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We are looking at resuming some of our activities during September where practical and in line with relevant Coronavirus advice.

 

Week beginning 18 October 2020

Here are the first two in a series of items from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity on the theme of Exile.

In Exile With Ezekiel: God’s Empowering Presence 1/4

In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the River Kebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God […] This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking. He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.’ As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

EZEKIEL 1:1, 28; 2:1–2

Until fairly recently, western Christians have enjoyed a sense of being at home in the world. Not completely, of course, but able to exercise significant power nonetheless.

That tide has turned.

We might not be facing outright hostility, and nor have we been completely removed from places of influence, but today’s culture seems more alien to Christianity than it used to be. Increasingly, Christians are having to learn what it means to ‘sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land’ (Psalm 137:4).

Although it’s easy to overstate the case, it’s as if we’re in exile. This description – which reverberates through the pages of Scripture – captures something significant about our identity and our mission. It involves recognising that we do not yet live in our ultimate home, even as we serve the Lord where we are here and now.

Recapturing the language of exile may help us understand some of the cultural changes taking place and allow us to see the life to which we are called – where the goal is not simply to survive in order to get through, but to be shaped into a people who bear God’s saving presence in and for a broken world.

What does being a Christian look like in such a context? What will prevent us from being absorbed into a culture that so powerfully shapes our identity? What will ensure our faith is more than just a bolt-on activity or accessory to an already-full life?

We need what Ezekiel received as he kicked his way along the banks of the River Kebar in Babylon – a vision of the glory of God. A vision which shows God is not restricted or contained, but real and present with his people. A vision which anticipates the one who would himself embody God’s presence, the one who ‘made his dwelling among us’, of whom Christians are able to say: ‘we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

If exile provides an opportunity to be faithful to Jesus in the time and place in which we live, Ezekiel’s vision of God’s kingly glory reminds us that God will not abandon us, but will make himself present to us, fill us with his Spirit, and give us a task to do.

In Exile With Ezekiel: God’s Loving Promise 2/4

‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’ […] They will return to [the land] and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

EZEKIEL 11:16-20

The trauma of displacement stamps itself on the visions and sayings of Ezekiel. He even acts out its humiliation and horrors in his own body, becoming a living demonstration of God’s message to those in exile.

That message is poignantly captured in the vision recorded in chapters 8–11 of his prophecy. Ezekiel sees judgment brought on those practising idolatry and perpetrating injustice in the temple and Jerusalem, before then witnessing the sad departure of God’s glory from his sanctuary and holy city.

On the face of it, not the most encouraging message!

But it was one the people needed to hear. Because, for all its sombreness, it insists that the Lord is in charge. God isn’t too weak to stop Babylon defeating the nation and destroying the temple. In fact, it’s the mysterious path he has chosen. It’s part of his larger plan to purify the people and restore his presence among them.

That’s why even this darkest of moments is accompanied with a promise of renewal on the other side of judgment. While God has left the temple, he has not abandoned his people in exile, and promises to be a ‘sanctuary’ for them there. What’s more, he’ll bring them back, give them new hearts, and restore them to a life of service.

Like other sufferers of traumatic events, Ezekiel’s hearers needed a way to reweave their experiences into a larger, more-encompassing, life-giving plot. Ezekiel’s message offered a way for them to understand their displacement within a story which brought together past, present, and future in the light of the Lord’s work – not only in their lives but for the sake of the world in which they were called to live.

God’s promises to us have a way of doing that.

For us, too, trauma can come in different shapes and sizes. For us, too, is the reminder that God’s purposes will never be derailed by the Babylons of this world, whatever form they take. For us, too, is an assurance that in our deepest need, we are secure in him. Even if his hand leads us into exile, he will be present with us there, and will one day bring about our full and final restoration.

Such is his commitment. Such is his love.

Antony Billington (Theology Advisor, LICC)

Every Blessing,

Robert

Week beginning 11 October 2020

I've just finished reading one of the most important books I've ever read: it's called Love Matters More  by Jared Byas, and I can thoroughly recommend it. This is a short extract to reflect on from a chapter called Speaking the truth in love:

"Love has a way of changing our minds about what is true. It doesn't change the facts, of course. It changes what the facts mean and leads us to wisdom. It changes how we see the world. And if we get enough people to see how to change the world, it changes the world. It is true in science and it is true in the church.

It can be a good and beautiful thing to change our minds about what is, in light of how we experience the world through the lens of love. But when fear or a need to control (which, let's be honest, is usually also fear) is the lens we use to filter our experience of the world, we start to prioritise defending our opinions above loving our neighbour, and the system gets short-circuited. As we've already seen, truth is a tool. It can be used to build up or to tear down, to heal or to harm. If our idea of truth doesn't include prioritising love, if it's just about facts, it isn't true in the broader sense. Or, at the very least, it isn't Christian.

For some reason, in my experience, when the phrase "speaking the truth in love" is used, rarely does the person hearing it feel loved. Instead, it's mostly often used as a way to convince someone that they are being loved even when it doesn't feel that way. It's not often used of someone heavily invested in colabouring with someone in their struggle, but as a way to lob hurtful opinions, walk away, and feel guilt free.

The fact that love matters more doesn't mean that we get to ignore our differences. It doesn't mean or differences don't matter. Or that we shouldn't all be working together to acknowledge, and solve, the problems that face our society. On the contrary, because love matters more, we need to be more committed than ever to solving those problems. But I would argue that keeping love as the ultimate aim keeps us from tactics that undermine our ultimate aim. Keeping love as the ultimate aim keeps us from confusing our way with the best way."

I find that very challenging.

Every blessing

Peter

Week Beginning 4 October 2020

Here is the fourth in the series from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity entitled Transition.

Navigating Transition:
Reorientation
4/4

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

EPHESIANS 2:10

The transition journey has taken us through the initial signals of change, choosing to end well, and then feeling at sea, dis-orientated. As we approach the fourth stage of the transition journey, reorientation, it is understandable to want a comforting sense of arrival – of settling into a new normal. And this may be the case… for a while. But as a Christ-follower, called to an unpredictable life, and in the current context where change is the new normal, this may well be wishful thinking!

Through all the changes, our identity in Christ is unchanging. Paul writes that we are ‘God’s handiwork’, with connotations of artistic design, carefully shaped by the master craftsman. The transition journey can be part of his shaping if we allow God, through the sometimes-painful experience of change, to cut off all that was deadening, or prune where necessary. He does this in love, to prepare us for a new season of growth and good work.

For many of us, lockdown has provided an opportunity to examine our pre-Covid lifestyle. We may have recognised with Henry David Thoreau, ‘It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: what are you busy about?’

We were created for both purposeful activity and rest. Paul describes this purposeful activity as ‘good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do’. He is unlikely to be referring to some amazing new job opportunity: many of those in Ephesus, and especially slaves, would have had few career options. These ‘good works’ are more likely to refer to the areas he goes on to detail: expressing love and honour in our relationships, training our children, working as if we were serving the Lord whatever our role, withstanding the enemy’s attack, and praying in the Spirit with every type of prayer and intercession. All these are God’s incredible invitation to partner with him in his plans and purposes. He chooses to act through his people. As John Wesley said: ‘God does nothing on the earth save in answer to believing prayer.’

All of this is fuelled by the knowledge of the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love for us, demonstrated on the cross. It’s a love that leads and guides us forward. It’s a love which provides a firm foundation when all else is changing.

Bev Shepherd
Prayer Journeys Project Leader, LICC

Every Blessing,

Robert

Week beginning 27 September 2020

A reflection on prayer from the website Living Soulfully:


Prayer is a mysterious, miraculous and sometimes frustrating effort. Not only is the receiver unseen, but we never really know if the pleadings of our heart are heard, and if and how they are answered. I am a novitiate in the art of praying. Sometimes my prayers feel surface-deep—worse, rote. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Claudius’s confession resonates: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never heaven go.” I try to pray with conviction, but often my words are clumsy, inelegant, self-conscious. When life is going well, I can easily fall out of the practice of praying. I am guilty of believing in God, but not including God in my daily life.

It was easier for me to pray as an innocent child. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” was all that needed to be said before floating off into my dreams, peaceful and confident God and His court of angels were watching over me. Could this be why Paul lamented in 1 Corinthians, “When I was a child I spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. But when I grew up, I set aside childish ways.”

Sadly growing up ends easy trust. But that is what we are required to grasp again as adults. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never know and enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the Corona days I am listening to my children’s prayers. My youngest has no doubt that God will make things right. He is, of course, completely in spiritual sync—-God’s love is never in doubt so why should he fear?

The most honest prayer I know is, “Dear God, I believe, help my unbelief.” Trusting God regardless of life’s circumstances is plain hard. Vulnerability and speaking our raw truths is the first lesson on how to pray. During Corona, our prayers right now are exhaustive litanies of concerns for family, friends, church, work—-our suffering world. Just as important is a focus on thankfulness for God holding us, minute by minute, from falling into a pit of fear. Praying for personal courage and the physical and spiritual strength to not only survive, but thrive in the uncertainty falls on welcome ears. Remember, God knows what you need before you even ask Him. Prayer is not complete without a confession of our deep hopes; all the things we look forward to when we surface from this valley. God promises that this too shall pass and the joy will return in the morning.

There is a dramatic scene in the Gospel of Luke where the disciples, very anxious about the future, ask Jesus how to pray. This is a beautiful moment of love as Jesus frees them (and all of us) with the gift of The Lord’s Prayer. It becomes a simple blueprint for true security.

 

Our Father who art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name

Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven

Give us this day our daily bread

Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory

Forever. 

In the face of Corona, let us respond in faith daily reciting Our Lord’s Prayer. It is blessing me with peace in the eeriness of Corona.. Reminiscent of the childhood game of Hot Potato, I envision passing off all my “hot” potato worries to God, confident in the deep of me that there is no true failure in God’s plan, ever. As Julian of Norwich, the 15th century Christian mystic confessed in faith, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” 

Madeleine L’Engle said: “think of yourself as a very small car turning into a gas station to be filled with faith.” The Lord’s Prayer will reassure, and keep you moving down the road. Something good is on the horizon. It is the promise. Be thankful and believe.

Every blessing

Peter

Week beginning 20 September 2020

We are in a time of transition; such times can be difficult, but God is with us in these times. A couple of weeks ago I put up the first of these items from Bev. Shepherd from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity; here are two more in the series:

Navigating Transition:
Ending Well
2/4

Praise the LORD, my soul,
  and forget not all his benefits –
who forgives all your sins
  and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
  and crowns you with love and compassion.

PSALM 103:2-4

I was once advised, whilst packing for a journey, that deciding what to leave behind was as important as choosing what to take. It was good advice. All change involves a ‘leaving behind’, be it the roles we identified with, relationships we valued, skills or knowledge now redundant, once cherished belongings, or a predictable routine.

Working as a coach with those whose roles have become redundant, I’ve recognised other, less tangible, hindrances to moving on: anger at management decisions or government policies; rejection when not chosen for a new role; bitterness at the way life has changed; and regrets or guilt over things said or done.

As many of us can testify, faith often matures most through disruptions to normal ways of thinking or being in the world, perhaps due to loss. But the transition journey that results from these disruptions will only lead to maturity if it takes us via the cross. Jesus’ sacrificial death provides the means by which we can ‘leave behind’ all that might weigh us down. At the cross we learn to forgive those who have wronged us; we are set free from unhelpful attachments to the past; we receive healing for our wounds, and comfort for our loss.

As David Benner writes, ‘Letting go is an important spiritual practice, but it is counterintuitive because the default posture of most of us is to clutch, not to release.’ To receive the new thing that God wants to give us we must create the space to receive it, which requires emptying out the old. And letting go requires trust – trust that the emptiness will be filled; trust that a new sense of purpose and direction will emerge; trust that day will follow night; and trust that, after death, there is resurrection. We walk by faith and not by sight, declaring: ‘praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.’

Our responsibility is to ‘end well’ – be that thanksgiving for what has been, expressed appreciation, or simply ensuring that everything is in order so others can find what they need. ‘Goodbye’ is a contraction of the phrase ‘God be with ye’. As we navigate the endings of our transition journey, may we leave with a blessing and know that God is with us – he has not been left behind!

---

Navigating Transition:
Disorientation
3/4

The LORD replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?’ 

EXODUS 33:14-16

Have you ever been at sea, with no land in sight? A seemingly endless expanse of water stretches before you and behind. It is easy to lose your bearings.

The third phase of transition, disorientation, is like that. It has the potential to be both difficult and fruitful. The familiar landmarks have gone, and the new ones are not clearly in focus. Our inner questions show our longing for certainty and control: ‘How long?’, ‘Where is it all leading?’, ‘How do I plan?’, or ’Why am I feeling like this?’ During the current pandemic, these questions are echoed in the media and reverberate in conversations with friends and colleagues.

God does not commit to answer our questions, but instead he promises us his presence. Aside from anything else, this promise marks us out as his people and orientates us in a time of disorientation. As Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness, God’s presence, visible as the pillar of cloud and fire, determined the route and the pace. 

As believers we are marked with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). As the cloud and fire guaranteed God’s presence with the people in the wilderness, so the Spirit is the powerful, personal presence of the living God with us. By his Spirit, God guides, comforts, strengthens, and equips us. That guidance is rarely a detailed map with a marked route – it is more often a lamp to our feet (Psalm 119:105), showing us the next step. Obedience to that step then leads to a further step or pause. 

Prayer, together with regular reading of the Scriptures, is vital if we are to discern the prompting of the Holy Spirit. God wants to guide us. Following him is not meant to be a guessing game! His intention is that we should hear his voice; our part is to make the time and space to listen. Prayer practices like the Examen can help us do this, where we prayerfully reflect on the past day or week. Looking in the rear-view mirror allows us to acknowledge God’s presence with us.

Gradually, as we are guided through this phase of disorientation, we notice our focus shifting from arrival at a destination to how we journey; from achievement to purpose; from status to identity. As Henri Nouwen notes, ‘Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus, our friend and finest guide’. And so, let our confidence be in the one who journeys with us.

Bev Shepherd
Prayer Journeys Project Leader, LICC

Every Blessing,

Robert

Week beginning 13 September 2020

Some thoughts on the Letter to Philemon, from Equipped for Grace:

No Longer a Slave

Although many of our Parliamentary laws were originally developed on the basis of Christian principles, a lot has changed in the legislature and society since then.  Misinterpretations and taking verses out of context has been a tool to teach false doctrines and drive the narrative that the Bible is errant and untrustworthy. It has been picked apart, misunderstood, and abused for power and discrimination. Yet, when we look at our history, some of our well-loved heroes, especially those of the Civil Rights Movement, have been Bible-believing, God-fearing men and women. It is remarkable how much the Bible has to say about God’s forgiveness, restoring peace, and healing from injustice. The book of Philemon is especially important as we ponder the social and cultural barriers of our time in 2020. It is one of Paul’s four letters that he wrote in prison addressed to his coworker in the faith, Philemon, and the church that met in his home.

Leading with Love

Paul was an apostle of Christ, held a position of authority as an elder in the church, and was a highly educated Roman citizen, but did not lead with his authority or accomplishments; he led with love. Paul appealed to Philemon as a friend and brother in Christ: “… although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead on the basis of love.” (v. 9) Paul asked Philemon to exercise his free will in respect and love for his runaway-slave Onesimus, and welcome him back despite his offenses. Paul wrote, “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him [Onesimus] as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (v. 17-18) Instead of exercising his God-given authority to command Philemon to obey him, he chose to appeal to Philemon’s faithful disciple heart of compassion and mercy. 

Pause for Reflection: Has there been a time when someone of authority chose to submit themselves and gently appeal for you to do something? Was there a time when you did or said something offensive, and someone appealed for forgiveness on your behalf? How did you feel?

No Longer a Slave

It seems Onesimus had stolen something from his master Philemon and, out of fear of punishment, ran away. Although slavery was part of the social fabric of the time, Paul appealed to Philemon to view Onesimus beyond the social constructs, and through the eyes of Jesus as:  “no longer a slave, but more than a slave–as a dearly loved brother.” (v. 16) Paul was confident that his request would be obeyed by Philemon as he sent Onesimus back, “Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (v. 21)  I wonder how much more Philemon did to show forgiveness and give grace to Onesimus. I wonder how his actions were guided by God’s love and grace to treat Onesimus as part of God’s family.  Paul teaches us that the way we treat others should not be dictated by social constructs, but by God’s love. We can all learn that truly living for Christ means going the extra mile for someone. Paul wasn’t afraid of Philemon turning against him and refusing Onesimus. He didn’t have to beg, plead or bribe. He trusted the Holy Spirit’s work in Philemon to do the right thing. 

Do we have such faith in our brothers and sisters in the church?

Early Christian Attitudes toward Slavery

It’s true that throughout history, as recorded in the Bible, slavery was frequent in many nations. Yet when God’s son Jesus came to earth, he broke down every barrier to provide a way for all people to have a relationship with Him, take part in His mission, and share in eternal life. Paul reflects this attitude as he appeals to Philemon asking him to forgive Onesimus for his wrong and see him beyond his earthly position. Paul’s appeal reminds us that in Christ, we have a new identity. Paul also wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!”

As followers of Christ we must learn to see ourselves and others beyond our earthly status and labels. We must not shy away from marginalized people groups and look down on them, but remember that without Christ, we are all broken, hopeless and lost. 

An Opportunity for Today’s Church

Our social climate in the West is much different than the time Philemon was written (AD 60-61) but there are many places around the world where slavery and related issues still exist. Our work is far from over as the church of Christ. We have the opportunity to be like Paul:

  1. Seek the well-being of the prisoner, the poor, and the oppressed.
  2. Appeal to others through relationships of love to do the right thing.
  3. View others through the eyes of Christ–as someone whose sins He died for, and someone God longs to have an eternal relationship with.

If the law is to change, a lot of this work will be done in the courts through constitutional lawyers, and through politicians in the legislature. It is important that we keep our brothers and sisters in the courtroom and legislature in our prayers, and encourage them to keep pressing forward for the Kingdom. But, in many cases, legal change follows social change, and we the church have an important role to play in showing others that each human being deserves to be treated with love and dignity. 

May we always strive to be peacemakers, seeking the well-being of those in need or cast aside, as Paul did for Onesimus.

 Every blessing

Peter

Week beginning 6 September 2020

Navigating Transition:
The Unpredictable Life

‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’…

‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’  At once they left their nets and followed him.

MARK 1:15, 17-18


The level of change that most of us have faced in the last six months has been significant. Social distancing, face masks, and hand sanitising have become normal. Home working, online meetings, and education, together with the use of social media, have grown exponentially. Expressions like ‘furloughed’ and ‘press unmute’ are often on our lips. Outings to the garden centre or tip have caused a level of excitement unthinkable a year ago. Alongside these have been more distressing changes: bereavement, business collapse, job loss, postponed weddings or other celebrations, and isolation.

The psychological journey that accompanies change is known as transition. This journey has recognised stages: (1) signals of change, (2) ending well, (3) dis-orientation, and (4) re-orientation. Whilst transition may not occur as neatly as these stages suggest, it is the process by which we assimilate the practical, emotional, mental, and spiritual changes that are happening.

Christians are arguably best placed to cope with the level of disruption that has resulted from the pandemic. We are called to an unpredictable life. As with the first disciples, the call to ‘follow’ Jesus requires instant response, whether that call is to witness to a colleague, challenge a business directive, faithfully persevere in a difficult context, or to ‘leave our nets’. We do so because, as Jesus announced, God’s reign in this world is being established. The inner transition required is to ‘repent and believe’. Repent means to ‘turn back’ – turn back, perhaps, from the idols of convenience, comfort, and control. And believe – trust in the goodness, love, and reign of our God.

Change is the new normal. Whilst change may be sudden, we see examples of the longer, inner journey of transition throughout the Scriptures, be it forty years in the wilderness, a year of beauty treatments, forty days in the desert, or ten days in an upper room. Times in which God prepares his people for the new phase or role he is initiating.

Our autumn prayer journey, ‘Navigating Transition’, begins next week. Over 40 days we will explore the inner re-orientation and redefinition that is needed in order to incorporate any changes into our life. God always accompanies and guides us on this journey of transition and so we have incorporated specific prayer practices into this process. Do join us!

Bev Shepherd
Prayer Journeys Project Leader, LICC

Find the sign-up page at https://www.licc.org.uk/ourresources/prayer-journeys

Every Blessing,

Robert.

  • Proverbs 9:10

    “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

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