The (phoney) war of the Christian life…

The other Sunday at Spen Valley Church we started a new sermon series in the Psalms of Ascent. I love these psalms; brutally realistic about the fact that the Christian life is war, uncompromising in their call for us to depend entirely on the Lord’s keeping power for our peace and security, and full of hope of the joy of being one together with the Lord and his people.

Funnily enough, we started out at the beginning, Psalm 120. It really is brutal in showing us the Christian life as war. But as I started to think about the applications for us, it struck me that this psalm isn’t really about what we normally talk about when we think about the battle of the Christian life.

You see, we think about the Christian life as war because of the battle to pursuing holiness, or kill sin, or even because of the fight to keep trusting the Lord when suffering strikes or loved ones die. But the slight problem is that that’s not really what the psalmist’s problem is.

He’s fighting a war because of where he lives and who he lives among (vs. 5). Wherever it is that he lives, it at least feels like he’s living among pagans. And pagans (vv. 6-7) who hate everything he is and everything he says. He is a believer, one of the Lord’s people, who’s very identity is one of peace with God and his people. A man who wants to speak the good news of peace to all around him. And yet all this peaceful being and speaking only brings him war. It’s a fight to keep going, keep believing, keep speaking. So much so that (vs. 1) he’s repeatedly crying to the Lord for help.

There were lots of applications of this war for us as a church. Check them out here if want. But I just want to dwell on one for a few posts here. I might be getting this proper wrong, but I reckon that for a lot of us the psalmist’s experience isn’t really our own day to day experience. Now, I understand that if you work in academia or a similar environment, or even TV land, then you might regularly come up against people who don’t like the Bible’s view about certain social issues. But I reckon that for lots of us, especially in small northern towns like ours, the war the psalmist is talking about just isn’t something that causes us the same distress it does him. And I reckon there’s at least two fairly simple reasons for that.

Firstly, I reckon that often our default pattern of life is different to the psalmist’s. We might inhabit the same geographical location as plenty of non-Christians, both at home and work. But whether or not we dwell amongst them is another question entirely. It’s far too easy for so many Christians to avoid spending time amongst those who don’t know Jesus, and spend all our non-work time in the Christian bubble. Another meeting to attend, another committee to be on, another youth club to run, another shift at the church foodbank/drop-in/café to get on with. All our mates are Christians, and sometimes we even enjoy spending time with them. When asked at the prayer meeting to give a name of a non-Christian we know well, and want to share the gospel with though, if we’re honest, it’s a bit of a struggle.

Perhaps no-one hates us, because no-one actually, really, knows us.

Or perhaps we do know people. We’re even invested in people’s lives. But if we’re honest it’s quite hard for them to tell the difference between them and us. Yeah, we have that funny hobby on a Sunday, and we’ve got some weird thing about Jesus, and a few daddy issues. But the stuff we talk about, the stuff we get excited about, the dreams we live for, they’re pretty much in line with theirs. From what we say, they could easily make out that if our kids turn out normal and successful, our spouse is gorgeous, we get that promotion, we win the lottery, our team win the league, and our version of Brexit was delivered, we’d think life was quite tidy, thanks very much. Perhaps the idea of telling them that they’re a sinner heading for hell and in desperate need of Jesus as Saviour and Lord has crossed our mind, but…well, they wouldn’t like that, would they now?!

Perhaps no-one’s out for war, because we barely ever speak of peace.

In our town, probably 99% plus have never heard the gospel. It’s probably similar in yours. Unless we actually get out there and tell them, that ain’t going to change. They’ll never know they’re at war with God unless we live among them, speaking and living out the implications of the gospel of peace.

So what can we do about that? Well, next week I want to think about some of the systematic reasons why it’s so easy for us to live in the Christian bubble and how we can try to change them. But for now…? Pray. Go out of your door. Pray. Go somewhere, anywhere, where’s there’s people. Pray. Meet some people and get to know them. Pray. Tell them about Jesus and their need of him. Pray.

Repeat. Then repeat. And repe…

You get the picture…

Back to school…and the future!

Yesterday was a big day in our house. My son went off to high school for the first time. He’s quite the nervous soul, and so the last couple of weeks have been a bit lively! Not only have we had the joys of spending a ridiculous amount of money on compulsory school-branded clothing, and equipment he won’t use that often (over £200, even with buying the cheapest stuff we could find!), but we’ve had occasional tears, grumps, and the odd nightmare.

It was a long time ago that I first went to high school (probably well before some of his teachers were born!). But I still vividly remember the six weeks of anxiety about the stories of heads being flushed down toilets and what Year 11s did to little Year 7s behind Faggee’s Corner or on the Cage Walk. But I also remember that there turned out to be nothing to them. And I also remember my years as a high school teacher, and know that generally kids settle in quickly, get used to a different way of working, and most importantly make new friends fairly quickly.

5 years I spent in this place. Happiest days of your life…apparently!

So, as he went off in fear and trepidation yesterday morning, I was thinking about the friends he might make. And it struck me that over the coming weeks he might meet people who will be his mates for life. People who he has, as yet, never set eyes on who might be the guys he drinks in the Malt Shovel with in 40 years, or the blokes he works with, or the people he turns to when life falls apart down the line, maybe even someone he might walk down an aisle with one day.

You see, that’s Cleck. So many of the people I meet in the town have lived here all their lives. They grew up here. They all went to the same school, unless they went off to the grammar school in Hecky (by definition a minority). They’ve all known each other since they were 11, or 14 at least if they’re old enough to remember the middle school system. They all know each other’s mums and dads, and different family situations. They all remember that thing that happened when they were 16, and what she did to him when he said that to her. They still hang round together, not on Facebook, or Insta, or even on Friends Reunited! But in real life. Their best mate is still the fella they met in the classroom way back when. Lots of them are married to one another. Very often, it’s even generational. Families have lived here for as long as anybody can remember. Not only did they go to school with their best mate, but their dad went to school with his dad, right back to when their great-grandads worked in the mills together.

Cleck in 1900… Dark and satanic according to some poet or other

You see they’ve got history. Long history. Involved history. And that means that planting, and being, a church here might be a bit different to places where people tend to be a bit more socially and geographically mobile. There’s probably lots of things it means, but it means at least that we’ve got to rethink our timetable for growth. On the other hand, it means that setting up a solid little church invested in the local community could, by God’s grace, do great good over a very long time.

You see, planting a church in a place like Cleck simply will take a long time for lots of reasons. But the fact that nearly everyone knows nearly everyone, and always has, plays a huge part in it. As a church we’re all incomers. Some of us are even incomers to Yorkshire. Even my wife and I, who’ve lived all our lives within a 7 mile radius of Cleck, are still in many ways outsiders. And that means that deep relationships are going to take longer to grow. We’ve not got that history, we’re not from round here. Many people already have a huge network of relationships, whether family, or mates, or whoever. And therefore there’s less people looking for new friends, or new opportunities to get out and do stuff. It means getting into our community is going to take longer. And so planting here is going to be very different to planting in a mobile town or city where people are coming and going all the time. It’s going to take longer, it’s going to be more labour intensive, it’s probably going to be more frustrating. We’re going to need more support from outside, both in terms of people and finances. We’re going to have to be patient, and keep going even when it feels like nothing’s happening. We certainly won’t be self-sufficient, or self-funding, any time soon.

A place of memories for all who grew up here… The old school building

But it also means that, long term, there are huge opportunities here that might not exist in more mobile places. Because in 20, or 30, or even 100 years, by God’s grace we’ll still be here. Maybe not all of us, or even any of us. But, if the it’s the Lord’s will, then Spen Valley Church will. And, God willing, it will be full of people who grew up here. Who went to school here. Who have invested their entire life in this town. Whose mates are the people they met in Year 7 or even in Reception, or even before that. People who are simply part of the huge, complex, tangled web of relationships that make up Cleck. Who those around them have seen grow up, have seen go through the process of coming to know Jesus, be baptised, and get stuck into church life. People who have lived out the transformation of life that comes with knowing Jesus. People who are part of the very fabric of this town and are determined to proclaim the gospel of Jesus to those they’ve loved all their lives. Who demonstrated the keeping power of God in one place, in front of the same people, for 70 years. That’s just not possible in areas where people stick around for 3 years, or even 10, before moving on. That’s just not possible in places where all the kids go off to university and rarely come back. But I reckon that here, it just might be.

We’re still a million miles from that yet. But we are praying that God will be gracious in getting us there one day. That he might take a group of incomers and make us part of this place. That he might bring us more incomers willing to come and be part of this town for the sake of the gospel. And that he might use that process so that people might come in and know the rest that comes with belonging to the family of God in Jesus…