Coronavirus – not everything has changed.

Coronavirus is changing everything here in the UK, just as it is around the world. People are having to organise their lives differently, and work out how we can do life together, but at the same time, apart. Our thoughts and our prayers must be with those for whom coronavirus will have the biggest impact – especially those who have, or will lose, loved ones, but also those facing uncertain futures over jobs and businesses, the stress on the NHS and young people concerned for their exams this summer.

As our churches close, too, we are all having to work out how we can continue to worship God as a community whilst not being in the same building, and how we can love and encourage one another still. I am going to have to work out how to pastor people without being physically present with them.

How many of us have been prepared for such a time as this? Whilst pandemics have always been predicted, it has always seemed like something that won’t happen to us. As we waved goodbye to 2019, none could have foreseen that 2020 would be like this. Yet here we are. We wish it were otherwise, but this is the reality we are faced with. This won’t be forever – and that’s so important to remember – but it is for now.

And whilst we work our way through this, we need to be careful not to think too far ahead. Not so much living for now, but trusting God in the here and now when that’s all we can see or manage. Jesus told us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” a reminder that we rely on God to provide for us every day.

Despite the changes we face to our lives due to these strange and unsettling times, we can be reassured that God has not changed. He still sits upon his throne. All things remain in his hands, even the coronavirus. His loving purposes for his world have not shifted, and his character remains as it was before. He remains trustworthy. Assailed though we may be by doubts and fears, God is the Rock on which we can safely build our lives, even when everything else is shifting around us.

Hebrews 13:8 reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”

The crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus remains Lord of all. Trust him – especially now.

Lent Reflections #7 Destination known

One of the best things about going away, I’ve always found, is coming home. When our children were little, they would rush down the stairs shouting “Daddy’s home.” It always thrilled me to hear those words. And it’s always lovely to be in when they get back from school now, to welcome them home.

On the evening of his arrest, Jesus had told his distressed disciples that he was going away. But his Father’s house, he said, had many rooms and there was space for them. Thomas, outspoken and confused, replied that they didn’t know where Jesus was going, so how could they know the way there? (John 14:1-5)

It’s a good point. If you’re going on a journey, it’s hard to make a decision about your route unless you know where you’re going. The destination is all important.

Jesus declared “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6-7). Jesus doesn’t say that he is the way to heaven, but to the Father. In other words, the destination that Jesus points to is not so much a place (though it is) but to a person – the Father – and a relationship.

Jesus makes an exclusive claim here that he is the only way to God, because he is the only one through whom we can know God as Father. As the Son of God he alone perfectly reveals God. Only my children can call me Dad. And only those who come to God through Jesus can call him Father.

Just this shift in perspective can change everything. The God Jesus reveals isn’t a vague unknowable entity at the end of a mountain climb, but a loving Father. Jesus is the way not just to a place, but a person.

Question for reflection: How does believing that Jesus is the way to the Father affect how we should live each day?

Lent Reflections #6 What to do

I own quite a few books about productivity and over the years I’ve tried to implement some of the best ideas. Nobody wants to be unproductive – and most of these books are designed to help us achieve more than we thought possible.

The ‘to-do’ list has been a mainstay for so long. Sometimes I’ve put something on my to-do list that I’ve already done, just to make it look slightly better. The problem with to-do list is that it can get so worryingly long that it all becomes unachievable. And this can leave us deflated and defeated. What’s the answer?

The New Testament talks about productivity too, except it calls it fruit. Just like a healthy tree is meant to produce healthy fruit, so a healthy disciple of Jesus Christ is meant to bear fruit – to be productive.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul prays that God would “fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,  so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work…” (Colossians 1:9-10 NIV)

The problem with the to-do list is that it doesn’t help us prioritise. Someone once said that it would be a tragedy if we spent our lives being productive at all the wrong things. We need God to help us know what we should be productive in, what we should do with our lives, and with the opportunities God has given us each and every day.

As Paul prayed for wisdom, we need that wisdom too to choose our priorities wisely and well.

Question for reflection: Think about your own context. How do you choose your priorities?

Lent Reflections #5 Press pause

One of the benefits of catch-up TV or DVDs is that you can press the pause button. If you need the loo, fancy a cup of tea, or just need to check with your wife what on earth is happening in this TV programme, you can do that. And you can pick up where you left off. Pausing gives you chance to refresh and get some perspective.

The English word ‘pause’ probably comes from the Latin pausa, (to stop), but it also finds its roots in the Greek word katapausis. That’s the word the New Testament uses for ‘rest’ – as in the Sabbath rest. It’s also the word Jesus used when he invited people to himself:

“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV)

I like to think of Sundays as a bit like pressing the pause button on the TV. There’s lots of information and action crowding our minds and senses, and it can be difficult to know what’s going on. Press the pause button and we have a chance of stopping to make sense of it. (It’s also why sleep is so important, because whilst we’re resting that’s when the brain does most of its processing).

Just having a day of rest is really important. But heading to church to worship God, hear his word, pray, and have fellowship with other Christians gives us chance to process our lives and the world around us. And to understand more of God’s character and his will. We can gain new insight and a fresh perspective we can’t get by ourselves.

And when we’re ready to press the ‘start’ button again we’re more ready than we might have been otherwise to face the challenges and opportunities that come our way.

Question for reflection: Do you need to pause more often than you do at present before heading to the next thing?

Lent Reflections #4 Plugged in

The battery on my smartphone is terrible. It’s an old phone, and the latest software updates are just too much for it. Just browsing on the internet for a few minutes can send it from 100% to virtually nothing. So, I carry with me a powerbank – a portable charger – so when it gets too low I can recharge it wherever I am.

Compared to my first computer, my smartphone is an amazing pieces of technology – the world at my fingertips. But when the battery goes, the thing is utterly useless.

Spiritually, I need constant charging. I need to be permanently plugged in to God if I’m to be of any use to him. Without him, I can do nothing. Jesus said the same, but used a more earthy image:

‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 NIV)

It’s a startling claim: apart from me you can do nothing. We can do nothing that lasts, nothing of great eternal importance without Jesus. Just as a twig can’t produce fruit without being connected to the main vine, and just as a dead phone can’t do anything without being charged, I can’t grow as a Christian, or bear fruit in my life, or serve the world as I should without him.

The wonderful truth, though, is that connected to Jesus – trusting our lives to him – means that we can bear fruit, we can do things for him that might otherwise seem impossible. We need to be connected to him to know his will, to grow, and to have a secure hope.

This is why the gospel is such good news. It’s not about me; it’s all about Him.

Question for reflection: Do I often rely on my own strength and ability rather than trusting in Jesus?

Lent Reflections #3 Like seasoned wood

The Vicarage is cold today, and I’ve promised my wife an open fire this afternoon. That means chopping up some wood from the store, which I built a few years ago to keep it dry. Wet wood is not great for open fire – difficult to light and gets smokey and smelly. The best wood has been dried and seasoned, prepared for just when it’s needed.

Paul wrote to his younger colleague, Timothy, that he should be ready to preach God’s word ‘in season and out of season.’ (2 Timothy 4:2) He was to be prepared to be used by God, ready for his service whenever the time was needed. It’s a good model for all of us.

Oliver Cromwell is reported to have told his troops, “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.” Simply put, he meant his men to be ready to do their duty when they were needed – to be prepared.

Preparation is key to anything we want to do well. I dislike doing anything – especially public – without preparing as well as I can. There are opportunities every day to bless, to serve, to love. We need to be prepared for them. We can be prepared to love and serve God and our neighbour. How? I think one way is to make sure we’re reading our Bibles every day, and praying every day for an opportunity to serve him. We don’t have to spend hours. Just five minutes.

If we’re pushed for time, maybe each morning whilst we’re waiting for the kettle, or on the train to work. Doesn’t sound much, but it’s five minutes better than nothing. And who knows where that will lead you.

Be prepared, in season and out.

Question for reflection: How do you prepare to love God and serve others each day?

Lent Reflections #2 “Repent and…”

If you start going in the wrong direction, there comes a point where you have to stop, turn round and go back the right way. The New Testament word for repentance is ‘metanoia’, which literally means to change one’s mind. It means to turn back, to stop thinking/doing one thing and do the opposite.

When we hear the word ‘repentance’, we might be tempted to have in our minds the image of an angry God waiting to smite us for bad behaviour unless we change our ways. But that is a gross caricature.

When Jesus announced the kingdom of God was near, he said, “Repent…and believe the good news,” (Mark 1:15). When Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost, the crowds called on him to tell them what to do. “Repent…and be baptised,” he said, “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38). And in Acts 26:20, Paul says his preaching was “repent and turn to God.”

The purpose of God’s call to repent is not so that we feel overwhelmingly bad or guilty, but that we might find life and joy and truth in him. It’s not just ‘repent’ but ‘repent and…”. Repentance, in other words is not the destination, but a process. When we’re confronted by sin, and we sense the shame of turning our backs on God, that’s not meant to be the end of it. Jesus said repent – turn back – and believe his good news. Repent and be baptised, said Peter, so you can have a fresh start with God and receive his forgiveness.

God doesn’t want us to be just overwhelmed by sin and crushed by it – that’s the devil’s tactic. Jesus said, there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. (Luke 15:7) He wants us to be freed from it so we can enjoy him. God longs for us to turn back to him so we can receive his forgiveness and enter into his joy. It’s not just turning from that is important, but turning to. That’s what repentance is about. God longs for us to turn away from sin, and turn to him. Repent. And believe.

Question for reflection: Do you believe God to be all good, joyful and joy-giving? Look up Luke 15:3-7 to see the amazing extent of God’s love.

Lent Reflections #1: Rewarding faith

“…And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6)

This phrase is repeated in Matthew chapter 6 three times – v4, regarding giving, v6 which is about prayer, and v18 which is to do with fasting.

Each time Jesus is comparing his way with the ‘hypocrites’, who love to make a show of their religion. They give generously, but ostentatiously, so everyone can see them; they pray in such a way so that it’s obvious to everyone how pious they are; they fast and make a meal of it (so to speak). They’ve received their ‘reward – and in full’, Jesus said.

In other words, if their religious efforts were just about accumulating human praise and respect, well, that’s all they’re going to get. But that is not the Jesus way.

It seems strange to say that God ‘rewards’ prayer, fasting or giving. After all, isn’t the better way to things for no reward? If we’re just interested in the reward, isn’t that just me thinking about myself still? But the truth is everything we do is guided by reward – we do things (healthy or not) because there is a motivation – a benefit – that we get at the end of it.

So what’s the reward that God is offering? I suggest that the reward is God himself. Jesus calls God Father, and lets those who follow him call God Father too. That’s something the ‘hypocrites’ just interested in human praise will never get. The ‘secret place’ Jesus is talking about is about a relationship with God himself. That’s what God made us – and saved us – for: to know and love him, and receive his love. The reward of prayer, obedience to his word and serving him and others is not to get stuff off of God (blessings, a happy life etc), but to get God.

When someone gets married, they don’t do it to get their husband or wife’s ‘stuff’, they marry them to get them. Marrying them – committing their life to them – is its own reward. So it is with God. Trusting in the God and Father of Jesus Christ, through Jesus, means we get to call God Father, we get to have him in our life and have the promise of an eternity with him. That’s the reward.

Lent is a period of reflection, repentance and maybe even fasting. But God never calls us to repent or turn away from something without giving us the alternative – the turning to. He wants us to know and worship him – and the reward is always great, because the reward is him.

Question for reflection: Do you believe that God wants you to know him better and grow in your relationship with him?

Clearing the Ground: Preparing for Lent

Over the next 40 days I have challenged myself to write a short reflection for Lent. As much as these are designed to help others, I’m hopeful that I will reap some benefit from this discipline too.

Today, we’re preparing ourselves for Lent which starts tomorrow with Ash Wednesday.

The Collect for the Sunday before Lent is a really helpful prayer as we think about what we can gain from Lent this year:

Almighty Father,
whose Son was revealed in majesty

before he suffered death upon the cross:
give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen

The whole purpose of Lent is for us to grow in our faith as Christians. It’s not about self-discipline, or will-power, although it might include them. It’s not about learning or unlearning habits (though it’s quite useful for that. Some use it for a spiritual (or even physical) detox – from smart-devices, unhealthy eating or smoking. All that is good. But ultimately, Lent is an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us what he’s praying for: “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.” (NIV) That’s what God wants for us: to know him better.

Lent is not in the Bible, but it is a helpful tradition, as long as it doesn’t become something else to feel guilty about if we fail or fills us with pride at the expense of a deepening trust in God.

For me, Lent is about clearing the ground, getting stuff out of the way so I can see things properly. In a messy garden, before you can plant new things, you need to clear the ground, get rid of the weeds; then you can see more clearly what you’ve got to work with.

I don’t think it’s any accident that Jesus went out into the wilderness for 40 days. The wilderness is desolate, there’s nothing there. No distractions, nothing to get in the way of his time with God. And he filled that time with his Father. When there’s not much in front of you, you can see more clearly what’s there.

The Collect prays ‘give us grace to perceive his glory.

What Christ achieved on the cross, and how it relates to us, is not something we can ‘see’ without grace, God opening our eyes. And sometimes (quite a lot of the time, if I’m honest) we can be so overwhelmed by all the stuff of our lives – all the things that are coming in at us – that we can’t see straight. Perceive here means more than a glimpse, a quick look. It means to see something clearly and understand it.

So, use Lent wisely. Pick up a good Christian book, turn off the TV, put down that phone. When we intend to take up one thing that will grow us spiritually, so we can begin to see more of Jesus in our lives, the only way that will happen is if we create space somewhere else.

We can’t do it by ourselves, we need God to enable us. I believe that God wants those who have put their trust in his Son to grow in their relationship with him, to know him more deeply, to perceive Christ and his glory more clearly. Make this your prayer for yourself this Lent.

Questions for reflection: What are your reasons for giving up something for Lent? What might you need to do to enable you to build your relationship with God over Lent?

Tip for Lent: Rather than cutting back on something in Lent, have you thought about taking up something, like reading a good Christian book, or setting aside time to read the Bible and pray? If you are going to do this, perhaps link this to what you might give up. Be intentional, set aside a time when you’re going to do it. Vague intentions never end up anywhere. Decide what you’re going to not do so that you can commit to it (E.g. I’m going to read the Bible and pray for 10 minutes this morning/evening, and read the newspaper/watch TV after that. Write it down or say it out loud each morning to help you remember).

The Disciple’s Toolkit

set of tool wrench
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In my garage I have a toolbox, full of various bits of kit for DIY around the house. It’s not particularly full or tidy, but it has got what I need to help me do the odd jobs I need to do. I’m not a particularly skilled DIY-er, but I can (just about) get by. Some people even have very neatly arranged tools in their garage.

Any really good self home-improver or tradesman will tell you that to do a really good job you need the right tool, and the best one you can afford. Look inside a tradesman’s toolkit and they will have tools for every occasion, and some which maybe hardly ever get used, but are there for when they need just that thing.

It’s frustrating and time-consuming when you don’t have the right tool for the job and have to go to the shop to get whatever it is. And there are times when you need that tool right now, and you don’t know where it is and haven’t time to get one. A well-stocked toolkit is a great way of being prepared for any maintenance emergency.

With the Bible, God has provided his children with a spiritual toolkit that has everything we need to know, love and serve him. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have a life to live for him, and work to do for him. Sadly, many Christians don’t realise just how richly God has provided for his children. We find ourselves in times of difficulty and we don’t know what to do, or where to look. In other words, we don’t know how to get the right tool from our toolkit.

For myself, I know from experience that I could have saved myself a whole host of problems if I had known the things I needed to know before I needed them. Whilst a tradesman continues to learn in his work on the job, the deep training and spade-work has taken place beforehand.

So Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17

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. (NIV)

That’s what God wants for us – to be fully equipped for every good work. And by every good work, I think Paul would have in mind how we deal with every arena of life, and every circumstance that comes our way.
So, on this blog I’ll be highlighting the ‘Disciple’s Toolkit‘. I’ll be looking at some of the key tools that I believe God would have us know are there, and how to use them, so that we can get them out and use them when we need to – when we’re facing suffering, or discouragement, battling with sin, facing a crisis, when we’re in a time of joy and success, and so on.
It’s always better to have your heart prepared for these times than trying to work it out when you’re in the middle of it.
In his letter to the churches, Peter says this in 1 Peter 1:13,
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. (NIV)
I like the ESV’s rendering – “preparing your minds for action…” That’s what I believe God would have us do.
And one of the most effective ways we can do this is by knowing God’s word, having his word in our heads and our hearts, so that we can reach for it and trust it when the time comes. That means two things:
1. Memorising Scripture – something I wish I had done more consistently. This is going to be my challenge to myself as well. Maybe the first things we can do is memorise one or both of the verses above.
2. Knowing the themes, promises and teaching of the Bible more clearly.
Friends, God has given us the very things we need to please him, serve him, hope in him, trust in him in any and every circumstance – his good word and his Holy Spirit to apply it. The toolkit of God’s word is ready for action – are we?