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WHAT KIND OF CHURCH … AND SO WHAT? (Notes from Knaphill 12)

PowerPoint Presentation

Philip Yancy tells of a Christian man, who worked with street people in Chicago, who was approached by a prostitute in a desperate situation. She didn’t know he was a Christian … just that he was someone who might be able to help. She was sick, she was a drug addict, she was homeless, she had a two-year-old daughter she couldn’t even afford to buy food for. With tears running down her face she confessed that in her desperation she had even gone so far as to sell her little girl for sex to pay for drugs. The man was horrified but tried not to let it show. He asked if she had ever thought of going to church for help? The woman looked at him in sheer amazement: ‘Church!’ she said, ‘Why would I ever go there? They would just make me feel even worse than I already do!’

In my previous ‘blog’ (in this series) I explained that when Julia and I moved to Knaphill in 2015 our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any pre-conceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ In that blog I outlined some of the conclusions we had come to as a church.

In our second year in Knaphill we moved on to prayerfully consider a second important question – a natural follow-up to the first question really – ‘What kind of church?’ and ‘So what?’ For me this is a key question, not least because there is so much confusion about exactly what the word ‘church’ means. Many today understand ‘church’ as a building but this is not the biblical understanding of the word. The word ‘church’ comes from the Greek word ekklesia which literally means ‘called-out ones’. The root meaning of ‘church’ is not a building, but a people. It is ironic that when you ask people (even some professing  Christians) where the local church is they usually point, or direct you, to a building, but when the Apostle Paul, for example, speaks of the ‘church’ he means ‘people’ not a building. Thus, in his Letter to the Romans, he refers to ‘the church that meets in [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house’ (Romans 16:5) – a clear reference to a group of people that may meet in a building but are clearly not the building itself.

Now the primary purpose of this blog is not to provide an ‘in depth’ biblical or theological study about the ‘Church’. Theologians helpfully wax eloquent about the ‘universal church’ and the ‘local church’, the ‘church triumphant’ and the ‘church militant’, and so on. If you are interested in following up on the various definitions of the ‘church’ you can find plenty of information on the internet. My purpose in this blog is to concentrate on the local church and share some ad hoc reflections on what kind of local church we need to be to both fulfil the purpose and plan God has for his church, and ‘scratch where people itch’ today.

Perhaps the first thing to say is to acknowledge that, like it or not, we are ‘stuck’ with the church!   An academic friend told me recently that he had read a very interesting (and some would say ‘controversial’) PhD dissertation, the thesis of which was along the lines that ‘in order to fulfil the missio dei we have to leave the church’. In essence, the writer was suggesting that ‘the church’ (as it is perceived, understood, and functions today) actually gets in the way of mission, evangelism, outreach, etc. rather than enhancing and enabling it. I am sure that such a view would elicit a great deal of sympathy from many church members, especially those of us in pastoral charge of a local church who have consistently struggled with the inability of churches to change and adapt. However, we cannot ‘junk’ the church because it is intrinsically attached to Jesus Christ himself.   We are told in various places in the New Testament that ‘Christ is … the head of the church, which is his body’ (Colossians 1:18) and we cannot separate the head from the body. Moreover Paul also tells us that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25). The solution to the problem of the ineptitude of the church therefore, is not to desert the church (like rats on a sinking ship) but to continue to prayerfully and wholeheartedly work for the renewal of the church.

I would suggest also that we need to recognise that some of our ‘well-worn’ traditional convictions about the church actually ‘don’t hold water’.  I recall somebody once saying to me (some years ago now): ‘If you discover your theology doesn’t work … change your theology!’ I have found that very helpful down through the years. One aspect of our inherent sinful nature (which, by the way, is not eradicated when we become Christians) is our tendency to pride and stubbornness. This particularly reveals itself in an unwillingness to accept change, especially the older, and more set in our ways, we get. As a theological student back in the 1960s I was invited to preach in a country chapel out ‘in the sticks’ somewhere or other (I cannot recall exactly where now). Before the Service I found myself left in the vestry with an older man (somewhere in his 80s) who proudly told me that he was a ‘Life Deacon’ and had been a Deacon in the same church for over 50 years. Seeking to make conversation I congratulated him on his length of service and commented that he ‘must have seen a lot of changes in the church during that length of time’. ‘Indeed I have,’ he replied, ‘and I opposed every single one of them!’  No doubt that particular Life Deacon has been ‘promoted to glory’ by now (I hope he likes it) but I suspect the attitude still prevails in many churches? As the Baptist ‘light bulb joke’ goes: ‘How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? Change! Change! Who said anything about change?’ The simple fact of the matter is that ‘constant change is here to stay’!

One major change that we need to implement immediately, I would suggest, is a conscious decision to move away from seeing the local church as some kind of ‘self-preservation society’ to seeing the local church as a ‘missional community’. As the late Archbishop William Temple once famously said: ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.’ I want to say more about this in the next blog in this series – ‘What kind of mission? And ‘So What?’ – but for now I simply want to ‘flag up’ the vital need for us to change the way we ‘do church’.  Essentially this means that we need to look up and out rather than in and down. For this to happen there needs to be a sea-change in our corporate (as well as individual) thinking. I was recently in conversation with a church who run a successful Messy Church programme on a Saturday afternoon once a month. They regularly get around 30-40 non-church parents and children to this event. Instead of rejoicing and being encouraged by this, however, they were full of moans because none of these non-church families came to church on a Sunday morning. The church people could not get their heads round the fact that for these families Messy Church was their church. Instead of seeing the potential of ‘doing church’ differently, and trying other alternative ways to engage meaningfully with non-church people, they were still stuck in the mindset that to be a ‘proper Christian’ you must go to church on a Sunday morning at 10.30 a.m.

A natural corollary to this is that we need to recognise the existence of the phenomena of what some are calling ‘the gathering church’.  The twin concepts of ‘the gathered church’ and ‘the scattered church’ is not a new one to Baptist-Christians. The idea of the local church ‘gathering’ together for worship, teaching, prayer, and mutual encouragement and envisioning (my understanding of the primary purpose of the regular Baptist church ‘business’ meetings), in order to then fulfil the missio dei by being ‘scattered’ throughout the world to infiltrate and engage it with the gospel is not a new idea and remains a treasured one to Baptist-Christians in particular (especially given our commitment to ‘congregational government’ within the local church. Back in my youth (c.1960s) the concept of ‘the gathered church’ was very clear cut. ‘Belonging’ followed on from ‘believing’ and therefore an individual confessed Christ as Saviour and Lord, usually through ‘Believer’s Baptism’, and was then admitted to membership of the local church. We therefore knew (or thought we did) who was ‘in’ and we knew who was ‘out’?!   

In recent years, however, we have seen an interesting sea-change taking place in a number of churches (probably reflecting a growing recognition that we all have a ‘spiritual’ side to our nature, and that we are not just physical, mental, social and emotional creatures), where people are ‘joining’ churches in the hope of finding ‘something’ in the company of others who are on the same journey. Many times, new members of the congregation have said to me something like: ‘I am not sure about everything you people believe, and I don’t know what you are on about a lot of the time, but I like it here – there is something going on here I feel drawn to, and I need to know what it is?’  It is suggested that this is a major reason behind the success of such things as the Alpha Course, Messy Church, and so on – people wanting to explore the Christian Faith in the company of other ‘seekers’ like themselves in the hope of finding that ‘something’ they are looking for together? Instead of ‘belonging’ following on from ‘believing’ (as with ‘the gathered church’ model), ‘believing’ stems from first ‘belonging’ (hence, ‘the gathering church’ model). Perhaps this phenomenon offers another way of interpreting Karl Rahner’s (1904-84) ‘anonymous Christians’ view, i.e. that there are those ‘out there’ who, at this moment in time, are not yet Christians but who will in the future become Christians … they just don’t know it yet!?   The existence of the ‘gathering church’ means that, local churches, need to ‘buy into’ this phenomenon and create opportunities – such as running Alpha Courses, Messy Church, etc., etc. –  for these friends to make use of in their search, rather than try and ‘squeeze them into our traditional mould’.

This brings me to a final suggestion about changing the way we ‘do church’ which is that every local church needs to be an ‘inclusive church’ not an ‘exclusive church’.  This, I would suggest, is the problem with the way we have often interpreted or understood ‘the gathered church’ model in that it has tended to make us ‘exclusive’ rather than ‘inclusive’. We have made it difficult for people to join rather than easier, and often we have done so in a hard, harsh, legalistic, judgmental way?! Hopefully things are changing. Julia and I have made a concerted effort in recent years to get the various churches we have pastored to move away from the formal interview/report to the church meeting approach to a more ‘user-friendly’ approach which is deliberately more ‘relational’ than ‘institutional’, but we have often still suffered from the intervention of ‘barrack room’ lawyers who see the church constitution as more important than the Bible?! Don’t get me wrong, church constitutions are important because we do need ‘rails to run on’, but we need see the church constitution as ‘the servant of the church and not its master’! We do need to be discerning as to whom we allow into church membership, but our emphasis must be on seeking to be as inclusive as possible – welcoming, encouraging, enabling new converts to enter in to the fellowship of the church and grow in their discipleship in relationship with the rest of us.

Now, of course, from God’s viewpoint, the concept of ‘the gathered church’ – a ‘called out’ body of people – is absolutely valid. After all ‘the Lord knows those who are his’ (2 Timothy 2:15). From our point of view, however, it is a completely different matter. At best, we can only make an educated guess as to whether someone who professes to be a Christian is genuine. The truth of the matter was then (back in the 1960s), and is now most probably, that some who we think are ‘in’ are actually ‘out’, and some that we think are ‘out’ are actually ‘in’. I have known professing Christians, who have fulfilled all the outward requirements required for ‘church membership’ – profession of faith, baptism, regular attendance at worship, involvement in church activities etc. – but who had very little of the ‘Spirit of Christ’ about them, if truth be told. Conversely, I have known others who outwardly had fulfilled little of the requirements for ‘church membership’ but who were very ‘Christlike’ in their talk and behaviour. No wonder Abraham declined to pass judgment on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah recognising that only God, and God alone, had the ability to make such judgment calls – ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25).

With God there is always a way out, a way back, a way up, a way forward, and for several years now we have tried to instil into our various churches an understanding that it doesn’t matter too much what someone has done in the past (or even what they are doing in the present). It is not our business to change people – only God can do that – and that is more likely to happen when those people are in fellowship with a loving church, where the Word of God is faithfully taught, and where the Spirit of God is moving, than by us trying to put them right in a moralising, legalistic way! I think of one young couple who were ‘living together’ and who started attending church. No one tried to ‘put them right’ but simply made them welcome. They were trying to find their way to God and over the next few weeks and months we saw them slowly start to change – commitment to Jesus Christ, followed by conviction of sin, a determination to put their lives in order, marriage, baptism, church membership, and finally service overseas. This is just one story of many I could share to illustrate the principle I have just outlined.

I began this blog, sadly with a rather negative story about the local church, so let me end with a more positive one to show how a ‘good church’ can make a difference, sometimes immediately! Dorothy was a High School whom I met whilst speaking at an Assembly at a local school a few years ago. In the Staff Room afterwards she was very sceptical about what I had had to say about ‘knowing God’, and particularly about the Church. She told me bluntly that all churches were out of date, boring, and ‘rubbish’. ‘Well … you have obviously never been to my church’ I replied. She looked quizzical, so I told her bluntly that she couldn’t condemn ‘all churches’ in the way she had without visiting them. Feeling ‘in the flow’ I challenged her to come to my church (by which I mean the church where I was the Pastor, not that the church belonged to me) for three Sundays running and, if she hadn’t been converted in that time, then she could justly criticise my church. I didn’t really expect her to come to church, if I am honest, but the following Sunday there she was sitting in the pews at the morning service. After the service she asked to see me and told me that I had got it completely wrong. Now it was my turn to look quizzical? ‘You said that it would take three Sundays for me to become a Christian but actually it has only taken one … will you please pray with me because I want to commit my life to Jesus Christ!’

Jim Binney

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WHAT KIND OF GOD … AND SO WHAT? (Notes from Knaphill 11)

Finger of God

Julia and I recently went for a lovely walk over Horsell Common, a site of ‘special scientific interest’ near the ancient village of Horsell, on the edge of Woking. It includes a number of Bronze Age barrows and protected heath-land. The common has thousands of trees and a large amount of wildlife. In the south-east corner of the common is a former Muslim Burial Ground, now reinstated as a Peace Garden. One of the most recognisable features of the common is the sand pits, roughly in the centre of the common. The sand there has been used for houses in the nearby area. The pits were used by H.G. Wells (1866-1946), the English writer, as the site of the first Martian landing in his novel The War of the Worlds. The Martians emerge from their craft and fire their Heat-Ray at the bystanders. The sand pits have since become a site of pilgrimage for many science fiction fans. Fortunately for Julia and myself there was not a Martian in sight when we went for our walk!

H.G. Wells was never particularly religious, but after he had studied the history of the human race and had observed human life, he came to an interesting conclusion: ‘Religion is the first thing and the last thing, and until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have his friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place and life falls into place only with God.’

When Julia and I moved to Knaphill (another ‘urban village’ on the edge of Woking and near to Horsell) in 2015, our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any preconceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’

This is the first, and most important, theological question that we need to consider because – both as individuals and as local churches – our perception, our understanding, of God will dictate both our belief system and our consequential behaviour, life-style, ministry, mission, etc. Thus, if we see God as just ‘other’ to ourselves – up there, out there, distant from us – then the likelihood is that we ourselves will be exclusive, separate, distant from others (and even reality). If we see God as somewhat hard, harsh, judgemental – a God whose primary purpose is to punish us for our sins and short-comings – then the likelihood is that we too will be like that as well. Our ‘gospel’ will be a ‘message of condemnation’ (as one preacher once proudly described his own ministry to me), and we will come across as hard and harsh and judgemental in our dealings with others. If, however, we see God as gracious and loving, kind, merciful and forgiving – a God who has already made a way for us to both find him and our God-given purpose in life through Jesus Christ (John 3:16,17) – then we too will have a Gospel that truly is ‘good news’ to share and a loving, gracious kindly way of living to back that up!

It is interesting that the Bible never argues ‘the case for God’ but simply states the existence of God as a ‘fact’. The opening verse of the Bible simply tells us ‘In the beginning God …’ (Genesis 1:1). What follows (Genesis 1:1-2:4) is a poetic narrative (most probably designed for liturgical use in the worship services of God’s Old Testament people), the main theme of which is the wonderful truth that God and God’s creation are eternally bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This is the presupposition for everything else that follows in the Bible. It is the deepest premise from which the good news of the Gospel is made possible. As Walter Brueggemann suggests: ‘God and his creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation. The binding which is established by God is inscrutable. It will not be explained or analysed. It can only be affirmed and confessed. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relation with earth. The text invites the listening community to celebrate the reality. The binding is irreversible. God has decided it. The connection cannot be nullified.’ [Genesis, Interpretation Series, John Knox Press (Atlanta) 1982, pp.22-24].  

Only a foolish person leaves God out of the equation of life! When I was a very new Christian (around 17 years of age) a chap in the office where I worked at that time (knowing that I had recently become a Christian and wanting to have a bit of ‘fun’ with me at my expense) told me that the Bible says, ‘There is no God!’ I went home and searched my Bible and discovered that he was correct … the Bible does indeed say (on two occasions) that ‘There is no God!’ Both statements are in the Book of Psalms, but what the Psalmist actually says (a fact that my work colleague conveniently left out) is: ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God!”’ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). So … I went back to him the next day and told him he was a fool?!

Recognition of the reality of God is not just a matter of faith, however. Faith and conduct, belief and behaviour, are inextricably linked. We cannot divorce the two sides of the question we began with: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), the former President of the Czech Republic and considered by many to have been one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century, commenting on the chaos and confusion resulting from our ‘loss of God’ today says: ‘I believe that with the loss of God, man lost an absolute and universal system of co-ordinates, to which he could always relate anything, chiefly himself. If God is not there, then we can no longer speak of meaning, of purpose, of accountability, or responsibility.’ [Open Letters, Vintage Books, 1992, pp.94,95].  

My late father died a number of years ago when I was around 23 years of age, and a ministerial student at Spurgeon’s College, London. He was not a professing Christian by any means (although in one of those strange twists in life, he was partly responsible for me starting to attend church when I was in my mid-teens – but that is another story for another time) and struggled not only with the fact that I had become a committed Christian but also eventually gave up a good job ‘with prospects’ in order to train to become a Baptist Minister. I vividly recall my last serious conversation with him (although, in fact, he did most of the talking) shortly before he died. It was quite late one night and he brought up the subject of me being a Christian. ‘If you are wrong about all this ‘God stuff’’ he said, ‘then it doesn’t really matter. I can’t imagine you living a better, more rewarding, more purposeful life than you are!’ There was a long pause, and then he continued, ‘But on the other hand, if I am wrong about there not being a God ….’

Jim Binney  

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YOGA AND BINGO TO THE LEFT … GOD TO THE RIGHT (Lent 2, 2018)

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It was the first of our ecumenical Lent Group meetings last week. We held it on neutral territory in the Vyne Community Centre in Knaphill in the largest of their meeting rooms. There were 23 of us there: 10 Roman Catholics, eight Baptists, two Methodists, two Anglicans, and one chap from the community with no church affiliation. I was on the door welcoming people. I like being on the door on a Sunday at church. I consider this to be the most important job in church life – new people form an instant opinion of what a church is like from their initial greeting at the door when they arrive. 

As well as the Church for Knaphill Lent Group meeting in the Vyne that night there were two other groups meeting: Bingo in one room, and Yoga in another room. I just welcomed everybody who came into the building. I am reasonably well-known in Knaphill these days – primarily because of my stint as Editor of the quarterly Knaphill News (a glossy publication that is distributed free to 5,000 homes in the area and is read by 15,000 people) which carries my photo in the Editor column. I welcomed several people who had come for the Lent Group, and then a lady who had come for the Bingo. She wanted to know why I was there and I tried to explain (as simply as I could) about the Lent Group. Although she was an older lady she didn’t have a clue about ‘Lent’ until I got on to the subject of ‘God’. From that point on I simply asked everybody who came into the Vyne what they were there for, and then explained that it was ‘Yoga and Bingo to the left … God to the right!’ Everybody thought this was very funny … especially when Julia came along and suggested that we combined all three groups and did a combination of Yoga, Bingo and God … all in the same room!

For our ecumenical Lent Group, we are using ‘On the Third Day’ – an ecumenical course in five sessions written by Bishop John Pritchard with an accompanying audio – produced by the York Courses. The first session was entitled ‘Have I Got News for You’ and centred on the various evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We listened to the audio and then split up into five groups with four or five people in each making sure that each group had a good mix of people from the various churches. We were given a dozen or so questions for discussion to choose one or two from, and the group I was in spent most of its time sharing which of the various well-loved Bible passages read at Easter was our favourite Easter reading. Everybody shared something, and the various stories/testimonies were really inspiring and often very moving. The stories of ‘Doubting’ Thomas (John 20:24-28) and the Two on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:28-35) came out top of the pile, but this led us into another question re. places where we had ‘bumped into the risen Christ’ along life’s road. Although we all came from different Christian traditions it was wonderful to realise that so many of our experiences were very similar … especially the way in which each of us had found (or been found by) the risen Christ somewhere along the road.

Comments afterwards (together with emails during the week) suggest that everybody without exception found the ecumenical Lent Group a very positive, enlightening and encouraging experience, and we are all looking forward to this week’s session. Snow fall permitting we will be meeting once again in the Vyne (along with the Yoga and Bingo people) and perhaps we might even have more than 23 of us this time?  The subject this week is ‘So What? The Implications of the Resurrection’ and we begin with a great story: In the 1960s the Anglican Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, was in Moscow over Easter. He went to the Barber Shop in his hotel for a shave (his electric razor had broken). When his barber saw Stockwood’s episcopal cross and ring he asked if he was indeed a Bishop, and when Stockwood answered in the affirmative the barber kissed the bishop’s cross, and then his ring, and finally (with cut-throat razor held aloft with the Bishop’s beard still attached) called out, ‘Christ is risen!’ to which all the other customers in the shop responded, ‘He is risen indeed! Alleluia!’ Mervyn Stockwood thought to himself, ‘Poor old Brezhnev (the then Soviet President): 60 years of atheism and still the Galilean conquers!’

Jim Binney

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PRIDE & PREJUDICE (Lent 1, 2018)

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One of my favourite novels is Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice.  First published in 1813 it is a romantic novel that charts the emotional development of Elizabeth Bennet, who learns the error of making hasty judgments and comes to appreciate the difference between the superficial and the essential. The comedy of the writing lies in the depiction of manners, education, marriage, and money during the British Regency period. Mr. Bennet of the Longbourn Estate has five daughters, but his property is entailed, which means that none of the girls can inherit it. His wife has no fortune, so it is imperative that at least one of the girls marry well in order to support the others on his death. The novel revolves around the importance of marrying for love, not simply for money, despite the social pressures to make a wealthy match. Pride and Prejudice has become one of the most popular novels in English literature, with over 20 million copies sold, and paved the way for many archetypes that abound in modern literature.

In a strange twist of subject, I recently found myself thinking about pride and prejudice as I reflected on the recent Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Like many other churches, in many other places in the UK, we did ‘something’ in Knaphill to show that although we are churches from different denominations we are not rivals but ‘different departments of the same store’ (as someone once put it). We held a ‘united service’ in our chapel (since it was the smallest building and would therefore look reasonably full on the day), café style to make it more informal to show that we all get on quite well together, and all the ‘usual suspects’ who are keen on ‘ecumenical’ stuff turned up as usual. There were probably about 30-40 people in all. We held the service a week late because we couldn’t all agree on a mutually ‘convenient date’ during the actual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I am guessing that the picture I am painting will have a familiar ring to it in many places up and down the UK.

I found myself thinking back to when I became a Christian at the age of 16 in 1960. I was converted because of ‘hormonal evangelism’. I went along to my local Baptist Church (invited by a neighbour) and stayed because there were lots of young people around my own age, including a lot of very attractive young ladies.   Of course, there was far more to me becoming a Christian than this. I liked the Pastor, enjoyed his teaching, thought about what he was preaching, and eventually committed my life to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it was ‘hormonal evangelism’ that drew me in! Like any other group of young people that spent a lot of time together, various ‘romances’ broke out amongst us on a regular basis. With one or two exceptions they never seemed to last very long – a few weeks at the most – primarily because the girl that you fancied actually was keen on someone else, and vice versa. Louise liked John, but John liked Jean, but unfortunately Jean fancied Steve who only had eyes from Susan … and so on!?

This situation was similar in a lot of ways to the ‘ecumenical situation’ that existed in my home town in those days. There was an Independent Church that would liked to have had closer ties with us as a Baptist Church. The problem was that we didn’t really fancy the Independent Church but really liked the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church, however, only had eyes for the Anglican Church and largely ignored us Baptists. The Anglicans, however, were deeply in love with the Roman Catholics and wanted a meaningful relationship with them. The Roman Catholics, however, were only in love with themselves!? Although we are living in very different days today compared to the 1960s, I sometimes wonder if ecumenically things have changed all that much in the intervening years.

I am sometimes asked as a Pastor, ‘What is the worst sin we can commit?’ Now, of course, we cannot categorise ‘sin’ in this way. Even the smallest sin is enough to separate us from God. I guess, that for many Christians however, sexual sin would come high on the list. For me, however, the sin of ‘pride’, especially ‘spiritual pride’ is the greatest of sins. It caused the archangel Lucifer to ‘fall’ in the first place (Ezekiel 28; Isaiah 14) and start this whole sorry mess that humanity finds itself in today. This is why the Apostle Peter (amongst others) warns us about the danger of pride (1 Peter 5:5). We can all be guilty of the sin of pride – individually and corporately. There is a story told of a Christian woman who told the great Baptist preacher of a bygone age, C H Spurgeon, that she had not sinned for a whole month! ‘You must be very proud?’ Spurgeon responded. ‘Oh! I am!’ replied the lady in question. Corporately, I am not just thinking of some of those numerically large churches, or ‘theologically sound’ churches, that refuse to have anything to do with anyone else … numerically small churches can be just as ‘proud’ stubbornly maintaining their ‘independence’ rather than working together with other local churches.

And yet, and yet, the future – if the Church in the West is to have a bright future – has to be ecumenical. And it has to be an honest ecumenical relationship involving a mutual recognition of the validity of each other’s genuineness, Sacraments, Ministry, and so on. Anything less than this is simply a matter of ‘pride’ (however much we may argue to the contrary). As Richard Rohr, the American Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970, has written: ‘I am convinced that the only future of the church, the one Body of Christ, is ecumenical and shared. Each of our traditions have preserved and fostered one or other jewel in the huge crown that is the Cosmic Christ; only together can we make up the unity of the Spirit, as we learn to defer to one another out of love.’  

Jim Binney

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STANDING AT THE GATE OF THE YEAR (New Year, 2018)

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In his Christmas Broadcast in 1939 George VI, quoted some words by (at the time) an unknown poet, that struck a chord with a country facing an uncertain future:

‘And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”‘

So, I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.’

These words were, in fact, from an obscure poem, God Knows, written in 1908 by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957), a retired London School of Economics academic. The poem was just a small part of a career which included working in India and the East End, industrial welfare and academia.

Minnie Haskins was an interesting character. Born and educated near Bristol, she studied at University College, Bristol, whilst at the same time working in a voluntary capacity for the local Congregational Church. By 1903 she was working in Lambeth for the Springfield Hall Wesleyan Methodist mission and in 1907 she went to Madras, India to work in the Zenana Mission to Women with the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. In 1912, to raise funds to support her work, she published a small volume of poetry The Desert which included the poem God Knows.

Poor health meant a return to England in 1915 where she ran a munitions workers’ hostel in Woolwich for six months, followed by three years supervising the labour management department of a factory in West Ham. At the age of 43 she went to LSE to study Social Science. A long and distinguished academic career followed during which, Minnie Haskins played an important part in the establishment of the Institute of Industrial Welfare Workers, the forerunner of the Institute of Personnel Management, now the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and promoting ‘a spirit of co-operation’ between worker and employer. During this time, she continued to write, both novels and poetry, being describes as ‘a woman of unusual capacity and character … [with] rare understanding and sympathy and infinite patience, combined with a great deal of love and interest in people.’

Finally retiring in 1944, Minnie Haskins died in 1957 but her now famous words on how to face the future without fear lives on, inscribed at the entrance to the George VI memorial chapel in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

For many of us 2018 presents us with a lot of ‘unknowns’ … perhaps more than any other ‘new years’ in recent years. How will Brexit actually ‘pan out’? What will President Trump – the most powerful man in the world – do next? Can anyone really control ‘North Korea’? What about the ongoing threat of militant Islam? Will the NHS finally ‘go under’? And so, we could go on. Perhaps, like never before in recent times, the future seems decidedly shaky? Well … it is if you leave God out of the equation!

The Psalmist reminds us that ‘Our times are in God’s hands’ (Psalm 31:15), and as Arthur Ainger (1841-1919), the hymn writer, reminds us: ‘God is working His purpose out, as year succeeds to year’. We may not be on the verge of WWII, but Minnie Haskins’ words have a very relevant ring to them – which we need to take to heart as we face an uncertain future – ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’

For Julia and myself, 2018 is going to be a very exciting year. We haven’t go a clue what is going to happen but, as we have waited prayerfully on the Lord for the last few months especially, we have had a growing conviction that God is about to do something new and exciting … and we are really looking forward to what that will mean as God reveals the future to us ‘step by step’ (Proverbs 4:12). God given ‘faith’ you see, is a solid conviction – not a fantasy – that has ‘substance’ to it although it is impossible to explain that substance to anyone else. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1). God-given faith is a divine deposit in the soul which means that it is actually harder not to believe than believe. It was the kind of deposit that drove Abraham, Noah, and all the rest of the ‘heroes of faith’ listed in Hebrews 11 on to reach their various goals, even if they found it hard to explain to others why they had such confidence for the future. Faith is as substantial as the air we breathe – you cannot see it but it there none-the-less!

So, as we have this real sense of something significant about to happen in 2018 for us, Julia and I also pray for your, and your family’s happiness and well being as well. May you too all have and amazing year ahead! But … don’t forget to put your hand in the hand of God as you go!

Jim Binney

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THE GOD OF GRACE (Advent 4, 2017)

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The best known Christian hymn/song today – at least here in the UK – is ‘Amazing Grace’. Sung by Christians and non-Christians alike, it was written by John Newton (1725-1807), a former slave trader and clergyman, as a personal testimony to how God, by grace (God’s love and favour bestowed upon undeserving sinners like us through Jesus Christ) saved him from the godless, wicked life he was leading at the time, and transformed him into the Godly man he became. Its opening lines declare:

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, t’was blind but now I see!

Newton was nurtured by a Christian mother who taught him the Bible at an early age, but was raised by his father following his mother’s death from tuberculosis when Newton was just seven years of age. When he was 11 years of age he went to sea with his father, a merchant navy captain. A rebellious youth, he was well known for his ‘unsettled behaviour and lack of restraint’. In 1743, when on his way to a position as a slave master on a plantation in Jamaica, he was press ganged into service with the Royal Navy. Newton rebelled against the discipline of the Navy and deserted only to be caught, put in irons, flogged, and ultimately discharged. Returning to the slave trade, he eventually arrived in Sierra Leone where he became the servant of an abusive slave trader. He was treated cruelly – becoming in effect the slave of a slaver – his clothes turned to rags, and he was forced to beg for food to allay his hunger.

In 1748, Newton was rescued by a sea captain and returned to England. On its homeward journey, however, the ship he was travelling in was overtaken by an enormous storm. Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the ‘uncertain continuance of life’. He also recalled a passage that said: ‘Because I have called and ye have refused … I also will laugh at your calamity’ (Proverbs 1:24-28). Fearing for his life, believing that the ship might sink, Newton prayed for deliverance. This experience began his conversion to evangelical Christianity, though he admitted later, ‘I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.’

This was confirmed by the fact that Newton continued to participate in the slave trade, serving as a mate and then as captain in several slave ships. In 1754 however, whilst aboard a slave vessel bound for the West Indies, Newton became seriously ill with a violent fever and, once again fearing for his life, and asked for God’s mercy, this time more genuinely. This event he claimed was the turning point in his life. He gave up seafaring altogether in 1755, taking an office job instead. He began to hold Bible studies in his Liverpool home. Influenced by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, he became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and his previous role in it. In 1757, he applied for the Anglican priesthood, but it was seven years before he was accepted. In 1764, he was eventually ordained and assigned to the Parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire. He became well known for his pastoral care and was respected by both Anglicans and nonconformists alike.

In 1769, Newton began a Thursday evening prayer service. For almost every week’s service, he wrote a hymn to be sung to a familiar tune, including ‘Amazing Grace’. So popular was his preaching, that the church could not accommodate all those who flocked to hear him. Newton, more and more deeply regretted his previous involvement in the slave trade, and after he became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, in London in 1779, his advice was sought by many influential figures in Georgian society, among them the young M.P., William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry, but Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and ‘serve God where he was’. Wilberforce took his advice, and spent the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery.

Advent is that time in the Christian Year when we prepare ourselves for the wonder of Christmas itself – the birth of the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord! One who was given two distinct names: ‘Jesus … because he will save people from their sin’ and ‘Immanuel … meaning God with us’ (Matthew 1:21,23). Each Sunday in Advent (comprising of four Sundays in all) has a different preparatory theme, and on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, traditionally, we think about the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in this wonderful story and particularly the fact that in and through her we see The God of Grace!

Luke tells us, in his version of the Gospel account, that when the angel Gabriel initially appeared to Mary and gave her the news that she was to bear the promised Saviour, he greeted her with the words: ‘Rejoice (Mary), full of grace, the Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28). Now whilst it could be said that Mary is given too prominent a place in Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic Churches, she is equally probably not given enough place in the majority of Protestant, Evangelical, Reformed, Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches. This is a sadness because we have much to learn from Mary from her willingness to say ‘Yes’ to God, and to life, in response to God’s gracious dealings with her, not least the fact that, in her humility and submissive spirit towards God and his will for her life, she was filled with God’s grace – with the God given ability to be all that God wanted her to be. Without God’s grace Mary could not have done what she did! She did not fulfil God’s plans and purposes for her life because she was ‘special’ but because God’s grace enabled her to be all that God required her to be!

Grace has rightly been defined as ‘the undeserved blessing of God freely bestowed on humankind, supremely in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ to both the manger and the cross’. We are all totally dependent on the grace of God – it is as important to us spiritually as the air that we breathe is to us physically – both for our salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9) and for the ability to cope with every other eventuality in life (2 Corinthians 12:9)! The good news, however, is that this same grace is as available to us today as it was to Mary, and to John Newton. The Apostle John tells us in the Prologue to his version of the Gospel story that Jesus came to us ‘full of grace and truth … [and] out of that fulness we have all received grace in place of grace’ (John 1:14,16). It is in coming to Jesus that we find this vital ‘undeserved blessing of God freely bestowed upon us’ – a source that can never ever run dry. As fast as we use up the grace of God there is always more on tap, so to speak! Grace to save us, and grace more than sufficient for all our needs!

Life-giving God, we thank you for calling Mary to be the mother of Jesus. In a world where men are in control, you chose a young girl to nurture the Saviour of the world. In a world where power is sought, you turned our values upside down by inviting Mary to share in the great work of redemption. We thank you that you still call women and men to share in your saving actions. You call us to live and serve in the way of Christ, uncertain of the future but trusting your faithfulness. Sometimes your choice surprises us, the way you seem to point daunts us, your faith in our possibilities awes us. Help us to say ‘Yes’ when you call us. Enlarge our vision, strengthen our resolve and increase our sense of your all-sufficient grace, that we might be used mightily for your glory and for the serving of your world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jim Binney

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THE GOD WHO DISTURBS (Advent 3, 2017)

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So, there I was, preaching in a local Methodist Church one Sunday morning, giving it my all, when suddenly this lady in the congregation jumps up and starts shouting at me! Well … that woke some of them up, I can tell you! ‘I am a Christian’ she said, ‘but I still feel so sinful. What can I do about it?’ So, I abandoned my sermon and tried to answer her question. We had a very interesting conversation/discussion/debate … whatever you want to call it! It was a bit like being at Wimbledon for the tennis with the congregation turning first to the lady, and then to me, and then back to the lady, and so on. Occasionally, somebody else would contribute as well as we found ourselves discussing the fact that we were all sinners (including all Christians) but that there was a great difference between being ‘a sinner saved by grace’ and ‘a sinner still lost in his or her sin’. None of us will ever forget that Service I am sure! The lady told me afterwards that she was very sorry for disturbing the Service, but she had felt so burdened about her condition, and she thanked me for helping her to find a way through her dilemma.

Advent is that time in the Christian Year when we prepare ourselves for the wonder of Christmas itself – the birth of the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord! One who was given two distinct names: ‘Jesus … because he will save people from their sin’ and ‘Immanuel … meaning God with us’ (Matthew 1:21,23). Each Sunday in Advent (comprising of four Sundays in all) has a different preparatory theme, and on the Third Sunday in Advent we are reminded that, in the birth of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus and the one who was to prepare the way for him, we see The God Who Disturbs!

Luke tells us that when Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was also pregnant with her first child, ‘the baby leaped in her womb’ (Luke 1:41) in recognition that the promised Saviour was soon to be born. The child that Elizabeth was carrying would grow up to be John the Baptist, and that uncomfortable moment Elizabeth experienced as the child leaped in her womb was a forerunner of that which John the Baptist would do throughout his life and ministry – disturb people! Even the events surrounding John the Baptist’s birth made waves for everyone in the vicinity! The fact that Elizabeth got pregnant in the first place given the fact that she ‘was not able to conceive, and [was] well advanced in years’ (Luke 1:7). The fact that Zechariah, a prominent Jewish Priest, was struck dumb during a most prominent religious ritual because he refused to believe what God told him about Elizabeth bearing them a child (Luke 1:8-22). The fact that when Elizabeth did give birth Zechariah was miraculously healed of his muteness and, not only broke with all tradition in naming his son ‘John’ but, immediately spoke powerfully and prophetically to the nation concerning the imminent coming of the promised Saviour (Luke 1:67-79).

John the Baptist continued to make waves as he grew up. Luke again tells us that as he grew up he ‘became strong in spirit and he lived in the wilderness’ (Luke 1:80) which implies that he had a strong personality coupled with an unorthodox lifestyle. Matthew adds to the overall impression of John the Baptist’s eccentric behaviour by telling us that his ‘clothes were made of camel’s hair, and … his food was locusts and wild honey’ (Matthew 3:4). If his chosen way of life and his behaviour were disturbing for some, that was nothing to the effect he had on the people of Judea when he started preaching publicly, attracting huge crowds, blatantly telling people they were all sinners and needed to repent, and calling on them to be publicly baptised as a sign that they were turning back to God. Matthew tells us that ‘People went out to him from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan’ (Matthew 3:5,6). Even the very religious people responded to John’s message, and he caused such a tremendous disturbance – even declaring his now adult cousin Jesus to be the long-promised Saviour (John 1:29) – that eventually the authorities arrested him and threw him into prison (Matthew 4:12).

Of course, the reality behind the events concerning John the Baptist was that it was not really John doing the disturbing, but it was God doing the disturbing through John! Keith is a good friend of mine who I have known for more than 40 years now. We first met when I was a young Pastor in my first church where Keith was a somewhat reluctant member of the congregation, dragged there by his wife Sunday after Sunday. He really didn’t enjoy my preaching, apparently, and every Sunday he would go home muttering under his breath that it wasn’t worth going because all I did was ‘have a go at him’ sermon after sermon. It disturbed him and made him feel uncomfortable … and it was all my fault!? I was completely unaware of this, and it is certainly not my style to deliberately ‘have a go’ at people. One Sunday, however, Keith suddenly realised that it was not me who was disturbing him … it was God! I was being blamed, but all I was, was ‘God’s ‘messenger boy’. That realisation marked a real turning point in Keith’s life. And John the Baptist was just like that – a vehicle through whom God disturbed people out of their spiritual ignorance, indifference, lethargy, hypocrisy, and so on.

The God of the Bible is the God who disturbs! He is the God who graciously refuses to allow us to walk through life indifferent to him – his claim for our allegiance; his ways, his plans and purposes for us – all that which ultimately would enable us to find our real purpose in life. He is not content to allow us to sleepwalk our way through life. If love’s appeal fails to draw us to himself, then he will shake us up. Like John the Baptist bluntly telling people that on the inside we are all no better than ‘poisonous snakes’ (Matthew 3:7), or like Jesus Christ ‘overturning the materialistic tables’ in the temple of our hearts and minds (John 2:13-16), God will use all kinds of things to disturb us, to shake us out of our spiritual apathy and indifference. And why does he do this? Because he loves us, and does not want any of us to waste the precious gift of life he has given us – to fritter a lifetime away on a 70-80-year journey to an eternal nothingness! Rather, he ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4), which is why he gave us his Son, Jesus, to both the Manger and the Cross! In fact there is nothing so disturbing as God dying on a Cross for people like us. It is, as Paul puts it, a message that is ‘offensive’ to some and ‘foolishness’ to other (1 Corinthians 1:23) but, at the same time, disturbing to all! Nonetheless, it was through this disturbing event that God made ‘peace’ for the whole world possible (if we will but respond), reflecting the Christmas promise of peace (Luke 2:14), albeit that it was ‘peace that came to us through the blood of Christ shed on the cross’ (Colossians 1:20) 

May the peace of God thoroughly disturb you!

God of love and truth, you call women and men both to a living relationship with yourself, and to the proclamation of your Gospel and the building up of your Church. We pray that we might respond to all that you have done for us in and through Jesus Christ, and to your gracious loving invitation to commit our lives to you, and to your purposes for us, in Christ. Open our inner eyes to see your great love for us and, if necessary, disturb us from any apathy of indifference that would rob us from finding you and your plans for our lives and for our world.  

God of grace, you call us, and you equip us for our calling. Open our ears to hear your call. Open our eyes to read your Word and to see your world as Christ sees it. Open our hands to give what we have and what we are, back to you for your service. Open our hearts to the wonder and the glory of your love, that we might all minister in the way of Christ. In his name we pray. Amen

Jim Binney

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