Pastoral Letter January 2017

Thus far the Lord has helped us

— 1 Samuel 7:12

Dear Friends,

It is five years since our family came to Morton, but it now seems to me as though we have always been here. It is good to take a moment at the turn of the year to look back, and to look forward also.

Whatever our experience has been, if we love the LORD we can say “thus far the LORD has helped us”. It is good to place on record, as Samuel did when he set up the stone ‘Ebenezer’, that whatever the passing of time has brought, the LORD has helped us to this very place and time in our lives. He has not failed us, nor will He ever do so.

These five years have been hard for various reasons. Several dear friends have been called home to be ‘forever with the Lord’ and while we rejoice for their happiness, we miss them. Many of us have been very sick and suffered in mind and body. Yet, God has not failed us. We did not know if we would reach five years together as a fellowship without our resources being exhausted. Yet, we have, and giving has not fallen, but increased. We did not know what we could do to reach out to people, and yet the Lord has sent in a good number of new friends and has encouraged us with the best response we have seen for a very long time at our recent Christmas services. The baptistry had been dry for many years, but we have had cause to use it, and we have reason to hope we will use it again. We may feel that our meetings are insignificant and unnoticed, yet they are observed by Heaven itself. We may feel that few people are hearing God’s word, and yet each sermon is heard by at least three times the number of our congregation via the internet, and some are downloaded hundreds of times in dozens of countries. We have been able to distribute thousands of gospel invitations and items of literature on the doors, at the market and at the Carnival. We have seen magnificent answers to specific prayers. We have had the privilege of standing with brothers in London who are seeking God at work. There is so much more that we could lay out here!

We have every reason to be positive about the future — because it is the Lord our God who is our helper. We have every reason to pray more fervently for the salvation of souls — because the gospel is glorious and powerful, and Christ’s redemption is sufficient for all His people who have believed, and have yet to believe. We have been given a mission by the King of Kings, and we know that His kingdom cannot fail, and that He is building His church. We give God thanks for His faithfulness to us. We look back with gratitude and thoughtfulness. We look forward with excitement. He will not fail us.

His love in time past, forbids us to think,
He’ll leave us at last, in trouble to sink.
Each sweet ‘Ebenezer’ we have in review,
confirms His good pleasure to help us quite through.
(John Newton).

May the Lord bless us all!

Pastoral Letter November 2016

Dear Friends,

“a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past”

– Psalm 90.4

The words of Psalm 90 verse 4 help us to put our lives into perspective by giving us God’s perspective. We consider the appalling loss of life in modern wars, and one often-mentioned fact is the terrible losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when 19,240 men died within 24 hours. But these are not the worst ‘daily’ losses we have ever known. In the Wars of the Roses, without the aid of modern weaponry, an astonishing 28,000 men died in one day at the Battle of Towton (1461). The great wars of the past century, however, along with genocides and other wicked actions such as the Holocaust, and the purges of various Communist and Fascist regimes, do overshadow the whole of recorded history. We remember loss, and injustice, and we are thankful for those who have given their lives in support of freedom and in opposition to oppression. But how easily and readily we forget, and how necessary it is to set time aside to remember.

It is not so with the Lord our God. He is the Creator of all things, including time. He is outside of time and in control of it. A thousand years, to him, are like ‘yesterday when it is past’. Our cover features a picture of the Roman ruins at Scythopolis in Israel. Once they formed part of a great city, but that city was only minor in an enormous empire. Those under the rule of it and citizens of it could scarcely have imagined the possibility that it would fall, and that such impressive cities would one day be merely ruins. But the Lord knew. He saw it all. So, today, He knows and sees all things. We seek to serve Him in difficult days when it seems that faith is unwelcome in the public square and that the vast majority of people in our society despise or pity us as fools. Our time, our circumstances, seem like they are everything. They are not. The horrors of persecution seem like they are novel and unending. They are not. It feels as though violence, murder, and war will endure forever. They will not.

Only God’s Kingdom is ‘everlasting’. Human history is in His sight merely the blink of an eye, and all godless human endeavour is no more significant than the scurrying of a colony of ants. We remember with thanksgiving the sacrifice of those before us. We weep with those who weep. But we do not despair! Jesus Christ has died once for all. The Lord is Sovereign over all things, and He will be glorified by the entirety of human history. Meanwhile, considering how insignificant is time itself, our greatest focus must be eternity. Are we prepared for it? What about our friends, family, and neighbours? How will you use the little time that you do have, in the light of eternity?

August 2016 – Blessed are those whose strength is in You

Dear Friends,

It seemed to make sense to publish the sermon from Marlene’s funeral in this slot rather than detracting from its message with another one:

That we are here today is not a surprise to any of us. That doesn’t mean that it is easy to be here, or that our hearts are not heavy. But we have known for a few months that Marlene would soon leave us. Amidst our sadness, if only we knew it, and if only we were looking, we have had the opportunity to see a follower of Jesus die well. What do I mean? I mean that Marlene did not fear death. I mean that she was full of joy and peace which has no rational explanation, and I mean that she wasted no opportunity to tell those who came in to nurse her or to visit her, that she had this joy and peace because of Jesus Christ, her Saviour.

As we have watched, waited, and prayed these last few months, the Lord laid a particular verse from the Bible on my heart. It is found in Psalm 84. This is a Psalm, a song, about longing to be in God’s presence. In the Old Testament, it referred to visiting that literal place, the Tabernacle, later the Temple, where God chose to show His presence among men. Many of the Jews would make a pilgrimage to visit what we would call ‘God’s House’. That place where God and Man came close together. The Psalm begins with these words:

How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts!


My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord;

My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

But the days of the Tabernacle and the Temple are past. There is no need for sacrifices any more. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came from eternity and entered time, was born of the virgin Mary, and lived a perfect life here on earth. He offered that life up, and died on Calvary’s Cross willingly, that, as He said Himself “whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. Then He rose from the dead the third day, defeating death. All of a sudden, the temple was no longer needed. There was no longer a need for sacrifice, because Jesus shed His own blood. There was no longer a need for a ‘Holy Place’ where man could not go, because now, just as we sing at Christmas: “Peace on earth, and mercy mild: God and Sinners Reconciled” Now the way to God is open through Jesus Christ, and now He dwells eternally in the hearts of all His people.

What was the verse that God laid on my heart? It is found in the middle of the Psalm, verse 5: Blessed are those whose strength is in You, Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

How do we account for Marlene’s strength in these last days? I understand that she was always a strong person. Philip testifies to how fiercely loyal and faithful she was when he worked very long hours. A good many years into their marriage, Philip became a Christian. Marlene didn’t know what was going on. Sometimes she went to church with him and came away shaking her head saying ‘I can’t understand what they are on about’. Until one day, when she went into the chapel at Westerleigh, heard once again of the love of Jesus, and came out a different person. She turned away from her sin and trusted in what Jesus had done on the cross, that He would take the punishment due to her for her sin, that he would stand in her place, that He would make her right with God. God had met with her, and opened her eyes and ears to understand the gospel.

Human strength will only take you so far. But Marlene came to take on a new strength. What does our text say? Blessed are those whose strength is IN YOU. Her strength was in God, it came from God. God chose her, God called her, God saved her, God kept her, and late on Saturday 18th June, He welcomed her home to eternal glory.

But it wasn’t the language about strength that really caught hold of me. It was what the Psalm says about the heart of someone who follows God: ‘Whose heart is set on pilgrimage’. When Marlene became a Christian, she had a change of heart. A complete change. Her heart used to be set on the things of this world. Having a family, a good home, being a wife, and mother. Those are not at all bad things of course, but they are not the most important things. When she became a Christian, her heart became set on the journey of life, a journey with only one destination for her. From the day she trusted Jesus until the day she finally saw Him, her heart was set on that very thing — to be with Him. She didn’t want to leave Philip behind. She didn’t want to leave any of us behind, but she knew that to be with Jesus was ‘far better’. We thank God for giving her what felt like ‘extra time’ here, time to be with the family. But when her strength failed, I believe that she stopped walking the pilgrim way, and began to run home. Humanly speaking, she became so weak she could do nothing for herself, but we know that spiritually she was a strong as a lion.

One of her very last times here at Morton, she heard her first Pastor, Dr John Hall, preaching on Jesus’ words in John 14:

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

Jesus prepared a place for Marlene, and she is now safely in it. She was blessed because she trusted God, and drew her lasting strength from Him, and because she trusted God, her heart was set on pilgrimage, on the journey of life, and while we mourn today, our loss is Heaven’s gain. We have no reason to weep for her. No joy can match hers. No wealth can equal her treasure in heaven. No strength can approach hers now!

We know that Marlene’s only concern was leaving her friends and family behind. First, because she loved you, but second, because she knew that many of you here have not turned from your sin, or trusted in Jesus. Her deepest desire was that you too might know what she knew, and what she now knows perfectly: forgiveness of your sin, peace with God, and eternal life. Friends, life is a journey, and we are all on one of two paths. When you trust Jesus, you are changing direction.

IMG_1440There is a broad, easy way in life, that Jesus says leads to destruction. We read that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. If you don’t repent of your sin and trust in Christ alone, then you are the one who will be punished for your sin. God is Holy, and Just. He must do what is right. But as it says right behind me, ‘God is love’. How do we know this? Because Jesus stands ready, able, and willing to save whoever believes on Him. Even John Newton, the wicked slave trader. Even the Apostle Paul, who was guilty of murder. Even the dying thief on the cross who had no chance to do anything godly or good, but simply trusted in Christ.

Marlene chose the readings today. She didn’t know that I would be saying something about Psalm 84. I know she wanted me to say something about part of Ephesians 2, which we read earlier. Here it is again, here is the proof that it is true – God IS love : For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

What is it all about, this Christianity? What is the message of the Bible? It is that God saves sinners. It is that man cannot save himself. Marlene is in Heaven not because of anything she did but because of what Jesus Christ did perfectly on her behalf. He lived that perfect life we cannot live, and died that saving death we cannot die.

Christians are not ‘goody two shoes’ who earn their way into God’s favour by trying to live right, fasting, charity, or lighting candles, reciting prayers or even confessing to a priest. Real Christians are ordinary flawed people who have grasped this one simple fact – that salvation, and eternal life, are God’s gift to all who trust Him. They cannot be bought, they cannot be earned, they cannot be deserved. But Jesus paid the price –

Jesus paid it all.
All to Him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

Marlene’s journey is over, and all is well. She is more alive than any of us. In front of us is a container, a coffin. Inside it is another container, a body. But Marlene is not here. Her soul is with the Lord, until the last day when He will make all things new and reunite body and soul. This is a broken world – Adam sinned and God’s perfect creation was ruined. Death separates body and soul. Tell me, while you are here, body and soul, which path are you on? Tell me, what is your heart set on? This world is passing away fast. Our lives will soon be done. The letter of James calls them a ‘vapour’. Each one us has a never-dying soul. Where will you spend eternity? Where is your hope?

What will be the source of your strength when life’s trials come, or when the end approaches? Don’t despair, but trust Christ. What He has done for Marlene, He can, and will, do for all who believe on Him.

I close with a few passages from God’s Word which speak to us about the glorious future of all who trust in Him:

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man

The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.

1 Corinthians 2:9

He will swallow up death forever,

And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces;

The rebuke of His people

He will take away from all the earth;

For the Lord has spoken.

And it will be said in that day:
“Behold, this is our God;

We have waited for Him, and He will save us.

This is the Lord; We have waited for Him;

We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”
Isaiah 25:8-9

They shall neither hunger any more nor thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Revelation 7:16-17

Blessed are those whose strength is in You,

Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

Psalm 84:5

Amen

Pastoral Letter June & July 2016

Dear Friends,

“… in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”

We all know that we have plenty to be thankful for. From the very basic things, like food, and clothing, through bigger things like family and friends, even up to the privilege of living in a nation with good roads, free education and health services, and so forth. We should be thankful to the Lord for all this.

But of course, there is much more to be thankful for when we think spiritually. As the hymn writer John Kent wrote:

On such love, my soul, still ponder —
Love so great, so rich and free;

Say, while lost in holy wonder, —
‘Why, O Lord, such love to me?’


The love of Jesus Christ to His people is just extraordinary. We can never be thankful enough that the King of Kings should come from eternal glory into this world of sin and shame to save us from our rebellion against Him, even though by nature we were His enemies. Then we think that not only has He come, but that He has come for us. It is mind–blowing. We ask ‘Why Lord – Why such love to someone like me?’ and we are filled again with thankfulness.

This letter is written for release on the day when we come together as a church to celebrate Josh’s baptism. We are giving God thanks for His grace and mercy to Josh. Perhaps it is relatively easy to give thanks on a day like today. But the Apostle Paul gives us direction that we should give thanks ‘in everything’. Not just on the happy days, nor just in the good times, but every day, and in every situation. So, we should be giving thanks when we are sick, when we are poor, when we are are sorrowful, or when we are afraid. But how is this possible?

The answer lies in reversing the way we think about what we are thankful for. Instead of working up from the ‘smaller things’, start with the biggest things. Start with Christ’s love for you and His atoning death on your behalf. Think of the lifting of your burden of sin. Think of the securing of eternal life. Think of the indwelling and work of the Holy Spirit. Think of that true and inexplicable joy and peace which God alone can provide. Place the events of your earthly life in an eternal perspective. Sometimes it is very hard to give thanks, and all you want to do is moan. But persevere — thankfulness brings glory to God, and will lift your spirits and guard you against cynicism, coldness and jealousy of others.
As you seek to honour God in thankfulness, no matter how hard your situation, He will in turn bless you, and help you even in your thanksgiving. May God bless you all.

Pastoral Letter May 2016

Dear Friends,

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life
– Romans 6:4

We are beginning to see more sun after what has been a long, wet, winter, and it feels almost as though spring has not really happened! More light and heat can bring joy to us, and positivity. This month we will record the 182nd anniversary of the chapel, and the 32nd anniversary of our church. We look forward to that. We look forward even more to a baptism at the end of the month, which is the first for very many years. We hope and pray that this will be a time that we can look back on in years to come as a marker of new life, and new hope, in our life and witness.

 

Even as we rejoice at these things, we are aware of many heavy burdens being borne in the fellowship, particularly as we have dearly beloved friends who are battling their way steadily, near to the end of their pilgrimage in this world. I felt that the well-known words of Romans 6 were particularly appropriate for us all. We feel torn in ourselves by thankfulness and rejoicing on the one hand, and a deep sadness on the other. Yet, this is the season that the Lord has ordained for our fellowship, that we might share together both joy, and sadness. We should not be ashamed, or embarrassed, of either emotion, or even a mixture of both at the same time!

The ordinance of believer’s baptism should be a great comfort to all of us at this time. It speaks so clearly to us of Christ’s burial and resurrection. It reminds us of the precious cleansing from sin which we receive upon our conversion. Most personally, it identifies each one of us with our Lord. We are buried ‘with Him’, and as He was raised, so we are raised to walk in ‘newness of life’. Of course there is even more, for we know:

This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him.
If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. — 2 Timothy 2:11-12

There are many other scriptures besides that link together Christ’s death and resurrection with our own experience. What a blessing it is to know the Lord Jesus as our Saviour. How precious it is to ‘hide ourselves’ in Him, to be able to look unto Him as the one who has gone before us, and has defeated death. As one modern hymn writer puts it so well ‘Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered’. For the Christian, death is only the doorway to eternal glory. So let us laugh together, and weep together, knowing this — that the life which Christ has won for us can never be taken away from us.

Pastoral Letter April 2016

Dear Friends,

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.

When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,

Nor shall the flame scorch you. – Isaiah 43:2

As a struggling teenager, I would head out to school with a heavy heart. There are so many things to worry about at school, especially if you hate Maths, are not very good at P.E., and also fearful of being bullied! Occasionally, my Mum would call out brightly, as I went, ‘go out, and slay some dragons!’

I certainly didn’t feel much like the ‘Patron Saint’ of England when heading off through South London. In case you’re wondering, I thought that the month containing St George’s Day would be a good one to share the photo I took of the famous sculpture in Bethlehem! But I digress.

Life is hard, isn’t it? There seem to be ‘dragons’ everywhere for many of us. Great concerns about health, studies, family, friends, work, money, our society, our safety … the list goes on and on. We are find ourselves under varying levels of stress. Some of us cope relatively well, others of us struggle greatly and are prone to depression and anxiety. Some of us will also discover that whilst once we coped well with the demands of life, now perhaps the same things we formerly breezed through exhaust us, fill us with dread, or perhaps utterly defeat us.

Here’s what I want to say to everyone: We have to fight life’s battles, we can’t opt out. But we have someone with us — and He IS a real dragon–slayer! He says to each one of us ‘I will be with you’. Isaiah’s imagery is apt. We feel like we’re drowning in deep water. We feel the heat of the fire and it seems certain that we are going to be burned! Left to ourselves, we would be drowned, burned, beaten, and ultimately, eternally lost. But we are not left to ourselves and we have a great and glorious Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is fully God and fully man. He once was fully dead. But we know that ‘He is risen’ and hence, fully alive. In Him is life, and He is life. He lives in and of Himself, and He lives in His people by the work of the Holy Spirit, and by the same blessed Dove His people live in Him. Brothers and sisters, He has not saved us in order to leave us ‘helpless until Heaven’. He says ‘I will be with you’, and He will be. Prove it.