Don’t dismiss the small encouragements

Anyone who knows me or who has read this blog will no doubt have detected that the Yorkie events piclast few weeks have been hard.  They have provided challenges both personally and in terms of church.  Here’s the question, when that happens why do we keep on going?

It is the big things, absolutely.  It is knowing the gospel is true and is the only hope of the world and knowing that the church is God’s strategy to reach the lost with the gospel.  It is knowing we are not outside of the Father’s will, that the Spiritual battle we are in, and feel intensely at the moment,  is not unique to us and that Christ wins and provides everything we need to endure.  It is knowing that our Father is sovereign and running to him and finding welcome as a child. It is all of those big theological things, yes, a thousand times yes.

But one of the biggest positives this last week has been the small encouragements, don’t despise them because they matter.  To be greeted by a brother on Sunday morning with a renewed and expressed commitment to the church and an offer of a coffee, a listening ear and prayer was a God send on Sunday morning when preaching felt daunting and the church felt fragile.  To be able to gather with another churches elders who listened, expressed care, love, and partnership and prayed was another God sent encouragement.  A card from a mentor expressing his care and prayers at a distance when he is facing struggles of his own was another God sent encouragement.  The card this afternoon from a church member expressing her thanks for our service, her acknowledgement of how we potentially felt and her love and support was another great God given encouragement.

Don’t despise the small encouragements.

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Leaving church as amputation

If the church is a body where every part is necedisconnectedssary, where the goal is each part serving, supporting, growing and building one another up, it’s no wonder that someone leaving our church feels like losing a part of ourselves.  I’m told that physical amputation is painful, I haven’t experienced it, but I can tell you that spiritual amputation is equally painful.  When someone leaves our church it ought to feel like the loss of a vital part of our body because it is.  It affects each and every other part of the body, the pain isn’t just located at the site of amputation but radiates out to each nerve ending.

In our individualised culture and society I wonder if we think about that enough.  In our society ‘I’ matters.  The ‘I’ may not just be me, it may be me and mine.  But the ‘I’ is the primary consideration.  And here’s the danger there is no ‘I’ in church.  The church is a body and there is no-one in the church who is the spiritual equivalent of the appendix.  No-one who won’t be missed or is readily replaceable or unnecessary.  But in the ‘I’ world we only think of the impact of our actions on us and ours.  But the Bible calls us to have a bigger vision, we are part of a body, our actions impact others.  Our loss will be felt, it will impact others.

That is not saying we should never leave a church.  I think the Bible would provide us with some valid reasons for doing so but that is a post for another day, but I think they are relatively few and far between.  I don’t want to get too enmeshed in those now.

We love the body image of the church when it suits us, yet how quickly we seem to forget it when it doesn’t suit.

Facing up to fragility

I’ve been reminded again this week of the fragility of pastoring a small church.  There has rarely been a year that has gone by when I have not had some kind of reminder of the fragility of planting and then pastoring church.  Initially I thought that period would last for a few years until we were more established, maybe 5 years in, maybe 7, maybe 10?  Now I am wondering if it will ever go away.

I am reminded of that fragility every time a family or an individual leaves the church, every time they accept a job that means relocating, or an ageing couple wisely decides failing health means the need to relocate nearer family to ease the burden of responsibility and travel.  It inevitably leads me to have a few anxious hours as I process the loss, and anxious weeks as I wonder about how the church will react to another loss.  And yet more anxiety as I consider the implications for our budget and for our future plans as a church when we have already stepped out in faith.  We’ve had a few years of losses, a gradual drip of saints taken hope to be with their Saviour and finishing their race well and others relocating.  Every loss has been felt keenly, one less row of chairs, a smaller Sunday school, fewer actively serving amidst a wealth of needs.  This summer again our church has contracted as people have moved away and we perhaps feel more fragile than we have at any time since the first year or two, who wouldn’t when you effectively lose more than a tenth of your congregation.  It means that when a member texts or rings and asks for coffee I instantly find myself hoping it’s not to tell me they are moving too, and wondering what we do if it is.

But perhaps the greatest fragility it exposes is the fragility in me.  I am tempted to tie my spiritual standing to the success or failure, growth or otherwise of the church.  And I don’t think that is totally unhealthy.  I must care about the gospel and the glory of God, I must care about the impact of loss on God’s people.  I must have a concern to reach the lost and inevitably the loss of workers in a rich harvest field makes that harder.

The greatest fragility it exposes, however, is in my faith.  Do I genuinely believe God is sovereign, that he is wisely working, that his plans are best?  Do I honestly believe what I have preached; that it doesn’t need big and spectacular to reach the lost but faithful disciples living out the gospel on their frontlines speaking the gospel to one person at a time?  Do I honestly believe that my reputation matters or will I trust God will build his kingdom for his glory?  Will I learn the lesson God is teaching me and trust him or adopt a dogs of war mentality and rant against everyone else in comfortable Christendom?

I don’t welcome the fragility.  I don’t particularly welcome the way it exposes me again in areas I thought I had dealt with.  But I do pray that God uses it to more firmly fix my faith on him.

Is our evangelical culture distinctive?

It’s easy to ape the culture.  To assume that the norms that we’ve breathed in every icebergminute of our lives are just that norms.  In fact they are wallpaper against which we grow and develop, they are like the 90% of the iceberg that is under the water level, they are unseen and so their influence is enormous and yet largely unnoticed.  But the gospel calls us to a radical rethink of every influence on our thinking, even those that are unseen and culturally normal.

 

I’ve been preparing a sermon on Paul’s letter to Philemon this week where he encourages Philemon to do just that; to apply the gospel to transform his thinking in an area of his life where societies norms go against the gospel.  You get the impression as Paul writes that he knows what a challenge this will be for Philemon, to radically rethink the assumed values and norms of life in light of the gospel and it’s call to radically reshaped community.  How much potentially this will make him stand out and what it might cost him.

There are some huge challenges for us as evangelicals in Britain here.  Personally it challenges our sense of entitlement, rights, classism, sexism, racism, the cult of individualism, consumerism, all are things we naturally find are part of us when we stop and view them in light of the gospel. Because they are part of the cultural air we breathe in every day.   But seeing them is far easier, if unpleasant, than repenting of them and changing, which is what Paul calls us to.

It challenges our church and evangelical culture too.  What are the cultural norms that we assume as organisations or charities that actually go against the call of the gospel?  How distinctive are we really?  What about in the way we look for leaders, or who we look for as leaders?  Or how we provide training for ministry?  Approach giving?  Who we partner with?  How we promote ourselves?  How different are we from any other charity, organisation or business?  Is our gospel distinctiveness obvious or are our practices culturally normal?

That’s not to say there is nothing to learn from outside the church, God in his grace liberally scatters his wisdom, but our learning must always be tempered in light of the gospel.  Lessons learnt must always be applied in light of our call to stand out, to love God and love our neighbours – all of them.

Teach us to pray: Part 5

Dear Church Family  sanctification

Quieting our hearts

“Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love towards us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise the Lord!”

Psalm 117

Pause and consider who it is we are privileged to pray to.  Think through and praise God for the examples of his steadfast love and faithfulness you see in your life.  Rehearse to yourself some of the ways in which God has revealed that to our church and to his people across the world throughout time.

Keeping Jesus central to life

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”

Hebrews 1v1-3

  • Praise God that he has revealed himself to us.
  • Pray for those in our fellowship who are ill or who have chronic illnesses, pray that they would know Jesus’ power and sovereignty as they walk through hard times.
  • Pray for those who are concerned about and caring for ill loved ones.
  • Pray that the certainty of our hope would be both a comfort in hard times but also a spur to live in light of Jesus rule and reign and return.

Confession

Stop now and take some time to confess your sin to God using this prayer as a template:

O Lord, we want to enter your presence, worshipping you face to face, awed by your majesty, greatness and glory, yet encouraged by your love.

Yet there is a coldness in our hearts, a hardness towards you, an unwillingness to admit our sin and need for you. Forgive us, for Jesus’ sake. Come near and strength us until Christ reigns supreme within us, in every thought, word and deed. Give us a faith that purified the heart, overcomes the world, works by love, fasten us to you, and always clings to the cross. In Jesus’ name. 

Amen.

Praying for others; family, friends and stranger

Use the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11 as a template to guide you in your prayers for others today.

Father, 

hallowed be your name.

your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

And lead us not into temptation.

Amen

Praying for the day

Take some time to think about what you face in the day ahead, or have faced in the day passed.  Bring each of them to God now.  Pray that he would take and use your words and actions in each in advance his kingdom.

Conclusion

As we close take some time to reflect on these words, pray that God would make it so for you.  Thank him that he has poured out his Spirit into our hearts to enable us to increasingly be like this.

Eternal God

the light of the minds that know you

the joy of the hearts that love you

and the strength of the wills that serve you:

grant us to know you that we may truly serve you,

whose service is perfect freedom;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

St Augustine

Thanks for your partnership in prayer.

Al