Prayer meetings in December

Prayer meetings in December

Hello everyone

We thought you'd like to hear about our plans for our morning prayer meetings from 1st December - we are going to have some readings and reflections based on Michael and Rosemary Green's Advent book In Touch with God, focusing on wonderful prayers from the Bible. Do get yourself a copy - it's available in lots of places online, including very cheaply for Kindle via Amazon. And come and join us, every weekday morning at 9am, and Saturdays at 10am. You can join all our meetings here https://us02web.zoom.us/j/385426921 except for Wednesday 2nd December, when we will be sharing a communion service on our Youtube channel "Venta group of churches." (We hope lockdown isn't extended, but if it is we will do one or two more of these as well.)

(After Christmas, we will be holding morning prayer meetings at 10am on 27th, 29th, 31st December, and 2nd Jan, before the usual pattern resumes on 4th January.)

 

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Rob's message for November

Rob's message for November

This week I have given a surprising amount of thought to a Youtube video I saw of a Japanese game show called Slippery Stairs. As far as I can make out (and I don’t know any Japanese) it is a pretty simple idea, but an outrageously difficult challenge. Six or seven contestants in different coloured bodysuits have to climb to the top of a set of stairs made of ice, down which water is being poured constantly from two enormous taps. It looks almost impossible.

But hard as it is, they still take it on. Again and again they come, our plucky band of hapless Power Rangers, climbing and slipping and sliding and climbing and slipping and sliding. The video I watched was a 9-minute rollercoaster of emotion as time after time you thought one of them was about to get to the top, only for them to slip on the last step, or one of the others to grab them and pull them back to the bottom. And throughout an audience cheers them on, places bets, and laughs at their misfortunes. It is very, very odd.

So what was it that attracted my attention – apart from the jumpsuits? Well actually it was the strange and brilliant way the video illustrated everything that the Christian faith isn’t. Let me explain.

There’s an idea about following Jesus that it is about climbing to the top of such a slippery set of steps. The odds are stacked against us from the beginning, and we will fall down over and over, with only the slightest chance of getting to the top. We will exhaust ourselves thinking that if we could only just outdo the people around us, only somehow get there first, we will win the prize. But chances are, we’ll just fall down to the bottom again. And there will be people there to laugh themselves silly at our every mistake. God will be watching on, from the top, impassive, even absent.

As much, and as often as it might seem that way, it is not like that at all. Faith in Jesus isn’t about getting everything right, and slipping back to the bottom if we get it wrong. It isn’t about scrabbling to the top to get close to the prize. It isn’t about competing with someone else, because maybe there isn’t enough grace to go around. Instead, it’s recognising someone who is not absent, but who comes to meet us in our sin and mess and brokenness; someone who will pick us up every time we fall, whose love and generosity are more than enough for anyone who ever asks for them. God is not impassive because the word itself is connected with not feeling suffering. But we know that God knows what suffering is like, because Jesus stumbled and fell for us, Jesus endured people’s scorn and shame for us. Without Jesus, faith would ultimately be as difficult as this strangest of games, but we can hold on to the promise that with him, God makes all of this possible for people like you and me.

 

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Rob's message for October

Rob's message for October

A couple of weeks ago I unexpectedly found myself posting on Facebook about the way that lots of people like me, who are involved in church life, and especially leadership, would be beginning this week to feel our way back into things after some kind of summer break. Most years August is a different time for us, but perhaps less so this year where so little has been the same as before.

It struck me that we were not really feeling our way 'back'. Instead, we were looking forward and conscious of facing enormous uncertainty about what the church will look like in the months and years to come. It feels like a huge moment of opportunity and possibility, as we ask questions about what it means to be church in this culture and generation that we should have addressed a long time ago. But often there is an equal and opposite amount of fear and anxiety, because so many things that seemed certain in February feel so far away now.

There are lots of ways we could react to this, but one that I choose quite often is to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task instead of hearing what God is saying to me. I should hear him cheering me on, but often the voice in my head sounds more like "Rob, this depends on you," and, "You're not up to this." You'll notice they are not a brilliant combination.

They are not true because first of all, all sorts of great people around me do all sorts of great things every day. Some of you will have had time off work over the summer, and surprise, surprise, your school or business or office or whatever was still there when you got back. People managed. It doesn't really depend on you.

I am also learning to embrace the not-being-up-to-this. You're almost certainly better at your job, or looking after your family, than I am, but you can’t do everything. The amazing thing for me in following Jesus is that I know he is one person who is up to it - the all-sufficient one - and he is with us. And if we follow Jesus, then we can hang on to his amazing promises, like “In this world we will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

Having said all that, what might very well happen is that I forget it tomorrow, or later on this evening. Do stop me if you see me about, and ask me if I’m trying to do everything myself, or not feeling up to it, or both at once. It might help me. But there is a chance I’ll ask you as well.

 

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Rob's message for September

Rob's message for September

Recently I have been wondering how much we doubt whether God truly accepts us. We certainly doubt whether people accept us, don’t we – and sometimes with good reason. Think about the Black Lives Matter movement, which is very much to do with someone being equally accepted and valued no matter what they look like. Think about how so much on social media is to do with being accepted: I write or post things that I think will please a certain group of people out there, and I will be accepted by them. I do the right thing, I say the right thing? Notice that the first one of those is about simply being accepted for who I am, and that the second one is about doing something in order to be accepted.

But what about God? Does God accept me? Can I know that? And does he simply accept me for who I am, or is it about me doing something in order to be accepted? In the book of Acts, Peter and Paul, two of the earliest and most influential followers of Jesus, are trying to work out what it means to be accepted by God.

We are sure that these Jews on the one hand, Jesus’s own people group, are accepted by God, but on the other hand are what the bible calls the Gentiles. That is everyone else, that is me, and probably you. It was always God’s intention that the Jews should be his way of blessing the whole of humanity, but now the plan expands and says that the gospel is for everyone, and the gospel is going to work through everyone.

But other people start to push back. The acceptance of God is too radical. The grace of God is too free, and people start to say, “You have to be circumcised to be saved.” You have to do the right thing, you have to look the right way. I.. errm… hopefully no-one was checking, but you know what I mean. People are keen on measuring acceptance by whether others do the right thing, or look the right way. But God hasn’t opened a door of obedience, or appearance; he has opened a door of faith.

The demand is repeated: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” For those people, acceptance is not about faith; it is about obedience, and appearance.

But gloriously Peter will not have this. He says that far from looking out the outside, at appearance, “God sees the heart.” It is a consistent message of the Scriptures. God sees the heart.

For Peter and for Paul there is no difference between people: we are all equally in need of the saving grace of Jesus. There is no question of their acceptance being earned, because it is through the grace of Jesus. So you can know that God accepts you. You can know because God looks at the heart that is looking to him, looks for faith rather than only obedience or appearance. You can know because God does not discriminate against anyone, and does not demand anyone more than he does of anyone else.

 

 

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Rob's message for August

Rob's message for August

This lockdown time has been an interesting one, hasn’t it? As far as I’m aware, there has never been such a long period of restriction on our freedoms, combined with the worry for our own health and for our friends and families.  Now that we’re beginning to come out the other side of it, I’ve been reflecting on how it has affected different people, and what has made it so challenging to so many of us. There have been some positives for most of us, though - getting to know neighbours better, appreciating the quieter roads during daily walks, noticing the wildlife in our gardens that we might have busily rushed past in more normal times... We have worked together to gather up crates and crates of supplies for the food bank, and people in our community have helped each other with shopping, prescriptions and so much more.

But still the overriding experience has been a tricky one, and I wonder if one of the main reasons is that coronavirus has shown us that we can’t always be in control of our lives. It has felt like a problem too serious to manage, an “enemy” too big to stand up against, and that has made a lot of us feel small and powerless.

It has reminded me of the story of David and Goliath in the Bible, which some of you might be familiar with. God’s people, the Israelites, were used to fighting against other armies, as they moved through contested land. But they weren’t used to being faced off by someone so much taller and stronger than any of their own soldiers that they felt doomed to failure! They ended up trapped for days as Goliath stood in their path, not knowing what to do for the best.

You might think that the solution would have been to find the very strongest Israelite soldier to attempt to overpower Goliath. Or to come up with a plan to outwit him, meeting brute force with superior intellect... But it turned out that God’s plan was for the smallest and least impressive of all of them to defeat the giant. The shepherd boy David stepped forward with a slingshot and some pebbles, and that was that.

David knew that he was tiny and vulnerable compared to Goliath, but he chose to trust God. He found the strength to do something terrifying, by realising that God was bigger than anyone or anything, giant-like or otherwise. During this time of uncertainty and worry, we have all struggled with having our choices taken away and feeling afraid in different ways. But we can ask God to help us trust him, even if we never have before.

In our house we have been listening to a new children's song about this story, which includes the line “when all I’ve got is a slingshot, you’re the power in me... when I feel little like little David, you’re the power in me”. If you have felt a bit dwarfed by coronavirus and its effect on our lives, why not ask God to help you trust him and rely on his strength - just like David did.

 

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Rob's message for July

Rob's message for July

As I write we are in the midst of making plans to open some of the church buildings for people to pray from the beginning of July. There are pages and pages of advice from the Church of England, the government, and all the questions we all have locally about what to do to give people the opportunity to drop in and pray and maybe chat with someone about where God is in all of this. And all the time the news is changing and the advice is changing. It makes everything such a complicated business.

Over the last few months while I have found so much of what is going on really complicated, I have tried to remember three things that I noticed from one of our Easter readings, and which I have been mentioning at most of our online services since. (Do check out elsewhere in this magazine how you can join us on Zoom or Facebook, or give me a ring if you would like to dial in on the phone.)

Uncertain about the reality of the Resurrection (ring any bells for any of you?) Jesus’s friends gather in fear of what might happen to them. The religious authorities had arrested Jesus and crucified him; maybe would they come for his friends as well. Twice it says they locked the doors, presumably both times out of fear, though this is only mentioned clearly once.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the disciples again gather in an upper room, anticipating the fulfilment of Jesus’s promise: the gift of the Holy Spirit. At that point it describes how they are “constantly in prayer.” It has interested me that the disciples seemed to remember to pray here, where before they only resorted to being afraid. In some ways their circumstances hadn’t changed, but their mindset had and this was part of the beginning of the Pentecost story. They remembered to pray.

Secondly, there is a need to recognise that Jesus is with us. Twice the disciples lock themselves in a room. Twice Jesus appears to the disciples. To you and me, of course, the idea of someone appearing in a room when they are locked out of it is the stuff of miracles, or at least magic tricks, but for Jesus who was locked in death but broke out of it, locked in a tomb but escaped from it, this is pretty standard stuff! It really does emphasise Jesus’s overwhelming desire to be with his disciples, and that they would recognise that he is with them.

Then comes a twist in the story. It was surely unsettling for the disciples to realise that now that they had Jesus back, he was seeming to talk about going away again. But Jesus has a plan, and instructs them in John’s gospel to “receive the Holy Spirit.” And everything that they do from that point on is empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, who assures the disciples that he is with them always.

So I have been remembering to pray, both myself and in meeting more often with others from our churches, finding a place to bring my anxiety about the future (by which I mean anything that is going to happen from a point about 30 seconds after I stop praying) and to put my trust in God.

I have been recognising that Jesus is with me; if he can rise from the dead, if he can break free from the tomb, if he can get through locked doors, then nothing need be a barrier to him getting to me. Everything that might separate me from him, including the things that I have done, has been put aside at the cross.

And I have been receiving from the Holy Spirit. This morning as we prayed we remembered how at the very end of the bible it says, “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” It’s not any more complicated than telling God you are thirsty.

Three simple principles that bring us to a place of grace, and faith, and rest. I really recommend them to you.

 

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Rob's message for June

Rob's message for June

Thank you so much to everyone who sent us in pictures of them, their families, and neighbours, all having a splendid socially-distant time on VE Day. It was lovely to see your celebrations, and to hear from those of you whose memories go back that far. Some of you have also shared with me about how hard it was during wartime, and the way that it affected life, and your family, in an ongoing way. Perhaps that was part of other people’s conversations as well.

I can’t remember VE day, but I do go back 25 years to the 50th anniversary in 1995. Back then my grandparents were really well, and it was a privilege to be with them in their village celebrating, with the bunting everywhere and the 1940s music and the questionable pork products. All the same it was hard for me to imagine that they had been through it, and that they had once looked like this instead of being nearly 80.

VE Day was such a significant day, but it was really one in a series of such days. We all know how important D-Day was, the summer before. Once the Allies had landed in France, a big part of the work was done. We also know that the war didn’t end in May 1945: it went on right through the summer until VJ Day on 15th August. But even then, the consequences of years of conflict reached into many lives, and many years into the future.

As I think about the story of Jesus, and compare it with some of these huge events in the history of the modern world, I notice a few things.

First of all I wonder if D-Day is a little bit like Christmas. The Allies landed on the beaches, and they began to take ground decisively, moving across Europe. In one translation of John’s gospel it describes how, in Jesus, God ‘moved into the neighbourhood.’ He had arrived, and as he grew in age and then in influence, God’s kingdom advanced through him.

And then I wonder if VE Day is more like Easter. The end of the war in Europe was a decisive moment. It was a time of great celebration, because freedom had been won. But it was won at a price. There is a lot of disagreement about the number of military and civilian deaths worldwide during the war, but it might be as many as 85 million. You might not find this a helpful comparison, but as I write Johns Hopkins University estimates the total number of worldwide deaths from Covid-19 to be 372,000. That gives us some sense of the enormity of it. There is a tremendous cost in the Easter story too, but here it is different. The weight of suffering for human evil, sin and mortality is borne on the shoulders of Jesus alone. The death toll is 1. It was an awful cost for Jesus, but for us there is freedom and life worth celebrating.

But the war didn’t end in May 1945, the suffering didn’t end there, and even afterwards there were consequences for people in the rest of the world, and for years to come for all those whose lives would never be the same again. Even now we live in a world where I am convinced Jesus has won us an amazing and eternal victory on the cross, but we suffer. In the midst of a global pandemic we don’t need reminding of this. But just as VE Day gave people so much to look forward to, now through Jesus we really can look forward to the time described at the end of the bible, where there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” For the moment, all the pictures of people around the world rejoicing on that day are the stuff of my imagination – and hopefully yours – but I look forward to when they are as real as anything you’ve enjoyed looking at in this month’s magazine.

 

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Rob's message for May

Rob's message for May

Over Easter weekend I was listening again on and off to the BBC radio commentary of the amazing Headingley test match against Australia. It’s one of several games last year which you might call the Ben Stokes match. We obviously don’t have the rights to show you the final moments of that amazing game, but here is a photo from a dramatic reconstruction we staged in the back garden of the Vicarage. You can see a bit more of it on our Youtube channel which I mention below. It is one of those games where we will always say to each other, where were you? I know where I was as the game reached its climax. I was sitting outside a café in Wales, concentrating on my wife and children whom I was on holiday with, and definitely not being distracted by the game. You can tell from the other picture, can’t you?

I remember heading out from the holiday cottage pretty despondent that England were down to their last batsman, and still 73 from victory. Everything said that it was over, and that Australia were about to win. It was a matter of time. And then came the first stirrings of hope, as Stokes started to hit six, after six, after six. Jack Leach at the other end did his valiant bit, but was reduced to a spectator for long periods. Unbelievably, he did it. Stokes got England over the line, the crowd and the nation erupted, and at one point BBC correspondent Jonathan Agnew cried, “It is an incredible day.”

On Easter Sunday, we remember something that so many of us have heard time and again. And for me, no matter how often I hear that Jesus is alive, I find myself as thrilled as if it is the first time. It is wonderful and new. I think of this story of a man conquering death, and sin, and hell, and I recognise that if it were not true, you just couldn’t invent it. It is so incredible, but so good. What Jesus did for us, what he won for us, is so good.

Because that’s how we feel, isn’t it? We won. Jesus did it, he did it all, but we won. Forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, won for us. On that day, last summer, most of us could only sit and listen. Most of the rest of the England team could only sit and watch. Ben Stokes did it. One man. But we won. That’s a message for this Easter isn’t it? Jesus has won, so we have won. It is not what we did, but what he did for us… what we couldn’t do. Only Jesus could win the battle over darkness and hell and fear and death. And for all of us, as long as we believe and say yes, Jesus did that for me, there is light, and eternity, and hope and life.

It is not for one summer or one Easter, but for eternity. One incredible day after another, forever, through Jesus. Happy Easter everyone.

 

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