This summer at Knaphill, we return to the Book of Acts two years after spending a previous summer in it. And we return with a bang, starting with this story about the healing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas. Just the sort of incidents we encounter every day? Maybe not …
And perhaps that’s both one of the reasons these stories are in Acts and also one of the reasons they can be a problem to us. These are not exactly everyday occurrences. I want to tackle the passage by looking both the specific issue of healing and the general issue of blessing.
Firstly, then, the specifics of healing – and by ‘healing’, I am including the raising of Dorcas alongside the healing of Aeneas.
Perhaps where the place many of us begin is with our experiences. This week we have witnessed someone having a heart attack combined with brain damage, then not coming out of the induced coma, and having the life support machines turned off. I bring the experience of my Mum’s death in February and my Dad’s on-going health troubles. Should I have prayed for Mum to be healed? When she died, should I have prayed that she be raised, like Dorcas?
One of my college friends was confronted with a question like that when he was on a summer placement. A much-loved member of the church died, and somebody told my friend that they should go to the hospital mortuary and pray for this person to come back to life. My friend didn’t know what to do. There are a few biblical stories of people being raised back to this life, but at the same time the final enemy of death has not yet been ultimately defeated, and in those circumstances it seems wise to pray for a ‘good death’.
Certainly that is what we did when we knew my Mum didn’t have long. We prayed that her passing would be quick, peaceful and painless. God answered all those prayers. She declined rapidly in a few days, a community nurse stepped in to manage her pain control when she could no longer swallow tablets, and she slipped away peacefully in the early hours of the morning with a Christian nurse by her side as she took leave of the church militant to join the church triumphant. It wasn’t a raising from the dead, but it was an answer to prayer.
Or what about other experiences that we bring to these miraculous stories of healing and restored life in the Scriptures? How many people have you seen healed in answer to your prayers? To my knowledge, I have only seen one person healed when I have prayed for them.
Perhaps you have seen more healings than me when you have prayed. Or maybe in your disappointment you have lapsed back into tacking the words ‘If it be your will’ onto the end of your prayers as a catch-all clause that protects you from feeling let down when what you want to happen doesn’t occur.
And it is true that not everyone is healed in answer to prayer. We are dealing with the fact that the kingdom of God has come, but it has not come fully yet. In God’s kingdom there will be no more suffering or pain, and so we can expect healed bodies. Sometimes that does indeed happen in this life when we pray – as well as what the God-given skill of medical professionals achieves. But on other occasions, we see no healing. The kingdom of God has not yet come in completeness, and thus some suffer and struggle with chronic illness.
Against all that, let me set the testimony of one man whose approach to the healing ministry affected the Christian church for good in the late twentieth century. I refer to the American pastor John Wimber. He became famous for healings and for other ‘signs and wonders’ when he preached, and amongst the Christian denomination he founded, the Vineyard Churches. Back in 1984 I was one of thousands who crammed into Westminster Central Hall to hear him preach and lead prayer ministry for those present.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride for John Wimber, either before his ministry became so popular or later, when he was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of just 63 in 1997. Wimber’s healing ministry started with frustration, discouragement, and – dare I say – a spoonful or two of unbelief.
What happened was this: Wimber was converted from a life of drinking, smoking and drug-taking as a rock musician. (He had been the pianist for the Righteous Brothers.) When he found Christ, he heard the Bible stories about Jesus performing great miracles, and innocently asked at church, “When do we get to do this?”
Upon being told that they didn’t go in for such things at church and only held Sunday services, Wimber replied, “You mean I gave up drugs for that?”
Sometime later, he felt challenged by God to preach about healing from Luke’s Gospel. So he did. And faithfully every week, not only did he preach on the subject, he offered prayer ministry to anyone who had a need, especially those who were sick.
And nothing happened. Nobody was healed. If anything, some people got worse.
Wimber argued with God in prayer about this. God challenged him: “Are you going to preach your experiences or my Word?” So he kept on preaching the stories of the healing miracles. He continued to offer prayer ministry for anyone in need after the services. And then it all changed. Healings began to happen. The trickle became a stream became a river.
Might it be, then, that for all our disappointments, it is the right and worthwhile thing to do to keep praying for people to be healed, even if we don’t see those answers to prayer? When people told John Wimber that they were afraid to pray for people to be healed in case it didn’t happen, he had a wise response. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to someone who is prayed for? The very worst,” he said, “is that they will get blessed!”
Let us continue, then, to pray for people to be healed, and to believe that God will do what is blessed. At least we can ensure that people are blessed.
Secondly, having mentioned blessing, I want to talk about the generalities of blessing. As I said, the least that can happen when we pray in faith, even if we don’t see our desired outcome, is that people will be blessed.
And this gives us a way of finding stories like this one relevant when we don’t have the relevant spiritual gifts. Yes, we should pray and ask for people to be healed, but we also know that not everyone has the spiritual gift of healing. What about those of us who fall into that category?
Well, it seems to me that our lack of an appropriate spiritual gift should not stop us praying for people and blessing people. “I don’t have the gift of healing” should never be a cop-out clause. Every single Christian has the ability to bless people. Why? Because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have the divine resources with which to affect people for the better.
If I am unable to bring about God’s healing through my prayers, then although I do not have that specific gift to offer, I do have the general gift of blessing. People can experience love – God’s love – through me. Do you believe that? What does it look like?
Well, it is unconditional. There is no hint in our story that Aeneas had to do anything in order to receive God’s blessing (of healing) through Peter. The apostle turns up, finds the paralysed man, and speaks God’s word to him. The miracle happens. There is no sense of Aeneas doing something to deserve this. He doesn’t receive healing because he is a good man. He is blessed simply because God loves him, and God’s servant shows that.
Can we look around and say, I may not have the gift of healing, but who needs a blessing? We are not to worry whether they deserve the favour of God – after all, none of us does! We look not at the earning of God’s favour, but simply on the need. Sometimes those who need a blessing will be those who straightforwardly evoke our compassion because of their desperate situation – as doubtless Aeneas did with Peter. But on other occasions, they will be difficult people, prickly people, the awkward squad, the annoying types. But they have a need, and the answer is the blessing of God’s love. We have a calling to offer unconditional blessing. It’s the way of Jesus. He scandalised the religious leaders of his day by blessing the undeserving, and it is our call today also to risk upsetting the pious by pouring out God’s love not on those who deserve it but on those who need it. A scandal! But it’s what Jesus would have done. You don’t need a WWJD bracelet to know that.
And not only do we ask, ‘Who do we bless?’, we also ask, ‘Where do we bless?’ Dorcas (or Tabitha) may be the greater miracle – a raising from the dead, not ‘merely’ the healing of paralysis, but it happens within the family of the church. According to verse 36, she is a disciple. Her miraculous blessing comes rather in the way we pray for one another in the church. Aeneas? Well, he may be part of the church, too, given that Peter encounters him when he comes to Lydda ‘to visit the Lord’s people’ (verse 32). This healing stuff is challenging enough as it is, so let’s keep it within church structures! We’ll pray, we’ll have a prayer list for our intercessions, and we might put on the odd healing service (although we might feel rather awkward if someone from outside the church turns up – what will do or believe then?). But let’s keep it there.
The trouble is, the news gets out in both cases, which must mean that the disciples of Jesus at Lydda were well connected with their wider society. They cannot have been like many modern Christians whose only friends are other church members. They are plugged into the wider world, and when people get blessed – healed, or raised from the dead, even – their society gets to know that in both cases, Luke tells us that many people ‘turned to the Lord’ (verse 35) or ‘believed in the Lord’ (verse 42).
Isn’t it the case that too often we settle for some kind of soft life as Christians, a set of easy options where we enjoy one another’s company and do good things for each other, but make nothing like as much effort to bless the world as we do to bless one another? Yet if we were to give the sort of priority to blessing people in the world that we do to socialising with fellow Christians, or arguing about church politics, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (which is what a lot of church structures and hierarchies want to do), then I do believe we would see a change in the public perception of the Christian faith. Ultimately we would see a softening of people’s hearts to Jesus Christ, and our willingness to let blessing leak out from the church to the world might just begin a spiritual transformation in our society.
You know, it’s quite common before a service in the vestry for a church steward to pray a prayer with the preacher that asks for the service to bring a word that will connect with what people will do in serving God on a Monday morning as well as on a Sunday. Well, the way in which the astonishing news of Aeneas’ healing and Dorcas’ raising break out beyond the community of Jesus’ disciples in this story gives us such a word with which to climax this sermon. Whether we have the gift of healing or not, will we go out into the world this week and ask this simple question: who is God calling me to bless, regardless of whether they deserve it, and only giving regard to whether they need it?
If the Christian church did that consistently, I truly believe things would begin to change in the long term.
Life has been frantic since returning from leave at the weekend – and still is. Here, belatedly, is Sunday’s sermon.
Whenever I read Acts 3, one story always comes to mind. One of the thirteenth century Popes was showing the great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican. Having shown him many of the beautiful works of art, the ornate architecture and the lavish fittings, the Pope turned to Thomas and said, “No longer can the church say like Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none’.”
“No,” retorted Thomas, “and neither can she say any more, ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk’.”
So we come to this famous story, this first major episode after Pentecost and the formation of the early community of Jesus-followers. And it’s a big story. It extends beyond chapter three, which we read, into chapter four, where Peter and John are hauled before the religious authorities. Just as the opposition to Jesus begins early in the Gospels, so does opposition to the apostles and the Jesus movement in Acts. It makes for three phases in the story: the healing, Peter’s speech and the opposition.
But I’ll have to leave that final phase of this story to next week. There is more than enough to meditate upon with the first two elements of the healing itself and then the speech.
Firstly, then, the healing. Right from the start, this is a story about what discipleship means. Compare it with Luke’s first volume, his Gospel. There, Jesus’ first converts (his disciples in 5:1-11) are followed by – guess what? Jesus healing a lame man (5:17-26). For Peter and John to heal a lame man here ‘in the name of Jesus’ is a sign they are walking in his footsteps. Right from the start, this is a story, then, that points to Jesus, as indeed Peter will tell the crowd (verse 12). It’s one of those stories that remind us of that important theme: nothing we do as Christians is about drawing attention to us, it’s about pointing to Jesus. Someone once said to preachers, “You can’t make yourself out to be a great preacher and tell people how wonderful Jesus is in the same breath.” That’s true for us all, whatever our gift is. Let’s call attention to Jesus through what we do.
And what does Jesus do here through Peter and John? This is not just a miracle of healing, and if it were only that this story might be daunting or discouraging to those of us who have not seen healing. There is something Jesus does in this miracle that we can all do, whether we have a healing ministry or not. This is a miracle of inclusion.
How? The man was lame. Lameness excluded you from Temple worship under Old Testament Law. It made you ritually unclean. Healing him meant he could take his full place with the People of God at worship. While we’re not sure exactly which gate is meant by the ‘gate called Beautiful’, what is clear is that now he doesn’t need to be carried just to the gate each day. Now he can go inside the gate.
Is this not what the Gospel does? God’s grace is the miracle of inclusion. To those who believe they are unworthy, Jesus says, “Come.” To those who feel that what they have done excludes them, Jesus says, “I will make it possible for you to come inside. Here is strength for you. Here is forgiveness. Here is love. Here is a fresh start.”
Here’s a video, though, about how some people feel:
All sorts of people feel they can’t ‘come to church’. It can be about lifestyle. It can be about what culture you come from. It can be to do with your generation. Only the other day I read an article about a church where someone was preaching on the need to accept all sorts of different people in the Christian family. As it was a sunny day, the Junior Church went outside for some fun and games. But as the preacher was preaching, a man got up, went outside and told the children to shut up and stop interrupting the service. I have seen comparable incidents in my own ministry. This is, in my experience, a welcoming community. However, let’s not be complacent.
A final point about the man’s lameness. Isaiah prophesied (35:6 LXX) that the lame walking would be a sign of the age to come (along with the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the dumb speaking and so on). It’s a scripture that Charles Wesley had in mind when he wrote ‘O for a thousand tongues’ and included the verse,
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!
Biblically, then, the healing of the lame by Jesus in the Gospels and now by his followers in Acts is a sign that God’s new age has begun. Since the coming of Jesus and especially since his Resurrection we live in overlap between the old age of death and sin and the beginning of God’s new age. Healing is one sign of the new age. More widely, as the Church we are called to be the community of the new age. All that we do and share is meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. We are to be the family where those who are not OK find healing grace. We are to be characterised by love that works itself out in forgiveness and justice.
Friends, this is more possible than we think. Let me introduce you to Joel. He is six years old and lives in Reigate. He became deeply affected by what he heard at church and at school about world poverty. After seeing a TEAR Fund video at church, he knew he had to do something. He took an empty Frubes box, labelled it the ‘Poor Box’ and started collecting donations. He then decided to do a sponsored run with his mum. His Dad Martin set up a donations page on Virgin Money Giving, and wrote about it on his blog. Joel aimed to raise £60. But the word spread. So far, he has raised over £5000.
Joel could easily have said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ The difference is, he went on to say, in his own way, ‘But what I do have I give you.’ It’s time to stop looking at what we don’t have and offering what we do have for the healing of people – and indeed for the healing of the nations.
Secondly, let’s think about Peter’s speech. I say ‘speech’, because that’s what it becomes, but it’s not initially your conventional speech. Mostly you know when you’re going to give a speech. They are scheduled, they are by arrangement. But not in this case. it’s a spontaneous reaction. Peter and John have invoked the authority of Jesus to heal the lame man, and then there is something of an accidental ambush. Word gets out, and the crowd finds the man, and yes, he has been healed.
Peter has to respond. He is in Solomon’s Colonnade, a place where Jesus himself had taught, and like his Master, this is his opportunity for some courageous teaching – again, like Jesus.
Not only that, he makes Jesus the subject of what he says. If he is relying on the Holy Spirit to give him the words to say in a crisis as Jesus promised, then it is no surprise, since the work of the Spirit is to point to Jesus, if he is the theme of what Peter says. As I said, the miracle, by being a great act of mercy and social inclusion for the man, points to Jesus. Peter makes no mistake.
And this may be an encouragement for us. When we are in the world, we can get bogged down in all sorts of minutiae in what we talk about when the topic turns to religion. But one subject will always get us a hearing. One subject will always be fascinating. That subject is Jesus. I recently read a book by a Christian called Carl Medearis. He tends to spend his time in places and with people whom you would not expect to be sympathetic to Jesus. He has spent years in the Middle East, working among Muslims. Back in his native America, he befriended the gay owner of a liberal coffee shop. But Carl, rather than going for conventional evangelistic methods that put people off, simply talks about Jesus. He gets a hearing. His book ‘Speaking of Jesus: The Art of (Not) Evangelism’ is an easy and inspiring read.
But of course to speak about Jesus to this audience has different implications from those we have. Peter is dealing with people who may have been involved in the events of only some weeks earlier. His speech is similar to the one he gives at Pentecost in that he starts with defending what has happened, and then moves onto the offensive. There is more than irony here that people who longed for the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes are faced with the One in whom God would indeed fulfil their aspirations, but they conspired to have him killed. Peter has to go from showing how God has vindicated Jesus and how Jesus is behind the wonderful miracle they have witnessed to confronting his hearers with their guilt, and calling them to repentance as the only way to the blessings of God they so greatly desire. And of course, that criticism will soon lead to conflict.
What about us? When our Christian lives lead to the need for an explanation – and if they don’t, then why not – what happens when we speak of Jesus? As I said a moment ago, there is something deeply attractive about Jesus, even in a society where the church is either boring, irrelevant or negative. But also, to talk about Jesus, his Cross and Resurrection will be such that people will need to make a response. As Peter says, once Jesus is in the frame God no longer overlooks ignorance, and that means people need to make a decision about him. That can go strongly one way or the other. It may be the kind of welcome because people find Jesus attractive, or it can be the kind of hostility that is seen in different ways – from the outright violent persecution that Christian suffer in some lands to the more subtle attempts to keep faith out of the public square that sometimes happen in the West.
So, for example, the question of facing people with the claims of Jesus has been n the national news in Canada recently. A nineteen-year-old Christian student called William Swinimer wore a t-shirt to school with the slogan ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’. Some students complained they found it offensive. The vice-principal asked him not to wear it. He refused on principle, and thus began a series of suspensions which led to five days at home. Eventually the school relented, but not before Swinimer had been told he could support his religion provided he did not offend others, and the vice-principal accused him of ‘hate talk’.
Now you can listen to that as an older and potentially wiser Christian and wonder whether this young man was naïve, but just as Peter was courageous so William Swinimer was willing to risk not graduating, rather like a promising British student risking missing A-Levels and hence university.
In conclusion, you might think then that blessing others in the world in the name of Jesus is a risky business. There is no dodging that fact: it is. But what is the alternative? If we don’t, then think of the many people who won’t be blessed. And let us think of our own faith, wasting like an unused muscle.
Here we go again
? God TV are covering another ‘revival’ from the United States. Three years after the tragic mess around Todd Bentley and the Lakeland Revival, when many sincere Christians’ hopes were raised, only to be dashed, we now have The Bay Revival. I sat and watched some tonight. While I didn’t see any of the things that alarmed me about Bentley, I can’t pretend I don’t have some questions. Here are a few thoughts.
There was plenty of sung worship, but little prayer, no Bible reading whatsoever and no preaching. No confession and no intercession – except the prayer and laying on of hands for those seeking prayer for themselves. Perhaps it was significant that what seemed to be the most popular song was one with a refrain, ‘You are good’, leading to the punchline ‘You are good to me‘. Now I have no complaint at that thought in itself, but I do have a concern when that is the centre and circumference of God’s goodness.
Then there was the prayer ministry. Unlike the teaching we are following in the Letting Jesus Heal course at present, this was not about ‘team’ but about the ‘star’ who was leading the prayer. Mainly young British evangelist Nathan Morris but also John Kilpatrick, former leader of the Pensacola outpouring in the mid-1990s, the leader is at the centre of all the praying. He calls out ‘fire’ or a ‘mighty flow’, lays hands on people and assistants are there to catch them as they fall. If they don’t fall, he keeps praying. As soon as they do, he moves on. I have no problem in principle with people falling under the power of the power of the Holy Spirit, but I would reject any notion of it as the (almost) infallible sign that God is at work.
Ultimately, the sign will be whether the people so prayed for do show evidence of the fire of the Spirit in their lives after the event. We have no way of measuring it. I hope it will be true, but I am loath to jump to conclusions in the ways that the preachers seemed to here.
And likewise the claims for healing. I so want to believe that cancer of the oesophagus is being driven out, as was claimed tonight. However, it needs testing. On the other hand, though, in fairness there are many videos online showing a woman called Delia Knox getting out of a wheelchair and singing at one of the meetings last year. Others show her arriving back at her home.
This careful evaluation tends to think this is a genuine miracle. On balance, I tend to agree. To me, it looks like this has ‘stuck’. It doesn’t seem to be one of those temporary improvements that then regresses away from the original highly charged circumstances. If so, then although I have real reservations about the style adopted, God seems less concerned with that than me, and more concerned to be merciful to a woman in need. There will still need to be issues handled around those who have expectations raised only to be disappointed, but the healing of Delia Knox looks like the real deal to me, and if so, then may God be praised.
Finally, though, I was bothered by what I heard towards the end of the broadcast. People were invited to come to the front to receive prayer – good. But they were asked to bring their offerings with them. I think it wasn’t meant in a sinister way – bring money in order to be healed – because of the commentary Morris gave immediately afterwards. But the juxtaposition was unfortunate. However, while Morris said he didn’t want people to take away from their regular offerings (tithes) to their own churches, he did exhort them to ‘sow into revival’ – a phrase often heard in these contexts. Apparently the Bay Revival needs lots of money for trucks. And I just wonder whether a revival of God needs high budgets – or am I being unfair? Does it need big venues, world tours and international television coverage (although that is how I came to know of this, I admit)? OK, some Christian projects do. But it’s like the original Pentecost could never have happened, being such a low-budget affair.
So – has anyone else followed this? What opinions do you have?
Sally Coleman and I seem to be interested in much the same things right now. Not only have we both written about theology in the last couple of days, she has written about healing and now here am I doing the same.
We’ve just started running the DVD course ‘Letting Jesus Heal‘ from the Christian Healing Mission at Knaphill. Now before I go any further, I should make full disclosure and say that I have known John Ryeland, the director of the CHM, for a good number of years, and indeed went to school with his wife Gillian! So you can accuse me of bias if you like.
However, I want to commend this course enthusiastically, based on the first two weeks of the six. What I like about the teaching here is that John combines a faithful openness to the power of God to heal with a quiet, gentle approach. In style this is about as far removed as you can get from the hyped-up school of healing ministry so prevalent in some places. It is therefore both safe and ideal for introducing an expectancy that God will work in a context where people might be nervous of showmanship, noise or manipulation.
Not only that, one thing I deeply value about John’s teaching is that he opens people up to the belief and experience that God is speaking to us much more than we realise. How often do we think that God is not speaking to us, or just does not speak to us – especially in contrast to other Christians who, in the words many years ago of Gerald Coates, ‘have more words from the Lord before breakfast than Billy Graham has had in a lifetime’?
Eighteen months ago, I heard John give his teaching on ‘Encountering Jesus‘ and had a simple but profound experience of Christ in relation to some serious pain and disappointment in my life. It forms the second session of the healing course, and while I obviously cannot share any confidences, I know that a number of people heard Jesus speak to them on Wednesday night in the course.
If you are looking for something to encourage people in the area of Christian healing, then, I recommend you take a good look at this course. And if you’re not far from Knaphill, feel free to drop in on us next Wednesday at 8:00 pm.
Well, what a great day I’ve had. I serve on the committee of the Essex Christian Healing Trust, and today was our AGM. You wouldn’t think an AGM made for a great day, would you? Well, we did the business – accounts, elections and so on – in thirty minutes over lunch. The rest of the day was a wonderful conference, led by John and Gillian Ryeland from the Christian Healing Mission in London.
Now I ought to declare a connection before going any further: Gillian is a friend of mine from teenage days. (Note, Gillian, if you read this – I didn’t say old friend!) We went to the same secondary school, and before she married an Anglican vicar she was a member of the same Methodist circuit where I grew up. We were in a circuit youth preaching team together, where I gained my first experience of leading worship and preaching. I have met her and John on and off over the years – usually at the Christian Resources Exhibition!
Today, John gave us a series of talks called ‘Meeting Jesus – Finding Healing’. You can find MP3s of these talks when John gave them on an earlier occasion here. Essentially, John’s teaching could be broken down into a rough structure, something like this. The first stage was to remind us thoroughly that God the Father, Abba, dearly loves us. He took various word images from Ephesians 1 to reinforce this.
The story I most liked was an illustration he gave of forgiveness. He said that many people pictured the way God takes away our sins as if they are a document he takes out of our hands and places in a filing cabinet. They are not on view, but when we sin again and are forgiven, another document goes into that cabinet. The file gets bigger, and God can bring out the whole file to accuse us. This, however, is contradictory to the scriptural notion that God ‘remembers our sins no more’. Rather than put our sins in a filing cabinet, he said, the office equipment God uses is a shredder. I love that: our sins are shredded.
Having begun with the Father’s love, John’s second stage was to raise our expectation that we may meet with Jesus and hear him speak to us. Quoting John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice’, he encouraged us to be more optimistic that we can hear the voice of Jesus. Without wishing us to lack discernment, he said that many Christians are more afraid of deception than they are expectant that Jesus will speak to them.
That led to a third stage of interaction with Jesus. If he has spoken, what is our response? It puts the focus away from the problem and onto Christ. It takes us away from agonising over the will of God, because everything is a response to God. Christ sets the agenda.
All this he built into a prayer model that we can use for ourselves or to accompany someone who comes with a prayer request. Firstly using volunteers and later encouraging us to try this with each other in pairs, the prayer minister encourages the person with the need to dwell quietly on the love of God the Father for them. This was like brief, guided prayer. Then the prayer minister asks the person to sense where Jesus is. Some could describe that geographically (“He is right here”, indicating with a hand). Others did so by describing something they sensed or saw in their mind’s eye. Then the prayer minister encourages the person to hear what Jesus is saying to them. This is followed by considering how to respond to that.
I have described the method briefly. This is a summary of three talks, so about two hours’ worth of material. There are some obvious caveats to apply, but I found it a helpful, simple and liberating approach. I had two experiences where I had a clear encounter with Jesus, and he said significant things to me about a major crisis I have been facing over a period of months. I’m afraid I can’t give you any specifics here, because the nature of the issue is that it’s one I can’t discuss publicly. What I can say is, be encouraged. I hope this commends the Christian Healing Mission to you.
Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.
All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.
And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.
Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.
So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.
Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!
And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’
Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.
Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.
What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.
Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!
As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.
But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.
Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.
The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)
You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’
Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’
So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.
What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.
So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.
But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.
In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.
However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,
And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.
If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.
But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.
Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.
 Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.
As I said yesterday, I determined that since I would be housebound today I would find other resources for worship. I’ve never been happy with Songs Of Praise because a series of hymns does not of themselves make an act of worship. Likewise, the Sunday service on Radio 4 has never connected much with me. It always contained more elements of worship, but has always felt liked a précis to me.
I thought this would be a good discipline for myself to find some worship. I also thought it would be good, given the number of elderly church members who end up being temporarily or permanently housebound and reliant on whatever the airwaves bring.
Having said that, given that I was eschewing Songs Of Praise and the Sunday Service, I was looking at other delivery methods: digital TV and Internet streaming.
This morning, I opted for TV, knowing that most of the streamed Internet sources I’d found were from North America, and time zones meant they woulnd’t be viewable until tea-time. So, going through the ‘religion’ section on the Sky TV electronic programme guide, I avoided the obvious prosperity filth from Kenneth Copeland. Likewise, I steered clear of glossy Hillsong pep talks from Brian and Bobbie Houston, and I didn’t go near Ed Young, the man who infamously put out a video complaining about sheep-stealing pastors when he sets up new churches in an area without checking with the existing ministers.
But there was something British on UCB TV, and I opted for that. AT 10 am they were showing ‘Days Of Wonder’ from New Life Church, Hull, with Jarrod Cooper. Cooper wrote the popular worship song ‘King of kings, majesty‘, which I have found a helpful, humble and orthodox piece for services.
The opening credits showed Cooper walking (around Hull?), whilst linking the programme to the church, giving a subliminal hint that New Life Church equals Jarrod Cooper. He is the senior pastor, but I’d hope he wouldn’t want to give out a message like that. There may have been an intention to communicate something else, but I have to say that is a ‘viewer response’ reading.
Then Cooper introduced the show briefly, and I thought he said we were then going over live to worship at the church. However, that clearly wasn’t the case. We went straight into his message, which was video edited for the length of the programme.
The skeleton of his talk was fine and worthy, but I was concerned by some applications. It was a sermon about the supremacy of Christ, and although he referred to biblical passages as he went along, I didn’t hear an opening passage he was expounding. Colossians 1 would have fitted nicely. He preached about the supremacy of Christ in four areas: over the church, over creation, over wisdom, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the fourth point.
In supremacy over the church, he was uncontroversial but what he said needs hearing. Christ is head of the church, not the Pope, not the pastor and not the trustees.
As to supremacy over creation, this is where it all started going hyper-charismatic. He only – as I recall – illustrated this from the miraculous: the feeding of the five thousand, the translation of Philip in Acts 8 etc. He spoke of a five hour car journey taking two hours. Now I don’t have any theological problem with the miraculous, but I have a pastoral concern here about balance. I am all for expanding people’s faith – often the problem I encounter in myself and others is an insufficient level of expectation about what God can do. However, if you only accent the miraculous in talking about the supremacy of Christ over creation, you are setting up other believers for a fall, when not everything works out in the Christian paperback blockbuster way they’d hoped. Furthermore, Christ’s supremacy over creation is about ongoing issues like the upholding ogf the universe by the word of his power. I have to admit, something could have been edited out, but I was left with this concern about balance from what was shown.
When he got onto the supremacy of Christ over wisdom, I got more than concerned. Don’t misunderstand me: the basic point is both sound and important. As someone who enjoys the intellectual side of faith (but sees that as an opportunity for worship), I wholeheartedly agree that all our thinking must be submitted to Christ. Yet what we got in this section of the sermon was just some bashing of left wing stereotypes. “The feminists [they’re all the same, aren’t they?] have a problem with Ephesians,” he announced. Onto the usual stuff about headship and submission and that the male/Christ headship is based on sacrificial love. Well, yes, but what is headship? Didn’t Paul say that the great mystery he was speaking about here was about Christ and the Church, in which case he’s using an illustration from the marriage patterns of his day rather than making male headship normative? Has Cooper ever read any egalitarians? Yet he sees fit to bash them.
A little while later, he announced that “Global warming is the latest religion of the Left”. Well, apart from the sloppy language – the point is, nobody adores global warming, they are devoted to reversing climate change – I thought, oh no, he sounds like the American Christians who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence. But we shouldn’t be bothered, he said, because one day God is going to roll up this planet like a blanket. If I’d had my copy of Tom Wright‘s ‘Surprised By Hope‘ to hand, I swear I would have thrown it at the TV screen. I had hoped that British evangelical-charismatics were better informed on this one, thanks to the efforts of TEAR Fund and others, but the message isn’t getting through to some of the troops.
The service ended by cutting to brief footage of prayer ministry time at the end of the service. Cooper was praying with a man who was deaf in one ear. After prayer, the man said he could hear now in that ear. I do hope and pray that is still the case. I remain convinced that it is important we ‘show ourselves to the priests’ and offer evidence to society of healings. I do believe God heals today, but we have to think about how we present those claims.
Finally, the broadcast concluded with “Buy my CD, please!” A long commercial for Cooper’s current CD. It was no different from the adverts at the end of the Brian and Bobbie Houston or Ed Young shows, it just came with an English accent, not an Australian or American one.
What about tonight? I watched a whole Sunday service online from Saddleback in California. I was much more favourably disposed towards this, although it wasn’t without its problems. The major issue I had with it is that – like Songs Of Praise – it really didn’t contain several critical elements of worship. The order of service went as follows:
Opening worship song
Notices – these included plugs for a church classic car event and the Saddleback Comedy Connection. Huh?
Two more worship songs
Rick Warren‘s sermon
Mention of where resources were available to help with follow-up to sermon
Closing song, which didn’t seem to be for congregational participation.
What’s missing? Plenty. Let’s start with prayer. No adoration – well, you could say that was included in the songs. But no confession and assurance of forgiveness – I think that’s pastorally essential. How many people are coming to worship with burdens and need that assurance? Also, no intercession, so the church didn’t function in her priestly rôle. Finally, no Bible reading before the sermon. There were plenty of individual verses in the sermon. It was a topical sermon, rather than an expository one.
The worship songs were mainstream typical ones from the likes of Tim Hughes and Joel Houston. It was a bit liked watching a truncated version of Spring Harvest big top worship. Charismatic songs without the display of charismatic gifts.
What about the sermon? I was much more comfortable here, even if I disagreed with the occasional comment and it was too long, around seventy-plus minutes. Worshippers get a sermon outline and it was available on the website, so that helped in following what Warren had to say. He is an engaging, warm speaker with a genuine pastoral heart. The issue was less with the seventy minutes than the seven (or eight, if you count the conclusion) points he made. There was too much to take in. Yes, again you could take it away with you, but it was a lot to work on. It was the third in a series called ‘The Jesus Model’ (what kind of model, I don’t know). This one focussed on Jesus as a model for stress management, making for a timely and relevant subject. Some will talk about ‘the curse of relevance’, but I think Warren wanted the people to apply their faith to life for it to make a difference. I took some notes ready for this blog post (and for my own personal benefit, I’d like to think), and so what follows is a summary of the thoughts that struck me from the sermon.
Warren began by referring to the new film ‘Terminator Salvation‘. The synopsis says that the grown-up John Connor. in fighting the machines as part of the resistance, has a ‘purpose-driven life’ (yes, really!) and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. However, said Warren, only one person has ever truly had the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, and that was Jesus on the cross. (Brilliant illustration! If only my people knew what Terminator was!) Because of that, he above all knows how to help us with stress.
1. Identification – know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, then society will try to label you. Don’t take your identity from brand names. (Warren meets Naomi Klein?) Don’t fall into the twin traps of either copying or comparing. He could have said a little more about our identity being in Christ as beloved children, I guess, but great start.
2. Motivation – know who you are living for. You’ll always disappoint someone. Whoever you’re dependent upon for your happiness is your god. ‘Nobody can pressure me without my permission,’ he said – not quite sure that’s right, although I can see what he’s getting at.
3. Vocation – know your calling. He used the familiar Saddleback SHAPE analysis to emphasise that everyone has a calling to ministry of one form or another. If you don’t clarify your calling, you’ll fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent, rather than getting on with the important.
4. Concentration – focus on what matters most. If Satan can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. ‘You can fill your life with good things, or you can waste your life on good things.’ ‘This one thing I do, or these forty things I dabble in?’ ‘Is what I’m doing right now fulfilling my calling?’
5. Meditation – listen to God. A quiet time, yes, but more. Warren stresed the importance of extended silence. We have to strip away to give God a chance to speak to us. He talked about meditation as being like a worrying away at a biblical text.
6. Collaboration – join a small group. You were never intended to handle stress by yourself. To say you don’t need a small group is either arrogance or fear. Jesus needed a small group, and he was perfect!
7. Recreation – take time to recharge. Sabbath-keeping is in the Ten Commandments for a reason, and remember Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. When Psalm 23 says ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures’, remember that if you don’t take sabbaths, God may well make you lie down for your own good, but it mgiht take something serious like an illness to slow you down to do it.
His conclusion was about salvation in terms of Jesus’ invitation to take hiseasy yoke upon us and discover that his burden is light.
At last. I’ve just finished typing my summary notes of ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘. They exceed three and a half thousand words, so when I post them to the blog I shall certainly split them up. There are probably about seven sections in what I’ve summarised.
The job got finished, because the children’s school was open again today. Snow still lies thick on much ground around here, including the school playground, which was out of bounds, but a path had been cleared to enable parents to get children to their classrooms this morning. Peace at last!
I made one or two phone calls this morning. I am due to travel on Sunday to Cliff College in the Peak District to spend five days studying there. Every day I enter their postcode into the five-day weather forecast section of the BBC website. Currently, heavy snow is predicted for them on Sunday. It’s too early for them to consider cancelling the course, but clearly it is a possibility.
During the day, I found a particularly interesting blog post on Mark Batterson’s Evotional site. Entitled ‘Chief Storyteller‘, Batterson proposes this as a description of a senior pastor’s rôle. We are called to retell ‘genesis stories’ that show where we have come from and where we are headed. There is an intimate connection between the past and the future, to the point that ‘stories of the past … frame visions of the future.’
I think there is a lot in this. My one query (which I left in a comment on the blog) runs something like this. I see great value in this approach in that the ‘genesis stories’ tell us key things about our spiritual DNA, the purposes for which God called our community into being. I’m not so sure they remain the entire framing reference for all future vision. We need to make allowance for the possibility of paradigm shifts that appear to come out of nowhere and seem to bear little relation to our prior trajectory. Even where genesis stories do give us vision for the future, that vision can change shape drastically. A classic example would be the radical reinterpretation of Old Testament texts in the New Testament. In the light of Christ, OT texts bear a wieght they didn’t originally carry in the minds of their authors.
Let’s end today with this. I received a friend request on Facebook today and I didn’t recognise the name. I sent a polite message to the person, asking her to remind me where I knew her. Back came a reply in which she admitted she didn’t know me, but had seen my name on a mutual friend’s list and she thought I was ‘an awesome man of God’.
Well, the lady is clearly very kind, but Debbie would soon correct her misapprehension of me. I am nervous of these descriptions, not out of low self-esteem, but out of a need to protect myself. I have seen Christian leaders who believe the hype, and I wait for them to fall. I can remember one grisly example back in Kent.
Eleven years ago, I was involved in putting on a one-day conference for members of worship bands. Cutting a long story short, at the end of the evening celebration, two women went from the conference to pray with a man who should have been there but had sustained a fall. As they prayed, he felt the heat of the Holy Spirit and was healed. I emailed this story around a few networks at the time, and back came a reply from someone who ran an email group about revival: “David, you mighty man of God.” I had to sit at the computer and type back immediately, explaining I hadn’t even been one of the people who had prayed for the sick man. I was merely recounting the story. As I said, believing the hype is dangerous. The glory must always go to God. And not just in the times of ‘success’, but the opposite too. ‘Though the fig tree does not blossom … yet will I praise him,’ said Habbakuk.
But for those of you who might enjoy a satirical take on self-important and self-deluded leaders, I can do no better than to recommend the wonderful Brant Hansen’s 417 Rules Of Awesomely Bold Leadership. Have a smile. Or a hernia, if you read too many.
Today, I have undertaken my last ministerial duties before I start that sabbatical I keep talking about. I attended a meeting this morning of the Essex Christian Healing Trust, on which I sit as the official Methodist representative.
Before our mercifully brief AGM, we had an hour and a half trailing a major conference to be held on 4th April at Chelmsford Cathedral, where there will be various workshops on the healing ministry in various forms. A couple of our guest speakers were present to give us a flavour of their input on the day. One was my friend Anthony Rose, author of ‘Stranger On The Shore‘, an account of his struggle with emotional healing. The other was Paul Harcourt, vicar of All Saints Woodford Wells.
Paul is bringing a team to the conference to talk about their extensive practice of offering the healing ministry with the laying on of hands. His brief talk this morning was thoughtful. He talked about how many of us set off into something like the healing ministry with great enthusiasm and passion, but then disappointments set in. We have to be realistic about brokenness and the incompleteness of God’s kingdom, he said, referring not least to his own autistic son. But, he said, how many of us let the disappointments shape everything? They provide necessary colour and shade, and they qualify unremitting triumphalism. But should they be the determining factor in our understanding or interpretation?
And I just had a brief thought that the experience of disappointment doesn’t just affect an area like the healing ministry. Disappointments in all sorts of areas need handling carefully. We need them to inform a proper realism, but when they quench faith and we rewrite faith on a basis that we should expect little or nothing at all, then something has gone seriously wrong.
Does this resonate with you? Are there aspects of life and faith where disappointment has distorted faith instead of informing it? What do you think?
Regular blogging is quite difficult at present, as we get ready for our move next month. Last night I had my big circuit farewell service. Some had questioned my choice of venue, one of the ecumenical churches I have served. Why not the main church I had served, a small ordinary Methodist church? I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, but I thought that after eight years here and building up all sorts of networks there might be a lot of people who wanted to say goodbye. I thought we needed a larger venue.
I was right: I arrived twenty minutes before the service was due to start and I couldn’t get in the large car park. The whole service went brilliantly well. My sermon, which could have caused a few ruffled feathers, had an amazing response. I would estimate that about a quarter of the congregation came forward at the end to be anointed with oil.
There was a bunfight afterwards, except I never made it to the church hall even to get a cup of tea, due to the number of people wanting to speak to me. By the time I arrived home, around 9:15 pm, I was emotionally shattered. I felt the same when I woke up this morning: legs like jelly, plus a headache. (And no, it was the usual non-alcoholic Methodist communion wine.)
Some of these emotions made a bit more sense when I read the following wonderful words this morning from Nancy Beach’s beautiful book An Hour On Sunday:
‘Take a moment to mentally scroll through names and faces of people in your church. Think of someone who came to faith through your community. Now call to mind a few more people – someone who discovered spiritual gifts, someone else who found healing for family relationships, another who learned how to manage money, care for her body, or worship his Creator in new ways. Can you think of specific names? Those people, those eternal souls, are the fruit of your labor. And people are what matter most to God …
‘Every ministry is a scrapbook of faces, with new pages added every year. As we turn the pages of the scrapbook and look at each person’s eyes, we’re reminded of his or her story, of the impact of our church on that individual’s one and only life. Life change. There’s nothing more rewarding.’ (pp 254, 255)
So after eight years when I had really wondered whether what I had done here had been worth anything, when I had become painfully aware of my own failings (either true failings or those imposed by the unrealistic expectations of others) I think I’ve finally come to see that the jelly in my legs and the headache are about a realisation that I actually do have a ministry scrapbook I can take away from this place.