Category: Blog Posts

When we meet…

As many of us gather on May 23rd, and again from June 13th onwards, there will be a variety of feelings in the room. Some will have been champing at the bit for months; others will be stepping out beyond their comfort zone in attending. Both of these responses are understandable in these strange times. Following the teaching of Scripture, out of our love for one another, we will conduct our initial gatherings in a way that honours the most cautious amongst us. This means that some of us will be choosing to lay down what we think we could do, and perhaps even what we feel would be right to do, in order to ensure that everyone attending feels comfortable doing so. We’ve spent considerable effort putting together a strong risk-assessment for the morning, and we’re asking everyone who’s attending to please read and agree to follow the rules we’ve agreed.

Our rules for gathering

  1. Please book in ahead of the Sunday – ideally as soon as possible. To let us know you’ll be joining online, or that you’re elsewhere, please use the same form, so we know who’s responded.
  2. On the day, please arrive at the time on your booking so we can allow people into the building in a safe manner.
  3. You will need to sign in at the entrance for track-and-trace purposes – details will be kept for 21 days.
  4. All attendees aged 11 and over must weat a Facemask at all times while indoors, unless you are exempt.
  5. Only the worship band are allowed to sing at this time. Others attending are strongly encouraged to hum!
  6. Hand sanitiser will be available on the door.
  7. All attendees will have a forehead temperature check before entering the hall as an additional precaution.
  8. When inside, we all need to move straight to our seats, and to stay there. After the service, we’ll “dismiss” people one group at a time – please wait to be asked.
  9. Lastly – while inside, please do not have any physical contact with anyone outside your household or official support bubble. Many of us would dearly like to hug, to shake hands, or even to offer the “COVID elbow”! Please keep that for outside, before or after the service.

Booking in

On Wednesday morning, Al will be meeting with the school to discuss final practicalities. One of the big things to sort out will be numbers. How many people we can safely fit into the hall depends strongly on which people attend, as households can be sat closer together etc. It would therefore be incredibly helpful if people could indicate before Wednesday morning whether they’re planning to attend, by clicking this link: https://bit.ly/33SOVrX. There are options for “not attending” or “attending online”. Please also ensure that families register all people who are planning to attend.

We’re really looking forward to gathering together – see you there!

Returning to meeting!

For months now, we’ve been looking forward to meeting together again in person. While different people have different levels of comfort with social contact, we’re now at the stage where a significant number of people would be ready and keen to meet up in person again.

We’ve been doing lots of legwork on how to do “hybrid services” well so that people present in person and people participating online all have ways of being meaningfully involved. So we’re really pleased to announce that we’ve now reached an arrangement with the school to be able to meet there in person from May 23rd.

Our plan is to hold an all-age service on May 23rd (Pentecost!) in person and online: we’ll make it shorter than normal so that it works well for all concentration spans. (History Makers will break out into their own room at one point, as they’re connecting with Claire & Aget in Hamburg). We’ll then go back to meeting online for two weeks, while we make any adjustments needed to our technical setup, and then start meeting in the new hybrid format from June 13th onwards. We hope that by June 13th we’ll also have children’s groups running again, however the planning for that is still ongoing!

We appreciate that there’ll be lots of questions, maybe a few concerns, and some details that aren’t covered in this. We’ll be expanding this post with more information over the next few days.

The Book of Job in 30 minutes

The Book of Job in 30 minutes

The Book of Job is arguably the finest work of literature of the ancient world, and Wheatley Area Churches are proud to present a joint production of the poem. This adaptation, abridged by the performers and put in contemporary language, captures beautifully the Bible’s unique stance on “the question of suffering”.

The Beauty of Diversity

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

1 Corinthians 12:17

What are the most memorable words anyone has spoken to you? I still recall meeting a South African called Andy: we only really had one proper conversation in the few months we overlapped at the same church, but towards the end of an hour chatting, he said to me, “How many life-changing meetings have you been to? Don’t focus on meetings: be a life-changing person.” Long before I was involved in church leadership, this shaped how I looked at the functioning of Christian community.

Those words are good ones, but I doubt that they have anything like the same effect on you as you read them – and the reason for that is that Andy had a particular gift of pastoral discipleship. He listened to people, kept an ear out to what the Holy Spirit was saying, and spoke the right word at the right time to have a huge impact on someone’s life. As a result, when he spoke words like this, they came with a quiet and gentle authority, and landed on a heart that needed to hear those words at that point in life.

I could equally point to times when someone spoke into my life with the prophetic gift. I think of my friend Neil who sat me down and said (with a touch of British awkwardness) “I think God wants me to talk to you about women” – not knowing that after a few messy relationships, I had just started corresponding with Caroline, now my wife. Or perhaps the three people who didn’t know each other, went to three different churches, and yet all shared with me within the space of 24 hours that they thought God wanted me to move from IT into church ministry.

The church thrives when people like Andy and Neil get to excel in the gifts God has given them, rather than filling whatever the perceived “gaps” are, even if they don’t fit. To put that in terms of Paul’s body metaphor, imagine how ludicrous it would be for someone who was missing a leg to try to replace it with a finger, or one of their ears! We need to let ears be ears, even if we’re missing a leg at the moment – they’re crafted with God’s creative genius and incredible precision to be excellent at hearing, and they hurt if you stand on them1If you’ve tried this and disagree, I’d love to hear from you.

Beyond individual excellence

But there’s a further strength and beauty that can be found in the body of Christ, and that’s when people with diverse gifts work together in harmony. I don’t think I’ve ever met a really gifted evangelist who loved teaching, and I’ve often seen tension between people with those two gifts: the evangelist is so keen on seeing people born again that they just want to give people the basics of salvation, with no barriers of doctrine or “church behaviour” to worry about, and when those people are born again, they want to find some more lost people. The teacher wants to be sure that they’ve really understood the Gospel, that they’re prepared to make life changes, and that the church thrives as a healthy place for those new believers to land. Even if they get to the point of understanding each other, they can often be placed in a church culture where they feel the need to “compete” for the direction and energy of the church.

On the other hand, in places where these two gifts are helped to work together, the results are beautiful: the teacher appreciates the evangelist’s heart for the lost, makes sure they have access to good resources, occasionally challenges fuzzy theology, and ensures that the wider church understands the theology of witnessing; the evangelist appreciates the teacher’s desire to see God’s nature known and His truth proclaimed, demonstrates through regular new birth that the Gospel still transforms lives, occasionally challenges the pursuit of purely academic theology, and stresses to new believers the importance of continuing to learn from the Scriptures.

The same could be said of pioneer leaders2“pioneer leader” or “church planter” is one common understanding of the term “apostle” as used in Ephesians 4, but whether or not that’s your understanding, it’s clearly a gift! and administrators – often they can be at loggerheads, with administrators frustrated at there being new ideas every week with little follow-through, and pioneers feeling thwarted by bureaucracy. On the other hand, with common understanding and goals, the administrator can help the pioneer to bring people with them and to build sustainably, while the pioneer can bring vision and keep the administrator from simply cranking the handle and keeping tired structures alive.

I’m convinced that when people with different gifts in the church use their gifts excellently and in cooperation with each other, it is beautiful to God – and surely that is the highest goal of all.

Why bother?

All of this takes effort. A lot of effort. We have to learn to understand people who aren’t like us, and we have to take Paul’s command to think of others more highly than ourselves from a comfortably abstract notion to a practical, lived-out one. So why bother?

The key here is this: God could do it all Himself anyway. That’s right – He doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes3If anyone wants convincing on this, start with Isaiah 59! but He loves it when we do. Growing up, it was a good day if my sisters and I didn’t spend most of our time bickering or ganging up two-against-one. We have a lot of similarities and very similar DNA, but also very different motivations and gifts. But on the occasional Saturday, we would work together to make breakfast in bed for our parents, or write and act out a funny4well, we thought it was funny play, or some similar project, and invariably our parents would love it. We didn’t have to be competent – I remember one occasion where we thought it would be good to make them nettle soup, and we served it cold because we weren’t allowed to use the kettle – and my parents could have done a much better job, but they loved it because their children were working together. I’m convinced that when people with different gifts in the church use their gifts excellently and in cooperation with each other, it is beautiful to God – and that is surely the highest goal of all.

Getting practical

So, how can we actively pursue this? What can we practically do, to get closer to this beautiful ideal of pleasing God by excelling and cooperating? Here’s some of my considered thoughts:

  1. Don’t try to fill gaps if you don’t have the gifting and faith to do so. I’m not talking about last-minute stand-ins for someone who’s sick, but rather the guilt-led, “someone needs to do it or it won’t get done”. Like it or not, there are normally people in the wings who aren’t stepping up because someone else always does. Or perhaps God is OK with that thing being left undone for a season. But the “fill-the-gap” mentality leaves us walking on eyes, looking through noses – you get the picture.
  2. Engage with the spirituality of people who aren’t like you. Where others differ from us in motivation, gifts, demeanour or spiritual practices, we can be quick to judge that difference as immaturity or even lack of orthodoxy. However, that judgment does no good to them or to us, and it’s normally uninformed. If we take time to learn why it is that someone lives and acts so differently, we’ll come to a more accurate picture: and while there’ll often be some immaturity in the mix, we normally find that there’s also a different God-given gift or motivation for us to appreciate.
  3. Believe the best of brothers and sisters in the faith. This follows on from the previous point: where our feelings towards someone are based on ignorance of what they’re really like and their true motivations, we often default to suspicion and criticism. This is not a call to naivety, but to trust. We must have our eyes open to sin and wickedness in the church, but it should not be our default assumption about anyone we don’t “click” with.
  4. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of the mix of gifts God has given you. You have been given a beautiful and unique mix of gifts, which God intends you to use in and out of the church to build up His Kingdom. You’ve also not been given the full package – and the areas in which you are not gifted will leave holes. Some of mine are: poor communication, poor administration, being overly abstract in explaining vision, struggling to simplify teaching for younger audiences, understanding younger teenagers, forgetting to care for people with whom I’m not in regular contact. Knowing that, I value and seek to partner up with people who are strong in those ways: in particular, even though I don’t like talking about process and communication strategy, I really value spiritually-minded administrators. Work out your gaps, and look to understand and work with people who excel in those areas.

If you’ve taken the time to read this far, it’s definitely worth another five minutes of your time now to pray and bring those four points before God, who knows us far better than we know ourselves. How can we live this out more perfectly? How can we use what we’ve been given and what we haven’t been given to glorify God in community and cooperation?

How truly wonderful and delightful
To see brothers and sisters living together in sweet unity!

Psalm 133:1

This blog is one of a series on how we use our gifts in the church, which will grow over the coming weeks. The main post and the links to other topics can be found here. As always, if you have any thoughts or reflections, please do comment below – and if you would like to have a longer discussion on a specific area or your personal situation, please do drop me an email.

Discovering our gifts

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

1 Peter 4:10

What gifts has God given you? In Romans 12, Paul states in a very matter-of-fact way, “If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; …” and so it continues. Peter (quoted above) does the same. But many of us find ourselves one step back from that – wanting to serve, but unsure what our gifts are. How do we get beyond that stage, and start serving the body in the ways we were made to do?

  1. Start with what you know

Some people seem to be born generous: while Caroline would do what most children do, and spend her pocket money on herself, her sister Katharine would always come back from the shops with things she’d bought for other people. As she’s grown up, this has developed into a gift of encouragement and of generosity: many a person has had a rough day and got home to a card from her, sent a few days before on a small prompting from the Lord.

What things are you already passionate about, and what talents do you already know that you have? It may well be that these existing abilities are gifts given you by the Lord for blessing the church.

  1. … but don’t be limited by that

Amos the prophet delivered an unpopular message to the kingdom of Israel, and before long the powers that be told him to pack his bags and go home to Judah. His response is really interesting:

I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Now then, hear the word of the Lord…

Amos 7:14-16

Amos was familiar with shepherding and farming, but God had other plans for him – plans that involved giving him a different gift and calling. I’ve already mentioned Eric Liddell, whose God-given gift of running did not prevent him from stepping into the unrelated call of overseas mission work in China, and his athleticism didn’t prevent him from developing the pastoral gift which he so famously exercised in the internment camp where he died.

  1. Ask, seek, knock!

Jesus told the crowds, “if you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”1Luke 11:13 This is the same famous passage that encourages us to “ask, seek, knock…” If we are commanded to “follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.”21 Corinthians 14:1 then it follows that we must have some input in the process, even though the gifts are God’s to give as He wants.

If our motivation is love31 Corinthians 13, then it’s not only OK to ask, but actively encouraged. In the believers’ prayer in Acts 4, we see a group of believers actively asking for spiritual gifts – boldness, healing, signs and wonders. Only a few verses later we see the apostles healing many and speaking boldly – and not just the apostles: Stephen gets into trouble because he speaks boldly with “the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke”4Acts 6:10.

When you lovingly consider your church fellowship, what is lacking? Perhaps an evangelist to equip other believers in their own witness and to set an example, bringing encouragement as they see people born again? Perhaps a prophet to prepare the church for what’s around the corner, to help people to see themselves and the church as God does, or to speak powerfully into the lives of visiting unbelievers? If the church is hard-up, perhaps we would do well to ask God for a gift of generosity and giving; if everybody is exhausted, perhaps a gift of encouragement or of administration – is needed. Where a church faces difficult choices, words of wisdom are a powerful tool in the hands of a believer who knows that they carry the gift; words of knowledge are a powerful breakthrough tool in pastoral ministry if a believer exercises them in love.

  1. Ask others

I’ve made no secret of my belief that God loves to speak to us through each other, not because He can’t do it directly, but because by so doing He fosters true, loving community in the church. We see in Paul’s recommendations that he recognises the gifts that individuals carry: Tychicus’s encouragement, Epaphras’s prayerfulness, the leadership of the household of Stephanus, the apostleship of Junia and Andronicus. Archippus is told to complete the ministry he’s received, indicating that Paul’s vision for what God has called him to probably exceeds his own understanding of it – the same is true of Timothy, who Paul encourages to “fan into flame the gift of God”, pointing out that the gift even arrived “by the laying on of my hands”.

So another way of discovering your gifts is to ask other believers – perhaps friends who know you, or leaders in the church. The ability to help people discover their gifts, to support them in developing, and to release them to use them effectively is a vital leadership skill. And this is a two-way street – you almost certainly have friends with dormant gifts who need to be told what they carry before they can step up. For the record, I’m a big fan of well-done and scriptural “gift discovery” resources too, but much more so if they’re set up to be done in the context of relationship – we are part of a body, and any resource that sets us up as an independent “island” of gifting is likely to fail to equip us to serve the body.

  1. Have a go

The pictures above are from the same artist, five years apart. Our eldest, Élysée, has long outstripped my own poor artistic skills, but he didn’t start off drawing the beautiful work he does now. It took time, encouragement, and lots of paper. It can be easy to think of spiritual gifts as different, either because God wouldn’t give a half-baked gift, or because we don’t remember any examples in Scripture of people exercising spiritual gifts and it not being very good. Perhaps in many cases they weren’t very remarkable occasions – but at least one comes to mind. The twelve disciples were sent out (Luke 9) with power and authority to heal and to drive out demons. They return having preached and healed, yet a short while later, after Jesus’s transfiguration, He comes back down the mountain to encounter a boy with a demon who the disciples had not been able to cast out. Jesus rebukes the evil spirit, tells the disciples that this kind only comes out by prayer5and fasting, in some manuscripts, and the disciples grow in their gift. By the time the seventy-two are sent out, they return saying, “even the demons submit to us in your name!”

The people of God are not lab rats, so we have to be careful about how we practise using our gifts. Some are riskier than others: trying to encourage someone and getting it wrong is unlikely to cause any offence, and very few sick people are upset or offended if you offer to pray and they are not instantly healed; on the other hand, a teacher who is still immature in their gift could lead a group of people astray if they use their gift in the wrong setting, and a prophet who is still growing in their gift could misunderstand the message and give people a really bad steer in a choice they’re making. However, these dangers are already covered in Scripture – in particular in Romans 12. We are not to be proud, but to use the gifts we have in accordance with the faith God has given us. So if you’re getting going in a gift, be sensible about the context in which you use it, and make sure you bring a good dose of humility!

Often the best way to grow and develop is to partner up with someone else whose gifting is a little more mature than our own: they can help us prepare, be with us as we serve, and give helpful feedback afterwards – I believe that’s the best way for teachers, encouragers, healers, leaders, administrators and prophets to grow in their gifts.

This blog is one of a series on how we use our gifts in the church, which will grow over the coming weeks. The main post and the links to other topics can be found here. As always, if you have any thoughts or reflections, please do comment below – and if you would like to have a longer discussion on a specific area or your personal situation, please do drop me an email.

Which gifts are “spiritual”?

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.

Eric Liddell

Have you ever read the lists of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 or Ephesians 4 and wondered about your own gifts, and whether they “count”? The word “spiritual” (πνευματικῶν) only actually appears in one of the passages, but the structure set out in each of the three passages is the same: one God, giving different gifts to different people, in order to build up the body of which He is the head.

God made us, and every good gift comes from Him, so in that sense, every single thing that we’re good at is a gift from God – as reflected in the Eric Liddell quote at the start of this blog. However, the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12-14 have something in common – they all require an ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit to exercise. God gave Eric Liddell a fast body (and a disciplined mind!) so he could run fast any time he wanted to; however, nobody has the bodily ability to heal another, or to know the secrets of another person’s heart – that ability must be given each time by the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul refers to them as “different manifestations of the same Spirit”.

We are urged to eagerly desire these Spirit-given gifts (1 Cor 12:31), but they are also mixed in alongside other gifts in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4, which indicates that these other gifts – service, teaching, encouragement, pastoral care – are also of great value. So perhaps a better question is not, “is my gift Spiritual?” but rather, “how can I use my gifts Spiritually?” In my reading of Scripture, there are two ways to ensure that we do this:

  1. Exercise the gift in faith and relationship with the Lord

I have no doubt that the most successful people in any field – science, sport, commerce, or anything else – have been given gifts by God that enabled them to excel. However, unless they have been reconciled to God, those gifts are being used according to their own ends, as they thing right. Sometimes that may happen to coincide with how God would want them to use them – where it brings about greater justice, brings peace or perhaps healing. At other times it will actively oppose the Kingdom of God. Clearly that gift isn’t being used spiritually.

However, it’s possible for a believer to also detach their gift from their relationship with God – to pray, worship and obey God, and yet to see their gifts as separate from their “Christian life”. Pause and ask yourself a question:

  • If you look after children full-time – what makes you a good parent to them? What would they say they appreciate about your character and skills?
  • If you are employed – what makes you a good employee, and what skills would go on your CV?
  • If you manage an aspect of your household – what are your strengths in that regard?
  • What would your closest friends say they most appreciate about your character, and in what circumstances would they seek you out?

Once you’ve put together that list, ask yourself – which of those attributes or skills do I talk to God about? Which ones do I ask Him how I can best use? Am I conscious of God when I use them? It’s an amazing thing that when he ran, Eric Liddell’s mind wasn’t simply on his legs, his opponents, or the finish line – he was aware of God’s pleasure!1If you look at some quotes by him, you’ll see that he viewed his running with a healthy sense of perspective!. Why not seek to do the same in exercising your own gifts?

  1. Use the gift for building up the Body of Christ

At my previous church, there was an Indian couple who had gifts of encouragement and hospitality. Quite apart from cooking the best curry I’ve ever tasted, they had a way of making pretty much anyone feel at ease in their company. It was frequently the case that when we would finally manage to connect with people who’d been on the fringe of church for a while and weren’t easy to contact, we’d find that they’d already been to Sam & Ree’s house once or twice, and were exchanging text messages on a semi-regular basis. They also scooped up people who were isolated – students staying up over the holidays, single people who’d recently arrived in the city and didn’t know anyone – and connected with them. There were plenty of people in the church who had a gift of hospitality, but it was clear that this couple excelled in actively seeking to use their gift for the building up of the Body.

In my experience, helping people to exercise their gifts for the sake of the church is much easier amongst young people – students and 20s-30s in particular – because they’re at a stage of constant change anyway, and are comfortable with the idea of growing and developing in their relationship with the church, and critically they’re also used to the idea that they’ll not necessarily do something well and will need to learn. I’ve found it to be significantly harder to convince older members of the church to begin using a gift that they aren’t already using – where people haven’t been encouraged to use their gifts for decades, it can be hard to ask them to be inexperienced learners once more. However, Scripture teaches us that while youth is not a barrier to wisdom, yet we should expect treasures of wisdom to be found most commonly amongst the older members of our congregation2Job 12:12-13, Proverbs 16:31, 1 Timothy 4:12. When combined with a gift of pastoral care or encouragement, this is a particular blessing to the church.

If you already have an idea of what your gifts might be (or if the questions above gave you some clues) then why not ask yourself, “how can I use this in the service of God, and of His people?” And if you’re still not sure, please reach out to the church leadership team, because it may be that there are needs you’re not aware of!

One last thought – some might be concerned that saying “here are my gifts – find me a way to use them in the church!” sounds proud or arrogant. This comes down a lot to the attitude with which it’s brought. It can be done in a way that suggests, “I am gifted and I deserve a place doing …” and that certainly does sound a lot like pride; however, remembering that all gifts come from God, it certainly isn’t pride to say, “I believe God has given me these gifts – how can I be of service?”

This blog is one of a series on how we use our gifts in the church, which will grow over the coming weeks. The main post and the links to other topics can be found here. As always, if you have any thoughts or reflections, please do comment below – and if you would like to have a longer discussion on a specific area or your personal situation, please do drop me an email.

Gifts in the Body of Christ

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:15-16

Last Sunday, our passage was Romans 12:1-8, which talks about the vital role of each part of the body playing its part, of everyone in the church exercising whatever gifts they have to the extent to which they’re gifted in that area. The focus of the Romans passage is on humility – not seeing ourselves as the solution to all needs, but valuing others’ gifts. The Ephesians passage quoted above (and the longer passage preceding it) focuses on the value of gifts in developing unity and maturity in the church. Meanwhile, the aim of the passage on gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 seems to be to encourage believers to seek and desire spiritual gifts, but to exercise them in cooperation with each other.

Any of those passages on their own would be enough to warrant our attention, but the theme of complementary gifting emerges in three separate letters of Paul with very different audiences and objectives – this is something worth spending significant time on!

However, it’s not always easy to know what your gifts are, how to use them to bless the church, and how to develop them further. This set of blogs will explore some of those topics, in the hope of helping us to live this out at WCC. The current plan is write on the following topics, but I may tweak it, depending on feedback!

In the process of writing these, I’ve come across some really good articles for further reading. I’ll link to some of the most helpful here:

We want purpose and meaning

‘Cause if you’re not really here
Then the stars don’t even matter
Now I’m filled to the top with fear
That it’s all just a bunch of matter

Sam Sparro

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

When I was in 6th form, my careers advisor told me that the job marketplace was in the midst of a radical shift. “No longer”, he told me, “are people choosing a career for life, and working their way up in the company they started with. Instead, the average employee is going to be changing jobs and perhaps careers six to seven times in their working lives.” I don’t know how accurate his statistics were, but he was right about my generation and subsequent ones being very mobile in the workplace. I studied languages, and I’ve been a teacher, a computer programmer and now a pastor. But a much greater differentiator between generations is why people are choosing jobs.

In my head, the classic job interview centres around the suitability of the candidate for the job – their skills, expertise, attitude, and track record. Nowadays many are much more two-way: millennials and Gen-Zs want to know what the company offers them by way of job satisfaction, purpose, culture, and ethical standards. Whether or not they’re in the position to be picky, those questions feature heavily in how people of those generations talk about their job prospects. Increasingly, our culture is not content to block off 8+ hours of the day as a necessary exercise in paying the bills, and to simply “live for the weekend”.

Some of this has no doubt come about through an increasing consciousness of the effects of everyday actions: awareness of climate change and modern slavery in particular have shown us how the companies we support, buy from, or work for can have a far-reaching global impact, and therefore have a moral value. If we were using religious language, we might say that all of life has become sacred.

However, it’s at least as much due to the increased focus on the value of the individual. The mindset of millenials includes rights to a supportive environment, and to accommodation of personal tastes and interests, which has both positive and negative side-effects. Millennials are more likely to hold out for “living their best life” (to use a phrase that’s become popular) and to pioneer social change; they also have a reputation for being more fragile and averse to criticism.

So how does this culture, which looks for value and meaning in everything, reflect a longing for the Kingdom of God? Let’s start with the obvious – in the Christian worldview, everything was created not only by God, but for His glory. At the most basic level, everything should have meaning because everything should glorify God. On top of this, when God created the earth, it was good. Before sin entered the world, God had created nature, mankind, and work. However long it lasted, before Adam & Eve sinned, their lives were spent enjoyably serving a purpose: filling the earth and subduing it. Any culture which seeks to recapture value and meaning in work is reaching out for the Kingdom of God.

However, it’s not only in the world of work that our society is crying out for meaning: “living your best life” involves self-expression, finding fulfilment in recreation and relationships. The pain-point for our culture seems to come from the individualistic way in which this search for purpose is worked out. The focus on individual self-expression develops ever more niche subcultures, many of which then consider themselves micro-aggressed if disagreed with. The importance on individual fulfilment also leads to diminishing commitment to others – the embodiment of this is perhaps the Facebook “interested” button, which is offered as an alternative to “going” or “can’t go” on a facebook event. “Interested” becomes a socially-acceptable way of saying, “I might go unless I get a better offer”.

A further point of conflict with our culture comes around the purposes towards which we strive. We read of an episode in Genesis when people really start to assert their independence from God: in chapter 11, they gather together and start building a tower “to stretch to the heavens”, to “make a name for themselves” and protect them from being scattered and insignificant. God responds by confusing their language, but I find his words hard to fathom:

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Genesis 11:6

What is God’s objection? Clearly they cannot really build a tower to reach the heavens, in the sense of reaching God through their own efforts – and His concern is not that they might. I think God’s concern is not that they will succeed in doing something sacriligious, or that they would set their sights too high, but rather that they would set their sights too low, on something high in their estimation but still utterly insignificant, and in achieving it be satisfied.

Imagine a group of secondary-school children who have never used woodworking tools, and who sneak into the workshop when the teacher’s out. They don’t know what’s possible with the right tools and techniques, so they decide to see how many bits of wood they can nail together. Working together, they manage to nail all of their wood into one big mass of planks and spars. Ecstatic that they’ve achieved their goal, they set out to make the biggest glue-gun ball, to split a beam with a hammer and a screwdriver, and so on. Because they are their own “echo chamber”, the goal-setters and the judges of success, nothing they set out to achieve will be impossible for them – but at the end of the day, they’ll have achieved nothing worthwhile by any external standard. Our culture’s desire for purpose is flawed because we don’t know what really matters, and what true meaning really is. Devoid of any understanding of relationship with the Creator, or of life after death, we set goals that ignore His designs and think only of this short life.

Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.

Francis Chan

Why not try an exercise over the next week or two? Be on the lookout for people expressing their longing for purpose and meaning. Perhaps try to find out more – what kind of thing would satisfy that longing? If we believe, as the Scriptures teach us, that true satisfaction is only found in relationship with God, we should expect those conversations to point to God and the fulfilment He gives.

Accountability & Discipleship resources

A number of people asked during the service today where to get hold of the “accountability questions” bookmarks. They can be found in our kids & youth downloads section, here: https://new.wheatleycommunitychurch.org/2020/07/17/sunday-19th-july/.

You can also listen to the talk where David Campbell first explained them back in January in our sermons area, here: https://new.wheatleycommunitychurch.org/sermons/jonah-1/

Chris summed up really well at the end of the service – we need to be intentional about pursuing discipleship and accountability, so get asking! If you’re unsure who to ask, or if someone has asked you to “coach” them and you’d like help doing so, drop me a message at al.mcnicoll@wheatleycommunitychurch.org or give me a call!

We want protection

The nation state has taken the place of God … National governments are widely assumed to be responsible for and capable of providing those things which former generations thought only God could provide – freedom from fear, hunger, disease and want – in a word: “happiness”.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

Movies involving national or international disasters tend to have a couple of stock characters that crop up every time: one is the hero who rescues everyone; the other is the villainous, cowardly or incompetent person who should have prevented the disaster. Real-life disasters are no different: the Coronavirus outbreak has seen Captain Tom and the NHS recognised as heroes; and within the first few weeks of the first government response, there were already calls for inquiries and investigations into alleged incompetence because ministers were too hasty, too slow, too unclear, or changing their mind too often. We have a crisis, and we’ve picked our heroes and villains. For many, Captain Tom and the NHS are “our side of the table” and the government are “the problem”.

I’m not a virologist, a statistician or a PR expert, so I’m not in a position to critique whether the government response has been competent or not – the observation I want to make is that as a nation we expect our government to provide us with health and security. This means that when disaster hits, our tendency is not to see them as people fighting alongside us, trying to achieve the same goals as us, but rather as incompetents or worse, who are failing to deliver on their duty.

Over most of human history, these two longings of humanity – health and security, or “peace within” and “peace without” – were laid at the feet of a deity. People called out to whatever god they believed in, and hoped that they would answer. The trouble with this arrangement was that their gods were mostly of their own invention. The prophet Isaiah points out how ludicrous this is, writing:

He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak … it is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself …
But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal … he also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’
From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me! You are my god!’

Isaiah 44:14-17

That setup seems as ridiculous to us today as it did then – how can one section of trunk be disposable firewood while another is a god? And yet we do the same – we know full well that none of us can foresee and prevent every terrorist attack or ensure that every cancer sufferer is diagnosed and treated before it’s too late, yet we gather together a group of fellow humans, pay them a high salary, and expect them to deliver it. No human can bear that load, any more than a section of tree-trunk. We want to be protected, but we are looking in the wrong place – the only one who can provide those things is the God who created all things.

However ill-directed it might be, our desire for protection is God-given, because God created us to live under His protection. Before there were earthquakes or terrorists, God created man and woman to live in relationship with Him, trusting Him to say what was good and what was bad – in much the same way that a young child trusts their parents. And we read in the Bible that this current era will end with everyone who is willing to do so putting themselves back under God’s protection by acknowledging His sovereignty, and agreeing that He alone is capable of judging good from evil – “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are His judgments.”1Rev 19:1-2, click here for more Revelation references.

Our message is not “Jesus will keep you safe from coronavirus and ISIS”

How can this longing for health and security be a gateway for conversations about Jesus? This needs thought, because it’s simply not the case that Christians live in a constant state of health and peace! In fact, the author of our faith died aged around 33, and many of the pioneers of the early church died at the hands of violent men. To this day, you find will fibromyalgia, bulimia, cancer and broken collar-bones in churches around the world. Our message is not “Jesus will keep you safe from coronavirus and ISIS” – rather, the hope of Christianity comes in two parts.

The first part relates to this life. No good parent tells their child that they’ll protect them from all hurt: my two older kids have spent most of their playtime hours doing scooter jumps off a plank in the turning circle outside our house, and their arms and legs are covered in scrapes and bruises. They’ve also fallen out of trees, burned their fingers on cake tins, and been on the receiving end of unkind words. What they do know for sure is that they can run to Caroline or to me, and know that we will sit with them, comfort them, hug them, talk with them, help them process the situation, and in some cases learn from it. Jesus promises us this. We don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but we do know who will walk through it with us.

As a follower of Jesus, my confidence about my health is that after I die Christ will resurrect me into a body that will never be sick again.

The second part is harder to get our head around: this life is not the real deal – it’s a pale shadow of what’s to come. As a follower of Jesus, my confidence about my health is not that I won’t get sick, but that after I die Christ will resurrect me to a body that will never be sick again. My confidence about my security is that even if I experience trouble now, it is outweighed by an eternal glory that is wholly dependable and utterly unshakeable.

To think like this requires faith. Perhaps you have had someone say to you “I wish I had your faith, but I don’t” – I know that I’ve heard it a few times. However, faith is simply taking God at His word and acting on that. To put our faith in God’s protection is to make a decision to trust that resurrection life is real, and to change our priorities from pleasing ourselves to pleasing the God who loves us.

The current pandemic brings up all kinds of conversations about health and security, as well as about the people who are “supposed” to guarantee it for us. Have you thought about how that kind of conversation could help someone else find their security in God, rather than in people? Why not take some time to think through what you might say when the topic next comes up!