PASTORAL LETTER 6  – Sunday 26th April 2020

I sat down the other day, as part of my preparation of this week’s sermon on Lamentations, to list all the changes likely to occur in our lives as a result of the present pandemic and our responses to it.  I started with international changes, then national, state, and community and then I looked at church before moving to personal and family – there was more to do but after filling up a page I gave up. Suffice it to say that our lives will never be the same again.

How is it possible to cope with such change – especially for those of us who are older?  We have lived through an age of massive change. A quick reflection on some of the changes is quite remarkable. But as we get older it becomes harder to cope with those changes. This is most notable for me as I try to cope with all this new technology we need to survive the current crisis. I can’t even work out how to use my mobile phone properly! (I am writing this for the second time. We have just had a blackout and I lost most of the first draft. Wouldn’t have happened in the days of pen and paper!)

Many are asking – where is God in all of this?  Hopefully our series on Lamentations will help to answer this.

I am currently trying to think through what changes we may face at St. James when we can finally meet together again.  It will be a momentous occasion.  We can phone each other and meet via ZOOM but it will be good to get back together again.  We don’t know how it will occur but I suspect that for the first month or so we will still have restrictions.  We may need to add extra services.  We will certainly need to look at reorganising other meetings which various groups have had to cancel.  We will also need to take a close look at our financial situation.  We will need to get everything back to nearly normal before we can expect a new Rector to start.  But a new Rector will have the advantage of reshaping the parish at a time when it will be easier to make changes.

I encourage you to make use of what we are providing.  Frank has been working to keep our web site working and each week we are putting a brief service and a sermon on there.  We are getting better at doing this and we have plans to involve others in this as well as to try to add music.  I also hope that you are making good use of the Prayer Diary and have added to it to suit your circumstances.

Last week our ZOOM prayer meeting (Thursdays at 7.30pm) was cut short because we ran out of time.  I immediately checked out the cost of getting unlimited time and Annie has organised it so that it will not happen again.  Please consider joining us if you have not done so.  Go to:  https://zoom.us/j/766117974 Meeting ID: 766 117 974.

From what I am hearing our Pastoral Care system is working well.  It is so good to hear of congregation members caring for each other.

The Diocese has offered a phone service for those who do not have the internet.  The Bishop has written: People can call 40582680 to access a short service of prayer by telephone

We have been conscious of people who do not have access to the internet or are uncomfortable using it. We have arranged for a short service of prayer to be available for the cost of local call. The service is recorded and is simply designed for listening.

People can ring 40582680 for the cost of a local call.

The recording will be changed on Sundays.

Yesterday was Anzac Day.  There were ways to celebrate it and I hope that you did.  However, I am very concerned at the effect on our veterans. For many this is the one day each year when they get to meet with colleagues with whom they went through experiences that none of us can ever fully understand. The mateship involved is vital for their very existence.  If you know of a veteran – relative, friend, neighbour – please give them a call and have a chat.  It won’t replace their meeting with mates but just letting them know you care will help.

My mate Peter Brain (former Bishop of Armidale) is producing his reflections faster than we can publish them.  I have included another 2 this week.  I hope that you are finding them as helpful as I have.

Stay safe and well.

Yours in Christ,

Denis

 

REFLECTIONS 6.  ABSENCE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER.  PETER BRAIN, April 16, 2020

It was late in the afternoon of Easter Day that we were able to articulate our feelings of loss. We have been greatly edified and encouraged by the on-line ministry we have been able to engage in, so it was not the sense of worship, teaching or even singing that we were missing, but the fellowship of the brothers and sisters in worship when we normally gather.

I did notice however, though we have been able to sing, it is nowhere near as edifying as when we are all together. Congregational singing is an absolute standout treasure as far as we are concerned. Hymns, songs and choruses with good, God- honouring words and singable tunes (especially ones that we blokes can sing) have their own power to lift sad, preoccupied or broken hearts out of self-pity, self-centredness, worldly thinking and mundane cares, to the throne of our gracious Father and to the sympathetic and understanding heart of our ascended High Priest, our Saviour and Friend. I am missing the power of communal voices each Sunday, which like the camel’s hump gets into me stored up nourishment that sustains me in the ups and downs of life. I think this is why both Old and New Testament believers are exhorted to sing together (Psalm 95:1-2, 96:1-3; Ephesians 5:15-21, 1 Cor 14:15). We anticipate and bring a taste of Heaven down to earth and to each other (Revelation 5:6-14) when we sing. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, not only for the Heavenly gathering around our risen Lord and Saviour, but for those whose voices combine with ours on Sundays, which are themselves a foretaste of the Heavenly (Hebrews 12:22-24).

Our low- grade depression, our loss of this fellowship, is natural, but once recognised and owned can be compensated for as we thank God for the memories we have of gathering. Here are some possible reasons why:

  1. If we are honest, sometimes we have taken these times for granted, and even been critical of each other or the songs that were chosen (or not). This of course was sinful and as we miss what we do not have we can thank God for the fellowship we have had. Repentance for our critical or whinging spirit, which in all probability, did not help our fellows and caused us to grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:29) rather than to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) will revive and refresh us and others. Notice the congregational contexts of these two passages!
  2. On the other hand, grieving the loss of the fellowship and friendships each Sunday (and our mid-week gatherings) may be because we have invested this aspect of our discipleship with too much importance and expectation. It may be because we have become dependent on each other in fellowship rather than on our heavenly Father in worship. This is so easily done and is an unintended result of the right corrective of the late 1960’s that church is to be more than worship. The result is that we expect far too much from each other and nowhere near as much from God. Our forced isolation gives us opportunity to grieve the loss of reliance upon the living God who, let’s be honest, not only knows us better than do our brothers and sisters, but can be with us and understand us in every circumstance in ways that they cannot, indeed were never designed by God to be. We will become stronger as we rely upon God more and, paradoxically, more able to help each other as we do.
  3. Absence from the joys of fellowship and congregational worship for a while helps us understand the lot of most of our persecuted brothers and sisters, who it must be noted, seem to be much stronger in troubles, resilient in hardships, and more committed as disciples than we are. Recognition of this will surely sharpen our prayers, and our financial partnership with them (1 Peter 4:1-11 comes to mind).
  4. As we look forward to the times when we are able to gather we can only anticipate the joy that this will be. Our absence will indeed make our hearts grow fonder for our gatherings, and if our necessary absence is welcomed as God’s gift, will wean us from our over-dependence on fellowship and each other in favour of increasing our satisfaction in Him. Our short term depression will have served its purpose in helping us value our fellowship with each other and with God all the more.

Short term pains for long term gains, from the  gracious hand of God, are easier to bear, and bound to grow our relationship with our Father, through His Son by the ministry of His Spirit, thereby, as a rich by-product, growing our love for one another. This is certainly the promise of our risen Lord (Acts 20:35) and the burden of Paul’s benediction in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-12.

REFLECTIONS  No. 7   Deo volente (DV)                             Peter Brain.     21st  April, 2020.

Many of us are old enough to remember receiving letters that used the abbreviation DV after a line like this: “I am really looking forward to your visit next June (DV)”. This was a way of recognising that most wonderful Biblical doctrine, found throughout both Old and New Testaments, of God’s loving and purposeful Sovereignty. Perhaps the following passage helps us see the folly of thinking and living any other way.

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, 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. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. James 4:13-17 NIV

What the Scripture teaches us the covid-19 reminds and potentially, reinforces. We really didn’t need a pandemic to help us resist the presumptive verse 13 in favour of the more trusting verses 14-15. However the things that we believers absorb from our bold, without-God, arrogant can-do culture, need to be exposed for the presumption that they really are. Here we can trace the gracious hand of God’s providence in alerting us to this folly and drawing us back into the arms of His most gracious care. A care that is encapsulated under this Sovereignty of God doctrine. John Piper in a very recent publication Coronavirus and Christ [Available as a free audio book (2 hours and 6 minutes) from desiringGod.org/askpastorjohn or as a kindle or hardcopy from Amazon] suggests that if we reject the doctrine of God’s loving Sovereignty in allowing covid-19, we will be forfeiting the very doctrine that alone can be our comfort in making sense and finding His all sufficient grace  during the pandemic sufficient.

There have been many forces at work to draw us away from this gracious and comforting doctrine. It has sometimes been confused, wrongly, with fatalism. This leads to a stoicism built on deism (God created the world but has basically thrown away the key, letting it run down without any interest or help from Him) rather than on theism (where God who made the world, not only sustains it, but does so with a full control that is so loving, that His Son entered into the world and through His Spirit enters into our lives). Tragically, even some evangelical theologians have moved from the traditional view that God is Sovereign in all things, both big picture and in small details. Such a position is found  wanting, in the painful circumstances of our lives and large scale events like the one facing our world at the moment and proves powerless to offer the comfort found in key passages and narratives like: (Genesis 50:19-21,Job 1:6-12; 2:9-10; 13:15; 19:25; Psalm 119:67/8,71/72,75/76; Matthew 10:29-31 and Romans 8:28-30). Good theology will always prove to be good pastorally. There is no need to defend God against charges that He allows, uses and is in complete control of this pandemic. Nothing is ever gained by jettisoning any major theme of the Bible, especially if our doing so intentionally or unintentionally removes from our thinking and experience the rock bottom sureties: that nothing takes God by surprise, nothing is outside of His purpose to grow us to be more like His Son, our Saviour (Romans 8:29 and Hebrews 5:7-10), that He not the Evil-one is in control and therefore nothing at all can separate from the love of God any who are in Christ (Rom 8:31-39).

Indeed the very basis of all our comfort, in all circumstances, personal, national or pan-national is based on our Sovereign Triune God who has only soundly defeated Satan, controls his influence, taken the sting out of death, opened our eyes, brought us to repentance and faith through a supernatural new birth, and continues to lovingly sustain, comfort and strengthen His children.

Joni Eareckson-Tada, recalled (on the 50th anniversary of the diving accident in 1967 that rendered her a quadriplegic) the 10 words that firstly helped her out of the crippling sadness, depression and bitterness with God and have sustained, energised and mobilised her in her lifetime of vibrant discipleship. Grounded in the loving Sovereignty of God they are true in every circumstance of life: God allows what He hates, to accomplish what He loves. To meet and be blessed by Joni visit: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5Ahuz2TiEpQ0y-DgaVHhcA

The letters DV meaning, God willing, far from being a convention, pious talisman or heartless fatalism, are a way of remembering and affirming, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, not us, can be relied on, thanked and rejoiced in, in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:16-18). As we once surrendered our lives into His gracious care when we embraced His salvation and Lordship of our lives, we can continue to do so, whether it be in the economic and health challenges of this pandemic or the mundane expected, but not sought, aspects of life with its sicknesses, disappointments, reversals aging, death along with those of discipleship, like persecution, struggle with sin, let down of fellow believers or the refusal of loved ones to turn to Christ.

If the exhortation to never doubt in the dark what you have learnt in the light is true, then this wonderful teaching seen in the meticulous Sovereignty of God (to borrow Piper’s adjective), encapsulated in our Lord’s words are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31), is one of those teachings from the light of God’s Word, designed by Him to keep us buoyant in our walking with Him, and un-ashamed in affirming His loving Sovereignty to a confused world.

God is reminding us in the pandemic, that we can trust Him in unexpected challenges every bit as much as in our hoped for and planned paths. The everlasting arms that underpin His holding both us and His world in place, are the nail pierced hands of our Saviour, whose death was every bit as planned as His bodily resurrection. Since God’s will is palpably good, our submission to it will always prove to be the best path for us. So we can pray with confidence that many whose plans have been thrown into confusion might turn to Him, and that we who are trusting Him, may delight in proving afresh His promises to never leave or confuse His children. DV is in reality our joy and security