Morning Prayer

I’m writing a series of blog posts on ways we can read the Bible for ourselves. This time, I’m thinking about using the Morning Prayer service.

The modern service of Morning Prayer, as something available to all Christians, came from the Reformation. During the Middle Ages (roughly 450-1500 AD), Christian monks and nuns had developed a pattern of regular prayer and Bible reading, often joining together for seven short services a day. But the services they had developed often got so complicated with all the different options that you’d spend more time looking up all the different references for prayers than you would actually saying the service!

When the Reformation happened, innovators like Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1533-1553) tried massively simplifying and democratising the system – he reduced it to two services a day (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer / Evensong), massively reduced the number of things that changed from day to day and published the new services in the Book of Common Prayer so that anyone and everyone could say them on their own or with others. The printing press and widespread literacy were both fairly new at the time!

With the widespread availability of computers, which can do the picking for you, the official services have got their seasonal variations back, and are now available as a pre-sorted text online here (Morning Prayer for today) or here (lets you pick which service and date you want). There’s also a Daily Prayer app and podcast so that you can listen on the go. Some people prefer doing it offline; it’s usually best either to say it with others or to use the same booklet every time, as we did for a while during the pandemic. The podcast gives something of the feeling of being part of a monastery community – there are chanted bits, and the same small group of people every day. I even give them names – there’s Daddy Pig, Middle Eastern Woman, Token Northerner and so on.

Advantages of Morning Prayer

  • Having set prayers and passages means that you don’t need to worry about picking stuff, and learn some useful prayers and so on
  • There’s a sense of joining in with people from all over the world
  • Easy to lead – this was really useful to do during the pandemic, largely for those three reasons
  • Good coverage of large parts of Scripture
  • Good for working with other Christians from different backgrounds, especially over Zoom
  • Easy to do on the go; I’ll often listen to Morning Prayer while on the way back from the school run
  • When you’re finding it really hard keeping going with reading the Bible and praying, Morning Prayer can help to carry you. Someone once told me that MP is really good at maintaining a low level of spiritual engagement.
  • Makes you feel like being in a monastery

Disadvantages of Morning Prayer

  • Makes you feel like being in a monastery
  • The podcast doesn’t leave anywhere near enough time to pray for anything – it’s “name a complex topic, leave 2 seconds silence, name another topic” – this can be helped by using the Pause button
  • Too often it leads to skimming over Scripture – you hear it read then move on to something else. When I’ve found Morning Prayer lead to a deep sense of encounter with God, it’s because I’ve been doing it from a paper booklet and I’ve taken 10-15 minutes to be quiet with the passages and done something resembling the SOAP method with them.
  • Working from a booklet can get really repetitive and lead to blanking out. Working from the app / webpage can lead to too-fast scrolling and skimming.

Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

This is a powerful story – it’s well worth retelling and imagining that you were there. How would we expect Jesus to react when the paralysed man is lowered into the room?

Jesus saying that the man’s sins are forgiven only makes sense if he has diagnosed a bigger problem than the man’s paralysis. It’s not that the man has specifically done something wrong to cause the paralysis – riding a donkey while under the influence or something – it’s that Jesus sees into the man’s heart and knows that his fundamental problem is that he is a broken person living in a broken world, with a broken relationship with God, just like all of us. Jesus looks at this man whose life is little better than a living death because of his paralysis, and says to him that his biggest and deepest problem – his biggest and deepest need – is not his sickness but his sin, his shame, his status before God.

It’s the same with us. We live in a whole world whose relationship with God is broken. Not that I limp because of specific things I did wrong, but that the whole world is out of kilter because of the way we reject God. Our problems go much deeper than we think.

But Jesus can do something about them. But if our fundamental problem is sin, which is a broken relationship with God, then who can fix that? Jesus is claiming to have God’s authority to fix our broken relationship with God, and he shows that by healing the man’s physical brokenness as well. We see later in the story that Jesus can forgive sins because he takes them onto himself. It’s like if the problem between us and God is an unpaid debt, then he pays the debt through his own death. He takes the brokenness of the world onto himself and becomes like a lightning rod who takes it all into himself, and takes it away from us, so that we can be forgiven and reconciled. So how do we take hold of that reconciliation? How do we get our relationship with God fixed, the sin got rid of?

The word is “faith”. Did you notice it in v5? It said “when Jesus saw the friends’ faith”, he said to the paralysed man “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

(Interesting side note that Jesus counts the friends’ faith as leading to the man’s forgiveness – like with infant baptism…) But for most of us the question is whether we have faith – whether we choose to trust God. Being reconciled takes both parties, doesn’t it? What we need to do is to come to Jesus and trust him to fix us and to fix this broken world. He doesn’t fix it all at once, but by his Holy Spirit, he mends us over time and makes us into the people we were originally made to be. If that’s something you’d like to find out more about, please e-mail me and we can have a chat about it.

The Soap(s) Method

I’m writing a series of blog posts on ways we can read the Bible for ourselves. This time I’m posting about the SOAPS method. I guess this was the main way I read the Bible for myself for the first decade or so of my Christian life; it’s still one of the first ways I’d recommend to others, and I’d do it a lot more today if I wasn’t a vicar! (more of that later)

The SOAPS method is a four (or five) step method for helping us to read and study the Bible for ourselves.

Scripture

First of all, read the Bible. This can work with a verse picked at random, but it’s probably better done working through a book of the Bible at a time. When I was a teenager, I started off reading a chapter a day – that works fine with this, or a “chunk” with its own heading (though the chapters and side headings are mostly not actually part of the Bible – they were added later to make it easier to navigate).

If you haven’t read the Bible before, it’s probably best to start with one of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, and read it one chunk at a time. After that, things like Colossians, Philippians and 1 Peter are easy-ish as a next step.

And read it prayerfully – God’s Spirit loves to help us understand God’s word, so we should ask for his help.

Observe

Read it until something jumps out at you. If you’re really familiar with the Bible, it can sometimes help to read it in a less familiar translation. (Try the CSB if you want something different!)

What does it say? Why does that surprise / encourage / challenge you? What does it tell you about God or us? I find it really helpful to write that down – writing helps me concentrate on what I’m doing rather than getting distracted so much.

Apply

What does that mean for us? What difference would it make to our lives if we really believed it? What are you going to do differently today as a result of reading this? Write that down too.

Pray

Talk to God about what you’ve read. Is there something to thank him for? To say sorry for? To ask for his help with? Do that. And maybe write it down as well.

Share

One thing that can be really helpful is to share what you’ve learnt with someone else, and maybe ask for their help or prayers if there’s something you’ve found challenging.

So there you are – Scripture / Observe / Apply / Pray / Share – SOAPS.

How I’ve used this

When I started doing this, I’d take up a few lines in a notebook. I went through phases of working through books a verse at a time and writing a side of A4, or writing on 6×4 index cards which I’d file away, but I eventually settled down to one side of A5, which works really well in a notebook or on the back of a scrap piece of paper.

Here’s some of my notes – just to give you an idea.

Now no-one told me about the SOAP method for ages; what I’d usually end up doing was writing a mini-sermon on the passage to myself, which needed to include observation and application. And yes, most of them weren’t worth preaching, but they helped me a lot, and it also meant that by the time I got to preaching from a pulpit, I’d already written a thousand or so sermons to myself and I’d got a lot of the rubbish ones out of the way….

Advantages of the SOAP method

  • It’s great for actually working on the Bible, and practicing and growing Bible-handling skills.
  • It works for Christians at any stage
  • You don’t need any extra resources
  • When I did it regularly, I’d almost always get something out of it.

Disadvantages of SOAP

  • It needs about 20-30 mins of undisturbed time in the quiet
  • I found I couldn’t usually do it if I was in a rush or hadn’t slept properly the night before
  • If you’re involved in preaching regularly, it’s too easy for this to turn into sermon prep; I’d stop applying it to myself and start applying it to others too much.


Personal Bible Reading – Introduction

In weeks when I’ve not been preaching, I’m going to do a series of blog posts about different ways that we can read the Bible at home.

But first, I think it’s important to do a bit of an introduction.

Why does it matter?

Time and again, the Bible reminds us that we grow as Christians by feeding on God’s word, the Bible. We are in a culture which seeks to shape our minds and hearts in ways that are often unhelpful; the way to resist that is to spend time in God’s word.

So Psalm 1 reminds us.

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
    whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1

How do we get to be stable, solid and fruitful, rather than just blown around by things going on around us, and then blown away by the wind? By delighting in God’s word and meditating on it.

Or this

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2

Or this

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk [literally – pure milk of the word], so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 3:1

How do we grow as Christians into being the people we are meant to be? One of the keys is by reading God’s word, the Bible, and meditating on it.

How do we do it?

The Bible does have a fair bit to say about “how”, but one of the striking things is that it doesn’t give us a simple 5-step method. And part of the reason for that is that it’s to do with what works for us, with the personality that we’ve got, in our season of life.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from being at Bible college was that I need quite a lot of variety in the way that I read and study the Bible. I did have one way that worked well for years, but now I often use that when doing sermon preparation, so it becomes too much like work and I often find it too hard to keep the focus on letting God speak to me and too easy to focus on how I’d preach it in church.

So now I have multiple different ways I read and engage with the Bible; I find I need them – otherwise spending time with God ends up slipping into a rut, when it’s meant to be fresh and enjoyable.

About this Series

So in this series, I’m going to introduce some of the ways I find it helpful to read the Bible, and ways that other people I know find it helpful, to give us more ideas about how we can do it, and to help us keep going as Christians and keep on growing more and more into the people God is calling us to be!

Sermon on John 21

John 21 took place some time in the month or so after Easter. The disciples had been sent back to Galilee, and many of them had gone fishing again; they still had to eat, and quite a few had done it as a job before meeting Jesus.

There are all sorts of echoes here of Luke 5, but I focused on drawing out three tensions that change how we think about life.

  • Jesus is with us in every area of life, and transforms every area of life.

Jesus is with them, even when they are fishing, and he turns out that he knows how to fish much better than they do. He tells them to cast the net onto the other side of the boat – to follow him even when they were doing what they knew a lot about, and calls them to follow him again.

Jesus is with us in every area of life, but he transforms it too. And that means how we are at work, and how we are with out families, and how we shop and use our money and relate to others.

  • Jesus serves us but he invites us to join in.

Jesus clearly has the power over everything, but he doesn’t use it as power over – he uses it as power under others to serve them, equip them and lift them up. He is still in control, but does that by serving others and inviting them to join in.

Here, while his disciples are fishing, Jesus has already prepared a BBQ, with bread and fish. He doesn’t need their fish, and yet he invites them to bring it along and join in with what he is already doing.

God doesn’t need us to serve him. He is fine as he is; he’s got it all under control. He doesn’t need us to bring our fish, but he invites us to do it because he loves us, because it’s a privilege and he gives us significance and meaning.

And that’s always the gospel? It’s not that we do something amazing for God; it’s not that we can bring him our gifts and skills, or our money, or our abilities. It’s that he loves us. When we can’t get food, he feeds us. When we sin, he forgives us. He is the powerful one. He is the hero. And yet he invites us to join in.

  • Jesus confronts our sin, but does it to forgive and transform.

There are lots of references back to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus here, right down to the charcoal fire. Peter might want to avoid talking about it, but Jesus raises it by asking Peter three times if he loves him.

From time to time, Jesus confronts our sin. And he does it gently and lovingly – not to rub salt in the wounds or to get revenge (he’s already taken then punishment for it!) – he does it so that he can have a real and honest relationship with us in the future – so that our future service of him can be based on a better foundation than we would have it we did it ourselves.

Will we let him? Will we trust him to provide for us? Will we allow him into every area of our lives, growing in our dependence on him and obedience to him, even willing to cast our nets on the other side when God calls us to?

Sermon on Ephesians 6v18-20

This can seem an odd ending to the Armour of God passage – after all, it doesn’t talk about armour at all (even though v17-20 is all one sentence in the original).

But Paul asks for help in standing firm, which is what the armour is all about. He finds it hard to talk to people fearlessly about the good news of Jesus, and wants his readers to pray for him! That’s one of the ways the devil attacks us; it’s one of the times we need the armour of God to help us stand firm (hence the 5 a day through Lent). And it’s also one of the times it’s helpful to remember that when Roman soldiers had their armour on, they often stood firm in the “tortoise formation” – they protected one another’s backs, which we can do by praying for each other.

Prayer is about recognising that it’s not our battle or strength; we don’t stand in our own armour. It’s God’s strength, his armour and his mighty power. Prayer is about consciously choosing to put our trust in him not in ourselves. The real Christian life is about constantly relying on God’s strength through prayer, and that’s great news for those of us who find things hard.

Verse 18 gives us some wonderful advice about how to pray – it uses the word “all” four times.

Pray on all occasions

Now it’s great to pray in set times, but Paul also says to take every opportunity. So how about on your commute to work using landmarks as opportunities to pray for things (“be alert”) or time when your brain is in neutral, or when you can’t sleep at night? Feeling anxious about something can be your body’s way of telling you to take the opportunity to pray about it.

Pray with all kinds of prayers and requests.

There isn’t one set way to do prayer well. Pray from the Bible or great prayers of Christians in the past. Or use your own words. Have a prayer list, or pray for whatever is no your heart. Use an app, or listen to the Daily Prayer podcast, or listen to Christian music then take time to be quiet with God. Sit quietly in your room or go for a walk with God.  Do it all – whatever works, keep some variety, but do it.

Third, pray with all perseverance.

The devil is an opportunist. Peter tells us he prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. And when we’ve stopped praying; if we stop relying on God, we’re far easier pickings. So don’t give up praying, even when it’s hard going; keep on consciously bringing ourselves to the place where we are aware that God is with us and that we depend on him. In Galatians 6:9, Paul writes this. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Fourthly pray for all the Lord’s people.

Satan loves to sow division. But when Paul says pray for all the Lord’s people, I think he’s especially thinking of the people we don’t naturally get on with or who are different from us. Praying for people is a wonderful way not to resent them so much. How about deciding to pray for people more than we complain about them? Imagine what it would be like if you spent more time praying for the people who annoy you, what kind of change of mindset that would bring and what kind of community God could create through us! If we had each others’ backs the way that the Roman soldiers did.

Mothering Sunday Sermon on Isaiah 46:1-4

Slightly odd choice of passage here!

Isaiah 46:1-4

On Mothering Sunday, we thought about people who carry us. Mums very literally carry us, even before we’re born – it’s called child bearing for a reason. But plenty of other people carry us too – dads, carers, grandparents, firefighters, paramedics… When we’re little, being carried is about being safe. It’s about being cared for. It’s about knowing that we’re loved and looked after.

Even when we’re too big to be physically carried, people can help to carry each other – listening, comforting, helping with problems, giving a hug. And it’s wonderful when the people who carried us as children can keep on doing that as adults, though it doesn’t always work out like that. That’s the kind of thing that I think Isaiah was thinking about.
Some people in Isaiah’s day worshipped statues. And it was all very heavy – it was a lot of things they had to do. Worshipping those gods was like they had to carry a heavy bag round on their back.

And God says “don’t be silly”. You aren’t meant to have to carry God around like it’s something heavy. God tells the people that they don’t carry him – he carried them. He carried them when they were little babies, and we’re never to big for God to carry. He still helps us and listens to us and cares for us. He still protects us when we’re scared and gives us the things we need to get by, and all the other ways that a good parent cares for their children, even when we’re grown up, even when we’re old and grey.

But, some people still want gods that they can carry around with them – whether it’s money or wanting to be liked, or trying to keep all the rules. Those things becomes ways we try to find significance – they are idols, and they are often make life even heavier. Following God isn’t always easy, but if following God is a burden, then you’re getting it wrong. God doesn’t want us to carry the heavy load of other people’s expectations, or trying to get more and more possessions, or keeping all the rules all the time. He wants to be our father, and carry us like a mum carries her baby. And he wants us to know that closeness with him. That comfort. That being carried.

Jesus said “come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Walk with Jesus. Learn from him. Taking his yoke on us is a picture of joining in with what he is doing and his pattern of life, and he says that walking with him and sharing in his journey takes the heavy load off our shoulders. Not worrying about things that are too big for us, but walking gently with Jesus.

And it also means letting God be God. This section from Isaiah 46 is in the middle of a long passage about how amazing God is. I sometimes talk about how having God for a parent is different from our human parents. I’ve said before that when we grow up with a human parent, we grow in independence from them, but when we grow as God’s children, we grow in the opposite direction – we grow more dependent on him. And the difference is because when children grow up, they become like their parents, hopefully even wiser and stronger than their parents, so we learn to be like them. But we never get to be like God – we reflect his perfect character more and more, but we never get to be as strong or as wise as him. So don’t try. Let him be God, and ourselves be his children. Trust him with the things that burden us, and let him carry them.

Sermon on Ephesians 6:14

We’re continuing in our short Lent series looking at the armour of God. It is God’s armour, which he gives to us so that we can stand. This time, we looked at the belt of truth, which protects us against lies, and the breastplate of righteousness, which protects us against guilt and shame.

  1. The Truth of God Against the Devil’s Lies

The devil is the father of lies, and lies are usually the key to his attacks, so the first and last pieces of armour – the belt and the sword – are about defending against them. The belt gathered the loose clothes together to allow for fast movement, and also had an apron section to protect especially vulnerable areas. So the idea is that God’s truth holds everything together, stops us from getting tripped up or caught by our own clothes, and protects us from getting hit where it hurts. How does that work, and how do we put it on?

There are all kinds of lies in the world around us, and in our own heads, which damage our lives – “I have to be perfect to have peace.” /  I am only as good as I am successful at work” / “I am ugly and unworthy of love” / “Real relationships are like the stuff I watch.”

We can see how Jesus beat the devil’s lies in the wilderness (e.g. Luke 4). He saw the lies for what they were, and countered them with God’s word. When we hear the devil’s lies, we learn to change the channel, and to change it to God’s truth, especially bits of God’s Word that speak against the lies we are tempted to believe. For example, a wise Christian once advised me to deal with self-esteem problems by reading Isaiah 43:1-7 until I cry. Put on the belt of truth by taking hold of God’s truth and using it to protect us from the devil’s attacks.

  • The Righteousness of God against the Devil’s accusations

Perhaps the most stinging lies of the devil are the ones about our own worth – all the most believable lies are at least partly true. They are the ones that attack us at the core of who we are. And we see the foolishness of those lies by reading passages like Ephesians 2:1-10, Romans 5:1-11, Romans 3:21-26, Zeph 3:17, and so on.

The Bible’s good news isn’t that we are wonderful and should be proud of who we are. It isn’t that we don’t do things wrong. It is that even though we do things wrong, even though Satan’s accusations against us might well be true, the conclusion that Satan draws is wrong. God loves and accepts us utterly, even when we were dead, even if we have done nothing lovely. He counts us as righteousness not because of what we have or haven’t done, but because of what Jesus has done in living a perfect life and dying on the cross for us. We have his righteousness – when God looks at our record, if we trust Jesus, what he sees is Jesus’ record instead. Jesus’ good deeds and his perfect life are counted to us, and our sins were counted to him on the cross.

And seeing God’s love, we know that the bad things you have done have been paid for, that we are accepted and deeply loved by the one who made the whole universe. Our own armour may have fallen apart, but God gives us his breastplate of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, so that we can stand.

And so when Satan attacks us, we take up God’s armour; we take his belt of truth, and his breastplate of righteousness, and it enables us to stand. And they also transform us so that we become people who value truth more and more, and we live more righteously in response to being given Jesus’ righteousness.

Sermon on Ephesians 6:10-13

Ephesians 6:10-13

This Lent we’re doing a short series on Ephesians 6:10-20. It’s a famous passage, but often poorly understood. Yesterday, we introduced the series, looking at v10-13.

We focused on three facts that challenge common misconceptions from the passage.

Life as a Christian isn’t meant to be easy

Paul describes it as like warfare, or a wrestling match. In Ephesians 4 and 5 he writes about the Christian life and about being church, and he uses the language of “walking” a lot. Here, when he’s talking about spiritual warfare, the challenge is just to stay standing.

Far too many people, especially Christian leaders, have lost their enthusiasm for God, been distracted into putting all their energy into side issues, or even wholesale dropped out of the faith.

Do you ever feel like it’s a struggle just to stand still? That’s the reality that Paul describes here; the point is to equip and motivate his readers to keep on standing, and if we stand still then we are winning.

Our Battle Isn’t Against People

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, Paul writes. Have you ever forgotten this in an argument – gone for winning the argument but losing the person? People are never the main enemy, even if they can sometimes be part of the problem. It’s the same with the war in Ukraine. Putin is clearly to blame for much of it, but if he were to die and be replaced by someone else who believed the same things, then the conflict would not be solved.

Our battle as Christians is never primarily against other people (v12) – the words used refer to a wide range of forces of evil whether personal or impersonal. It includes unjust power structures in society as well as demons. But behind it all is a malign intelligence – they are the devil’s schemes.

And the devil, we are told, is the father of lies, the accuser, the one who leads the whole world astray. His primary weapon is words, as seen in his conflicts with both Eve (Gen 3) and Jesus (Luke 4). This whole world is filled with competing voices and truth claims, all trying to distract us from Jesus.

It’s about God’s strength and his armour

What are the commands in the passage? We should be strong (literally, be strengthened), and stand firm. Where? In the Lord, and in his mighty power (v10 cf 1:19-21). Jesus beat Satan in the desert; he beat him on the cross, and he gives the power to us. And he gives us his armour too.

It isn’t our armour, as if these were things we have to do. It’s God’s armour, which he has already used to defeat Satan (e.g. Isaiah 49:2, 52:7, 59:17). We just need to let him strengthen us, and to put on his armour. More of that next time!

Notes from the Ash-Heap

The Ash-heap is a common picture in the Bible. Dust and ashes were always a symbol of our humanity, but the the Ash-heap in particular is a symbol of when things can’t get any lower. It’s the lowest of all low places in this life. And it’s also part of the symbolism of Ash Wednesday. Today, the Ash heap is where we choose to be. Why?

The Ash-Heap is where our pride dies

Can you imagine the proud rulers of this world choosing to sit on an ash-heap, and get dirty? The Ash-Heap is where we acknowledge that we have nothing, and where our pride dies.

The Ash-Heap is where we know we are loved

Precisely because of that, it is also where we know that we are truly loved. We do not have to do anything to deserve or earn God’s love; he still loves us on the ash-heap. And so when we know we are loved even there, then we can stop trying to earn God’s love and instead serve in freedom, not caring about whether we look stupid, because we are loved and accepted no matter what.

The Ash-Heap is where our relationships are renewed

When we give up our pride, we see that others matter at least as much as us, so we use our privilege to help those with less privilege (e.g. Isaiah 58), and seek to loose the chains of injustice.  It is where our relationship with God is restored to our right dependence on him and acceptance of his love without conditions. It is also where our relationships with ourselves are reset – we see that we are fallible and mortal, and so take care of ourselves accordingly. We are not the saviours that the world needs, but we follow the one who is.