Monday, October 27, 2014

THIS IS MY STORY - THIS IS MY SONG - 3. "The Jonah Man"

Readings; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-36, Jonah 1:1-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD, October 26th 2014

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been answering questions such as ‘How did you come to faith?' and 'What made you enter the ministry?' Today I’m going to try and relate how it was I felt a call to leave my homelands and home denomination for lands unknown. 'What made you leave the United Kingdom of Great Britain and come to the United States of America?'

I was sharing with you last week that going into ministry in the established church was something I  kicked against doing.  Even when as a twenty something I departed from my home near Liverpool to study at Aberystwyth Theological College (part of the University of Wales) I was still nursing a real hope that… well... God had only called me to be a candidate for the ministry, God hadn’t actually said I had to become a preacher.

But... darn it… by half way through my final year… there were a couple of churches expressing an interest in having me as their pastor. For Jonah it took sitting inside the belly of a stinky fish before He realized that, ‘Yes’, maybe doing what God asked could result in a favorable outcome for his life. In chapter 2 of Jonah he concludes a prayer about his plight with the phrase, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord”. Shortly afterward he is deposited on the shores of Nineveh in order to begin his task.

I’m glad that it didn’t take being thrown off a ship into the raging waves by a group of angry sailors, only to be swallowed up by a whale, that convinced me to accept the preacher’s role. It was much nicer going to Wales to study, rather than being swallowed by one!

So I accepted what they call ‘A Call’. A call to two wonderful churches in the beautiful Welsh Vale of Clwyd in North Wales, in two market towns called Denbigh and Ruthin. What I didn’t realize about the town of Denbigh was that it housed a large mental hospital and that 'Going to Denbigh’ was a euphemism for being sent to the asylum.

Such did however explain why people would look at me rather strangely when they asked what I was going to do after seminary and I’d smile and say, 'I’m going to Denbigh'. But after over thirty years of being part of this institution we call the church, I am of the opinion that being a little bit crazy is probably a help rather than a hindrance for pastoral ministry.

I could write a book about some of the experiences I have enjoyed (and endured) in the different churches I’ve served (but I may need a good lawyer first). After being in Denbigh and Ruthin, I moved on to inner city ministry in Liverpool, before accepting a call to minister in the churches of Menai Bridge and Caernarfon in North Wales. Caernarfon boasted the castle where the Prince of Wales was invested with his office, making it a Mecca for tourists from all over the world.

Now all of this is by way of a lengthy introduction to explaining how it was that I came to the U.S.A. Did I hear a voice from the heavens saying; 'Go to America'? Was it something that I had secretly been planning and hoping for all along? Did some scripture verse jump out of the bible to direct my path? Would be that it were that simple!

Over the years I’ve learned something about the guidance of God. It can be most irregular. As Spock used to say to Captain Kirk, 'Illogical, Captain'. As we place our trust in God and commit our way to doing the things God wants us to, wherever God wants us to do them, God’s methods and the outcome can be wildly unpredictable.

This was a message that Jonah found hard to understand. When he reluctantly marched into Nineveh declaring God’s judgment on its God forsaken inhabitants the last thing he was expecting was that they would listen, respond and set about amending their lives so as to live the way God wanted them to.

Jonah’s waiting for the fireworks. He wants to see Ninevites blasted by the judgment of God. The story ends with Jonah in an angry sulk, sitting in the shade of a tree which has died, leaving him even hotter and stickier than ever. God suggests that Jonah is acting foolishly and that as God, He had every right to show mercy where ever mercy was needed. And it was certainly needed in Nineveh. So Jonah, 'Get over yourself!'

So there I was, serving the denomination that had bought me to faith, in this beautiful area of Wales, enjoying the mountains and the beaches and the castles and blessed with two children who were blossoming at 10 and 12 years old, and my wife was in this wonderful job working in the offices of the Oceanography department. 'Settled' would be a wonderful word to describe how things were going.

One of the ministries that Castle Square Caernarfon Church operated was that on a Saturday morning they would open up the church to visitors and invite them in for a coffee and a chat. One Saturday morning, when I wasn’t there, a pastor and his son from the Chicago area walked in. The son was an organist and Alan Jones the organist at Castle Square was just finishing up his practice for Sunday. They got chatting and the son got to play the organ and a friendship was struck up.

A few months later we received a letter asking if we would be interested in doing an exchange trip to Chicago. So we thought about it and prayed about it and decided that a twelve week exchange trip to the U.S.A. might be kind of fun. We would live in each others houses, drive each others cars, minister through the summer in each others churches. It was all set in stone.

Then the phone rang. It was the pastor from Chicago. “Got bad news and good news” he said. “I’ve accepted a call to serve a United Reformed Church in Cornwall, England. I’m guessing you wouldn’t really be interested in doing an exchange trip to a part of England just over the border from Wales. However, there’s a guy from our church who is around about your age, who went into the ministry and is in a place called Red Wing, in Minnesota, I’ve spoken with him and he’s interested. What do you think?”

I thought, “Whatever. Red Wing, Minnesota, Chicago. I’m sure they are much the same” So in the summer of 1994 we exchanged pulpits and locations with Rev Gary Elg and family from Red Wing Presbyterian Church in Minnesota and had a great time. I went back to Wales with the thought that I could put the things I’d learned to good use in my churches in Wales. That was the plan.

But then, out of the blue, when I got back, I started to receive invitations to consider moving to other positions in Wales and also in England. Some of them weren’t even to do with me being a traditional minister. Maybe that ‘Get out' clause from ministry that I’d expected to come along during my seminary days had finally come to pass. My ship to Tarshish was still in port!

I investigated some of them, but they just didn’t feel right. Sure I thought I could do the jobs, but y’know I was kind of settled and the kids being of an impressionable age and all of that, it would be easier to stay where I was. However, following my Minnesota experience, I had received a subscription to a PC(USA) magazine, called the 'Presbyterian Outlook' that contained descriptions of pastoral vacancies.

I should explain that the calling process in Wales is very different to that over here. Wales is a small place. As a pastor you didn’t call the church, they called you. So the notion of applying to a church for a position was completely alien to me. I knew nothing of the Presbyterian USA’s process of filling in forms and matching candidates to churches and going through committees and presbyteries, and still less about the whole complicated process of obtaining Visas and permits and all the rest of it in order to live in the United States.

But, as it felt like things were stirring, I entertained a thought. ‘I wonder what would happen if I wrote to one of those churches in the United States?’ So I did. A letter along the lines of, “Hello. My name is Adrian. I’m a pastor. Believe you might be looking for one. What do you think?” Given the PC(USA) calling system, (and those of you who have ever been near a pastor nominating committee will know exactly what I’m talking about) with its interim ministers, mission reports, PIF’s and MIF’s and COM’s, and computerized dating service… the miracle is that I received any replies at all.

A very gracious church in Monroe, Louisiana replied to what must of appeared to them as a very weird letter, explaining the calling process and how they’d need a little more information than “Hello, my name’s Adrian and I live in Wales”. After we corresponded they even agreed to fly me over for an interview.  And I went, but I wasn’t the best match for that particular position. At the same time I was in correspondence with another church, but again, things weren’t quite hunky-dory and we never got as far as the come and see stage.

Then one evening, back in Wales, in the middle of dinner, the phone rings. A guy called Mike Smith from a place called Fayetteville, West Virginia, is on the line. He wants more information. I suggest calling the nominating Committee I’d met with in Louisiana and I had a video of me preaching in Minnesota that I could send them. I hung up the phone and went to look for an atlas. “Where on earth was Fayetteville? Come to think of it, where on earth was West Virginia?”

One thing led to another. It took a while for God to convince me that leaving the denomination that had nurtured my faith for a foreign land thousands of miles from my extended family was the right thing to do.  I’d always believed that those bits in the Bible about 'Going into all the world' to 'preach the gospel' only applied to other people. My ‘Jonah syndrome’ was still intact.

But every step of the way doors opened, and things fell into place. Not always tidily, or even without some struggles and many questions to deal with. As it so often does, it became a matter of obedience. Was I going to follow or was I going to back out? If I believed that God was God then was I prepared to live my life according to that conviction, wherever it led? When I sang 'Here I am, Lord?' did it mean anything?

'So what made you decide to come to America?' Well that’s about it.  A feeling of calling that was confirmed in many ways by many different people. A sense that this was where life was leading me. Time does not permit to tell you of the insight’s ministry in two churches in West Virginia blessed my life with, or even talk of the process that led to my moving from West Virginia to Long Island and now to Ellicott City. Certainly been a fascinating journey!

But… look…. here I am, and I am glad to be here. And I hope that as I’ve shared part of my personal spiritual journey, as I’ve answered some of the questions about my faith and receiving a call to ministry and how I ended up in the USA… that there have been things I have said that can help you in your own pilgrimage of faith.

If like me you are susceptible to ‘Jonah Syndrome’, I pray you will notice that God does not call us all in the same way, to the same tasks in the same places. But God is calling our name and God has a time and a place and a way that we are each called to serve our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ.

If the love of God can guide somebody like myself to be here in Ellicott City, then just think what opportunities are open to you! To God’s name be the Glory!  Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 20, 2014

THIS IS MY STORY - THIS IS MY SONG 2 “Go Forth”

Part Two: “Now the Lord said to Abram “Go Forth”
Readings: Genesis 12:1-8, Exodus 3:1-6, Mark 1:16-20, 1 Timothy 3:1-7
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church,  Ellicott City, MD, October 19th 2014

Last week I was explaining how there are questions that I always seem to be asked when  I've started ministering in a new situation These include, 'How did you become involved in the church?' 'What made you want to be a minister?' and 'What made you decide to come to America?'

Last Sunday I was sharing how through an unlikely combination of Rock Music, Youth Retreats, Mars Bars and the unmerited grace of God I came to be embraced by the Christian Faith in my late teens and started attending church. This week I’m approaching the question; 'What made you want to be a minister?'

As I said last week, the reason I'm offering this testimony is 2 fold. Firstly, so as a congregation you can get to know me. Secondly, because I hope you'll see, that if God can work in a life like mine, then God surely can do amazing things in your own situation.

I’d like you to picture me as a 19 year old. After High School I landed a job stocking shelves in a supermarket. Realizing this isn't the best career track the world could offer, I’ve been back to college to obtain some qualifications and I am now working on a Government funded job creation scheme.

The work involves helping elderly and disabled people with their gardening alongside working out in the countryside maintaining footpaths. I’m working with a mixed bag of people, including some young offenders whom I have become friends with, despite myself being ‘that weird kid who goes to church’.  What’s really good is that the hours are very flexible, so I’m able to give a lot of time to what was becoming my real passion... playing in a rock band.

I spoke last time about how coming from Liverpool I cherished a dream that, like one of the Beatles, whose music I grew up with, I could make it through life writing songs and playing music. Like Jake or Elwood from that film ‘The Blues Brothers’, I was “on a mission from God”, because my band was no ordinary band. I was playing in a Gospel Rock Band and we didn’t want to just be famous, we wanted to save the world.

Never mind that some of the church folk said we were playing the Devils music whilst some of the un-churched said, 'We like your music, but why do you have to keep bringing Jesus into it?' God was opening doors. There is talk of record contracts, festival appearances, slots on prime-time T.V. Now bear in mind this is back in the Mid-1970’s, before the days when there even was a category known as ‘Contemporary Christian ' Music'. I’m blazing a trail!

On top of it all ‘I am nineteen going on twenty’ and I’ve fallen in love. I’ll be honest. One of the reasons I was attracted to church was that some of the girls were really cute. And at 19 I was engaged to one of them. (I have my wife’s permission to say that because it was her and I still think she’s lovely.)

So for a near 20 year old lad things couldn’t be much better. Great job, great band, great times, great fiance, great expectations. Yet throughout it all, when I stopped to listen … there was this little voice, somewhere deep inside that said, 'You should go into the ministry'. And every time I became aware of it I would say; 'But Lord I have my ministry, my work.. my music.. my relationships. I’m doing fine.' Which brings me to my text for today…

Genesis 12:1 “Now the Lord said to Abram, Go forth....”

I often wonder how many times the Lord told Abram to ‘Go forth...’ before he went? Over the next two years my comfortable world fell apart. The band, my dream, my mission from God, broke up. It seems my musical skills were far more impressive to myself than to anybody else! Two of the band members I was playing with came and told me they had received a better offer. ‘Ouch’ that hurt my ego.

Yvonne and I had set our wedding date and obtained a loan on this lovely corner house in a nice area of town near the sea front. The week before we were due to be married the bank informed us the loan was no longer available.

The day before we were due to be married the works manager called me into the office. ‘Got a problem’ he said. ‘According to the governmental guidelines, we have to pay you a higher wage as a married person, and we don’t have that extra cash in the budget. Bottom line is… 'If you get married, we can’t pay you, and you are out of a job'.

Yvonne and I went ahead and were married. That scripture about Abram and Sarai leaving their Fathers house and going out not knowing where they were heading took on a special significance. I had lost my job, I’d lost my place to live, and my musical ministry dreams were shattered. The frightening thing was that I’d been trying so hard to do the right thing.

I learned however that when God is on your case, things work out. Against all the odds a place became available at a ludicrously cheap rent just a few doors down from where we’d first tried to purchase a home. Yvonne still had her work and after a while I managed to land a settled position in the Civil Service.

A few months after I was dismissed from the Government scheme that wouldn’t pay me if I was married, their whole project collapsed. It is amazing how things can turn out in retrospect! If we’d have had a loan to pay back on that corner house we could have ended up in serious debt.  What seemed like a set back was really a step forward.

My musical dreams of saving the world with Christian rock music?  Sometimes there is a very thin dividing line between 'Doing the will of God' and 'Doing what I’d like the will of God to be for me'. God was saying to me the words God spoke to Abram…'Go forth!'

There were reasons why I didn’t want to ‘Go forth’ and be a minister. In Great Britain most of the clergy I knew were a lot older than I was, seemed to have a strange attraction to wearing very dark suits that smelt of mothballs, and they didn’t seem at all interested in the things that excited me.

Whilst it was one thing going to a church, becoming an official part of that authoritarian, established and frankly sometimes incredibly boring institution was a different matter. As Groucho Marx once said, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted 'to be part of any club that would have me as a member.'

After we were married Yvonne and I started attending a church that had been the Welsh Presbyterian Church, but had become an Elim Pentecostal Church. We became pretty active and they even allowed Yvonne to be their Treasurer and me be their volunteer youth leader for a while. One night they had a youth mission rally.

During the prayer time, I was sitting in the pew, head down, eyes closed, not really seeking God for anything in particular, and there started to come over me an overwhelming sense that I should offer myself as a candidate for the ministry of the Welsh Presbyterian Church. There was no audible voice, no blinding light or messages from the pulpit or sky, just an incredibly intense feeling that this was something that I had to act upon, then and there, and until I did there would be no peace in my life.

After the service I went to see the preacher. I told him, 'I think I’ve had a call to the ministry'. 'PRAISE THE LORD!' he said. I then added 'Of the Welsh Presbyterian Church'. Nobody told me that the Welsh Presbyterians and the Elim Pentecostals were not in a good relationship with each other. The pastor said 'I think we better talk about this.'

After what seemed like an endless evening as he explained to me the errors of  Presbyterianism I gained the impression that, in his opinion, Presbyterians were slightly to the left of Satan. The strange thing was, the more he talked, the louder the voice inside of me seemed to be telling me to offer myself as a candidate for the Welsh Presbyterian ministry.

I thought I better tell Yvonne. 'Yvonne' I said (Using that voice husbands use when they tell their wives something that they are not sure how they will react to), 'Yvonne, I think I’ve had a call to be a Presbyterian Minister'. Yvonne replied, 'Well God hasn’t said anything to me about it!'  She was even less enthused at the prospect of being a minister’s wife than I was about being a minister.

We arranged to see Rev Barrie Redmore, the Presbyterian minister who had married us. He listened carefully and then told me to 'go away' and come back in a year’s time if I still felt a sense of calling. A year later the feeling was stronger than ever. The process of becoming a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry was set in motion. At the age of 23, after taking nearly five years to come to terms with the notion that God may be calling me to the ministry, I finally went forth to Aberystwyth, on the coast of Mid-Wales, where I attended seminary.

So to answer the question, 'What made you want to be a minister?' the fact is that I never wanted to be a minister. It became a question of obedience to what God was showing me. These days as I look back at just over thirty years of ministry on two continents, I am forced to swallow my pride and begrudgingly acknowledge that God knows best!

As I said at the start of this brief series my aim in sharing these things is not to put myself on a pedestal, but simply to share with you how God has worked in the life of one of God’s reluctant disciples. And if God can work in my life, then I am confident God also has plans for yours!

Maybe you are passing through one of those times when everything appears to be falling  apart. My prayer for you is that you find a way to stick close to God and hope that sometime in the future you'll sit and look back at this time and see God's guiding purposes. Sometimes what seems to be a setback turns out to be a step forward.

Maybe there are quiet voices in your own heart that have been whispering for a while, and you have been trying to ignore them. Could be God is stretching you to view possibilities for your own life that you had never even imagined could be there for you.

The exciting thing is that God has never and never desired that we all take the same path. I believe God has plans for all of us. Those plans will be different for each of us as we are all different people.  The challenge for each of us is, when God says 'Go Forth...” will we go?

Next week I'll be sharing how my spiritual journey led me to relocate from my settled life in Wales, and took me to West Virginia. Till then... to God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 13, 2014

THIS IS MY STORY- THIS IS MY SONG 1. “Called To Be Free”

Readings: Psalm 150, Exodus 13:3-10, Luke 15: 11-24, Galatians 5:1-13
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 12th, 2014

There have been three questions that I am always eventually asked when I have begun ministry in a new situation. 'How did you get involved in the church?', “What made you want to be a minister?' and thirdly, 'What made you decide to come to America?'

Seeming as some of you have already asked me those questions, I’m going to take three weeks to answer each of them. My hope is that as I share some things about my own spiritual journey, you will be encouraged to see that if God can work in the life of someone like me He can also do awesome things in your life.

This morning I’d like to share with you how I became involved in the church and came to faith in Jesus Christ. For a text:- Galatians 5:13; “You were call to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature. Rather serve one another in love.

Freedom was something I searched for from my earliest days. I grew up in a town called Moreton, near Liverpool, England. My school days were a fine example of the abuse of freedom. I started attending High School at a time when great changes were taking place within the Educational System. They introduced a system of “Fully Comprehensive Education”, which meant that the High School you went to didn’t depend on any grades you achieved but on parental choice.

I was sent to a school which until the year I attended had proudly been known as “Wallasey Technical Grammar School” a school with a history of academic and sporting achievements. A school, which until then had screened very carefully the kind of students they would admit. The school had now been renamed “Mosslands Senior Comprehensive” and they had to take any child whose parents wished them to go there.

On my first day, the principal (who was not far from retirement) did his usual welcome speech, about how fortunate we all were to have been ‘chosen’ and ‘allowed’ to be part of his wonderful school. Most of us knew, well enough, there was no question of being chosen or fortunate. He had to take the whole lot of us including those who in previous years he’d have wanted nothing to do with. So my first day at High School, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This guy is an idiot. The government’s changed the rules, but he hasn’t changed his speech. And he’s the Principal!’

So, like a typical teenager, I rebelled. I developed a great distrust and dislike of authority. I found being- told to work at things I really didn’t think were important by people in whom I had little confidence in, infringed on my idea of freedom. I wanted to learn about life, -not how many hours it took Mr. X to get from A to B if he was carrying a load of ‘Y’ amount. Anyway, if ‘Y’ was so heavy, and it was going to take that long, why didn’t he take a taxi? I wasted so much time in school, because I thought freedom meant doing whatever I wanted to do.

I didn’t come from a religious family. My mum was a good Methodist but for the rest of the family; church wasn’t even on the agenda. Because most of my family never went to church; Sunday morning was an excuse for staying in bed. Why couldn’t I stay at home like my father, and my elder brother and sister? Why did I have to go and sit on those uncomfortable chairs, in that musty old room with the out of tune piano and listen to those people going on and on? Having to go to Sunday School was an abuse of my freedom.

So early on in life, I dropped out of church. I objected to being told to go to this place that seemed to bear no relevance to the rest of my life. I couldn’t say that I believed or not believed in God. I had other things on my mind.

Just over the river from my home was Liverpool, home of a pop group called  “The Beatles”. They were a glimmer of hope. It wasn’t just the music, it was the fact that here were these four working class lads; not particularly academically brilliant, living in a city that was on the way down  yet through their music and characters, they could rise above it and change the world.

Just about the first record (and I’m not talking mp3's or C.D.’s—I mean vinyl 33 1/3 records) we had in our house was “Please, Please Me” by the Beatles. I was about 7 years old. By the time I was in my late teens other groups had come along. Music had become for some people, not just something you listened to, but a reason for being, an end in itself.  I used to line up all day long to see concerts by bands like 'Deep Purple' and 'Black Sabbath', dinosaurs of rock that were then spring chickens.

As a teenager disillusioned with school, doubtful that if in the disintegrating economic climate of Northern England there would even be a job for me at the end of the road I found that loud, rebellious, rock music was something I could really identify with.

The image of success and instant achievement satisfied an urge. I liked the message. 'Be free to be whatever you want'. A lot of the songs spoke about the hypocrisy of the establishment. “How can they tell us how to live our lives when they are making such a mess of the world? The politicians are liars, the religious people are hypocrites, the men of war want to destroy us, who are they to tell us what to do?”

It was through rock music I eventually returned to the church. I’d grown up with the Beatles. Maybe if I could play the guitar.. bang some drums... write a song, just maybe my life would amount to something. I could be in one of those mega groups and tour the world and party on for evermore. So I taught myself to play guitar and spent a lot of time dreaming.

I had some friends, who not only played guitar far better than me, but also went to a youth club in the Presbyterian Church at the top of the road where I lived. Occasionally they would have a local band playing at the church hall. Other times you could just go along and hang out. I started to be a hanger out.

One of the youth leaders explained that as well as Friday nights, if I went along to the Youth Fellowship meetings on Sunday mornings I would qualify for half-price entrance on the nights when they had a band playing. Sunday youth meeting wasn’t actually going to church, but a discussion group talking about God stuff.

As I went along I discovered they talked about big problems like truth and honesty and peace, questions I was asking myself. An invitation was given to go on a course at a Youth college in a little Welsh town called Bala.

When I arrived at the youth college the theme of the weekend was ‘Freedom’. Boy, I was going to tell all those narrow minded, hypocritical, bigoted religious people what freedom was all about. I was expecting, because it was a church college, some very strict organization. I was surprised after arriving late nobody was hassling us to get to bed. I was getting tired when someone said, “Hey… let’s go to worship”. Worship at some other time than Sunday morning?

But what really got to me was the basement coffee bar. I should explain that whilst I was heavily into rock music, I am grateful to God that I never got involved with drugs. I’d seen what they could do to people and I wasn’t impressed. Be young, be free, get a little crazy, but when people started taking pills or sticking needles in their arms, that never struck me as clever.

Anyway, I had a secret craving. Mars Bars. Mars Bars in Great Britain are a bit like Milky Ways here, but thicker and yummier. If I was at a party and something illegal was being passed around I could always pull out my Mars Bar and say, “No thanks man, I’ve got my M.B.”

But back to the basement coffee bar. When you went down there, nobody served you. You just went and helped yourself to whatever you wanted and there was a box, to put money in and help yourself to the change. I should explain that I came from an area where the church had put barbed wire on the roof to stop the kids stealing the lead from around the roofing tiles! I thought to myself, “Are these people crazy? What is to stop you coming down here and helping yourself to the goodies and taking all the money as well?”

I went down there all alone and there was a whole stack of glistening Mars Bars on the counter. It sounds stupid now, but for the first time in my life I was conscious of having to make a decision to do right or wrong. “Do I just take a Mars Bar, or do I pay for it? No-one is going to know. It’s up to me... surely these crazy people don’t actually trust you?”

Getting back to that text from Galatians 5:13:- “You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature. Rather serve one another in love.” It would have been so easy just to pig out on illicit Mars Bars, but so unfair to those people who had given me the freedom to make a simple moral choice.

One thing we had to do at this weekend was prepare an item for a Sunday morning worship service. I’d decided I was going to keep my mouth shut and play guitar. But someone found out I’d written some songs and suggested that I could write something about freedom, to use in the worship time. This really bothered me. Particularly after the experience all alone in the coffee bar. I liked these people. I didn’t want to let them down. Saturday night, and a little group of us are talking.

We talked about freedom. How we often abused it. I was so full, of questions. God must have been with us that night, because every question I threw at them, they seemed to find a bible passage that gave the answer in a way that I could relate to.

It slowly started to dawn on me that there was a whole realm of freedom that I had never explored; the sort of freedom that was in the life and work and words of Jesus Christ. Here was this one man, who died horribly, yet praying that the abuses and mistakes we make with our freedom (mistakes He was paying the price for!) might be forgiven. After His death, His followers are saying that He is alive and that His love could be a living force in our lives — through the Holy Spirit.

 I was hearing all this from some people who had a dimension to their lives I knew I lacked. It was all a bit mind boggling. One of them prayed a prayer that night, asking Jesus Christ to become a personal reality in my life and for His love to set me free. I was worn out. In a way very uncharacteristic of a youth weekend I slept.

Sunday morning I woke up and all I can tell you is that I knew life would not be the same again. It’s hard to put into words. I knew that God was my Father. I knew the reality of Jesus Christ. I knew that the Holy Spirit was doing something inside of me that had not happened before.

But I didn’t know where that journey was taking me, or how it would affect my life. I had no idea it would lead to a call to ministry, emigrating to the USA and by 2014 I’d be living in a place called Mount Hebron! I had come to faith. All I knew back then was that the freedom that had eluded me had now found me.  

I pray that you also have tasted something of the freedom Christ can bring and will know more of it in days to come! Such is my story, such is my song. But there’s more to tell and time has gone.

But for those who asked ‘How I became involved in the church’, hopefully that answers the question. And next week I’ll try and answer the question; 'What made you want to be a minister?'

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 6, 2014

I Believe in Mystery

WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY
Readings;  Psalm 19, Ephesians 3:1-12, Luke 24:13-21, 28-34, Nehemiah 2:11-17
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 5th, 2014

I enjoy a good mystery. The first verses of our Old Testament reading would make a great opening scene in a mystery movie. Nehemiah tells us how his mission to restore Jerusalem began.  “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. By night I went out...” (Nehemiah 2:11)

Nehemiah was the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia. He had gained the kings confidence and permission to begin the process of restoring Jerusalem. He was a man of faith. He believed that it was God who had motivated him and that his actions were helping fulfill the promises of the prophets of old that the Israelite people would return from exile in Babylon to their homeland.

He was politically savvy. He knew that Jerusalem's restoration would be opposed by neighboring powers. They would interpret their resurgence as a threat. Nehemiah goes out... by night... to inspect the walls. He takes with him only a handful of close acquaintances he could trust his life to. He rides upon a single humble beast, probably a donkey, lest any spies think he was making any kind of royal entrance. 

To Nehemiah his actions made perfect sense. But to anybody else his actions were, to put it mildly, mysterious. As he explains “I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.”

The mysterious actions of God's people are somewhat minor when compared to the mystery of God's actual being. As hymn writer William Cowper expresses “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.

The great Baptist preacher C.H Spurgeon once wrote, "I worship a God I never expect to comprehend. If I could grasp Him in the hollow of my hand, I could not call Him my God: and if I could understand His dealings so that I could read them as a child reads a spelling book, I could not worship Him..."

When it comes to our faith in God, I believe in mystery. I am convinced that our faith has to have room for those things we will never understand. Natural disasters. Undeserved suffering.  God's will as it relates to human freedom. How death becomes resurrection. Greater minds than mine have come to the conclusion that such things remain a mystery.

For myself the greatest mystery of all is why God cares about us enough to send His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross for our sins. Such scandalous, unmerited love, defies explanation.

The churches greatest and original theologian was the apostle Paul. It was he who interpreted what the life of Jesus Christ, in particular His death and resurrection, actually meant for the church that Jesus came to build. In his letter to the Ephesian church, time and time again, he uses the word 'mystery' to describe the gospel message that had been entrusted to his care.

It was a mystery to him how God had intervened in his life, changing him from being one of Christianities greatest opponents into it's major advocate.  It was a mystery to Paul how God had chosen a Jew schooled in the ways of the Pharisees, to become the proclaimer of the gospel to the Gentiles.

I like the way the Message Bible transliterates Ephesians 3:8-10 “ When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God's way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities.” 

And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ.  My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along.  Through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary (that is 'mysterious!') plan of God is becoming known and talked about... even among the angels!I believe in mystery.

It is a mystery how the church has not simply survived, but thrived, over the centuries. Division. Persecution. Huge mistakes and failings. But here we are, on this day, celebrating 'World Communion Sunday'. From it's unlikely beginnings, 2000 years ago, in the 3 year mission of an obscure prophet who died a horrible death by the orders of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, to becoming the dominant religion, firstly of that empire and eventually a world-wide faith... it is truly an extraordinary story. I believe in mystery.

Then there is the fact of communion itself. It is a mystery how sharing in something as inconsequential as eating a bit of bread and tasting some wine, can have such a powerful effect upon people. So mysterious is this communion experience that the theologians across the centuries have really struggled to understand what's going on, and many, many times the church has become (and remains) divided trying to understand it!

The Greek word used in the early church for the sacrament was 'Mysterion'. 'Mysterion' is usually translated, just as it sounds... "mystery." It indicates that through the sacrament of bread and wine, God seeks to disclose things that are beyond human capacity to know through reason alone.

It is a mystery how that happens. But it does. In one of the service books the communion prayer contains the words, 'God.. we thank You for this sacrament, for all who through the ages have found at this table the light that never fades, the joy that does not loses it's wonder, the forgiveness of their sins, the love which is Your love, the presence of their Lord.

In Welsh church history one of her most influential characters was a preacher called Howell Harris. Among other things Howell founded one of the worlds first agricultural societies as well as a ground-breaking reformed evangelical community, at a place called Trefeca in Mid-Wales. He was a contemporary of John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield and American revivalist Johnathan Edwards. Like Johnathan Edwards he was at the center of a religious revival in his native land.

Howell Harris's religious pilgrimage began around the communion table. One Palm Sunday Harris attended his local parish Church. During the service the Vicar announced that there would be a Communion Service the following Sunday. The vicar commented that he knew there were many people who did not come to the Communion because they felt they were not fit to take of it.

His words were; 'If you are not fit to take Communion you are not fit to pray, if you are not fit to pray you are not fit to live, and if you are not fit to live you are not fit to die'. These words hit Harris like a bolt from the blue. As he considered the life he was living he felt he needed to make some radical changes.

Next time Harris came to the table it was an emotional, life changing experience. He writes in his diary; 'At the table, Christ bleeding on the Cross was kept before my eyes constantly; and strength was given to me to believe that I was receiving pardon on account of that blood. I lost my burden; I went home leaping for joy, and I said to my neighbor who was sad, Why are you sad? I know (this day) my sins have been forgiven!

Howell Harris went on to be one of the most celebrated preachers Wales had ever known. His influence led eventually to their being a Presbyterian Church in Wales, a fact the church over there is currently celebrating by marking 300 years since his birth.

But that's just one historical example. Many, many people testify, myself included, that there have been times, when, for some unknown reason this simple act of receiving bread and wine has strengthened them for the journey and restored to them a sense of the presence of God in ways other worship activities have failed to do. I believe in mystery.

The other great mystery of our faith is the mystery of prayer. Atheists scoff at believers when they claim God has answered their prayers. For the atheist prayers cannot be answered because there is no God to answer them. Therefore every answered prayer has to be a coincidence. No mystery to it all!

My challenge to the atheist is to ask how many coincidences have to happen before you attribute their source to something other than blind chance? Mary Cape Smith, a dear friend now deceased, from a previous church, used to speak a lot about synchronicity. Prayer for her was not asking for something then receiving it. Prayer was an atmosphere in which she lived her life. As her life was lived in God's presence things had a habit of working out in unexpected ways.

The phone call that just happened to come at precisely the right time. That TV program which completely complemented last weeks sermon and the novel they were discussing at Book Club. That person she spoke to who passed on her words to somebody who really needed to hear them. That meal she had prepared, not knowing quite why, that became a godsend to the lady down the road whose husband had just been taken into hospital.

These are not huge dramatic things. Daily little miracles that defy explanation when they occur within a lifetime that's framed by prayer. I know that sometimes bigger miracles take place. But they are the exception... which is exactly why they are called miracles, and such are always a mystery. I believe in mystery.

Returning to where we started... Nehemiah, as he set out to survey the walls of Jerusalem. He knew that God was going to fulfill God's Word and restore Jerusalem. He knew that he had to set out at night so as not to arouse suspicion. He knew, way before the apostle Paul was born, that the secret things of God, the mystery of the gospel, was something that had to be lived out in daily actions of faithfulness.

As we come to the table, as we celebrate the mystery, may the love that God has for us, shown through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, expand our horizons and place our lives into a framework of faith. Our theology is never going to give us all the answers. Like Paul, we have to leave room for questions to treasure, and trust that there are things only God knows.

Around this table we join countless numbers of the faithful around the world, and a great unseen cloud of witnesses, past, present and yet to come, who declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Let us pray that, through he Holy Spirit, this may be a moment when the mystery of God's love once more engages our lives. I believe in mystery.

To God's name be all praise, honor and glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.