May 2013

Dear all,

I have been struck recently by the family tree from Adam to Noah in Genesis. I wasn’t struck by the ludicrous length of time they lived; I don’t feel the need to justify or argue that!

I was struck by the description of Enoch in Genesis 5:24.

Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

We, quite rightly, look up to people for what they have done. This is understandable. We want people who inspire us and we can emulate. Sadly, this often means covering up their darker side and the unpalatable aspects of their lives. In turn this often makes these aspects of their lives look worse because they have been covered up.

This cover up isn’t true in the Bible where we see the good and bad sides of everyone (apart from Daniel; no-one knows why!). We see their triumphs and their crashes; their talents and their failings.

But with Enoch it’s paired back even more; we don’t see triumphs, talents, crashes and failings. All we know about him is that he walked with God and then he died. Imagine that as the eulogy at your funeral!

“Well, yeah… Bert walked around a bit with God and then kapuuttt!”

But we know that to walk with God means more than to just walk around a bit. It is the core of all that is important.

I have thought about Enoch and God a lot whilst I’ve been walking and praying. Here are some things that have bubbled to the surface:

  • To walk with someone takes time.
  • You need to like each other’s company if you’re going to spend this time together!
  • Walking is good in itself; you don’t always have to do other “deep” things.
  • You talk and listen when you walk with someone.
  • When you’re close to the other person you’re comfortable with silence as you take in your surroundings.
  • The surroundings affect the walk and the way you view the person you walk with as well.
  • Walking with someone is easier than walking alone; bringing protection, encouragement and joy.

Then I checked a Bible commentary (a book that explains Bible verses) and found out that in the original language “walked with” can be translated as “lived on”. Enoch literally lived on God. God gave him life and meaning for that life. Enoch wasn’t loved by God because of his triumphs and talents and didn’t feel a holy cold shoulder because of his crashes and failings.

God invites all of us to walk with, to live on, him…

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

 

April 2013

Dear all,

The three crosses in the photo were put up for The Easter Story Trail (check out the photos here) that we did on Palm Sunday and the Monday (Riverhead Infant and Amherst Junior Schools children were absolutely fantastic and a credit to their families and teachers). It was a surreal feeling putting crosses up in snow; I almost kept looking round for the manger!

Now, as I get back to the “normal” day-to-day running of things after a fantastic Easter week I keep walking past the crosses wondering when we should take them down…

How long can you leave a wooden cross up in a graveyard before it becomes unsightly and an inconvenience? I’m tempted to find out!

When I was studying at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas a framed cartoon always caught my eye as I ascended the stairs to my one-to-one course on Black Church history. It was black and white. At the front was a pulpit behind which stood a well dressed male Minister merrily preaching. Behind him was a huge flower arrangement which covered up the cross on the wall. Underneath was written the following words: “Save us from all unpleasantness.”

It’s fair to say it can be a struggle to keep Jesus central in our culture in the Easter period with all the bunnies and chocolate eggs.

  • Would it also be fair to say that it is a challenge to keep the cross of Jesus central in our day-to-day Christian lives?
  • Are we too quick to take the cross down after the Easter weekend?
  • Does our wonder at the love of God dim too quickly as we become consumed with what we want at church?
  • Do we forget the victory Jesus won for us through his death and resurrection in which he destroyed the power of sin and death?

Maybe we should keep the crosses up in the graveyard as a continual reminder of what God did for us through Jesus and as a reminder to take up our cross daily, as Jesus told us to do.

What do you think?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

March 2013

Dear all,

I’m sure we value connecting with God and being nourished by him through scripture, singing, listening to sermons and reading books written by Christians.

One of my pet peeves is that there is a subtle pressure in some Christian circles to like things because they are “Christian”. The band might be utterly shallow, the novel have a plot as rancid as month old roast dinner, the film be as cheesy as, well… cheese! But if they’re “Christian” we’re meant to accept them and even inflict them on our yet-to-be Christian friends and family, often as Christmas evangelistic gifts – watch their faces when they open them!

Now I’ve got that off my chest I want to acknowledge that many “Christian” pop groups, films and novels are great (that sentence gets Matt Young off my case). However, we also know that God has no time for the institution bound sacred/secular divide and that we can connect with God as we walk down other “avenues”.

I want to start compiling a list of great films, novels and albums that connect us with God and nourish that relationship. It was Stephen King is his book On writing who said something along the lines of: “For every book you choose to read you ignore 1,000. Therefore, drop a bad book and move on to another one.”

Here’s a starting list of books, films and music that I find connect me with God and nourish our relationship:

Books:

  • The power and the glory – Graham Greene
  • A long day’s dying – Frederick Buechner
  • The final beast – Frederick Buechner
  • The book of Bebb – Frederick Buechner
  • The son of laughter – Frederick Buechner
  • Joshua – Joseph Girzone
  • The man who met God in a bar: The gospel according to Marvin – Robert Farrar Capon
  • In his steps – Charles Sheldon
  • Sparrow – Maria Doria Russell
  • Children of God – Maria Doria Russell
  • The moviegoer – Walker Percy

Films:

  • Babette’s feast.
  • The Seven Samurai.
  • The red balloon.
  • Jaws (obviously!).
  • The straight story.
  • The milky way.
  • Being there.
  • The way.
  • Au hasard Balthazar.
  • Ordet.
  • The seventh seal.
  • The virgin spring.
  • Rashomon.
  • Wings of desire.
  • The passion of Joan of arc.
  • Nazarin.
  • Simon of the desert.
  • Viridiana.
  • Winter light.

Music:

  • What’s going on? – Marvin Gaye
  • Born to run – Bruce Springsteen

Why not email me a few of yours?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

February 2013

Dear all,

Do you ever read something to do with God and his kingdom and think “WOW!”

That happened to me a few weeks ago when I read a book by Andy Stanley. I’ll try and share it with you…

The Greek term, translated as church in our Bibles, is ekklesia. If you’ve heard me speak on this you’ll know that it wasn’t a religious term but was borrowed from the surrounding culture, where it referred citizens called to gather for civic purposes.

Andy Stanley writes:Church Front small

“An ekklesia was simply a gathering or an assembly of people called out for a specific purpose. Ekklesia never referred to a specific place, only a specific gathering… In both secular and sacred literature ekkelsia always referred to a gathering of people united by a common identity and purpose.”

You might be thinking: If the Greek word, and Hebrew equivalent, means gathering why do we have the word church in our English Bibles? Where did the word church come from?

The answer goes some way to explaining why Jesus’ post-resurrection movement became an institution and why most people think of church as a building. We moved from being an assembly to an assembly hall.

In AD313 Constantine, the soon to be Roman Emperor, legalised Christianity after centuries of, at times, intense persecution. Later Constantine declared himself a Christian and Christianity became fashionable. Prior to this Christians had met in homes, had love feasts (pot-luck lunches), sung hymns, read scripture, discussed theology and shared communion. There are only rare cases of tolerant towns or cities where a room in a building was given over to Christians for them to meet. After Constantine’s conversion powerful people came to faith and, as Stanley says: “Christian worship began to incorporate elements of imperial protocol, including incense, ornate clothing, processionals, choirs, and pageantry. Worship became formal and hierarchical, relegating the congregation to mere spectators.”

Pre-Constantine, Christians would often celebrate communion near the tombs of martyrs but now huge buildings were built on top of their bones, or the bones were exhumed and placed under communion tables at the front of existing sanctuaries. Within a decade ekklesia ceased to be a movement. It had become a location.

The Romans called these locations basilicas, the Latin word for a public building or official meeting place. German cultures, also influenced by Christianity, used the word kirika, which became kirche in modern German, which means house of the Lord.

Stanley writes:

“This Germanic term became the one used most often to refer to the ekklesia of Jesus, and from it we get the word church. Whereas the majority of your English Bible is a word-for-word translation of the Greek text, not so in this case. The word church is not a translation from the Greek. It is a substitution for the Greek. And a bad one at that. The German term kirche and the Greek term ekklesia refer to two very different ideas. A kirche is a location. An ekklesia is a purposeful gathering of people. You can lock the doors of a kirche. Not so with the ekklesia of Jesus.”

This simple grammatical change resulted in massive shifts. Christianity was no longer a grassroots movement but became synonymous with location. Worse still, by the 4th century whoever controlled the building controlled the scriptures. By the Middle-Ages the Bible was literally chained to the pulpit and kept in the hands of experts, out of the reach of the common man. It came to the point where those who controlled the building, controlled the scriptures and, in turn, controlled the people. The reformers began to rescue the church from this grip, notably William Tyndale. He determined to translate the scriptures into English, for all to read, in 1522. He went to Germany to do this, as he had no support in England and began to smuggle Bibles back into England in 1526. He became an outlaw because he had the audacity to translate ekklesia instead of superimposing the German term kirche; he used the term congregation instead of church (he also, correctly, used elder instead of priest and repent instead of do penance). Throughout the New Testament he correctly placed the emphasis of church on being a movement rather than a location. He was betrayed and found guilty. They tied him to a beam, strangled him with a rope, his body was burned and his remains scattered. His crime? Translating the words of Jesus into a language that that adults and children could actually read and understand!

Sadly, it seems the tide is against us and people still think of church as somewhere I go for a few hours a week instead of a movement that I am part of 24/7.

Let’s try and remember at Bessels that we don’t go to church; we are the church, in every place we go!

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

 

January 2013

Dear all,

I have just eaten one of the eighteen mince pies that I have in my study. I wonder how long it will take me to get through them? In some ways it feels wrong eating them now that the decorations are coming down at home and Christmas is truly over (no more “Two Ronnies” re-runs on the television for the foreseeable future).

There is a time and a season for many things in life, even churches! Think about it; none of the churches mentioned in the New Testament exist now…

Often in church life we can think that things should go on forever because they’ve always been that way. I think it’s true that it is easier to start a new venture in church than to stop something that has naturally run its course.

Sometimes we just need to stop things. They’ve run their course and we’re kidding ourselves that they are still great and worthwhile. They were, but they aren’t now.

Earlier this afternoon I went through my In-tray and ditched some documents that related to 2012; they’re irrelevant now. What else should I lay aside?

What do you need to lay aside (sounds nicer than “ditch” doesn’t it) in 2013?

  • Your Bible study notes and buy some others that give you a fresh perspective?
  • A friendship that is unhealthy?
  • A monthly magazine subscription that you never read?
  • That novel that Aunt Maureen bought you and is still by your bed but you know you’ll never read?
  • Judgemental attitudes to some things or people at Bessels?
  • Something you do, so that you can actually breathe and spend time with your family who hardly ever see you (they’re growing up before your very eyes – you saw that this Christmas time)?
  • Guilt for things of the past?

I heard my wife Jo talking to the children as they were taking down the Christmas decorations. She said something like this: “It is a shame to take down the decorations but the room feels fresher doesn’t it?”

Our lives might be a bit fresher if we lay aside some things that have naturally run their course…

 Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

December 2012

Dear all,

A poem for you:

Christmas is coming.

Slow down.

Pause.

The heart races

At the thought of family descending…

Veggies to peel, turkey to stuff, presents to wrap, grandparents to fuss…

Slow down.

Pause.

The mind races

At loneliness approaching…

Office party temptations, family holiday regulations, wrapping paper infestations…

Slow down.

Pause.

The palms sweat

At credit cards swelling…

Mary breathing, Joseph walking, donkey pulling…

Slow down.

Pause.

The feet tap

At unwritten cards unending…

A babe’s first cry, salvation arrives.

Slow down.

Pause.

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

November 2011

I start these pieces by cutting and pasting the previous month’s, then I select all the text and replace it with one question mark – to keep the same font.

The program Columbo (from which the title of these articles is taken) always starts with a huge question mark as well. You see various characters but don’t know who will murder who! However, over the next hour or so we can rest assured that Columbo, our very own Graham Garner (please pray for him as he travels to the other side of the world to meet up with Mark and Jamie. In fact; pray for Jamie!), will solve the case and lead us to a final still-frame and firm conclusion.

Mark, the earliest and shortest gospel, is the exact opposite. It starts with Mark firmly telling us in no uncertain terms that John the Baptist is preparing the way for the Lord. Jesus in then baptised and goes into the desert to have a cosmic battle with Satan. Coming out victorious Jesus then calls the first disciples, drives out evil spirits, heals many, preaches, drives out demons and heals a man with leprosy. All this in the first chapter!

But Mark ends, if you take the view that 16:9-20 were added later, with a question mark. It ends with the only people who stayed with Jesus, the women, fleeing from the empty tomb trembling and bewildered.

“Textbook rat droppings” is the phrase I heard this afternoon when I went back to the church after my minister’s Cluster. Not a phrase I’ve ever heard before in church. It caught me by surprise! If you want to know, Charlie and I heard a rat above my study. Tim Galley called the Council. They sent a man who, with Ian Tandy’s help, laid down poison for it. Emma Trim just sat at the computer typing; I’m not sure if it was even on!

The end of Mark’s gospel kind of takes you by surprise as well. Where’s the triumph? Where’s the victory of Jesus?

And yet maybe, just maybe this ending reflects our lives at times. We know the tomb is empty and that Jesus is alive but we still tremble when we see the economic climate around us. We are bewildered by some things that happen. And sometimes we just keep quiet and don’t say anything about Jesus to anyone because we’re afraid.

Can I ask you to do something? I’m even going to use a “pretty please”. Can you pretty please read Mark’s gospel over the Christmas period ready for 2012. Why? Because our sermon series for the next one and a half years is going to be based on it.

Some might read that last sentence and think: “Gosh, that’s a lot of time on a book of the Bible that I can read in one and half hours!”

Having thought about it I think it would be healthy for us to go back to our source, Jesus, for a sustained period of time and become really familiar with his story for the first or umpteenth time. I’d love it if you could use it as the basis for your small groups and PODs as well (pretty, pretty please).

Dallas Willard, a leading figure on Christian discipleship, recommends that when somebody starts following Jesus they spend the first two years in the gospels to get really familiar with the story of Jesus. My fear is that maybe we “graduate” from Jesus to Paul too quickly. So we’re going back.

If you’d like to know of any good books about Jesus to read alongside this sermon series, just ask. Charlie and I would be happy to lend them to you.

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

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