Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year Ahead

I don’t know about you, but entering a new year always brings a measure of seriousness. God gives me another year with heavy questions about how best to use it for him. It’s so easy to ‘lose time’ – what a terrible expression! – or to ‘waste time.’ Time (with health) are immensely precious commodities, so often not appreciated until we no longer have them. Talk about using time best for God is not some grim and over-pious wish. God wants joyful living in every dimension of life and relationships with Him, family, friends, other believers at work and play. Yes, joyful living.

Three words strike me as important for 2011: Fruit More Maturely. They sum up my desire at the beginning of this new year. More maturely speaks about developing deeper character so that in every aspect of life there is less immaturity in the ways I think and act. I ought to be more kind, gentle, understanding, patient with greater self-control than used to be the case, say ten years ago. After all the Christian life is about a building process for believers so that ‘all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (Eph 4:13). Of course this is a hopeless cause unless I allow and expect to be helped by God to grow more mature. This is why the word Fruit is so vital. It keeps me depending on the Holy Spirit who is able to grow and deepen character (Gal. 5:22). Without belonging to God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit – 2011 will be just like 2010. With the triune God, greater maturity in joyful living is really possible. Serious stuff but joyful.

How are you going to express your life-goals in 2011?

Christmas Reflections

Asking a friend this morning how her Christmas had gone, she paused thoughtfully and said:"None of it worked out as we had hoped. Illness and snow interrupted all the family plans. But, when I think about it, there were a few good things!' Actually, listening to her woeful story I can well understand why she had to reflect hard to find some positives.

Frankly, some of our Christmas plans didn't work out either. The friends we were due to visit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were hit hard by a bug and so we spent those days on our own. However, late on Boxing Day our family turned up to spend three wonderful days with us. Looking back, and thinking about it, there were several good things!

  • two great Christmas services on Saturday and Sunday which helped us to focus our celebration on Jesus by well-prepared worship. Exhilarating Immanuel stuff!

  • a tumultuous family visit with the grandchildren enjoying their first sleep-over with us. There's nothing like waking up with your grandchildren, munching breakfast and then walking to the river to feed the ducks. Squeals of excitement and much innocent fun.

  • experiencing authentic English small town life - a charming town square and narrow streets packed with Christmas interest. And the privilege of living in an old cottage with open log fire, sharing conversation in the flickering light (plus toasted marshmallows).

  • time for relaxed reading, such as a Christmas present: A 1950's Childhood by Paul Feeney that captured my childhood exactly in so many ways. And, of course, the many Christmas letters from friends across the world.

I hope that you have some positive reflections too!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Greetings

Though illness prevented our grandchildren sharing in most productions of their school nativity plays, Anton was able to perform once before swine flu hit him. I love this photograph of him in action. He played the innkeeper who normally has a downbeat miserable part. However, Anton apparently stole the show with his enthusiasm!
If you didn't know about the innkeeper role, it looks as though, surrounded by the sheep, he is expressing the sheer wonder of hearing the good news of the birth of Christ as a shepherd! Whatever, no one can doubt he is really getting into the action of the nativity story, with arms outstretched wide. How grateful we are for children at Christmas time for capturing its excitement and intensity - especially when they are our grandchildren.
As we near Christmas, let us put ourselves into the greatest story ever told - 'to you is born this day a Saviour who is Christ the Lord' (Luke 2:11). With joy I send this to brighten up my Christmas greetings to you.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oh no!

Some imaginative readers will be wondering what happened next after the last posting. In their mind's eye seeing us huddled in the warm waiting for the drips. Well, four hours later the mini -flood began as water spurted from (what turned out to be) three splits in two pipes hidden in the wall. Unfortunately, I turned the wrong water tap off (which in my defence looked like the mains tap) and as the water spilled into the main room we searched for another tap. Finding it hidden behind a large box, it then refused to yield to my efforts. As water seeped further we were saved by the plumber Joe who deftly, with large tools and mighty grunts turned the water off. He then worked hard to repair the leaks with new piping.

I felt so sorry calling the house owners who are visiting family in Australia. When you have people staying in your house you should be able to relax. But, our unavoidable absence at Spurgeon's had coincided with extraordinary cold to do the damage. The houseowner was so gracious in response and showed the best of Christmas, Christian spirit. We now are drying out and hoping for no more disasters of any kind!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yet More Frustration!

My visit to Spurgeon's College was due to conclude today on a high note (for me!), with my speaking at the conference for four London Theological Colleges. I anticipated two sessons with the Principals and faculties of All Nations, London School of Theology, Oak Hill as well as Spurgeons which would focus on issues related to Preaching as Worship. Last Thursday I prepared the sessions and was particularly looking forward to feedback from the UK perspective.

But...have you guessed (?) ...the heavy snows of Saturday plus forecasts of more snow on Monday led to the cancellation of the conference. It was a wise decision because travel conditions are atrocious. So, having waited five days for this event, we set off this morning to return to our cottage in Wallingford. However, we found the extremes of cold (-17degrees C last night) have frozen the water pipes solid. As we try and warm the house up we wonder if/when/where the burst pipes will appear. So I write this hugging a heater, and listening for drips. However, for many thousands of people this Winter weather has had far more devastating consequences. We are grateful to be safe and (relatively) warm, and hope that you are - wherever you are.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More Frustration

We have so looked forward to our seven days in London in order to see our family - especially our grandchildren Luca and Anton who were due to appear in their school Christmas plays. We anticipated being audience members puffed up with pride! Living overseas this was our first opportunity and we were going to seize it. But as we drove to London the news struck...Luca had swine flu and would miss the productions. The next day, Anton was diagnosed with swine flu too and missed his big day.

This latest outbreak has been malevolent claiming at least 15 lives and so we were told to stay well away. Luca had made good progress so today (Saturday) Simon said he would drive over with him to Spurgeon's College so that we could at last see one another. Well....over 4 inches of snow fell in a short space of time even as they were travelling to see us. They arrived but almost immediately had to turn around to avoid getting stuck in ever deteriorating conditions. Of course, we tried to make the most of the 15 minutes together!

Frustration is the word. As I commented last week, it's important to keep remembering that Jesus as Lord continues to reign over everything. That puts swine flu and snow into perspective but it's still frustrating.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Privilege of Gathered Worship

I have preached in two dramatically contrasting contexts in the last three days. On Sunday I was at Wallingford Baptist Church which was packed to the rafters to witness the believers' baptisms of three young people. Each of them spoke about their faith in Jesus Christ and with refreshingly personal stories also revealed just how important was the influence of other members of that church community - Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, friends and family. The baptismal pool is near the centre of the church, so the congregation (including all these key influences) gathered all around. It really was a church family event.

I mentioned in my sermon, that though I was not quite 14 years old I still remember the moment of my baptism so vividly. The coloured tiles (with a crack in one), the experience of speaking my vows and being immersed in the water, and the hymn that we sang. At the time it was as real as it could be - as much of myself as I knew given to as much as Jesus Christ as I knew. Of course, it wasn't all that much! But here I am over 50 years later still an ever-learning disciple. As a side-bar....I didn't have as much time to preach as I had planned (and hoped!) but it didn't matter in the least.

Last night I preached at the annual Carol Service at Spurgeon's College, London. It's over ten years ago since I presided over this great event....but it was just as I remember. A roaring fire in the main hall fire-place, friends from near and far, exultant students at the end of term, Christmas fare, and a well-planned service. What an opportunity to preach to this crowd! As a side-bar, the candle-light meant I could hardly read the Scripture passage and had to stand embarassingly close to the nearest candles....but my practice of preaching without notes came in handy. Seriously, it was another occasion when the much over-used word 'privilege' really applied to gathered worship. I hope you will experience some great worship over these next few days too.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Sometimes you hit a day like this! Our hire car is the most expensive part of our daily sabbatical costs and for that you hope it spares you trouble. But almost from the start the dashboard computer has misbehaved with alarming free-will. We could tolerate it going blank or creating confused patterns but one rainy cold night last week it immobilized the engine in Tesco car park. Eventually it relented and we could start up again. But yesterday it flashed up: acceleration reduced and dropped me down to a crawl -to the immense irritation of the queue behind. So, fearing the bureaucratic consequences I called the rental car company (Hertz). One guy said I should go to the nearest outlet in Oxford for a replacement vehicle. But calling Oxford I was told by another person that nothing could happen until I sent for the AA emergency team and they would declare the source of trouble and authorize me to gain a replacement. I explained that I knew the source of trouble...but they patiently repeated this was the procedure. 2 hours later the emergency repairman turned up. In the freezing cold he sat inside the car and pummelled the dashboard, hitting the little computer screen with full-fist and banging the whole area. Eventually he told me that the dashboard computer was faulty. What! He authorized the car's replacement. I called up the Oxford office again, but they said there would be no car until after 11:00 am today.

So began another frustrating day. My instructions where to turn off the busy road into Oxford weren't clear. We made several false attempts. We asked at a store and were several miles out of our way. Another store sent us right back into the city. After 40 minutes of searching we found it. The office manager was answering two phones at once and explained she was running two separate offices! She asked us if the petrol tank was full. Oh, no! I had filled it up a couple of days before but I honestly thought with all the extra pain this faulty car had caused they would waive cost of a little drop of petrol. No Way! What kind of customer service did we expect? She said we could pay her 45 pounds to fill the car up. We were appalled. It only costs 51 pounds to fill the entire tank. The nearest petrol station was way back through the traffic and another half-an-hour trip. And because it is notoriously difficult to find we needed a sketch map to show how to enter it. Weirdly, it was closed with cones barring access. Carol was off to investigate! A few minutes later they reopened and we could top up for 12 pounds.

Eventually we were given our next rental car - considerably smaller but with dashboard computer working! To put frustration behind us we decided to go park-and-ride and celebrate with two budget meals. "Ten minutes wait", the waiter said. Oh yes! 40 minutes later half our order came. The people on the next table sympathizingly said it was the slowest they had ever known. We smiled at the theme unfolding and began anticipating how they rest of the day might unfold. Yes, we were told to get on the wrong bus and eventually ended up with our car for a weary drive home. I commented (!) to Carol about the hours 'wasted' but she reminded me how life is like this sometimes. Actually being a Christian is much more difficult in frustration isn't it, but unless our faith works in frustration it's not very valuable, is it? Thank you Lord for being with me in this day, too.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Old Testament Prophecy (2)

As I have continued working on Isa 8:21-9:7 I have been intrigued by the question: “What difference would it make if there was no Christmas, no birth of Christ?” An astronomer friend of mine gave me a recent paper he had written on ten reasons why the moon is important for life on earth. It’s a dense scientific paper and full of interest. But as I read his list of reasons why the moon is essential for life on earth….I pondered what goes on the list about Christmas being essential?

Does Sunday’s theme of OT prophecy help me answer: “What difference would it make if there was no Christmas, no birth of Christ?” Yes! The more you look at the contrast between darkness and light, the more you want to emphasize one major difference if there was no Christmas is that God’s story would be stuck in the Old Testament in the dark. When people have turned their backs on God they ‘see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into outer darkness’ (Isa. 8:22).

Tragically, the next famous promise of Isa. 9:2 “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” would be unfulfilled. No child is born, there is no wonderful counselor, no Prince of peace. No kingdom of justice and righteousness. There would be no light, no hope. No one will say the words: "I am the Light of the World, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

Tragically, for many people God’s story has never come alive. Actually, they are stuck in the darkness and unaware of the profound importance to life on earth that the Light has come in Christ. See the wonder of this prophecy in Isa. 9:1-7 uttered around 700 years before the first Christmas yet FULFILLED gloriously in Christ’s coming for us to have the light of life. I am preparing a sermon with enthusiasm!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Jesus on a list

Elton John was the guest editor of The Independent last week and he gave us some lists under the heading: Read my lists - and I'll tell you who I am. The first list was: 10 things I liked when I was 25 that I don't like now. This included: driving, travelling, alcohol/drugs and celebrity.

The second list was: 10 things I didn't like when I was 25 that I do like now. This included: photography, contemporary art, peace and quiet/staying in. But at number 9 was - Jesus Christ.

That brought me up with a jolt. What did it mean that Jesus Christ was a 'thing' he didn't like 25 years ago but now does? Has he been on a faith journey, or what? And does placing him at number 9 show Jesus' relative unimportance still? How intriguing to find the Lord's name showing up on a pop icon's list in this way. He made me think what I would put under similar headings....and how I would sum up my faith in 25years' stages.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Old Testament Prophecy

Next Sunday I am preaching again at Wallingford Baptist Church in their series on OT prophets. This time I am concluding the series and have been given the title: OT prophecy in the NT! As someone said to me:"Oh, that's such a small will you manage to fill in the sermon time?"

I have been thinking and praying about where to focus. Since we are in Advent, I have decided to look at the famous prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-7. Many Christmas services will hear its promise - 'The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.....for to us a child is born, to us a son is given." However, I am beginning the Scripture reading at Isaiah 8: 21,22 which stresses Isaiah's prophecy to a people in distress and darkness, to be thrust into utter darkness. In order to understand the need for great light....we must recognize the deep darkness! I shall also include the verses 4 and 5 about shattering enemies and garments rolled in blood. Generally, these are omitted in Christmas readings because they violently disrupt the happy flow.

What does this extraordinary promise, around 700 years before Christ's birth, with its mention of Galilee (verse 1) and a child who is heir to king David (verse 7), show us about OT prophecy in the NT? On Sunday, three candidates will be baptised in a believers' baptismal service and I know I must let God challenge us afresh through this text.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Get in the picture

Carol and I visited Abingdon today. In the main precinct we were surprised by a shepherd boy and young king who invited us into an empty shop where a stable had been set up. A baby lay in a manger, and passers-by were being invited to put on shepherd's clothes and enter this stable scene to stand behind the baby, and have their photograph taken. The whole imaginative idea was to jolt us in our Saturday shopping to realize that the Christmas story is for us.....we should make time to picture ourselves within its good news. After all, 'a Saviour has been born to YOU' (Luke 2:11)

Various churches were cooperating to staff the event, giving out free teas, coffees and mince pies and befriending any of us who stopped by. I tried on one of the shepherd's tunics but found myself trapped in a garment that proved far too small (too many mince pies already!) Then I was given a tabard and went with a 'king' into the stable, while the Baptist minister - David Fleming - took our picture. Just before me the Mayor of Abingdon had visited and been photographed with the baby Jesus in his arms (without his dressing in Middle East garb!)

The whole project is called: "Get in the Picture." You can go online and see the pictures. Date - Dec. 4th; place -Abingdon. But, most importantly, as you visit the site you will be invited to pause and reflect again on the Christmas story and its meaning. Several suggestions are offered to stop and make us think, plus full details of all the Christmas services in the area. What an imaginative way of presenting good news. I really hope and pray that many will be stirred for the first time this Christmas to get in the picture!