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Real World Harvest Celebration

Last week I was thinking about making sure that the gifts that are given to celebrate the harvest don’t just look good but do good as well. This week I am reflecting again on harvest time.

I love this time of year but if I’m not careful it will be little more than a feast of nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong I love a pretty harvest scene as much as the next man. Indeed, there is a real sense of security in seeing a newly harvested field and produce in church. I know it isn’t my crop or my food, but it still gives me a deep sense of well-being. Perhaps it is some primal instinct speaking direct to my emotions, saying, “All will be well, we won’t starve this winter”. Maybe, that’s just fanciful, I couldn’t say.

Nostalgia and nice vague feelings are all right, but a celebration in the presence of the Lord of Creation needs to be more than that. I need to look a little closer to what is happening around me. I see some farmers doing well and others really struggling. One family I know is working all hours on a rented farm to bring in under £10,000 a year. Others are doing pretty well. Dairy farming in this area has been hit hard, and I know of long standing dairy herds going, and local milking parlours standing empty. The countryside is like that, there is a beauty and harshness all mixed together. Perhaps best summed up by the sight of a young deer moving lithely across a field, then driving around the next bend finding another, just as beautiful, dead by the side of the road.

At harvest time I need to truly look. To open my eyes to see the beauty of a dew-coated spider’s web, or to see a hedgehog scurrying to find cover. I need to make sure I take the time to really appreciate a field in the sunshine all ready for harvest, or a crop of roses in full bloom. I also need to keep my eyes open to see the loneliness in some farmers eyes, and the crop that has failed.

Seeing and feeling the good and the bad is the only way to walk with God in the harvest time. There is not point hiding anything from him; he sees and knows it all. I do know why so many harvest celebrations only deal with the pretty and the lovely. I feel the pressure to do the same. I too want to revel in a perfect world with lots of school children, doting parents with no hint of taint from all these less than pretty realities. But if I do that, I am lying about God and the world. I am giving the subtle message that Christianity is indeed just make-believe. And all for a few smiles, and a mumbled, “Nice service, vicar”.

By letting God into the true harvest, I am letting him into my real life, and the real life of the people I serve here in rural Norfolk. And what of the the ‘celebration’? Well that is the celebration of God here and now, laughing inwardly at the great harvest, and weeping quietly at the bad (after all, farmers rarely show their emotion in public). In this way, a sense of contentment can be found. A contentment in the faithfulness of a God who promises to be with me, giving purpose always. By allowing the real harvest into church there is perhaps a chance, just a chance, that people will encounter living Lord of the Harvest, and be changed by the meeting.

By facing the reality of harvest I can truly lead people into a celebration of the wonder of Jesus words:

I tell you not to worry about your life! Don’t worry about having something to eat or wear. Life is more than food or clothing. Look at the crows! They don’t plant or harvest, and they don’t have storehouses or barns. But God takes care of them. You are much more important than any birds. Can worry make you live longer? If you don’t have power over small things, why worry about everything else?” (Luke 12.22-25)

May the Lord bless and transform all who celebrate this harvest time.

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Practical Help at Harvest Time

The Church Urban Fund have released research which shows that adults 1 in 50 in Britiain used a food bank in 2016. It also shows that 5% of British adults missed meals last year because they could not afford to eat. That is why I am so proud of the involvement of these rural churches in Foodbank. So many people here regularly give the food needed to make up Foodbank food parcels. This week our local Waveney Foodbank is critically low on:

  • Pasta sauce

  • Sugar 500g

  • Coffee

  • Tinned Tomatoes

  • Long Life fruit juice

  • Custard powder

  • Tinned Vegetables

  • Rice Pudding

To my local readers: Please keep the donations for Foodbank coming in!

We also support the work of the Emmaus Community based only a few miles away in Ditchingham. This Harvest time it is to this community that much of the produce and other food donated across the benefice will be going, which will allow us to be able to accept fresh as well as tinned produce.

We will be celebrating God’s generosity and creativity while at the same time sharing that generosity with others. I am constantly impressed by the work of both the Foodbanks and the Emmaus Communities across the country. The Foodbank movement is now very well known and our local Foodbank (https://waveney.foodbank.org.uk/) is linked to the Trussell Trust (https://www.trusselltrust.org/). But fewer people know about the work of Emmaus. Emmaus communities are practical expressions of the hope of Christ offered to the most vulnerable and beaten down in our society. If you are local and do not know about the Emmaus Community, please visit them, they are on the site of the convent, just follow the signs for Belsey Bridge Conference Centre and you will find the community on your right, before you reach the Conference Centre. I have also reproduced what they say about themselves below, please read their story and be inspired by what Christ is doing through them. To find out still more and to read a short history of the Emmaus movement see https://www.emmaus.org.uk/norwich/ and https://www.emmaus.org.uk/history.

Thank you to all of you who give so generously of time and resources to show the love of God in such practical ways.

God bless,

Nigel.

Emmaus is a homelessness charity providing more than just a bed for the night to people who have experienced homelessness and social exclusion.

We provide a home for as long as someone needs it and meaningful work in our social enterprise. Living in a stable environment with the opportunity to work helps our companions, as residents are known, to regain lost self-esteem and the confidence to get back on their feet.

How it works

There are currently 29 Emmaus communities across the UK, providing a home and meaningful work to more than 750 formerly homeless people. In addition to this, there are four emerging groups, working hard to establish new communities. Together, we are working towards a target of being able to offer 1,000 companion places by 2020.

Like any flourishing community, Emmaus is most successful when everyone makes a contribution. For us, that means working together in the social enterprise, to generate funds needed to support the community and the companions that call it home.

In return, companions are expected to work 40 hours per week or as much as they are able in the charity’s social enterprise. They are required to sign off all benefits with the exception of housing benefit, which is claimed to help support the community. The ultimate goal is for each community to become self-sufficient, supporting itself with the revenue it generates through its businesses.

The Emmaus model has a huge impact on restoring confidence and self-respect, as companions take responsibility for keeping their community going and work hard to support themselves and others.

Emmaus is not about giving hand-outs, it’s about providing people with the tools to help themselves. This approach has been proven to produce long-term, sustainable results. For the many people who have been stuck in a cycle of homelessness, Emmaus provides the space and support they need to take stock of their lives and make positive changes for the future.

Why love and suffering?

I’ve been hearing so much about disaster and pain. There were terror attacks and more recently I’ve been watching the terrible effects across the globe of earthquake, wind and flood. I read, and I wonder what this has to say about a God of love, indeed of the God who “is love” (See John 4.16 NIV). I see the suffering and I hear in my mind the critics of faith, shouting, “Where is the God of love in this? How can a loving God do this? How can he stand aside and let it happen?”

At first these questions seem so hard to answer. In fact they are really traps that cannot be answered. They are a bit like the question, “Answer, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’: Have you stopped beating your wife?” Whatever you say is wrong, not because God is not loving, or in the case of that last question, not because I have ever beaten my wife!

If you answer, “God didn’t do this” – then the reply is, “So he doesn’t exist then.” If you say, “God did do this”, then the reply is, “He’s not very loving then!”

The problem, goes far deeper than simple answers. The problem relates to an understanding of God that I don’t agree with. I’ll explain what I mean. This will mean leaving those questions parked for a minute but I will come back to them.

I’ll start at my beginning with God. I came to know God through seeing him at work in some very loving and caring people. Then, as I began to experience the presence of God for myself, I found this God to be a loving and caring God. I read about this God being a God of love and this made sense of what I was experiencing. I experienced loving, divine strength in good times and in bad. I discovered a God who was loving in an unloving world. I discovered a God who made me and all of his children more loving, despite the hate and indifference of the world around. I was never promised a bed of roses, or a life of limitless pleasure. I was promised a life lived with meaning and purpose; a life saturated with love. I was promised the strength and wisdom to be able to live life to the full, no matter what life would bring. I was promised that the joyful Jesus at the Wedding at Cana would be there celebrating when I celebrated. I was promised that the suffering Jesus of the Cross would be there weeping with me and holding me when life felt too painful for me to cope.

This is the love of God that I know to be true. This is the God that I not only believe in, but know to be real. Knowing this God, I don’t see a disaster and ask, “Where is God in this”. I see a disaster and feel God weeping with those that weep. I feel a tiny bit of the pain felt by God at the pain of this world. I feel that pain and I’m spurred on to do more to make this world a better place. For example, when it comes to natural disasters like hurricanes, it pushes me to do all I can to reduce the climate change that is making these so much worse and more frequent.

I also know God as the loving creator of all things. To understand what that means I turn to the Bible. There in the first chapters of Genesis, I find that the world was made good, without pain, suffering or death. I also find that the ‘God of love’ loves his creatures so much that he does not want them to be just puppets. God wants to share the live and creativity of his love. I also read in the Bible that the downside to this great gift of freedom is that freedom can be abused. I read that the whole of creation has been corrupted and that we are not blameless in this.

I read that God’s sorting out of human beings and his sorting out of creation are so linked together that they are one and the same thing (see Romans 8.22-24). So ‘natural’ disasters and ‘human’ atrocities are both symptoms of the same disease: The corruption or ‘fall’ of a creation. I don’t know all the reasons why God does not step in and sort it all out. But from spending time with God and reading my Bible I know that it is out of love for us and out of love for the world. God does not want to wipe it all out because he sees hope in it all still. That is why Jesus came. Jesus is God in this would of love and hate, joy and suffering.

Jesus came not to provide me with all the answers to every situation to satisfy my intellectual pride. No, Jesus came to give me the love sufficient to live every situation.

So back to those nagging questions, “Where is the God of love in this? How can a loving God do this? How can he stand aside and let it happen?”

My longer more complete answer is set out above. Even that is barely skimming the surface. But even that is probably too long for most people. I have found that most people do not want ‘real’ answers because real answers take time. People want quick answers. The quick answer that I’m tempted to give would be, “that to ask these questions you know neither the nature of God nor the nature of this world.”

But really the only real answer is to show the love of God in action in my life, good times and bad. As Paul put it, I need to say to myself, “Let love be your only debt! If you love others, you have done all that the Law demands. In the Law there are many commands, such as, “Be faithful in marriage. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not want what belongs to others.” But all of these are summed up in the command that says, “Love others as much as you love yourself.” No one who loves others will harm them. So love is all that the Law demands.” (Romans 13.8-10).

My answer is to “let love be (my) only debt”, to show the love of God by living it, and encouraging everyone that I meet to do the same!

Why are we here?

Introduction

Today’s article is my text for tomorrow’s address at St. John’s. It is very specific to that church and its building. However, I feel that it has points within it that apply to the task of maintaining and enhancing our church buildings more generally, as well as the Christian mission and inheritance that they so wonderfully display. If you are not a part of St. John’s then I hope that you find the discussion helpful to you as you care for God’s house wherever you may be.

I’m having a break from the internet and so the next article will be in two week’s time.

Now for this weeks’ article: Why are we here?

Why are we here? Why are we sitting in this building this morning? It’s a nice day, we could be out somewhere. There are also other places to meet. We could meet in a school like DC3. We could meet a short distance away in King George’s Hall. I don’t know about you, but it would feel so wrong not to worship together here in this place. I feel it, and I’m sure you do too. But why do we have this attraction to this building?

I am attracted to worshipping here for many reasons. It is a beautiful building, with stories of the Gospels in the windows and that great verse of welcome over the chancel arch: “Come unto me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” I feel Jesus’ invitation every time I walk into this building. It is as though I hear Jesus speaking to me, “Come unto me – Come in here, stay, pray and worship before leaving refreshed.”

I enter here and I feel the history of faith in this place. I feel the prayers of all who have gone before me. I see their love for God in the time and care that they took over this building. Firstly they had the vision to build this church when they had a perfectly good church on the hill. Then people here continued to work, to change the building to make it the best it could be for God in their time.

Chancel steps were added, and beautiful windows have been added two. At some point an organ was added so that the latest worship music could be played in this building. Throughout its life this building has been a beacon of God’s love at the centre of this town.

Now it is our turn to consider how best to continue the work of glorifying God through the fabric of the church. It is now up to us to decide what to do and what not to do. You have risen to that task in so many ways. Some of you will have been part of the work to construct the Lady Chapel, and I think all of you will have been involved in the work to build our toilet. Many will have seen the kitchen go up and only this year the kitchen was refurbished to keep pace with modern food hygiene laws.

The question now is what is next. How do we continue to make this building a place of sublime worship and practical outreach to the town? I have been working with your PCC to consider this question, and I know that many of you have passed on your thoughts.

One acute problem that we have is the lack of a distinct room for the children to learn during the service. Somewhere, that they can be involved in the worship then quickly withdraw for their activities. Somewhere, that they can make a little noise without worrying about disrupting the sermon. We have tried all sorts of possibilities and the only space that might fit the bill is where the organ now is. I was therefore asked to consider having the organ removed and a room put there. I resisted the thought; it seemed too radical. This was at the beginning of this year, but try as I might I have not been able to find an alternative. In fact, the current Lady Chapel could be enhanced by moving it forward into that space, making it a more self-contained chapel for quiet prayer and contemplation.

Then I thought about the music here. So I asked Jonathan for his opinion, and he felt that the quality of the music would be improved by removing the organ and having an electronic organ in its place. He even suggested a reasonably priced organ for us to consider. Then I thought, “this is all very nice but the diocese would never allow us to remove the organ”. But when the DAC (Diocesan Advisory Committee) were asked they were very much in favour of using that space for a chapel, rediscovering the Victorian window hidden by the organ at the same time.

The next thought was about the pews. The question being, “Are they the best seats for us when we worship and for those who attend the events that we host.” Well, pews do seem right for a place of worship, but then I realised that these Victorian pews were the height of worship fashion when they were installed. They were a modern innovation from the old box pews of many Victorian churches at that time. The pews are in good condition but they are hard to move. So we have already removed pews from the side aisles and from the back. We now need more room for tables at the back, so I have been asked to consider removing a few more to clear space.

I am also conscious that the primary school only just squeeze all of the children into this building for their big services at Christmas, Easter and at the end of the school year. Space is so tight that we can’t fit in any parents to see their children take part in these events. This is distressing for the children and parents, as well as for the rest of us. It also means that we lose an opportunity to have lots of parents hear the Gospel here in this building. Without the pews we could sit the children on the floor, freeing far more space for parents and staff.

Removing the pews would also give me and the PCC scope to continue to make our modern and traditional worship as pleasing to God as possible.

For months now, I have been exploring these pros and cons of all of this, the organ space and the pews. We had a public meeting and took people’s views. We had sheets left in church for people to tell me and the PCC what they think. Then we had our last PCC a few weeks ago. At that PCC we considered all that we had heard and agreed to go ahead with:

  1. Removing the organ to create a space for our children on Sunday and a quiet chapel during the week.

  2. Removing the pews and replacing them with chairs to enhance our worship and make the nave more useful for all church and community uses.

We also agreed to take steps to improve our sound system and our projection system, but I won’t talk more about these here.

At that meeting we also were aware that many people who worship here had not had the months of prayer and deliberation that we had had. We were aware that these decisions may be disturbing or even upsetting to some of you. So that is why the PCC asked me to speak to all of you like this. The PCC acts on your behalf to lead this church. So we want to make sure that you fully understand what is planned before we go ahead. We want you to be fully involved as we go along, for instance in choosing the right chairs.

We are not willing to just leave you behind. These plans are exciting and we think they are right for this church. But more important than these plans by far, is the love and care that we share here in Christ’s name. Jesus calls us to “Love one another”, as he has loved us. This commandment will not be abandoned now. So please talk with me about these plans. Talk with PCC members. Me, Tim and some members of the PCC have committed ourselves to praying together weekly, in this building, for this building, in addition to any existing prayer or worship here. You are very welcome to join us. If you can’t join us here in this place, still bring all of this to God in prayer.

This building is a beautiful and holy place. A place for us and the people of our town to experience the presence of God. I feel Jesus’ invitation every time I walk into this building. It is as though I hear Jesus speaking to me, “Come unto me – Come in here, stay, pray and worship before leaving refreshed.” Please help me and the PCC to make sure that the Spirit of the Living God remains evident to all who come to this place.

We all love this building as God’s house. We all want to do what is best for it and for God’s glory in this place. I and the PCC are custodians of a spiritual and community heritage: help us to fulfill this duty well.

Summer’s End

I am enjoying the warm and the wet of August. I am also soaking up the subtle changes in the air. The first whiffs of autumn that creep in, only half noticed. The weather is warm still, and there are still flowers in the garden. But the autumn fruits are ripe; the apple trees are laden with sweet fruit and the blackberries are enticing. August makes the passing of summer a pleasant thing. The turning year brings hope and each season has its joys. Without change there could be no growth, no fruit, no variety, no life. So change must be good no matter how much I might like to linger over a particular time or place.

I smell the spiritual changes in the air too. I see new people taking the first tentative steps of faith, and those established in the faith growing if love. I hear new ideas and wonder what will be next. Change in a church can be good and natural too. I find that in these rural churches health growth does not tend to come from dismissing the past and trying to start anew. No, healthy growth seems to come best when supported and nourished by the deep roots of faith established by those who have gone before. Growth in the country church seems to be more organic than for our more urban cousins. Growth may be less dramatic, but has the steady rightness of the flowers of summer growing into the rich fruits of autumn.

I look at my autumn churches and smile. I see growth, and I see ripening fruits. I know there is spiritual health and vitality in the English countryside, with exciting times to come. Just wait and see!

A poem from Vivienne Tuffnell:

Summer’s End

I have seen the stars fall
Piercing the clouds
With brief bright flames
White-hot and evanescent.
I have watched the moon rise
Pared to a mouse-nibbled cheese
By sunlit, lazy days
Of parched grass and airless nights.
I have felt the dew form
Heavier than rain, breaking
Drowned cobwebs with
Swollen crystal drops.
I have breathed the night wind
Laden with day-lost scents
Waiting only for the chill
Of dark descending.
I have heard the dip and splash
And beak-full calls
Of kingfisher, sweet surprise,
Where none were known to be.
And I have smelled Autumn air,
Fungal and fruitful fragrant
Amid leaf litter and windfalls

Imaginary Cages

Have you ever been somewhere where you feel completely out of place; the odd one out. It doesn’t happen to me too often in this country, but it does happen. I find it when I chat or say, ‘Hi’ to the young people on the rec. opposite my house. There is now very little hostility, but there was. I was seen as a threat, someone clearly about to tell them off for loitering or to blame them for some act of vandalism or littering. Also, they are on the rec. to get a little space from their parents who are my age or younger.

I have felt it in a bar where everyone else was black and I was the only white man there. I’ve even felt it in a pub at the other end of Norfolk. I don’t know whether any of those isolated places still exist but they did twenty odd years ago. I remember going into that village pub, and everything went quite, so quite you could hear a pin drop. No one spoke, and then every face turned round. They turned to look at the stranger, the foreigner who had invaded ‘their’ village and worse still had entered ‘their’ private pub. I went to the bar, still feeling all the eyes on my back. I tried to chat to a man on a stool next to me but he just nodded (a real victory!) before turning back to his own conversation. It was clear that I was different and not welcome. It was only my stubbornness, belligerence even, that made me order a very average beer. I drank it alone, in a ice cold circle of rejection, before I felt that honour was satisfied and I left. I later found those people to be more hospitable than they seemed that day, but that is another story.

As I said, it is rare for me to feel like an outsider in this country, particularly in Norfolk. Perhaps, it is because I’m a white, respectable man. It does though give me a tiny glimpse into the world of the foreigner. It makes me wonder about the black person, or the Asian person in this very white part of England. It also makes me wonder how someone would feel if they walked into a church for the first time. I’ve done that and had conversations stop and people turn round to see the stranger. Thankfully, I know what to do, I also know that people in church are likely to be warm and welcoming. I know to smile and say hello and chat about the service or the building. I know that just before a service I might be given a book without a word, assuming that I know what to do; assuming that I know about the warm unspoken welcome in the heart of the person giving me the book.

But, but what if I didn’t know about church? What if I was one of the majority in this country who have never willingly stepped into a church. Family weddings don’t count, then there is safety in numbers and you’re not likely to see the congregation, much less be outnumbered by them. Still, this person has wandered into church. Perhaps, it’s curiosity, or boredom on a wet Sunday on holiday. Perhaps, it’s in response to a vague inner prompting. Probably, a mix of lots of reasons. But in my imagination, there I am, entering a world that’s new to me. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Will these church-goers be hostile? Will they judge me for not being like them? What do I do with this book in my hands? Where do I sit? They don’t expect me to sing do they?! Maybe, I feel uncomfortable and alone. Perhaps I can escape now.

I think of that famous passage from Romans 10.14-15, “How can people have faith in the Lord and ask him to save them, if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear, unless someone tells them? And how can anyone tell them without being sent by the Lord? The Scriptures say it is a beautiful sight to see even the feet of someone coming to preach the good news.

How can they hear, unless someone tells them?” Yes, that’s true, but more important today is, “How can they hear, if they are not welcomed enough to stay?” or “How can people have faith, if they are never find out that faith is for them?”

I have found the churches here very welcoming. I’ve been impressed by the way people have gone out of their way to make a visitor feel at home. But let’s not get complacent. Let’s not take this welcome for granted. Also, let’s not overwhelm with our desperate need for, “new blood”. Still, I can honestly say that these 7 churches in this corner of Norfolk have a good foundation of welcome to build upon. Though I think we forget the immensity of the task that we have. Jesus’ task for us to share the wonderful news of God’s love with the people of this country.

This morning I read the sad story of a bear that paced up and down the twenty feet of its cage. When, five years later it was rescued, the bear continued to pace up and down those twenty feet, as if the cage was still there. It was. For him.

That is how so many people are when it comes to the freedom of faith. They have been pacing up and down in a life without their Creator for so long that they can’t see the freedom of the Spirit, right there for them to walk into. I don’t know how we undo the damage of being caged, physically or mentally but God does. It is Jesus’ job to set people free from mental cages.

My hope is that I, along with all church-people can welcome, and encourage – That we live a life of faith that is still very much in this world. My hope that as Jesus’ friends, we can wander in and out of imaginary cages, every time hoping that the Spirit will have opened a few eyes. Hoping that people will start to get the idea that any barriers between them and their loving God are not real.

My job, and the job of Christians everywhere, is to allow all people to join us in a world that’s more than twenty feet long.

Sheep & Wolves

Sheep and Wolves
  
  “Those of you who would happy be,
  Come along and follow me.
  If you want your highest bliss
  Do as I do, dress like this.
  Check your brain in at the door,
  You won’t need that any more.
  Hand your worldly goods to us;
  We know best, so why the fuss?
  Peace of mind it don’t come cheap,
  Now get in line with all the sheep!”

  Shepherd’s pie I hear them say;
  Tell those sheep to run away!
  Beware the wolves who dress like me,
  So alike it’s hard to see
  Who’d be your guardian and your God,
  Rule with kindness, not the rod.
  Think of this when wolves are here:
  The good shepherd inspires no fear.

Vivienne Tuffnell from ‘Hallowed Hollow’: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hallowed-Hollow-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/1544615779

Will you sit with me

There are times when words cannot help; when a person cannot take in those sounds of comfort that I want to offer. I have said this before, but sometimes all that can be done is hold a hand and let the storm of pain batter you. I know this, and thankfully God knows this too. A poem that may give you a feel for what I mean:

 

Will you hold my hand?

Will you hold my hand
As I sit in the darkness?
Will you sit with me,
Make darkness less lonely?
Will you give my hand
A gentle squeeze,
Warm my cold flesh
With warmer skin?

Please do not tell me
About a light I cannot see.
I will not believe you
And the dark will be denser
For the lies I think
You tell me then.
My eyes are wide open
And I am not blind.

Will you hear my words
As we sit the long night out
Without disputing my right
To voice my thoughts?
Will you let me speak
My soul’s story aloud
Without interrupting
With unneeded reassurance?

Just take my hand
Sit with me in silence
Let the darkness be dark
And wait with me.

Vivienne Tuffnell from ‘Hallowed Hollow’: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hallowed-Hollow-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/1544615779

Nehemiah for Today: 3 – Let’s Get On With It!

Yesterday the door bell went. At the door was a women I knew slightly by sight but no more. She was concerned. She didn’t know what to do and so she had turned up at my door. She wasn’t concerned about herself, or even about a friend or someone in her family. She was concerned about a man that she hardly knew. She was concerned because this man was homeless and sleeping rough in our little town. She wanted to help him but didn’t know what to do.

She asked about local organisations that could help. I told her about Foodbank and the little bit of help that is available locally but for more I told her that he would have to look to the city. Though even there, I know that the local authority and homeless charities are overwhelmed by the need. I know that the number of people living on the streets of Norwich has increased massively over the last couple of years.

She was helpless and I was helpless too. At least I was helpless to sweep in and sort all of his concerns for him (if he even wanted me to do that). I did though find out that local shopkeepers have been letting him have their good edible food that had gone out of date. I found out about another business who is letting him use their toilet facilities to wash each day. He is looking for work and I know that some are paying him to do gardening jobs.

I realised that some problems are too big for just me to sort, no matter how much I would like to! I also realised that I am not alone in wanting to help; to help this man but also to help more generally. I am part of a community and this man’s plight is not just my problem or his problem; this is a problem for all our my community in church and across my town.

This is what Nehemiah realised (see Nehemiah 5 at the end of this post). He realised that to get his nation back on its feet he needed to get everyone doing their part. He and his friends had done a lot already. With community help they had rebuild the walls, they were also buying back people from slavery and lending money to those with nothing. But her realised that there was another problem that was undoing all that he was trying to do. It was the well-off members of the Jewish community. They were lending to the poor too, but at huge rates of interest. The rich were lending, not to help, but to get even richer. So Nehemiah tackles them too, head on. He gets them to do their part too. He gets the whole community rich and poor behind this scheme to rebuild his nation. Then things start to really come together.

Nehemiah had started by listening hard to find out what the problem really was. He listened and then prayed. He prayed hard for four months, finding God’s solution to the problem. He recognised his own part in the problems and the part he could have in putting things right. He prayed and put his plans in place. He then used his influence as a senior government figure to get the resources that he needed to be able to make a difference. All of the time he worked as God’s servant. He sought to do what he knew God wanted of him and his people. That was where we stopped with Nehemiah 2 from last week.

Now moving to Nehemiah 5, we find the walls rebuilt but there are still problems in Jerusalem.

Again Nehemiah listened carefully to find out what the problem really was, and he found it; high interest loans given to the poor by the rich. He had obviously been praying and focusing on God because, despite being one of those rich Jews, he remembered that God had forbidden his people from lending with interest, particularly among themselves. He has remembered where Moses had instructed God’s people that, When you lend money, food, or anything else to another Israelite, you are not allowed to charge interest. …. if you charge other Israelites interest, the Lord your God will not let you be successful in the land you are about to take.” Deuteronomy 23.19-20

Nehemiah realised that there were still serious problems for his people. So he listened. He prayed. He listened to God through the Bible. Then he planned again. He planned by digging until he found the root cause of the problems. He was already acting charitably but he realised that his charity was only a sticking plaster and not a cure. He could have been overwhelmed by the problems but through prayer and God’s wisdom he was able to break the problems down and find something powerful that he could do. He was a rich nobleman, and spokesman of the King. So he, more than anyone else was in the right position to tackle the problem of the nobles lending with excessive interest.

This throws the problem of that homeless man back onto me. How can I (and my community) address his problem, and the similar problem of so many others? Is homelessness the main problem or just a symptom of deeper problems? Is there a link with the rise in drug use? Is there a link with the large number of struggling families? Is there a link with the number of children in the high school who are dreading having to be at home during the long summer holidays? But there is no point in saying all this, if all I do is moan. I know that moaning won’t do any good.

So, following Nehemiah, it’s back to prayer for me. Back to listening for the answers to questions like:

  1. What is God saying?

  2. How is the love of Jesus to be shown here?

  3. Where is the Spirit already at work?

I know that there is a real task of listening ahead. But whatever comes out in the end, I know that the help that comes will be beyond me. I will need the Father’s wisdom, Jesus’ love and the power of the Spirit every step of the way. I will also need lots of friends, from throughout my community. I know that charity alone is not going to be enough. I know that with the Spirit’s guidance the overwhelming mass of issues will settle. That one or two clear actions will be identified. I know that real good can be done, but only with God firmly in the driving seat.

I pray too that I may be fearless and creative, like Nehemiah. Above all I hope that I remember that I am not alone. God is already at work here in this town. I am not alone in wanting to help; to help this man but also to help more generally. I am part of a community and this man’s plight is not just my problem or his problem; this is a problem for all our my community in church and across my town. This is God’s problem too!

 

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Nehemiah 5.1-13

Some of the men and their wives complained about the Jews in power 2 and said, “We have large families, and it takes a lot of grain merely to keep them alive.”

3 Others said, “During the famine we even had to mortgage our fields, vineyards, and homes to them in order to buy grain.”

4 Then others said, “We had to borrow money from those in power to pay the government tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 We are Jews just as they are, and our children are as good as theirs. But we still have to sell our children as slaves, and some of our daughters have already been raped. We are completely helpless; our fields and vineyards have even been taken from us.”

6 When I heard their complaints and their charges, I became very angry. 7 So I thought it over and said to the leaders and officials, “How can you charge your own people interest?”

Then I called a public meeting and accused the leaders 8 by saying, “We have tried to buy back all of our people who were sold into exile. But here you are, selling more of them for us to buy back!” The officials and leaders did not say a word, because they knew this was true.

9 I continued, “What you have done is wrong! We must honor our God by the way we live, so the Gentiles can’t find fault with us. 10 My relatives, my friends, and I are also lending money and grain, but we must no longer demand payment in return. 11 Now give back the fields, vineyards, olive orchards, and houses you have taken and also the interest you have been paid.”

12 The leaders answered, “We will do whatever you say and return their property, without asking to be repaid.”

So I made the leaders promise in front of the priests to give back the property. 13 Then I emptied my pockets and said, “If you don’t keep your promise, that’s what God will do to you. He will empty out everything you own, even taking away your houses.”

The people answered, “We will keep our promise.” Then they praised the Lord and did as they had promised.

Nehemiah for Today: 2 – Plan and Act

Reading Nehemiah chapter two reminds me that I can’t neglect the plight of those around me. I’m reminded that my life is connected with the lives of all of the people around me. If those running the convenience shop don’t do well then we all suffer – where am I going to get that milk I’d forgotten? If the young people are neglected then there are more problems in the park and on the street. But more than that, I believe that the life of each person around me is valuable. Valuable not just because of what they can contribute, but valuable (full stop). That is what the Bible says to me. I see that in the first chapters of the Bible, where God creates all things and sees that they are ‘good’. I see it in the way that he sent Jesus for everyone, whether they were good or not. That’s why he spent so much time with the outcasts from society, the “tax collectors and sinners”.

So I know that the people around me are valuable. The young and the old. The men and the women, those with good jobs and those with none. Those who are respectable and those even the pigeons don’t respect.

As I learned last week from Nehemiah chapter one. Nehemiah turned to God first. Then he acted. Nehemiah realised that he could ask his friend the king for help. He used the connections that he had for the good of his people. That made me think. What about here and now? I then realised that I know quite a few people in my town and villages. I know people from the shops, schools and from the other churches. I know people with businesses. I know many of the local councillors. I know so many people who also want the best for this little bit of England and the best for their country.

I realise though that I am not yet ready to act. I will know when the time is right but it is not yet. I am still living in Nehemiah chapter one (see last week). I’m still listening, questioning and praying. But things are coming together. I sense that the creation of the Church Army Centre for Mission later this year will be part of this process. I don’t know what God has in mind or what he wants people to do. But I do know that he loves the people that I see around me and that he has a plan. I just want to make sure that I am ready to work with him to make it happen.

Before Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem he laid solid foundations. He got the king onside. He made sure that he had what he needed to rebuild his city. He then brought the people of Jerusalem together in a common vision. He didn’t though expect the king or anyone else to sort things out for him or the people of Jerusalem. He secured their help, then with his people, he got stuck in to the hard work (that’s in chapter three and onwards).

So I stop and wonder. My hands itch to get stuck in, but I hear, “Not yet”, loud and clear. I look at my villages and my town and wonder what God’s plans will look like for the people that I see. I wonder…?