Category: Blog Posts

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!

Learning from Lockdown

After more than three months, lockdown is starting to lift – for some, at least. If we had our own building, we would now be able to open it for individual prayer, and we’d be starting to make plans for a socially-distanced return to meeting in person. As it is, while we’re actively monitoring the situation and thinking ahead, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to meet at the primary school before the start of the new school year. This gives us time to stop and think: when we do return, what will we have learned? What might we do differently, or not do at all?

If we look to the churches of Acts for our model, we see what they considered to be the basics of being a church:

  • Meeting together in close unity1the Greek word (κοινωνία) is variously translated as participation, fellowship and contribution – clearly this is deeply-rooted friendship, not just waving at a distance!
  • Listening to and learning from the teaching of the apostles
  • Eating together in each other’s homes, during which time they would break bread
  • Praying together
  • Praising God
  • Sharing resources with other believers according to need
  • Serving each other in the way God had gifted them
  • Receiving and responding to the words and work of the Holy Spirit
  • New believers being baptised in water and in the Holy Spirit (usually simultaneously2We do read of some believers in Acts 8 who have received baptism in water, but not in the Spirit; also, in Acts 10, we see believers filled with the Spirit who are then subsequently baptised in water)

If we look beyond Acts to the letters of the New Testament, we might add to this:

  • Confessing sins to one another3Not just to God: see James 5, 1 John 1
  • Hospitality – communally welcoming and providing for visiting believers
  • Actively overcoming difference (status, race, conscience) in love, forgiveness and mutual submission (to each other and to elders)
  • Having a care for the community’s spiritual health (encouraging love and good deeds, rejecting false teaching, guarding each other’s morality)
  • Giving generously to support church-planting and “spiritual parents”4Whether Paul was the first on the scene or whether he arrived and found believers already, he seems to have assumed a role of “spiritual father” to the church, and refers to himself as such
  • Receiving input from people beyond the local church – those received as “spiritual parents” in multiple churches
  • Being a place where unbelievers can experience true faith

What does this mean for our own fellowship? It’s great to see plenty there that’s familiar, because we’re already doing it. However, with this chance to pause and reshape, what should change? Is there an opportunity to simplify what we do? Here are a few of my early thoughts – and I’d love to hear yours.

One reflection is that our Zoom meetings end with “breakout rooms”, in which we don’t choose who we are put with, but chat and pray with a random selection of people. As a result, I am sure some people have talked to others who they would not normally have spoken to in a typical month of meetings in person. I wonder how we can capture some of that in how we meet in future: how could we change our setup to avoid sitting with the same people each week? There is the potential for closer fellowship if we think this through. Zoom has also partially levelled the playing field of those who make friends easily and those who are shy; of those who are gregarious and those who live alone. I am sure that we can do more to make the fellowship a true family for those who do not have family nearby. I’m particularly keen to hear from people in this situation – how can we be a better family to you?

The early church seems to have been in the habit of eating together very frequently – possibly daily. It also seems that they broke bread in this context: bread and wine were the major components of a meal, so the breaking of bread would normally have been a shared meal – a very special one, shared only by those who had faith in Christ. We read that they broke bread in each other’s homes, which introduces the aspect of hospitality. When we return to meeting in person, I wonder whether we ought to break bread more often than monthly, and whether we might find some way to connect it with offering hospitality in our homes.

I am struck that we have no regular practice of confessing our sins to each other. Last Sunday, it was great to have Gordon leading us in confessing our sins to God – however, that in itself was a rarity. I am not sure I’ve ever been in a church where confession to one another was part of a Sunday meeting, but I have certainly been in churches where there is a strong expectation that we do this in smaller groups midweek. We should think about where it does fit at WCC, and how we can commend it to everyone.

In a regular Sunday morning at the school, how much of our time do we spend listening? It was clearly the expectation of the early church that God would speak to them as they met – and that they would then weigh those words and respond to them accordingly. We have seen this process be very fruitful recently in deciding what to do about Holiday Club this summer, and it has led to strong decision-making and deep peace about the outcome. Acts sees these words of knowledge, words of wisdom and prophecies bringing correction, guidance, and encouragement, and Paul says that they’re a necessary tool for building up the body of Christ. When we start to gather again in person, I wonder how we can make space for people to reflect on what they think God is saying to our congregation, and to share it if they do? As something that is not part of our regular practice, this won’t simply start happening spontaneously, so we’ll have to consciously make space for it. I’m keen that we do so!

Lastly, we had to postpone plans to baptise some of our young people a few weeks into lockdown – and I look forward to returning to that later in the year. I would love to see new people being baptised both in water and in the Holy Spirit on a regular basis – those who are new to faith, but also anyone who has not yet received either baptism.

I have picked out a few reflections, and would be interested to hear yours. You can leave comments below – why not think, pray, and ask yourself what we could do differently when we return to meeting together in person?

We want perfection

Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

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.

What is the most offensive part of the Gospel to a Western audience? If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have been pretty confident that it was the idea of sin – that there was an absolute standard out there with the authority to judge our actions. However, this is shifting – my wife Caroline first noticed this a few years back on an Alpha course, when someone expressed utter disgust at the idea of God forgiving people who had done “really bad things”. Increasingly, society’s issue with Christianity is not simply around the existence of sin, but around the moral validity of forgiveness.

Earlier this week, I read an article reflecting on the #metoo campaign and analysing the apologies (or non-apologies) of the various perpetrators1https://www.in-mind.org/article/sorry-not-sorry-apologies-and-denials-in-the-metoo-movement. It concluded: “Can perpetrators of #MeToo-abuse be forgiven and return to society? At present, the answer to these questions is still unclear … whether such behaviour can be forgiven is uncertain. Indeed, research suggests that some crimes may never be forgiven.”

The question is further complicated by the passage of time – should someone be held to account for something they said thirty years ago? Should someone be judged by today’s standards for what they did under historic social norms?2This article provides some interesting food for thought on the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Virginia_political_crisis However, the answer is coming back increasingly clearly – the passage of time is not a get-out, and different historic norms of attitude and behaviour do not offer a valid excuse.

The fact is this: society today demands perfection. This is not only on major moral issues such as sexual abuse and racism – the national debate over Brexit led not only to division between factions, but also to unprecedented levels of personal attacks on people for their association with one camp or another. Student unions have no-platformed people because historically they shared a platform with someone with conservative social opinions. My intent is not to agree or disagree with these attitudes, but simply to highlight a significant shift – whereas before Christians needed to make a case for why all sin should be punishable (the classic morality scale from Hitler to Mother Theresa, asking where the “good enough for heaven” line should be), nowadays that conversation is changing. Instead, the question is, “can people truly be forgiven?”

So what, then, do we do with the truth which we all know deep down and which most try to conceal – the truth that we have all said, done and thought things which would cause many to reject us if they knew? It strikes me that most people in a perfection-demanding society escape censure simply by keeping their heads down and avoiding scrutiny: wind up under scrutiny, and sooner or later you’ll do something or someone will unearth something you did which renders you guilty. This fragile state of affairs – flying under the radar – must surely lead to a high level of inner conflict. Paul described the inability to live up to even our own standards in strong, bitter words:

For what I want to do, I do not do – and what I hate, I do … For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7

Our society is right – in part, at least. Perfection is the standard, and the passage of time does not wash away guilt. As might be expected, society’s standards of right and wrong do not always line up with God’s standards as revealed in the Scriptures, but the concept stands. Our desire for perfection is a good desire, but combined with a forlorn hope of human self-improvement, it inevitably ends up in a bitter and accusing form: seeing the faults in others and demanding change, while hiding away our own sins. This has been the case ever since the first sin, in which Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake in the garden of Eden, the last place where humans knew perfection. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that there is a genuine, solid hope for perfection ahead: not only a perfect environment, but also perfected humans to inhabit it.

As the pressure increases not only to live faultlessly, but also to have lived faultlessly, there is an opportunity to explain the Good News to people: “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”3C.S. Lewis discussed the validity of God forgiving sins of one human against another in this excellent clip from Mere Christianity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxzuh5Xx5G4&t=582

Have you had a recent conversation with a friend, relative or colleague in which you discussed the failings of a public figure? If so, did you take the easy path of simply agreeing, or did you draw attention to the truth that we all fall short of the mark? And have you ever had a conversation about what is needed for someone to be forgiven? Why not think through how you might explain in conversation the conflict between our desire for perfection and our inability to be perfect ourselves, as well as how you would explain God’s solution.

We want freedom (but also laws)

Deep down you know, in your soul
Love is in control
Oh, if you could find the angel within
Time, time to have faith in your wings
Free, everybody’s free, yeah
In the new day that’s coming
Freedom for all is our destiny

Robert Miles

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.

The discussion of politics and culture in our world today does not use the same vocabulary as it did even ten years ago, let alone twenty. One particularly noticeable shift is that divides previously described as “left/right” or “conservative/liberal” now tend to be described in terms of “conservative/progressive” – or in some circles, “backward/progressive”. Most cultures have a directional arrow which constitutes the “progress” society is looking for. For decades, “progress” in Western nations was scientific – the advancement of knowledge; in our current time, it has come to mean the removing of historic social and moral boundaries.

The point of this observation is not to critique those social and moral changes, but rather to note that our cultural appetite is for social boundary-breaking. Those who are on the cutting edge of campaigning for the removal of a given boundary or taboo are heroes, but when the goal is accomplished they cannot rest on that, but are required to continue to push boundaries in order to be accepted – you have only to look at the cultural fate of Germaine Greer to see this in action. This illustrates the fact that our culture values the act of breaking norms and removing boundaries over the value of what is achieved by those actions.

At the same time, we are legislating at a faster rate than ever – I remember a conversation with a lawyer who explained that the pace of legislation was such that legal draughtsmen struggle to keep up, and consequently draft laws that are difficult to enforce. Why is it that we want to do away with past norms and laws, and yet we create even more laws at an unsustainable pace?

Scripturally, rebellion has been a human problem since the first sin, back in Genesis. However, there’s something else at play here too. Some of the difficulty that teenagers have relating to parental rules is that they know that they’re transitioning to a place of greater responsibility, in which they are liable for their own actions, and free to make their own successes and mistakes. Scripture shows us that we, too, were created not for laws but for loving relationship. The letter to the Galatians teaches:

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

Galatians 3:23-24 (The Message paraphrase)

We were made to do right out of a place of love and faith, not because the law required it of us. There is something of this instinct in current culture, too – we don’t only want people to behave rightly, we want them to think rightly. So cultural campaigns try to win hearts and minds – but in case that fails, they also campaign for legislation to make it illegal to publicly disagree.

The missing piece in all of this is that the human heart is inherently corrupt. Progressive humanism operates on the basis that humans are either basically good, or at least morally neutral – and that if we can improve our thinking and our conditions sufficiently, human utopia is possible – just take a look at the opening quotation, taken from a 90s pop song. The constant need to enforce these improvements with laws points to the truth being quite the opposite: in its natural condition, without enforced boundaries, humanity is self-destructive and greedy, and needs to be controlled.

The solution to this is regeneration, or being born again. Paul explains that while we start life enslaved to sin, when we turn to Christ and are filled with His Spirit, we are dead to that old state of affairs, and alive to a new way of living. Before, our hearts were drawn to sin and occasionally we managed to salvage a semi-noble act from them; now, our hearts are drawn to God, but we occasionally slip or rebel.

This is the Kingdom of God which Jesus introduces – one in which our default attitude and behaviour changes. In His Kingdom, laws can be rendered unnecessary by a change of heart: we don’t need to be told not to stab someone if we leave the house with an armload of gifts to distribute. We won’t cross that line, because we’re running in the opposite direction. If we grasp the meaning of the Good Samaritan, of “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself”, then we end up where Jesus does in the sermon on the mount: “you have heard it said ‘do not murder’; but I say to you don’t even get angry with your brother … you’ve heard it said ‘do not commit adultery’; but I say to you don’t even look lustfully at a woman.” This is possible – but only if we ask God to make us new, and to fill us with His Spirit.

In a recent conversation, a neighbour of mine said, “I’d thought when I moved to the charitable sector that everyone would be noble and altruistic, but there’s the same ladder-climbing and politics as you’d find in a corporation.” Have you ever had conversations like this around whether humans are inherently good? How might you explain to someone what difference it makes to be born again?

The Wheatley Blessing

The Wheatley Blessing

God is generous with His blessing. As followers of Jesus together in Wheatley, we want to pray and proclaim this blessing over our community, particularly during this difficult time. We pray that as you listen, you will know God’s love for you.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.

Numbers 6v24-26

It has been so fantastic to see the Wheatley Blessing take shape over the months of May and June: thank you so much to everyone who contributed!