Pastor and people remember Jesus

I’ve read and studied 2 Timothy loads of times. But one of the things I love about the Bible is the way God by his Spirit tunes our hearts to old truths newly seen as we read scripture again and again. I’ve been reading and studying 2 Timothy again for our Gospel Group series for the summer term. And what has come across freshly and vibrantly is the need for Timothy to pursue Jesus not for his ministry but for himself.

Paul writes in 1v5 about Timothy’s “sincere faith” and its familial roots. And reminds Timothy of his salvation and calling to a holy life not because of what he has done but because of God’s purpose and grace (1v9). He calls on Timothy to keep the pattern of sound teaching and guard the good deposit entrusted to you in chapter 1 and verse 13-14.

Then in very first verse of chapter 2 Paul calls Timothy to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and in verse 8 to remember Jesus. Again and again Paul speaks to Timothy not just of his ministry, this is not a practical how to pastoral epistle with lessons on taking funerals and awkward members meetings or planning preaching programmes. This is a letter to encourage the minister of Christ to love Jesus not for ministry but for themselves. To remember Jesus and his resurrection, kingship and kingdom. It is a call to Timothy to be strengthened by the grace of God not to try to live and labour in his own strength.

Sometimes ministry with all it’s pressures and tick boxes and administration and ‘keeping up with the latest books, theology, heresy…’ gets in the way. Paul’s letter is pastoral in that it is personal, yes he is concerned with Timothy’s ministry, but he is first and foremost concerned with Timothy personally. Remember Jesus Paul writes to him, as if a pastor could ever forget we think, and yet they are the words Paul writes. In your ministry don’t forget Jesus your Saviour. That is obviously a very real danger for Paul to have to write it, and he does so in a letter that names those who have put their hand to the plough of ministry and turned back, who once served but no longer continue too.

Pastor remember Jesus, be strengthened in yourself by his grace. Elders do everything to help one another remember Jesus, don’t just get straight down to business when you meet but help one another remember Jesus and be envisioned and strengthened by God’s grace not in a perfunctory way but really and deeply and joyfully. Churches encourage your pastor to remember Jesus don’t load him up with so many expectations and tasks that he doesn’t have time to, shipwreck or burn out surely follows, do everything you can to generously facilitate his growing faith and grasp of grace and joy in Jesus not just in ministry. That kind of pastor will ultimately serve you best and will receive the victors crown.

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Singing in the …

Singing.  It’s the thing Christians are longing to do again.  We can meet to pray, hear God’s word taught, break bread together and even chat in small groups and that’s great but we can’t sing indoors and that is sad.  Singing isn’t an added extra, the cherry on the top of our Sundae.  No, scripture calls on us to sing God’s praise when we gather and we’re limited in how we do that.  And that has implications, when we sing we sing truth to each other, we embed those truths deep in our memories so they resound in our souls during times of trouble.

I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve been at a hospital bedside and heard a suffering saint sing and draw comfort from the truths embedded in their hearts through music and learning sound lyrics.  I’ve lost track of the times they have asked others to sing with them and the joy and hope it brings.

Not being able to sing has left us badly impoverished and I wonder about the long-term effects on our souls.  So I’ve been thrilled to be able to sing outside since March.  It’s not ideal, finishing the service indoors and then trudging outside to sing, but there is a joy in seeing unmasked faces and in hearing one another voices.

But it has also struck me how quickly we have got out of the habit of singing.  We’re just not used to it.  Voices that used to lift now feel a bit strangled, throats dry out more quickly, and even if we’ve been singing at home in the kitchen or along to a live stream we’ve lost some of our confidence in singing with others in a congregation.  We’re a bit more self-conscious, a bit more restrained.

We need to encourage our churches to sing.  We need to provide opportunities to do so.  Parents this is particularly important with our children, many of whom in their formative years have missed out on 18 months of singing with their church family.  They have missed out on that time of learning the words to the songs we sing.  Missed out on those truths and the sense of singing truth to encourage others in their church family.  Missed out on participating in the service and been trained to consume or be distracted rather than serve others by singing.  Even as we can sing together there is much work to be done to tune up the vocal chords and muscles we use in singing, and in calling one another to engage.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

There are some helps for that.  We’ve started posting playlists of this weeks songs on our YouTube channel in the week leading up to Sunday, so people can sing along, remind themselves of tunes, tune their hearts and train their vocal chords and encourage their children to listen along.   We publish the words on a resources page in our website so everyone sings the same words and can download them or print them off before they come.

Because there is a joy in singing with God’s people, but there is also a challenge in encouraging people to sing again, giving helps and time to regrow confidence so that we sing God’s truths to his glory and for the encouragement of one another.

Don’t give sin too much credit

Living as a follower of Jesus means that we enter into a spiritual war. We mustn’t play down that reality the Bible emphasises again and again. Paul makes that clear as he writes to the Ephesians and calls on them to put on the whole armour of God. Jesus makes that clear as he writes of what the disciples will face and as it’s seen in his own ministry battles with demons and spirits. Revelation gives us a peak behind the curtain of history so that we see some of the spiritual battle that rages. Paul writes of principalities and powers both physical and spiritual.

You can’t take the Bible seriously and read it and think about it without concluding that following Jesus means stepping on to the battlefield of a spiritual war. It is real, it is intense, and it is a fight. But I wonder sometimes if in some areas we treat it less as a battle and more as an inevitable defeat.

I was drawn back to Ezekiel 36v26-26 last week, where we read God’s promise that “I will give you a new heart, and put a new Spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” That is a staggering promise fulfilled by Christ. As those who follow Jesus we are given a new heart, a soft tender heart that is devoted to God and seeks after him. But more than that God himself fills his people with his Spirit, why? To what end? For what purpose? To animate and move us to obey him out of love.

The spiritual battle is real, both with our sin, and with everything else. But God has overwhelmingly gifted us as his people, he has given us new hearts with new loves and devotions. He has given us God himself with us in the person of the Holy Spirit working in and moving in us. So it is not inevitable that we will fail in our battles with sin.

It’s really important that we get this right. Sometimes I find myself thinking that certain sins are set to dog me for my whole life, they loom large, they seem too big too strong, I am defeated by them before I start. Now, we will sin – I don’t believe the Bible teaches sinless perfectionism, but it does teach progressive sanctification.. The Bible does teach that in Christ through the word and by the Spirit it is possible for us to fight sin.

What difference would it make to us as followers of Jesus if we grasp this? He has won the victory over sin for us – Yes! Absolutely. Our righteousness is imputed and not earned and we must thank and praise God for that. But that’s not all Christ does, he doesn’t leave us wallowing in defeat until he comes back to make victory a reality when he returns once and for all. No! He gives us new hearts – new passions, new desires that we are to feed and fuel as we behold the Lord through his word, as we sing and speak of his excellencies and feast on his grace. And he has given us his Spirit to move us, to act in us, to change us, to make us the people who delight to please our Father.

Sin is not stronger than grace, temptation is not strong than the Spirit, and defeat is not a forgone conclusion as we follow Jesus our Lord.

Education or formation?

What’s the point of reading your bible? Or listening to podcasts? Or sermons? Or reading Christian books? What’s the point of bible study or even attending training at any level within the church or outside of the church on the various courses that are run training people for ministry? What one word would you use to sum up their aim?

Preacher what is it we aim for as we preach? Bible study leaders what is it we aim for as we prepare and craft questions and lead groups into the Bible? Personally what is I’m aiming to do as I read and study the bible devotionally?

There are lots of ways we could answer that question. Ephesians 4v16 – equip and train would be a good one. There are lots of others. But I’ve been really struck by Paul’s aim with the Galatians 4v19 “My children, I am again suffering labour pains for you until Christ is formed in you.” Paul is pursing them, teaching them, writing to them not just to pass on information, not just to educate, but to see Christ formed in them. He is labouring, suffering, because he wants not just to see them have the correct doctrine and avoid being led away from the gospel but because he wants to see them take on the shape of Christ, to be moulded into his image more and more closely. That is a staggering thing to write.

That’s what training does, training shapes us so that we respond in certain ways, so that we learn certain habits and ways of acting and reacting. Training and equipping shapes us to be like Jesus, it forms us so we take on his image, or it should.

What will it change if we make that our goal in every situation? How will that change our approach to preaching and teaching and listening and reading and studying and learning. None of those things are the end goal. they achieve little or nothing until we have gone a stage further and applied them, taking on the shape of Christ, being formed more closely into his image.

There been a few blog posts I’ve read which have been really helpful in challenging us about application or the lack of it in so much contemporary preaching. So much of it stops short of Paul’s goal of longing to see Christ formed in us as we behold him and apply what we learn of him to our lives together by the Spirit. It merely aims to educate, and so stops short of this goal and that is joyless and woefully inadequate.

That can be true of our training courses, which aim to educate but not form. That teach us facts and skills and means and techniques. All of which are very helpful but without leading us to love and behold and become like the glorious Lord Jesus Christ we behold in the scriptures we are learning to study and teach that falls short. We should be being formed into Christ’s image even as we are learning how to teach others with that goal in mind, after all we can’t give to others what we don’t possess.

Imagine what it would look like to see your church family becoming more like Christ, to be being formed more and more closely into his image, to see them grow to be compassionate like he is, holy like he is, to love and serve God as he did. To love and serve one another as he did and do it all as winsomely as he did, even facing opposition and hatred or misunderstanding as graciously as he did. And imagine yourself being formed more and more like Jesus along with them as you play your part in that growth.

Fighting atrophy

Atrophy happens. It is the result of not doing anything. It is natural. It happens in nature, it happens in our bodies. It has happened in our churches over the last year and a half. Just like our muscles atrophy and weaken through lack of use so our spiritual muscles atrophy though lack of use. The question as things reopen is will we put the work in to develop and grow those muscles that have atrophied in recent months?

The muscle of hospitality – hospitality is a command for God’s people. We should be a hospitable people, not just to those we know but to strangers. The pandemic has mothballed our hospitality or much of it. Some of us have been able to extend hospitality to singles as we enfolded them into our bubbles or as we’ve made use of our gardens but many of us haven’t. Will we, as things reopen, put in the effort to work on that muscle with the pain and ache that brings? Just like physical exercise a gradual build up may help, you don’t go straight from the couch to 5k, you build up gradually. In the same way we need to work up to this, take stock of where you are, and look at where you want to get to, and plan a gradual growth with a goal in mind.

The muscle of serving – necessarily the pandemic and the various restriction we have been living under mean that many areas of service have been restricted. Some of us we haven’t felt comfortable serving, and if we’re honest we’ve secretly enjoyed the rest. I wonder if that’s telling us something to us about overwork and managing workloads for those who serve going forward as a church, but that’s another post for another time. For now we need to recognise that many haven’t just got out of the habit of serving, they have enjoyed being served and the rest and that is a good thing. The challenge as things reopen is to engage them in serving again. To begin to rebuild the muscles that have atrophied. That needs to be done individually and gradually, gently but definitely. Will we plan for this? Will we be blunt about the need for service? And how will we apply the lessons God has been teaching us to serving in church in the future?

The muscle of being served – The nature of church over recent months means a smaller number of people have taken on most tasks. The challenge for those who have done so is to recognise that they will need to exercise the muscle of allowing and appreciating being served – even if something is not done how we would do it. It was great last Sunday to sit and listen to someone else preach, and I’m looking forward to doing it again this Sunday. But it was also a challenge, I haven’t been exercising the muscle of listening to a sermon over recent months as I’ve preached week on end for various reasons. Now I need to exercise and develop that muscle again. That will be the same for all of us who serve.

There are lots of other areas where atrophy will have set in our churches. It’s vital as leaders we identify them, help people acknowledge them and lead in showing the way out of them. One huge danger as we do so is burnt out. We’ve spoken as a church of only reopening and restarting things as people feel able to volunteer to lead them so that we have a healthier culture rather than an overburdened one. I’m also doing some thinking on lessons learned about ongoing service for those in our church and how we put that into practice as things reengage.

Know your sheep

In John 10 Jesus says he knows his sheep by name. That word know doesn’t just mean that he can name all of them; Flossy, Larry, Curly, Tails and so on. It means he knows them each individually and intimately. He knows their individual quirks and needs and ways of responding.

That’s a huge challenge for this of us in ministry in the church whether we’re involved in paid ministry, youth or children’s ministry, or just the everyday ministry of the pew – chatting to and encouraging, weeping with and building up others. Do we know those we are put into a church family with. Did we know their unique challenges and ways of responding?

It’s perhaps the thing I’ve found hardest during this whole pandemic. I used to love our prayer breakfasts, Wednesday meals and having people in and out of the home. It was in that setting that I really got to know our church family – to see them, to see whether they were joyful or tired, weary or wondering, angry or anxious. It wasn’t just in the conversations but in simply living life alongside of. It has been hard to miss that.

Naturally as we were shut away there has been a loss of knowing where people are and how they are doing. Whilst it has been possible to do some of that 1-2-1 on walks and so on and as thing shave opened up a little bit more I can’t wait for all the restrictions to be removed so that we can get to know where the sheep are again. But my hunch is its going to take a while, we have got used to being just us, it is going to take time and effort to open up and to get to know one another again. But it is absolutely vital that we do.

Get your head out of the sand

We know what people were taught in church yesterday. But do we know what our congregations will be being taught for the rest of the week. There is a huge danger as pastors in becoming an island emote from the rest of society. We live and work with our bibles in the church and the danger is we become blissfully unaware of what it’s like in the world. The pressure faced by those in school, secular work, in the neighbourhood in unbelieving families. The stories and narratives that shape how they think and how they approach the Bible and God.

Pastors and church leaders we need to get our heads of out of the sand. Jesus was acutely aware that there were other teachers who had an influence on his disciples, that’s why again and again he warns his disciples ‘beware of’ as well as teaching them what he taught them. That’s why he spent time counteracting the other teaching they heard, that would shape how they heard his teaching, even leading them to mishear his teaching.

How aware are we of what our teens will be being taught today in school? What values they are being taught are most important? What norms they are being expected to learn to have to be a contributing member of society? What about our primary aged children? Are we aware of what they are being taught about their identity and about right and wrong?

Then think of those in the workplace. What norms are they expected to live by as they work? And what are the unacceptable beliefs they must not share no matter what? What are the things they are free to hold privately but which must never be expressed during work hours?

It is all too easy to become distant from those pressures. It is a tremendous privilege to be set aside to pastor and teach God’s people. But we must do so from alongside our people, in the trenches with them not distantly far behind the lines. How can you do that? Why not meet regularly with people and ask those questions? Where do they feel those pressures? Maybe we could volunteer to go into the office or workplace a day a month? Or serve in a volunteer capacity in an organisation so that we experience the same pressures?