FROM THE VICAR...
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.”
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!’
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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