we turn again to Psalm 88 we see how utterly cut off the Psalmist felt. But we are not alone. This realisation in itself was helpful.

Be open

Be open with God first of all. Once again, Psalm 88 gives us this encouragement. Often I realise I pray ‘nice’ middle-class English prayers, very polite and with lots of finely phrased sentences. God is not impressed! He knows what’s in my heart before I speak it out, so why not be open with him? Be open with others too. When I did share what was happening – doing so with a degree of fear and trembling – I found love, understanding, and people who would journey with me. Church was great. I hope you have people around you who can help you too.

Seek help

For me this meant being honest with our staff team, elders, in appropriate ways, the wider church. It also meant bereavement counselling, medication and, for a time, a revised pattern of working. If you’re a Baptist Minister you can access a Ministerial Counselling service and receive subsidised help. My experience of counselling was interesting. The counsellor expected me to do most of the talking and sometimes we sat in silence. I remember thinking, ‘you get paid for this…?’ But step by step I found that it was really helping. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is say to someone else, ‘I need help’.

Trust in Jesus

My own story is of God leading me out of depression (I’m acutely aware this is not everyone’s experience). It’s not easy though, especially now. I’m living on my own, unable to physically meet up with the amazing woman I’m now in a relationship with (who works for the NHS – more anxiety!). I’m seeking to help navigate our wonderful church through lockdown. Writing this blog has also come at a cost, if I’m honest.

Yet I know that even when it seems there’s no light penetrating the gloom, and any positive feelings have gone AWOL, God is to be trusted. In Psalm 88 the writer never stops coming to God, never stops hammering on the gates of heaven. The Psalm ends – in the Hebrew text – with the word ‘darkness’. Yet it’s very existence in the Psalter sets it in a wider context, just as the inclusion of the Psalter in the whole Bible gives a wider context still. God reaches out to his people, sending Jesus to die for us and offering love and hope through faith in him. These things are true however we feel. Don’t stop trusting, for God will lead us through.

 

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Count your Blessings

admin,

This post by admin was originally published at Seventy Two

The phrase ‘count your blessings’ has become something of a cliché. Worse still, it can sometimes be said unfeelingly when people are in distress. It is vital to deal pastorally and carefully with one another and walk sensitively alongside those who are hurting. This is particularly so in this time of Covid 19. Do you know someone who is broken, grieving, physically unwell, or struggling financially? Do you know a key worker on the brink of exhaustion, or a person who is wrestling with mental health issues in this time of lockdown? Please don’t say ‘count your blessings’! Probably the best thing we can do is journey alongside our friends and simply love them as best we can. Henri Nouwen once said this:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain… The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.[1]

Is God calling you to be that friend for someone today?

Alternatively, perhaps it’s you who is in pain. May God give you people who will walk alongside you – although it may have to be virtually rather than physically. If you feel totally isolated do contact someone. I’d love to hear from you. Following Jesus is something we do in community. Of course Jesus himself is our greatest friend and we can turn to him at any time. But so often his grace is mediated to us through other people. We all need friends who care.

Yet for all Christians who are in a place to receive the message, we really can count our blessings or at least try. Doing so each day is a healthy a spiritual discipline, one which strengthens us as disciples and helps us to maintain our joy in Jesus. Psalm 65 shows us what some of these blessings are.

Firstly, there are the blessings of creation. God formed the ‘mountains by his power’ (v 6); indeed, he created the whole cosmos. But more than that he sustains his creation. In verses 9-13 we see this beautifully expressed. Have a look at the Psalm and take time to drink in the poetry of these verses. True, we have spoilt creation which ‘groans’ as a result, waiting for its ‘liberation’ which will take place at the return of Christ (Romans 8.18-22). Yet God still cares for it (and, of course, calls us to join with him in this vital work). By his grace, creation is still wonderful, and so we praise him for all he has made. I’ve found you can do this even in an urban environment. If you’re able to get outside for a walk, run or cycle today drink in the beauty of what God has made. And be grateful.

Secondly, there are the blessings of salvation. Verses 2-5 are a powerful summary of the gospel. We were ‘overwhelmed’ by sins, but God heard our prayer and chose us for forgiveness. All this is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus: it is he who has made this possible through his ‘awesome deeds of righteousness’ (v5). In a time of uncertainty, where so much is changing, our salvation is based on the work of Jesus and guaranteed by God’s promises. No one can take it away. Here is blessing indeed.

Overall, the Psalm speaks of God’s ‘staggering generosity’.[2] What a privilege to recount all he has done and worship our creator and saviour God, the one who blesses us so ‘we shout for joy and sing’ (v 13). Try counting your blessings today. Once you’ve started, you may find it difficult to stop.

 

[1] Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Psalms, Augsburg, 1984, p136

 

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Where Does The Power Lie?

Ross Maynard,

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

‘Oh, I wish we could go back to the day when we were a Christian country.’ I have heard many say words to this effect and it leaves me feeling sad and if I’m honest, quite angry. I wonder whether we can every really claim we were a ‘Christian country.’ I know that’s debatable and many reading this blog may passionately disagree with me. The Church was certainly powerful and Sunday services significantly better attended, but does this make us a Christian country? This is before we even dare to delve into the bloody, corrupt and power crazed history of the Church. A history, I might add, that we must take ownership of as we are part of this Church.

Secondly, I wonder whether the power the Church had during this romanticised era was in fact a good thing. I can hear the famous quote from Lord Acton ringing in my ears, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

You may have heard of the comedian Russell Brand. I have to admit I quite like the bushy bearded hipster. Last year he had a very interesting interview with Bishop Stephen Cottrell, who was recently elected to become the next Archbishop of York. After acknowledging that the Church is not as ‘strong’ as it once was, Bishop Stephen says these very interesting words:

‘A poorer, weaker, less strong Church might be a good thing. It’ll make us a little less pompous, a little more humble, a little more determined to just to get alongside people and I think that’s a good thing.’

I find myself in agreement with what Bishop Stephen is saying. Rather than mourning the loss of the Church’s power within the UK, can we start to see our more vulnerable position as a good thing and as a new opportunity for mission? A mission that views and uses power differently. Power as defined by our God, expressed beautifully in the library of scripture.

I passionately believe that if there’s one thing the Bible speaks clearly about, it’s power. From the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) to the New Testament, the misuse of power is critiqued and in general, redefined.

Let’s begin our brief exploration in Exodus, the primal narrative for Jewish people. It’s the story of how God (Yahweh) choose the underdog. It’s a story of how God used the powerless to speak truth to the most powerful. Moses (an Israelite slave) VS Pharaoh (the leader of the world’s superpower, Egypt). Spoiler alert…the slaves won. God favoured the have-nots.

Fast forward the narrative of the Israelite people and they are no longer the powerless, but the powerful. Their slow growth from a nomadic people to a nation, hasn’t been entirely positive. The temple, their place of worship, was not only the religious centre of their nation, but also the political and economic. It became controlled by the educated, the privileged and the elite within society. This inevitably led to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Enter the prophets. They were the freedom fighters of the day challenging and critiquing the misuse of power by the religious elite. Their many sacrifices and elaborate expressions of worship had become fake as they masked the exclusion and mistreatment of the widows, orphans and more vulnerable within their society. You can see why hundreds of years later Jesus loses it and starts flipping tables over within the temple can’t you?

Let’s fast forward again to the greatest critique of power: Jesus. His life and teaching redefined how we view power. He’s forever challenging the religious and political authorities. He spends all his time with the powerless and marginalised. He gives them purpose and welcomes them into what he’s doing; establishing the kingdom of God. His battle cry is, ‘the Kingdom of God is open to all, how dare you exclude anyone!!’

His life and teaching inevitably led to his death. A death, it turned out, that was to redefine how we understood power forever. The greatest victory this world has ever known, the event which placed a stake in the heart of all earthly powers, was won by weakness and the death of an innocent man.

The God we worship flips everything upside down. The apostle Paul puts it perfectly when he says in 1 Cor 1:27-29:

‘Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.’


When I studied at Regents Park College in Oxford, doing my masters, I was encouraged by my lecturers to always be asking the question: Where does the power lie? 

This has become one of the most important questions I always ask of myself and others. Not least because my very role as a minister affords me a great amount of power. How dare I condemn others for using power badly before I am critical of my own use of it.

This question opens up many other questions that I’d encourage you to ask.

  1. Where is God calling me to challenge injustice? (You could join some fantastic initiatives fighting misuses of power: Fairtrade, Stop the Traffick, A21, Unseen, Tearfund etc.)
  2. Where do I have an unhealthy desire for power? Is there a role within church I’m a little too precious about?
  3. Where could I lay aside my position/power and allow others to step up instead, even if they do things differently to me?
  4. In ministry am I more comfortable being a host rather than a guest? If so why? (Jesus was often a guest. He empowered others by relying on them to care for him. Many times, I’ve been a guest and more vulnerable and seen God do amazing things)

These are only a few questions, of which there are many. I would encourage you this week to read 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 and reflect deeply on these questions.

I want to finish this article where I began.

I would edit Bishop Stephens quote from earlier when he says, ‘A poorer, weaker, less strong Church might be a good thing.’ I would argue that a poorer, weaker, less strong Church is a very good thing. Can we leave behind the romanticised picture of a once great a powerful Church and instead embrace Jesus’ vision of powerlessness? A vision that leaves space for the overwhelming beauty of God’s loving power at work within and through us?

‘God chose… things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.’ Where does the power lie?

 

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How Long O Lord?

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

For this post you really need Isaiah 6 in front of you. In fact, if you’re short on time skip this blog and just read the chapter. All of it. Not just the encouraging bits but the verses that don’t seem to make any sense. Isaiah 6 is God’s word to us in these difficult, disorientating times.

The chapter is rich and there are so many themes that could be followed up. The opening vision is breathtaking. Verses 1-8 speak of the majesty and holiness of God and how we’re saved through sacrifice. We marvel at God’s awesome nature and superabundant grace. We’re dazzled by what we see here.

All of this is perfectly fulfilled for us in Jesus. He dies in our place to make an intimate relationship with a holy God gloriously possible. Our sin and our guilt are dealt with. This is a message for our times – and for any time. Believe and receive.

What’s more we see he commissions us. It’s extraordinary really. We know ourselves only too well. We’re aware we let God down and of course he knows this far better than we do. But still he calls, still he commissions, still he sends. If we’ve really grasped this, we will want to say with the prophet: ‘Here am I, send me.’ This too is a message for our times. If you read this and sense God calling you to renew your commitment to him and his work then pause and do just that. If it’s only one person who responds in this way, writing this blog will have been more than worthwhile.

Yet it’s not the first eight verses that especially draw me at the moment. It’s the last four. Those difficult verses which appear so perplexing and which seem to strike such jarring, discordant notes. Because Isaiah’s ministry isn’t quite what we would have expected. After such a vision and such a call surely revival is about to break out in the land? We think the prophet will speak and people will hang on to every word. Personal transformation, community transformation – you name it, it will happen. But that’s not what we see. Rather it’s a long, tough struggle. Isaiah understandably cries out, ‘how long O Lord?’ Surely things will change now. But no, when God speaks it’s more of the same. Things are simply not working out the way anyone had hoped. These are troubled times, and there’s lots of confusion.

But here’s the thing. Isn’t this how many of us feel today? Personally, I’m frustrated and sad. Our church life was going really well. Conversions, baptisms and growth. A café had started and was helping us connect with more and more people. A new member of staff was encouraging a greater depth of missional discipleship. What’s more – I believed – this was only the beginning. And then Covid 19. The café is closed and the new group who are ready to be baptised have to wait. We can’t meet at all physically. Our online services are going well but, to be honest, it seems so much like second best. And now we’ve taken the difficult decision to furlough some of our wonderful staff. It’s frustrating, unexpected, confusing.

You may be a church leader and feeling something similar. But I suspect there are many others who could insert their own experiences here. You had great plans for mission and ministry, but they just need to be shelved for the moment. Maybe you were growing a business in a way which honoured God and contributed to the work of his Kingdom, now you’re having to tell staff they’re furloughed and that you don’t know whether the business will survive. Perhaps you’re self-isolating. Perhaps you’re grieving. Insert your own circumstances here. You don’t know what to cry to God. Except perhaps, ‘How long O Lord?’

Yet there is hope – and what hope it is. The final verse – the holy seed – speaks of the coming of Jesus. Covid 19 doesn’t have the last word. Jesus does. And that word is hope. Hope that can’t be kept down, which pushes through the devastation and blossoms into life.

What’s the practical takeaway here? It’s really to be faithful in the here and now, a faithfulness which is fired and sustained by our Christian hope. God called Isaiah to press forward in his difficult calling. And God – this extraordinary, holy, gracious, mysterious God – did his work through his prophet. He is trustworthy. Be faithful to him in what you have to do now, however unexpected and unwelcome. If you’re furloughing staff, do it well, bringing God’s wisdom and grace to bear. If you’re being furloughed, react in a way that’s different because you have Jesus. If you had big, expansive plans and find yourself stuck behind your four walls, try and be faithful there.

These are big challenges. Yet as this chapter shows us, we live for a God who is mighty and gracious. A God who always has the last word. And for today, that word is irrepressible Jesus-shaped hope.

 

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