“Because God cares for you…”

There is a saying that I think comes from ancient China.  I am never sure if it is intended as a curse or a proverb.  It says;

May you live in interesting times

In my opinion, the year 2020 would easily fall into the category of interesting times! I would hazard a guess most of us have never experienced anything like this before.  For many involved in Church leadership, life has been full of anxiety and the challenge of making stressful decisions that we feel unqualified to make.

I wonder, how that stress and anxiety is manifested in your life?

I am not a great one for dreaming.  Recently, however, I have found my dreams have become more vivid and stay with me for longer.  Just the other night, I dreamt I was driving a bus full of people from one side of a town to the other.  As I drove, I turned down narrow streets, faced dead ends and I ended up negotiating tight turns in a busy market place.  I could see the main road, my destination, but I was unable to reach it because of the obstructions. 

I don’t think it takes much imagination to interpret that dream!

Over the years, I have read articles and been told by some preachers that Christians should not struggle with anxiety, depression, stress and worry.  I remember being told that anyone suffering with these conditions were lacking in faith and were, therefore, sinning.

Thankfully, attitudes are beginning to change.

There is a growing awareness of mental health and emotional well-being.  I know my fellowship, Pier Avenue in Clacton, along with other Churches across the EBA, we are exploring ways in which we can support people’s spiritual, physical and emotional health.

I have been wrestling with a verse that is often quoted in relation to this subject;

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

(1 Peter 5 vs. 7 – NIV)

I have often found, when I am anxious, this verse has made me feel guilty.  My reading of this is “I am anxious because I am failing to give it to God.”  Pray harder until you feel more in control.  The effect of this has been rather than lowering my anxiety, it has increased it!

When I feel guilty, I am more anxious.  When I am anxious, I feel guilty and I end up trapped in that vicious circle.  Perhaps, in my mind, I am hearing again those sermons of old.

As I have been praying, wrestling and reflecting, I felt God was saying to me something that I really needed to hear.  I felt that God was telling me that my focus in this verse was wrong.  I was focusing on the anxiety and casting part of the verse. What I was not focusing upon, is the care that God has for us.  As I was writing in my journal, I believe God gave me permission to re-write this verse to help me change my focus;

Because God cares for you, you can give all your anxiety to him.

(1 Peter 5 vs. 7 – SF version!)

I found that really blessed me.  Perhaps, it may bless you too.

How To Find Hope When You Are Tired And Confused

I don’t know how these past few months have been for you. 

I have found them a little tough. 

There has been quite a bit of work to do in preparing services for broadcasting.  I have been looking at all the different ways of keeping fellowship alive whilst separated.  There has been getting to grips with, ever changing, advice.  I jokingly said to somebody yesterday, “I now know more about health and safety than I ever wanted”. 

We are now moving towards a different season in our Church fellowship.  We are now preparing for the “new normal”. 

If I am honest, I am more than a little nervous.

In some respects, these past few months have taken a lot out of me physically, emotionally and, yes, Spiritually too.  Have I really got the energy and drive to move into, yet more, uncharted territory?

Your instant response may be “you are not on your own, God will give you all you need.”  You are right, of course you are.  But, at those times when I feel as though I have got to the end of my rope will He?

There is a beautiful line in Psalm 23 that says;

He offers a resting place for me in his luxurious love. His tracks take me to an oasis of peace, the quiet brook of bliss.That’s where he restores and revives my life

(Psalm 23 vs. 2 – 3 The Passion Translation)

You may recognize those lines better as He leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul.

These are words that resonate with me at the moment.  Perhaps they may speak to you too. 

The writer of the Psalm uses a really interesting word that we translate as soul.  The word he uses means “what makes you uniquely you”.  Your hopes, your dreams, your personality, your passion. 

It hit me, just the other day, that we can be so busy keeping busy that we lose touch with ourselves. 

We also lose touch with God.

I would encourage you to put aside a little time to ask yourself the question, “have I lost touch, with me and with God?”

If you have, do not worry.  God’s desire is to restore your soul.  My advice to you is, let Him.

How a habit taught me a lesson

I admit it. I am a creature of habit.

I have my way of doing things and I tend to stick with what I know. None of my habits are harmful.  A bit odd, yes.  Harmful, no.

Just the other day, one of my habits made me think about something that is really important to me.

It was Sunday.  I was not leading a live service. Since the outbreak of COVID all of our worship is pre-recorded.  When COVID began, I would record the service during the week.  It would be broadcast on a Sunday at 10am on Zoom. I would always watch the service with the rest of the congregation every Sunday.  It was the closest we could get to normal Church.

As time has moved on, things have changed.  I still record a service, but now it is available online from Saturday evening until Tuesday.

For some reason, the habit I began of watching the service at 10am on a Sunday, I have stuck with.  Even though I can watch at any time I want to, I still press play at 10am.

This Sunday was going to be a bit of a challenge.  I had quite a few things to do. I got up earlier than normal.  I decided that I would watch the service at the early hour.

I then carried out my tasks.  By coincidence, I found that they were finished at 10am.

What was I to do?

Should I get other tasks done?

Read?

Catch up on TV?

I did none of them.

Instead, I switched on my computer at 10am and I watched the service all over again!

Why?

I thought about it afterwards.  I suppose it was, partly, out of habit.  But, it was also something I did because, one of the things I value in Church life is fellowship.  There is something incredibly special knowing that other people were doing exactly the same thing at the same time.

In watching the service at 10am, I was saying something about the value I place on fellowship. 

In many churches, fellowship has become nothing more than a cup of tea, biscuit and a chat after a service.  It is more, much more than that. 

Fellowship is about being together.  It is about our mutual support of one another.  It is about standing with one another because of the common ground we share in Christ.

Real fellowship with one another helps us to grow in our faith.  It is when we share our stories, experiences and understanding with each other, that we learn how God can and does work in peoples’ lives.   

Fellowship is something we can take for granted.  We expect others to be there for us in our hour of need.  We should ask ourselves are we there for them?  With apologies to JFK,

Ask not what your Church does for you, but what you can do for your Church

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it much better when they say;

By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped. (Ecclesiastes 4 vs. 12 – The Message)

I wonder. 

How are you helping to build to real fellowship in our current situation?

Barriers

There is a passage in the New Testament that, if I am brutally honest, I do not like.

The story concerns a Canaanite woman who has a problem with her daughter (Matthew 15 vs. 21 – 28).  Jesus seems to ignore the woman’s plight, seems to dismiss her and then refers to her in a derogatory term;

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matthew 14 vs. 26)

I suppose, I do not like this passage because, I do not like the Jesus that it presents here.  I like the loving, gracious, compassionate Jesus.  I do not like the one who ignores somebody in need and, when he finally gives his attention, calls her by an insulting name.

I think Jesus does this to teach his disciples and, by extension us, a valuable lesson.

Jesus uses terms and behaves in a way that his society at that time would have treated this lady.  Her gender, her race and her needs would have excluded her in every way from polite male company. She was “other”. 

What Jesus taught was that in his Kingdom. All are welcome. All are loved.  All are God’s children.

I think the problem comes for many of us when we confuse boundaries with barriers.  They are not the same thing.

Boundaries can be healthy. 

They can keep things together, they can protect they can help us distinguish between good attitudes and bad. 

The point of a barrier is to divide.  You are either one side of the barrier or you are on the other.  You are either in or out.  Barriers are excluding, they are designed to keep people out.  

Too easily the healthy boundary can be turned into an unhealthy barrier.

As part of my quiet time, I listen to the “Pray as you go” app. ( https://pray-as-you-go.org/ ). Although today’s reading was not about this story, there was something the guide said that reminded of this passage.  He said;

Love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbours

As I thought about these words I reflected that good changes have come from barrier breaking

The civil rights movement broke the barriers

The abolition of slavery broke the barriers

The ordination of women broke the barriers.

In our own day and in our own age I believe God is reminding the Church that His kingdom is about breaking down barriers because love of him cannot be separated from our love of neighbours.

I wonder, what barriers you see and what can we do to break them?

Desire

What do you really desire?  In the words of the Spice Girls (yes, you did read that correctly);

Tell me what you want What you really really want 

It is a question I was thinking about today, as I looked at a story in Matthew’s Gospel about a rich young man.  Matthew tells how a rich man approached Jesus and asks him what he must do to get eternal life.  Jesus gives the obvious answer, any of his Jewish listeners at the time would have expected to hear him say it.  Keep the law.

Jesus doesn’t leave it at that point.  In fact, he takes it one step further.  He challenges the young man about what it is that he really desires.  Jesus tells him;

“sell everything you have, give to the poor and come, follow me”

As I read and re-read the passage (Matthew 19 vs. 16 – 22), my guide said something that really challenged me;

We are often so busy that we forget, or sometimes don’t even think to ask, what our deepest desires are.  What are your deepest desires?

It is a challenging and powerful question and, if you approach it honestly, some of the answers you come up with (okay, truthfully, some of the answers I came up with) are not always what we would want other people to know! Sometimes, we don’t really know what our deepest desires truly are.

I tried to imagine the Biblical scene, and I listened to my own reactions in it.  I imagined the young man who, on the surface, seemed to be successful, was living the right way and had it all together and yet, beneath the surface, was a different story. Perhaps, I thought, that is true of all of us.

Doing is always more straightforward than being.

We can hide from others what we are really like behind a mask of activity, busy-ness and doing. Hiding what we are really like from God and ourselves is not so easy.  God knows and we know (if we are honest) what is really going on within. 

I believe that God wants to us live in a real, honest relationship with him.  That is why I am convinced that God is more concerned with our being rather than our doing.  Our doing should flow from our being.  Our being does not always flow from our doing.

So where did all this get me? (apart from my rather poor rendition of the Spice Girls in the office – you would have to have been there!!!)

It led me to a verse that has been coming back to me time and again.  It is found in the book of Psalms;

Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

(Psalm 42 vs. 7)

For me, these words speak about God calling us to go deeper into him.  Deeper relationship, deeper dwelling, deeper knowledge and a deeper life.  But, how deep I actually go, depends on what my deepest desires are and my willingness to lay aside all that would stop me from going deeper.

What are your deepest desires?

I believe in miracles…

I believe in miracles but, I also believe in ordinaries too.

I suppose, what brought this thought on was the reading for my current sermon series.  The particular passage was about Peter walking on water.  If you want to read it for yourself, you can find it in Matthew 14 vs. 22 – 33.

It’s a powerful story.

Jesus tells the disciples he is going by himself to pray and they should sail to the other side of the lake.  He will see them later.  As they are doing the very thing Jesus has told them to do, a storm blows in.

Just as they think that things cannot possibly get any more terrifying, Jesus walks on the water toward them.  Peter is desperate to get out of the boat and walk with Jesus, which he does for a while until he starts sinking.  Jesus words to him are one’s that, I think, all of us fear hearing at times;

You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

(Matthew 14 vs. 31)

I suppose, if we look at Peter, we can say “at least say he had the courage to get out of the boat and walk on the water.  The other disciples stayed in the boat”

This is a passage that I have preached on many times before.  I have found hope and encouragement in its words.  It is a passage full of miracles.  I believe in miracles

As I read and re-read the passage, I found myself thinking more about the disciples in the boat.  I began to consider something I had not considered before.  The disciples in the boat.

Storms strike in many different ways.  Coronavirus has been a storm like no other I have seen in my lifetime.  It’s a storm that has often left me confused, angry and frustrated.  I know many have felt the emotional turmoil of these challenging times.

But, coronavirus is not the only storm we have faced. We have all got stories to tell of those occasions when a storm of life has blown in and blown our lives off course.

Whenever the storms of life arise so does the question of faith.

That’s why Jesus’ question to Peter is one that often haunts us as we cross the sea of life.

“You of little faith; why did you doubt?”

There’s something about that question that makes quick answers, the platitudes, so hurtful.   “You just need more faith.”

There is a real danger in this kind of theology and understanding of faith. There have been those, during the coronavirus crisis who have taught that, somehow faith will exempt us from having to take the same measures as everybody else.  If we have enough faith, they say, then we can ignore the medical advice.

Let me state categorically now.  Christians are not exempt from the laws of nature and biology!

Regardless of how much faith we have disease takes a toll on our body.  Accidents happen.  Loved ones die.

Despite our faith life is difficult, and we (quoting Mick Jagger) “can’t always get what we want”

The thought occurred to me; Maybe faith is not about walking on water through the storms of life but about staying in the boat.

“You of little faith; why did you doubt?”

Maybe Jesus is asking why Peter got out of the boat.  After all Jesus is the one who “made the disciples get into the boat.”  Jesus is the one who told them to “go to the other side.”  Jesus is the one who prayed during their night voyage. Jesus is the one who came to them in the midst of the storm. Jesus is the one who reassured them saying,

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

(Matthew 14 vs. 27)

It is Peter who wanted to get out of the boat. Peter wanted to try and prove something to the others.  Is Peter, perhaps, expressing something about escaping from the storm?

Faith is not a way to escape the storms of life.  It is the way through the storms of life.

Sometimes, being faithful means staying in the boat and simply rowing.  This kind of faith knows that Christ is always coming to us. This kind of faith knows we are not abandoned. This is the kind of faith that seeks God in the ordinary, not just in the miraculous.

I believe in miracles but, I also believe in the ordinaries.  Sometimes God works through miracles but, in my experience, God works more frequently in the ordinary.  May he give us the eyes to see him, the ears to hear his reassurance, and the courage to stay in the boat and keep rowing!

Disconnect

The other day, I was out enjoying the fresh air when somebody waved to me.  Instinctively, and because I am quite polite, I waved back.  Who was I waving to?  I had not got a clue!

When they approached, we engaged in conversation, I discovered it was somebody I had known reasonably well for a few years.  The reason why I didn’t recognize him was because, like many, he was wearing a face mask.

A few years back, I used to smile as I saw the occasional mask wearing tourist but, now everybody is doing it.  It is a requirement in shops and, as from 8th August, in Church we will need to wear a face covering. 

I am not against the idea.  Yes, they are not the most comfortable things in the world.  Yes, it makes our world look a lot like a poor Star Wars remake.  Yes, it makes identifying friends a lot harder.  But, if it helps to prevent the spread of COVID 19 and gets us back together again, let’s do it!

My encounter, with my mask wearing friend, made me think. 

One of the things that we have all lost in the midst of the pandemic is our sense of connectedness.  We all spent time in “lockdown” which isolated us from family, friends, work, Church and social normality.  Some of us learnt the art of Zoom but, somehow, it isn’t the same. 

Now, as masks become more the norm, we are becoming less and less connected with the people around us.  Friends are harder to identify.  Shop staff are harder to smile at and chat to.  As people come into Church to pray in private, there feels as though there is a barrier in place and we are disconnected.

There are times when this sense of disconnect can appear in other parts of my life too.

Sometimes, I have felt an ache inside that reminds me that I am busy “doing” and not spending time “being”.  I know what the Psalmist meant when he says;

My deep need calls out to the deep kindness of your love.

(Psalm 42 vs. 7 – The Passion Translation)

The other day, I drew aside and spent some time in the words of a Psalm which begins with the words “The Lord is my Shepherd…” The words of verse 3 spoke to me;

He restores my soul

I see these words as the promise of connection.  God doesn’t want us to live disconnected from him but, connected to him. 

If you have a sense of disconnect, why not spend some time in God’s presence today and ask him to restore your soul…..?

A Moment of Bravery

I was feeling brave this morning.  So brave, in fact, that I tackled a job I have been putting off for a very long while – my filing tray!

I was shocked just how much rubbish I was holding on to.  I found minutes of meetings, sets of accounts, budget plans and proposals.  Schedules for work and targets to be achieved.  What did I do with all this valuable information? 

I shredded the lot!!!

The reason why I took such a drastic step is quite simple.  Due to recent events, none of it applies any more.  It is all out of date and irrelevant now. 

Budgets will have to be reset.  Accounts will now look very different.  Proposals and targets will have to be thought through afresh.  Schedules for work, have long since passed. 

But, not everything in my filing tray got shredded. 

I found some publications that contained information that I now need.  At the time I received them, I couldn’t see the point and just put them out of the way to be filed.  Now their usefulness is apparent.

I found a “thank you” card.  A mark of appreciation from somebody who I had been able to help.  I always hold onto them.  At low moments, I often flick through them to help me find perspective.

One interesting thing I found was a copy of our Church values.  We had been considering these as a fellowship and looking at how we could embody them more fully.  Then, the situation had forced them to be put on hold. 

WELCOME

  Worship God ‘Worship in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24)
Encourage each other ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Love everyone ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God’ (1 John 4:7) ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you’ (John 15:12) ’Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8)
Continue to grow ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18)
Openness with God and each other ‘Love must be sincere’ (Romans 12:9) ‘Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body’ (Ephesians 4:25) ‘Do not lie. Do not deceive one another’ (Leviticus 19:11b)
Message of hope to share ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation to everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16) ‘I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ’ (Philemon v6)
Enable and equip to serve God ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men’ (Colossians 3:23) ‘May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (Hebrews 13:20-21)

As lockdown eases further, as “new normal” is revealed, it strikes me that, we have the perfect opportunity to begin again. 

To start afresh

To revisit what God’s agenda is for His Church.  Some things, perhaps, are no longer relevant to where we find ourselves now.  Somethings, however, need to be re-visited and undergird where we are heading in this new day.

I Cannot Take Any More!

There was a meme I spotted on a social media platform recently that said;

Let’s just put up the Christmas tree now forget about the rest of this year

I know the feeling. 

I think 2020 will be a year that will be remembered more for the challenges and difficulties it has presented, than for anything else. Covid 19, trouble on the streets and heartache throughout the world have made news broadcasts difficult to watch.  Like many others, I have found the guidance to be confusing and contradictory.  Often, when I think I have understood what is happening, changes are brought in. 

We are still only half way through the year!!!!

From a Church point of view, I am worried. 

There are the obvious things like finances that are a worry but, there are the hidden worries too.  The “what if’s”.  There are the dangers of comparing ourselves with others.  “Church X is doing Y, should we be doing Y?”  If they open on that date, should we?  Are the hand sanitizers where they should be?  Is the risk assessment in place?

Then, to make my joy complete, there have been a number of discussions between Church leaders about “what the new normal will look like.”  There are some interesting ideas out there as to what Church could look like as we emerge from Coronavirus.  I am trying hard to be enthusiastic, I really am, but I am finding it all a little overwhelming.

To be absolutely honest I am scared.  How do you navigate through this new world where the roadmaps of the past are well and truly obsolete? 

So, I reached the point, the other day, when I felt physically, emotionally and spiritually drained and just found myself thinking “I cannot take much more of this.”  As I cried out to God, I felt that God planted an image and a passage from the Bible into my heart.

The picture was of a storm at sea.  Threatening dark clouds.  Foaming and powerful waves took up most of the picture, it was a huge storm.  At the very bottom of the picture was a small boat battling against the waves but, looking as though it could sink at any second.

As I saw that picture in my mind, I thought about the passage in Mark 5 vs. 35 – 41 when the disciples were caught in a storm.  They woke Jesus and said “don’t you care?”  This is how Jesus responded;

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 

(Mark 5 vs. 39 – NRSV)

I sat for moment with these words.

Peace, be still

As the worries and thoughts popped into my mind, I repeated

Peace, be still

As the stress and anxiety reared its head

Peace, be still

As the list of all that had to be done, nagged at me

Peace, be still

And there was calm

I Am ANGRY

I am angry

I said as much to my Spiritual Director yesterday.  I feel a deep sense of anger at the moment.

I am angry at the chaos, confusion and fear I see around me in our nation at the moment.  I am angry with the lack of compassion, humanity and understanding shown by many in authority.  I am angry that members of the Black community, across the world, face systematic injustice.  I am angry at scenes of violence and frustration have erupted on our streets.  I am angry because there are people being hurt on all sides.

I am angry with myself because, I do not and cannot fully understand.  I am a white heterosexual male.  I have always sought to treat all people as equal but, I have never faced prejudice because of my skin colour, sexuality or gender.

I am angry with myself because, I feel powerless and helpless.

I am angry.

Deeply angry

Anger, of course, can be a good.  It produces the energy to create change.  It can be a force for good.  It can get things done.  Equally, anger can be bad when it produces more heat than light.  Anger can be a blaze that can, so easily, get out of control.  It can become destructive and consuming.

It was into my email inbox this morning that one of my daily devotionals dropped that provided me with a “aha!” moment.  Richard Rohr offered a piece entitled “Contemplation and Racism” and it focussed on Contemplating Anger.  In the piece Barbara Holmes suggests that we need to have a “theology of anger” and, she writes;

First, a theology of anger invites us to wake up from the hypnotic influences of unrelenting oppression so that individuals and communities can shake off the shackles of denial, resignation, and nihilism. . . . Second, a theology of anger can help us to construct healthy boundaries. Finally, the healthy expression of righteous anger can translate communal despair into compassionate action and justice-seeking. . . . The question is whether or not we will recognize our wounds and the source of our anger so that we can heal ourselves and others, and awaken to our potential to embody the beloved community. . . .

(Barbara Holmes – Richard Rohr Meditation: Contemplating Anger 9/6/2020)

Just reading this, helped to defuse some of my anger.  It helped me to start to think of some constructive ways that I can commit myself to work for God’s justice within the community where I have been called to serve.

It reminded me of a song I haven’t sung for many years, written by John Bell;

Jesus Christ is raging
Raging in the streets
Where injustice spirals
And real hope retreats
Listen Lord Jesus
I am angry too
In the Kingdom’s causes
Let me rage with You

(John Bell and Graham Maule)

Don’t let anger consume you instead, seek to allow righteous anger to be a force for change and for good in our world

May your kingdom come, O Lord

May your will be done