Wednesday night is Church night

Beginning on 9 January there will be a new series of midweek meetings, on Wednesday evenings at 7.30pm.  These will take place until the end of March, replacing the current homegroups. If you are interested in attending and would like more information please contact us – details on the left. The programme is:

January 9. Learning how to worship
What am I meant to do when someone says, “Let us worship God”?

January 16. Drawing close to God
How shall I approach God? The importance of praise and prayer

January 23. Learning how to listen for God
If God is speaking in the Bible and the sermon, how can I listen for His voice?

January 30. Responding to God
What kind of response to God can I begin to make in worship?

Thursday February 7. The worship is over, the service begins
How can we relate worship and everday life?

February 13. Ash Wednesday
A service of worship at the start of Lent

February 20. Three cheers for the poor and meek
We begin a short series of reflection son the Beatitudes

February 27. Three cheers for the mourners and the merciful

March 6. Three cheers for the hungry and the pure in heart

March 13. Three cheers for the peacemakers and the persecuted

March 20. Subverting our anxieties

The programme for Holy Week will be published later.

The greatest of treasures

The Bible readings for today, Saturday 5 December, are: Psalm 9.1-20; Isaiah 29.15–24; Matthew 13.44–58.

In reflecting on these readings, I was struck most by the Parables of the Pearl of Great Price and the Treasure Hidden in the Field. In Jesus’ parable discourse (Matthew 13) and throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is made to refer to the ‘Kingdom of heaven’. He is not referring to heaven as a place you might go to when you die. In Matthew, ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is equivalent to the ‘kingdom of God’ and it refers to the kingly rule of God made known in Jesus. This kingdom of heaven / God is ‘like a treasure hidden in a field’.

Donald Hagner explains:

The kingdom of God is the greatest of treasures. Though its worth is immeasurable by any standard . . . , it is now present only in veiled form and can be possessed by some without the knowledge of those near them. Like a hidden treasure or a pearl that can be held in one’s hand, the kingdom is known only to its joyful possessors. Yet those who find the kingdom, i.e., who receive the message and who respond in discipleship, have begun to experience the wonder of the kingdom’s presence. They know that the kingdom is a reality that is worth everything. And thus they joyfully make it their one priority in life (cf. 4.18–22; 10.39). They seek first the kingdom, sacrificing all to it, but at the same time paradoxically finding with the kingdom all they need (6.33). Hagner, D. Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary, (Word, 1993) p. 397.

Sometimes, those of us who have been following Jesus for many years can lose sight of the value of God’s kingdom. I wonder whether we still consider it to be the greatest of treasures?

‘Loving God, please restore to me the sense of wonder at your kingdom, that I might be pleased to offer my all in its service, Amen.’

Readings for Friday 4 Dec

Today’s readings are Psalm 25.1-22; Isaiah 29.1–14; Matthew 13.24–43.

The extent to which we welcome or dread a visitation from God (Isa 29.6) will depend, perhaps, on the way we are living our lives. If with our lips we honour God but with our lives we disregard him, we may have plenty to fear in God’s arrival on the scene. If, on the other hand, we receive the love of God and live generously toward others, we will welcome God’s coming.

Does the prospect of God’s coming fill me with joy or with dread?

‘Lord Jesus, help me so to live as to be found doing your will when you return, Amen.’

As a deer longs for flowing streams

. . . so my soul longs for you, O God

The readings for today are: Psalm 42.1–11; Isaiah 28.14–29; Matthew 13.1–23.

Psalm 42 has to be read with Psalm 43. Only then do we get some sense of resolution and that after the third repetition of the refrain:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

(Psalms 42.5,11; 43.5)

The phrase translated ‘hope in God’ in the NRSV could have been translated as, ‘wait (patiently) for God’, and ‘my help’ as ‘my saviour’.  In fact, the Hebrew word behind ‘my help’ is Yeshu‘ah from which we get the name Jesus. At Advent we might relate the desperate yet hopeful waiting of the Psalmist to the mindset of the characters of the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Anna and Simeon waiting in first-century occupied Palestine for the intervention of God. We might also think of all who continue to wait for justice and peace in circumstances of distress throughout the world today. Perhaps too we can all relate to the persistent sense of disquiet that can settle on any of us and sometimes for no obvious reason.

The Psalmist tries to deal with being downcast by talking to himself (I am assuming the writer was a man). They say, of course, that this is the first sign of madness but I seem to remember Martin Lloyd Jones suggesting it was the first sign of good mental health. I side with Lloyd Jones if only because I talk to myself more often these days than I ever did before.

Still, the Psalmist’s distress is not ultimately resolved until he can ask for (and, we assume, receive) the light, truth and guidance of God. God is big enough, the psalm seems to say, to receive our railings and complaints and, in due course, to send out God’s light and truth to lead us. In the meantime it is okay to talk ourselves into talking to God, without whom the darkness is dark indeed.


Readings for Tuesday 1 December

The readings for today are: Psalm 80; Isaiah 26.1–13; Matthew 12.22–37.

Psalm 80 is a beautiful cry for deliverance that might be sung or prayed by a people in crisis or on behalf of all who suffer. Nevertheless, I fear that lurking in the background are the kind of nationalistic hopes and expectations that trouble me. I suspect that ‘restoration’ (v. 3, 7, 14, 19), ‘salvation’ (v. 2, 19), ‘might’ (v.) and ‘strength’ are militaristic terms that require the ‘driving out’ or ‘destruction’ of other peoples or nations (v. 8, 16b). Such hopes may be understandable for an occupied people. Yet, the Christian gospel celebrates the coming of a messiah who brings peace to all peoples, whatever their tribe or tongue.

Still, the Jesus of Mathew 12.22–37  is pretty uncompromising. Though he heals the sick, he does not spare his detractors. He calls each person to side with him and to live responsibly. If we, like a brood of vipers, oppose what is right and good, we bring condemnation upon ourselves (a message not unlike that of Isa. 26).

In a world that too often favours the wicked, in a world at war, we wait for God and for peace  (Isa 26.3, 12). But waiting is not the same as inactivity. I find myself asking, ‘How might I work for good and for peace today?’

‘Restore us, O Lord God of hosts, Let your face shine, that we may be saved’ (Psalm 80.3, 7, 19).

Glorious self-giving

The readings for today are Psalm 47, 147.1–12; Ezekiel 47.1–12; John 12.20–32.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:23b– 25 NRSV)

At Advent we reflect on the promise that a messiah who would come to reign as a glorious king but today’s Gospel reading turns our notions of glory upside down. True glory is found in costly, self-giving love. The triumph of Jesus is found not in his asserting his power but in his dying on a cross. His death brings life to many.

Jesus calls his followers to a similar self-giving. Frankly, I find this difficult. I don’t much like the talk of hating one’s life. Yet I am sure that grasping, clinging, holding on to one’s life is the surest way to losing it. The life well-lived is the life given away in the service of God and others.

Why Christians grieve

It has been suggested to me that my title (below) for the announcement of the death of a friend is inappropriate. The death of a friend is not sad news, I am told, but a cause for rejoicing that God has taken a believer home. Well, there is some truth in this way of thinking. Certainly, I rejoice in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ” but I do not think this obliterates all sadness. The sadness lies in the fact that a friend is now gone. Perhaps the sadness of separation and loss might be thought of as selfish but it seems to me that it is present most where love is greatest. Did not Jesus weep when his friend Lazarus died even though he knew he was about to raise him up? Christians do not grieve as those without hope but they still grieve. I am firmly of the opinion that even when hope is abundant there is sadness in the death of a loved one.

The Book of Revelation

Back in July our house-group completed a seven-week study of the book of Revelation.  It was more of an introduction than an exhaustive study (we always spend some of the time talking, laughing and praying together) and we left plenty of unanswered questions. Even so, I think we all found it enlightening and engaging. It helps when one of the group is a university lecturer in New Testament studies but also when others  have not read Revelation any time recently and at least one expresses dislike for the book to begin with. Over the course of the seven weeks we read the entire book out loud and if we had done nothing else this would have been a worthwhile exercise in itself.

Anyway, someone asked me what I thought were the best, accessible books on Revelation so here is my top five (in no particular order):

Reversed Thunder 02Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination by Eugene H. Peterson (Harper Collins, 1988). This is not a commentary but a beautifully written meditation on the book of Revelation. This is Peterson at his best. Through the lense of Revelation, he reflects on scripture, Christ, church, worship, evil, prayer, witness, politics, judgement, salvation and heaven.

The book of  Revelation is complex and draws heavily on the rest of scripture, especially the Old Testament.  If we don’t know the Old Testament we will have difficulty in even beginning to understand the book of Revelation. Peterson reintroduce us to the Old Testament in the light of Christian spirituality. He sparks a desire in our souls to read scripture, to pray and to deepen our lives. He has this to say about Revelation’s view of heaven and our response to it:

To the person who simply wants more, who is impatient of limits, who is bored with what he or she has and wants diversion from it, St John’s vision of heaven will not serve well. This is not a paradise for consumers. St John’s heaven is not an extension of cupidity upwards but an invasion of God’s rule and presence downwards. Heaven in the vision, remember, descends . . . If we don’t want God, or don’t want him very near, we can hardly be expected to be very interested in heaven (184–5).

I don’t go along with everything Peterson says but if I could keep only one book on Revelation this would be it.

The rest of my top five will continue tomorrow.

Pendle Hill Walk

Pendle 01A few of us from Didsbury Baptist Church spent Sunday afternoon and evening walking up Pendle Hill in East Lancashire. We took the 6 mile circular route from Barley, over the hill, past the Ogden reservoirs and back to Barley. We took our time about it and, in perfect weather, enjoyed a great afternoon together.

Besides the beauty of the largely undiscovered area, Pendle is known for its historical associations. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is that it was the home of the so-called ‘Pendle Witches’. In 1612, ten of them were publicly hanged for their ‘crimes’. They were convicted on the evidence of a nine-year old girl who had been carefully coached by the prosecution. Whatever the ‘witches’ were guilty of it was nothing deserving of death. Some Christians occasionally decry the association of Pendle with witchcraft. Still, the executions of 1612 remind us of the potentially disastrous consequences of religious intolerance, confusion of Church and State, and the misuse of the Bible (Exodus 22.18). Baptist Christians will recall that at about the same time that the Pendle witches were being tried Thomas Helwys, a leader of the first Baptist church to be formed on British soil, was writing his treatise on religious liberty, perhaps the first printed argument for religious freedom to be published in England.

GeorgeFox225Some years later, in 1652, George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, visited Pendle. There he had a vision that guided him to the villages he was next to visit and that would be particularly receptive to his message. He writes of Pendle Hill in his journal:

As we traveled we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered. As I went down, I found a spring of water in the side of the hill, with which I refreshed myself, having eaten or drunk but little for several days before.

On Sunday I took a drink from what is purported to be the same spring, now known as George Fox’s well. I grew up near Pendle Hill and have loved it all my life. For me, it is one of the very special places in God’s world:

Old Pendle, old Pendle, thou standest alone
twixt Burnley and Clitheroe, Whalley and Colne,
where Hodder and Ribble’s fair waters do meet
with Barley and Downham content at thy feet.

Pendle_top

Pentecost, European Elections and the BNP

Last Sunday, Christian churches of all denominations celebrated Pentecost. Most churches will have heard again the reading of Acts chapter 2. It tells how, during the celebration of the Jewish Festival of Shavuot, the followers of the risen and ascended Christ were overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit experienced as wind and fire. Empowered and transformed, they began to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a multinational gathering.  Representatives of the world’s peoples heard the disciples speaking in the mother tongue of each nation. The church, a new humanity made up of people from all the nations of the known world, was born. Surely, no one hearing such a story and believing it can leave worship on Sunday then vote for the BNP on Thursday.

The problem in Didsbury is that people may just not vote at all. The proportional representation system used for European Parliamentary elections is such that, if the turnout is low, parties like the BNP can gain enough of a percentage nationwide to win some seats. Thus every vote cast for a mainstream party is a vote against the BNP.

Leaders of the mainstream Christian Churches of Greater Manchester, including the Baptists, have joined together to issue a statement in support of the Hope not hate campaign and to “urge all followers of Christ to use their vote wisely, and not to vote for any political party or candidate promoting division, exclusion, and blame, or in any other way seeking to stir up racial and ethnic hatred”.

At the moment, I am every bit as disillusioned with politics as the next person. I have never been more tempted not to vote but on Thursday I’ll be walking down to Ivy Cottage to cast my vote against the BNP.

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