FROM THE VICAR...
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):
Welcome those who disagree with you (v1-2)
Don’t look down on those whom God has accepted (v3-4)
Have a clear conscience about your own position (v5)
Assume that those who differ from you do so from right motives (v6-9)
Don’t judge – that is God’s job, after all (v10-12)
The relaxed must not encourage the tentative to sin against their conscience (v13-15)
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).
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.
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.”
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