Tag: pastor-blog

God’s love is light

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:6

With the nights drawing in, all the cars on the roads have their headlights on from about 3pm these days. When a car comes down our close, even with the curtains shut, you can see the light move around on the walls of the sitting room. Somehow, even though it only travels in straight lines, light gets everywhere! Even with our eyes screwed tight shut, if we turn to face the sun, our vision goes a dim red through our eyelids.

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God’s love is transformative

I pray that you may … know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:19

We’ve known for a long time that when children are loved unconditionally, they flourish – especially where that unconditional love is found in their parents and their home. From the safe place of knowing that total acceptance, they can try hard, fail hard, celebrate success, pick themselves up when they fall, experiment and grow in their understanding of themselves and the weorld around them. The effect of that may wane somewhat as they grow older and leave home, but it remains present. I spoke to someone recently who had just lost their second parent, and they described how, for the first time ever, they truly felt they were on their own in life.

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God’s love is redemptive

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Genesis 50:20

Our world started in a garden. Everything God created was perfect, and on its completion He said it was “very good”. Yet the book of Revelation makes it very clear that the new creation will be better than Eden – better than that initial perfection. How interesting, then, that at the heart of the heavenly worship, and in place of the temple in the new Jerusalem, we find the Lamb “looking as though it had been slain.” Because of his response to all of our human failure and sin, God is more gloriously revealed in the new creation – now he has shown the full depths of his redemptive and forgiving nature.

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God’s love is strong

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.

Song of Songs 8:6-7

Have you ever considered that Jesus could have chosen to be popular with more or less everyone? The people loved him for his miracles, his works of power, and his fearless teaching – but if he’d just kept to healing six days a week, and not challenged some of the practices of the Pharisees and Sadducees, he might never have become unpopular – and the authorities wouldn’t have sought to have him crucified. He’d probably be looked back on by history as a kind of supercharged Mother Theresa character – always doing good, showing kindness and love, and performing miracles too.

And we would still be dead in our sins.

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God’s love is unconditional

“We love because [God] first loved us.”

1 John 4:19

It’s good to repeatedly return to this truth from John’s first letter, to remind ourselves that the source of our own love is God’s love for us. And if the source of our love is God’s love, it follows also that our love should look like His love. In fact, Jesus says this to His disciples explicitly:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

John 13:34
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Pull off the plaster!

Like many of you I imagine, I am a regular blood donor. And after years of donating, I’ve decided that my least favourite part of the whole process is taking off the plaster six hours later. Even though I’ve done it dozens of times before, I keep thinking that there must be a way of peeling it off slowly so that it doesn’t feel like it’s taking three layers of skin with it. However, everyone knows that it’s best to pull off the plaster quickly, and to get it over in one smooth motion!

The truth is that there’s quite a lot of change around at the moment. In our nation, there’s constantly-changing rules about travel, and a bunch of social etiquette to work out – masks, hugs, all that. In the church, there’s some changes with our home groups, we’re meeting back in person, we didn’t run Holiday Club and instead we put on Encounter. We’re introducing a new monthly prayer meeting. And then there’s personal change – I know many of us are processing changes in our families and our friendships – people moving on, children flying the nest, and health issues coming up.

As I’ve been praying for us, I’ve been brought back to this picture of pulling off a plaster. There’s a time when it’s right, and when that time comes, you might as well get finish the job. As we put, from a UK perspective, the most dramatic phase of the pandemic behind us, and as we start to re-open and re-engage, it’s probably the right time for change – it’s a season of change. From a church perspective, I’d rather we had a period where a number of things changed in close succession, letting us adjust and find a new groove, rather than stretching out the change over a longer period to make it feel less daunting.

For those of us who are finding this season harder – take heart! We’re not going to live in a state of constant change the whole time. Some changes are difficult, others easy – but through all of it, the Lord is our guide and our Good Shepherd, and He has us on a good path.

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 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.