In my last blog post I suggested that Paul’s command to the Thessalonians – and to the Philippians, and basically part of his expectations of any church – rejoice always, was an essential approach to Christina living today as much as it was in the first century. So I’m asking the people in the benefice I have the privilege of leading to take a rejoicing attitude. I want us to resist the regular temptation to see the worst in things and to look for what is good. God is doing marvellous things amongst us, and so often we miss them. I’m just as likely to do that as anyone. When I feel stressed or tired, or got at, I can describe things as though they aren’t great at all. And when I do that, I’m wearing grey tinted specs and putting everyone else off while I’m at it. Not good. So I repent of that attitude and hope to do better in future, remembering the example of a great priest who lives very close to me and counts his blessings every day. So what have I got to rejoice about?
I’m not going to put personal things into tis blog, though I have a huge amount to rejoice in personally. Instead I want to celebrate the third anniversary of my licensing as priest in charge of what is now the Living Brook benefice by looking back at what God has done in this little place in this short time. Yes, alright hair-splitters, we’re still waiting for the final union document, but we’ve been living out this reality for some time now. And perhaps that is a starting point for the rejoicing. When I was licensed it was to four parishes, one of which had been part of a different benefice. One church was closed and that became official very rapidly, leading to the merger of two parishes to become one larger and much more lively parish than the two had been separately before. I came to parishes in a wilderness place, desperately needing change, affirmation and love. There was a small choir, PCC’s that needed direction, churchwardens who had laboured, in some cases for many years, and were tired and yet still working doggedly to turn things round.
As I went into retreat in November 2012, I remember well God’s command to me which was a variant on the theme of this blog. He told me to celebrate, to tell the wonderful people here what was obvious to me but not to them – that they are truly special, brilliant people, loved and worth loving. The theme verse for 2013 was to be John 10.10b:
I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness.
And as the year went on celebrating wasn’t difficult because there is much to rejoice in. The people of this benefice are great and as they worked together they started to see change. The consecration of the Magdalene chapel in Piddington church was a symbol of a new family of God’s people coming together in his love.
In November 2013 the command as I prayed on retreat was about vision. Where 2013 had been a year of celebrating and rejoicing in that abundant life God gives us, 2014 was to be about vision – a vision that would help us to share our joy with others. The theme verse for the year was another set of Jesus’ words from John’s gospel, from John 7:38:
Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.
I came back to the licensing of our Lay Reader, and during 2014 saw a vision day bring people together with loads of fantastic ideas and a new energy for acting on them. I started calling people into leadership in new ways and challenged some people to take up new areas of service in the church – sacrificially in some cases.
In November 2014 the theme and direction for the coming year emerged out of the clergy conference. It was clear to me that in 2015 I had to draw together a new core leadership team as well as encouraging the benefices leaders in the wider, task oriented grouping that had come together the year before. That meant a change to a new way of leading for me. As 2015, a year focussed on building teams, began, the theme verse that has underpinned it all was drawn from Matthew 16: 18, again Jesus words, summarised on our benefice posters as:
Jesus says ‘I will build my church’.
Now, on retreat in November 2015, and preparing to introduce some words of Paul rather than Jesus as our theme verse in the coming year, I can look back and see just was Jesus has done in these three years as he has built his church. Because now I’m able to look and see around me a Living Brook Ministry team with not just me and my lay reader, but also three lay ministers who have studied for diocesan certificates, and also a stipendiary curate of very high calibre. And close around that team I see more teams and groups of people doing amazing things for God. There is a pastoral care team doing such loving work; a children’s and families team transforming our approach to the much larger number of service and events for children; a schools team going into our two primary schools and doing assemblies, lessons and big events in churches too; the choir is growing all the time, and attracting children; the bellringers may not be doing so well on the surface – but that’s because people can’t yet see the novice learners in action. Then there is the youth fellowship, a place where inspiriting leaders are emerging and making a difference to the life of the church, as well as transforming our fifth Sunday services. There is the new elevenses services at St Edmunds, and the growing sense that our open churches are a place not just for prayer but for really gathering community in harmony. There is the knit and natter group, the new handbell ringing group, the stunning regular transformation of St Edmunds by the Toddler Praise children and by the local school. There are church members making an impact as school governors and one of the loveliest church schools out there, and alongside that the beautiful relationship with the academy school in Hardingstone, and another very hardworking school governor who still somehow finds time to make an impact on the church. There are churchwardens, two of them now very new to the job, who deal with lead taken from roofs and the subsequent leaks and still come up smiling, and still understand that our priority is not a building, but the gospel.
In all of those things, and so, so many more, Jesus is building his church and through his people that living water is flowing. Congregations have people in them who wouldn’t have thought of going to church three years ago. All of the time I am seeing fantastic things to rejoice about, and hearing great things from the amazing team that lead this benefice.
So, now in 2016, after this whirlwind of transforming activity that has brought this benefice from an arid place into the place where the living water flows, things will slow down a bit. I want to take time for all of us to drink the water, enjoy the green pasture, and deepen our roots in the church that Jesus is building us into. The new leaders and the established ones need time to get used to their roles and every one of us needs time to rest in God. There will be new things this year, and changes to existing things, but much less of it. The big focus of the year will be on prayer, on reminding ourselves that unless we are individually and together people of prayer we can’t do anything. So 2016 will include a wide selection of prayer opportunities of all sorts and styles. Over the last three years a fast pace was necessary, to move from the desert to the waterside, but now that we have arrived, we can enjoy it. As we do, we will focus on Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, and putting them into action. I hope that we can start by looking at the wonderful things God has done so far – marvelling at what he might yet do – and rejoicing.
pray without ceasing
give thanks to God at every moment.
This is the will of God, your vocation as Christians.