Thursday, May 30, 2013

You then my son

I've been re-working my way through 2 Timothy lately and two things have particularly struck me freshly. I'm sure I saw them a bit before but they feel clearer and more helpful now. Most of this is in chapters 2-3.
These are just my scribblings.

1. Christian life is Exodus.
I owe this observation to John Stott in his BST on 2 Timothy. And from this I note:
  • 2v10 Paul works for the sake of the elect. The Exodus tells of the liberation of the chosen people.
  • 2v12 Paul's goal is that the elect will reign. The Exodus established Israel as a royal people.
  • 2v19 Paul applies the rebellion of Korah to the false teachers Timothy faces (Num 16). The Lord knows his people, so keep your distance because the ground swallows up rebels.
  • 2v22 Paul tells Timothy to flee (Exodus) from youthful passions.
  • 3v8 Paul compares the fools in the church to Pharaoh's wise men in Exodus 7. Messianic mimics who copy the plagues and make life even worse. More frogs!
So... Christian life is union with Christ.
The shape of Christian life and ministry thus is one of journey with an emphasis on passing through death to resurrection life, of union with the Christ who led his people out of Egypt into the life of God. The Christian life is simplified because its gospel-shaped, death and resurrection are the pattern of life.

2. Christian life is Proverbial.
I owe this observation to GK Beale in his Commentary of the NT use of the OT. And from this I note:
  • 2v1 Paul writes to his spiritual son. Sonship is also Exodus language... Israel were the Son whose liberty was demanded (Exodus 4) and were carried as a son by their father (Deut 1).
  • 2v2, 13 Paul has an emphasis on faithfulness/faithlessness... reflecting the faithfulness/adultery image of Proverbs.
  • 2v7 Paul tells Timothy to reflect and the Lord will give understanding, a Proverbial way of thinking.
  • 2v25 Paul has a "perhaps" emphasis, an uncertainty which has the feel of Proverbial wisdom more than absolute statement.
  • 3v9 There are fools.... but there will be those, like Pharaoh who think Fools are Wise. And Fools will often look Wise.
  • 3v5 The fools appear godly. Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly often say the same things.
  • 3v2-4 It's about love... wisdom is a matter of the heart's love.
  • 3v9 Fools wont get far -- though that's Proverbial more than absolute. Words are seasonal... answer a fool... don't answer a fool... Fools may triumph for a long time, they may thrive, but generally people will see through their folly. And in the end, fools only mimic the gospel... they can't bring salvation through judgement, they can only bring judgement on themselves.
  • Similarly the godly will be persecuted, not always but sometimes.
  • 3v15 Scripture led Timothy to knowledge of Christ, to salvation... it made him wise. 
  • 3v16 Scripture enwisens because it addresses the heart.
  • 3v5 Folly can appear wise but lacks power, but the Spirit-breathes to make wise. Wisdom and the Spirit are connected.
So... Christian life is ambiguous life.
The shape of Christian life is thus messy, not absolute, seasonal (4v2)... because it's about the heart more than appearance. Anyone can conform outwardly (and we all learn to) but only the indwelling Spirit and the Spirit-breathed Word bring real change. How's it going? It depends! At times in death, at times in life, at times enduring, at times reigning. Finally secure, but temporally ambiguous. That's life in the divine family.

3. Christian life is sonship.
Proverbs and Exodus underline the relational shape of Christian life as those fathered by The Father through his Son. Israel were liberated by the God who loved them intervening to liberate his oppressed and enslaved son. In Proverbs King Solomon teaches his royal son the way of wisdom, preparing him for marriage. Sonship runs through Exodus and Proverbs. Both stories of being spiritually fathered. This is the grammar of the gospel and this is the pattern for life and ministry.

Monday, May 27, 2013

I am empty. I have nothing. I am here.

Ordinarily who wants to watch the middle part of a trilogy? You need to have seen part 1 but you know that when it ends you'll probably not have a lot of resolution. Most of the time we live in the middle part. Things don't resolve. A little action and progress happens, the story advances... but questions remain without answers, and we continue to live as "hope-based creatures" do, longing for "all the sad things to come untrue."
I'm in the middle.
The middle is bewildering but you can drop an anchor and find something/where/one to cling on to.

This post is derived from my sermon "Bitter Sweet #2 - God in the pain?" on Ruth 1:6-22 - Frontiers Church Exeter. Download mp3: God in the pain (31mins). Follow the Bitter Sweet series at Frontiers Church including sermon mp3s and daily Bible meditations via our church blog.

There's pain in life. There are some people who somehow escape the horrors of life in this broken world and get to debate philosophically "the problem of pain". The rest of us have to get through another hard day. As Francis Spufford quips imagining that you can "enjoy yourself" (as the Atheist bus campaign suggests) is patronisingly naive.

Whether illness in ourselves or those dear to us, relational breakdown, the pressure of life, the great disasters that make the news. Suffering is in our faces. Somehow we have to work out how to go on. Some have pain in their past that needs to be worked out - it doesn't go away but how do you live on with it? For some pain is in the future - how can we begin to prepare for what's to come? For others pain is today. and blogposts and sermons aren't necessarily what's needed at that point... but in time it may help, and even one thing to hold on to can be helpful.

In the opening scenes of the book of Ruth, Naomi loses everything. She leaves home in a time of pressure, famine in her agricultural situation. She's an economic migrant to a nearby country and during a decade living in an alien culture her husband and her boys die. Her pain is chronic grief and loss. It might ease at times but each day they aren't there.

She lives in the middle.

My pain, has been in the illness of my second son which has left me numb, weeping and bewildered at times. Facing horrible possibilities, slumped in an armchair with nightmare suspected diagnoses, draining nights in hospital and the uncertainty that comes with epilepsy - a chronic and unpredictable condition that can leave my little boy on the floor at any moment, and leave his parents utterly helpless. Everyone offers answers but at first I could only really live with what I'd already come to believe (I am so thankful for those who prepared me for future suffering), and then in time I can begin to reflect... where should I go?

This hasn't gone away.

Or Marcus Brigstocke, who lost his best friend. He turned to the Atheist Bible (The God Delusion) and found no answers and continues to search (see his Tour-Book: God Collar). Bewildered, hoping, unsure. Whether in God or elsewhere we seek answers that help us in some ways but are always partial.

James still isn't here.

Glenn Hoddle tried to tie it all up neatly with reincarnation and karma saying the disabled sinned in a former life. He lost his job as England manager for it which tells you how helpful that is.

Growing up in a school where the biggest religious grouping were Hindu I quite liked the idea of reincarnation. It sounded good to this optimistic high achieving healthy arrogant teenager. It's great when you're winning but really not so much when you're losing. Survival of the fittest on repeat.

We try to answer the problem, and each answer throws up more questions.

What of Naomi's story?
What perspective does this 3000 year old story of a woman bruised and broken by life offer - an old story, an enduring story...


Then, she hears that THE LORD HAS VISITED her homeland. She grew up in a culture shaped by relationship with the LORD, the Triune God who just couldn't keep himself away from his people.

The LORD visits in the person of Jesus and it's a new day, a new start.
The LORD visits the village of Nain and finds another widow who has lost her son, and its resurrection.

Naomi doesn't live in the new day. Though don't you long for it come?

Today, she has lost everything - how will she respond?
Will she think the LORD is Toothless and carry on where she is ambivalently since he can't help her?
Or will she think God is Terrible and give her heart to atheism or other gods?
No, she packs her bags and heads for home.

Does pain stop you coming to the LORD - not at Bethlehem but to Jesus? Come with Naomi.
Does credibility of the claim that the LORD visits earth stop you? Come with Naomi.
Make the journey she makes, and find God in the pain.


The people see her coming - is that Naomi? Hey, tell us your story...

She says: The LORD has been against me. His hand has been bitter to me. I was full but now I'm empty...

Gasp! Can you say that? Would you say that? She does?
  • She’s bitter and empty but says its not because God isn’t sovereign, but because he is… 
  • We think if God cares and is in control we’ll not suffer, Naomi says the opposite is true. It's hard to hear today but listen in... The LORD's hand is in my story she says.
  • If not sovereign, she’d still hurt but have a LORD who was irrelevant. No purpose, no hope… If Naomi thought that she'd have stayed in Moab. One helpless person talking to another helpless person can be good for sympathy and empathy but it won't get us anywhere... the helpless need someone who can help.
  • If sovereign, she hurts and she can – as she does – bring it to the LORD knowing his love for her. That sustains me a hard season. He may intervene. He may heal. He will bring resurrection. In the middle there are unresolved tensions and many questions. In the middle there is mystery' much that the LORD  hasn't revealed. But, abandoning god as not there or powerless doesn't answer everything either... 
Naomi's testimony to the people is an example of the best prayer anyone can pray.

It's along the lines of Ole Hallesby's comment that "our best prayer is our helplessness".

She says:
"I am empty. I have nothing. I am here."
That's my working definition of faith.

Outloud, to God, with his people, telling it how it is.

When I come to God in the middle of it I'm trusting him with it.

When I wont, or I say I'll come after it's sorted, then I'm saying I can handle it, I'm god for the situation.

Take it to him in the middle.

Not that that resolves everything in the pain.

Can this Sovereign God who Shows Up be trusted?

Hear the voice of Martin Luther, a Christian from Germany, 500 years ago.
This isn't a new question in the 21st Century.
We've been thinking about this for centuries.

Luther says - "from our vantage point we might well assume that God isn't there or is evil..."  - Quite a first half of a sentence from a Christian leader! He continues: "but from the vantage point of the cross of Jesus it looks different."

The camera pans from Naomi's brutal honesty to the surrounding fields. Fields that were barren from famine but now... Naomi arrived home at the time of the Barley Harvest (v22)...  in the Spring.

In the background, music. The songs of the Spring festival, Passover. The people preparing, gathering in homes to eat lamb, saying "The Lamb died instead of us".

Remembering as they did so that they were once as broken in spirit and empty as Naomi... but the LORD visited, and rescued them. Their meal points forward to the cross where Jesus died instead of us.

The Heart of God and the Help of God meet at the cross of Christ.
The Sovereign One comes to Suffer with and for us.

What can empty, nothing, here, middle people do?

We cling to the cross and take that as our vantage point, and things look different through the eyes of the God who gets bruised, crushed, crucified for us and with us. Come and look with me, through bleary eyes. Come to Jesus.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Leaders should be those broken as bread, so others may come and eat

I've been reading Michael Bull's book God's Kitchen since a kind brother bought it for me recently. 

Presentation matters: It's a very well designed paperback book - Bull is a graphic designer as well as a theologian. Words should be delivered with music appropriate to their subject. It's build with short chapters on big themes in the Bible, and in particular themes around food. A most noble subject to write a book about! There are hints along the way about how to make the most of food, about how knowledge is eating, and the place of food in mission.

Disclaimer: To be honest, I'm still trying to get my head round large sections of his thought and ideas and I'm not sure if I ever will.  Bull builds on the maximalist interpretation of Peter Leithart and James Jordan. I find them a little outlandish in places and priceless in others. They love story, and images, and really love what the Bible says and I like that. As with every meal: eat the meat, spit the bones.

Good meat: In any case, in the middle of it all are some brilliant observations about leadership.
A few brief quotes to give you  a taste...
"If we endure faithfully, we bring gravity with us out of the grave. Life is suddenly more rich, more dense and our words more commanding. True gravitas comes in no other way, even in the life of Christ." 
"Great leadership comes from cruciform [people]; from those who have been broken as bread so that others may come and eat." 
"Men go to Bible College and they know it all. Then the Lord brings poverty, a marriage difficulty, a sick child, bereavement, betrayal... and Gandalf the Grey is torn apart. God, why are you smashing up everything you built me for? Because I am frankincense, or garlic at the very least. Like these, and olives and grapes, I was made to be crushed... this is why novices are vulnerable leaders...." 
"The change we long for arrives in trials. As we suffer our moral stink lessens. We become health to others instead of a canker. For the soft-hearted, every trial is an opportunity..." 
These are similar to the thinking I expect to find in Paul Tripp's Dangerous Calling, a book waiting on my bookshelf.

They're also the kinds thoughts I see when Paul writes, as a spiritual father to his son in the faith, Timothy. The young need older and wiser voices who will walk ahead of them. Bull suggest we need less Alpha Males and more of the Omega variety. Paul - aged, bruised, tempered, refined, scarred, imprisoned, mortal, on death row - calls Timothy to wisdom following him in Christ, through the fire of persecution and the ongoing exposure of his heart to the Scriptures... instead of the brash overconfidence of fools who sabotage themselves with their bold moves.

Brokenness and vulnerability alone aren't what's needed. Anyone can confess their sins, though few dare. Rather we need broken people who come empty - like Naomi - saying I've got nothing but Christ was broken for me. So too as Timothy is broken with Christ he'll be able to feed others. And though he wont look impressive an intangible quality will authenticate his persuasive words.

Such people, as they limp, can lead us where we need to be. And can lead us through the messy middle of our journey, where we mostly find ourselves. The gospel is best told by cruciform people.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

How can a God of love allow suffering?

Bath Spa University Christian Union hosted an cafe style evening event for their University on the vital subject of suffering. I gave a talk, everyone had a chance to discuss their response, and took questions via text message before hanging around to chat for a while. We attempted to explore the unavoidable issue of pain in our lives, why we desire a better world and what we might do with Jesus in the middle of all of this.

DOWNLOAD mp3: How can a loving God allow suffering - talk (35mins) and q&a - (10mins)

My basic approach was to tell some of my own stories - suffering isn't an abstract thing, it's personal and painful. I wanted to hear some of the responses that people instinctively make to suffering - acknowledging in our response the reality and wrongness of suffering -- and so making profound assertions about what kind of world this is. Among others I sought out the voices of Richard Dawkins, Marcus Brigstocke, Glenn Hoddle and Martin Luther before turning to see Jesus response which is neither heartless or helpless. The final section was adapted from the Uncover Suffering video by A&E consultant Giles Cattermole.

Every day is an opportunity to grow in feeling and knowing the bitter-sweet of life, and I hope that every time I come again at this question I come more humanly. This talk could probably do with a little more brevity... My approach was story based and I was without notes, both of which probably added length compared to a less personal and more scripted approach. That said, I do think questions of the sensitivity and importance of this one are worth taking time to answer.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Try Praying?

This is the view from my bedroom. And, more than once it's been a helpful prompt as I open my curtains.

In a sense it's aimed at me, but really at my friends, my neighbours...

I'm not critiquing the church over the road - they've just got me thinking. For that I thank them.

In our city where a few thousand will be in church meetings each week but the best part of 100,000 wont be... Try Praying leaves me asking these and more questions...
  • What is prayer?
  • Pray to whom?
  • Why pray?
  • Pray what?
  • And who are you to tell me to pray?
How would you answer those?

In a Christ-haunted (to use Flannery O'Connor's term) culture 'try praying' has a broadly Christian meaning, and we might only need to awaken people to do it. But in a post-Christian, Christianity-inoculated culture things are surely very different.

If the banner gets people asking questions like that then all well and good...

But might it just be more very well meant irrelevance?
Christians really want everyone to get to know Jesus.
And Jesus really is for everyone.

But, might our signs and attempts to connect with our city just be talking past people?  Are we talking not listening?  Thinking we're connecting to our city when we're not? Imagining - as optimists like me do - that we're getting somewhere when we're just spinning our wheels in the mud.

I have on-there-own elderly neighbours, a family working night-shifts who moved here from another country, a middle-aged woman whose elderly mother was fatally run down on the road between the try praying sign and our house before Christmas, a single-mum family and several others...  and I really want them to know Jesus, to try praying...

There are many churches in the city with many people in them, but we're very few in reality. My city is a prosperous regional centre with a relatively high number of "larger" churches, and maybe 5% of people going to church meetings on Sundays. And 3% of the population (largely those who wouldn't identify as Christians) turn out at the annual University Christian Union Christmas carol service at the football ground. 
"Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." Jeremiah 29:5-7, ESV
For our church, is this our story? For the University Christian Unions I work with - is this our story?
Or do we accidentally, well-meaningly work against ourselves?
Are we missing the mark?
Are we over optimistic about we're doing? 

I have questions.... 

Tim Keller says in Center Church that he had to think long and hard to find answers to thoroughly work out the implications of the good news of Jesus where we find ourselves.  That could look very different to anything we've done before. That could look very different here compared to there.

Harder thinking. And in the end, TRY PRAYING is the message I need to hear each morning as I open the curtains, because some things only break with prayer and some things, most things, are beyond what I can do. If I don't call on the Father in heaven who sent his Son then all I'm left with is just to TRY. And so, like a child, I don't try to win the fight myself but I call my Dad and trust that he can do what's needed.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Jesus wept

it's a pregnant phrase that should end with...
I'd like to say: "a spreading goodness" - shouldn't that be true?
But it's concluded instead with violence and evil and wickness from the hearts of humanity.

Sounds like the evening news but it's ancient words from the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis, a book shot through with emotional resonance with the contemporary world.

It's another question to ask whether its historical - and that question is really important. But hear the story.

In a world full of evil what's the God-word?
What are the next three words, or the next six words, or the next eight words...?

"The LORD regretted..."
" grieved him to his heart..."
"I am sorry that I have made them..."

Stick that in your theological assumptions pipe and smoke it for a few minutes.

Can such be said of God? 
He says it of himself.

He weeps. And acts with Salvation through Judgement. 
Death and resurrection.
Destroy and rebuild.
Pluck up and replant.
Always the refrain in the Bible.
Death and then life.

In a world full of evil "But Noah" there is one who trusts the LORD.

Noah hear the prophetic preaching of Enoch that judgement will come.  He was raised in the prophetic word of his father than relief must come. He delayed having children, too broken to raise them in such a world, sharing in divine sorrow for the world. Yet he stepped up as judgement was announced and began to raise a family, preaching righteousness as he built a boat in a dry land. And he led his family through judgement to salvation and a renewed world.

The Flood is written in the key of Genesis. Multiplying and filling, male and female, two of each, creatures according to their kinds... And it continues as the rain falls and the world becomes formless again, until the wind (Spirit) blows and leaves a new humanity at the heart of a "new" world waiting to be formed. Beginnings and new beginnings. This world is home and yet there's that nagging sense that it should be a little more beautiful, a little less fractured. It needs to be renewed, re-made, re-created. And so do we.

The LORD shut Noah and his family in an ark. The LORD covered him as judgement came.  Grace, like their naked and ashamed ancestors knew as they too were covered. And when wrath was averted, Noah was able to lift the covering off the ark and emerge as a new head for a new people in a new world... a flood-wrecked world in need of cultivation.

His first move was to offer a burnt offering. To de-create an animal with knife and fire to atone for sin (see Leviticus 1). Brutal and messy, like life. The flood washed away sinners but couldn't wash away sin. There was sin in the ark in the hearts of Noah's family. He knew another had to be destroyed in his place. For life is blood and blood is life, and only blood brings forgiveness for those whose life is forfeit.

This is the genesis of Noah, a new Adam but not the second.
This is the genesis of Jesus who walked the earth.
He who set his face to Jerusalem and walked through 10 long chapters of Luke's gospel before shedding tears over Jerusalem. But much more as Sibbes and Howe put it:
"he who shed tears shed his own blood for them." 
Blood and tears that would bring forgiveness, salvation through judgement and in time a truly renewed creation, new to the very heart.

He wept.
The Triune God, full of love, full of tears.
The Man of Sorrows at the centre of A World of Sorrows.
The Man whose people are anguished people. God's happy people who weep.
He covers them - not with the roof of a boat but with himself.

And every tear will be wiped away.
Our tears.
Even, in the end, the LORD's tears.
And goodness will fill everything.
Though His scars will remain.