Leave a comment

LAID BARE (Life in a Time of Lockdown 11)

Laid Bare

At the start of the lockdown, one of our cherished church members acutely observed that ‘this is a good time for us to get to know ourselves.’ How right she was. I think we have learned more about ourselves during this difficult time and discovered more about what we are really made of. Psalm 139 is a most wonderful, profound, and intense hymn of praise recounting God’s personal and intimate knowledge of every single one of us. The Psalmist tells us here ‘that God knitted us together in our mother’s womb’ (v.13). He literally wove our DNA in such a way as to produce our moral fibre. God knows what we made of because he made us.

The Apostle Peter tells us to ‘cast all our cares, all our anxieties on God because he cares for us’ (1 Peter 5:7) … as he does for every part of his creation. As Jesus himself tells us: ‘What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail – even numbering the hairs on your head!’ (Matthew 10:29-31 The Message).

This time of lockdown is a time of stripping back, of shaking, of sifting, of laying bare. We are beginning to see things as they really are. Pretence, hypocrisy, sham, hollow rhetoric is being exposed … and may it long continue. I wonder if all we are experiencing right now part of God’s judgement. It depends on how we see God’s judgement, of course. The Bible is clear that ‘people are destined to die once, and after that face judgement’ (Hebrews 9:27). For many the ‘great assize’ has lost its power but it serves to safeguard important truths: judgement is serious, just and inescapable but conducted under the gaze of gracious love by Christ himself. As Jesus himself said: ‘you haven’t seen the half of it yet, for in the same way that the Father raises the dead and creates life, so does the Son. The Son gives life to anyone he chooses. Neither he nor the Father shuts anyone out. The Father handed all authority to judge over to the Son so that the Son will be honoured equally with the Father’ (John 5:22 The Message).

There has been discussion over the centuries about whether divine judgement can be perceived through the events of history. Certainly in previous generations a plague would have been viewed in these terms. What then are we to make of this current pandemic … and others like it? What is God seeking to say to us through it?

Perhaps though it would be better to understand God judgement as an exposing of truth. There will be a day, ‘The Day of Judgement,’ when this will be done in totality and perfection. One day all the wrongs will be righted, all injustice rectified. However, in another way, we are always under God’s judgement in that God always sees things as they really are and the exposing of truth is ongoing: ‘Nothing is hidden to him. He is the One who brings to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of people’s hearts’ (I Corinthians 4:5).

For those in Christ by God’s grace, this is not a fearful thing but a matter of deep peace, assurance, and thanksgiving. Whatever is happening in the world, God sees and knows everything. No-one can hide from God (Psalm 139:7-12). All the secrets of our hearts are revealed: ‘Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Hebrews 4:13). God is bringing things to light and ‘everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are’ (Matthew 10:26 The Message). Now, today, we are living in days when no-one anywhere can hide from God’s penetrating gaze. God is searching our hearts. We are laid bare.

God of grace, I turn my face
To you, I cannot hide
My nakedness, my shame, my guilt
Are all before your eyes

Strivings and all anguished dreams
In rags lie at my feet
And only grace provides the way
For me to stand complete

And your grace clothes me in righteousness
And your mercy covers me In love
Your life adorns and beautifies
I stand complete in you

~ Chris Bowater

Julia Binney

 

Leave a comment

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX (Life in a Time of Lockdown 10)

creative-idea-concept-think-outside-the-box-vector

On display in the Bell Laboratories in Jersey, USA, is a box which always attracts a lot of attention. On the side of the box there is a toggle switch which, when turned ‘on’, causes a hand to appear from inside the box that switches the machine ‘off’ again before disappearing back inside the box. Apparently people stand around for several minutes waiting for something else to happen … and it doesn’t! The box, sometimes known as the ‘useless box’, was invented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) when he was a graduate student at the Bell Laboratories in 1952. The box is a device which has a function but no direct purpose and was possibly intended to make a philosophical point, or an amusing engineering ‘hack’, or as an intellectual joke. The term ‘useless box’ has subsequently come to describe something that has no obvious function or which malfunctions.

Those of us of a certain generation will recall the song ‘Little Boxes’ made famous by Pete Seeger in 1963. Written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, the song is a political satire about the development of suburbia, and associated conformist middle-class attitudes. It mocks suburban tract housing as ‘little boxes’ of different colours ‘all made out of ticky-tacky’ (a reference to the shoddy material supposedly used in the construction of the houses in those days), and which ‘all look just the same’. More disturbing, however, is Reynolds’ observation that the people who live in these houses, in these ‘boxes’, are just as soul-less as the houses they live in … at least the ‘little boxes’ had colour!

For many people – not least Christians – this enforced period of ‘lockdown’ has been an opportunity to take a good look at ourselves and, where necessary, ‘press the re-set button’ as someone put it. To think seriously about the way we live our lives, run our country, follow Jesus Christ, ‘do’ and ‘be’ Church, etc. etc. This has proved a rude awakening for some of us with the realisation that there is just too much ‘ticky-tacky’ around … in our world and in the Church … even in our lives and our church?!

We are all probably familiar with the metaphor about ‘thinking outside the box’ meaning to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve the ‘nine dots’ puzzle (how do you connect nine dots set in a square with just three straight lines – you can look it up on the internet) where the solution required some lateral thinking. This phrase can also be found commonly in dance, as encouragement to move creatively, beyond simple, geometric box steps and their basic variations, to literally step outside the box into more complex patterns of expression. This catchphrase (which has become a cliché), is widely used to encourage us to look further than what exists at the moment … to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking of the things beyond them or even other than them.

A young Congregational Minister (in his first church) went to see P T Forsyth, the great Scottish theologian: ‘My congregation are complaining that my preaching is over their heads’ he said. Forsyth looked at the young man over the rim of his spectacles, paused for a moment and then said: ‘Tell you congregation to lift up their heads!’ God reminds us, through the Prophet Isaiah, that his way of thinking, his way of doing things, is so much higher than ours: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8,9). In the Day of the Judges (early in the history of Israel) we are told ‘all the people did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judges 21:25) which is perhaps too apt a description for much of what is going on today than we would like to admit – not only in the world but in the Church as well. Even ‘good ideas’ are not necessarily ‘God ideas’ as the saying goes? Is this the time for us to all make significant changes? Time to tune in to God? Time to get on his wavelength? Time to ‘lift up our heads?

Thinking outside the box is not easy for any of us as individuals, as a nation, or as a church? I shared the Gospel with a lady a little while ago. ‘I can see where you are coming from’ she said, ‘but if I take on board what you are saying … I would have to change everything?’ Are governments, the ‘captains of industry’ etc., etc. really prepared to radically change their views so that we might ‘see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living’ (Amos 5:24 NLT). As church are we prepared to replace outworn (even if much loved) ways of being and doing church with ways that actually ‘scratch where people itch’?

Interestingly, there has been some notable reflection and variations on Minsky’s ‘useless box’ down through the years … which are relevant to our discussion here. Michael Seedman dubbed it the ‘leave me alone box’ and I can just imagine the negative reaction of some people to any suggestion that we need to embrace any change – personally, politically, or church-wise?  Arthur C. Clarke (the Science Fiction writer) saw a version of Minsky’s box and commented: ‘There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing—absolutely nothing—except switch itself off!’ which, in and of itself, could sadly be an apt commentary on many lives, societies, and even churches. A chap called Don Poynter produced a version of Minsky’s box with a gold coin on the top. When the toggle switch was activated the hand emerged from the box … and snatched the gold coin … and then disappeared back into the box again switching itself off in the process. Perhaps even this has something to say to us all – individuals, nations, and churches – about the sin of ‘storing surplus wealth in bigger barns’ instead of ‘putting God first’ and using our excess to bless and meet the needs of others (Luke 12:16-21).

One thing we can be absolutely sure of (even if we can’t see it clearly right now) is that God’s ‘new normal’ – for us as individuals, for us as a country, for us as a world, for us as a church – will be far, far better than our ‘old normal’. As he tells us in the Scriptures:  ‘I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out – plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for’ (Jeremiah 29:11 The Message).

So here is a new song, written by Mike Clifford, called Alone Together, to both encourage and challenge us during ‘lockdown’ that seems appropriate … you can make up your own tune.

It’s easy to sing in a church full of saints,
To go through the motions with no complaints,
To sleep through the sermon, to murmur the prayers …
Comfortable Christians in comfortable chairs.

But lockdown has challenged our vision of church,
To worship at home requires us to search
Our hearts and our minds and come to the place
Where we can find God in a new sacred space.

Alone together we think and we pray;
Alone together we long for the day
When out from our lockdown we’ll come and we’ll say,
“The Lord has been with us while we’ve been away”.

Our sacred traditions will all have to change.
And even though people may think it strange,
The church must keep moving, we cannot stand still
So stand up together and follow God’s will!

Jim Binney

Leave a comment

SHAKEN-NESS (Life in a Time of Lockdown 9)

Shakenness
Springwatch has just finished for another year. This is sad for my sister, Livy, as she is a big fan of the programme’s presenter, the naturalist Chris Packham. He has said in the Guardian recently, speaking of life before Covid-19, that ‘the way we were living was unsustainable.’ Whilst not as big a fan as my sister, I think he is right. We cannot continue the way we were going with obscene levels of wealth inequality, social and economic injustice, and the catastrophic effects of unbridled globalisation on the climate and the natural world. And then there is the issue of racial injustice now so much to the fore and rightly so. For too long people in this country (not just in America) have been discriminated against in every area of life on the basis of the colour of their skin and their racial background. On all these issues it is as if God is saying enough is enough. The worldwide pandemic has caused the roof of the corrupt edifices in society to be well and truly blown off, and consequently the walls are now falling down bit by bit. The world is being shaken!

Andrew Shanks is a British theologian who has written about how, in response to our current trauma, we are being shaken. He identifies what he calls ‘the politics of shaken-ness’ … being shaken out of half-truths, dishonesties, and the editing of reality to suit a certain narrative and perspective. According to Shanks, this dishonesty is in order to sensitise people to the scapegoating and sacrificing of some in order to secure the interests of others. We are living through a global trauma and we are being shaken out of our complacency, our concealing of reality, our falseness and fakery, and we are now opened up to things in all their disarray, pain, and potential. No more hiding under the comfort blanket of ignorance or indifference. God is shaking us open whether we like it or not.

This was the experience of those who listened to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41). Their comfortable religious certainties were being undermined and usurped. Peter, bit by bit, subverted their long-held assumptions and entrenched traditions. The roof of their life house was stripped off and the walls of their life house were tumbling down. His words had a profound effect on the hearers. They were ‘cut to the heart’ (verse 37). Other translations describe them as being ‘crushed’, ‘pierced’, ‘cut to the quick with remorse and anxiety.’ In other words, they were shaken to their very core. They cry out ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter tells them to turn to God, repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’ (verse 38) … believe and receive the promised Holy Spirit.

What will be the outcome of our current ‘shaken-ness’ in society? We don’t know. Too many people (as Jesus’ Parable of the Wide and Foolish Builders in Matthew 7:24-29 implies) for too long have built their life houses on insecure, dangerous sinking sand rather than on the safe and solid rock of Jesus Christ. God is the only sure and certain foundation to our lives and to our world. As the world is being shaken, we need to pray that more and more people with cry out to God ‘What shall we do?’ And may they hear Peter’s response of ‘save yourself from this corrupt generation (verse 40); ‘Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture’ (The Message) and come to God, our rock of refuge and our strong fortress.

Our confidence is in the Lord
The source of our salvation.
Rest is found in Him alone,
The Author of creation.
We will not fear the evil day,
Because we have a refuge;
In every circumstance we say,
Our hope is built on Jesus.

He is our fortress; We will never be shaken.
He is our fortress; We will never be shaken.
We will put our trust in God.
We will put our trust in God.

~ NOEL & TRICIA RICHARDS © 1989 KINGSWAY’S THANKYOU MUSIC.

~ Julia Binney

 

Leave a comment

BLACK LIVES MATTER (Life in a Time of Lockdown 8)

Jesus & Sam

When I became a Christian in 1960 – I was 16 years of age and from a non-Christian background – I soon learned that I had to start to change a lot of my views and opinions as God began to convict me of lots of skewed views I had taken on board even in just those 16 years. Racism was something I had picked up along the way. Nature or nurture? I guess it was a mixture of both. I recall a story I heard then – from the 1950s – that has stayed with me down through the years.

Sam travelled all the way from the north down to the south of the USA to spend some time with his widowed sister-in-law, Lorraine. Sam didn’t have a lot of money but he had saved up to make the trip because he wanted to help his sister-in-law who was going through a tough time. Sam was ex-army and he had been away on a tour of duty when his brother, Joel, had died two years previously so he couldn’t get to the funeral. But now Lorraine needed him and this time he could be there for her. Although Sam and Joel had been raised in a Christian home, Sam was the only one of the two of them to go on with the Lord once he and his brother had left home so he felt an additional reason to go down south to help out if he could.

Sam helped out around Lorraine’s house, fixing various things (Sam was a good fixer), doing some of the cooking (Sam was a good cook), and looking after Lorraine’s two kids when she had to work evenings (Lorraine was a waitress). Come Sunday, Sam wanted to go to a Church Service so he dressed up in the smartest clothes he had with him (Sam was a ‘sharp’ dresser) and walked a few blocks to the smart looking church he had spotted in a neighbouring district earlier in the week. He walked up the steps to the main entrance but when he went to enter he was stopped by two stewards on the door who told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome in ‘their church’. Sam didn’t understand what was going on and tried to go back in … only to be restrained again and unceremoniously bundled back down the steps into the street. It was only then, as Sam lay there in the dust and the dirt, that he saw the sign: ‘Whites Only!’

As Sam, trudged sadly away from the church, hurt and confused at the blatant racism displayed by those he had thought to be fellow Christians, he suddenly sensed the presence of the Lord Jesus walking alongside him (rather like the two on the Emmaus Road that we read about in Luke 24:13-35). Jesus put his arm around Sam and, pointing back at the church Sam had been refused entry to said, ‘Don’t worry Sam … I’ve been trying to get in there for a long time as well!’

‘But surely those days are over now!’ somebody says. ‘Such a thing just wouldn’t happen today … even in the USA!’  Well actually … things have got worse in many ways. The latest statistics reveal that 87% of Christian Churches in the USA are ‘mono-cultural’ as opposed to ‘multi-cultural’ and I suspect things in the UK are not that much different. The rise of ‘black churches’ in the UK, following the arrival of immigrants from the West Indies from 1948 (on the Windrush), is perhaps understandable. Many of them were practising Christians and, initially looked to join existing British churches, only to be met by blatant racism from many of them. No wonder then, that they formed their own mono-cultural churches. This is something we white British Christians need to acknowledge and repent of, like Isaiah of old recognising that we too share an ‘unclean’ heritage with our forefathers in this (Isaiah 6:5), even if we ourselves were not around at that time.

Has anything really changed, however? Is ‘racism’ still alive and well within largely ‘white churches’? Are we continuing to perpetuate the current pandemic of mono-cultural churches built along cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and tribal lines rather than take seriously the biblical truth that ‘There is [to be?] no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free … male and female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). In the light of all this I wonder how many Reading residents would commend us at Abbey for providing a ‘home’ for three other very different, independent, ethnic churches at Abbey … or see us as actually fuelling racial discrimination (albeit unwittingly) with ‘they have the Asians worshipping early on a Sunday, and then the white British later in the morning, and then the black Africans in the afternoon, and finally the Latinos in the evening!’ Is it time we tried to find a path in which (whilst retaining positive cultural differences) we could be ‘connected yet focussed’ in a meaningful way?

Many Christians (although sadly not all) the world over have been united in their revulsion over the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, and faith leaders from across the theological spectrum have spoken out about the lessons they think Christians should draw from the incident. For example, Michael Curry (presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church) draws our attention to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) who stopped to give aid to a man who had been beaten and left on the side of the road: ‘Only the Samaritan saw the wounded stranger and acted … Love, as Jesus teaches, is action like this as well as attitude. It seeks the good, the well-being, and the welfare of others as well as one’s self.’

On the Day of Pentecost the common people were ‘amazed and astonished’ (Acts 2:7) to hear the disciples of Jesus proclaiming the Good News in the languages of just about every known nation that existed at that time (Acts 2:8-11). It took Peter a little longer, however, to ‘truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34). There are not five different races (as Samuel Morton and others have taught) but just one race – the human race – and the Christian Church should be at the forefront of modelling this wonderful truth!

And so we pray (using words from Bloomsbury Baptist Church)

Loving and forgiving God, we come to you today recognising that in matters of ethnicity we have no choice – we are who we have been made to be. Before you we rejoice at our diversity, and our hearts lift at your great vision of a worshipping multitude gathered from every nation, tribe, people and language. But nonetheless we recognise that our present reality is very far from this ideal.

We have each of us been shaped by different forces; some of us have been ground down, whilst others have been built up. Some of us have been worn away, or have become fractured and broken. Some of us have found life a burden rather than a joy. None of us have experienced the perfect life.

Some of us have inherited power, whilst others of us have inherited powerlessness.

Some of us have been born white, in a world where whiteness confers privilege. Others of us have been born black, in a world where darker skin carries disadvantage.

We know that this is not the world as you would have it be, but it is our world, and it has been our experience.

None of us asked for our skin colour, none of us asked to be born the heirs of oppression, none of us asked to inherit power or powerlessness.

So before you, and in the name of Jesus Christ who loves all people equally, regardless of ethnicity, gender or social status, we come now to recommit ourselves to your vision of the world.

We come now to pray ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’, and to offer ourselves once to live out your coming kingdom of equality and justice in our lives, in our churches, and in our communities.

And so we confess our own complicity in the status quo which divides and distorts humanity. As we pray, we ask that you will release us from guilt, and will help us to find ways of laying down the burdens we have inherited.

Help us to discover our true and rightful place within the new humanity created in Christ Jesus. All races together, we confess that we have sinned, and that we have fallen short of the glory of God.

We confess our failures to speak out against injustice. We confess those times when, as individuals and as churches, we have witnessed the fracturing of humanity along ethnic grounds, and yet have remained silent. We confess those times when we have been the powerful ones and have chosen to withhold that power whilst another human suffered.

We confess the sin of racist exclusion, the abuse of power to oppress and demean. May those of us who have ourselves experienced exclusion be the first to speak up for others. May we create spaces for reconciliation.

We pray for our churches. May they become places of reconciliation, where each human soul is valued, and where equality in Christ is a reality in our midst. Forgive us those times where we do not live out our calling as your people. May our churches model the new humanity of Christ to those in the communities where we live.

We pray for our communities. Where there is division, may we bring restoration. Where there is inequality may we bring justice. Where there is powerlessness may we lift up the broken hearted. Where there is damage may we bring healing.

Loving and forgiving God, hear our confession, hear the desires of our hearts to be different, grant us your forgiveness, and remake us according to the likeness of Christ.

Amen.

~ Jim Binney

 

Leave a comment

TIME TO GO PUBLIC (Life in a Time of Lockdown 7)

Pentecost On Streets

The Day of Pentecost was the day that the apostles left The Upper Room. They had been waiting hidden away for 10 days doing what Jesus had told them to do – to ‘wait for the gift my father promised’ (Acts 1:4). Then the Feast of Pentecost came, and with it the promised gift: ‘They were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force – no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then like, wild-fire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them’ (Acts 2:1-4 The Message). And out they went on to the streets, most probably up to the steps of the temple where Peter preached his first sermon (Acts 2:14-41). It was the time to go public.

This was the apostle’s experience at Pentecost, and it transformed their lives. In the space of a few moments their outlook was revolutionised, their expectations turned upside down, their attitudes changed forever; one moment uncertain of the future, the next sure of their calling; one moment wrestling with doubt, the next full of faith; one moment hiding behind locked doors, the next preaching boldly to the crowds. Then, as now, they were met with scorn and ridicule with suggestions that they were drunk or out of their minds. Then, as now, they were met with disbelief and suspicion. People could not understand what was going on and would rather not even try. But others were also amazed and astonished, and they had a huge impact on the people around them. This power was not only for personal renewal, a greater intimacy with God, a greater love, joy, peace, etc (see the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22) all of which are vitally important and deepen our relationship with God but primarily this gift was power for them to witness to the wonders of God to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8).

We too are called to be witnesses and if we love Jesus we will obey what he commands (John 14:15). The wonderful thing is that God still pours his Spirit on his church in Pentecostal power today – which is a good thing because we need it! It is time for us to go public. May the Holy Spirit spread through our ranks so that we too can declare the wonders of God wherever he takes us and to whomsoever we meet even during lockdown and perhaps even more so post lockdown!

Samuel Chadwick (1860-1932) was a Methodist Minister from Burnley, Lancashire. This is his testimony: ‘Twelve of us began to pray in a band and the answer came … God led us to Pentecost. The key to all my life is in that experience. It awakened my mind as well as cleansed my heart. It gave me a new joy and a new power, a new love and a new compassion. It gave me a new Bible and a new message. Above all else it gave me a new intimacy in the communion and ministry of prayer; it taught me to pray in the Spirit.’

Samuel Chadwick’s experience can be ours. No more hiding away in The Upper Room (spiritually speaking) but out there serving the Lord, making a difference, making an impact on those around us and changing the world for the better in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit fulfil in me the work begun by Jesus.
Invigorate my work, subdue my pride and raise me to wonder.
Shower your gifts upon your people:
gifts of wisdom and understanding;
gifts of healing and practical help;
gifts of speech and heartfelt tears;
gifts of love which bind us together in peace.

God whose breath gives energy for struggle,
set us free to grow as the children of God:
open our ears that we may hear the weeping of the world;
open our mouths that we may be as voice for the voiceless;
open our eyes that we may discern your ways;
open our hearts that we may bring faith to life.

Spirit of God,
Among the corridors of power, renew the face of the earth
Among the wheels of industry, renew the face of the earth.
Among the crime-infested neighbourhoods, renew the face of the earth.
Among the oppressors and the abusers, renew the face of the earth.
Among the marginalised and the exploited, renew the face of the earth.
Among the hopeless and the disillusioned, renew the face of the earth.
Among the poor and the dispossessed, renew the face of the earth.
Among the fractious and broken families, renew the face of the earth.
Among the lonely and the sick, renew the face of the earth.
We pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Julia Binney

Leave a comment

A PLACE OF PREPARATION (Life in a Time of Lockdown 6)

Upper Room

There are 10 days between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost. Luke tells us that after Jesus was ‘taken up into heaven’ the apostles left the Mount of Olives and went back to Jerusalem and ‘devoted themselves to prayer’ (Acts 1:11,14).

I have often wondered how those first followers of Jesus must have felt in the midst of this emotional roller coaster ride of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus right before their eyes. Amazed, confused, full of faith and anticipation? Most probably a mixture of them all! Luke tells us that they returned to Jerusalem ‘overwhelmed and ecstatic with joy… praising and worshipping God’ (Luke 24:52,53 The Passion). Their return to the city was in obedience to the command of Jesus to ‘wait in the city until they had been clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49). They had been instructed to wait, to pray and to seek God until they had received what Jesus had promised (Acts 1:4,5) and this is what they did … well for the most part, apart from the unnecessary church meeting that Peter instigated (Acts 1:15-26) … all 120 of them!

They purposefully gathered in the Upper Room which was their regular meeting place. This large second floor room has been described as ‘the place where the greatest drama in human history was played out.’ It was the place of the Last Supper. The place where the disciples hid in fear after the death of Jesus. It was also the place where they encountered the Risen Christ. This was a place of sharing, friendship, and fellowship. It was also a place of jealousy, betrayal, and fear. Then, when Jesus appeared after the resurrection and showed them his hands and side, the disciples’ sense of failure and fear was transformed into courage and hope, healing and mission. When Thomas saw the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the wound in Jesus’ side, the one who had doubted declared the great words of faith and worship, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28). The Upper Room was the place of revelation and encounter. And it was about to become a place of transformation and empowerment. All they had to do was to wait together, watch and pray together for just ten days. The Upper Room was also a place of preparation. This time was absolutely vital to prepare the disciples to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).

We too are in such a vital time of preparation and formation between what was before CV-19 and what will come afterwards. The disciples didn’t know what to expect. They were just following Jesus’ instructions. And we do not know what to expect of life after the virus … whenever that will be. All we can do is wait, watch and pray, and listen for Jesus’ instructions to us. We cannot literally pray in the Upper Room at Abbey (a specific prayer room on the top floor of our building set aside exclusively for prayer and used not only by Abbey folk but open for all) but we can pray in our homes for revelation and encounter and purposefully seek God for the absolutely vital transformation, empowerment and renewal of the Holy Spirit to come upon us at Pentecost so we can be prepared, equipped and spiritually energized for what is to come.

Jonathan Friz of the 10 Days of Prayer Virtual Global Upper Room wrote recently that ‘We are living in strange times. While history records many plagues, we have never seen a plague shut down cities and economies all over the globe at the same time. Uncertainty and fear seem to rule the day, and yet, in the midst of this crisis, many are anticipating times of unprecedented harvest, unity, and the outpouring of the Spirit. As we approach Pentecost, God is calling His church back to the Upper Room, to seek the Lord, to rediscover our love and need for one another, to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, and to seek to solidify our own hearts in God’s word while also crying out in prayer for God’s purposes to be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.
Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.

~ Daniel Iverson (1890-1977)

Julia Binney

Leave a comment

THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGING (Life in a Time of Lockdown 5)

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter, author, and visual artist who has been a major figure in popular culture for more than 50 years. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1963) and ‘The Times, They Are a-Changin’ (1964) became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements. His lyrics during this period incorporated a range of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences, defied pop music conventions and appealed to the burgeoning counterculture.

Ever since its release ‘The Times, They Are a-Changin’ has been influential to people’s views on society, with critics noting the general yet universal lyrics as contributing to the song’s lasting message of change. Some have suggested that the song has been outdated by the very changes that it gleefully predicted and hence was politically out of date almost as soon as it was written but others suggest that the song transcends the political preoccupations of the time in which it was written and in fact speaks to any and every age in some way of other. The song’s lyrics echo lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), and the climactic line about the first being last, likewise, is a direct scriptural reference to Mark 10:31: ‘But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then’. This is perhaps unsurprising because Dylan himself is from a Jewish family and later on (in the 1970s) professed to having become a ‘born again’ Christian. Today, no one quite knows where Dylan stands faith-wise – both Christians and Jews claim his allegiance – and Dylan himself remains quiet on the matter simply professing to be ‘spiritual’.

There is an old saying – which has never been truer than today – that says: ‘Constant change is here to stay!’  I am reminded of the old joke: ‘How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: ‘Change? Change? Who said anything about change?’ It was wise King Solomon who said: ‘We humans keep brainstorming options and plans, but it is God’s purpose that must prevail’ (Proverbs 19:21). For years churches of every hue have been cursed by an over reliance on ‘brainstorming’ or ‘blue sky thinking’ (to be more politically correct) instead of a prayerful seeking to know ‘the mind of Christ’ (Philippians 2:5) in order to implement the plans and purposes ‘God has already prepared beforehand to be our way of life’ (Ephesians 2:10).  Rick Warren’s somewhat ‘tongue-in-cheek’ story of an alleged Church Council Meeting that took place in a particular church paints a far too familiar picture for many of us. Here is my semi-anglicised, revised version of the story he tells.

‘The Pastor called the meeting to order to formulate the church programme for the following year due to be presented to the Church Meeting in two weeks’ time.  He was worried because only the annual budget meeting provoked more disagreement and debate that this programme-planning meeting. “Who wants to go first?” he asked tentatively. “This ought to be easy” replied Ben Faithful (who had been a church member for 50+ years), “last year was a good year, let’s just repeat all the good things we did last year – tried and tested is better than a lot of new-fangled ideas!” “I disagree’ responded Bob Newman (a comparative newcomer to the church), “times have changed and we need to re-evaluate everything. Just because something worked in the past doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to carry on working in the future. I would like to start a different kind of Worship Service with a different style of worship … we’ve all seen the growth that that church just down the road has had since it started a Contemporary Service to reach the unchurched!” “Yes,” replied Ben, “some churches will do just about anything to get a crowd. They forget who the church is for? It’s for us Christians! We are supposed to be different, separate from the world. If we let anything like that happen here at our church it will be over my dead body!” Over the next two hours a host of ideas and programmes were suggested for inclusion in the church calendar. Karen Doer passionately insisted that the church take a more active role in Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Movement. John Manly gave a moving testimony as to how the Men’s Movement had changed his life and called for more activities for men. Linda Loving spoke of the need to develop more Support Groups. Jim Learner made his usual pitch for a better Church Teaching Programme (especially for the young).  And of course Jerry Tightwad kept on asking how much this was all going to cost? What was apparent was that there seemed to be no standard of reference by which all these ideas and suggestions were arrived at, or by which they could be evaluated and adopted. Finally Roger Reasoner spoke up. His was the voice everyone was waiting for. Whenever issues became confused at Church Business Meetings, Roger would bide his time and then stand up, make a short speech ‘clarifying’ the issues … and then the majority would vote his way. It wasn’t that his ideas were better – the reality was people often disagreed with him – but sheer force of personality (and the fact that everybody was now exhausted and wanting to get home) made whatever he suggested seem reasonable at the time!’

During that period between the Ascension of Jesus and the Day of Pentecost, the New Testament Church (all 120 of them) waited prayerfully on God (Acts 1:12-14). Yes, they too initially struggled with simply waiting prayerfully for God to reveal his ‘new normal’ – as Jesus had told them to do (Acts 1:4,5) – and degenerated into ‘institutional mode’ by substituting a business meeting for the prayer meeting (Acts 1:15-26) – but eventually they appear to have got back on track and once again ‘devoted themselves to prayer’ (Acts 1:14).

It is said that ‘Prayer not only changes things … prayer changes us!’ and these ten days of prayer in the upper room was clearly a time of formation for them as well as prayer. It was a time in which God shaped them, changed them, prepared them for the ‘new normal’ that was to come for them on that first Day of Pentecost when they were all ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:4). They did not know what that ‘new normal’ would be like – a rushing mighty wind, tongues of fire, a supernatural enduement (Acts 2:1-4) – although they must have known that it would involve huge changes for them. But they were ready for change. They were ‘all together in one place … all who believed were together and of one mind’ (Acts 2:4,44).

My friends, the times are a-changing – we will never be able to go back to the ‘old normal’. Thanks to this world-wide pandemic the old way of doing things have gone for good … but are we prepared for God’s ‘new normal’?

Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get outta’ the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

~ Bob Dylan

Jim Binney

Leave a comment

DON’T LOSE ‘THE WHY’ (Life in a Time of Lockdown 4)

Why

On Sunday morning at 6.50 a.m. today (so you’ve missed it) I was on BBC Radio Berkshire. I am on a rota for the ‘What I Have Learned This Week’ feature, but this week I am doing the ‘My Favourite Hymn/Faith Song’ slot. I found it hard to think of a favourite hymn/faith song. Do we ever just have one favourite or many? Our choice depends so much, I think, on how we’re feeling, our mood, what’s going on in our heads, and our circumstances.

The song I chose is one that has kept coming to me this week, in the midst of all the confusion of the lockdown and the uncertainty around the easing of restrictions, is ‘Jesus, be the centre’ by Michael Frye. I have always liked it and included it as part of my Induction Service at Abbey in November 2018. It has got a lovely, soft Celtic vibe to it and sums up what our focus should be during this difficult period… and beyond!

We have started to think, during our Deacons Chats on Zoom each week, about the question: ‘If we were starting from scratch, what would we want to keep the same in our church and what would we want to change?’ A challenging exercise and no doubt an ongoing discussion! In church life, as in our own personal lives, it is extremely easy to accumulate a lot of unnecessary clutter, to overburden ourselves with stuff that weighs us down, to get trapped by the past and outdated and outmoded ways of being.  The church has currently been forced out of buildings and is now liberated to perhaps be a bit more like church should be … people living their lives like Jesus out there in the world. This song helps us to concentrate on Jesus, the true centre of our faith and to re-align our lives towards him and not on the add-ons, the unnecessary and distracting clutter of church and the peripheries of the faith.

Pete Greig of 24/7 Prayer fame sums it up well in his book Dirty Glory: ‘The vision is Jesus. Not Christianity. Not prayer, mission, and justice. Not worship-leading or church-planting or evangelism. If you love Jesus you’ll do that stuff – but in doing those things, don’t lose the why’… It might be healthier if we stopped being Christians for a bit…a week, a month or even a year. We’re just too good at it. It has become habitual. We’ve been operating out of religious muscle memory for so long we’ve got spiritual RSI.’

Are we suffering from spiritual RSI? Do we need to release our religious muscle memory?  Have we lost sight of ‘the why?’ The ‘why’ is of course Jesus. The vision is Jesus. The basis of our existence and the foundation of our lives is Jesus. It is all about him. We set our hearts and minds on him (Colossians 3:1,2), we seek to know him better (Philippians 3:10) and give him first place in our lives (Revelation 2:4). The risen Christ asked Peter three times – ‘do you love me’ (John 21:15-17) – am I the centre of your life? Jesus comes to us and asks us the exact same question. May this song be our response… ‘Jesus, be the centre, be my source, be my light… be my vision, Jesus.’

Take time for meditation and reflection

Jesus, be the centre,
Be my source, be my light, Jesus.

Jesus, be the centre,
be my hope, be my song, Jesus.

Be the fire in my heart
Be the wind in these sails
Be the reason that I live
Jesus, Jesus
 

Jesus, be my vision,
be my path, be my guide, Jesus.

Be the fire in my heart…


Michael Frye © 1999 Vineyard Songs UK/ Song Solutions CopyCare

~ Julia Binney

 

Leave a comment

IT’S ANDY … ARE YOU WAVING TO HIM? (Life in a Time of Lockdown 3)

Andy
A visiting preacher was giving the Children’s Address as part of the Sunday Morning Service. He asked the boys and girls if they would like to hear a story? ‘Tell us about Andy!’ a little boy shouted out immediately. ‘Well’ replied the Preacher, ‘I hadn’t planned on telling you a story about Andy, I was going to tell you a story about Jesus!’ ‘No!’ responded the little boy, ‘I want to hear about Andy!’ I don’t understand’ said the Preacher, ‘where did you get the name Andy?’ ‘You know’ replied the little boy, ‘from the song: Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own …’

Of course, the little boy and the Visiting Preacher were actually talking about the same Person. The song the little boy was referring to is a gospel song written by American songwriter C Austin Miles (1868-1946), a former pharmacist who served as editor and manager at Hall-Mack publishers for 37 years. It speaks of the intimate personal relationship every believer can enjoy with Jesus Christ, whatever the circumstances we may find ourselves in. Originally the song was simply known as ‘In the Garden’ because of its references to finding God in a garden. According to Miles’ great-granddaughter, the song was written ‘in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden’. The song was first published in 1912 and popularized during the Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns of the early twentieth century.

The Apostle Paul is writing from a prison cell when he speaks of ‘knowing Jesus and his resurrection power’ (Philippians 3:10) in personal experience. He had been in prison in Rome for two years and yet Jesus is just as real to him there as when Paul was a free man able to worship with his fellow believers and speak freely of Jesus to all and sundry. The Apostle John was most probably in exile on the Greek island of Patmos – a small, rocky, barren area where many criminals of Rome were sent to serve out their prison terms in harsh conditions – when he speaks (even in old age) of continuing to enjoy intimate ‘fellowship with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ’ of ‘hearing, seeing, touching’ eternal things (1 John 1:1-4).

This kind of relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit is NOT dependent on favourable circumstances. Even in this period of enforced ‘lockdown’ – maybe even enhanced by this period of time – we can find, rediscover, continue to enjoy – a meaningful, strengthening, inspiring relationship with Jesus? Not so much the kind of Christianity that spends most of its time in the Books of Daniel or Revelation and looks towards the Second Coming of Christ as a kind of ‘escapism’ from the challenges of life today, but the kind of Christianity that spends time in the Sermon the Mount (Matthew 5-7) finding there the kind of ‘earthed’ Christian experience that ‘scratches where people itch’.

So why not go for a walk in the garden, or look out of your window, or simply close your eyes and imagine. To quote TV Presenter Sarah Greene: ‘It’s Andy … are you waving to him children?’

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Tho’ the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling.

~ C Austin Miles (1868-1946)

Jim Binney

 

1 Comment

THE WAITING GAME (Life in a Time of Lockdown 2)

Waiting Game

So there I was, sitting in my office in Hampton, waiting for Julia, whilst at exactly the same time Julia was sitting in her office in Twickenham waiting for me! It was 30 years ago and we were both working in Estate Agency at the time. It was one of our first dates and we were going out for a drink, or perhaps dinner. Julia was rather late and I was beginning to think that she had stood me up when the phone rang. It was Julia. ‘Where are you?’ she said. ‘You were supposed to be meeting me at my office 20 minutes ago!’ And she was absolutely right. We were going to a place in Twickenham so why on earth would she be coming over to where I was in Hampton to pick me up? I had got my wires crossed … and so began a lifetime of realising that I was always wrong and Julia was always right! (I jest, of course).

The spiritual application of this little story is this: All too often we are waiting for God to speak, act, move, do something … when the reality is God is waiting for us. We are like the man or woman lying on the beach in the shade railing at the sun to move and shine on them where they are, when what they really need to do is move to a sunnier part of the beach. (Of course there are those who prefer to be in the shade rather than the sunshine but you can work out the spiritual application of that for yourselves).

Now the Bible does tell us that there are times when we do need to ‘wait for God’. Isaiah tells us that it is ‘those who wait for the Lord [who] shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31 NRSV). Perhaps ‘wait upon the Lord’ might be a better translation implying a ‘prayerful waiting on God’ rather than just a ‘sitting around’ waiting for God to do something (as the Thessalonians did with their warped view of the Lord’s Return).

Waiting for God in this way is not easy as the Early Church discovered in trying to wait prayerfully for the coming of the Holy Spirit in those 10 days between Jesus’ Ascension and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-2:4). They started well, gathering for corporate prayer in the Upper Room (v. 14) before Peter got all ‘institutional’ and insisted that they stopped praying, and called a ‘church meeting’ instead to elect a replacement Apostle for Judas Iscariot (vs. 15-26). Did they already have a ‘church constitution’ (that must be abided by at all costs) in those days? Now we do need ‘rails to run on’ but at the same time we must recognise that any constitution is meant to be ‘the servant of the church not its master’. Anyway they had a vote on it and elected Matthias (v. 26), who was never heard of again by the way (instead of waiting for the Apostle Paul to arrive on the scene). After Pentecost they never ever again elected anyone by ‘casting lots’ (v. 26) but relied upon being led and guided by the Holy Spirit. 

The real problem, however, is not so much us waiting for God, as God waiting for us! God is always willing to guide us – ‘you will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way, walk in it!”’ (Isaiah 30:21). No, our real problem is doing what God tells us to do when he tells us what he wants of us. This came home to me recently meditating on the story of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). We don’t know exactly what this ‘thorn’ was? An ongoing illness Paul suffered with, perhaps failing eyesight (see Galatians 6:11)? Or perhaps a particularly ‘difficult’ person in the church? The only other occasions when this expression ‘a messenger of Satan’ (v. 7) is used (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3) all refer to people? Someone facetiously even suggested it was a reference to Paul’s wife … and that her name as ‘Grace’?

Whatever his ‘thorn’ was, Paul tells us that ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (vs. 8,9). This whole passage is often put forward as (amongst other things) an example of perseverance in prayer – the importance of keeping on ‘asking … seeking … knocking’ (see Matthew 7:7-12) – which eventually brings an answer from God (even if it is an answer we don’t really like). Personally I believe God is kinder, more gracious than that and (as implied earlier) is always willing to answer our prayers promptly – even if the answer is that we need to be patient and (even though the reason may not be forthcoming) keep on praying into the situation.

When it comes to what Paul is saying here in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 I would like to suggest an alternative interpretation. Although I can’t prove this, I would suggest that God didn’t only answer Paul’s prayer at the third time of asking but actually gave his answer straight away … although Paul struggled to come to terms with God’s answer to his prayer. We know that Paul was not perfect and that he did get things wrong occasionally (see 2 Corinthians 2:12,13). So here, I suggest that Paul struggled to accept what God was seeking to say to him concerning his ‘thorn’… and that this interpretation is just as valid (if not more so) than the suggestion that this is all about persevering in prayer. I suggest that when Paul prayed about his ‘thorn in the flesh’ God answered him immediately and that that answer was exactly the same answer Paul records here – ‘My grace is sufficient … my power is made perfect in weakness’.  Paul was immensely gifted and the temptation for him was to rely on his natural gifts rather than on God to further God’s work – hence he tells us here that this ‘thorn in the flesh’ was ‘given me to keep me from being too elated (too full of myself?)’ (v. 7) and enabled him in his weakness to be a vehicle, a channel of God’s grace to others!   

I would suggest that God actually answered Paul the first time he prayed – but Paul didn’t hear what God was saying – perhaps he was too busy talking to God about his problem to actually listen to God, or simply just too busy? And when Paul got round to praying about his ‘thorn’ for a second time (we don’t know how much later this was after Paul’s first prayer on the subject) God’s answer was exactly the same answer as previously – God doesn’t change his mind on matters like this. This time Paul heard what God was saying but he didn’t like the answer God gave him – he wanted deliverance not a reason – so he resisted what God was saying and refused to accept it. The third time Paul prayed about his ‘thorn’, however – God again gave him exactly the same answer as before – but this time Paul was finally in a better place in God, a humbler place, a submissive place, and he accepted what God was saying to him. Paul moved out of the shadow into the sunshine if you like. Paul got in his car and drove all the way over from Hampton to Twickenham … or whatever his equivalent was?  

So, what is it that God is saying to us – individually and as a church – during this period of lockdown? Are we struggling with it … or taking it on board? Resisting it because we don’t like it? Because we are hoping that God will change his mind and come up with a more palatable answer? Or are we accepting that God really does know what is for the best for us. Perhaps our initial prayer needs to be, ‘Lord, help me to be willing, to be willing to do your will!’

Jim Binney

%d bloggers like this: