Perspective 1: the history of Halloween
How did Halloween start? It was actually started by Christians! Back in Medieval times they began to stretch out their celebration of All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’ Day, 1st November) into the previous evening, All Hallows’ Eve. The concept was simple: knowing that when the morning of All Hallows’ Day dawned, they’d be celebrating how all followers of Jesus find that He overcomes darkness and evil, they make a mockery of all the evil forces the night before. The clear message was, “Evil – your days are numbered!”
This is something that is still true today! New evils mix with old, but all will fall away when Jesus returns in glory one day. Evil will not have the last laugh.
For a more artful explanation of the above, check out this video by Glen Scrivener!
Perspective 2: the culture of today
Fast forward several hundred years to the present, and what do we find? People are a lot less sure these days about what exists by way of spiritual forces, whether good or evil. As a culture we have forgotten (often forcefully and deliberately) the hope offered in Jesus, as well as suppressing the truth that we all have some of that evil in our own hearts.
So it’s no wonder that Halloween, and the way we celebrate it, has shifted significantly from its origins. Now instead of celebrating the demise of evil we’re celebrating – what? It rather looks like we’re celebrating evil itself!
In the Medieval times I think people’s tendency (being in many ways more superstitious than in 21st Century Britain) was to have too much fear of the devil and evil. In that context, having a laugh at it all in the form of Halloween was a relief and perhaps a helpful way of bringing balance. Today it’s quite different! Now the tendency is not to fear the devil and evil forces but to ignore them and deny their existence and power. Then we can dress up as whatever we want and call it, “a bit of harmless fun”. But is it? I think that our culture needs to be more afraid of evil forces than we are.
Well-known Pastor J. John wrote an article a few years ago detailing 6 reasons why celebrating Halloween is more harmful than helpful in today’s culture. Check it out here.
Writer C. S. Lewis once wrote, "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
Which error are we more likely to fall into? That might help you to make up your mind how to approach this Halloween.
Sherford Community Church is officially one year old! We started our congregation on Sunday 16th September 2018, not quite knowing what to expect. We didn’t quite know who would come, and whether they would come back. We didn’t quite know how we could possibly fulfil our big mission to make disciple-making disciples of Jesus and establish a lasting Christian community in Sherford. And we certainly haven’t got everything right, or always had an easy time of it. Yet we have so much to be thankful to God for over the past 12 months.
Here are a few of the lessons I have learnt this year:
Lesson 1: God provides what we need
The first thing a baby learns to do is feed and cry: they need to be nourished, and they need to be able to call out to their parents for help – for absolutely everything, in fact. And the Christian life – and the life of the church – is no different. Church planting training is often largely about strategy, but the most strategic things you can do are the most basic: pray (a lot) and open the Bible (a lot)!
It has been such a privilege to see God at work as we have done these two simple things this year. To see how God has used our talks in Mark’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel, Ruth, Philippians and Psalms, as well as our homegroup Bible studies and Life Explored, to draw people closer to Him. To see how God has used our weekly prayer walks both to grow those who pray and to bring us into contact with those who so desperately need our prayers. I am thankful to God that He gives us nourishment in the Bible, and that He is even more ready to listen to our cries for help than we are to call out to Him.
Lesson 2: God's plan is better than ours
It’s encouraging as a parent to know that your baby doesn’t have to be the tallest on the chart so long as they’re putting on the right amount of weight! Not that I had a specific end-of-year figure in mind, but I have found myself once or twice this year wondering why we haven’t grown as big as I had hoped. But what God has chosen to do instead is actually more exciting: establishing people more firmly and growing people in their faith. Under God, this is more valuable in the long term than seeing large numbers of people attending our church but not all being grounded in faith. Having said all that, when we started I would have bitten your arm off for 130% growth in our first year!
Lesson 3: God's timing is perfect
It can be frustrating as a parent watching a baby develop at what seems like such a slow pace. Why can’t they walk and run yet? Why can’t they talk yet? Why can’t they read and write? But we know that the basics have to be established first: you can’t run until you learn to walk, and you can’t walk until you learn to crawl. So it is with a fledgling church: the basics have to be established firmly first, before all of the extra things can start. I have wondered a few times over the past year whether we should have done x or y extra service, or a or b extra ministry. But the thing I have kept reminding myself is that growing a church is a long-term project, much like raising a child. We were never going to be a fully rounded, all-singing, all-dancing church within 12 months, but that doesn’t matter. There’s always next year (or the year after, or the year after)! On the other hand (very much by God’s grace) what we have done, I believe we have done well. I pray the same would be true for year 2.
Lesson 4: God is the One with the power
Lastly, and most importantly of all, a parent (or a grandparent, or a doctor, or a health visitor…) cannot make a child grow. Only God does that. It’s God who provides growth, increasing strength and maturity, both to children and churches! I’ve been blessed with a fantastic core group with so many skills and talents, and so much wisdom. But planting a church rightly brings us all to the very ends of ourselves. All of our church family have done our best, but only God can make things really happen. And I hope and pray that we will never forget that, either as individuals or as a church. I wonder what He will do in us, for us and through us over the next 12 months? I’m excited to find out!
Not many people base their whole lives and belief systems on an extremely old book that was written over 2000 years ago in a region thousands of miles away from where we live! So why do Christians value the Bible so much? The answer, in short, is because we find it both relevant and reliable. Let me tell you why…
We read the Bible because it is intensely relevant
The Bible may seem at first glance like a disjointed collection of different pieces of literature collected over a couple of thousand years. But the more we read it, the more we see that it is actually one big story. It’s the story of how God made the world and us; how we all turned away from that God and put ourselves as kings and queens of our lives; how instead of simply letting us go He pursued us in love, sending His Son Jesus to rescue us from ourselves; and how He is planning an eternal, perfect life for us, His beloved people.
In other words, the Bible is a book that deals with some incredibly vital issues: whether there is a God and who He is, who we are, the meaning of life and why we were created, and how to live life to the full as it was intended. Along the way we discover that God is a perfect being who cannot tolerate the presence of evil, and must act in judgement against our rebellion against Him. And so we then discover that the Bible holds the vital key to knowing how we can be saved: who Jesus is, why He came, and how His seemingly untimely death on the cross is actually the greatest act of rescue the world has ever known. In the Bible we find a God Who chooses to know and be known by us, and Who goes to incredible lengths to save us and bring us into an eternal loving relationship with Himself.
That is why Paul says to Timothy, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: preach the word.” (2 Timothy 4:1-2)
When we see what the Bible is about, we realise how necessary it is for us to hear and read and think about what it says.
We read the Bible because it is completely reliable
There are all sorts of reasons to trust the reliability of the Bible. For example, we could turn to archaeology. Despite some claims in the popular press, there have been many hundreds of archaeological findings that accord precisely with the details the Bible gives about ancient cultures, kings, places and events. For more information, why not read the following articles?
For a list of archaeological finds that support what the Old Testament says:
For a list of archaeological finds that tally up with the New Testament:
Next, we could look outside the Bible to other historical references to Jesus and Christians. A variety of other famous historical figures make reference to Jesus including Jewish historian Josephus and Roman officials Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. For more information and other references, check out this article:
We could also do some historical text-criticism to find out if the books of the Bible have the ring of authenticity about them. If we look at Mark’s Gospel, we can find all sorts of features that mark it out as a genuine first-century document, and when we study the earliest copies we have, there are more (and more precise, and more complete) copies of Mark than of pretty much any other historical document. For example, the document “Caesar’s Gallic Wars”, from which we get much of what we know about Julius Caesar, is significantly less likely to be genuine than Mark’s Gospel, when we apply the standard rules of historical text-criticism! For more information, read this article:
But despite the helpfulness of all the above, it’s what the Bible says about itself that really clinches the matter. Paul reminds Timothy what the Bible is with these words: “All Scripture is God-breathed…” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible, he claims, isn’t just human words but the very words of God! Peter says much the same: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
This may sound like a circular argument, but the Bible claims for itself the highest possible authority, so there is no higher authority to appeal to! But there is a very simple test we can take: we can read the Bible as if it is God speaking to us, and see what happens. You may well find that the more you read the Bible the more it becomes plain that it really is from God, that it really is both relevant and reliable. That’s certainly what happened to Oxford-based pastor Vaughan Roberts. Check out the video below to hear about his experiences.
The question, then, is this: what about you? What will you make of the Bible?
We recently joined in with a worldwide prayer initiative called Thy Kingdom Come, where Christians of all nations were encouraged to pray hard for the ten days between Ascension Day (Thursday 23rd May) and Pentecost (Sunday 2nd June). As a church we love to pray all the time, but there was something special about joining together with so many other churches and individuals to pray for God's Kingdom to come.
What does it mean to pray, "Thy (or Your) Kingdom come"? It means we want to see God recognised and honoured as the rightful ruler of our world and our lives. And we want to see all the benefits of that in lives changed, relationships restored and communities turned around. We were all encouraged to pray for five people who don't yet know and love Jesus to put their trust in Him for the first time, but we also enjoyed praying for our whole town.
We even got featured on Exeter Diocese's video round-up of the various prayer events across the county! Click below and watch out for Sherford on the video. If you listen in you'll hear our two big hopes and prayers for Sherford: that the town and its people would flourish, and that many would respond to the good news of the Lord Jesus and find the ultimate fulfilment that only He can bring.
What does it mean to pray, "Thy (or Your) Kingdom come"? It means we want to see God recognised and honoured as the rightful ruler of our world and our lives. And we want to see all the benefits of that in lives changed, relationships restored and communities turned around.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Where is real joy found? What does it look like to be truly happy and fulfilled? You might think that a guy stuck in a prison cell wouldn’t have the answer! But Paul, writing to his friends in Philippi, might yet surprise us…
Where is true joy found?
Paul wants his friends to know that there is real and lasting joy in one place: Jesus! The whole of his letter is one long encouragement to stop looking in all the wrong places for joy, and start looking to Jesus to provide what nothing else in the world can.
Living for yourself won’t do it (see especially 1:27-2:11) – Paul reminds his readers that true joy is not found in following our own interests but in looking to the interests of others, just like the Lord Jesus did. Counter-intuitively for us, we discover that putting others first actually benefits us more in the long run, as well as being good for those we serve.
Living for success won’t do it (see especially 3:1-14) – Paul says that he has lots of human reasons to boast (a good family pedigree, a good education and a good job) but none of that made him happy. What made him happy was what he least expected: turning his back on all that and looking to Jesus. In fact he says that, compared to Jesus, all the other stuff was less than worthless (3:7-9).
Living for stuff won’t do it (see especially 4:4-13) – Paul hints that living for anything other than Jesus will allow anxiety to creep in. But he has learnt the secret to being content whether he has plenty or whether he has hardly anything (4:11-13): looking to Jesus! It’s Jesus who can help us overcome our anxiety and replace it with peace (4:6-7); it’s Jesus who can be relied upon to meet our needs (4:19).
How can I stay joyful in hard times?
This joy in Jesus was really helping Paul as he wrote. He was pretty sure he would be released from prison, but there was also a chance that he would die in there, or be executed. Either way, he found a way to be happy – by making Jesus the most important thing in his life. That way he could look forward to life as a chance to serve Jesus, and he could even look forward to death as the time that he would finally be with Jesus (1:21-24). This attitude is one that can’t be taken away from us by anything that the world throws at us. It gives us purpose now, and great hope for the future. What more could you ask for?
What do you think?
Is Paul insane? Or is he onto something – something life-alteringly wonderful? Why not have a read of Philippians for yourself and decide. I have a hunch that you will find that Jesus, and the real and lasting joy He offers, is what you’ve been searching for your whole life…
Where do you turn when you hit rock bottom and there is nowhere else to go? That’s when God’s amazing love and kindness becomes incredibly real to us!
Who was Ruth?
The Old Testament story of Ruth, Boaz and Naomi takes place in a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Moses and Joshua are long since dead, and the fledgling nation have been governed by a series of leaders called Judges. It’s not a great time to be alive, and society is getting more and more anarchic (see the book of Judges for the grisly details).
Ruth is from the neighbouring country of Moab, which if anything was even more anarchic than Israel! Not only that: they had actively opposed Israel in its recent history. In that sense, Ruth is the ultimate outsider.
Who else do we meet in the story?
Before Ruth appears on the scene we meet Naomi, wife of Elimelech. The family had moved to Moab during a food shortage, effectively signalling that they didn’t trust God to provide for them and they wanted to try life without Him. The experiment is a resounding failure, as Naomi has to endure not just the death of her husband but also her two sons (one of whom leaves Ruth a widow).
Boaz is the other main character. He’s an Israelite landowner who just so happens to be the one chance of rescue and security for Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, as he’s a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Will he welcome the turncoat Naomi and the outsider Ruth into his family?
Why does it matter?
As we follow the story of Boaz’s kindness to Ruth and Naomi, we see God’s kindness at work. One key word in the book is chesed – in our Bibles it’s translated as kindness, but it is bigger than that. It’s a kind of self-giving love. In The Jesus Storybook Bible, there’s a wonderful repeated phrase that captures something of chesed: it describes God’s love as His “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love”. This is the kind of love that God shows both the person who has turned away from Him (Naomi) and the person who is regarded an outsider (Ruth), and it’s the same love He offers to each of us today.
Another key idea in the book is how God has set up Israel’s laws to provide for the destitute, particularly through appointing family members as kinsman-redeemers. These people (like Boaz in the story) have a responsibility to rescue their extended family out of poverty and trouble, often at great personal cost. And as we see that in action through Boaz we see a little shadow of the way Jesus acts as our kinsman-redeemer, sacrificing Himself to rescue us out of trouble and bring us back into His family.
The book of Ruth even ends with a more overt pointer to Jesus, as Ruth’s family line leads to the birth of King David (whose family line culminates in the birth of Jesus as Matthew chapter 1 tells us). This is a story of God being kind to people on an individual level (Boaz, Naomi, Ruth) but also preparing to rescue the whole world. A small story that packs a big punch!
What do you think?
This story may at times feel alien to us, taking place in a different country and a radically different era. Nevertheless we can see our own joys and sorrows mirrored in the characters, and ultimately we see pointers to the rescue God offers us. As Boaz reminds us, God is the best place to turn when we’re in trouble! Here’s what he says to Ruth in chapter 2 verse 12:
May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.
Are you ready to turn to God like Ruth and Naomi did?
What if Jesus really is who he says he is? That would be the most wonderful, life-changing news in the world!
We’ll be looking into the first few chapters of Mark’s Gospel on Sundays in September and October at Sherford Community Church, but what is it about? And can it be trusted?
What is Mark’s Gospel about?
Mark’s Gospel is one of four books in the Bible that deal specifically with retelling eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The very first line in Mark’s Gospel gives us a huge clue as to what it’s all about:
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Mark says that Jesus is the Messiah: that is , Jesus is a king chosen by God, whose coming had been promised for centuries beforehand.
And Mark says that Jesus isn’t just the Messiah, he’s the son of God: that is, he is no ordinary human. He’s God come to earth!
The rest of Mark’s Gospel is concerned with two things. First, it shows us by what Jesus says and does that he really is God’s Son and the ultimate king. We see him say incredible things, and do incredible things that no-one else can do. Second, it shows us that Jesus has come not just to be a king but to be a servant – who sacrifices himself for the people he serves. Here’s how Jesus puts it in verse 45 of chapter 10:
“Even the Son of Man [Jesus’ favourite nickname for himself] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In short, Mark tells us that God has come as he promised. He’s come to be our king, but also to be the servant who gives his life to save us. As we see how badly we need saving, it becomes more and more clear that this is wonderfully good news!
But can it be trusted?
You’ve probably heard the argument that says that we can’t possibly trust a book written thousands of years ago, thousands of miles away, in different languages, when we don’t even have the original book! Sounds plausible, doesn’t it?
But actually we have more textual evidence (i.e. very old and accurate copies) of Mark’s Gospel than we do of a whole host of other things that we trust without thinking twice. For example, there is more textual evidence for Jesus’ existence than for Julius Caesar! On top of that we have records from historians of the time like Josephus and Pliny.
Finally, and most significantly, many of the most significant characters in the story (including most of Jesus’ 12 closest friends) were executed because they refused to stop saying that all these things were true. Would you hold onto something you knew was a lie when facing death?
What do you think?
When it comes down to it, we all have to make up our own minds about whether we believe what we read. I, for one, find the story compelling. More than that, I find the person of Jesus compelling. Why not join us on Sundays in September and October and decide for yourself?
What if Jesus really is who he says he is? That would be the most wonderful, life-changing news in the world!
I find the season of Spring an easier time to be hopeful than Autumn or Winter. Perhaps it’s the sunshine and the sight of all the plant-life waking up after what seems like an interminable absence. But it’s also the way that Easter reminds us that hope comes out of despair and life comes out of death.
In the news headlines will doubtless find some wonderful stories of life flourishing, of people doing wonderful things by coming together, of hope for the future. But news is never just good, and you will read plenty of sad stories too: stories of suffering and disappointment. For me, it’s in facing these ‘bad news stories’ (both in the press and in my own life) that Easter really helps me. Because the first Easter was a wonderful reminder that the death of a dream often leads to the birth of something even better. As Jesus’ friends watched him die, they were surely questioning whether they had wasted the last three years of their lives, and whether their belief and hope had all been for nothing. But on that first Easter Sunday they began to realise that something even more wonderful was happening. It would have been great if Jesus had stayed alive long enough to lead them to freedom from their oppressors. But a leader who can overturn death itself – well, that’s an altogether more amazing prospect!
So don’t be afraid to hope for even better good to come out of things that don’t go the way you want. To take a little example: the snow that hit us out of nowhere in March brought all sorts of complications and disruptions. But it also brought people together. It’s no exaggeration to say that the terrible weather gave birth to the community spirit that is now growing apace among Sherford’s first residents. A recent highlight was Sherford's first community quiz night, and more events are planned, including a street party later this month to celebrate the Royal Wedding.
Another example: I thought the world had come crashing down when I failed to get a place at my preferred university. But scraping into a different university on clearing is one of the best things that ever happened to me (including, as it did, meeting my wife!) Some of you may be feeling something akin to my own disappointment if your child didn’t get the Primary School place you were hoping for last month. But perhaps it will lead to them finding an even better future at another of the many wonderful schools with which we are blessed in this side of Plymouth. Dare I say it, perhaps even Sherford’s own brand new Primary School, Sherford Vale?
You may know that Sherford’s motto is, “Building Futures”, but the future being built may not resemble the one we think we want. It could be even better!
I hope that, if you went, you felt a sense that Sherford isn’t just a place to live but that it’s a community. Christmas is all about community! It’s a great chance to get together with the people you love: sometimes the only chance in the year. It’s also a time when offices and schools throw parties, and we can celebrate our friendships with our colleagues and classmates.
But Christmas is also about presents, which is very hard to forget when you have children in the house! It’s exciting wondering what you are going to get. Will you get the things you want? Will you get the things you need?
The first ever Christmas was, likewise, all about both community and presents. And the greatest present of all? The gift we needed most? Perhaps this verse from Matthew chapter 1 will give us a clue:
A virgin will have a baby boy, and he will be called ‘Immanuel’, which means, ‘God has come to live with us.’ (Matthew 1:23)
The greatest Christmas present was that God moved into the neighbourhood! God chose to join our community! We all know from experience that the very best way to enjoy life is in community with others. But it’s even more wonderful to enjoy life in community with God. And Jesus, that baby boy who arrived on that first Christmas, makes it all possible.
Want to know more about Jesus? Want to be part of a welcoming community? Come along to Sherford Community Church: we can’t wait to meet you!