Each month, our vicar, Richard, writes an editorial for our parish magazine.
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Continuing my series looking at the theme of ‘Renewal’, I want to focus, this month, on the idea of Church Renewal.
It’s easy to think of the church as static and unchanging but, over the last two thousand years, the church has changed a lot. In different times and different places Christianity has been lived out in a huge variety of cultural settings. A third of the population, all across the globe, identify as Christian and one reason for this broad spread is the high level of flexibility and creativity that the message of Jesus contains. Time and again the church has experienced renewal and revival as God’s Spirit shakes off the old and gives birth to the new.
A good example of that is the Protestant Reformation, which will be marking its 500th anniversary next month, in particular on October 31st. Half a millennium ago, on that day, the German monk, and scholar, Martin Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg, where he lived, a list of 95 changes he wanted to see in the belief and practice of the church of his day. (The church door could be used as a notice board in those days; today it would be the internet!) By means of the newly invented printing press, his views were published and shared. A political firestorm arose which led to half of Europe moving away from the Roman Catholic church of the day, to form the Protestant churches. Sadly, there was a lot of conflict and unchristian violence but the Reformation brought back to Christianity a recognition that God saves us by his grace as we put our faith in him, rather than on the basis of religious works. That important truth became known as ‘justification by faith’, or by ‘salvation by faith alone.’
A good Bible verse summarising this emphasis is Ephesians 2:8-9, which states:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.
I think we need another Reformation, but a subtly different one. The two key words of the first Reformation were ‘grace’ and ‘faith’. While these words can bring freedom and life they can easily be interpreted in purely legal terms, as if we’re reading the small print in a sales contract. When this happens we lose the sense of why God saves us, which is because he loves us!
The word grace is often defined as ‘God’s unmerited favour’ which is helpful but it can also be translated as ‘God’s self-giving love’, which I prefer. Similarly, faith can be defined as ‘assent’, ‘agreement’ or ‘belief but I prefer to use the word ‘trust’. To me ‘trust’ emphasises that we trust in someone – God as revealed to us in Jesus – and not primarily in a doctrine or system of belief. GOD LOVES US AND WE RESPOND BY TRUSTING HIM. Trust implies trusting Him for the real everyday decisions in life, for the plan He has for us, and not just a set of abstract statements about Him. (Which is not to say doctrine isn’t important. It’s like a treasure map which shows us where to find treasure, but it isn’t the treasure itself!)
So what might a second Reformation look like? In my dream, the emphasis on trusting in God’s love brings two great gifts. Firstly, a real, personal relationship with God, empowered by His Holy Spirit (which is love). And, secondly, overflowing from that, a profound compassion for the people around us that breaks down barriers, and builds community. This practical love is costly. It cuts across our personal, ambitions, and it leads us to a different sort of life where people are more precious than things and our personal talents and resources are used for the good of all, and not for personal gain.
What is the reward for this love? Well love itself! Like the children’s song, ‘Love is like a magic penny, when you give it away you end up having more!’ And because God’s love is infinite this journey of discovery is enough to make the eternity of heaven a never-ending process of discovery and delight.
So this is a big vision but simple in essence. Next time I want to reflect on cultural renewal. Perhaps, for homework, you could imagine how our culture could be renewed by the love of God!
Last month I used this column to encourage us all to seek to be renewed by God. I was since asked how reading Scripture fits in with this (which it certainly does!). This prompted me to go on thinking about the topic, and so I’ve decided to explore the theme of renewal more fully over the coming months – personal renewal and also church and cultural renewal.
The first point I want to make is that renewal is a topic that runs through the Bible. And the most important thing the Bible has to say about it is that it is God who renews. There are many secular philosophies for self-improvement and for building a more just and happy society. But they all assume it’s a job that rests solely in our hands, for better or worse. The Good News in Scripture is that there is a God who made us and who takes a deep loving interest in our welfare. Every thought He has of us is motivated by love and is for our wellbeing. So, for the Christian, renewal is something God does, and our place is to cooperate with His gracious, loving initiative. A key Bible verse for this is ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19.)
Consider what it is to be a Christian. John’s gospel, chapter 3, famously records Jesus talking with Nicodemus. We read:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’
‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (Verses 1-8.)
Here Nicodemus struggles to understand what Jesus is getting at. That is because, first of all, he thinks in physical terms. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’ he exclaims. But, at a deeper level, he is trapped in a mindset that sees religion as a set of works that we do, for God. If he had understood the way God worked through patriarchs and the prophets he would have seen that the initiative always rests with God, moving by His Spirit.
‘Not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit’, said the Lord to king Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4:6). And what was true for him is true for us today.
So the Christian life begins when we ask God to give us new life, to be ‘born again’. And what is true about starting the Christian life is true as we continue. In his letter to the Christians in Philippi, St Paul wrote:
Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13.)
This reminds us that we do have our part to play in God’s transforming work but that the work ultimately depends on God. How can we cooperate with God? That is where disciplines such as spending time reading Scripture, prayer, and gathering with other Christians at church for worship, play their part. We can position ourselves, so to speak, to be receptive to God by all these different means. Indeed, they should become as natural to us as feeding is to a healthy newborn baby. As St Peter put it:
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3.)
My prayer for each of us, firstly, is that we may ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ – so that, by spiritual rebirth, we may know God personally, Secondly, I pray that we may continue to be renewed, by that same Spirit, and so grow to maturity.
I’ll finish with a quote by St Paul from his letter to the disciple, Titus, to encourage us to press on in these things, towards heaven:
But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs, having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7.)
MY HEROES: Henri Nouwen
One of the good things about Harvest Festival is that it helps us to count our blessings and take a more grateful and appreciative view of our lives and the world around us; we remember that God is the great provider, the great giver. As the offertory prayer in our Sunday service puts it:
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty; for everything in heaven and earth is yours. All things come from you and of your own do we give you. (Based on 1 Chronicles29:11 & 14)
One word for God’s abundant generosity is ‘grace’ and a writer who has helped me appreciate God’s grace at a deeper level, over the years, is Henri Nouwen (1932-1996). Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest working in North America, firstly in various top universities, and then as part of a Christian community caring for the disabled.
I first encountered Nouwen’s writings when I was looking into the idea of training for ordination in the Church of England. The Diocesan Director of Ordinands, whose job it was to help people find God’s guidance on the matter, recommended that I read Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer, as part of the process. In the book I found an approach to ministry that was not about being all-competent but rather about bringing our
vulnerability to ministry, acknowledging that minister and church members alike are all broken and in need of God’s grace. Indeed, it is in our brokenness that God’s love is experienced most powerfully.
I have since read other books of his and find in them a constant thread that God loves us deeply and personally and that the Christian life is about learning to live a liberated life centred on that truth. We do not have to earn God’s favour, or the approval of others; He loved us first. To quote the Bible:
This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
We love because He first loved us. (1John 4:9 & 19.)
In another of his books, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen meditates on Rembrandt’s, painting based on the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), of the scene when the younger son returns home, having wasted his share of the father’s inheritance. The father lovingly embraces the son, while the older brother looks on, disapprovingly. In the book he reflects how each of us are like the younger son, recipients of God’s undeserved love. We can also often be like the older son, standing at a distance in judgement of others. But
God’s call is to be so rooted in His mercy that we grow into the likeness of the Father, able ourselves to give unconditional love to this hurting world.
Nouwen himself experienced God’s grace most powerfully through his friendship with a profoundly disabled man by the name of Adam Arnett. (The story is recounted in Nouwen’s last book, completed by an editor after his death, Adam, God’s Beloved.) Nouwen had been a theology professor but felt empty and sought a new direction. He found this in becoming chaplain to l’Arche Daybreak Community, Ontario. L’Arche is an organisation which cares for the disabled by setting up communities where the able-bodied and the disabled live together in mutual care and support. Henri was given the job of getting Adam up, washed, dressed and breakfasted each morning. As time went by, to his shock, he discovered Adam was ministering to him more than he was to Adam. God’s peace radiated through Adam and touched Nouwen’s restless soul. In this profound way he came to see in his heart something he knew in his head: that it’s not what we do for God that matters but what He does for us, in us and through us. Our achievements and failures don’t matter – the most important thing is to be open to God, receiving His love and loving Him in return. Fruitfulness, then, is what God does through us in ways often unseen and unknown to us.
Adam died, at the young age of 34, in1996. Unexpectedly Henri Nouwen died a few months later. The teacher died first, then his student. Adam’s gift to Henri Nouwen was God’s love, unmerited, and unearned, and Henri Nouwen’s gift to us is his writing, by which we too can be touched by God’s abundant unconditional love.
So, at this harvest time I invite you to reflect on the beauty of God’s creation – the detail, the complexity, the dynamism, power and scope of it all and to try and see these things as God’s gift to each of us and to you, personally, His beloved child.
MY HEROES: Roger Forster
What does the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’ mean to you? For some, perhaps, it is just a fancy term for Heaven. For others, perhaps, it refers to the church, or those areas of life we think of as ‘religious’. Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom of God (or the equivalent phrase ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’) more than any other topic, so it’s important we get to understand what He meant! Put simply ‘the Kingdom of God’ is God ruling in every area of life, both here and hereafter. It applies to individuals, communities and the whole world! Hence Jesus can talk about the Kingdom of God being within you (Luke 17:21) and also about the Kingdom coming in a day of judgement for the whole world (Matthew 13:47-50).
But the best way to understand the Kingdom of God is to see it in action. Which is why Roger Forster is one of my heroes. In my student days, I was at Exeter University with a good school friend Michael. He had recently become a Christian and suggested we did a short term mission placement over the summer. We found a list of opportunities and randomly chose a two-week placement with a church called Ichthus, working in inner London.
So, a few months later, we found ourselves staying in Lewisham to work with Ichthus. It turned out Ichthus was not just a single church but a network of many churches under the leadership of Roger Forster and his wife, Faith. The fortnight was life changing because we saw first-hand how dynamic the kingdom of God is and how it can affect every area of life. One word to describe it would be ‘holistic’. God is interested in whole persons and every area of life. During our time we experienced living in community, worshipping, praying and learning together. We were involved in direct evangelism out on the streets and also social action. We painted someone’s hallway, dug out a rusty car from someone’s back garden (how it came to be there I’ll never know!) and visited lonely people. As part of a plan to plant a new fellowship on a big housing estate, we knocked on doors surveying people’s attitudes and local needs. Trying to befriend people I ended up chatting with some kids on the skateboard and cycle track. They invited me to try out their bike. Unfortunately, I fell off and ended up at Lewisham Hospital having several stitches in my chin. As the lads told me my chin was bleeding, I told them about Jesus shedding his blood for them!
Although the fortnight was very challenging, it was really inspirational and life changing. Many of the people we met had wonderful testimonies, for example the young couple who hosted us. He had been a drug addict before finding Christ as his saviour and had been supported by the church through breaking his addiction. He then married a young lady at the church and together they were very active in the service of God’s kingdom.
When we got back to Exeter, the Christian Union was due to hold a big outreach project, the three-yearly University Mission. The main speaker was due to be … Roger Forster, surprise! I was involved in the organising committee. Roger suggested that as well as inviting people forward at the meetings to become Christians we should also invite them forward for healing prayer. In the space of a week 70 people became Christians and others were healed. A girl came forward for prayer for a damaged knee. As she returned to her seat she was healed and then joined the other group to pray to become a Christian. I prayed with a chap who had an ingrowing toenail causing him pain. The pain disappeared. A few weeks later I bumped into him and asked how his toe was. ‘Fine,’ was his reply. I think I was more surprised than he was!
All these experiences have stayed with me. Roger himself, now in his 80s, continues to be an influential leader. He co-led the March for Jesus movement which publicly proclaimed the gospel through street marches in countries the world over. Today he is vice-president of TEAR fund and chair of the Alliance Council at the Evangelical Alliance. He has written many books. One, The Kingdom of Jesus, I’ve put on the church book shelf. In it he explains the Kingdom of God. Another, God’s Strategy in Human History, affirms how God works out His plan in history without trampling over human freewill. Another, Reason and Faith, is one of the best books I know looking at science and religion, covering topics such as evolution, miracles and the resurrection of Christ.
While Roger’s books have helped me over the years, it is his personal example that stays with me most of all. He is all about living out the kingdom of God. Jesus said:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44.)
The Kingdom of Heaven may be hard to explain but once you’ve seen it, there’s no going back!
MY HEROES: Mother Theresa of Calcutta
Pentecost, also known as Whitsun, falls on Sunday May 15th this year. It’s the Sunday when we remember God pouring out the Holy Spirit on the first believers. It is often thought of as the birthday of the church, when the church was ‘launched’, starting out on its mission to bring the gospel to all nations.
When we think of Pentecost we should remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit brings us the love of God and wisdom of God, as well as the power of God. This is because the Spirit is God’s presence; it’s the Spirit of Christ, living in us. Ask someone for an example of a Christian whose life demonstrates God’s love in action and there’s a good chance they will mention Mother Teresa. She is famous for her hands-on service of the poorest, the destitute, the diseased and the dying in the slums of Calcutta in India.
Born on 26th August 1910 in Skopje, now part of Macedonîa, she was christened Agnes Bojaxhiu. By the age of twelve she was expressing interest in becoming a missionary nun and at 18 moved to Ireland to learn English as the first part of her training. From there she moved to Darjeeling, in India, to learn Bengali. On 24th May 1931 she took her first vows as a nun and adopted the name Teresa. She had been deeply inspired by St Thérèse of Lisieux (who we looked at last month), but another sister had already adopted the name Thérèse, so she took the Spanish version of the name, Teresa, instead.
For the first phase of her ministry she was a teacher, based in Calcutta, but in 1946 she experienced a further call. In her words: I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith
From small beginnings she gradually gathered others to help her and a new order was formed, ’The Missionaries of Charity’. They served the ‘poorest of the poor’, initially in Calcutta but, as the order spread, in many other cities and nations too.
From a personal point of view, it was reading some of Mother Teresa’s writings, explaining her motivation and spirituality, which inspired and informed me. Let me share five important lessons I learnt from her.
The first is to see Christ in anyone needing your help. In a prayer entitled, Jesus my Patient she writes:
Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick, and, whilst nursing them minister unto you. Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognise you and say, ’Jesus my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.’
Secondly, any service must spring from the place of prayer. She writes:
I insist on saying that we are not social workers. We are really contemplatives in the heart of the world.
This is not to criticise social work, of course, but to emphasise that the role of her sisters is to be a prayerful presence through which Christ is brought near to people, rather than primarily meeting material needs.
Thirdly, however valuable a ministry may be, we must not turn it into an idol. Instead we must be willing to lay our service down, if the Lord requires it. She writes:
However beautiful the work is, be detached from it – even ready to give it up. You may be doing great good in one place, but obedience calls you elsewhere. Be ready to leave. The work is not yours. You are working for Jesus.
Fourthly, I saw in her a freedom, the freedom of someone who has abandoned materialism, who experienced God’s provision amidst deep poverty, and came to a place of trust.
Fifthly, Mother Teresa maintained that the isolation and spiritual poverty in the West matches that in the poor nations which has shaped my sense of mission to our own nation. To quote:
The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.
So, this Pentecost, may we ask God for more love and more power and ask him to show us the face of Christ in our neighbour, so that we can pour out that gift of love in service as our worship to Him.
MY HEROES: John Wesley
As we approach Easter we are reminded of the ‘Good News’ that Jesus died to atone for our sins and bring us back into a right relationship with God, and that on the third day he rose again, defeating death and giving us the promise of eternal life. As the wonderful bible verse puts it: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
So it’s fitting, as I continue my series of Christian heroes, that my hero this month is the great 18th century evangelist, John Wesley (1703 – 1791).
Wesley was the fifteenth of nineteen children born to Suzanna and Samuel Wesley. Samuel was a church of England Minister at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, and Suzanna was a devoted mother and keen educationalist, ensuring her children could read and write and were proficient in Greek and Latin before going to boarding school, at 11! When John was five there was a house fire and he was nearly trapped upstairs. Being saved at the last moment he saw himself as a ‘brand plucked from the flames’ (Zechariah 3:2) and this added to a sense of destiny as he grew up.
John was himself ordained in the Church of England and served in a parish and as a missionary in America. But all the while he struggled within himself about his own personal sense of salvation. It was on 24th May 1738 that this came to a head. He attended a meeting in Aldersgate, London, where Martin Luther’s writings on Paul’s letter to the Romans were read. The Holy Spirit came upon Wesley giving him a reassurance of salvation; to use his phrase, his ‘heart was strangely warmed.’
Wesley’s preaching took on new conviction and, following the example of his fellow evangelist George Whitfield, he started to preach to crowds in the open air. It became his custom to ride on horseback and preach three times a day as he travelled. This he did well into his eighties. It is estimated he rode 250,000 miles and reached some 40,000 sermons. His sermons were published and he could have been a wealthy man, except he gave all the proceeds away. He gathered his converts into groups to nurture them and for a long while these groups met as a sect within the Church of England. But Wesley’s eventual decision to ordain his own ministers (normally the sole preserve the Bishops!) led to the movement splitting off on its own, becoming the Methodist Church (so called because of their methodical approach to discipleship).
There are several things I love about John Wesley. One is his sheer determination! But over and above that is the fact that he brought Christ to the working classes. By going to where the people were, he ensured that Jesus wasn’t only for the gentry but also for the coal miners, the farmworkers and the servants.
Also his faith had a generosity of spirit about it. In a day when Protestants could be very anti-Catholic he looked for common ground with the Church of Rome. He emphasised human dignity, writing in favour of the abolition slavery. He encouraged lay ministry, establishing local, non-ordained preachers. Based on the respect he held for his own mother he permitted woman to preach, when such a thing was unheard of. He stood for human freewill against the staunch Calvinism of his colleague, George Whitfield. And (not unlike Pascal who I mentioned last time) he combined a sharp logic with a religion of the heart.
The early trade union movement drew much strength from the Methodist church, from the sense of dignity that their faith gave them and from the eloquence of the local preachers among the ranks. The abolitionist movement, including figures such as Wilberforce and John Newton, again were rooted in Methodism. The Pentecostal movement drew inspiration from Wesley’s personal encounter with God.
The world owes a debt to John Wesley, but so do I personally. I grew up in the Methodist Church and it was there I was first was trained as a preacher, before being called to the Church of England. Those values have stayed with me, especially the burning desire to see the masses encounter Christ and for Christianity to be experiential and not just dry doctrine.
I’ll finish with a prayer:
Father thank you for your servant John Wesley and for our brothers and sisters in the Methodist Church. May we, like John, show determination in your service that all may hear the Good News of Jesus. May your Spirit so burn in our hearts that our faith is living and active and shines out for your glory, Amen