Model dependence

We like to think we can manage don’t we. We like to think we can cope. We develop management strategies for logistical and personnel problems. We buy more commentaries or listen to sermons online when we are struggling to work out what a passage means or how to preach it. We turn to strategies and next steps in pastoral counselling meetings, having done diligent research and study. All the time we’re searching for the silver bullet, the thing that lets me do it.

But what if what we really needed was to be radically dependent on God. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been in the trench warfare of preparing for a Sunday and I’ve been trying everything, until finally I sink to my knees and pray. I don’t say that proudly, but with a sense of shame and embarrassment. It’s not that I haven’t been praying all the way through my preparation, I have but it’s too often pray based on the assumption that God will bless my work. When what I really need is to ask my Father to open his word to me, to clear through the mysteries of people’s hearts and minds and speak by his Spirit. When you put it like that how dare we think we are up to that task, that a few commentaries or a borrowed sermon outline will do what alone is a work of God.

I’m increasingly being reminded that that is my job as I shepherd people. In any and every situation the greatest thing I can do with people is pray with and for them and get them praying for themselves and one another and with one another. God alone can loose the shackles of sinful desires from a heart. God alone can unlock the chains of anger and rage that are twisting inside someone and come raging out and bring lasting heart change. God alone can repair a marriage as he brings a fresh awareness of his grace crashing over the couple like a wave. God alone can save the lost and recalcitrant, and every other, teenager.

That’s not saying all we do is prayer. But it ought not to be the last thing we do. It ought to be the foundation on which everything else is built. In our ministry and in our families.

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Please be gentle

Gentleness is underrated and undervalued in the world and in the church. We prize power and authority and charisma. We want leaders who sound like TED talk speakers and who can capture our attention and hold it, leaders who are magnetic and whom we want to follow, who will impress our friends and family. Leaders who could do any number of jobs well and be recognised as leaders in their field. We also want to be that. We want all that because we have a Corinthian complex.

The problem for the church in Corinth is that there is too much of Corinth in the Church. Sin, petty squabbles, celebrity status, sexual immorality, fighting to be heard and seen, are rampant. That’s our problem in so many ways. We want to be wise. We want to be able to dazzle the world. To be as proficient as they are, as professional, as polished in our performance – something I thinking online church has fuelled. I’m not saying we should be amateurish and incompetent. But here’s my concern, I see it in myself, I see it in others and I see it in the western church. The desire to want to do things well leads us to use power to achieve those ends, it puts pressure on others because they don’t want to let the side down.

I was really struck yesterday in reading Shai Linne’s The New Reformation with his description of gentleness as “strength under control.” I read that and then carried on preparing next terms sermon series in 1 Timothy and in chapter 3 we see Paul insist to Timothy that elders must not be “a bully but gentle” Leaders in God’s church exercise strength under control, not to crush or burden or manipulate but to shepherd. It did get me thinking though that gentleness can be much harder to spot that worldly leadership.

Gentleness is not weakness, it’s not being a doormat – something which Christians seem overly concerned they are called to be and have a strong aversion to. But we follow a Saviour who was gentle. Who used his considerable strength not for his own ends, but who curbed it in service of others. Who could have made the stones cry out but didn’t. Who could have commanded the angels to take him down from the cross but didn’t. Who did use his strength – to calm the waves, to multiply food, to raise the dead, to cast out evil spirits – not in acts of vain self glory but to bring God’s kingdom; to free prisoners, remove shackles, bind wounds, proclaim a kingdom whose king came to serve not be served.

Please be gentle. Be gentle with one another – if Jesus doesn’t snuff out a smouldering wick dare we? If Jesus doesn’t break a bruised reed dare we? Be gentle with your exercise of God given authority be it in the family, the workplace, the community, or the church. Be gentle with the lost, win them by serving them, flex your strength in service of them not in trying to wrestle them into submission with heavy artillery arguments or polished performance, show them the king who restrains his strength in order to win their salvation.

O come all ye miserable

What is Christmas all about?  We look forward to Christmas and all it brings, yet it’s hugely complicated and complex.  It’s like an articulated lorry.  Christmas is the cab, but with it comes the huge 44 tonne articulated trailer of expectations, traditions, and busyness that Christmas pulls around with it.  There’s the expectation of seeing the family – all of them at some point, of food cooked to perfection, of family time without conflict or needle, and certain family traditions that have to repeated year after year.

So often what comes with Christmas is what we mistake for Christmas.  So what is Christmas all about?  The angels sum it up beautifully “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  Christmas, the birth of Jesus brings not just a flicker of a smile, not just a temporary warm fuzzy feeling, not just joy but great joy, literally ‘mega-joy.’ It’s another of those great Christmas words.   It is on Christmas jumpers and cards and decorations; joy.  But what does it mean and how do we embrace it?  And how can we know great joy not just at Christmas?

Joy is a strong word.  It means to be glad, to be happy, to rejoice and celebrate.  And the Bible isn’t anti-joy, God isn’t a killjoy, the Bible is full of joy because God is the giver of joy.  It begins with God creating a world that is “very good” – overflowing with bounty and beauty.  And God puts Adam and Eve into that world to find joy in it.  That’s still true isn’t it?  Just think of 5 things that bring you joy, 5 things that make you happy?  Go on, stop and actually do it!.  They were all created by God because God is generous and provides things that bring joy.

As you read the Bible you see joy and rejoicing in all sorts of things.  There’s the joy of birthday and wedding celebrations.  There’s joy at feasting and celebrating victory in battle.  There’s joy in good wine.  Proverbs tells us a wise son bring joy to his parents.  In Song of Solomon there is joy and rejoicing in marriage and the intimacy it brings.  God is a joy giving God, every moment of joy we experience, from the joy of celebrating a last minute winner, to the birth of a child, or the joy of that first mouthful your favourite meal cooked to perfection, is given to us by a joy giving God.

But the Bible is also honest about the problem we have with joy.  Joy leaks.  It’s like a balloon or tyre with a slow puncture, it gradually lets us down.  In the world this side of the fall we’re tempted to seek joy in the gift when every gift was always intended to point us to joy in the giver.  And therein lies the problem, things bring us joy but that joy is only temporary.  We’re like a bucket with a hole, we have to constantly top our joy up to maintain any semblance of it.  Constantly seeking new joy.  But parties end, celebrations finish, our children aren’t always wise or delightful and nor are our parents, marriages are hard and so is intimacy, food spoils, wine turns, and reality intrudes.  Joy leaks.  And the danger is we become consumed by our search for joy, insatiably hungry for something it just can’t give us.

The joy we experience is meant to point us not to the gift but the giver.  But because of sin we tend to forget the giver in pursuit of the gift.  In the garden the real joy was relationship with God, but it is easily lost.

That’s not unique to us, it’s a universal problem.  It’s the problem of Israel.  They knew great joy.  They knew the joy of being saved miraculously from slavery, and brought through the Red Sea – we tend to think seeing a miracle would change everything but Israel are proof it doesn’t – because they soon grumble and moan and fixate on gifts not giver.  They’re given a land with houses built, vineyards dug and cities walled, but they soon become fixated on the gifts, trying to fill their bucket but unsatisfied because they forget the giver.  They’re gifted great prosperity and security under David and Solomon, they know joy, they celebrate, but it soon leaks away and they find themselves worshipping idols in their pursuit of joy as bad king follows bad king and they’re easily led away from God.  Until they end up exiled, but God brings them back to the land, but they never quite achieve the joy they crave.  It always falls just short, they always want more.That’s not just Israel’s story, that’s our story.  The search for happiness, for joy, fuels so much of what we do.  And we gain tantalising tastes of it, but our joy leaks.  That’s so often the story of Christmas isn’t it, the anticipation of the joy doesn’t always deliver.  It is good but it doesn’t satisfy, by the 3rd of January it has faded away.  But God wasn’t finished with Israel or us.

Because out God is a joy giving God. And the good news of Christmas is that great joy has come and it lasts.

As the angels proclaim “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  It’s because Jesus fulfils the promises God has been making.  In Isaiah 9v3 God promises the Son he gives will bring light into the darkness and wise rule that will increase their joy.  In Isaiah 25v9 God promises that one day he would save his people and they would rejoice in his salvation.  In Isaiah 51God promises he will look with compassion on his people, bring her joy and gladness that overflows in thanksgiving and singing because his righteousness draws near and his salvation is coming and will last forever.  In Isaiah 61 we read of God sending one who would be anointed by the Spirit, free captives, bind up the broken hearted, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, comfort those who mourn and clothe his people in garments of salvation and give them his robe of righteousness and they would rejoice.  Isn’t that staggering!

All those promises make a messianic mosaic along with the rest of the Old Testament, a picture built up over thousands of years of God’s promise to bring joy to his people.  But did you notice something?  The promise of joy was always connected to the promise of rescue, of salvation.  Because God is the source of joy.  We will only know real joy when we know the source of joy.  Sin separates us from God but God’s plan is to reconcile us to himself, not by giving us a list of things to do, not by putting us on the naughty or nice list, but by sending one who will give us his robe of righteousness, who will rescue and reconcile us to God.

And here’s the more amazing thing, the prophets didn’t just promise a day when God’s people would find joy in God come to them, salvation and righteousness gifted to them by faith, amazing though that is.  The promise is much bigger than that. Sometimes we short change salvation, by thinking Jesus saves us and pays off our debt to God.  We think of it like a massive debt we get into, so someone generously pays it off and we have a bank balance of zero, so we can start again without that debt hanging over us.  Too often that’s how we wrongly think about the salvation God promises.  Jesus pays our debt and gets us to zero, now I have to start earning God’s favour.  When I do good my spiritual account goes up, when I fail it’s like a spiritual direct debit.  God is pleased with me when I’m in the spiritual black.

But turn to and listen to Zephaniah 3v14-17.  God makes his people amazing promises, he promises that they’ll shout and be glad and rejoice because he has taken away their punishment, and he removes enemies and fears, God will save them, but listen to what comes next: 

“He will take great delight in you; 

in his love he will no longer rebuke you, 

but will rejoice over you with singing.”

God promises not just to send a saviour, a rescuer, who would reconcile his people to God.  This salvation would be so great that it wouldn’t just reset his peoples account to zero, but fill it with righteousness so that God delights in his people.  Isn’t that mind blowing?  It’s no wonder the angels proclaim good news that will bring mega joy – Jesus is the Saviour who saves from sin, reconciles, and credits us with his righteousness and makes us a delight to his father, not just at the point of our salvation, but as his people ever after as we follow him however imperfectly.

Is that how you picture God as he looks at you?  Delight, rejoicing with singing over you.  You should!  Christ’s riches are credited to our account and that is the source of our unending joy, the joy of the Lord is our strength.

Israel as the angels proclaim this are full of people who teach that in order to please God you must do this or that or the other.  They weigh people down with burdens, they were the dementors of joy, they sucked joy out of relationship with God as swifty as a spoonful of cinnamon sucks all the moisture out of your mouth.  Can’t we so easily slip into that mode?  But the angels proclaim such wonderful news.  The one who can bring you mega-joy is in the manger wrapped in cloths, go and see him.  The one who lifts burdens, who heals hurts, who gives you his righteousness has come and when you trust him God delights in you.

Maybe you need to let that truth wash over you, fill your heart, drive out the guilt, reset your thinking, and lead you to awestruck praise?  Our relationship with God gifted to us by faith in Jesus is not tenuous, it’s not always balanced on a knife edge depending on our behaviour, in Christ God delights in his people because they are clothed in his righteousness.  So praise him.  Anchor your joy in him. That’s how and why we’re free to make much of Christmas, that’s why we have the best news in the world to share with a world that is desperately seeking joy.

Our constant need

Churches, whether established, being planned or dreamed, or planted, or in need of revitalising need to be constantly reforming. When we planted Grace Church I found this a helpful diagram to that end. It summed up the process we started with but which we also hoped to continually take time every year to think through. In many ways it feels more relevant than ever.

It was helpful as we worked hard to learn about the area we were planting into. We spoke to local leaders, spent time in local shops, moved into the area, spent time with people, just hanging out and chatting; learning their stories, the things that mattered to them, their fears.. We also did all the research with could on social trends etc… But being with people was the biggest help. It helped us think about simple things like time of service, background knowledge, and get training in some of the issues we might face.

But then we launched and lots of things that had been hidden under the surface suddenly bobbed to the surface. Some were things in the community and the area, some were things in the launch team and the nascent church. So we had to, in the early months, relearn as a church, about each other, about our community and it’s needs, patterns and norms. The gospel of Jesus Christ remains constant. The teaching of God on what a church is remains constant. But we are called to reform as a result of our relearning.

We’ve revisited that process every so often during the 14 years in which we’ve been planted. For example I had underestimated the importance of our RAF heritage for some in our community, and we’ve needed to adapt to take that into account. We have had to relearn as 3 or 4 new developments of houses have been built, only 10% of which are social housing, which has massively changed the area and the people, and created new opportunities, resentments and tensions. And we’ll have to do so again in coming years with over 2000 new homes due to be built in the next 3 years and a huge new plaza style shopping and leisure development coming too. In many ways the area we planted into is not the area we find ourselves in.

And I’ve been working through the above diagram again post pandemic. Like most churches as we emerge blinking into the light of a new normal the last term has felt fractured and fragile. Over lockdown we had some people move away, some become relationally and physically distant and who have chosen to remain online, but we have also been joined by new families and people. All of the children are now 2 years older, and so are the adults. And yet this last term has felt fractured because absences have been frequent – coughs, colds and COVID have accounted for some of that. So has the right desire to see more of family after 18 months of largely limited opportunities to do so.

And so the run up to Christmas feels like a time of re-learning and reforming as we come together as church again. My hunch is that will last throughout most of 2022. As new relationships take time to grow in light of a relational hesitancy that seems to characterise much of life this side of 2020. I’m taking some time to think about these questions as I relearn. The first is to be asked about the church the other about both church and community:

Who are we as God’s people? Who is present? Who is absent, both in terms of individuals and groups from the community? Who is committed? Who is watching on? Where are people in terms of discipleship? And how have the last two years shaped and moulded them? Do they have gospel capable discipling relationships? What barriers are there to developing those?

Where are we? How is our area different at the start of 2022 compared to the end of 2019? How are current trends, like rising prices, exacerbating the divides, struggles, and tensions that were already there? What is that leading to? Who is being left behind? Where is time spent together in the community? Who is missing and why?

What are peoples hopes and dreams? What are peoples ‘if only’s…’? How does that differ from estate to estate? Whose hopes have been dashed? What does joy look like and where is escapism masquerading as joy? What is it people long for? How has that changed?

Those questions can’t be answered in an office or a meeting. They can only be answered by spending time with people. That’s the challenge as we look to re-engage with our community. As a church we hold to the gospel, but where is it answering the questions and longings our communities are asking? How do we serve them in a way that provokes the question – why do they love me like that?

The most miserable time of the year

How do you feel about Christmas? Do you love it? Does it do your head in? Do you walk into a shopping centre and hear the Pogues Fairytale of New York again and smile or grimace? How do you speak about or preach about Christmas?

For some Christians and preachers you’d think Christmas was the most miserable time of the year. They can’t help but see evil and overindulgence everywhere and it seems to really annoy them. And so we get angry outburst, after angry post, after angry sermon about commercialisation, about how the Christ has been removed from X-Mas, and how Santa is a not very subtle anagram for someone else. We have missed the point of Christmas they tell us.

I want to say yes and no. Yes our world so often loses Jesus in the suffocating press of the tinsel and gifts and experiences and meals. But what if we had too? What if instead of haranguing society and preaching a gospel that seems to be dead against joy we showed them what they were missing? Every Christmas party, every overindulgence, every gift, every exorbitant preparation is a sign of a desperate search for joy. It is a sign of longing for significance and a desire to bring joy to others or to find joy for themselves where they can because life is in short supply of it.

The angels herald Jesus birth to the shepherds as “good news of great joy that will be for all people.” Just stop and read that again. It is good news of mega joy for all people. They didn’t preface it with don’t get too excited but… The angels sent them to find true lasting mega-joy incarnate in the manger. Our joy giving God – who showers us with every possible gift that could bring us joy – sends his Son as the way to a greater joy, the greater joy we were made for. How tragic if we hide that under the rubble of our curmudgeonly grumpiness over what Christmas has become.

People are desperately searching for joy, and if I didn’t have Christ, I think I would be too! Anything to lift the unrelenting gloom and seeming meaninglessness. But believer stop for a minute and remember we have Christ, we understand the joy that is to be found in him. If that joy has waned, stop and take time to trace that word through Isaiah, start with Chapter 9, 25, 51, 61, and then read Zephaniah 3. And see the joy that the angels are so excitedly ecstatic about. The Saviour of the world has come and he has come not to rail against our search for joy in the wrong thing but to help us find joy in him and so trigger joy and rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. Read Luke and see that joy again and again – joy in salvation not circumstance, but a joy that when found liberates us to find joy in every good gift our Father gives us – yes even Christmas – and look back along to sunbeam to a smiling Father’s face.

In a world that seems so joyless, that so often settles for something that masquerades as joy-lite, preach real joy this Christmas. Preach of the one who connects sins forgiven, relationship with God and real eternal lasting joy all in one. And show the world what they are really missing this Christmas.