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St Peter's Church Brackley

ST PETER'S BLOG

Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's

- January 2024

 

Rev. Rich Duncan writes… 2023 was obviously a big anniversary for St Peter’s and the service on 7th January will give us a chance to thank God for all that took place. Now, though, we turn our attention to 2024, which has been dubbed the Year of Democracy. More than 2 billion people will go to the polls in 65 countries across the world, in the biggest election year in history.

Given this includes UK and US voters, we should be prepared for politics to dominate the headlines in the coming months, for better or for worse. They say, ‘Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.’ Apologies that I’m about to do both. These magazine articles give a vicar the perfect chance to ‘go off on one’, so please forgive these ramblings (based heavily on an excellent little book called ‘God and Politics’ by Mark Dever), or feel free to flick on to the next section!

I thought Jesus was a revolutionary?

When Jesus uttered the famous words, “Render unto to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), and didn’t challenge Roman taxation, it is hard to state how revolutionary this was, precisely because it was so anti-revolutionary. If Christians could support Rome, what political power could they not support?! This authority, after all, would execute Christ and his followers (and he knew it). Jesus’ shocking statement shows that legitimacy is not tied to whether a government supports the worship of the Christian God, or even allows it. It shows that Christians should obey a political power even if it lacks a democratic mandate, is blighted by corruption, or outlaws the practice of our faith.

The authorities are God’s servants

The apostles Paul (in Romans 13:1-7) and Peter (in 1 Peter 2:13-17) entirely agree with Jesus in affirming human leadership, despite their audiences living under the threat of state-sponsored persecution. Governments, we discover, are actually (for all their many failings) a gift from God. This seems to be borne out by history. Many a failed state flounders today because a despot was succeeded by the one thing that is worse: anarchy. Almost any government is better than none.

Christians should be good citizens

All this means that Christians should be model citizens. It means we cannot jump on the bandwagon of extreme libertarianism (both right-wing and left-wing) that rejects any encroachment on personal freedom, or join in with the automatic contempt for all those in authority that consumes some corners of society and the press. Instead, the default mode for Christians is to pray for authorities (1 Tim. 2:1-2), obey the law (Rom. 13:5), pay taxes (Rom. 13:6), show respect (Rom. 13:7, 1 Pet. 2:17), do good in society (1 Pet. 2:12) and seek the peace and prosperity of local towns and neighbourhoods (Jer. 29:7), all out of reverence for the God who has supreme authority. No doubt, that also means we should be politically engaged, where possible, and use our voting privileges responsibly, in an informed, thoughtful and prayerful way.

Civil disobedience has its place

Despite all this, Jesus’ timeless proverb also contained a counterpunch, “Render to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). If we give to Caesar that which bears his image, then Christians must also give to God that which bears his image: our whole selves (Genesis 1:26-27). Even if that lands us in prison. Jesus was deliberately challenging the inscription on the Roman coins that he had being asked about. A denarius claimed the Emperor was the son of the divine Augustus (and therefore a god himself). But Jesus clearly says Caesar and God are two separate beings. In other words, allegiance to earthly authority is not blind. It is limited. “Just following orders” is no defence. And during Jesus’ trial at the hands of Pilate, it became all too clear who had the greater authority (John 19:11). In a similar vein, the apostle Peter told believers to both fear God and honour the emperor (1 Pet. 2:17), but when push came to shove in the early Church, there was no doubt who came first, “Peter replied, ‘We must obey God rather than human beings’” (Acts 5:29). Ever since that time, conscience-led civil disobedience has had a long and rich tradition in Christianity (Google ‘Pastor Wang-Yi letter’ for a good, recent example).

Biblical balance

So where does this all leave us in this so-called Year of Democracy? It is increasingly recognised that modern democracy owes its ideals less to ancient Greece and more to a balance of the Christian doctrines of creation (humanity created equally in God’s image) and fall (“no [person or group] is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others”, as C. S. Lewis wrote). We should give thanks for hard-won universal suffrage, whilst sharing Winston Churchill’s healthy dose of scepticism, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” We should strive to improve our nation, without being surprised by the ability for power to corrupt in the political arena (Jeremiah 17:9). We should be obedient, but not to a fault; submissive, yet speak truth to power. We should pray for our leaders, without putting our trust in them (Psalm 146:3). We should seek both the good of the United Kingdom and the growth of the Heavenly Kingdom. In other words, let’s aim for biblical balance in 2024.

 

Let’s render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

The Meaning of Christmas

- December 2023

 

Rev. Rob Wood writes… My favourite festive film is A Christmas Carol. OK, you can spot my faux sophistication. My favourite movie at this time of year is actually… The Muppet Christmas Carol. I haven’t read the Dickens book or seen the other movies, but hopefully Kermit, Piggy, and gang are faithful to the original story (except my guess is tiny Tim was not a frog!).

 

Throughout the movie’s joyous songs, a serious message is woven. As you may know, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge—ably played by Michael Caine—on a journey in the middle of the night. Scrooge, a grumpy, penny-pinching old man, is confronted with what it will mean to die without love. The themes of love, thanksgiving, and transformation all jump through the screen.

 

My guess is that as you watch your Christmas movie of choice, there will be many pertinent Christmas themes that are helpful to reflect on (unless your favourite Christmas movie is Die Hard). Each festive film will give its own answer to the question, what is the meaning of Christmas?

 

To answer that question, I’d like to draw your attention to three truths from one of the most well-known verses in Scripture. Each truth is pertinent every Christmas. They remind us of the true reason for the season.

 

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

 

First, Christmas is about love.

Ask the average punter at the Brackley Community Carol Service what Christmas means for them, and my guess is that love will be high on their list. Christmas is a time to enjoy the love of family and friends, isn’t it?

 

As the Ghost of Christmas Present sings “wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas”. I agree! Christmas is all about love. Indeed, John 3:16 tells us that God so the world.

 

This time of year, why not explore the length and depth and breadth of God’s love for you? If you regularly attend Church, you might need to do that by really dwelling on the Bible Readings and Carol lyrics. Ask God to speak to you through them again. If you haven’t already come along much at St Peter’s, you might find that attending one of our Sunday services, Carols by Candlelight service, Christingle services, or any of the Christmas events will help you see how Christmas is all about

God’s love.

 

Of course, the truth that Christmas is about love sharpens the pain of those struggling with bereavement and loneliness this time of year. That’s why, as a church family, we must seek to express our love for one another as we remind ourselves of God’s love for us.

 

Second, Christmas is about a gift.

We show our love for those we care deeply about with gifts. It is the same with God! Indeed, God so loved the world that he gave.

 

Now, some of us are better at giving gifts than others. This verse shows that God doesn’t give bad gifts. He gave his one and only Son. A unique gift. A gift that is incalculable in value. Therefore, Christmas is not so much about giving gifts as it is receiving the amazing gift of Jesus Christ. We don’t deserve this gift. However, we can gratefully unwrap and enjoy the relationship with God on offer to us because of Jesus Christ.

 

Third, Christmas is about life.

The festive spirit can so easily mean we forget that Christmas is a matter of life and death. However, that serious message is conveyed by St John. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

The incarnation (God’s Son taking upon himself a human nature) was not a case of God coming to make us slightly better people. No, Jesus came to bring us life when we dwelt in death.

 

Hark the Herald Angels Sing helpfully reminds us of this truth:

Mild he lays his glory by

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth

Born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the new-born king.

 

To embrace the gift of Jesus is to embrace life.

We naturally think about love, gifts, and life at this time of year. Helpfully, John 3:16 reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas in a way that no festive film can. What is Christmas about? This verse

highlights the love of God, the gift of God, and the life of God. Therefore, as you’d expect me to say, Christmas is about Jesus Christ!

O Ye of Little Faith

4 encouragements for doubters

- November 2023

“We find everywhere in this world the traces of a revealed God and of a hidden God; 

revealed enough to strengthen our faith, concealed enough to try our faith.”  (Philip Schaff)

 

The vicar writes... The issue of doubt has recently cropped up a number of times with a number of different people. Everyone who has faith will experience times of doubt and, since this is a universal Christian experience, I want to share some thoughts that have helped me over the years. So then, here are 4 big encouragements for the doubter:

 

1. Doubt is not the same as unbelief

There is a world of difference between weak faith (doubt) and faithlessness (unbelief). A weak faith in Jesus Christ more than gets the job done. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus tells his disciples they have “so little faith” and yet, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Clearly, what matters is not the size of our faith but the object of our faith: even a tiny trust in the right place (in an almighty God) makes all things possible, but an enormous trust in anything else does not. A doubtful 999 caller can be just as rescued from a fire as a confident one, but a 111 caller… not so much! Well, Christianity is also about trusting a rescuer (a saviour) and we are saved by that faith. It’s all about putting our faith in the right person and not the quality of that faith. If you are worried about your doubts, let me encourage you that (ironically) it’s probably a good sign of a softened heart and evidence of the Spirit’s work in your life. Only the faithless person doesn’t worry about doubt! Take heart: doubt is not the same as unbelief. [For more on this, there is a book called Help My Unbelief by Barnabas Piper]

 

2. Doubt can actually strengthen faith

It is often those who have doubted the hardest whose belief is the strongest. If you have intellectual questions about whether Christianity is true, don’t suppress them, pursue them. The more we face head on the strongest arguments against our faith, the more we will doubt our doubts and discover that Christianity stands up to scrutiny. If you want to have confidence in a chair before you sit on it, give it shake, give it a strength test. Then you can have peace of mind. Much better that than perching on it gingerly feeling it might crumble at any moment. The same is true of Christianity: if in doubt, give it a shake! A writer called Trevin Wax says this, “I’m always heartened to see church members asking good questions about what they believe. Far too many Christians through the ages have sought to maintain the engine of faith on the fumes of their father and mother’s devotion, never wrestling with questions about not only what they believe but why. Examining pressure points does not indicate one’s faith is weak, but that the faith is strong—solid enough to withstand such inquiry.” So then, come to the Hope Explored course at St Peter’s in the new year, or ask me for a book recommendation, or type your burning question into the bethinking.org website. Because doubt can actually strengthen faith.

 

3. Doubt of self is necessary for faith

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.” Doubt of self is absolutely necessary for faith. When somebody says to me, “I’m not worthy to be a Christian,” or “God could never accept me,” they are doubting themselves. And it is music to my ears, because Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” in Mark 2:17. And because it was the humble tax collector not the proud Pharisee who went home justified in Luke 18:9-14. You see, faith in God actually requires us to lay down faith in self: our own abilities, our own righteousness, our own worthiness. It is only once we come to the end of ourselves that we can fully rely on God. Therefore, Christian faith is the polar opposite to self-reliance or independently standing on our own two feet. Instead, it is a desperate cry for help from a rescuer (see above). By definition, to say “I believe in Jesus” is also to say “I don’t believe in myself.” It is only once we realise that we don’t deserve God’s love that we can start to receive it for the free gift it is. Self-doubt is therefore utterly necessary for saving faith.

 

4. Jesus is gentle with those who doubt

“O ye of little faith” is a phrase you hear a lot today. It comes from the Gospels, where Jesus said it repeatedly. But, here’s the interesting thing, who did he say it to? Not his enemies, as we might guess, but his followers (e.g. Matt. 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8). Please see how encouraging this is: Jesus’ followers are, and always have been, those of “little faith”. And Jesus is, and always has been, unbelievably patient with such people. Take, for example, the most famous doubter of the lot. ‘Doubting Thomas’ had seen Jesus turn gallons of H20 into vintage Châteauneufdu-Pape (or equivalent). Thomas had seen Jesus feed thousands with a packed lunch. Thomas had seen him calm the storm, heal the blind, raise the dead. And yet, at the crucial moment, it wasn’t enough for Thomas. “Unless I see the nail marks… and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). How does Jesus respond? Jesus doesn’t humiliate, exclude or lambast Thomas. He even grants the over-the-top request. Then Thomas remains one of the twelve apostles, hand-picked to take the gospel to the world (Acts 1:13). But Jesus does give Thomas the prod he needs: “Stop doubting and believe.” Maybe you need it too.

 

So then, doubting Toms and doubting Tinas, don’t panic. Jesus is “gentle and lowly” and “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matt. 11:29, 12:20). Bring your doubts to him without fear, and echo the prayer of the father in Mark 9, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Belief is ultimately a gift from God (Eph. 2:8), it’s one he loves to give, and it’s an enormous blessing to receive (John 20:29).

Walking with God

- October 2023

The curate writes... On the hottest day of the year, I assumed it would be a good idea to do 'Ride and Stride'. Rather than ride (I thought a minister riding a bike is too cliché) I went for the stride. This was a 10-mile walk (OK it was 7.5 miles but allow me to round it up for dramatic effect!).

 

I had a great time. There is something about walking that helps the conversation flow. The ice cream was also much appreciated (and needed!). There were difficulties too, of course. The heat was stifling. Also, don’t tell the vicar, but trying to wake up for the service on the following day was tough.

 

Well, it may surprise you to learn that the Bible has a lot to say about walking. Here are just a few examples you can explore. God walked with humanity in the garden (Genesis 3:8). Enoch walked with God (Genesis 5:22–24). Noah and Abraham are said to have walked with God too (Genesis 6:9, 17:1). This theme is also picked up in the New Testament (John 12:135–36, 1 John 1:7). I wonder if you realised, spiritually speaking, we are all ramblers.

 

I think this walking metaphor is helpful in at least four ways.

 

First, the Christian walk has a beginning. All journeys start somewhere, of course. Jesus restores our fellowship with our heavenly Father and empowers us, by his Spirit, to be a follower of Christ. Trusting Jesus for forgiveness and starting out on this journey is an amazing first step to take.

Second, the Christian walk is relational. The metaphor of walking points to fellowship, doesn’t it? When you walk with others, you get to know them. Conversation rarely feels strained. Like all relationships, from our vantage point, a relationship with God develops. We actively put one foot in front of the other and get to know him more. We learn to hear his voice with greater clarity. Our obedience to the LORD grows as our love for him flourishes.

Third, the Christian walk is tough. As anyone who participated in Ride and Stride will tell you, walking is not always easy. Often when walking with God, there is a fork in the road. We choose to follow Jesus, who is the way (John 10:10). But that path is narrow, and the broad road can look appealing (Matthew 7:13–14). Walking with God is not equivalent to a leisurely stroll. Sometimes it is difficult. However, whatever the challenge, even if we walk through the darkest valley, God is with us.

Fourth, the Christian walk has a goal. The metaphor tells us we are heading somewhere. All things come from God and all things return to him (Romans 11:36). This means we are not aimless ramblers. One day, the relationship with God experienced here and now will be fully enjoyed: ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

 

So, the next time you are out for a wander, why not reflect on these four truths?

 

If you do that, you may be pleased to hear that the scientific advice has been downgraded. Rather than needing to walk 10,000 steps to stay healthy, apparently 4,000 is enough. I can almost hear your sigh of relief! But there is even better news than that. In the Christian life, there is no spiritual smartwatch poised to judge us. Whatever your journey has been like until now, God graciously invites you to walk with him.

Growth Groups?

- September 2023

Why are we launching Growth Groups this September? (Wednesdays 10am or 7:30pm in the church hall, beginning on the 20th)

We sometimes talk about St Peter’s being a “family”, for that is what it should be. The New Testament describes Christians as “brothers and sisters” over 300 times! Church should feel like family. Good family. Dysfunctional, of course (what family isn’t?), but family nonetheless. If you attend St Peter’s, does it feel like a supportive family to you? I hope some can honestly say “yes”. But others won’t be able to.

If not, one reason could be that you have no interaction with people from church outside of the Sunday service – whether that’s a text, a phone call, a coffee, an email or a walk. It is very hard to be family if we only see each other once a week (at best).

That sense of family (of doing life together, leaning on and supporting one another, sharing joys and sorrows, hopes and fears) sometimes comes by other means: through the workplace, the pub or the gym, the book group, the U3A group, or the addiction support group, the running club, the badminton club or the bridge club. These often put churches to shame when it comes to bringing people together. If you have such a friendship group (or, indeed, a biological family) that you can fall back on when times get hard, count yourself blessed. It is a wonderful thing.

Well, church should be every bit as emotionally supportive, life-giving and familial as any of these. In fact, more so! After all, we Christians have been formed into a family by the one who dreamt up family and friendship in the first place. It genuinely thrills me when I hear of church members having meals together, phoning each other, sharing lifts or advice, borrowing from each other, praying for each another, bailing each other out. And things like the Maintenance Day (2nd), Friendship Lunch (3rd), Barn Dance (8th), Ride & Stride walk (9th) or Welcome Drinks (10th) can all help build those bonds. But we need more.

Hence… Growth Groups!

Why the name? My hope is these meetings each Wednesday will help us to grow in two ways (two ‘ships’): fellowship (growing in depth of relationship with each other – see above) and discipleship (growing in depth of relationship with God – see below).

Having waxed lyrical about the first of these, let me touch on the second. Recent sermon series have reinforced the idea that growth comes through rootedness. The key verses in Colossians said, “Continue to live your lives in Jesus Christ, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught” (Col. 2:6-7). Psalm 1 said “The one who delights in the law of the LORD… is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (Ps. 1:3-4).

Therefore, if we are going to grow up as Christians (to be strong and fruitful) then we need to grow down as Christians (with ever deeper roots into Jesus and his Word). A key part of Growth Groups will therefore be Bible studies to help us dig deeper into Scripture, with a greater chance to apply it concretely to our lives, in addition to a time for prayer requests to help us share our lives with each another.

Do you find it hard to really get to know people at church? Do you wish that someone was praying for you and knew your struggles? Do you find interactions a bit rushed on Sunday? Do you find it hard to open your Bible during the week? Do you find it hard to know what being a Christian looks like outside of church? Well, Growth Groups may just be for you. They are no silver bullet, but they may just help. You can sign up for either a 10-11:30am Growth Group or 7:30-9pm Growth Group using the sheet in the extension foyer. Alternatively, you may like to form a little triplet yourself and resolve to meet with two others from church fortnightly to encourage each other (chat to me if you’d like to be placed in a triplet).

St Peter’s has been growing in number for a while now. It is even more important that we grow in depth. Please join with me in praying that Growth Groups would help us to do just that.

Tools for Christ

- July 2023

Have you heard the fable about the day there was trouble in the carpenter’s workshop? The tools were having a row. One of them said, "It’s the hammer's fault, making such a racket with all that banging." The hammer protested: "I blame the saw: all he ever does is go back and forth." The saw shouted, "It’s the plane’s fault: her work is so shallow, she does nothing but skim the surface."

And so it went on. The screwdriver was always going round in circles, the ruler always measuring others by his own standards, the drill was boring and the sandpaper forever rubbing people up the wrong way. But just as the sandpaper was about to protest, the carpenter came in and began to work. And using every one of his tools, he crafted a beautiful pulpit from which the gospel of love and peace was preached to all.

Well, when it comes to Christianity, we are the tools and Christ is the master craftsman. It is all too easy to focus on our differences and deficiencies, yet we each bring something to the table and our divine workman isn’t one to blame his tools. Instead, the Lord Jesus graciously uses such diverse and defective instruments as us to fashion something beautiful as he builds his church.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul uses another metaphor to make a similar point: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be… Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12).

If you are a congregation member, then whichever body part you are (whatever your particular gifts, expertise or experience) the rest of the body needs you. Ditch that exhausting habit of comparing yourself to others (along with the feelings of superiority or inferiority that follow) and instead give thanks that God made you as you are. After all, the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you,” any more than the foot can say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body” (1 Cor. 12:15, 21). The church needs everyone to play their part in order to be the fully functioning body of Christ.

That is why I’m grateful for so many of you serving at St Peter’s in a whole range of ways: whether that’s on the cleaning rota, the laptop rota, the coffee rota or the prayer rota, the Welcome Team, the gardening team, the flower team, the 800 campaign team, the Social Committee or the Church Council, helping with finances, buildings, magazines or children’s groups… the list goes on. Thank you so much for playing your unique part. If you didn’t, the church body would be less healthy for it. And as ever, please just chat to me if you want to start serving or be used in a new or different way.

Being called a tool or a body part is normally an insult! Let’s hope I’ve got away with it because, in actual fact, there is nothing more dignifying than being an instrument for noble use in the hand of the Master (2 Tim. 2:20-21), or an indispensable part of the sacred body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). Practical service for Jesus may often feel very ordinary, but don’t be fooled: it is to be part of something bigger, something eternal, something truly divine.

How qualified are you?

- June 2023

Thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.

Colossians 1:12

June is exam season. Growing up with a June birthday, I would sometimes have to postpone celebration for revision. For many, the arrival of summer is synonymous with having to prove yourself under exam conditions, in order to get the grades and be qualified for some job in the future. But even once in employment, qualifications remain a headache. In 2019, a survey of thousands of UK and US  employees found 32% felt unqualified for their job, and another 33% feared that a boss or colleague thought the same. What if, though, you knew you had the one and only qualification that really matters in life? What if you were qualified for the Kingdom of Heaven? Perhaps then, the imposter syndrome would end, the sense of insecurity and constant striving (that taints even the sunny seasons of life) would finally cease?

Recently, in our Sunday series, we read these remarkable words written to Christians, “Thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12). Extraordinary! Can it be true? How on earth is that possible, when none us get anywhere near to God’s perfect pass mark (Romans 3:23)? Well, what if someone had aced the entrance exam for us?

I like the story of the physics exam where students were asked to determine the height of a skyscraper using a barometer. One sharp student replied, “Firstly, you could take a barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge and measure the time it takes to reach the ground (too bad for the barometer). If the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end, measure the length of its shadow, before measuring the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and then it’s a simple matter of proportional arithmetic. You could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it as a pendulum, first at ground level, then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height of the building can be calculated from the difference in the pendulum’s period. If the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, you could walk up it and mark off the height in barometer lengths. If you wanted to be boring and orthodox, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference into height. But, probably the best way would simply be to knock on the caretaker’s door and say: ‘I’ll give you this barometer if you tell me the height of this building.’”

Genius. (In one version of the story, the student turns out to be Niels Bohr, later to win a Nobel Prize for physics.) Now imagine that this student could sit every physics exam for you. Your worries about atomic structures and electromagnetism would be over!

Well, Christians believe something similar has happened to them. For anyone who has trusted in him, Jesus Christ has aced the entrance exam of Heaven on their behalf. His perfect life and record are transferred to us, while all our errors and mistakes were passed to him on the cross. Our grade has been published: full marks! The never-ending need to prove ourselves has gone. And as long as we don’t disqualify ourselves by letting go of Christ, no one can take that qualification away from us.

So then, the most important facts that every Christian should revise this summer are: the sufficiency of Christ and his death in your place. You are qualified! Rest in that.

3 things to look forward to this month:

  • 11th June – 800 Celebration Service (9:30am) – the pinnacle of our year of celebrations, with former vicars, local leaders and diocesan representatives present. There will be no Lord’s Supper during the service, but there will be an 8am BCP Communion that day.

  • 23rd-25th June – Brides & Blooms Flower Festival – with floral wedding displays, wedding dresses and wedding photos. 10am-4pm on Friday and Saturday, 1pm-4pm on Sunday, £3 entry on the door.

  • 25th June – Ordination of Rob Wood – at Peterborough Cathedral, before he comes to serve as curate at St Peter’s for the next 3 years.

3 implications of Easter

- April 2023

With the highpoint of the Christian calendar fast approaching, I hope you can appreciate the significance of the Easter story in even greater depth this year. Its implications are endless, but let me unpack just three.

 

Easter means: God loves us outrageously

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

 

There’s a moving part in Life of Pi, the award-winning novel by Yann Martel (Mariner Books, 2003), when the main character meets a Christian minister called Father Martin and hears about Jesus’ crucifixion for the first time: ‘What a downright weird story… the first thing that drew me in was disbelief. Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect? Love. That was Father Martin’s answer. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son? Love, said Father Martin.’

 

Do you look at the cross and know that you are loved outrageously?

 

Easter means: God knows our pain intimately

Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

 

After Nicholas Wolterstorff, an American philosopher, lost his 25-year-old son in a climbing accident in 1983, he wrote a book called ‘Lament for a Son’. In it, he wrestled with his Christian beliefs and how they fitted with his pain, “How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself! We strain to hear… But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.”

 

Do you look at the cross and know that God understands your pain intimately?

 

Easter means: God can raise us ultimately  

In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye… the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52).

 

Later in that chapter, the apostle Paul taunts death, quoting Hosea, “Where, O death, is your victory?” John Donne expresses a similar sentiment in his sonnet, ‘Death, Be Not Proud’. Copyright forbids me from sharing the whole poem, but you can get the gist from the first and last two lines:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

 

Do you look at the empty tomb and know that, if you are trusting in Christ, God will ultimately raise you too?

 

Have you seen these three things in the Easter story? Once you have, your life can never be the same again.

Happy Easter!

Stop Waddling!

- March 2023

Are you enjoying your freedom? A famous Danish philosopher was fond of telling the following fable:

One balmy Sunday morning in the land of ducks, all the ducks waddled to church. When they found their pews, their duck preacher waddled to the pulpit. Opening the duck Bible, he preached a spellbinding sermon about God’s great gift to ducks—wings! “God has given you wings to rise above the confinement of pens and soar to the heavens,” the duck preacher exclaimed. All the ducks in the congregation uproariously shouted, “Amen, praise God for the gift of wings!” Then they all waddled home.

How often we Christians settle for waddling! Jesus said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Yet, how often we pass up the opportunity to walk in the truth and enjoy the freedom He offers: freedom from slavery to sin, freedom to soar.

Christianity seems, to many people (and often to us), more restrictive than freeing at first glance. Surely freedom is being able to do whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like, unrestrained and unconfined? But try telling that to the fish that jumps out of its bowl in a bid for freedom! In reality, freedom comes from being able to be who we were made to be, living for God “whose service is perfect freedom” (as the Prayer Book puts it), rather than held captive by our own self-destructive desires. Counter-intuitively, that means freedom often requires restraint and self-discipline.

Eliud Kipchoge is the only person to have run a marathon in under 2 hours. He needed extraordinary natural talent and a brilliant team around him, but also incredible self-discipline. Kipchoge once said in a speech, “Only the disciplined ones are free in life. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions. That’s a fact.” The writer David Foster Wallace once said something similar, “That feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to me to be a strange kind of slavery.”

Lent has often been used by Christians as a time for self-examination and renewed self-discipline. That can sound pretty uninspiring. Yet it’s actually the gateway to unparalleled joy. It’s a chance to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1) so we can run our marathon flat out. It’s a chance to stop waddling in the mud so we can spread our wings and reach heights we’ve never known. Whereas, all too often we suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, harbouring a strange affection for our former captor and viewing the life of captivity through rose-tinted spectacles (see Exodus 14:12).

So then, Christian brothers and sisters, are you enjoying your freedom? Quit waddling! The Jesus movement is a one of liberation and emancipation: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). That first Easter, Jesus willingly endured captivity and imprisonment for you, in order that you the prisoner may go free (just like Barabbas). So throw off the shackles this Lent and sing with Wesley, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!”

 

Our 800th Anniversary Appeal

- February 2023

On 22nd January we launched our 800th Anniversary Appeal, seeking to raise the sum of £412,000. Of that figure, we aim to raise £56,000 from the St Peter’s Church community itself. If you are reading this, that may include you! Therefore, might you consider giving as generously as you can towards this centenary appeal? It is vital we play our part and follow the generations before us, celebrating the church’s past by securing its future.

What is the 2023 Appeal money for?

The Appeal is raising money solely for work on the church building and churchyard. St Peter’s is the only Grade 1 listed building in Brackley, and one of only 3000 churches nationally categorised as such (out of 15,700 parish churches in England). A recent quinquennial inspection by our architect highlighted major areas of maintenance work that need to take place.

Those who came to the presentation in church in December will have heard more of the detail but, by way of example, £96,000 is needed for repairs to the roof and guttering, £34,000 for repairs to the church tower, £50,000 for repairs to the churchyard wall, £21,000 for a new boiler, and so on and so on. If you would like more of the breakdown, please contact me, Robin Morello (lead of the 800 campaign), or John MacMahon (chair of the Buildings, Development and Maintenance committee).

There is a common misconception that churches receive government or council funding (beyond charitable tax relief), which isn’t the case. Unlike in many European countries, such as Italy and Germany, the state plays no direct part in the upkeep of churches, and nor does the central Church of England provide financial support to its church buildings (other than a recent energy crisis grant of a few hundred pounds).

Covid and inflation have increased financial pressures on all charities and hundreds of churches face closure or demolition in the next five years. We would hate for that to be a risk for St Peter’s at some point in the future and want to be able to serve this community for centuries to come. This anniversary year to is a rare opportunity to sure up our beautiful premises.

What else is happening this year?

Please visit our website to find out some of the many 800 Celebration events planned for this year (www.stpetersbrackley.org.uk/800events). We are hoping there is something for everyone!

 

How can the target be reached?

We are seeking to raise the remaining £356,000 of the target by appealing to grant-making trusts, major donors and the wider Brackley community. Crucially, this means that the whole £412,000 doesn’t need to be found by the congregation alone, as would be the case if this fundraising effort were not to take place.

In terms of the £56k, I would love everyone in the congregation to give something, however small. That would both help us reach the target and also be really important to be able to say to the town, to businesses and to grant-making trusts. Please also join with us in praying for God’s provision this year: that he would go on meeting all our needs, just as he has in the past.

 

How can I donate?

If you would like to contribute, you can click here to donate online through our 800 Appeal page. Some may not be in a position to give one lump sum, but may prefer to commit to giving a small sum every month for the next 5 years. Please let us know if this is the case, as that will be a vital part of helping us reach the target.

Thank you very much indeed for considering whether you can give to our 800th Anniversary appeal.

The New Year and a Very Old One

- January 2023

If you make resolutions, I hope you are more realistic than the mathematician G. H. Hardy, who apparently made the following list one January in the 1930s: 1. Prove the Riemann hypothesis (one of the great unsolved problems in maths to this day), 2. Score 211 runs batting in the last innings of the 4th Test at the Oval, 3. Find an argument for the non-existence of God which convinces the general public, 4. Be the first man to climb Mount Everest, 5. Be proclaimed the first President of the USSR, Germany and Great Britain, and 6. Kill Mussolini.

I don’t think I need tell you whether foolhardy Hardy managed to keep his resolutions.

There is nothing wrong with ambitious resolutions per se. The psalmist writes, “I am resolved to obey Your statutes to the very end” (Ps. 119:112). But this side of Christ’s return, every Christian will identify with the Apostle Paul’s experience, “I do not do the good I want to do” (Romans 7:19). Thankfully, while our resolutions may be new every year or even every week, God’s mercies are “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). Therefore, past failure doesn’t need to breed present despair about future progress. Instead, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). This means that Christians can and should hit the reset or refresh button every day instead of every year (read 2 Cor. 4:16 for a beautiful description of this daily renewal).

But let me switch from talking about the new year to a very old one: 1223.

Long before clocks, cannons or codpieces were invented, around the time a revolutionary bit of technology called the wheelbarrow was bursting on to the European scene, the settlement of Brackley gained its first vicar, named Robert de la Hay, in 1223 (see the vicars’ board at the back of church). Of course, Christian worship began on the site of St Peter’s much earlier, as even its architecture can attest, but it was from 1223 onwards that a sustained and ordained Christian ministry was located in the town. Therefore, it doesn’t take a mathematician like Hardy to work out that 2023 is in fact our 800th anniversary as an established church! So it is my great pleasure, as Brackley’s 51st vicar, to announce that we will be celebrating this remarkable eight century milestone throughout the coming year.

In due course, there will be many dates for your 2023 diary related to the 800 celebrations. For now, let me highlight just one: Sunday 22nd January. This is the day we will be launching our 800 appeal at St Peter’s and we’d love as many people as possible to attend the 9:30am service. As well as all sorts of fabulous events this year, we will be raising a significant amount of money for crucial work to be carried out on the church building and its surroundings. This will mean we can continue to fulfil for years to come the task of loving this community and transforming lives to the glory of God. Part of this year’s aim will therefore be to secure the church’s future, in addition to celebrating its past. Lots more information about what is coming up can be found on our website here and you can also subscribe to receive an update about the 800 celebrations here.

Whatever other resolutions you may or may not make this January, could you resolve to pop along to St Peter’s on Sunday 22nd January at 9:30am? It’s simpler than climbing Everest, at least! I hope to see you there.

Every blessing, Rich

The Cost of Christmas

- December 2022

A recent survey found that 4 in 10 Brits think they won’t be able to afford what they consider to be a ‘proper Christmas’ in 2022. It won’t surprise you to hear the cost of Christmas is expected to be inordinately high this year, caused by high inflation and a cost of living crisis. ‘Tis the season to be thrifty, perhaps!

But praise God that he was anything but thrifty that wondrous night in Bethlehem. Consider the true cost of Christmas: the eternal Son exchanging the bosom of his Father (John 1:18, KJV) for the womb of Mary and, in time, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Now that is expense of a different order! God unsparingly emptied the coffers to give us the ‘proper Christmas’ we really didn’t deserve.

Poetry has a way of making familiar truth fresh, which can be particularly helpful at Christmas. I like the way this excerpt of Luci Shaw’s poem ‘Mary’s Song’ expresses the mind-boggling cost of Christmas:

Quiet he lies whose vigour hurled a universe.

He sleeps whose eyelids have not closed before.

His breath (so slight it seems no breath at all)

once ruffled the dark deeps to sprout a world.

Breath, mouth, ears, eyes, he is curtailed

who overflowed all skies, all years.
Older than eternity, now he is new, now native to earth as I am.

Nailed to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended I must see him torn.

 

I hope you gape at this love-inducing, life-transforming truth over the coming month: the Darling of Heaven choosing birth in ignominy and death in agony. For you. Because the only way to fix our brokenness was to be broken himself. “For him to see me mended I must see him torn.”

Come along to one of our services to keep basking in the light of this jaw-dropping extravagance. On Sundays, we’ll be continuing our Advent series in Exodus. Traditionally, Advent is used by the Church to focus more on Christ’s second coming than his first. But it’s possible to have your cake and eat it in the Old Testament, which has both horizons in view. In Exodus, we glimpse 3 glorious paradoxes about the coming of the LORD: the unapproachable God draws near (ch.19), the unseeable God is seen (ch.34) and the uncontainable God dwells in one place (ch.40) – all of which occurred most profoundly in Christ at his first coming, and all of which will be the highest reasons for euphoria when he comes back.

After the service on Sunday 4th (at 11am), there will be an information session to get us excited about the upcoming 800 Celebration taking place throughout 2023, marking eight centuries since the arrival of the first vicar at St Peter’s. Then, Carols by Candlelight will provide an opportunity to sing some of the classics and enjoy a mince pie with mulled wine (7.30pm on Sun 11th). Those with young children might want to book in for one of our Bake the Christmas Story workshops (11am or 2pm on Sat 17th – for whole families with primary aged kids). Alternatively, come to the Nativity Service (9:30am on Sun 18th) with children dressed as their favourite nativity characters, or book in for one of the ever-popular Christingle Services (3.00, 4.15, 5.30pm on Sat 24th), where Christingles will be handed out freely during the service. Finally, to see in the day itself, there’s either our Midnight Communion (11:30pm on Sat 24th) or the All-age Christmas Day Communion service (at 9:30am on Sun 25th).

But whatever you do this December, realise that you don’t need to break the bank to enjoy a proper Christmas. After all, the costliest expense has already been paid: “Though Christ was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Merry Christmas!

Let's talk about money

- November 2022

The Church Council and I feel it is important to update the St Peter’s community about the church’s finances from time to time. It has been a while since I have talked money, so here goes.

Some figures:

  • 72 = The number of households who currently contribute to St Peter’s each month by Standing Order. It’s worth saying that I deliberately choose not to find out who gives or how much. Only our Treasurer is privy to that information.

  • £512 = The cost per day to run St Peter’s (daily mean expenditure 1st January 2019 to 1st September 2022). This includes, since Jan 2019: £278,000 paid to Peterborough Diocese (to have a vicar and the diocesan support structures), £166,000 for repairs and maintenance (roof, repointing etc.), and £75,000 for new fixtures (including new lighting, speakers, screen and projector).

  • £0 = The amount received each year from the Church of England and the government (unless you count Gift Aid on charitable donations or tax relief on repairs). Contrary to popular opinion, all income has to be raised by the local congregation either giving, fundraising or receiving money for use of the buildings.

  • 9.9% = The UK inflation rate at the time of writing (acc. Consumer Price Index). Naturally, this is likely to cause increased pressure on church finances in the coming months, unless income rises accordingly.

 

Some comments:

We are hugely grateful to the many people who already give regularly and sacrificially to the church via Standing Order, envelope, the collection plate or online. Without your generosity we could not sustain our various ministries or beautiful premises. We are also very thankful for the substantial legacy left by Rosemary Miles, which has enabled major one-off investment in new lighting, the audio-visual system and, most importantly, seed funding for the Children and Families Worker role. Nevertheless, we are currently running at a deficit each month and inflation has the potential to increase the shortfall significantly over the next year. We realise that some people won’t be in a position to give more during a cost of living crisis. In addition, we don’t want to pressurise visitors to donate (the main reason we don’t take a collection during services). Despite all that, some reading this may feel they want to begin, renew or review their financial support of St Peter’s Church. In which case, you can head to the ‘Giving’ page of our website or email John Carter, our Treasurer (cjohncarter@hotmail.com) for next steps. That would be greatly appreciated.

Some principles:

Francis Bacon apparently once said, “Money is like manure: it’s not good unless it is spread around.” He had a point. Wealth is better shared than stockpiled – not least, as Christians, because spreading our resources is a way to ensure it is in God we trust, and not gold. So giving is not only good for others, it is good for us. Better still, giving also brings enormous pleasure to God: it is “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18). Therefore, don’t give out of a sense of guilt or compulsion, for “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7), not a tearful one! Our generosity should spring naturally, willingly, joyfully from an appreciation of the incalculably costly generosity that God has already shown to us in Jesus, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

As we marvel at our extravagant, munificent God, I hope giving becomes less of a burden and more of a sacred privilege, as we embrace the opportunity to become like him and express our undying gratitude towards to the one who gave us his all.

 

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

(2 Corinthians 9:15)

"My power is made perfect in weakness."

- October 2022

Do you ever feel too inadequate to be useful to God? Maybe you sense God prompting you to serve him in some way, but you feel out of your depth and too weak. Well, according to the verse above, weakness is precisely what God is after (2 Corinthians 12:9).

There was a teenager from Cumbria called Patrick, who felt God calling him into ministry, but he was poorly educated, not very eloquent and people said he wasn’t up to it. Even as an old man, Patrick would later admit, “I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open.” However, he remained convinced that God had chosen him to spread the good news, so he did. Today, his more articulate contemporaries are long forgotten, but the impact of St Patrick’s mission to Ireland 1500 years ago is still recognised around the world. God used Patrick’s weakness mightily.

The same could be said of Moses, as we are seeing on Sundays. Moses had a fear of public speaking, yet God handpicked him to be his most influential prophet. Three times in Exodus 4, Moses tries to wriggle out of being God’s spokesperson: “The people won’t believe me… I’m not a good speaker… send someone else!” (v1, v10, v13). How might we have encouraged Moses? The world would say he needed a boost in his self-confidence: “Don’t be so down on yourself, Moses, you can do this. You are more than capable.” God does nothing of the sort. Instead of saying, “You’ve got this,” God says, “I’ve got this!” Moses didn’t need more confidence in himself. He needed more confidence in God. Perhaps the same is true for you.

There used to be a saying that the greatest pairing in tennis was John McEnroe and anyone! Well, the greatest pairing in life is God and anyone (similar to the phrase: “God plus one equals a majority”). If God is for us, no one can stand against us. Time and time again in the Bible, God underlines this by deliberately choosing unlikely candidates for his service. We could list a hundred examples but just think of the disciples. Instead of recruiting from respected professions of the day, Jesus selected uneducated fishermen and despised tax collectors – and very flawed, unbelieving ones at that. Yet, from them, the worldwide church was born. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

This is bad news for our excuses. God won’t be fobbed off. Just read Exodus 4! He bends over backwards to accommodate Moses’ hesitancy and cowardice: offering miraculous powers, one-to-one coaching and even a sidekick in Aaron. And, despite a critical shortage of confidence and competence, Moses became one of the key figures of the whole Old Testament, and even one of its authors. Why? Because the one thing Moses excelled in was the only ingredient God needed: we are told elsewhere that Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). You see, an almighty God more than compensates for a lack of ability – he’s got that covered (Exodus 4:11). All he needs in his servants is dependence, and that often makes the weak more qualified than the strong.

I’m so grateful for the small army of volunteers who serve in all sorts of ways at St Peter’s (see the circle diagram below). Others may feel they have capacity to get more involved – take your pick of one of the areas in the diagram give it a try! You might feel out of your depth, but you are never out of God’s. When you acknowledge weakness, he rubs his hands and thinks, “Perfect! Remember? My power is made perfect in weakness.”

A Fresh Start

- September 2022

Even if you are not subject to the academic year, September always feels like a fresh start after the summer. For us at St Peter’s, after the mayhem of Holiday Club and CYFA camps for some, various activities restart: Friendship Lunch, the Bible discussion group, our First Steps toddler group, the Alpha Course, PCC meetings, school assemblies, and so on. But there are also a number of new things to highlight.

Firstly, our Church Prayer Meeting will now take place 11-11:45am on the first Sunday of each month (in the side chapel, after the morning service and before Friendship Lunch), in an effort to encourage more people to try out what is the most important meeting at St Peter’s, outside of our weekly gathered worship. There is no compulsion to pray out loud. Please come along this Sunday, if you can, as we rely on God to build his Church, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Our new Exodus teaching series also begins on Sunday 4th. We can be so familiar with the story that we forget how gripping it is. But Hollywood hasn’t forgotten: the 2014 ‘Exodus’ film directed by Ridley Scott topped the box office charts in its opening weekend and was just the latest big-budget blockbuster to base itself (however loosely) on the book. Even from a human perspective, Exodus has all the makings of great cinematic drama, with its barnstorming plot, its rich character development, and its ample opportunities for special effects (miracles galore). Best of all, it points us to Jesus as it introduces us to a mighty, caring, rescuing God, who wants to save his people from slavery, dwell amongst them and lead them to the Promised Land. 

The Ride and Stride event on Saturday 10th September (11:30am onwards) should be a good opportunity to get to know more people at St Peter’s, with a picnic lunch and a chance to walk (or bike, or scoot) around the local area as much or as little as you like – whilst raising a bit of money along the way. Forms to sign up are available at the back of church.

Conscious of the many newcomers at St Peter’s, Kate and I will host Welcome Drinks at the Vicarage (11am on Sunday 18th) for anyone who has joined the congregation in the past 12 months. No need to RSVP, but we would love to welcome you properly to the church family and get to know you better. Just turn up at The Vicarage, Old Town, NN13 7BZ after the morning service.

Helen Price will also be starting a Youth Group for 11-18s that Sunday (Sept 18th, time TBC), with the idea that it will meet fortnightly. Such a group was absolutely vital for my own spiritual survival and development in my secondary school years, so I’m thrilled this new venture is getting underway. Do chat to Helen if you need more details.

Finally, on Sunday 25th we will have our all-age Harvest Festival service. Of course, this is not ‘new’ – it is an ancient festival! But I want to highlight it in case you wish to invite someone who enjoys a slightly more informal service where the child remain in throughout. Harvest is a time to thank God for all he has given to us in the past, be inspired to respond with generosity in the present, and rely afresh on his provision for the future.

Therefore, I hope this September gives you a chance to not only be more involved with St Peter’s, but to be more dependent on God. He is, after all, the God who specialises in fresh starts and new beginnings, as the book of Exodus is at pains to remind us (Exodus 34:6): “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness!”

Songs for the Summer

- July 2022

In July and August at St Peter’s, we will be working our way through a series called ‘Songs for the Summer’. That may make you think of Bob Marley or The Beach Boys, George Ezra or Glastonbury Festival. I mean something different. The Book of Psalms is the songbook of the Bible, and on Sunday mornings over the next couple of months I’m hoping we can learn the lyrics to some of its greatest hits. But why might bother tuning in to our Sunday summer psalm playlist?

The Psalms teach us to pray

How is your prayer life? My guess is it’s not as rich or active as you would like it to be. In Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Every Christian knows we should pray and may even have known seasons of enjoying prayer. But we also realise it doesn’t come easily or instinctively to us. We need help.

Well, how gracious of God to give us 150 ready-made prayers for us to use! Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Psalter (the Book of Psalms) ‘the Prayer Book of the Bible’. So when our mind is either too blank or too full to know where to begin and what to pray for, why not repeat back to God his very own words that he has given for us to say? We know for a fact he’ll want to hear prayer like that.

The Psalms tap into our emotions

We don’t just want to learn to say a psalm but to feel it – to sing it, if you like. We want to pay attention to the tone and key (would it be major or minor?) and do justice to the poetry and passion of the words. It has been said that the psalms are like a cardiogram: they indicate the health of our hearts, as we compare our desires and emotions to those of the psalmists. The Book of Psalms is more emotionally vulnerable than any other part of Scripture and covers the whole range of human experience. They help us put into words not only our joy or wonder or gratitude, but also our grief and our anger, our confusion, anxiety, fear and lament.

But it doesn’t stop there. Psalms not only help us to express our current emotions. They also serve to shape, inform and enrich our emotions. We teach young children to say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ even when they may not fully mean the sentiment, in the hope it may encourage the feelings to follow. In the same way, I may not feel like praising the Lord every morning, but if I say something like, “Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, you his servants; praise the name of the Lord. Let the name of the Lord be praised,” (Psalm 113) it gives my heart a chance to warm to the task and, before long, my feelings may start to catch up with my words. 

The Psalms help us to know and love Jesus

Jesus quoted Psalms more than any other book of the Bible. He was constantly fulfilling and recapitulating its emotions and events. In fact, in Luke 24:44, Jesus explained to his disciples that the Psalms were “written about me.” Once we see these songs through that lens, they take on a whole new level of meaning and provide a window into the lived experience of Christ on earth, even into his heart, his desires, his feelings.

Perhaps it is no wonder that Psalms is thought to be the most read book of the Bible. Given that it is two years since we looked at them together as a church, it’s about time we learned once more not only to say the psalms but also to sing and savour them. I hope you can come along on Sundays (or catch up using the Talks page of our website, or the ‘Dial-a-Sermon’ service: 01280 734373) as we seek to turn a few psalms into our summer anthems!

The Power of Hope

- June 2022

There is a spine-tingling passage in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ when one of the key characters finds hope in the midst of a desperate situation:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

This beautifully expresses the way that hope can help us to transcend our circumstances and find poise, composure and a measure of peace in times of real turmoil.

After the Brackley Jubilee Service on Sunday 5th June (11am in Brackley Park), when we will give heartfelt thanks for the 70-year reign of the Queen, the remainder of the Sundays in June will be spent looking at a chapter in the Bible that is all about the Christian hope. When people use the word ‘hope’, they might say something like ‘I hope we win’ – wishing for something, but unsure it will happen. In the Bible though, hope means absolute certainty about the future. In 1 Corinthians 15, we will find the apostle Paul arguing that the past certainty of Christ’s resurrection from the dead guarantees the future certainty of Christian resurrection to eternal life.

If this is true, belief in heaven is more than just wishful thinking or blind optimism. J.I. Packer wrote, “Optimism is a wish without warrant; Christian hope is a certainty, guaranteed by God himself. Every moment, the believer can say with truth… that the best is yet to come.” The ending of our lives here on earth becomes something Christians need not fear, for “every prayer then shall have its answer; all hungering and thirsting shall be filled and satisfied; every sigh, groan, and tear that has fallen from the saints’ eyes shall then be recompensed” (Thomas Brooks). In Paul’s words, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

Too good to be true? Let me give you two ways, other than coming on Sundays or listening back online, that you can investigate. Firstly, the Hope Explored course will run on Wednesday evenings (8pm on 8th, 15th, 22nd, 29th June). This will cover the basics of the faith and allow people to test and challenge its veracity. Just turn up, watch a video or two, eat a slice of cake or two, and ask any question you like. Secondly, we will be selling a short book called ‘Tears and Tossings: Hope in the Waves of Life’ by Sarah Walton. It is a very quick read and aimed at those whose lives feel turbulent, painful and sometimes hopeless. You can pick up a copy from the back of church for just £2.

Wouldn’t you like to be one of the most hopeful people in the world? This month, come along on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings – or read a book from the comfort of your own home – and hear about “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3). Amidst the Jubilee celebrations, it feels only right that we quote Her Majesty, who regularly references her Christian faith as a continual source of inspiration and strength: “Even on the darkest nights – there is hope in the new dawn” (the Queen, 25.12.20).

This June, whether life is incredibly dark for you at the moment or flooded with light, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13).

'What radio station is our church?'

- May 2022

I remember a friend pondering this question about their own church a while ago. What he meant was, ‘What sort of style of music features in our services?’ As I’m the person who chooses the hymns and songs for Sundays, it’s something I have to give a fair amount of thought to. So, for a bit of fun, let’s ask the question, ‘Which radio station is St Peter’s?’

Classic FM

Classic FM trades on playing the golden oldies that most people will know and often draws on a particular theme or the time of the year. This, I think, is the staple for St Peter’s: well-known traditional, barn-storming numbers that have stood the test of time. I’m a huge fan of hymns that combine theologically rich lyrics with stirring melodies. Sadly, my voice isn’t quite as smooth as those of the Classic FM presenters when I’m introducing, but in some ways, the selections are of a similar flavour.

Radio 3

Radio 3 selects music of a similar vintage (long out of copyright), but likes to be a bit more niche. In a similar way, the choices at St Peter’s will sometimes come from delving into the lesser-known recesses of our old Common Praise hymnbooks. This can be good in small doses to ensure variety, although the doses may have been rather generous earlier in the year!

 

Radio 2

Like Radio 2, a mainstay of our playlist is music that is less ancient and more modern – produced in the last 50 years, but still not bang up-to-date. This would probably describe much of the contents of our white Songbook, which contains a whole range of dearly-loved tunes.

 

Radio 1

Novelty and contemporary trends are obviously core to Radio 1’s USP and, now and then, we like to throw in a new release to the St Peter’s line-up. Some of these have proven very popular. It’s good, very occasionally, to add to the repertoire and make sure we accommodate younger audiences, in some small way, as well as our long-serving stalwarts. 

Fun Kids

Didn’t know this radio station existed? Well, whilst we’re on younger listeners, we at St Peter’s have a children’s song in the service from time to time. Partly to give the grown-ups a free workout if they join in with the actions, but mainly to ensure that the next generation know that church is for them too.

One danger

In using this radio analogy, we must be wary of a danger: if we liken church music to switching on the radio in the car or at home, we’ll probably end up with an individualistic, consumerist mindset. If I don’t like the song on my radio, I can either switch over or switch off. But church is different. Church music is corporate worship:

1) Corporate (i.e. it’s about others’ needs too – perhaps it’s more like radio in a bus than in a car, needing to cater for a range of tastes and styles)

2) Worship (i.e. it’s ultimately about God’s pleasure not mine – meaning if the words are great but the tune is painful, I can still choose to worship Him).

I think the singing at St Peter’s is excellent, which is such an encouragement. I’m also extremely grateful that we have such  a flexible organist in Jacinta, who is always willing to accommodate my eclectic tastes. Please pray for me as I choose what songs we sing on a Sunday and let’s keep remembering that it is corporate worship.

Radio 4

Finally, at the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, any Radio 4 listeners (who appreciate news and current affairs), hopefully get a bit of that at the very end of our services in the notice slot: informative, though often overly wordy. If that parallel works, then perhaps the reading of Banns of Marriage is like the Shipping Forecast: familiar and vaguely nostalgic background noise for most, but for a small minority, they’d be sunk without it!

What does Good Friday have in common with Titanic's sinking?

- April 2022

On 15th April, it will be exactly 110 years since the sinking of the Titanic. The 15th April is also Good Friday this year. Therefore, let me try to draw 3 parallels between the Titanic’s sinking and Christ’s death:

1) Both events were foretold

Over a decade before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, Morgan Robertson wrote a novella called Futility (or The Wreck of the Titan) about the sinking of an imaginary luxury liner named the Titan, the largest ship in existence, with a passenger and crew capacity of 3000. It was considered unsinkable. On a cold April night, the Titan struck an iceberg just before midnight. The iceberg tore a gash in the ship’s starboard side, sinking the ‘unsinkable’ ship, and a lack of lifeboats meant that more than half of the Titan’s passengers died in the icy North Atlantic waters. All this, of course, would prove to be a remarkably accurate (albeit accidental) foretelling of one fateful night 14 years later.

 

The foretelling of Christ’s death was even more astonishing in its detail and accuracy. About 28 specific (and deliberate) prophecies were fulfilled on Good Friday (compare Psalm 22 and Matthew 27 for example) – prophecies made not in recent history but several centuries earlier, before crucifixion had been invented. The importance of this foretelling is underlined by the Gospel writers. The Passion narratives constantly repeat the words ‘fulfil’ and ‘fulfilled’ to highlight that Jesus was no hapless victim and his death no accident. Rather, it all happened “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23).

2) Both involved heroic self-sacrifice

Stories of selfless courage on the Titanic abound. Famously, the 8-member band in the 1st Class Lounge kept playing for over 2 hours in an effort to keep passengers calm and upbeat. All members perished. A young woman called Edith Evans gave up her spot on a lifeboat for a lady named Mrs Brown, saying, "Take this woman; she has children waiting for her." A Scottish pastor called John Harper put his 6-year-old daughter into a lifeboat then removed his life jacket and gave it to one of the other passengers. Survivors reported seeing him gathering people round him on deck to pray. Then, as the ship began to lurch, he jumped into the freezing waters and swam frantically to all he could reach, appealing to them to turn to the Lord Jesus and be saved. Finally, as hypothermia set in, John Harper, aged 29, sank beneath the waves.

 

These acts of sacrificial valour are surpassed only by the one who went through the physical, emotional and spiritual  Hell, not just of crucifixion, but of bearing the whole weight of God’s judgement upon humanity in order to save humanity. Like Edith Evans, he swapped his spot of safety for certain doom. Like John Harper, he offers a lifesaver to anyone who will accept it. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Good Friday contained the single most heroic act in all of history.

 

3) Both tragedies yielded life

These sacrifices were not wasted, but saved lives in more ways than one. Four years after the Titanic tragedy, a Scotsman called Aguilla Webb publicly retold this story: “I am a survivor of the Titanic. When I was drifting alone on a plank of wood that awful night, the tide brought Mr. John Harper of Glasgow, also on a piece of wreck, near to me. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘Are you saved?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I am not.’ He replied, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.’ The waves bore him away; but, strange to say they brought him back a little later, and he said, ‘Are you saved now?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I can’t honestly say that I am.’ He said again, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,’ and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed. I am John Harper’s last convert.”

 

The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus was not wasted either. Even as he died, a convicted criminal is told, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The world has never been the same since. Billions of people around the world will celebrate Easter this April, because they know they can’t save themselves, but on the lifeboat provided by Christ’s death and of course his resurrection, there’s room enough for everyone. I sincerely hope you too have climbed aboard and benefitted from his long-foretold, heroic self-sacrifice.

 

Happy Easter to you all!

10 things God does with a Christian's sin

- March 2022

The season of Lent brings with it many associations. The Church has historically encouraged Christians to use this time, starting with Ash Wednesday (this year on 2nd March), to reflect upon our waywardness from God: that “we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). A verse from the 12th century described Lent in this way:

Now is the healing time decreed

for sins of heart and word and deed,

when we in humble fear record

the wrong that we have done the Lord.

 

This focus at Lent upon our failings, our rejection of God, makes sense. Before we can truly celebrate salvation at Easter, we must recognise our need for salvation in the first place.

However, all this self-examination should be combined with Christ-examination. As the old saying goes, “For every one look within, take ten looks at Him.” We will only be willing to plumb the depths of our fallenness, once we know it can be dealt with. 

So what does God offer to do with our sin if we repent (meaning ‘turn’: turn away from our sin and turn back to God for forgiveness)? Let’s take ten ‘looks at Him’, or ten images the Bible uses to describe God’s complete pardon – his solution to our greatest problem (with credit to an online blogpost by Tim Challies in Sept 2016):

1. God submerges our sin in the sea (Micah 7:19). This a great picture of getting rid of something for good so that it’s never to be seen again.

2. God treads our sin underfoot (Micah 7:19). God doesn’t only drown our sins in the sea, but he stomps them under his feet, grinding them into the dust.

3. God throws our sin behind his back (Isaiah 38:17). God drowns it, he stomps on it, and he also tosses it away.

4. God blots out our sin (Isaiah 43:25). To blot out is to destroy something so that it’s as if it never existed.

5. God forgets our sin (Hebrews 8:12). God chooses to forget in the sense of never again bringing it to mind or making us face its consequences (judgment).

6. God removes our sin (Psalm 103:12). David proclaims: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” – infinitely far!

7. God covers our sin (Psalm 32:1). David says, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”

8. God cancels our sin (Colossians 2:14). The legal charge sheet that stood against us was nailed to the cross, meaning we our verdict is now ‘not guilty’!

9. God washes our sin (Psalm 51:7). It’s hard to think of something whiter than pure snow. Yet, according to this Psalm, that is how clean God washes us.

 

So why not spend half an hour looking up the verses above in a Bible (or online), dwelling on your sins of commission and omission, before letting the sweet balm of God’s full forgiveness sink in? But, before we finish, one more image is needed. For a just God can’t act like nothing’s happened. Sin always has consequences. A price must be paid. A sentence must be served. The punishment for sin is capital, and if it doesn’t fall on us, who takes it?

 

10. God takes on our sin. To quote more fully from Isaiah 53, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all… he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.”

The wonder of the Christian message is that God the Son, Jesus Christ, takes the full punishment for our sin upon himself. To swap places with us wayward sheep comes the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The technical term for this swap is ‘penal substitution’ (a substitute taking the penalty). At the key moment of Euro 2020 football final, a substitute was sent on the take a penalty. And Christians believe the key moment of human history was when a substitute was sent to the world to take their penalty.

So, this Lent, let’s repent and rejoice in what God does to our sin: he drowns it, stamps on it, tosses it, blots it out, forgets it, removes it, covers it, cancels it, washes it – all because he took it on himself. Hallelujah!

 

How welcoming is our church?

- February 2022

A notice posted in Coventry Cathedral some years ago included the following: “We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing’, just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps and don’t like organised religion. We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters and YOU.”

 

Well said.

 

One church leader’s definition of welcome is, “Treating the outsider as an insider,” and isn’t that a great description of Jesus’ ministry? Jesus constantly encountered people that society treated as an insider and invariably made them feel seen and accepted, welcomed and loved. The least, the last and the lost found in Jesus someone who was safe to be around. He was approachable and completely at ease in their company. He became renowned for his hospitality towards “tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:16). He said “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 12:13). When the disciples shooed away children (who were often devalued in that context), Jesus rebuked them saying, “Do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14).

In Jesus, we find the most welcoming man who ever lived. Unlike every other religion, Christianity says that living a good life isn’t a prerequisite of God’s love but a result of it (1 John 4:10-11). That means the church should be the most inclusive place on earth. Yet all too often, I’ve heard people say something like, “I have wanted to try church, but I don’t think I’d be very welcome there.”

Now, wonderfully, I think St Peter’s is already a more welcoming church than many others. A number of people have told me that the warmth and friendliness they experienced on their first visit was one of the main reasons why they began attending regularly. Huge thanks to all of you who are making a point of chatting to people you don’t know, remembering names, not acting like you own a particular pew, staying behind for coffee, serving as sides-people and (best of all) having others round for a meal.

However, I do also hear others say that no one speaks to them at church and they struggle to get to know people. S there is definitely room for improvement, and it really matters. Ray Evans, an experienced church leader, highlights three quality indicators that usually predict church growth: a church’s welcome, preaching and hospitality (Ready Steady Grow, p.29).

Now, it’s worth saying that welcome isn’t all about first-timers. Some who have been attending St Peter’s for decades still feel like outsiders, and a swathe of recent newcomers has meant that very few people on a Sunday will know more than half of the others in the room. Of course, it doesn’t help if people whizz off straight after the service, have never served in a team or joined a group (usually the best ways to get to know people). So if that’s you, why not come along to Alpha this month (7:30-9pm every Tuesday in February at the Football Club), attend the Bible discussion group on alternate Wednesday mornings, come to the prayer meeting on the 2nd Thursday of the month or volunteer to help on a rota? Nevertheless, it’s incumbent upon us all to try to make everyone, old and new, feel noticed and valued at St Peter’s.

 

We will soon be setting up a Welcome Team to help with this effort. When I arrived at St Peter’s, there was already a great group of welcomers who handed out service sheets on the door, and even though we now have the screen, I want to recover that opportunity to put people at ease as they arrive and ensure no one leaves St Peter’s without speaking to another human being (introducing a weekly notice sheet should help). Let me know if you’d like to join the Welcome Team and I will invite you to a training session. More importantly though, St Peter’s needs to have a culture of welcome across the board. So, if you are a churchgoer, will you accept the challenge to introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met next time you attend? It may not be very British but it is very Christian. Besides, you can always say it was my idea and blame the vicar!

Big Questions for the New Year

- January 2022

‘Will I be fat in heaven? And other curious questions.’ That is the title of a new book by J. John that I requested for Christmas. We all have questions – some more weighty than others. (See what I did there?)

This January, after marking Epiphany on the first Sunday, we’ll use the four remaining Sundays to address some of the weightiest questions with which many people wrestle, believers and non-believers alike:

1. Does science disprove God? (9th Jan)

2. How can God allow suffering? (16th Jan)

3. What about other religions? (23rd Jan)

4. How can we trust the Bible? (30th Jan)

This plan to tackle Big Questions will be a sermon series with a difference: perfect for inviting along that sceptical friend or family member who wouldn’t normally darken the doors of a church.

There will be no easy answers. In an era that prizes the pithy soundbite and tweet-length argument, nuance can be in short supply. So come prepared to think carefully about complex ideas.

Perhaps you attended a Christmas event at St Peter’s and resolved to dig deeper into issues of faith. Maybe you have been having doubts lately – serious doubts, not just the everyday run-of-the-mill ones. Or possibly, you’d like to feel better equipped “to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). Whichever applies to you, I hope our Big Questions series proves a thought-provoking way to begin 2022.

For those wanting to explore further, our next Alpha Course will then (covid permitting) take place on the four Tuesday nights in February (1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd) at The Venue, Brackley Football Club. These informal evenings will provide an opportunity to hear a talk, share food and discuss important questions, like those mentioned above. The course is free and there’s no need to commit to coming back. More details will follow on our website and in next month’s magazine.

Let me wish you a very happy new year, and hopefully I’ve given you some dates to scribble into those brand new diaries (or plug into online calendars). You’re welcome!

7 ways to be a Christian this month

- December 2021

December is usually a mix of heightened emotions: a unique blend of excitement, stress, joy, grief and exhaustion for each of us, depending on our personality and personal circumstance. How can we navigate the intensity of this Advent and Christmas season? With credit to a blogger called Kevin DeYoung for the inspiration, let me suggest… 7 ways to be a Christian this December:

1. Receive all over again. Contrary to popular opinion, Christmas is more about receiving than giving, for humanity: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). So whether it’s by finding a time to be quiet or attending a church service, make sure you receive into your hearts and lives (all over again or for the first time) this most priceless of gifts: God himself. If you do, the rest of this list will take care of itself and you’ll actually have the resources to be truly giving.

2. Sing like you mean it. Whether it’s the bittersweet yearning of the Advent hymns or the wonder and glee of Christmas carols (Luke 2:10-14), enter into the drama and sing with gusto. Savour the familiar sounds and sentiments of the season. The opportunity to belt them out won’t come round again for another 11 months.

3. Stop complaining. Things will go wrong this Christmas. Someone will probably hurt your feelings. Obnoxious friends may be extra obnoxious. But choosing gratitude over grumbling will make you incredibly distinctive – dazzling even (Philippians 2:14-16).

4. Enjoy some good food. Greed and gluttony are obvious dangers, but Christians are not called to be ascetic either. So tuck in, within limits! God created food to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-5), so be filled with grub and gratitude.

5. Be generous. Not everyone can enjoy good food this Christmas. Charities have been struggling across the board since the pandemic. That means the people they support will be struggling even more than usual. The range of desperate needs at home and abroad can seem overwhelming, but start somewhere and be generous. You will never out-give God (2 Corinthians 8:9).

6. Speak to your family. For most of us, it takes effort to engage with our relatives, especially those we don’t see often. Could you put in five minutes of thought on the way to their house (or before picking up the phone) to think of five questions to ask? The gift of your curiosity will probably be much appreciated.

7. Pray for opportunities. What if we prayed for a chance in the next week or so to invite a neighbour along to the Carols by Candlelight service at St Peter’s, or a young family to Saltmine’s Rapunzel performance at Southfields (both on Sunday 12th)? Or for a conversation in which to share why Christmas brings us comfort. God may well honour that prayer. Perhaps we do not have such opportunities often because we do not ask (James 4:2).

All that remains now is for me to take my own advice (gulp), and to wish you a very happy Christmas!

Net Zero by 2030

- November 2021

 

As we begin November, the eyes of the world turn to Glasgow and COP26, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference. Sir David Attenborough has described it as “our last opportunity to make the necessary step-change” required to protect the planet, and the conference has the stated aim of prompting “ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century” (www.ukcop26.org/cop26-goals/).

Perhaps surprisingly, the Church of England was bold enough last year to commit to aiming for net zero emissions by 2030, scrapping its previous and more modest target of 2045. That’s not bad for an institution comprised of thousands of ancient, energy-inefficient buildings. Well, we at the parish church in Brackley want to play our part. Therefore, we too are aiming to make St Peter’s “net zero” by 2030.

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously announced his "moonshot" ambition (to achieve a lunar landing by the end of the decade) long before the requisite technology even existed. Likewise, we at St Peter’s have under 9 years to reach our goal and, as yet, no clear plan of how to get there. But now is the time for such "earthshot" targets and hopefully our step-change is not quite as vast as Neil Armstrong’s "giant leap" – or as expensive: the Apollo 11 programme cost $25 billion!

It is all too easy to call for action from others (especially governments) without taking action ourselves. But Christians ought to be at the forefront of care for the environment. If God made the world and everything in it (Psalm 89:11), and if humanity has been given the explicit command to take care of the earth (Genesis 2:15), then sustainability becomes not just a practical imperative but a moral one: abusing the environment is not only foolish, it’s wrong. We therefore aren’t just motivated by a utilitarian concern for self-preservation, but by a loving concern for the Lord’s creation and the world’s poorest.

Yet now is not just a time to dream big. The author Wendell Berry wrote an essay in 1970 called Think Little. He argued that in order to sustain the Green Movement over the long-term, it couldn’t just be something we expect Big Thinkers in government to fix. Instead, it also needed to involve billions of tiny, mundane choices in individuals’ lives. We may feel our personal contribution is miniscule in the face of a global crisis, but Jesus consistently cared about the little things, saying he would reward a “a cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42) and account for “every careless word” (Matthew 12:36). Mother Teresa is famously quoted as saying, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

Sometimes, Christians are accused of being so heavenly-minded that they are of no earthly good. After all, unlike Extinction Rebellion activists who believe this world is all there is, we have a new, better and indestructible world to look forward to come what may (Revelation 21:1). However, far from lessening the importance of this life, the reality of God and eternity actually lends far greater significance to every aspect of our lives here and now. Timothy Keller, a church leader undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, recently said in interview, “It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly-minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.” In a similar vein, C. S. Lewis observed, “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.”

So then,

  • let’s pray: for COP26 to be a world-changing, future-shaping event

  • let’s plan: to make St Peter’s an environmentally-friendly church

  • let’s each play our part: “think little” and turn off the lights!

Boundless riches

- October 2021

Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, has been dubbed ‘the richest person in history’. There are some indications that entrepreneur Elon Musk is starting to give him a run for his (shed load of) money, whilst historians have argued that the title of Richest Ever rightfully belongs to the 14th century Mali emperor, Mansa Musa. Whichever way we look at it though, Jeff Bezos is rather well off. One credible estimate in July this year stated that Bezos makes roughly $321 million per day. Yes, you read that correctly. The man has riches that beggar belief.

But the same is true for Christians! At St Peter’s this term, we’re looking at the New Testament letter to the Ephesians, and a key word that keeps cropping up (five times) is “riches”. The Apostle Paul writes in chapter 1 about “the riches of God’s grace” (v7-8) and “the riches of his glorious inheritance” (v18), trying to convince Christians that their God is the most generous of benefactors and that they have extravagant and unearned wealth – not situated in some earthly vault but “in the heavenly realms” (another phrase that appears five times). Indeed, because God’s net worth is infinite, his people benefit from truly unlimited resources, with Paul referring to our “boundless riches” and “incomparable riches” in Christ (2v7, 3v8).

As the second city in the Roman Empire and a flourishing financial and cultural hub, Ephesus was no stranger to riches. In fact, Ephesus (where Paul’s readers lived) was so affluent that it was one of only three cities at the time with street lights, and its Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) was so vast it was double the size of the Parthenon in Athens. Yet, believers had no reason to be enthralled or intimidated by the wealth around them, since all the money in the world could not buy the “glorious riches” (3v16) on offer to them.

Therefore, as we begin October in the middle of ‘Generosity Week’, a nationwide Church of England initiative around harvest-time to stimulate giving in local church congregations across the land, let me make my annual plea to be generous in response to God’s generosity to us. Conscious that this magazine wonderfully has a readership that goes well beyond the St Peter’s congregation, please ignore this request if you are not a Christian or a part of the church family. But if you are, you will no doubt appreciate that the past year has been a very difficult one financially for most churches, including ours. So let me invite you to review your monthly giving in light of the embarrassment of riches God has given to you. After all, even Jeff Bezos himself cannot compete with the eternal salvation and endless love that followers of Jesus have in the bank!

A heavenly holiday home

- September 2021

 

I don’t know if you were fortunate enough to get away from Brackley this summer, but there’s something fantastic both about going away on holiday and also about coming home. In fact, both of those sensations are actually a foretaste of heaven, which will be like the ultimate holiday and the ultimate home.

Heaven will be the ultimate holiday

Not all holidays are straightforward, but all of the best aspects will be there without the hassles and headaches: rest, beauty, good food, laughter, friendship and adventure, without any of the travel sickness, traffic jams or family feuds. Heaven will exceed even our wildest dreams as the best holiday we have ever had. If you are a Christian, then you’re going where the sun shines brightly.

What’s more, it’s so certain that Christians should start looking forward to it now. A British passport allows bearers to pass freely around the world “in the Name of Her Majesty”, but a Christian’s faith in Jesus Christ guarantees free passage beyond this world on the authority of an even higher Name.

Even after the best trips away though, there can be something incredibly satisfying about returning: walking through the door and thinking “I’m home.” Well, this will also be the case upon arrival in heaven.

Heaven will be the ultimate home

All the best things about coming home will be there (comfort, security and reunions with loved ones) without any of the disappointment that our vacation has ended (no unpacking, Monday blues or the deflating sense that all good things have to come to an end). In fact, heaven will far outstrip the homeliness of any earthly residence. It may be that you’ve never really felt you ‘belong’ in this life, wherever you have lived. If you are a Christian, that’s right: you actually belong in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

C.S. Lewis wrote in ‘The Weight of Glory’ that “our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off… is the truest index of our real situation.” Our primary citizenship is out of this world. To some extent, Christians will always feel like homesick travellers in this life (Hebrews 11:14-16), but one day we will arrive home and the Lord Jesus is currently getting it ready for us (John 14:2-3).

Autumn can feel to many of us like a melancholic season. As light and life recede, it can seem as if the best is behind us. But for the Christian, the best is always yet to come. The key is not just to look forward to our next time away (if that’s even a possibility for us), but to our eternal, heavenly holiday home!

In the shorter term, let me highlight some of the things we can look forward to in the month ahead at St Peter’s:

  1. Essentials – starting 8pm on Wed 8th, this  new course is for those who want to cover the basics of the faith in a relaxed environment, suitable for believers and non-believers alike. Perhaps you’re not sure that heaven is where you are headed. Why not come and ask questions, or just soak it up (five Wednesday evenings in the church hall: no fee, no booking and no need to come to more than one).

  2. Welcome Drinks – 11-12 on Sun 12th at the Vicarage, for anyone who has joined St Peter’s in the past two years. You can just turn up and (as with Bingo on the 4th and the Harvest Supper on the 25th) this should be a great opportunity to get to know more people in the church family.

  3. ‘The Church’s Response to the Climate Crisis’ – 6pm on Wed 15th at St Peter’s, with Dr Peter Brotherton speaking, followed by bring-and-share supper (booking essential through Rev. Carolyn Oley 01280 701311).

  4. Generosity Week – Sun 26th Sept to Sun 3rd Oct. Beginning with our all-age Harvest Festival service, and tying in with the national church, St Peter’s will be giving thanks for the time, talents and treasure that so many people give to the church and asking for people to review what they can give in light of current needs and opportunities.

Finally, please let us know if we can pray for you or if you need support. If you would like more frequent updates on what’s going on at the church, do sign up for our ‘Weekly Bulletin’ emails (subscribe through our website). I am conscious that a number in the orbit of St Peter’s are unable to attend our services, but I’m keen that they continue to feel a valued part of our community.

A new opportunity to fall out!

- August 2021

How do you feel when the person you talk to after a church service takes a different approach to wearing a mask, singing in church and social distancing? Are you tempted to feel superior? Or judgemental? Or frustrated? Or defensive about your own approach?

Since the onus for making these calls shifted from the government to individuals (on 19 July), fresh opportunity for division has arisen in all walks of life: within households, within businesses, within friendship groups, and within churches.

Over the coming months, I’m very keen that St Peter’s is a place where both the more confident and the more cautious can feel comfortable, and where each side is gracious toward the other. This is what we are called to as God’s people.

Paul, in Romans 14, gives several helpful principles that can help Christians to navigate such ‘disputable matters’ (v1):

  1. Welcome those who disagree with you (v1-2)

  2. Don’t look down on those whom God has accepted (v3-4)

  3. Have a clear conscience about your own position (v5)

  4. Assume that those who differ from you do so from right motives (v6-9)

  5. Don’t judge – that is God’s job, after all (v10-12)

  6. The relaxed must not encourage the tentative to sin against their conscience (v13-15)

  7. There are much more important things than being right (v16-23)

 

There is much valuable, practical wisdom here and the fact that this was one of the main reasons the apostle wrote his longest letter shows just how important he considered this mutual acceptance to be. Paul took quite a run-up to the issue (13 chapters), so if we struggle to stick to the 7 principles above, perhaps we should read Romans 1-13 to see how justification by faith humbles us and makes us more loving towards others. This August, I hope we can all heed what Paul says in Romans 15v7, “Accept one another then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

Three other things to mention about the month ahead:

  • a new proposal… on 1st August, there will be a short presentation straight after the 9:30 service, explaining the new lighting scheme, proposed for 2022 or 2023.

  • a new meeting… on 5th August, ‘Compline in the Choir Stalls’ will happen at 7:45pm as an alternative to the prior format of the monthly Church Prayer Meeting. It does what it says on the tin, but there will also be a chance for extempore prayer and the sharing of prayer requests.

  • a new arrival… on 22nd August, we welcome to Brackley and St Peter’s our fulltime Children & Families worker, Helen Price. You can read an interview with her if you receive a physical copy of our August parish magazine. Her role will incorporate many different aspects as she oversees our children’s ministry and seeks to build up ties with families and primary-aged schools in the parish. She will need our prayers and ongoing support as she moves to a new town and gets to grips with the role. This appointment is right in line the church family’s vision to reach young families and has been made possible by the wonderful legacy left by Rosemary Miles.

 

I’d like to pass on heartfelt thanks to Jo Brice, Rosemary Leeper, my wife and all the other volunteers who helped to run Junior Church and Tots during May, June and July. Both groups are having a pause during August, but children are always welcome to stay in throughout our services (making use of the Children’s Corner if that helps) or to play in the church hall (where the audio link can be switched on).

Lastly, it’s not too late for children to sign up for our Holiday Club called ‘Land Ahoy!’ Running 10am-12pm on 23rd-26th August, it should be enormous fun as we go looking for paradise in the Good Ship St Peter!

Church and the pandemic recovery - 3 trends

- July 2021

As we hope for a further lifting of lockdown restrictions during July, let me mention three trends I see developing in relation to St Peter’s and the pandemic recovery. There seems to be…

1. Greater appreciation for church.

York University recently published a study based on a survey taken between August 2020 and March 2021 of over 5500 people, looking at the human cost of the pandemic when places of worship were frequently closed. It found that churches are seen as a vital part of the nation’s pandemic recovery. Amongst other things, the survey found that 75% of non-church members wanted access to churches as quiet spaces of reflection and comfort. The lead researcher observed: “I think many people who don't normally go to church hadn't realised what churches meant to them until it was all taken away in a moment.” The head of ‘Places of Worship Strategy’ for Historic England, commented that the report shows that churches are “acting as symbols of their community's long-term survival while serving as local hubs for social care, practical support and companionship.” I’m pleased to say that St Peter’s is once again open every day of the week (roughly 9am-3pm) for the Brackley community.

I have also been very encouraged by the increased appetite for Sunday services. After the Spanish Flu wreaked havoc in 1918, a pastor called Francis Grimké wrote, “This epidemic… has brought out in a way that is very gratifying, the high estimation in which the Christian church is held in the community—the large place which it really occupies in the thought of the people… I do know that large numbers of people have regretted the closing of the churches. I hope that now that they are opened again, that we will all show our appreciation of their value by attending regularly upon their services.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

2. Greater need for church.

This greater appreciation for church is hopefully linked to a heightened sense of our need for God. Sometimes, having the peripheral things of life stripped away helps us to see what is really important. In fact, sometimes having the important things stripped away too helps us to see what is essential. Corrie Ten Boom said, “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” A church leader called Rick Warren, drawing comparisons with the Great Depression, made the point that difficult circumstances often make people turn to God, placing a responsibility upon the churches to respond to that need, “In the 1930s there were two things that increased: theatre attendance and church attendance. People were looking for escapism and they were looking for meaning. When the economy is very tough… that is the time for us to expand and push out, not for us to retreat.”

In a very real sense, the worst of times can be the best of times. This explains why St Paul seemed most joyful on death row (Philippians 1:18-21), why James tells us to rejoice in our sufferings (James 1:2-3), and why the Lord’s discipline is that of a loving Father (Hebrews 12:7-11). Our reliance on Christ strengthens as our own resources diminish, and the good news shines brighter the darker the world becomes. “Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face,” as William Cowper put it, or, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him,” (Romans 8:28).

3. Greater need in church.

Alongside a greater need for church, there is also greater need in church:

  • greater relational need as those who have been isolated crave community (why not aim to talk to one new person each Sunday, or give someone a ring this week?)

  • greater emotional need as the Good Grief Trust predict a ‘tsunami of grief and mental health issues’ over the coming months (why not give me a call if you would like to chat through some feelings of loss or anxiety?)

  • greater financial need as churches like St Peter’s try to recover from a sustained loss of income (why not review your giving if you haven’t done so in a while?)

  • greater practical need as many step back from volunteering roles and rotas (just as the National Trust has seen its volunteer base decimated, so too has the national Church, so might you reassess how you serve at St Peter’s?).

 

Finally, heartfelt thanks to the congregation for your forbearance during this period of flux. A windy bus journey is probably far more jolting and nauseating for the passengers than for the driver, so thanks for holding on tight to the St Peter’s Express!

What factors should shape our planning?

- May 2021

I had hoped that I would be able to offer a clear (if provisional) ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown for St Peter’s Church by now. Sadly, there are still too many unknowns and various decisions depend on how things pan out. Nevertheless, here are three principles that guide my thinking.

1) Church in person is far better than church online

Having your preferred brand of coffee, a comfy chair and no need to get dressed or find a parking space – virtual church has its perks! But in one sense, online services are not church at all. As I recently wrote in this magazine, the word ‘church’ simply means a gathering or assembly. There is very little sense in which a pre-recorded service is a gathering. Even a Zoom ‘meeting’ is a stretch. I’m not sure we can re-translate Matthew 18:20 to read: “For where two or three log in in my name, there am I with them.” 

Of course, there have been some wonderful benefits to churches putting their services online. New audiences have been reached, the housebound have felt more connected and it has been possible for people to ‘catch up’ on services they otherwise would have missed. I have found Zoom fellowship meetings on Sundays and midweek to be enormously encouraging at times. Praise God for such technology. But, whereas this sudden move online was initially viewed as accelerating the the already inexorable shift towards virtual church, I believe it has actually had the opposite effect. As time has gone on, I think people have realised that online church delivers diminishing spiritual returns, whereas the unique value of real, physical church has only become more apparent.

As a result, the St Peter’s online service will cease at some point over the summer (with the option, of course, of restarting in the event of a third wave). Once meeting in St Peter’s is relatively safe for the vast majority, there should be every incentive for people to attend in person rather than stay at home on the couch. This will be a blow for those who are housebound, but we will continue to record sermons (see the ‘Talks’ page of our website, if you haven’t found it yet) and provide the ‘Dial-a-Sermon’ service for those without internet access. Painful as it will be for some, the ‘sofa service’ will at some stage be switched off.

2) Young families have been disproportionately impacted

Children’s work has been one of the major casualties of the pandemic. When church has been online, children have struggled to concentrate (even more than adults), and when church has been in person, children’s groups have been largely impossible. It is daunting to think of the long-term impact this could have on the Church at large. A year is a very long time in a young life – ample time in which to drift spiritually, lose touch with Christian friends and drop the habit of attending a local congregation.

Therefore, it is vital we do what we can to enable young families to return to St Peter’s. Our aim is to run Junior Church (for 5-11s) and a Tots group (for 0-4s) every Sunday in the church hall from now on, with the children staying in the service for the first 5-10 minutes before going out to their groups. Since April 12th, groups of up to 15 children have been allowed to meet indoors (and even sing together), providing appropriate safety measures are in place. We are following closely the guidelines set out in the National Youth Agency’s document ‘Managing Youth Sector Activities and Spaces During COVID-19’ (version 5.2). Further details and risk assessments are available on our website.

In order to make all this happen, we obviously require leaders for the groups and need to make the start of the 9:30am service slightly more child friendly. We don’t really have enough helpers to cover one service at the moment, let alone two as we had before, so please contact me or Val if you could be a second pair of hands in a children’s group one Sunday a month (no preparation required) so that we can add you to the rota and run a DBS check. Alternatively, please get in touch if you have ideas about how to make children feel more welcome at St Peter’s generally. We are also planning a holiday club for 23rd-26th August (9:30am-12 Mon-Thurs), so volunteers for that would be hugely appreciated.

3) We need to stay flexible

Research suggests that the organisations coping best with COVID-19 are those that are adaptable. Over the coming months, we will need to be flexible, both individually and as a church. In time, there may be a need to book in for weekly services, review service patterns, meet outside when the weather allows and think creatively about indoor seating arrangements. It’s worth doing whatever it takes to keep meeting physically, since as material beings we were made to relate in the flesh rather as disembodied faces on a screen.

Thank you so much for your patience and flexibility to date. Please pray for wisdom and that we might have more and more opportunities to “spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Easter is just what we need

- April 2021

I recently heard it said that the two things people need most during a pandemic are:

1) a friend in the darkness

2) a future in the light

This is exactly why Easter is such good news for Christians, not just this year after what people have described as ‘the longest Lent ever’, but in every age. Good Friday means we have a friend in the darkness; Easter Sunday means we have a future in the light.

 

Good Friday means we have a friend in the darkness.

Jesus plumbed the depths of human despair and suffering that first Easter. The Bible tells us he was forsaken, rejected, a man of sorrows, familiar with pain, who suffered temptation, every temptation, false accusation, betrayal and so much stress that he experienced hematidrosis as blood dripped from his ruptured sweat glands (Matthew 27:46, Isaiah 53:3, Hebrews 2:18, Hebrew 4:15, Mark 14:58, John 16:32, Luke 22:44).

 

Our Lord understands the darkness like no one else. Darkness filled the land that first Good Friday (Mark 15:33) as Jesus willingly took our misery and judgement on himself, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering… he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). This is a friend in the darkness who not only suffers with us, he also suffers for us. What a friend we have in Jesus!

Easter Sunday means we have a future in the light.

In the midst of suffering, we not only need friendship, we need a future. As the sun rose at dawn that first Easter Day, the light banished the darkness in more ways than one. The coronavirus has cast a long shadow: the shadow of death. But the resurrection of our Lord provides glorious light at the end of the tunnel. Last month, I had the honour of taking my grandfather’s funeral and had the privilege of reminding my extended family that, if Christ was raised from the dead, then we can be too, and the grave need not be a final destination but a doorway to paradise.

You see, the cross and resurrection signalled the beginning of the end of suffering for God’s people. Christ’s payment was enough to overcome the curse of toil and pain in Genesis 3. Whilst the Buddha’s dying words are recorded as, “Strive without ceasing,” Jesus’ dying words were, “It is finished.” What a contrast! No more striving or pain is needed to pay for our sin, which means that even though our suffering in this life continues, it is part of the old order that is passing away. Let me finish with the opening verse of a hymn by Phillips Brooks (who also wrote ‘O Little Town):

Tomb, thou shalt not hold Him longer;
Death is strong, but Life is stronger,
Stronger than the dark, the light;
Stronger than the wrong, the right.
Faith and Hope triumphant say
Christ will rise on Easter Day.

5 lockdown lessons... from James

- March 2021

 

Later in March we will mark twelve months since the first lockdown began. What have we learned over this period? All sorts of answers might be given, but I’m indebted to a pastor called Andrew Wilson, who (in a recent article on thinktheology.co.uk) pointed out that many of the lessons for the Church this past year are the lessons of the book of James in the New Testament. Here are five examples:

1. There are joys to be found in the trials – “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness,” and this steadfastness will lead to “the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:2-3, 12). We must not be glib about the struggles of the past year. But if they have at all clarified our priorities, stripped away some worldliness and made us find renewed hope in God, then they have been agents of blessing as well as sorrow.

2. Christians should practically serve their neighbours – “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). This past year has presented new opportunities for believers to serve those around them in need. It’s been lovely to see people at St Peter’s with a burden to support the Food Bank, the Emergency Fund, to deliver food and medical supplies to people on their street, to telephone those who live alone and to pray for the most vulnerable in society. This is something we must continue even when the need becomes less pronounced or less publicised.

3. Discrimination is a perennial problem – “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show partiality” (James 2:1). Since the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death, Christians have rightly done some soul-searching about residual (and often unconscious) biases they possess themselves or enable in others. The way of Jesus is antithetical to any discrimination on the basis of sex, age, wealth, health, social status and race, and although some of the aims and ideology of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ group are deeply problematic, Christians should be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19) to people’s experiences, and ready to face up to any prejudice in our hearts or partiality in our actions.

4. The same goes for division – “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (James 3:18-4:1). The pandemic has arguably widened economic and political divides, and public discourse seems ever more combative and polarised. Sadly, this has spilled over into the Church in all sorts of ways, yet Christians are called instead to peace (see above) and prayer (James 4:2), as we follow the example of our God of reconciliation, the Prince of Peace.

5. We cannot predict the future – “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:14-15). What would you say to your February 2020 self? Visit your family? Take a quick holiday? Buy shares in Zoom?! We had no idea how 2020 would pan out. The same is true for 2021. In fact, says James, the same is true for tomorrow. Covid-19 has reminded us we were never in control. It has humbled us, which is just as well since, “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble” (James 4:6).

Let’s learn the lessons of the past year (‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ as they say), and ask the Lord to continue working in us through the hard seasons of life as well as the happy ones, trusting that “he gives more grace” (James 4:6).

 

To meet or not to meet? That is the question.

- February 2021

As you probably know, Sunday services did not take place in St Peter’s Church building during the second half of January. This move, instigated by a marginal majority at our PCC, was in line with the advice of our diocesan bishop and also in keeping with the approach taken by more than half of the Church of England’s 14,000 churches. Nevertheless, the decision to suspend physical services felt momentous, contentious and extremely sad. St Peter’s Church has not been “closed” as such, since Christ’s church is primarily a people and not a place (1 Peter 2:4-5), but choosing to keep that people disparate was a significant step.

Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to lay out just some of the reasons for and against meeting in person. No doubt, you could add to these. My aim though is simply to show that a godly and sensible case can be made for either view, in the hope that we might remain generous towards those who differ from us on this issue. Even more important than where we land on this “disputable matter” is whether we treat one another graciously regardless of our stance (Romans 14).  

To meet?

A strong case can be made for continuing physical meetings come what may. The word “church” in the New Testament literally means a “gathering”. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Of course, in both cases, physical not virtual assembly was envisaged. To meet or gather in some online fashion is a wonderful blessing (available to some of us) that past generations didn’t enjoy, but it is still unquestionably second best – as those who have been isolating for months or housebound for years will testify. This is an important principle to remember once we exit the Covid era: simply showing up at church, whenever possible, is a crucial way to keep going as a Christian yourself and to encourage others to do so. “Don’t make a habit of skipping services,” says the writer to the Hebrews.

In addition, many commentators have pointed out that now, more than ever, the Church should be stepping to the fore: offering Christ’s unique resurrection hope in the face of death and practical love in the face of hardship and tragedy. Others make the point that “man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4) and therefore the Church’s services are every bit as vital as Tesco’s – more so, in fact. And while the physical harm caused by the novel coronavirus and its variants is measurable in terms of numbers and graphs, there is a great unseen spiritual, emotional and mental havoc being wreaked that is much harder to quantify and that may only become apparent in time. It is for all these reasons that throughout 2020, we at St Peter’s chose to continue our physical Sunday services whenever the regulations allowed, in contrast to a large proportion of other churches both locally and nationally.

Not to meet?

Having said all that, a strong case can also be made for suspending physical meetings temporarily. Infection rates are markedly higher (both in the UK in general and in Brackley in particular) during this third lockdown than they were during the first two, when church closures were mandated. In Matthew 10:23 we find the principle that it is not somehow sub-spiritual to flee physical harm. Therefore, it has been very sensible for many of the medically vulnerable members of our congregation to remain at home over the past year, even when in-person services have been conducted.

What’s more, the question of whether to attend church is not just a personal one, it has an impact on others, and one of the two primary Christian duties is of course to “love thy neighbour” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27). Protecting our communities from inadvertent viral transmission chains is one very tangible way of fulfilling that command. Each of us at St Peter’s has a duty of care not only to our nuclear and church families, but also to the wider Brackley community. We, of all people, ought to be willing to give up our rights for the welfare of others, just as our Saviour did, even when (or especially when) it comes at great personal cost.

So what?

I hope all this helps to show that there are good biblical arguments on either side of the debate. I believe there is no clear-cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer here. Would our public witness be more damaged by suspending or continuing? Either is possible. None of this is straightforward, and so much of how we view things will depend on our own particular experience, temperament and personal circumstances. In light of all this, please pray for the PCC to have wisdom and unity at our meeting on Thursday 4th as we discuss the plan for Sundays in February. Look out for an update towards the end of the week that will be communicated by email and on our website.

Regardless of the outcome, I hope many of you will join me on Zoom from 7:30 to 8:30pm on Wednesday evenings throughout February, either for the tail end of the Discipleship Explored course (3rd and 10th), or for the beginning of our Lent course (17th and 24th), as we listen to Bishop Donald’s talks on the book of Hebrews. Brothers and sisters, we should make the best of a bad situation and, whatever this month throws at us, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

A dark and dazzling Christmas?

- December 2020

I love Christmas.

The lights. The anticipation. The music. The tradition. The smell of dusty decorations, cloves and pine needles. The pigs in blankets. I love the whole shebang. Throw in the added excitement that we’re expecting our next child on 22nd December, and we have plenty to look forward to in our household. We might even have a live nativity!

However, as we all know, things are going to look very different this December. One of the cheesier seasonal hits goes, “It’s the same old, same old Christmas Eve. It’s the same old Christmas Day. It’s the same old, same old Christmas. But I like it, I like it that way.” For many, the idea of changing Christmas will be deeply disappointing. And coming off the back of the past few months, this December may well feel bleaker, lonelier, darker.

Perhaps even more than usual, we need to hear those ancient words:

“The people walking in darkness
   have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
   a light has dawned…

For unto us a child is born,
   unto us a son is given.”

(Isaiah 9:2,6)

 

The good news for Christmas 2020, is that any light seems brightest when the surroundings are darkest. In a more standard year, modern Britain’s version of Isaiah’s words might read: “The people walking in the light-polluted glitz of commercial Christmas have been too distracted to see a great light.” But this Christmas, robbed of some of its normal sparkle, the gift of God’s Son might actually dazzle us as it should.

 

You see, much as I love the sentimentality and same-ness of Christmas, it can fool me into thinking that’s the essence. Quite the opposite: the original Christmas was just that, extremely original – much more about novelty than nostalgia. However ‘unprecedented’ this Christmas may feel, it has nothing on that first Noel. After all, virgins don't have babies, stars don't behave like satnavs, and kings aren't born in stables. Obviously. The immortal wouldn’t choose to be mortal, and the infinite wouldn’t choose to be infantile. Of course not! Except that… he did.

This truly was unprecedented. God cared too much to stay at arm's length, instead he committed the most sacrificial breach of social distancing. With zero PPE and complete disregard for his own safety, he came in-person to bring the life-saving intensive care we all need and crave. For God so loved the world that he didn’t come by Zoom. No, he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him can have eternal life. And peace. And joy. Security, purpose, and hope.

So, why not come to one of our Advent/Christmas events at St Peter’s Church, if restrictions allow? Subject to lockdown lifting, we hope to put on a ‘Handel’s Messiah’ evening for music lovers (Sun 6th, 7:30-8:30pm), a ‘Blue Christmas’ service for those who find Christmas especially difficult (Wed 9th, 7:30-8:30pm), and then number of short Christingle services for families (Christmas Eve, 3pm onwards). Please book your places in advance via our website (stpetersbrackley.org.uk/christmas). You’ll also find on the website our online Christmas activities and services if it’s not safe to attend events in the flesh.

Whatever happens, I hope you find this year (as every year) that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Lockdown or no lockdown, Christmas isn’t cancelled. If anything, it might just be clarified. Even though it won’t be “the same old, same old Christmas,” that may actually be a good thing. Who knows, could this December turn out to be the darkest and most dazzling in decades?

 

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!  Revd Rich Duncan

 

PS – My plan, at the moment, is to take two weeks of paternity leave from Monday 28th December to Sunday 10th January. Having said that, Woody Allen once quipped, 'If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans!’

Remember, remember

- November 2020

November is a time for remembering. On the 1st, we recall those who have died in the faith (All Saints’ Day). Four days later, we “remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” Then on the 11th, we remember all those who have died in armed conflict, “lest we forget.” November is a month to recall the past.

Over recent weeks, there have been several resources helping Christians to look back at what the church can learn from epidemics down the centuries, even as we mourn and lament the present loss of life. I thought I would briefly share some of the lessons I have gleaned.

165 AD – Smallpox. This is thought to have wiped out between a quarter and a third of the population of the Roman Empire over a fifteen year period. However, according to Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity, the church actually grew during this time. Stark attributes this partly to the care shown by Christians towards the sick. The way of Rome was to focus on the powerful and not the weak, but the way of Christ turned this on its head. Although that meant believers were more at risk of infection and death, they earned the deep respect of the watching world and many more people started to follow Christ. Brothers and sisters, we are called to “live such good lives among the pagans that… they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,” (1 Peter 2:12).

251 AD – Measles. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage wrote, “This pestilence and plague, which appears full of terrors and gloom, is a trial of the righteousness of each… whether relatives are dutifully affected towards their kindred; whether masters feel pitifully towards servants who are languishing; whether physicians keep from leaving the sick who entreat their aid.” Trials in life are exactly that: trials or tests of moral integrity (James 1:2-3, 12). Once again, Stark says the societal value of Christianity became more apparent during this period and he estimates that the Christian population exploded from about 1.9% of the Roman Empire to 10.9% over the next half century.

542 AD – Bubonic plague. Justinian I, Roman emperor for 38 years and creator of the Hagia Sophia, faced what was the first pandemic in recorded history. Justinian himself contracted the disease but survived. One of the stories from that time, by Procopius, noted that the plague caused people to shake off “the unrighteousness of their daily lives and practice the duties of religion with diligence.” As C.S. Lewis once wrote, it is often the case that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

1350 – Bubonic plague. Not unlike Covid-19, the outbreak originated in China, spread overseas to wreak havoc in Italy, and from there spread like wildfire throughout the whole of Europe. This was the infamous wave of ‘Black Death’ that killed around a third of the population between India and Iceland during the years 1345 to 1352 alone and, in the second half of the century, up to half the population of England. It is sobering to see on the board at the back of St Peter’s that the church had four different vicars between 1347 and 1351, and inspiring to be reminded that church leaders are to follow in the footsteps of “the Good Shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep,” (John 10:11).

1527 – Bubonic Plague. During another pestilential November, Martin Luther published a pamphlet called “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” It is full of pastoral wisdom. Luther said no one should look down on another for their different approach to fleeing the disease, unless they have an essential duty to perform. He urged Christians to be simultaneously prayerful and pragmatic, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us… then I shall fumigate!” He explained that love of neighbour requires prudence during an epidemic, since sometimes it required visitation and at other times avoidance. Luther concluded, “This is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

1918 – Influenza (the ‘Spanish flu’). Francis Grimké was born as a slave in the American South, but later became a pastor in Washington D.C. During yet another difficult November, he preached and published a sermon entitled, “Reflections Growing out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza That Afflicted Our City.” He observed, “This epidemic… has brought out in a way that is very gratifying, the high estimation in which the Christian church is held in the community—the large place which it really occupies in the thought of the people… I do know that large numbers of people have regretted the closing of the churches. I hope that now that they are opened again, that we will all show our appreciation of their value by attending regularly upon their services.” Of course, some cannot return to St Peter’s just yet, but I certainly identify with a renewed personally appreciation for gathering in person.

2020 – Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Last month, one national newspaper ran the headline, “Churches tally up their value to society – at £12.4bn.” The figure referred to the 35,000+ financially-quantifiable projects run by churches, such as food banks and toddler groups, at least when Covid-19 was not disrupting normal programs. On top of this, there is the literally priceless worth of the church sharing the good news of eternal life. As we face another difficult month and the prospect of a very difficult winter, let us remember this November, that the church still has a wonderful and unique role to play in our community, as we show Christ’s love and share Christ’s Kingdom, holding out to all “the pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46).

The book that made your world

- July 2020

In 2012, an Indian philosopher called Vishal Mangalwadi published The Book That Made Your World, showing how the Bible has underpinned the West’s pursuit of scientific, medical, and technological advancement, as well as its politics, education, philanthropy and human rights.

Mahatma Gandhi once said to a group of missionaries, “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”

Perhaps some people wonder, “Why does the Vicar at St Peter’s keep banging on about the Bible? It’s ancient. Surely, it is outdated and largely irrelevant?”

Yet, as Gandhi suspected, the very opposite is true. Far from being a dead letter the Bible is “alive and active,” and far from being a blunt instrument it is “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). The Bible is truly the most powerful weapon that exists (Ephesians 6:17) for the transformation of this world.

C. S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, wrote, “All that is not eternal is eternally out-of-date.” Well, given that the word of the LORD stands forever (Isaiah 40:8), the Bible remains eternally relevant. That is why it continues to be the UK’s bestselling book every year in the 21st century.

It is only in the Bible that we find the words of eternal life (John 6:68), so could there be anything more foolish than to ignore it? It is only through the Bible that we truly get to know Jesus (John 5:39 – Jim Elliot described the Bible as “Christ in print”). Could there be anything more dangerous than to ignore him?

Recently, while studying the letter of 2 Timothy in my morning devotional time, I was reminded that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). That means the words of the Bible are the very words of God. Although they were written by human hands, they were also inspired by a divine author (2 Peter 1:20-21), and when we ask for the Spirit’s help, God speaks to us directly in powerful ways today as we read. When we come to the Bible we aren’t just pondering ideas: we are personally addressed by the Almighty.

I desperately long for those who come to St Peter’s to be Bible readers. The problem is, it is hard! Many parts of Scripture are difficult to read and/or interpret. Sometimes it makes our heads hurt or our stomachs churn. A recently-published survey of 20,000 UK adults found a great lack of Bible confidence in churchgoers.

So then, let me take this opportunity to offer 3 tips for reading the Bible at home:

  1. Pray beforehand. It’s God’s word, so ask for his help to understand and to change. That’s a prayer he loves to answer.

  2. Get help. That might mean using Bible notes (I use Explore Notes), or it might mean reading the Bible with others. Anne Mellor’s home group has started to do this in twos and threes. If you would like to try this yourself, I’d be only too happy to pair you up with someone.

  3. Keep it simple. You may have many unanswered questions. That’s okay: we will never plumb the depths of the Bible. As Gregory the Great said, “Scripture is like a river… shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” Therefore, try to focus on the main thing: “What is God telling me about himself here, and how should that change the way I live?”

 

Warning: it will be tempting to ignore the parts you don’t like, but that would imply you know better than God. It is similar to people saying, “I like to think of God as…,” at which point they are creating a man-made god, instead of acknowledging God created them and listening to him. Author and pastor Tim Keller writes, “Only if your God can outrage you... will know that you worship the real God and not a figment of your imagination.”

According to Jesus, the Bible is as necessary to spiritual life as food is to physical life (Matthew 4:4). We rarely forget to eat a meal, but all too often don’t fill up on God’s word. I can happily tuck into my honey-flavoured Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, but easily forget that the Bible is “sweeter than honey from the honeycomb,” as David says in Psalm 19:10. The Bible is a basic necessity.

That also makes the Bible priceless. In the same verse in Psalm 19, King David pronounces that God’s decrees are “more precious than gold, than much pure gold” – and royals know a thing or two about gold. Likewise, at the Queen’s coronation in June 1953, she was given a copy of the Bible and told, “We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.”

 

So friends, how highly do you prize the Bible? On your bookshelf you have something more valuable than the Crown Jewels! Why not commit to reading it daily for the next month? Put it this way, I don’t think there will be anyone in heaven regretting they read the Bible too much on earth. 

A plague of loneliness

- May 2020

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.

 

Loneliness was a widespread problem long before Covid-19 hit. A couple of years ago, the UK even appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness. But this issue has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the current restrictions on meeting and movement. Many will be struggling as never before.

Of course, it doesn’t just affect those who live alone: we should not underestimate the loneliness of living in a difficult marriage or an embittered family. It is quite possible to be lonely without being alone, just as it is possible to be alone without feeling lonely.

 

What comfort is there for the lonely Christian?

One reason God came to earth as a human was so that, as Jesus Christ, he could experience loneliness. We could point to many possible examples in his life, but it was surely in the run-up to his death that Jesus was plunged into his deepest loneliness. First, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter, James and John fell asleep in Christ’s hour of need – not once but three times. Then, when the soldiers arrived, all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him and fled. Worst of all, the next day, Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Why so much loneliness? So that Christians have a God who is with them. Christ took the God-forsakenness we deserve so that we are not God-forsaken for all eternity. Christ was abandoned by God’s people so that God’s people won’t be abandoned by him. Therefore, the LORD says to the Christian, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).

Why so much loneliness? So that Christians also have a God who understands: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tested in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need [e.g. loneliness]” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Jesus Christ experienced loneliness in the past; he overcomes loneliness in the present; he will banish loneliness in the future. Let me leave you with a heart-warming passage from a brilliant old book called Practical Religion by J. C. Ryle (p.348):

"The Lord Jesus goes with His friends wherever they go. There is no possible separation between Him and those whom He loves. There is no place or position on earth, or under the earth, that can divide them from the great Friend of their souls. When the path of duty calls them far away from home, He is their companion; when they pass through the fire and water of fierce tribulation, He is with them; when they lie down on the bed of sickness, He stands by them and makes their trouble work for good; when they go down the valley of the shadow of death, and friends and relatives stand still and can go no further, He goes by their side. When they wake up in the unknown world of Paradise, they are still with Him; when they rise with a new body at the judgment day, they will not be alone. He will own them for His friends, and say, “They are mine: deliver them and let them go free.” He will make good His own words: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20)."

3 observations on the coronavirus crisis

- April 2020

Many lives and livelihoods have already been lost, financial markets have plummeted, world travel has ground to a halt. Few walks of life have been left untouched by the COVID-19 outbreak and many are battling deep anxieties about family, friends and their own personal health.

Yet, in the midst of this unfolding tragedy, are there any lessons we might learn or any reasons for hope? The list here could be much longer but, for the sake of space, let’s consider three areas: fragility, community and immunity.

1. Fragility

Astonishingly, as a result of globalisation, this worldwide upheaval seems to have been triggered by a single bat in eastern China (the current theory is the virus was transmitted from a bat to a mammal on sale at a Wuhan market). Such a dramatic “butterfly effect” dents the hubris of our sophisticated modern societies and exposes how fragile we really are as human beings. “The life of mortals is like grass,” wrote David (Psalm 103:15), and so we would do well to pray with Moses, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

2. Community

When God made the Garden of Eden there was only one thing he described as ‘not good’: for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We were made for community. This is the reason why, in many societies, solitary confinement is seen as the most severe punishment short of execution. Many people already knew the daily struggle of isolation long before the coronavirus struck. Now it has come to the masses. The necessary restrictions on meeting and movement may well lead to widespread feelings of exclusion and loneliness. In this respect, Christians have a wonderful opportunity to show love in the time of coronavirus. We follow a God who cares for the most vulnerable, and by resisting the urge to become insular, the church has the opportunity to display the Lord’s compassion.

 

In his book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark develops a statistical argument that Christian commitment to providing meaningful care to those stricken by plague was a major factor in the exponential growth of the early church. Of course, many Christians will be in the ‘vulnerable’ category themselves, but they might still phone someone up for a chat or commit to praying: for governments, community leaders, healthcare workers and, of course, for the sick. The less vulnerable might offer others practical help such as leaving groceries on their doorstep (stock-sharing instead of stock-piling) or providing childcare for medical professionals working overtime. But, why can Christians afford to be so focussed on others? That brings us to our final point: immunity.

3. Immunity

A widely available COVID-19 vaccine remains a long way off. Yet, what people need, even more than immunity from the novel coronavirus, is immunity from the underlying cause of every sickness and sorrow known to mankind – immunity from a disease far more prevalent (with a 100% infection rate) and far more virulent (with a 100% mortality rate), namely: sin. Mark Oden, a pastor in Italy, recently put it like this:

“Our species, according to Jesus, lives in the grip of a pandemic outbreak of the virus of sin. What is your hope in the face of that virus? The story of the Bible is the story of a God who came down into a world infected with this virus. He lived amongst sick people, not wearing a mask or a chemical protective suit, but breathing the same air as us, eating the same food as us and sure enough he was infected and killed. He died in isolation, excluded from his people, far from his Father on a cross that he might provide this sick world with an antidote to the virus, that he might heal us and give us eternal life.”

 

Jesus said, 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?' (John 11:25-26). As Christians approach Easter once more, let us cherish this immunity and share the message of Christ conquering the grave with renewed urgency and love.

Rev. Rich Duncan

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