Harefield blessings

Harefield Baptist Church is about 10 minutes walk away so we thought we’d go this morning and I prayed that we might meet people who would become friends. Although I’d like to stay based in Elim, it’s really important for me to have local Christian friends. Also, if I find others in the community to speak to of Jesus, where will I take them to church? Now I know. What a lovely little church with an LST-educated woman pastor with whom I’ve already made a coffee date. We were warmly welcomed and found the presence of the Lord.

So although we have told them that we won’t be there every Sunday I think it’s likely that we will develop some good relationships. We left having been invited to a barbecue (which unfortunately we can’t make, but have a standing invitation to other social events); with a request if we can be invited to preach (yes!); and that above-mentioned coffee date. This may turn out to have been a really significant morning.

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Blessed Assurance

As I wrote a few weeks ago, ” … there is nothing like joining with your family to sing with one voice to glorify God.”  Today has been a good illustration of that.

For the last three Sundays William and I have visited other churches to worship. But this weekend we felt it might be ok to return to the church we recently left. What a welcome we received, and how lovely it has been this morning to be part of a congregation which I genuinely feel is my family. I have missed you. I’m still moving away, but it’s been great to be back as just part of the congregation, but more than a visitor. It’s not the same when you don’t know the people.

In worship this morning we sang that wonderful old hymn, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.”  It gave me the chance to reflect before God that my value as a person does not depend on what others think of me, whether I have a defined, named role in some organisation, or on anything I do at all. My value is as a child of God, “born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.” So I can thank God for all that is happening (or, at the moment, not happening) in my life, and rejoice that “The King is coming soon,” as we also sang. As was prophetically declared by one of the worship team, the King is coming not just on the day of the Lord, but today, tomorrow. He came yesterday. He is here. He is worth praising and just His presence is enough.

Of course the people are lovely and their welcome was warm. Thanks to them all, but I have to mention especially 5-year-old Caleb, who ran over just as I was leaving to say hi and give me a huge hug. That, if nothing else, would have made my day.

So it has done my soul good to be at home again. Thank you Braintree Elim, and thank you Jesus.

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On walking on water and not knowing the future

In a recent post I mentioned that we had decided to move, and that I was not sure what would be ahead. This is a post about continued uncertainty and frustration, and how it is possible at the same time to feel really insecure about the future, yet utterly secure that God has a plan.

I did not get the job I applied for at the college where William works. I have to admit that I am basically really upset about that, on top of also not getting another job earlier in the year. At the same time, the sale of our house is proving difficult, with lots of queries being raised by the buyers’ solicitor, ironically more about our leasehold garage than the freehold house. It all means that while, a couple of months ago, we would have expected to have moved by now, we are still in our old house and I have lost that part of my identity which comes from having a job/ministry title. I woke up in the middle of the night a couple of nights ago and considered for a second pulling the plug on the house sale and staying exactly where we are. But that is clearly neither right nor possible.

When the apostle Peter got out of his boat to walk on the water towards Jesus (Matthew 14:28ff), there must have been a moment in which he felt as he never had before: the water was wet; how much of his feet got covered without him sinking? Perhaps it was like that insecure feeling you get on a roller-coaster: your stomach goes up and down but you still have that basic belief that you will get safely to the end of the ride (until he didn’t – but even then Jesus saved him.) What I mean is that he could have felt insecure while knowing he really wasn’t. I think that’s where I am at the moment. Feeling uncertain is compatible with faith.

This morning I read Isaiah’s prophecy to Hezekiah, given in the context of the promise of relief from the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. Hezekiah and his people were being promised a miraculous deliverance, and in that context:

This year you will eat what grows by itself; and the second year what springs from that. But in the third year sow and reap, plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” (2 Kings 19:29)

Reflecting on that, I wonder if what God is saying is for me to take some time to do what is before me right now: manage the house move, then get to grips with the new house and garden (perhaps literally eating what is growing by itself there.)  Then there will be whatever springs from that: what will this move bring? Though I do not have a paid or named role in the college, we are still sure that God’s leading was for William and me to have a more joined-up life, which means that I will try to make relationships with his colleagues and students, and some contribution to the life of the college in general.  In fact I have freedom to do “what springs” instead of sticking to a job description. Maybe significant fruit can still be found. And perhaps there will be a time in the future for some more deliberate sowing, reaping and planting. Literal or metaphorical? My farmer son will, I’m sure, be only too glad to encourage me to do some literal planting and reaping in our new, huge garden. (And, I would add, jam making.)

I have always thought I would be a rubbish housewife. I’ve never not worked or studied. And I hate tidying up. But it seems that I have a time ahead of me in which I will get the chance to serve William in a new way. I spent a lot of today trying to understand and edit the website and facebook page of an organisation of which he has just become the chair, so that I can post things for him. There is still stuff for me to do, which is encouraging.

But if you want to invite me to come and preach anywhere, I’d probably jump at the chance!

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On valuing style over substance

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. …” So he turned and went off in a rage.  (2 Kings 5:11-12)

This is the Biblical account of a high-ranking enemy soldier who sought healing from Israel’s prophet, but was offended at the way he was treated. Fortunately for Naaman, he had servants who were brave enough to help him to get things into perspective and see that it was worth giving Elisha’s method a go. Naaman humbled himself and received his healing.

The world of today’s western church is a long way from the Samaria of Naaman’s day, but I wonder if we don’t share some of his attitudes at times? When we choose a church, do we look for a style of music we like, or other cultural factors, rejecting some churches or people because they are too flashy (or not flashy enough, if we are real Naamans!), all the time in danger of missing what God wants to do in our lives?

Lord, let me see beneath the surface and discern what you are doing and where your presence is. Even if I have to cope with others who don’t do things the way I think they should!

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Don’t neglect church

I write this post on the evening of the day on which I left my local church where I have been in leadership for 9 years, and have been the senior minister for 5 years. It has been a great season but we are moving on to new ministry (though I admit I am far from certain what form that will take).

So as I leave church I write to persuade others why you should stay. In true preacher’s style let me offer three things you need from church

3. Fellowship. It’s hard to be a solitary Christian. We are designed to be in family and we need each other. Or, as John wrote in the Bible, how can we say we love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters? And if we love them we will want to be with them. Don’t stop gathering.

2. Challenge. I often hear people saying that although, for whatever reason, they have disengaged with church, they are still ok with God. Fair enough, perhaps, and call me cynical if you like, but I do question how ok you are. Is it just that you continue to feel loved and accepted? That you still offer up the odd prayer? Good for you. But when did you last hear something from God which challenged your ideas or your practice? When did you feel Him correcting you? When did you get a new insight into some part of the Word, through a sermon or other teaching? I wonder how often, when we miss church for a long time, we get anaesthetised into thinking that we are ok when really we aren’t.

1. Worship. You’ll notice I have reversed the number order of this list – that’s because I’ve put the points in reverse order of importance. Worship goes at the top. Church is, above all, a worshipping community and it is every Christian’s privilege and duty to contribute. Yes you can pray, sing or listen to Hillsongs cds at home, but there is nothing like joining with your family to sing with one voice to glorify God. Make a joyful noise together!

So that’s why, though I have just left a church, I will find another. It may take William and me some time before we work out where God wants us to settle long term, but we will be in church somewhere regularly to maintain our own spiritual fervour and contribute to the joyful noise of worship that goes up from God’s people to the throne of grace.

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Reflections on Elim Training Coaching Academy

I returned yesterday from the last of the residential sessions on Elim’s inaugural Coaching Academy. A small group of Elim ministers has got together regularly over the last 9 months, to sharpen our skills in coaching and mentoring, and it’s been a great journey. In a series of interactive sessions, we have considered coaching, questioning, listening, individual and team coaching, feedback. Along the way we have practised skills and as a by-product have deepened some existing relationships and made new ones.

I came on the coaching academy because I was aware that mentoring/coaching (I was not sure of the difference!) was a large part of my ministry and I sensed that would increasingly be the case in the future. Little did I know last autumn that by the end of the course I would be leaving the church where I currently minister and moving to something which I’m not entirely sure of at the moment, but feel that coaching will be even more of an emphasis for me than it is now.

Someone asked me this week whether the academy had been a factor in my decision to move. I initially replied not, but on reflection perhaps indirectly it was. At the start of this calendar year I applied for a job which, without the reflections on my practice and ministry that the coaching academy has inspired, I might not have considered. As it happened I didn’t get that job, but the process of applying and being interviewed gave me some confidence that I could possibly minister in a different context from my current one.

The decision to move can be difficult. In our case I had said to my church leaders that if I did not get the job mentioned above, I would not be looking for something else. So when I was unsuccessful, it felt as if there should be a fresh start in the church; a picking up of vision; a refocusing of ministry; perhaps a shift of priorities – in short, a new season in church life. The surprising thing to me was that it quickly became clear to William and me that we should not enter this new season: it would be someone else’s season.

You see, in the season which is now just finishing, I have led the church in Essex while William has taught in a Bible College in Middlesex. They are about 65 miles apart, and he has done a weekly commute for about 5 years, staying away from home for between two and four nights every week. We have been content with that. It has been God’s plan for us. But we knew we should not start a new season. We are looking forward to joining up our ministry lives again. So we are moving to Middlesex, and I am applying for a part time role in the college where William works, a role which will be largely pastoral. While I have very little idea of what I will be doing for the bulk of the time, (or even if I will get this job), I know God has called me to coach/mentor woman leaders, and younger leaders. I am excited about the possibility of getting to know Bible College students again. I would love to spend a lot of time pastoring and coaching younger leaders, seeing them achieve their potential. I believe those opportunities will open up, whether in the college, or perhaps in another church setting (or both).

So there are things I have learned in the Coaching Academy and ways in which it has impacted already on my own life. But perhaps the most precious aspect of the experience has been the relationships. There were people I already knew well, like my buddy Michelle, whom I always love sharing with. Others have moved from acquaintances to significant friends – Geoff and Jane, thanks for all input so far and I look forward to continuing to inspire each other. Still others I hardly knew before but have, through talking about our goals, plans etc. with each other I have found greatly impacted me. Sam, Joel, Ian and Stephen – I have long loved your ministry as Elim Sound and now am delighted to know you as individuals; you are men of huge integrity and insight as well as massively talented. (Stephen, thank you for two prophetic words you shared with me in prayer – I had forgotten the first one until today, but they were both to do with climbing!)

Steve Y, thanks for asking me the provoking question mentioned at the start of this piece and for other insights shared along the way. Stuart, Jamie and Bill, thanks for your open and honest sharing in the sessions and for making us laugh. Kojo – what a wealth of experience and depth! BB and Edwin, thanks too for conversations and remembrances of things we have been through together in the past.

And to Dave, Paul and Alison who shared their hearts, experience and wisdom with us, thanks is not enough.

I hope and sense this is not the end of the road for many of those friendships.

Thanks be to God!

 

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Eliminate Church

Oh the joys of predictive text! Someone recently created a Facebook advert for an event taking place in our church, and I assume it was their device which didn’t recognise the word ‘Elim’ (the name of our church) and instead typed ‘Eliminate.’ In the plethora of church names one hears of, I have yet to come across an Eliminate Church – I’m not sure I would want to go to one; I might be afraid of running into some cousins of the Daleks shouting “Eliminate! Eliminate!”

Still, it got me thinking. There are a few things I would like to see eliminated in church. Could we perhaps:

Eliminate gossip?

Eliminate judgementalism?

Eliminate apathy?

Eliminate the masks we wear?

Eliminate prejudice?

To sum up: Eliminate sin?

That sounds unrealistic, and yet John in the Bible writes: “I write this to you so that you will not sin.” (1 Jn. 2:1) He knows that we do sin and tells us what to do about it (hallelujah!) but he does have the expectation that Christians, having had their sins forgiven, will do all they can to eliminate it in future: “No-one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” (1 Jn. 3:6)

So today’s challenge is : with the help, empowerment and constant forgiveness of the Holy Spirit, what must I eliminate from my life?

 

 

 

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An excellent leaders’ summit

 

I’ve spent the past three days in Harrogate, at the annual Elim Church Leaders’ Summit. It’s been a remarkable time; I think the best conference we’ve had in recent years, and a historic one in which our outgoing General Superintendent, John Glass, was honoured before handing over to Chris Cartwright, who takes over the role. It is clear that God has chosen our new national leader well. Chris is a humble, servant leader. He has a good historical perspective on Elim’s past, and courage to look to the future not being afraid to change things. He has introduced a year in which he intends to take stock of how the movement is, listening to its people and to the Holy Spirit, to assess alongside the other national leaders and more widely, how God wants the church to develop as we have entered our second century. We have left Harrogate with expectant hearts.

For a personal perspective, here is the short article I’ve just written for our church bulletin this weekend:

Seven of our leaders had a wonderful three days at the Elim Leaders’ Summit in Harrogate last week. We witnessed the transfer of national leadership as John Glass handed over the office of General Superintendent to Chris Cartwright. We participated in inspiring worship. We heard stirring and challenging teaching and we all found our level of expectation for the things of God raised. The main visiting speaker was Alan Scott, who leads a Vineyard work in Ireland, who spoke powerfully about not being intimidated, nor being impressed by culture, but that we should be affecting our culture for God, and see more miracles and moves of God in our communities than in our church buildings. The theme of the week was ‘Expectant’ – and it was genuinely inspiring to be with over a thousand fellow leaders, praying and expecting the Lord to do great things in the coming months and years in and through our local churches and Elim nationally.

Share some of our blessing! You can listen to MP3 (audio) versions of many of the sessions, on http://www.elim.org.uk/Articles/446797/Elim_Leaders_Summit.aspx#mp3

In the next few Weekly News issues, other members of the team will share their own reflections on the Summit, so let me write first that, alongside all the wonderful things mentioned above, Elim national conferences are also places for me to catch up with dear friends whom I now only see occasionally. This year I have been telling them how God is leading William and me to move this summer. And of course I’ve also been hearing their news and we’ve been able to pray for each other, which has been great. But the greatest time of fellowship was in the flat we all shared together (the Braintree 7), right across the road from the conference centre. On the first evening we all took a couple of minutes at the end of the day to share what God had said to us that day. On the second night, Lewis led us in a powerful time of praying and prophesying over each other. An hour and a half of powerful ministry in the company of our own leaders: I love that group! And I am so grateful to God that as I leave the leadership of Elim Braintree, there is a Spirit-filled, expectant group of leaders stepping up.

So in this time of transition for us, both nationally and locally, please pray for our leaders: for Chris and the national leadership team; for Lewis, who will chair the church session when I leave, and the rest of the team, and for each other. May God inspire us, fill us, work in and through us, and may we experience more of the Spirit’s power in our own communities, as we invade them for Jesus.

 

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Grace for Communion

Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is an integral part of Christian worship. Here we meet Jesus, celebrate His death and remember He is coming again. Here we rededicate ourselves to his service. So how is it that Communion has become for some people a sign of condemnation? In some traditions, excommunication – the refusal of communion – is a means of discipline. In others – and this is what I encounter regularly – individuals exclude themselves from communion because they feel their lives are deficient in some respect. Both of these indicate a total misunderstanding of the meaning of this precious event.

First, discipline. Whatever your understanding of the feast (merely a symbol/highly sacramental or somewhere in between), this signifies the body and the blood of Christ which was broken and shed for the world. Christ gave himself freely for the sins of the world – so who gave a church or an individual church leader the authority to refuse access to that body and blood to anyone, no matter how sinful? I would not dare to refuse communion to anyone for whom Jesus died.

Let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:13)

If discipline is required, find some other way.

To the other problem: that of individuals feeling unworthy of taking the elements. This, I believe, usually stems from a misunderstanding of Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgement. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

So it seems that communion does have something to do with discipline after all?

Unfortunately this passage has so often been taken out of its context and used to make sincere Christians afraid – afraid not only of communion but of God himself. God seems to be standing over them ready to judge, and if they should prove in any small way to be unworthy of taking communion, then they will suffer. Better to be on the safe side and avoid it.

This is completely, utterly and totally wrong! It is reprehensible. It stinks. I cannot tell you how much I hate this devilish twisting of the Word!

To correct this, remember the context. (A useful piece of advice for most cases of bad Scripture application). In this case, Paul writes to the church in Corinth to correct abuses of this wonderful feast – they should be celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but instead are using it as an opportunity to highlight the differences among themselves. It’s clear that the suppers they are having consist not just of a little wafer and a sip of wine, but more like what we would call a ‘bring and share’ supper – except they were bringing and not sharing! Paul calls them out for their lack of concern for each other – some are hungry; others are getting drunk! When actually this supper, above all others, ought to involve a recognition that we are all one body (see 10:16-17). When we take part in this feast we do so as one body – the body of Christ.

This wonderful phrase, ‘the body of Christ,’ operates on three levels during Communion: we remember and are thankful for the actual body of the human Jesus which was broken for us on the cross; we break and eat the loaf to show we accept what Jesus has done for us; we recognise that, along with all other believers, we make up the body of Christ.

So what should exclude us from participating? A vague sense of unworthiness? NO! The “unworthy manner” to which Paul refers (11:27) is a failure to discern the body of Christ (11:29).

So let me examine myself (11:28):

  • Am I actively discriminating against a brother or sister?
  • Am I carrying hatred in my heart against someone else for whom Jesus died?
  • Are my actions keeping someone else from receiving the grace Jesus offers them?
Any of those might prevent me participating in the body of Christ by taking Communion. BUT (and this is very important) – if I recognise any such attitude when I examine myself, do I just let the plate pass and shrug my shoulders? NO! I must sort this out. I must repent. I must restore my fellowship with the person I have wronged. It doesn’t have to take long. In fact, if the person is present, a great way of restoring fellowship is to take the bread or wine to them, ask them to forgive me and share the feast together, so this becomes a feast of unity and not one of division (for Jesus’ teaching on a similar issue, see Matthew 5:23-24).

 

This is why when I lead communion I make sure everyone can be included.

  • Children can be included.
    • But they haven’t been baptised! - So?
    • But they don’t understand! - Don’t they? What are you teaching them? Tell them this is a special drink and bread to remember that Jesus died for us and if they are, or want to be, Jesus’ friend they can join in. I haven’t yet found a child who can’t understand that. Christian parents, if you want to keep your children in the faith, you won’t do it by excluding them from the start. If you leave them out here, don’t complain when they leave altogether in their teens.
  • People who have not made a public profession of faith can be included.
    • But they aren’t saved!  Aren’t they? Do you know what has gone on in secret between them and God? Do you know they haven’t just asked Jesus to save them? Communion is a great evangelistic opportunity. When I know there are people in church who are not-yet Christians, I make a point of explaining that Jesus has died for us all and he offers himself freely. They may decide to decline his offer, and they are free not to participate in communion, but if they want to know more about Jesus, or if they want to ask him for forgiveness, they can pray like this [lead a suitable prayer] and take the bread and the wine as a sign that they are accepting what Jesus has done.
  • People who know they have sinned can be included.
    • But I’m a sinner!  Great! This is a feast especially designed for you! Only sinners are allowed to take it. Come on in, celebrate the goodness of Jesus. Be glad that it’s His righteousness and not your own which will save you.
So when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, of course there must be some self-examination. Am I walking with Jesus? Am I full of the Spirit? Holy Spirit, is there something I haven’t been listening to you about, so that I’ve injured my brother or sister and not recognised the body of Christ or treated it properly? I’m sorry about that. I’m putting it right now. Thank you Jesus for your cross, your forgiveness, the new life I have. I now take this bread and this wine with deep thanksgiving and joy that all my sin has been dealt with and I can live my life in the constant knowledge and experience of the glorious grace of God. 

 

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The legacy of faith

My friend and church elder, Lewis, reminded people in church today that I write this blog – and of course immediately I was convicted of my lack of activity on it recently! So here goes with another post which reflects my thoughts on the passage from Hebrews I preached from today. I’ve been preaching from Hebrews for some time now and loving the insights gained along the way – sorry I haven’t shared them with you (except of course if you have been in church to hear them).

Anyway, for the past few weeks we have reflected on faith, from that great chapter of faith, Hebrews 11. Faith, it tells us, is “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.” (KJV) – in other words, the thing which keeps us going between hearing the promise of God and seeing it come to pass.

Today’s passage highlights Isaac, Jacob and Joseph:

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.

I find it interesting that out of all the episodes in the lives of these patriarchs which the writer could have chosen, he draws our attention to the ends of their lives, when they look to the future and know that the purposes and blessings of God will extend beyond their own lifetimes. Each of them was weak at the time their faith is highlighted here: Isaac was old and blind; Jacob who had previously wrestled with God now could only lean on his staff; Joseph knew his end was near.

My biggest surprise in this passage is: “By faith, Isaac blessed Esau and Jacob.”  Really? Isaac was deceived into giving his blessing to the wrong brother. But Hebrews still tells us he did this by faith. So it seems that passing on that blessing, as he knew God wanted him to do (and he knew it was no small thing, as he couldn’t recall Jacob’s blessing when the deceit was exposed), was an act of faith. His knowledge of God told him that God’s purposes would be worked out in God’s way in the lives of his sons. God would even use his mistakes. A redemptive message if ever I heard one.

At the end of his own lifetime Jacob was asked to bless his grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim. To Joseph’s displeasure, Jacob crossed his hands over and favoured the older over the younger. Once again, God’s order would be against the usual way of the world, though this time there was no deception. I love his prayer:

‘May the God before whom my fathers
Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully,
the God who has been my shepherd
all my life to this day,
the Angel who has delivered me from all harm
– may he bless these boys.

When my own boys were small I prayed this often for them (and of course now they are grown up there is no reason for me to stop!). Here is Jacob praying for his grandchildren, conscious of his own failings and of God’s protection, that those who come after him will also experience the keeping power of God.  I imagine him praying that they will learn from his mistakes as well as his victories, that they will not have to go through some of the struggles he did, that they will not resort to the deceptions of his own early life, but take God’s promises, fight their own battles, know God’s protection and power and change their world.

And dear old Joseph: no mention in Hebrews 11 of the faith to have dreams and interpret those of others. No mention of his rise to power in Egypt which saved his family and paved the way for the establishment of the Hebrew nation. Instead what is celebrated is his faith which looked to the future of that nation, remembering that God promised them a different land. A faith which caused him to arrange to be embalmed so that for generations ahead, his  bones would remind his descendants that Egypt was not their home. And, of course, in due time Moses did take Joseph’s bones out of Egypt to his promised land where they were eventually buried.

So I reflect on the importance of passing on the promises and the blessing from one generation to the next. We are all the inheritors of a great deposit of faith from our ancestors, whether those are blood ancestors or others who taught us the faith. And we all can pass on a legacy of faith. 2015 is the centenary year of the Elim Churches in the UK, in which I have the privilege of serving as a minister, and throughout the year we have been encouraged to celebrate the past while looking to the future, because “the best is yet to come.”

And I hope in my own family – both my biological and my church family – I can bless those who come after me with faith.

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