12 Feb A Pastoral Letter: Our Encouragement for 2021
Peter and Barbara Dennison have three adult children, and rejoice in seven grandchildren. Currently they worship with a local faith community in Pauatahanui Anglican Parish in the Wellington Diocese. Peter is Vicar’s Warden and Barbara is Pastoral Care Coordinator. They lead a bible study and discipleship group in their home. The lived in Australia prior to moving to Wellington. There they coordinated a home group for people who hated typical home groups who continue to meet and support one another. Barbara was a Paediatric dietitian with community experience, specialising in in-born errors of metabolism and severe food allergy. Peter was a specialist in public health dentistry and retired from the University of Sydney as Director of a new degree program in the Faculty of Dentistry. Both of them have a desire to encourage people to live richly into the fullness of a life of faith in Jesus Christ. Here, Peter and Barbara offer a pastoral letter as we enter into 2021.
After a year dominated by the COVID pandemic and the weeks of lockdown, we want to share a few things with you, writing as husband and wife, father, mother, grandparents—as brother and sister in Christ, and as friends.
It’s the first time in living memory for us, our children, and grandchildren that emergency powers have been invoked by the New Zealand government because of a worldwide pandemic. As young adults, our parents and grandparents lived through the Spanish flu, pre-antibiotic tuberculosis, polio, the great depression, and two world wars. They were challenging times: during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the Wellington coroner left a stack of signed death certificates with the local vicar in our parish because so many in the local community were dying.
So with the initial news of lockdown last year, our thoughts came thick and fast. Would we be victims? What would we be leaving for our children to deal with? Were our wills up to date? Had we told them what we really wanted to say? What about our siblings? Our grandchildren? Our friends and church families? Our neighbours? Would they succumb? Did we have the food to hand if we couldn’t get to the shops? Who needed help immediately? It was threat and change on a monumental scale.
We experienced relief as well. We had to be “just us.” Life was quieter: only the occasional plane overhead, trucks, and trains, and almost no cars. We noticed a large increase in the number of houses lit up at night with people at home. We lived at walking pace, exchanging smiles and distanced chats with people we’d not met before, leading dogs exhausted from several outings a day. In a way, it was more human. We discussed how to make an ordered day so we didn’t “melt to mush.” We found we had to turn off the constant barrage of radio news. It was too much. Instead, we watched the daily one pm report on TV. That was enough.
And we were so very grateful for the decisive action taken by our government to contain the virus, grateful when we listened to our families’ stories of friends and colleagues overseas dying from COVID. Our rapid national lockdown was welcome news to their ears. And now they say that hearing about our freedom gives them hope that there are better days ahead.
Two good things, one bad thing
When we gather as a family, we often play “two good things, one bad thing.” Each person has the chance to express their feelings about the day and to be heard. And it’s not a bad way to reflect on things at the start of Lent—if you were to play this game yourself, what would you say about last year? What were you thankful for? What did you find hard? Before we share some encouragement for the coming year with you, we want to invite you to play this “game” of thanksgiving and complaint; take a moment now to reflect.
As we’ve reflected on the past year and pondered what we need to share with you in these uncertain times, we’ve found ourselves returning to some trustworthy things. Our prayer is that what follows here is an encouragement for you.
Through it all
“Life is difficult” but life is not only difficult. It may be painful, perplexing, challenging, and threatening, but in it there is also joy and peace because we have one who understands us through and through. Also, both the Holy Spirit and our Lord Jesus are praying in us and for us. God is not some distant deity who leaves us to struggle in futility through life. We are not alone, but God is with us through all difficulties, not least when we face death.
A story may be relevant here. It is from the experience of a missionary who was in Afghanistan in the 1990s, a period when the lives of missionaries were always under threat. The missionary was furious with God after a terrible incident resulted in her leaving and going home. Once home, she became very ill and ended up in hospital in a coma with her organs shutting down. And in this state, she had the experience of the Lord speaking to her. He said, “You see? You are no safer here at home. Even your body is not a safe place now. When are you going to trust me?” Her response was to repent of her unbelief. Thankfully, her vital signs started to improve, and she recovered and could tell this amazing story.
What is needed now?
Here in New Zealand, we are not in a hard place like Afghanistan, yet we are in country that faces many challenges that we find ourselves caught up in. For better and for ill, COVID-19 has pressed a reset button in our lives. What is needed now?
One of the Christians who has spoken into times like ours is the French resistance fighter, sociologist, theologian, and prophet, Jacques Ellul. Reflecting in 1948 on the aftermath of World War Two, he wrote that when the problem of reconstruction arises, many Christians urge people along the path that the world has chosen. He goes on to say that Christians participate truly in the world’s preservation not by acting like others and labouring at the world’s technical tasks but by fulfilling their “specific role” of exercising the power of prayer. In this, Ellul was speaking as a prophet to our parents then and across the generations to us now.
When my father was the age I (Peter) am now, he reflected that prayer is probably the only thing we do that will still be relevant in two or three generations time. That this is so is due to God’s faithfulness—in his purposes and timing, our prayers are made fruitful and are made to bear on the world. I mostly believed him then but now I recognise how right he was! Without God, our endeavours will be frustrated and fruitless. We want you to ponder how you affirm and embody your faith in Jesus now.
Where are you?
Each day, the first thing we’d encourage you to do is to take the words of Jesus into yourself. In John 15:4 (The Message), Jesus said, “Live in me. Make your home in me as I do in you.” Then you will know what the Lord wants you to do with your life. God has given us his best—his own self—together with all the potentiality that comes with that presence. As pressing as our work seems, our lasting fruitfulness comes from intimacy with God, from living in the light of who God is. It is looking at Jesus first that will help you grow, not checking the magic mirror of your Instagram feed. And it is getting to know Jesus really well that will help you trust God more completely. Without that life, there is no power to do things that bring glory to God.
Living in Christ, then, means letting the words of Scripture get inside us to nourish us and build up our inner self. Read chunks of the Bible. Read the Psalms—they are gritty and express every kind of emotion we might encounter, from awe to praise to complaint. Ponder a Bible verse through the day. However you do it, just read the Scriptures as if your very life depended on it—it does more than you can possibly realise. We are continually urged to wash our hands as the best public health measure to protect us and the community from COVID-19. In the same way, we need to protect ourselves from other “words of power” we come in contact with. The wonderful thing about the Word of God is that the author is still available to bring the text alive and to decontaminate and cleanse us.
Alongside this, we (Peter and Barbara) try to practise an internet sabbath once a week to have a day completely free from electronic media. We are particularly aware of the devices and platforms that promise increased connectivity but leave us even more lonely than before. In the power and influence they have over our lives, they function like modern-day “household gods” that we carry with us. If there is one thing we have all learned through lockdown, it is that a face-to-face encounter is a qualitatively different thing from all screen interactions. With your reading of Scripture, learn to embrace a device-free sabbath once a week.
We know all of you want to do something significant with your lives. And so we also want to share with you the little verse “making the most of the time.” The time Paul is writing about here is not clock time but “Kairos”—not just an event but an occasion when we are co-workers with God. In such times, we’re learning to respond to God’s leading, trusting him with the task or the moment, however little we may understand it. And we’ve found that at such times, God is active in ways we may not even be aware of.
Earlier this century, we came back from Australia for the 50th anniversary of our old congregation. On the flight back to Sydney, we were talking together about all that we had experienced. We both commented on how people kept coming up to us and saying, “I will never forget when you said…” or “I will never forget what you did…” Neither of us could remember any of those good things. Rather, the Holy Spirit had used these occasions and who we were at the time to make a significant difference in the life of each person who had thanked us.
One more example to encourage you to live responsive to God: in that congregation was a widow, and she had a daughter with special needs. As an older woman, one might easily overlook her, but she was a person of prayer. One night, the Holy Spirit woke her up to pray for our brother-in-law in Afghanistan. It seemed most urgent, but she didn’t know what was wrong except that she felt he was in great danger. She stayed in prayer and told me about it that Sunday. Because we knew the time and date, I was able to ask him what had been going on at the time. The Lord had called our friend to prayer right at the moment when a local commander was holding a gun to our brother-in-law’s head and deciding whether to shoot him or not. Thank God he didn’t but eventually let him pass through the checkpoint unharmed!
With each other
Finally, in these changeable days, don’t neglect to meet together, to stir each other up in expressing your faith through loving actions. Some years ago, as we gathered together as a church, an older man talked about our national love of the outdoors and the pleasure of sitting around a fire telling stories. “How do you put that campfire out quickly?” he asked. “You simply scatter the glowing embers… They’ll rapidly lose their heat when they are separated.” So, now we’re out of lockdown, don’t try to live the life of faith alone and outside a community that will love and support you.
So here’s what we want you to do, God helping you: “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognise what he wants from you and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you that is always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out in you and develops well-formed maturity in you.”
Peter and Barbara
 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, Arrow, London, 1983, 13
 See Romans 8
 Jacques Ellul, Presence in the Modern World – new translation by Lisa Richmond Wipf, 2016, 12–13
 Peter has also found Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone commentaries a useful aid; Barbara has found the series of books beginning with Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown a useful introduction to the spiritual disciplines. We both use the lectionary as a daily rhythm.
 Colossians 4:5 NRSV
 Hebrews 10:24–25
 Romans 12:1–2, The Message