Pastor’s Thoughts – June 2019

Dear friends, 

As the saying goes, change is here to stay! 

I wonder if there have ever been more turbulent times in history than the last few years? Hardly anything seems to have gone according to prediction and we have no idea what will happen in this country in the next year. 

It is said that there is an ancient Chinese curse: ‘May you live in uncertain times.’ It actually sounds like something that someone made up, but nonetheless it does speak into the fact that we crave certainty and stability. 

Yet much of today’s world economy is based on bringing uncertainty. The principle of disruptive technology has flowed from many of the new high-tech companies in California. New companies coming in to do business in new ways that established companies can’t match. So Uber has sought to take the market away from traditional taxi firms by introducing new ways of hailing cabs; Airbnb have changed the way that the holiday market works and Facebook has created a social media platform that doesn’t just connect people but builds new markets to be exploited. The argument by many of these new entrepreneurs is that this is just the same as previous advances – Henry Ford disrupted the motor industry with the assembly line. 

In the midst of all this accidental and deliberate disruption in our lives we have our Summer celebration of our bicentenary. Karl Marx famously said: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ Happily we do not believe in religion, for we believe in Jesus Christ. In the Lord Jesus what we see is at once the greatest disruptive force in human history and the greatest source of peace in a troubled world. Marx rightly saw the longing for freedom, peace, meaning and significance in mankind’s reach for religion. What he failed to see was that, far from being a drug to help people through bad times, in Christ we have the answer to these needs. He disrupts the world order by calling us to follow him. Yet at the same time Hebrews 13:8 reminds us: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’

In Christ we have both certainty and something dynamically new. We are not just celebrating because an institution has existed for 200 years, we celebrate because Jesus began this family 200 years ago and is active here today and for as long as he chooses. He is our peace in a turbulent world and a disruptive force in a world that needs love, righteousness and justice. 

Hallelujah! 

Not all unexpected change is worrying. For our anniversary weekend we have booked John Archer to be with us on the Saturday evening (23 November). John visited us many years ago and is a brilliant comedy magician. This year he also reached the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent! We weren’t expecting that! 

In case you missed my announcement the other day, we have appointed Gustavo Gubiani as Minister-in-Training. We have been seeking after the Lord for the right person to fill the role of a second minister since Garry Steel left and we are delighted that Gustavo will fill that vacancy. Gustavo has two more years of study at Spurgeon’s College. To support him, we have had the offer of voluntary service from Pastor Uelton Ricardo, a Baptist minister in Brazil, who works for the Brazilian government and is able to take a career break and come to volunteer with us. Please pray for his visa application to go through smoothly. 

Yours in Christ,
 John 

The Psalms: Care for Creation

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion;
    to you our vows will be fulfilled.
You who answer prayer,
    to you all people will come.
When we were overwhelmed by sins,
    you forgave our transgressions.
Blessed are those you choose
    and bring near to live in your courts!
We are filled with the good things of your house,
    of your holy temple.

Read more…

Psalm 65

This Psalm celebrates and revels in the luxuriant grace of God. Verse 3 describes us in our natural state, falling short of God’s will for our lives, failing to to be his image bearers, failing to care for one another and failing to care for his wonderful creation. But rather than being overwhelmed and sucked down by the vortex of sin we find to our amazement that we are forgiven. In the New Testament and in the Gospel of Jesus we see more clearly the beauty of that outstanding forgiveness and in the cross of Christ we see the incredible cost of that forgiveness to God.

Like the parable of the prodigal (Luke 15) forgiveness is not about staying at arm’s length from a distant deity who has begrudgingly let us off the hook, but here the Psalmist celebrates that forgiveness has led to reconciliation and restoration and revelry. We don’t stay far away but amazingly are invited near, to live in God’s court (v. 4). When Jesus died the temple curtain which represented a ‘no entry’ sign into God’s presence was torn in two from top to bottom meaning all God’s children were free to come through and dwell in our heavenly Father’s presence forever.

The God who forgives our sin is the one who is sovereign over the whole world. He does what is right, he is the one who created the high mountains and the foaming seas (vv. 6, 7), although they might menace us they are in his hands. There is no problem, no situation beyond him (v. 7), ‘The child of God in seasons of trouble should fly at once to him who stills the seas: nothing is too hard for him’ (Spurgeon). 

The God who forgives our sin is also the creator of the whole world. He didn’t just light the blue touch paper and retire into heavenly glory but is intimately involved with his creation. The Psalmist states that the whole earth is filled with awe at God’s wonders but that’s on a good day, it’s all too easy not to be awed and to take the wonders of nature for granted. Many of us live frantic lives but when we slow down and take the time to look around us there is joy to be found in creation, in its beauty, and in its rich abundance. 

What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs, and stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass, where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight, streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, and watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.

WH Davies

The Psalmist would have added ‘and praise God on whom this rich earth depends’, the God who constantly waters the crops, watches over them, blesses them, bales out the hay and numbers the livestock (vv. 9–11).

As we thank God for his material provision, we are powerfully reminded that not all share in this bounty, there are still many in our world who go without and for whom life is a constant struggle to survive. There is enough for everyone but greed and conflict get in the way. The Psalm challenges us to do all we can to see that others share in the fruits of creation.

The Psalm also encourages us to care for creation, our number one job (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). At the time of writing, Extinction Rebellion have brought central London to a halt. Some people have objected to the disruption environmental activists have caused but there will be far greater disruption and damage done if their concerns are not prioritised. In his daily readings on the Psalms, Tim Keller writes, ‘God’s people should be at the forefront of those who care for creation.’ Sadly, far too often, we have been in the rear guard. Take time today to appreciate the handiwork of our creator and care for his creation.

The Psalms: Arrows from the Shadows

Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint;
    protect my life from the threat of the enemy.
Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
    from the plots of evildoers.
They sharpen their tongues like swords
    and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.
They shoot from ambush at the innocent;
    they shoot suddenly, without fear.

Read more…

Psalm 64

The problem of evil haunts humanity. Why do the evil prosper? The question is as contemporary in the 21st century as it was 3,000 years ago.  Unlike some of the other Psalms there is no indication when in David’s life it might have been written. Maybe David was king, theoretically in charge, but like many leaders since he was realising the limits of his power, tearing his royal hair out at those who thwart his purposes – in this case criminals who evade detection.

David’s complaint covers verbal assault (v. 3) and physical violence (v. 4). If the arrows are taken literally then his enemies hold life cheap and are prepared to murder to get their way. These evildoers conspire and plot in secret (v. 2). Their gifts of inventiveness, intelligence and ingenuity are not used for the good of their communities but simply used to further their own wicked ways at the expense of others (v. 6). They act with impunity thinking that no one sees (v. 5) and that they will get away with all their scheming.

The reality though is different. God is love (1 John 4:16) and because he is love he will judge the world in his righteousness, a theme that occurs throughout the Psalms. God allows evil to have a say but evil will not be allowed to have the final say. We may feel as uncomfortable with the idea of God as heavenly archer as we do with the burning lakes of Revelation and it may be wise not to press the imagery too far, but the message that God triumphs over evil is at the heart of the gospel: it is the message of Easter Sunday when Christ rose triumphant.

It is a message of hope and encouragement to those who suffer injustice, that their suffering does not go unnoticed, that there is a God in heaven who sees. A previous Psalm spoke of how God recorded the misery of the oppressed and collected their tears in a jar (56:8). This message of God’s judgment however should not make us complacent. The divide between good and evil does not just lie between ‘us and them’ but runs through our own hearts and we need to think on our own lives. Do we treat others unfairly? Maybe only few of us are shooting arrows from the shadows but are there cruel words that have been said, characters that have been assassinated? In the New Testament James has strong words about those who praise God with one breath and curse others with the next (James 3:9, 10). We need to reflect on our own lives: are there times when we are all too good at seeing other peoples’ faults and yet are completely oblivious to our own?

The Bible is really one long call to repentance, not to feel sorry or sad but to turn around from paths of destruction, from ways of living that harm ourselves and others and to embrace a better way, to find fullness of life, abundant life, in the triune God who has come to us in Christ.

This Psalm is an encouragement to those who are going through tough and difficult times and, if we’re not in that number, it’s a reminder to pray for those who are, particularly for our sisters and brothers around the world who are in need God’s protection from conspiracy and plotting.

The Psalms: Remembering God’s Faithful Love

You, God, are my God,
    earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water.

Read more…

Psalm 63

I always think that this sounds like quite a ‘nice’ Psalm. It conjures up images of a hot summer’s day and cool refreshing drinks. It all sounds very pleasant and chilled out – sitting on a deckchair or a lounger, enjoying the sunshine, your thirst quenched by a cold drink of whatever you fancied. In reality though the Psalm is anything but gentle. The title of the Psalm says David was in the desert of Judah. And the desert – in reality more of a wilderness – can be barren and brutal with no escape from the relentless heat of the sun.

Like the desperate all-dominating thirst of the traveller stranded in a waterless wilderness such is David’s craving for the living God. Knowing God isn’t ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant’: it’s a matter of life and death. The great French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about the void which we try in vain to fill with everything around us, realising ‘though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.’ Life doesn’t make sense without knowing the one who created us for himself.  

David’s present longing is made more poignant because of his previous experience of beholding God’s power and glory in the sanctuary (v. 2). David doesn’t dwell on or live in that past but his reflections lead him to think about the future – and he declares that the loving kindness of God that he has witnessed is better than life (v. 3).  

The English word translated ‘love’ or ‘loving kindness’ is the Hebrew word ‘ḥesed’ and it is one of the most important words in the Old Testament. John Goldingay writes that ḥesed refers to ‘an extraordinary act of generosity, allegiance or grace whereby someone pledges him or herself to someone else when there is no prior relationship between them and therefore no reason why the person should do so… It can also refer to a similar extraordinary act that takes place when there is a relationship between people but one party has let the other party down and therefore has no right to expect any faithfulness from the other’ (Psalms for Everyone, Psalms 1-72, p. 228).

Because of God’s ‘ḥesed’ David says he will glorify God as long as he lives (vv. 3, 4). Having witnessed God’s committed loyal love David made the decision to praise God – even in the wilderness. If we are to seek a historical context for the Psalm it would be after David had become king (v. 11) and after he had seen the Ark of Covenant (v. 2) and when he had to flee from his rebellious son, Absalom (2 Samuel 15-19). Some of us have had troublesome or rebellious children but they didn’t go that far! It’s difficult to imagine David’s pain, not just as a king with the danger of losing his crown but as a parent with his own flesh and blood having turned against him. 

We have seen God’s ‘ḥesed’ fully revealed to us in Jesus. We might also go through wilderness experiences such as David’s, what St John of the Cross described as ‘the dark night of the soul’, but because we have witnessed God’s power and glory embodied in Christ we can still make the choice to praise God.

In vv. 6–8 David returns to his present because that is where the future begins and these verses and those that end the Psalm (vv. 9–11) remind us of David’s particular circumstances. He is being hunted down (v. 9), which is why he so desperately seeks God’s protection. David’s time in the wilderness was a time of danger and insecurity: during that time David needed to remember what he had witnessed of God’s ḥesed, his faithful love, and that remembrance became the basis of future hope (v. 11).

The Psalms are our tutors in prayer. We are unlikely to find ourselves in circumstances like David’s but there are times when we can feel under attack, when circumstances and people appear to be against us. David invites us to focus on the God of faithful love and, in remembering who he is and what he has done in the past, to be filled with hope for the future.

The Psalms: Appearances Can Be Deceptive

Truly my soul finds rest in God;
    my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
    he is my fortress, I shall never be shaken.

How long will you assault me?
    Would all of you throw me down –
    this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
Surely they intend to topple me
    from my lofty place;
    they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
    but in their hearts they curse.

Read more…

Psalm 62

St Augustine once said that our hearts do not find rest until they rest in God. The Psalmist agrees. We are born to trouble as sparks fly upward from the fire (Job 5:7) and it’s easy to get swallowed up by the flames. Sparks fly from a variety of sources. People get burnt up by relationships that go wrong, scorched by disappointment, slowly consumed by illness and old age.

In v. 1 David seems to be talking to himself, reminding himself of his only true source of security in an insecure world, and that is something that we need to do as well. The imagery of God as rock featured in the previous Psalm (61:2) and is picked up by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when he declares that whoever listens to him and puts his words into practice is building on solid rock (Matthew 7:24).

Left to ourselves we often don’t amount to much. David declares himself a leaning wall and a tottering fence (v. 3). David was a celebrity, national hero, rock star, Elvis and four-star general all rolled into one. He seemed to have it all, but in the Psalms David reveals his vulnerability. He might be seen by others – maybe most – as being in a lofty place (v. 4) but David knows only too well how deceptive appearances might be. His true security rests not in power or wealth or status but in God his rock, something so important that it needs repeating (vv. 2, 6). If it was worth David recalling and reiterating that conviction, then how much more is it so for ourselves when we are confronted with our own vulnerability? These words are a mantra for weary souls.

David’s self-encouragement becomes public as he exhorts others to find refuge in the God who can be trusted to hear the cries of our hearts (v8).  We’re all human, we’re all travelling the same road and we’re all heading in the same direction – as David’s son Solomon relentlessly reminded us (Ecclesiastes 9:2, 3). Whether we have fame and fortune or obscurity and poverty, our lives are just a breath (v. 9). The question then arises, how we should live our lives? What are we to do with the brief time that God has lent to us? The temptation in David’s day and our own is to live for ourselves and to use others as a means to our own ends. David specifically mentions extortion and profiting from crime but there are plenty of legal ways in which we can use and exploit others. There is no mention here of judgement or punishment, but underneath all of this is the unspoken conviction that such a life is self-destructive and that the person who lives that way will ultimately harm themselves.

The Psalm ends with a short confession or creed: God is all powerful and God is love (vv. 11, 12). God sees what is done (v. 12) and will ensure that the right prevails. As always, we see the fulfilment of those words most clearly in the Gospels and the story of Easter. At the cross we see the full extent of God’s love, and in Christ’s rising we see the power of the God who is our rock and our salvation. 

The Psalms: Just Be Yourself?

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you,
    I call as my heart grows faint;
    lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
    a strong tower against the foe.

Read more…

Psalm 61

One of the most common phrases of advice in contemporary western society is, ‘Just be yourself.’ In some ways there is nothing wrong with that particular piece of pop psychology. The genius of the Psalms is their honesty. The writers do not hold back on their feelings: there are exuberant outbursts of joy, expressions of confusion, painful confessions of guilt. The Psalms remind us that prayer isn’t pretending and that we don’t need to hide our deepest selves from God. In John’s gospel it says of Jesus that, ‘He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person’ (John 2:25). So we can take our real selves to God – our worries, our moral failures, our brokenness – safe in the knowledge that God knows all about us and, amazingly, in spite of all that he still loves us, not because we deserve it but because his very nature is love (1 John 4:16).

At other times though the advice to, ‘Just be yourself’ is vacuous or dangerous. ‘Yes Adolf, just be yourself’ strikes me as the height of moral lunacy.  The gospel is the good news that God accepts us as we are but equally the good news is that God doesn’t want us to stay the way we are.  The Bible clearly tells us that our deepest selves are not only hurting and wounded but hurt others and need fixing.  

Another way in which ‘Just be yourself’ is unhelpful is it offers no comfort to the person who finds themselves in the same situation as the writer of Psalm 61. People can be incredibly resilient but there are times in all of our lives when we discover that our resources are just not enough. At those times, like the Psalmist, we need to be led to ‘a rock that is higher than I.’

Mixing metaphors, the Psalmist looks back and recalls that God has been to him a strong tower (v. 3). God is not just there for emergencies, he is there for every day. The good news is that when our hearts grow faint we can find refuge in God and protection from the wild weather of life. The Psalmist is not naïve – there will be storms – but they are also not defeated or despondent. In the midst of tempests, God is a mighty refuge.

More intimate images follow. The God who listens to the Psalmist’s cry is like the close friend or the tribal head in whose tent we are invited to find rest and to be restored. God is like a mother hen under whose wings her chicks might feel safe and secure from predators or the unintended damage of children or grown up’s feet (v. 4).

The God whom the Psalmist worships is a God who protects his children with love and faithfulness (v. 7) and grants them a heritage. Quite what David understood by that heritage is unclear, but it is clearer to us. Peter wrote that we have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4). We can look to the future with confidence that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’ (Julian of Norwich). And our hope is not based on some fantasy or wish fulfilment, but on the solid reality of Christ’s resurrection: the empty tomb and the appearances to disciples who were transformed by meeting the Risen Lord who ‘gave them many convincing proofs that he was alive’ (Acts 1:3).

In the midst of the difficulties of life, this is a Psalm that encourages us to pray (v. 1) and to praise (v. 8) wherever we find ourselves, even at the ends of the earth (v. 2).

Pastor’s Thoughts – May 2019

As I bring my report, looking back on 2018 and ahead to 2019, let’s reflect on the blessings that the Lord has shown to this church through the last 200 years. 

Lamentations 3:22-24 says:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is His faithfulness; His mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in Him!’

As a church, over 200 years, we have been through times of blessing and times of troubles, times of growth and times of contraction and the Lord has been with us every step. Psalm 100:3 says: ‘Know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, the sheep of his pasture.’ We are His people and He has brought us to this place. 

2018 saw solid progress towards our vision and mission. We saw new people arriving, others moving on. There were two significant projects with which we were involved. The first was the commencement and growth of the Community Transformation project in Rwanda, in partnership with Tearfund. This has exceeded the expectations that we had and shows how the Lord blesses things when the time is right. This is already making a real difference to people’s lives. We had been in prayer for L’Eglise Vivante for many years and the time was right. We thank God for all that he is doing there. The other was hosting the Global Leadership Summit in November, which involved many people working together to put on an event that was appreciated by those that attended. There were some things that went really well and others that didn’t but we have learned from those and we will be hosting again on 8–9 November 2019. 

So, if 2018 was a year when we saw steady progress, then I believe that 2019 is to be a year when we see the next move of God’s Spirit among us. I spoke last year about the challenges that we face as a nation and about the church’s witness to our generation. You may have noticed that this has not lessened in the intervening period. We are now even more aware of the struggles that this country is going through. In this time of immense challenge to Christian values, and the denial of truth, there is enormous opportunity. Nick, one of our Regional Ministers speaking recently, likened these times to the passage in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where the whisper goes out that Aslan is on the move in the land. It still looks like winter, but a thaw is on the way. We are not yet experiencing revival, but the Spirit is at work in our churches, as he is here. He is at work in all of the ways that Robin highlighted at the end of his report and he is at work in the lives of many individuals who are experiencing healing and growing in faith. We praise God that there are many of those. Indeed we cannot even predict what the outcome will be of much of this growth. 

We have chosen to celebrate our bicentenary with certain landmark events, the first of which was 40 Days of Prayer. I sensed an excitement about this; a commitment to it; that points to great blessing to come. When we chose our bicentenary verse it was with a sense of expectation at what the Lord was planning to do for us as we move forward, but also a realisation that such blessing would require commitment from us to be kingdom-builders. 

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us; to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. 

His glory is shown in the church not by making its buildings glorious but by working in the lives of his people. This requires our cooperation as a minimum. Some of you are new to the Baptist movement but for those of us that have been around a bit, William Carey’s call to mission is never far away from our hearts: ‘Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!’ I suggest to you that in the year ahead we do just that; that we lean on our Father who can do immeasurably more and ask him to build his church and grow the kingdom among us. 

With that in mind we have some other landmark events to celebrate the bicentenary. 

On Saturday 22 June, we look forward to the visit of Carey and Geraldine Luce (Latty). We will be inviting people to come and join their pop-up choir for a workshop in the afternoon. This will be followed by food and then a performance in the evening. This will be a celebration of the life of the church. We shall be inviting our neighbours to join us (using the widest definition of neighbours!) and inviting back those associated with the church in the past.

It is an opportunity to engage those on the fringes of this community. We will be following this with a seeker service on the Sunday 23 June. 

Before that we will be joining the other churches of this town to be part of a campaign called Love Stortford. Under the leadership of our friend John Barfoot from the Community Church, we will be working together to express God’s love for the town. There will be a number of ways in which we can get involved in the week leading up to the carnival on 15 June. There will be projects to tidy-up the town and refurbish Market Square. There will be a market stall and prayer and evangelism on the streets. We will be encouraging random acts of kindness. We will be reminding people that God loves them and has a plan for their lives. These two events together will provide a powerful opportunity to make an impact on our friends and neighbours and upon those that we call the ‘prodigals’ who have lost their way for now. We need to pray for these events and invite God to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. 

The third landmark event will be on the weekend of our bicentenary when John Archer will be coming to give his mixture of comedy, magic and testimony on 23 November. On Sunday 24 November we will hold our Bicentenary Celebration Service when our speaker will be the Rev Peter Nodding. With Christmas following soon after this, this will be another period to invite friends and family to hear the good news and celebrate together. 

Throughout this year we will also be working on developing The Bridge, which will provide further opportunities for incarnational evangelism in the future. Richard Jones and his team are already hard at work on this and I would like to thank them all for their commitment to this project. 

I should also like to acknowledge some departures and arrivals. Barry, Wendy and Tracy have felt that this is the right time for them to relinquish the responsibilities of Deacon (for now!). We owe them each an enormous debt for all the work that they have put in over the years – and they have served for many years. Thank you to each of you, we really appreciate the service that you have given. 

Mark Wheeler stepped down during the year as Chief Steward. Again I’d like to thank Mark for serving us. We are looking to appoint a replacement as soon as possible. 

On the arrivals side, I am delighted to announce that Hazel Bintley has joined the Pastoral Team to serve along with Martin, myself, Alison, Margaret and Trevor; and Sarah McCulloch has agreed to become our Vulnerable Adult Safeguarding Officer. You may turn to Sarah for advice on safeguarding adults and with any concerns that you have. 

Personally I would like to thank you again for the amazing support that you have given to Steph and to me. We continue to provide you with challenges, and you continue to love us. We are so grateful. I think that I am now the third longest-serving minister in the church’s history. I consider it an honour every day to serve you. Thank you for giving me that privilege. It is my hope that we will soon have news concerning the appointment of another member of the ministry team, but you will have to be patient a little longer for that. 

Let me finish with another quotation from William Carey in his snappily entitled masterpiece An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens published in 1792:

Many can do nothing but pray, and prayer is perhaps the only thing in which Christians of all denominations can cordially, and unreservedly unite; but in this we may all be one, and in this the strictest unanimity ought to prevail. 

Were the whole body thus animated by one soul, with what pleasure would Christians attend on all the duties of religion, and with what delight would their ministers attend on all the business of their calling. 

We must not be contented however with praying, without exerting ourselves in the use of means for the obtaining of those things we pray for. Were the children of light as wise in their generation as the children of this world, they would stretch every nerve to gain so glorious a prize, nor ever imagine that it was to be obtained in any other way. 

The Psalms: Total Dependence

You have rejected us, God, and burst upon us;
    you have been angry – now restore us!
You have shaken the land and torn it open;
    mend its fractures, for it is quaking.
You have shown your people desperate times;
    you have given us wine that makes us stagger.
But for those who fear you, you have raised a banner
    to be unfurled against the bow.

Read more…

Psalm 60

The previous Psalms have rung out with the confident assurance that, in spite of some evidence to the contrary, God was on David’s side. Psalm 60 follows on rather awkwardly. The opening verses are some of the bleakest in the Psalter: God has rejected his people, he is angry with them (v. 1) and as a result his people stagger and are bewildered like victims of an earthquake or drinkers of too much cheap wine (vv. 2, 3).

The middle verses of the Psalm (vv. 5–8) record God’s great promises to his people. They take us back to the time before the Israelites arrived in Canaan and remind them of what God said he would do. Shechem was the largest of the Canaanite cities and Sukkot was on the other side of the Jordan where some of the tribes would settle. Ephraim and Judah were the two main tribes that settled to the west of the Jordan, the images of ‘helmet’ and ‘sceptre’ being symbols of God’s rule. These short verses recall God’s great promises: ‘This land is your land’ in fulfilment of the promises that God had made many years previously to Abraham (Genesis 15).

There is a stark contrast in the description of the Israelite cities and tribes compared to the triad of regions mentioned in v. 8. John Goldingay comments, ‘God had nothing against those peoples. If they just mind their own business, they will get along fine. God has no designs on the territory of Moab and Edom.’ Admittedly, though, the Philistines – who were recent European invaders – were a different proposition.

By David’s time the Israelites were securely in possession of the Promised Land and their enemies had been defeated. However, enemies once defeated don’t always remain defeated and it seems this Psalm was written at a time when the threat level was high and the promise seemed to be in danger of unravelling (Perhaps 2 Samuel 8 and 10 provide some of the background).

The final verses of the Psalm pick up the complaint. ‘You promised you’d give us the victory but we’re not winning and we can’t win without you.’ Sometimes it is in our setbacks that we remember the truth that without God we can do nothing of any permanent worth or value. The same truth is expressed a little later in the Psalter when it says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127:1). In John 15:5, Jesus says, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’

When things are going smoothly in our lives, we can overlook that truth and forget how dependent we really are upon God. Sometimes, like in this Psalm, it is the difficulties that we face that expose the inadequacy of our own resources and cause us to depend more deeply upon God. The struggles we face day to day are less likely to be military and more likely illness, advancing years, temptations, despair, depression, destructive habits, our own mortality. To say limited human help is ‘worthless’ (v. 11) may be a bit of poetic licence – there are things we can and should do to help one another – but our ultimate confidence is in God, the God who has already won the victory for us in and through his Son, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Pastor’s Thoughts – April 2019

Dear friends, 

When I left school I went to study at college in Portsmouth. Portsmouth is a fine city (and for trivia fans the only UK city on an island) that prides itself on being the home of the Royal Navy (a title that Plymouth also claims). In those days, the flagship of the fleet was not a brand-new aircraft carrier but a 200-year-old man o’ war situated in a dry dock down at the naval dockyard: Nelson’s ship HMS Victory. Portsmouthians were so proud of this great historical connection that just about everything in Portsmouth was named after the Victory. The local radio station was Radio Victory; there’d be Victory Cabs and the Victory Tandoori. You name it and there was something named after the Victory. 

Not many of us feel like we’ve experienced a victory. Some of us may have served in the armed forces but not many of us have experienced victory first-hand. We may have shared in the reflected glory of a sports team or been part of something that has performed well in some artistic endeavour. We may have won a contract or an argument, but few would count this a victory. 

In Roman days victory had a special meaning. To a general who had led the forces to a great victory, a Triumph was awarded. The Triumph was a civil and religious celebration that involved a procession of the army, captives, captured loot and the triumphant general through the streets of Rome. The captives would be executed or enslaved and the general would acquire heroic status. 

The reason I’m writing about this is because this month we celebrate victory and it is a victory in which we are involved. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 Paul says:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 

We have been taken captive, but the victory is ours. We are like trophies in Jesus’ triumphal procession. We have become captives of Jesus but amazingly God does not wish to enslave us, he wishes to set us free – really free. Free to live life in all its fullness. Jesus’ victory on the cross has bought us, paid the debt that we owe for our sin and failure, and now, even more amazingly, he has adopted us as his children. 

At the time of writing it’s not very easy to know what will happen in our nation over the coming weeks. It’s not very easy to predict what will happen in our lives over the coming weeks. We’d be forgiven for either being very afraid of what is to come, being very excited about what is to come, or living in a state of denial. The truth is that, whatever the future holds, we can have peace about it because we belong to Christ and we are kept by him for eternity. Through good and bad, he will lead us. 

This is why we celebrate the cross. This is why we celebrate the resurrection. This is why Easter is the most important season of the year, because it is about life. Life that we have been given even though we don’t deserve it. Life that we have been given to experience God’s love and to channel it to others.

…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 

2 Corinthians 5:19

A very Happy Easter to you all.

In Christ,
John 

The Psalms: Fortress

Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
    be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
    and save me from those who are after my blood.
See how they lie in wait for me!
    Fierce men conspire against me
    for no offence or sin of mine, Lord.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
    Arise to help me; look on my plight!
You, Lord God Almighty,
    you who are the God of Israel,
rouse yourself to punish all the nations;
    show no mercy to wicked traitors.

Read more…

Psalm 59

In my classroom there is a poster with a quotation from a London headteacher. The gist of it is that the purpose of education is to make children more human. The context is that the headteacher was a survivor of the Nazi death camps. He points out that the gas chambers were built by educated architects, the deadly chemicals created by trained scientists. It is a reminder that good gifts such as intelligence can be badly misused.

All gifts can be misused, not just intelligence. Humour can bring a smile to our face and help us to cope in difficult circumstances but humour can also be used to wound and humiliate, to crush and destroy. In Psalm 59 the abused gift is that of power. Power is simply the ability to get something done. When wielded well it can help all to flourish but throughout human history it has often been abused.

The theme of the abuse of power crops up time and time again in the Psalms. According to the heading of the Psalm it recalls the time when Saul sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him, an incident recorded in 1 Samuel 19.

Twice David compares his would-be assassins to wild dogs that snarl and prowl about the city streets (vv. 6, 14). As well as the physical danger that they represent they also damage David’s reputation (vv. 10, 12), words spew from their mouths (v. 7). Their assassination of David’s character may be designed as a precursor to the real thing. The twentieth century shows how words can be weaponised to strip people of their humanity and can eventually lead to mass murder and to genocide. The Bible reminds us to be careful with our words (James 3:3–10).

Twice also there is a refrain that God is the Psalmist’s strength and fortress, the one on whom he can rely (vv. 9, 10, 17). Trouble doesn’t always disappear forever – just like the villain in the film who you think is over and done with and drowned in the bath, but suddenly they return, alive and kicking and threatening all sorts of mayhem. We are easily intimidated by the evils around us, but God laughs at the forces who oppose him (v. 8, see also Psalm 2:4). The reality is we cannot escape trouble in this life but with God as our refuge and our strong tower we, like David, can raise our voices above the whinging and howling to sing of the God who loves us.

The Psalms: ‘Do Not Destroy’

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.
Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skilful the enchanter may be.

Read more…

Psalm 58

One of the features of Presbyterian worship in Scotland was the use of the metrical Psalms. For those who are not aware of this particular tradition, this involved setting the whole Psalter to a set of limited but great hymn tunes.  

If you like lots of variety then singing several Psalms to the same tune might not be seem so great, but it has its benefits – not least that it would have helped ordinary folk to memorise these Psalms more easily and be able to benefit from them.

Psalm 58, intriguingly, follows on from and is followed by Psalms which apparently were to be sung to the same tune, ‘Do not destroy’. Of course, no-one knows what that tune sounded like… I envisage heavy metal or punk, but I could well be wrong.

The name of the tune is, to say the least ironic, ‘Do not destroy’, yet for much of the Psalm that is precisely what the Psalmist wants God to do to his enemies!

He calls on God to smash their teeth (v. 6), to vaporise them (v. 7), to dissolve them like a salted slug (v. 8).

This isn’t the first time – nor will it be the last time – we meet such violence in the Psalms. Many of us find such expressions of anger unsettling and disquieting. We quite like a line of the Psalms here or there during a time of worship, but it’s difficult to imagine these words being read out between a couple of praise songs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would find it uncomfortable sitting next to someone who is looking forward to bathing their feet in the blood of their enemies.

The Psalms are not nice. But while they may not be pretty, they are honest. Anger is as much a part of human life as the fear of the previous Psalm. It’s no use denying our anger or bottling it up, but it is worth taking it to God.

The anger expressed here is that of the victim, the one who is desperate and who has been systematically beaten down and degraded by those who are in power and who have been corrupted by evil (vv. 1–3). These oppressors have lost their humanity and have become like deadly animals, like the cobra and the lion (vv. 4, 6). There are sadly millions of people today around the world, made in God’s image and beloved by him, who find themselves beaten down and in some living hell because of the wickedness of others. At the very least the Psalm shakes us from comfortable complacency, reminds us that not all is well with the world and serves as a challenge to pray and to act on behalf of those who are in anguish.

The Psalm is a plea for justice, for evil to be defeated and for the right to be triumphant. When it comes to dealing with enemies, the Psalmist leaves that to God – there is no thought that it is something he or we should take into our own hands (v. 6). 

David’s description of the wicked (v. 3) reminds us of something he said about himself in a previous Psalm when he had abused his power with horrific results (Psalm 51:5). As well as being an encouragement to voice our own anger, to pray and act for the oppressed, the Psalm is also a mirror and a warning to anyone with any degree of power. What about us? How have we treated those around us?

The Psalms: Relentless Love

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
    for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
    until the disaster has passed.
I cry out to God Most High,
    to God, who vindicates me.
He sends from heaven and saves me,
    rebuking those who hotly pursue me –
    God sends forth his love and his faithfulness.

Read more…

Psalm 57

David is in a dark place, literally. According to the title of this Psalm he has fled into a cave trying to escape from those who were seeking to kill him. The heading reflects the story in 1 Samuel 22–24 where there are a couple of references to David hiding in a cave to avoid his pursuers.

Hopefully no-one reading this will be hunted down like David but it is a reminder that we have brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world for whom persecution is a reality.

We may not face the danger that David faced but some of us are familiar with caves, cold dark places of depression in our own lives, untouched and unlit by the warm rays of the sun.

In his time of crisis David turns to God. The cave is cold, hard and unfeeling, but by contrast the imagery used of God is warm and tender, under the shelter of his wings we find shelter (v. 1). David’s confidence is in God’s steadfast love. That love is not something that God switches on and off like a tap, but is constant. Our love is like the moon that wanders up and down, but God’s love is like the sun, for ever constant and true (apologies to Robert Burns!).

When we think of our troubles or look around us at the troubles in the world our emotions can spin all over the place. We’re happy one moment, fearful the next, but it is as we focus on the everlasting love of God that we find strength and stability.

To reflect on that steadfast, relentless love of God that we find in Christ Jesus cannot leave us the same, cannot but change us and bring us hope. To reflect on that steadfast, relentless love of God that we find in Christ Jesus is to lead us from singing the blues to bursting into songs of praise. 

David was in a dark place physically and he was in a dark place emotionally, but reflecting on God’s steadfast love brings about a new perspective. ‘I can’t change the world / but I can change the world in me if I rejoice’ (U2).

The Psalms call us to be honest, not to pretend to God or ourselves or others but not to give in to despair either. Yes, reality can seem like a long dark cave, but even there God is with us and our confidence is that his light that shines in the darkness will one day shine gloriously over the whole earth.

The Psalms: Fear

Be merciful to me, my God,
    for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
    all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
    in their pride many are attacking me.
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
    In God, whose word I praise –
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?

Read more…

Psalm 56

Fear is a common human emotion. It is not a bad thing either. There are plenty of times when a good dose of fear is a very healthy and appropriate reaction. At the time of writing there was a brutal attack on a train where a passenger was knifed to death in a random attack. With the killer on the loose, fear was a perfectly healthy and reasonable reaction as people in the vicinity acted with far greater caution than normal.

At other times fear can be an unreasonable and unhealthy response. There are people who are so fearful that they cannot get out the door – agoraphobia is a serious and debilitating condition.  

Fear is a key theme of this Psalm and David seems to say two things which might, on face value, seem to contradict one another. 

In v. 3 David says that when he is afraid, he will put his trust in God. In v. 4, however, he says that he will not be afraid. Perhaps he is just referring to different occasions: there are times when he is fearful and so he turns to God and no longer feels afraid, that is one possibility. Another possibility is that David was both afraid and unafraid at the same time. Maybe David was internally fearful, anxious about what might happen, but he did not let those feelings prevent him from acting. That’s what courage is. Courage is not feeling unafraid – at times a lack of fear can just be recklessness or stupidity, not adequately understanding the danger of the situation and there is absolutely nothing praiseworthy in that. Courage is feeling the fear, realising the danger and yet still going ahead and doing the right thing, even if it is scary.

Our model for this is Jesus in Gethsemane. Luke tells us that Jesus was in anguish as he prayed to his Heavenly Father (Luke 22:44). The Greek word for anguish is ‘agonia’ and it was characteristically used to describe the feelings of gladiators as they waited to step into the arena. Like the gladiator, Jesus was engaged in mortal combat, offering his life to defeat the powers of death and darkness. And Jesus was scared, fearful of the physical pain that he would be put through because only an idiot would not be.   Jesus was scared of the emotional pain, the howling grief of his mother, the heartbreak of his disciples who did not and could not understand what was going on. And Jesus was scared because of the spiritual pain: he had always walked so closely to the one he called ‘Abba, Father’, but in the darkness of Golgotha that intimacy would be challenged like never before.

Yet Jesus prayed, ‘Not my will but yours be done’ and he showed courage as he actively did his Father’s will, laying down his life that we might live. 1 John 4:18 says perfect love drives out all fear and that’s a good text to meditate upon when we feel anxious. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every feeling of apprehension will disappear but it does mean that fear need no longer paralyse us from doing what is right.

Twice in the Psalm David asks, ‘What can mere mortals do to me?’ (vv. 4, 11). The answer is, ‘Quite a lot,’ but beyond the fear there is the assurance that God knows what we’re going through. And the God who records our tears (v. 8) is the one who will deliver us from death that we might walk before him in the light of life (v. 13).

Pastor’s Thoughts – March 2019

Dear friends, 

Lent is a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness near the beginning of his ministry. In our tradition we’re not always big on celebrating the ecclesiastical calendar but there does seem some sense in using some time to focus. Over the next few weeks we are going to be focussing on prayer. There is nothing more natural, more important or more challenging than prayer. We find it essential and we often find it difficult. 

As we looked at ways to mark our 200th anniversary, prayer seemed to be an obvious place to begin. We have so much to give thanks for, and so much to look forward to in the years ahead. Prayer is a vital part of every good thing that has happened and will be essential to enable future growth and blessing. No good thing comes without prayer. 

So we want to encourage everyone to be standing together in prayer. Our weekly ministries need prayer. Our brothers and sisters need prayer. The Bridge needs prayer. Our leaders need prayer. Every part of what we do needs to be soaked in prayer. Our nation and our world desperately need prayer. As a church we have long sensed that we need to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our nation and on our town. 

So when we decided to pursue this as the opening theme of our bicentenary year we turned to 40 Days of Prayer. We have been blessed by using the Saddleback 40 Days campaigns in the past and have seen great fruit from them. Rick Warren has a way of encouraging people to grow in their relationship with Christ that is very helpful. His approach to prayer is equally helpful and he wants to help us to get to grips with what the Lord intends for our prayer lives. 

If you have not yet joined a Life Group then please do so as this will enable you to get the most from the series. 

There are handbooks available and we have some that are free if you’d really like one but it doesn’t fit into your budget. Please don’t be shy about asking, we’re family and we want to make sure everyone can have one if they’d like. 

The call to us is to hear the word of the Lord to Israel in 2 Chronicles 7:14:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 

I want to leave you with Isaiah’s prayer in Isaiah 64:1-4. It seems to me to be the kind of prayer that I want to be praying for our nation: 

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

It may be that our nation is not waiting for him, but it certainly needs him. This is where we have to stand in the gap for our fellow citizens and lift up holy hands and cover them with prayer. 

Yours in Christ,
John