Monday, December 08, 2014

So much of the story is in the telling


Forbes reviews the new Exodus film (HT: Andrew Wilson)
"Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (trailer) is a terrible film. It is a badly acted and badly written melodrama that takes what should be a passionate and emotionally wrenching story and drains it of all life and all dramatic interest. It hits all the major points, like checking off boxes on a list, yet tells its tale at an arms-length reserve with paper-thin characters. It is arguably a film intended for adults, with violence that makes a mockery of its PG-13 rating, yet it has far less nuance, emotional impact, and moral shading than DreamWorks Animation’s PG-rated and seemingly kid-targeted The Prince of Egypt."
And a recent study shows...
Fiction readers make great friends as they tend to be more aware of others' emotions...Literary fiction enhanced participants' empathy because they had to work harder at fleshing out the characters. The process of trying to understand what those characters are feelings and the motives behind them is the same in our relationships with other people.
Five thoughts:

1. Good stories are hard to tell.

2. It's easy to see what a good story lacks than what a good story should contain. I'm particularly struck however by the observations about well developed characters and the problem of telling a story at arms length.

3.  As a lover of fiction - who rejected it altogether for a couple of bleak and unimaginative years before University, and who is enjoying introducing his five year old to good fiction I'm encouraged at the wide ranging benefits to his imagination and character that this might bring.

4.  I'm also helped by the thought that there is correlation between social skills and reading great literature. As someone who doesn't exactly have outstanding interpersonal skills, it's good to know that the pages of a good book can help rather than hinder me in my journey... as long as I don't spend all my time in a book.

5.. As a preacher, I realise it'd be easy for good preaching of Exodus, for example, to fail in the same way this film apparently does. I've not seen the film so I'm merely reflecting on the review rather than the film. Even the best stories can be killed by the way they're understood and told.

Pic: Brioso (Creative Commons)

Friday, November 28, 2014

We all have myths


We believe myths about the origin of the world, about what's wrong with the world, about what can fix that, about where the world is going.

Literary scholar CS Lewis noted that we all have stories to explain how we see the world. We all have myths. The questions that matter are whether your myth gives a good account of life, and whether your myth is a true account of life.

Lewis and his friend Tolkein considered the possibility of a True Myth, the Christ story.

For me, coming to the opening chapters of Genesis is a great opportunity for mythunderstanding. To think in terms of story. I want to avoid getting into a faith vs. science debate especially when that leaves both a cheapened view of science and of the world... derived in the context of chapters of literature that promote science and give the richest possible understanding of this world.

Take an example.

The story of the fall in Genesis 3 is a story that makes emotional sense of our sense of broken intimacy, of our desire to be known and our disposition towards hiding from one another. This is how we experience life and we sense it's not meant to be that way. This myth says that this same brokenness impacts every one in every generation, in every culture, a fracture running through us at the very deepest level. It doesn't make relationship impossible but it does to some level interupt the yearning to be safe with someone else.

We might object to this myth. We might note the presence of an elephant in the room: a talking serpent! Surely that breaks the myth and renders it  nothing more than a fanciful Tinga Tinga Tale. Blaming the serpent isn't a new issue for this story.

Perhaps, however, the real elephant is that this story makes us culpable. It puts the heart of the human problem in the heart of the human being. It says our betrayal of the Lord Christ is what fractured relationship and bred alienation. That's not an easy story for any of us to bear.

It's ok to be honest that the issue is at least as much that we don't want to believe the story as that we find some aspect implausible. That kind of honesty would be refreshing and promotes open discussion. Many of the stories we believe have plausibility challenges in different ways. I'm yet to see a fish grow legs. Plausibility rather depends on your overarching myth. What is allowed to make sense - the big story and the smaller stories cycle back and forth to create plausibility structures.

Those telling stories to others need to know that we have a tendency to prefer stories that scratch our itches and that changing our story has consequences and costs, losses as well as gains. Those telling stories should tread carefully. Stories capture the heart, the imagination... and so shape lifes. Stories are powerful, and perhaps, amongst other things, this is a world made for stories.

Image: Silvia Sala

Monday, October 06, 2014

Saturday, August 30, 2014

New: Grace Church Exeter


I've recently joined the staff team at Grace Church Exeter. We're learning to explore, experience and express the goodness of God in our city.

My role is as Communications, Ministries & Training Coordinator. This occupies me with a great mix of things I love to do with communicating, producing resources, teaching and training people to equip them for life in our city.

You can have a look around our new website and get a feel for what we're up to in our city.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

2003-2014: An end, and a new beginning...


I started this blog when I joined the UCCF staff team in September 2003. Eleven years and more than 3300 blog posts later... I'm still doing both. 

However, my time with UCCF is soon to end. I'm moving on to a new role on the staff team of our church in Exeter as Communications, Ministries and Training Coordinator. A new season with new rhythms of life. I'm looking forward to new opportunities and a newly localised life (after seven years of itinerant ministry across the South West) as I dig into living in our city, raising my family and building our church.

I'm not sure where, if at all, this blog fits within that new shape. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

What's my role? (Nehemiah 3)


MP3 via frontiers church blog.

Hugo lives in the walls of a station in Paris in Brian Selznick's magical novel (now a Martin Scorsese film). He keeps the station clocks running as he explores the question he shares with many of the other characters in the film. Who am I? What's my place in the world? Looking out through the glass clock face he muses:
“You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need… if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”
Who can't empathise with Hugo? At our different stages of life we might ask ourselves what it means for us to make a meaningful contribution. And we could talk about church which is good enough but much more about our city. And by city I don't just mean the metropolitan area but the city and its area - some live in the city and work outside it, some live outside and are connected to it...

Hugo's story is set in Paris - picture the Arc de Triomphe from above and see the machine that is Paris. The image works well but is somewhat dehumanising, unrelational.

Consider another city. Beautiful from the ground level its hard to fully appreciate the order and design of the Barcelona street plan. Cities are place and populated by people. They're about the location and the inhabitants. And cities are both beautiful and broken, injustice lurks under the surface of even the most glorious cities.

Nehemiah sees his city in ruins. His city, Jerusalem, is both a city and more than a city. As William Blake shows in his hymn, Jerusalem has a spiritual meaning - it embodies the great heavenly city to which the garden to city storyline of the Bible runs.

 “And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills” 

We might say no. And likewise Jesus didn't walk on Englands hills... and yet in a sense the answer is yes! Jerusalem wasn't build among the factories of Bradford, but the city of God - the pursuit of peace between people and with God was... and is wherever people find peace with God in his good news.

Much as the Catalan coast was beautiful before Barcelona was built, the Bible story is one of cultivation. We can learn about human cities and God's bigger story. Nehemiah 3 doesn't say rebuild the walls of Exeter - knocking down Topshop and Next and Waterstones to reinstate the wall and north gate of the city. We see the people work together for the safety and good of their fortress city. Exeter had walls as the Roman outpost to keep out the celts in Cornwall, today the walls are fallen but the city has different needs to flourish.

In Nehemiah 2:18 our leader says - "rise up and build". In 3:1, Eliashib does that, with his brothers. Its a call to get out of bed and get to work... and a call to move from death to life. We see rulers and priests, servants, men and women, goldsmiths and perfumers, families and individuals rise together.

The chapter is a list of names. A feast of awesomeness if we'll listen. These are real people remembered for their contributions. Just as the electoral roll reflects my vote, so their work is remembered.

Two questions and an observation.

I. WHAT CAN I CONTRIBUTE? 

  • v13 - Hanun (whose name means Gracious) builds from the Tower of Ovens to the Dung Gate. 1000 cubits, 450 metres.
  • v29 - Zadok (whose name means righteous) builds opposite his house.

Both are positively listed. But one can do much more.

Two sub-questions.
1. At this time, in this season, can I do more in the church... and more importantly in our city?
Can you stretch further? Can you train up more? As you read this what ideas might spark?
Some say the church is middle class, not necessarily, but it might sometimes drift up the social scale as its members find fresh motivation. Now of course you don't have to follow Jesus to contribute to the good of the city, but just as Hugo sought identity in The Big Machine, so too those who follow Jesus find dignity and value in their work.

Others,
2. At this time, in this season, are there limits you need to accept?
At times we can do less. We may feel sadness but we need not feel guilt. I remember singing "I'm gonna be a history maker in this land" and with youthful ambition thinking we'd have to be famous. Most people don't have biographies written of them. But its not just Churchill who makes history. At this time you might "only" be able to do the washing day to day... but if that's what God has put in front of you to do, that's great! Nehemiah doesn't impose a strategy - the people are free to turn their hand to what is in front of them.

It takes a city to run a city. 

A glass of water comes to you in a primative world from a stream, but as the world develops you'll need civil, mechanical and electronic engineers to build sewage plants, builders to lay pipes designed by mathematicians, entrepreneurs to set up water companies, sales people and lawyers to agree a contract, bankers to set up your payment... and cleaners to ensure that the tap you get water from isn't infested with bacteria. Even the simplest things take many people to build.

It'd be naive to think we can build heaven on earth. But we can cultivate. We can add order. We can restrain evil and injustice. We can work in politics and dentistry, in the council chambers and with our neighbours. We can create in science and art and business. We can seek the peace of the city in limited but real ways.

The brokennes is beyond our repairing. Amid the action scenes Christopher Nolan explores this in his Batman trilogy. In the first film the city is viewed as unredeemable by the villans - the only hope is to burn it down. In the second hope has come until chaos is unleashed by The Joker. In the last the question is about how to overcome evil.

What can we contribute?

II. WHAT WILL I CONTRIBUTE? 
  • The Tekoite Nobles - the people of the Trumpets - decide to blow their own trumpets instead of joining the building project. 
  • Malchijah - whose name means My Lord is King - rebuild the dirty dung gate, ensuring that the city is not full of poo.
We each have value systems that shape us. We're like the monkey who sticks his fist in the jar to get a nut out,... and gets his fist stuck because he wont let the nut go. How easily we might be devoted to our monkey jar gods. We all draw lines - some of them good - but sometimes we have things that stop us contributing well. Some of us prefer ourselves to giving ourselves to our city... others of us can't let go of things that are beyond us at this time.

III. SEE JESUS’ CONTRIBUTION 
Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of his city. Not the final city. But his was the one to which Jesus would walk 500 years later. Consider Jesus.

See that he can do what we can't do. We can't get over the barrier of the depths of deathliness. But he became one of us to build the true and greater Jerusalem. He put all that is broken to death in his death, rising to new life to make the new city possible.

Moreover, he will do what needs to be done. If anyone could blow their own trumpet it was him... but he stooped to serve us. Jesus is the true and greater Tekoite Noble who stooped. And he came to deal with the sewage of our lives, he is the true and greater Malchijah.

And, finally, rather than consoling ourselves with The Big Machine, we find that he rises up with his brothers and sisters to build. Jesus is the true and greater Eliashib who builds with his family and who will finally build Jerusalem as a place of peace for people with people, and people with God. In him we can join in the renewal of all things, as we seek the peace of our city.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Good news for The Narcissist

The centre of the book of Galatians is the geekiest verse in the Bible. Galatians 3:16 says that promises were made to Abraham's offspring and that is not many but one. One offspring who is The Christ.

The Galatians, like Peter at Antioch, and me have fallen into a narcissistic legalism where legal standing with God and belonging to the family have become about what I do rather than these things having been fully accomplished by the gospel of the Triune God.

Paul constructs from personal testimony and from Biblical Theology at response centred on the revealed Son of the Father who is proclaimed to all peoples (1:15-16), the crucified Son of the Father who loved me and gave himself for me, who brings those from all peoples into the blessedness of the Triune life as adopted Spirit-filled Sons of the Father.

The difference between a self-centred life and finding your life in the life of the Triune God is bigger than the difference between thinking the sun orbits the earth and how things actually are.

A promise was made to Abraham for his offspring, in truth a promise from the Father to his Son, the Christ. This promise is made in a Universe of unchangeable covenants and inheriting sons. What's signed can't be changed.

But that raises a huge question in Biblical Theology. Around 2000BC a promise is made to Abraham and this is the gospel that in Abraham's one offspring all the peoples of the world will be invited out of curse into blessing. But, 430 years later God gives the 10 Commandments and a whole lot more law to Israel. What is that? A change of plan? A different way to all that God gives? A rival plan?

No, says Paul, its not plan B. It's something else. Something that serves the promise. Like a fridge serves an oven. For a while you don't need a fridge but the passing of time and the room temperature may mean that you temporarily need a fridge otherwise the work of the oven will be undermined.

In the Old Testament we need to get from Abraham to an identifiable Christ who will be one of us and who will give himself in love for us, in a way that is meaningful and effective.

The law will help! It's a good gift.

For 430 years we have a family in Canaan and then a large ethnic group contained in Goshen. The Exodus sets a million people free to interact with the peoples of the world and their gods. And they rapidly start intermarrying and following new gods (See The Book of Judges). The law restrains this a little, but there's still only a remnant 1500 years later. Yet a remnant. An identifiable people are preserved so that Matthew can trace a line from Abraham to David to the Exile to Jesus the Christ... and indeed a further 2000 years later people can still count themselves among the descendants of Abraham. The outward life-style markers of the law identify the people as different to the other peoples. It makes them look a bit like God, a community with care for the fatherless, the widow and the orphan. Holy as he is holy.

The law isn't mostly about ethics, mostly its about the tabernacle and then helps us to interpret the cross of Christ, to understand about curses and curse-bearing substitutes. Together these things mean there can be an identifiable Christ who can have a curse bearing death and so bring the peoples of the world into the blessing of being filled with the Holy Spirit, legally adopted into the family of the God who loves the fatherless.

Once the Christ comes the law isn't need to lock up the people. They don't need a guardian to keep them distinctive. No such law is needed to mark them out any more. Righteousness was always by faith in the promise and for a time it came with certain ethnic markers about ethics and the tabernacle.

The law is still very precious Scripture but it's purpose as a guardian/prison has been completed.

Can any book interpret the cross better than Leviticus?    As Hebrews shows the grammar of the gospel come from the law (see also Gal 3:10-14). 

Can any book tell better a story of rescue to beautiful relationship more than Exodus? Etc. What was said to them then for that time still describes a life lived like the Triune God, but not as command to them or us now. The Spirit bears fruit that fills up what the law describes and will far exceed it for all who repent and believe the gospel.

Any people of any of the peoples who hear with faith after Christ came will be people adopted into the life of the Son and filled with the Spirit. 

Anyone from any people who looks to the Christ receives the Spirit of the Son. 

The greater law of Christ, the promise of the one offspring, will lead those in union with Christ to be crucified with Christ, living by faith in the resurrected Son, pursuing the desires of the Spirit, sowing to his ways. Maturing not by outward signs but mature by repenting and believing the gospel of the Son.

Fallen humanity is expert at curving in on themselves. Giving us things to do is exactly what we like, but that just feeds the flesh and makes things worse. The cure is the gospel. Hear with faith. Look and live. The cure is Christ, the one to whom the promise is made. Get in him and freely share in all his life. Come to the Father, anointed with the Spirit exactly as the Son does, crying "Abba!"

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Blessed is The Man! (Psalm 1-2)


Who are the blessed? The rich? Famous? Talented? Those with autonomy? Those free from others constraints. Other cultures would differ but this is our story. The haunting memory of a better story makes us cynical about such a story, yet still we fawn over our celebrity gods.

Psalm 1-2 say there is one blessed man who meditates on the law, as kings could. Like Joshua/Yeshua by the word he prospers, a kingly tree. He's the LORD's Christ (Anointed). The king of the Holy Hill. The Father’s Son. He inherits all creation.

But, we don't believe Bible reading makes you rich so what is this? Not I? Who is this blessed champion?

Against him are the wicked and sinners. Kings of the world who rage against Christ to overthrow and dethrone him. The autonomous... they will be blown at like chaff, they perish, .they will be broken. Their apparent victory is hollow. Their blessedness quickly fades.

The song speaks to them. The wicked are warned and invited to align with the blessed man, not merely deferring to him or inspired by him. They're to take refuge in him. As with a passenger in a plane, where he goes they go.

The wicked who hide in him will be blessed, share his Spirit anointing, share his Sonship, share his prosperity which gives the privilege of sharing in his crucifixion and suffering. Can it be me? Even I?

This is the story of Psalms. A glorious gospel.

The blessed man is Jesus and unlike the excluding agenda of the blessings of the world which favour the strong and cut off the weak, his blessing is for any and all peoples who will hide in him.
"Blessed is the man... this is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man..." Augustine
The Man isn't so much over us or inspiring us, we're in him. Rory Shiner notes: Sitting under a plane gets you no where, watching a plane doesn't mean you can sing "I believe I can fly." You have to be in the plane to fly. The Psalmist never thought of planes but the principle holds.

Blessed is The Man and blessed are all who take refuge in him, whatever gender, class, talent, character...the issue isn't us but him.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

This is my Father's world

We've used this song a few times recently at our church. Matt Giles adaptation of Maltbie Babcock's hymn. Matt's ability to freshen up the musical arrangements and lyrics of old hymns is a precious gift.

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings,and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world, He shines in all that’s fair;
In rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father's world, yet here His Son was slain,
Though God from God, He esteemed it not,
by human hands betrayed
This is my Father's world, His works shall not be lost
God’s love would bring us home to Him

Though Jesus be the cost 

This is my Father's world, why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is king, let the heaven's ring
God reigns, let the earth be glad!

Maltbie D Babcock, Matt Giles ©2014 Matt Giles Music

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Standing in a queue: A parable on serving people


I live in a provincial city. Small enough to walk across in just over an hour or so, and its serviced with a branch line railway that makes transport a bit quicker. From time to time I get the train into the city centre because it's a 6 minute journey and that saves me 25 minutes walking time plus is a bit easier when I'm carrying stuff. Invariably I then walk home.

This morning I did that journey. I boarded the crowded train and was delivered to my destination. I'd not been sold a ticket on the train (and there isn't a ticket machine at my station) so I knew I'd have to queue. I found myself quickly the 20th person in a queue that soon stacked up behind me. With one person serving.

This post isn't really about railways.

And nothing I'm writing here is to complain about the station staff who are generally excellent and friendly.

I've worked in Customer Service and it's often a thankless task and gladly forgive occasional grumpiness. The shriek at someone up the line paying for their ticket with a £20 note was probably a bit unnecessary and not quite comic enough... legal tender is legal tender! But, I digress.

Around me in the queue obedient British people rocked from one foot to the other... a few grumbled to the air and I took out my smartphone and tweeted to the business who run the station. Unlike other train companies they really take social media seriously and have it staffed with friendly people who respond quickly and helpfully. This morning was Jess.

I politely pointed out that the company ought to remember that they are a customer serving business. Twenty five people who got held up, the back end of the queue by over 15 minutes, is not good for business. That's not the Top Box service I learned in retail banking. I amiably suggested to Jess on Twitter that this wasn't a staffing issue but a business leadership issue. Three tweets in reply:
"Hi Dave, sorry about this. We only have a certain number of staff available, so there can be a queue at peak times.
As its busy for a relatively short period of time, having staff would be a waste of resources for the rest of the day...
...I appreciate its frustrating having to queue like this though. Glad you think the staff there are great though."

Excellently and friendly and instant social media engagement. And its not Jess' place to do more than represent the company policy. But there's a problem isn't there? It's the company culture.
  • There's a brief peak time period so we consider it better to save our money than to save your time. Despite the fact that if all our customers left us we'd cease to exist we still think we are more important than you.
  • This peak time period is so insignificantly brief that we charge much higher fares for travel at this time of day but its not so we can serve you better then.
  • We'd rather have a queue for a few minutes at the busiest time of day than people think traveling by train is easy and efficient and the way forward. 
  • We'd rather people walk into their office grumbling about the trains again than commend us.

Obviously I can walk. I could drive. I could get the bus. Other options are available. But in a business each ought to want my business and know that their reputation stands and falls on each customer experience.

When I worked in retail banking you'd see the Branch Manager on the tills if it was particularly busy. We'd thank people for their patience, and we'd bend over backwards to keep the queue short. It can't always be done but when it can't something needs to be done. There are businesses that deliver consistently brilliant service. It can be done.

And, I don't really mind queuing. I'm British.

But, I'm also arrogant enough to think that most problems in life have solutions. This is a values thing. I once heard someone say "I'm speaking better than you're listening..." No, sir! Communicators have the responsibility to engage their listeners, they don't get to have the right to have a go at them. And if you want people to give you their business you should build your business around serving them, around something they need, even if you have to persuade them initially that you're really offering something that adds to life and is worth paying for.

I think of my work: serving but how eeasily I'm self serving. Or our church: do we say you can be here on our terms, when it suits us. Mercifully we're asking the kind of questions so hopefully we're moving in the right direction but its easy for me to forget that service works best when its serving the right person. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Something as simple as a glass of water


In a fictional tale, told by David Foster Wallace, an older fish swims past two younger fish and sayswe can't live long without waste "Morning boys, how's the water?" They swim on for a while until one turns to the other and says "What the hell is water?"

It's said we take for granted the technology that already exists when we're born. We adapt to what is developed as we grow up. And then we get suspicious of the stuff that arrives after we turn thirty.

The middle aged person today critiques today's youth for relationships based on texting and snapchat, wishing they would just make phonecalls... and yet that's a call for one kind of technology instead of another. Face to face unmediated contact is ultimate (1 Cor 13) and so maybe a phonecall is better than a text message, but we all have technological bias.

I graduated University without having a mobile phone, and having never drunk real coffee. I'm not sure how long I could survive today without both of those.

The ability to drink a glass of water is one of those things we take for granted. But in a well populated world where you can't often just drink from a river and be sure it's clean... we depend on the ability to turn a tap and get water.

We can't live long without water. 

The glass takes a lot of technology to make - glass from sand with heat... tools, machines, electricity (power plants, oil rigs and pipes, boats, navigation systems, drills etc)....   and then the water has to be piped from somewhere, cleaned, delivered through a network of pipes, through a tap into a ceramic sink with all the technology required to design and make and deliver and install each of those things and the many more parts that don't occur to me along the way.

And it's all part of our story of cultivating this world. Genesis, when you get past the God vs. Science fog tells of a God of spreading goodness who paints in broad brushstrokes and commissions humanity to add in the detail, taking up words and tools to do that, cultivating wilderness into a garden and a city for God and man to dwell together. And it takes everyone's work to do that.

We can't live long without water. 

Hearts get re-made by the technology of words through which the Spirit brings new life... because the technology of execution crucified the Christ, and roads and language and much more enabled that news to spread. But that story finishes pretty fast without food and shelter, and most of us depend on the work of a great many people to have those things today.

I'm thankful, and learning to open my eyes just a little bit more to the simplest things like water.

Richard Sibbes noted:

"We commend the witty industry of those that from springs remote bring rivers to cities, and by pipes from these rivers derive water to every man's house for all domestic services..."

We can't live long without water, and so also (which Sibbes was illustrating) the even greater living water, but that's for another day.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Video: Find me in the city


Find me in the city from Trinity Media on Vimeo.

I wrote this for my Word Alive seminar on God and Technology.  Much credit to John Dyer's book From Garden to City and UCCF's long standing clarity on doctrine of creation and the value of work. The video doesn't have any audio. I think Kings Kaleidoscope's Higher Throne makes a good musical backdrop.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Awesomeness: Word Alive 2014


It was 1am on a Friday morning in the Spring of 2002 when I sat down with a group of Reading University students to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia. Our host that night is now a tutor for the OCCA and I remain thankful that he gave us the experience of this unsettling and outstanding film.... and for the 4.30am ride home through the cold of the night on the back of his scooter.

I've been on the UCCF team for 13 years now and its nights like that that capture what UCCF is about for me. Gospel-loving people, engaging constructively with people about the ideas and imagination of this world, together. And Word Alive is a part of that family - with all the grown-up graduates, their kids and many others around too for a week around Easter.

Last week was my first time at Word Alive since 2008.
I wish my family had been there with me. 
I wish *all* the students I work with had been there. 
I wish my church Community Group had been there.

We experienced:
  • The Don Carson on Jeremiah. 
  • Flapjack and coffee with students discussing the big issues. 
  • The excellent Brad Green on the Christian Mind and recommending Francis Schaeffer
  • Gospel-centred worship led by Lewis Green, Kat Buckley and Stuart Townend. 
  • A beach BBQ with Bristol CU.
  • The refreshing Krish Kandiah on Social Media. 
  • Catching up with old friends and hearing about the kids programme that makes this event unmissable for them.
  • Making new friends. 
  • Tracking down the man who taught me how to read the Bible - 13 years ago at UCCF's Biblical Evangelism Conference - to thank him.
  • A Hog Roast. 
  • A full evening session from Bill Edgar on the roots of Jazz! (even better in week 2 I'm told with Ruth Naomi Floyd singing live). 
  • Quality applied gospel preaching on Luke. 
  • Plus the tracks I couldn't get to by Caroline Cox on Justice, Kathleen Nielson on Wisdom Literature, Mike Ovey on Humanity & Human Rights, church planter Richard Coekin doing the Word Alive staple of a Chronological Bible Overview, Becky Pippert (Week 2), Krish Kandiah on Adoption....and many more.
 And then there was Ted Turnau.

I was at Word Alive on team and I got to pick which week I attended.
Confession: Ted was why I picked Week 1.

Four 90min sessions on God and Culture with uber-geek academic Ted Turnau leading us towards a high quality alternative to the superficial saccharine shouty work that tends to pass for "Christian" art and culture. I don't think I'll be writing the novels or making the films, but I'd like to help make space for those who can, and to help the rest of us love art more as a vital part of life in this world.
Ted Turnau's Five Steps for Interpreting Popular Culture

  1. What’s the story (or quasi-story)?
  2. Where am I (the world of the work)?
  3. What’s true here?
  4. What’s false here (and how to subvert it)?
  5. How does the gospel apply?
I'd read Ted's book Popologetics before, and it was great to finally meet him (I dared to cross the line from Twitter-follower to personal acquaintance...) and to hear him live on a subject that he's clearly passionate about. He was a great example of someone enjoying their subject which is awesome in itself. He has an infectious enthusiasm.

We explored how to read a films and music. We worked examples from Magnolia (!!) and Avengers and music from Audrey Assad.

We considered the vital importance of the imagination in how we see the world.
"We experience this world as our world through our imagination...for the imagination, the cross makes us sensitive to the wreckage of our lives, resurrection sees hope... "
Plus we worked through examples from Polish film maker Kieslowski.

As an aside I loved Ted's family rules:
1. Salvation is by grace alone... but dessert is earned.
2. No spoilers.
Word Alive is a gospel-centred Bible 'holiday' for all ages. Around the site were people from all kinds of different church backgrounds, being given opportunities to explore the implications of the gospel for all parts of life, experiencing the life-changing nature of life in God, and being prepared to express his goodness in local churches, in the work place, at University, at home, or wherever else they find themselves.

There was a rich diversity to the programme, and quality of teaching that was sky high.... drawing on the best of so many 'tribes' and 'streams' through a common commitment to the good news of Jesus.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The knock at the door: a real life parable on the challenges of communication


I opened the door.
"Hello Mr Dish."
I assume salesperson, and in the middle of dinner quip back, with a smile:
"Not a great start, thats not my name..."
"Really?" comes the reply before a check of the clipboard and a second attempt. (Later my wife will gain a new surname too...)
I'm handed a flyer, and it turns out this is our long serving local Councillor.
"Do you vote?" (Only about a third of the neighbourhood do...)
"Yes."
Checks clipboard. 
"Oh, yes I see you do." (I confess I'm not really warming to her at this point...)
She reminds me for a second time that she's been representing us for a long time.
"Will I have your vote?"
"To be honest, it'll depend on policies..."
"I'm sure you've read my six monthly newsletter..." (I don't recall...)
"I'd love to see what you can do about the speeding on our road."
"Well, if you will live on a main road. .." begins a long and fairly condescending answer about traffic volume and how she's working on that by trying to bring in an evening cafe culture in town. She begins to walk off...
"I know there will be lots of traffic, but I asked about the speeding... We lost an elderly neighbour to a speeding motorist ..."

(For most of this conversation my two year old is stood by me... that I am a concerned parent is visible.)
"Oh, yes, I knew her well, she was a loyal voter of mine... "
"I'm concerned for my kids.. "
"I've been your Councillor for a long time, not even worth getting into that issue... "
She begins to walk off again..
"A few speed limit signs on lamp posts would help..."
I'm mostly bemused.

This conversation happened because she wanted my vote... and was a bit of a car crash.

We all have bad days. I could've been a touch less antagonistic in my opening reply... though only one of us entered the conversation with any preparation. I was just heading out to the shop.

This long serving public servant of our city and neighbourhood may yet get my vote.

As I chew over the experience I'm reminded that its easy to get communication wrong. I get it wrong.
# Knowledge creates opportunities. She had my name and knew that I vote but failed to wield that constructively. She also missed the detail of me being a parent. I was an open book waiting to be read. A meeting between a voter and a politician is a match made in heaven, but anything the politician does that is confrontational, dismissive or alienating makes the whole thing pointless. I can easily miss the mark too - I don't have to deny my cause but if I don't take you with me, we're not going anywhere.
# Posture makes a huge difference. She presumed that her place in the establishment and a bi-annual newsletter meant her unexpected knock on my door secures my buy-in to her cause. When the posture is "I'm important" then I'm not drawn to someone. When it's "How can I serve you?" everything changes.
# Listening is rule number 1. She was more interested in promoting her issues than listening to my questions and concerns for the neighbourhood. Even if I'm not sure you can fight my cause, if you care enough to listen you probably win me.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Top 5 tips for your Weekly CU email


I've been receiving weekly emails from Christian Unions for most of the last 17 years since I signed up for one as a fresher. I've been working with CUs pretty much ever since.

Here's my top 5 tips on using this medium well which I'd suggest as part of a wider communication strategy. For some strategy is a dirty word but being organised and well ordered is a deeply spiritual thing, and sponteneity is often used as an excuse for disorder and laziness.

Longest and most important point first.
Please add your tips and thoughts in the comments.

1. Pretty much anyone can sign up for the CU email. 
That means this is not an "in house" commmunication but a public communication. Assume you have a mixed readership.

Don't talk about "non-Christians" (lets ban the term please!), beware of stuff that would be weird if your friends who don't know Jesus read it - because they (or someone elses friends) probably are reading it. You wouldn't talk about someone in their presence as if they weren't there so don't do it in an email. The CU exists for "every student" so write like you're writing to every student. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice but needs working on.

When you do this you start to realise that a whole lot of words and event themes and tones of voice that get used among Christians are unintentionally offensive and counter-productive and need changing too.

And, even if your email was "in house", maintaining a bilingual culture is self-defeating. Let's develop one language that we can use every where in the University. A high level of emotional intelligence is needed to do communication well, and that's increasingly true the further the medium is away from being face-to-face. Most people wouldn't be deliberately rude face-to-face so don't be carelessly and thoughtlessly rude in an email.

2. People misinterpret emails. 
Email is a really bad form for anything complex or requiring nuance. Intention can be misread very easily. Clarity is vital. There are things that shouldn't go in the email.

3. People can publish your emails. 
It was already a public communication but it can be copied out of context. Think about what you write! There are things that really are too sensitive to go in an email. If you wouldn't want it to appear in the Students Union paper or a National Newspaper or the Huffpost then don't put it in your email.

4. People don't read (long) emails. 
Keep it punchy. Brevity is vital. The subject line is important. The opening paragraph is vital and should contain the top thing you want to share. Not everything needs to go in the email. Less is more.

5. People use other channels too.
Good emails are a start, but you need a Communications Strategy. The CU exists to be a community who communicate so this is really important. Think Twitter. Think Facebook. Apply the above lessons appropriately to all your media communications. Think about the interesting articles that CU members can write on all kinds of subjects for the SU paper. Think about your flyers (minimal content, maximum clarity -for instant impact), posters, hoodies (no dates and diaries on clothing and no Bible verses please...)
 
One other thing... Communication with local churches, with alumni and others also needs some thought. Three things can improve communication with local churches - and they're largely dependent on your logistics and administration strategy being excellent. Clarity, generosity and long-term planning. Do these things well and everything else will run better. Do it badly and you're running up hill all year.

Over to you...

Friday, April 04, 2014

Misread

With thanks to James and Dan, a meditation on Luke 10...

Standing tall, standing proud. Ready to impress, ready to win.
To ask the killer question. In the Emporer's New Clothes.
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

Blind to the obvious. The king of his castle.
Is lying in the gutter.  Beaten up and dying.
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

Now his chosen victim is coming. The roles reversed.
The most unlikely of friends, for the most unlikely of men. 
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

The true good Samaritan. The one he wanted to crush.
Has come to bind his wounds. Has come to lift him up.
He's misread himself and the one standing there.

Blind to my blindspots. Sure of myself.
Wise in my own eyes. While everyone sees the fool.
I misread myself and the one standing there.

"I'm giving you my dreams." With so little idea of my loves.
Things I never knew mattered. Until they're taken away.
I misread myself and the one standing there.

Yet he came to befriend me. He came to bring me home.
Welcomed into his family. All of him, none of me.
When the sun's light failed, finally I could see.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Find me in the city

In the beginning, the creator paints in the broadest of brushstrokes.
The sky and the land, the land and the sea.
Cutting through the formlessless to give it form.
With the technology of language 'let there be light'.
The creator creates sub-creators who live in each of these.
Filling up what was empty with the possibility of fulness.
The birds of the sky, fish in the sea.
Animals and Homo Faber on the land.
To each he says - multiply and be fruitful.
First the Creator, then the sub-creators.
Make more of you like you.It is good but not finished.
Good but incomplete.
And to humanity last of all he says - have dominion.
It is very good but not finished.
Very good but incomplete.
Add the detail. 
Wield language and name animals.
Duckbilled platypus, a pig and a cow.
Take up tools and work the land.
Sub-create form and fulness, make a garden for praise.
A fracture, a scar, a cut in what's good.
Now, cultivate the wilderness of the land into habitats for life.
Garments to clothe you.
Farm and hunt.
Make fields and roads, irrigation systems.
Cities.
Bridges, storehouses and distribution centres.
Make music.
A boat.
Learn and discover, imagine and innovate.
Taste and see that the LORD is good.
Explore the ends of the earth and all its landscapes and colours.
Spread out and bring order to chaos.
Pitch tents and built altars and bury your dead.
Bake bread.
Entertain angels.
In this place I will meet you, in the mud and the dust.
Learn to paint and have houses with doors.
Paint blood on your doorposts.
Construct what you see according to plan.
Write these things down.
Build houses and gardens, marry and have children
Work for the good of those around you. 
The urban legend of a wall visible from space.

Then the murmur of global communications.
Take the road to your family home.
The original language embodied.
Raised in the home of a skilled worker.
He speaks.
And walking towards the city.
Executed by an engineers woodwork.
Go to him there.
Outside the city.
Use the technology of roads.
Shared language spreads his goodness fast.
Go with him there.
Councils and creeds.
Libraries and Abbeys.
The Printing Press.
Empires on which the sun never sets.
Guillotines.
Creativity in the art studio and creativity in the lab.
Develop tools to communicate and tools to understand.
Sail for the missionfield, out there.
Or build knowing those feet will walk here too.
Schools and sewers.
Fight against the frustration and the decay and the futility.
Parlimentarians and Toilet cleaners.
Bin men and Dentists.I believe I can fly.
Physicists, authors and customer service officers.
I have a dream.
One small step. One giant leap.Geeks in garages. IKEA. Google. iPhone.
Artisan coffee.
Sub-create.
Write the next line.
See God's image in people.
The God who validates work.
Knowing physicality and order.
Fulness and form.
The first technologist leads the way.
From a garden in the wilderness.
To the end, in a Temple, a garden that's a city.
No disembodied future.
A renewed physical world.
With God.
With God who says:
Find me less in uncultivated wilderness.
Find me more in your work.
Find me where it's busy.
Find me where you are.
Find me in the city.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Less policy; more gospel theology

People who follow Jesus differ. Maintaining unity isn't easy. How do you do it? We need something better than requiring conformity.

In Romans 14, Paul identifies one cause of difference as being due to the strength/weakness of faith. He anticipates in Rome's church that people will look at the cleanness of food and the specialness of certain days differently. All food is clean and all days are holy for someone who follows Jesus, but some have weaker faith and don't embrace that freedom.

Principle 1. Welcome as God welcomed you (neither the weak or the strong in faith should judge the conservatism or liberty of the other).
Paul addresses how they welcome one another - 14:1-3. Knowing God's welcome of someone else (and yourself) defines your welcome of others. A strong faith appreciates God's welcome deeply, and is surely exponentially welcoming.


Principle 2. God cares about the heart more than its actions (tick box pastoral care isn't the gospel way).
We can want to keep everyone in line - but people aren't meant to live for people. We live for Jesus. And you need to get what you do right with him...  which can look deeply contradictory as one person's read on what will honour Jesus isn't quite the same as another person. The question is - what can I do with thanksgiving, what can I do worshipfully... for one they eat, another doesn't... one keeps a day special, another doesn't... and so on. Messy! The heart matters more than the outward action.



Some things are objectively right and others wrong. And Paul stands very confident for himself....


Yet, in the same breath, Paul takes the conscience very seriously. He who says he is 100% sure that foods are clean (Jesus said so!) values personal thinking and conscience very strongly.  If your faith is "weak" so that you can't bring yourself to fully live in the freedom you have in Christ, that's not something to take lightly. It's really serious:





Which stands as a strong warning to take care of our conscience. He says in the previous chapter that we should be submissive to authorities "for the sake of conscience" - because if we tolerate a rebelliousness towards government in our conscience it'll multiply a sense of rebelliousness in other decisions we face.

Principle 3. Certainty doesn't make you dogmatic, it makes you flexible (gospel-depths mean you're less shockable, less worries about other people, more self-forgetful).
Paul has deep convictions about what he believes. He is convinced. Certainty doesn't make for dogmatic approaches... Paul sees that certainty leads to flexibility. And the stronger the certainty the more flexible we should be - especially on things that aren't 'gospel issues'.

 e.g. The Kingdom is not a matter of food and drink... so don't fall out over food and drink. Don't make something secondary into a headline... don't divide over something that you can viably flex about. Ask what's good for the gospel more than what do I want. Ask what really matters and what really shouldn't.
The conscience can be re-calibrated and corrected... and it can be seared. We should take seriously what we think to be good and bad so that we don't harm ourselves... and also so we don't harm others. Those in Christ aren't to seek to destroy the work of God in others by riding roughshod over the conscience of others in Christ.

In matters of unity then....
Let's avoid making issues of things that aren't gospel/kingdom issues. There are hills to die on and there are hills not to die on. There are issues that should define us and issues that surely shouldn't.

Let's embrace the ambiguity and messiness of accomodating one anothers consciences. That'll draw some flak, it'll look messy and inconsistent, but guarding the gospel means guarding people's consciences.

Let's give room for faith to grow rather than destroying one another in a quest for neatness and people-pleasing.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

No God in the Old Testament unlike Jesus


Luke is a meticulous historian, gathering up eyewitness evidence about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But he's also a stellar theologian, interpreting the eyewitness testimony he records in light of the writings of Moses and the Prophets and Psalms to show the necessity of the death, resurrection and subsequent global proclamation about the Christ.

Luke says: this Jesus who was eyewitnessed is that Christ of the Scriptures.

Luke reports that Jesus' coming will bring forgiveness of sins like the sun rising for a new day (Luke 1). As Jesus dies Luke tells that the sun's light failed. Yet at dawn on the third day the Son comes, telling his witnesses that forgiveness is to be heralded to all people groups. No imperialistic imposition, but warm beams of divine love shining out from the risen Son.

Mike Reeves has said "there is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus" and Luke would agree wholeheartedly. The Son reveals his Father whom only he knows.

But, Luke can go further and say that there is no God in the Old Testament who is unlike Jesus. There are gods who are most unlike him, vicious, lonely, manipulative idols whom Israel and the surrounding nations foolishly chase, but the LORD, the God of Israel is Jesus-shaped.

For us that raises questions because we live in days where we are prone to read a violent god off the pages of the Old Testament. There is wrath no doubt. There is divine jealousy. And exile and death. Pointing to the Christ's suffering...

Luke says: the message is clear - God's story with Israel sets the stage, provides the grammar, and all points to Jesus of Nazareth being the long expected Christ, the Son of God. There is much to wrestle with, but much is clear too: The Christ will suffer and rise, and repentance and forgiveness will be proclaimed to all peoples.

Could it be that to get an insight into Jesus' Emmaus Road bible study is to read Luke's gospel? Luke tells of the things that have been fulfilled (accomplished - Luke 1:1), things that the Old Testament had told must happened, the very theme of Jesus' third day teaching. Things to make your heart burn warmly within you, especially when taken with Bread.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jesus enjoyed wine. Jesus had blisters.

I love this short video from Tanya Marlow


On Sunday I was reflecting on the resurrection appearance of Jesus with his friends in Jerusalem. I appears and they are doubting and troubled, though they become joyful and marvel. They assume he's a spirit but Jesus' kind of spirituality isn't 'spiritual' -- it's embodied, physical. Unlike Plato, unlike Mani, unlike so many of today's secular religion that struggle with bodies and food and sex and death, the follower of Jesus finds one who validates and values all of these things. And amazingly, there is now a physical human body in the life of the Triune God... and one day, he'll be back here on this planet, walking with his followers... and the frustration will be over, the blisters will heal and the wine will be better than ever.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Can we talk about talking about Jesus without sounding sinister?


On Sunday I spoke for our church on Evangelism. Usually talks on evangelism aren't presented in evangelistic contexts, but our church is exactly that. We operate on the assumption that we're not just gathering followers of Jesus but all kinds of different people. 

For me it felt like the latest in a long line of real-life exercises contextualisation, trying to embody the good news of Jesus so it can be heard by our city. It was hard work but I really do think its possible to talk about pretty much anything to do with the good news of Jesus with anyone - you just need to think hard about your tone and your language and your heart.

The follower of Jesus doesn't exist in a bubble away from everyone else in this world. But if we live like we have our own sub-culture we'll start to use language (which reflects attitudes) that is at best rude, and at worst at odds with the very good news we believe.

Terms like "Non-Christian" are major red-flags, for example. Conceptually I agree that the divide exists but to label 95%+ of the population with a term they'd never use to describe themselves is really strange and counter-productive. I want everyone to have the opportunity to explore the claims of Christ and to be assured that there's no hype or pressure or forcefulness going on.

Evangelism is a dirty word for many. Evangelism sounds sinister. Something unpleasant you "do" to people. I decided to take that head on attempting to take apart some of the bad stuff and suggest other ways of seeing things. There really is good news to be considered and I want to do whatever I can to enable others to consider Jesus for themselves and to know that telling that to others is not at all weird. In the end, evangelism only means telling others good news. And Jesus left people as witnesses, with personal experience and written testimony. Plenty that can be considered. 

I wanted those who were exploring with us to have an opportunity to explore further, in some cases in the hope that they might begin to follow Jesus, and for others to see that they might be involved in telling others what they've seen.You can hear/read how I went about this here. Far from perfect, but hopefully some small steps in the right sort of direction. I took Luke 24:36-53 as my text, with these headings:
1. Witnesses of Physical Evidence
2. Witnesses of Written Evidence
3. Witnesses with Heavenly Power

PDF script: Hearing God Speak through Telling Others. (I speak without notes but it is scripted in the preparation)

Monday, March 17, 2014

He was known to them in the breaking of the bread


On Sunday we considered Hearing God Speak through Communion. I was personally refreshed to consider this again and then to take and receive the bread and wine - physical proclamation of the good news of Jesus. We saw, from Luke 24:35 - "how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread."

Leithart puts it this way in a sermon on Luke 24:  
"But Word by itself is not enough. Even after Jesus has explained everything about Himself in the Scriptures, the two disciples still don’t recognize Him. That occurs only when He breaks bread with them It is the same for the church throughout the ages: The Word without the Bread is merely intellectual, detached from the things of real life; the Bread without the Word turns into a magic act. When the Scriptures are taught and the Bread is broken, then Jesus can be known."
Elsewhere he also notes from the structure of Luke 24:
"the point of the structure is to highlight the mission that the disciples are being given. Through an encounter with the Risen Jesus in Word and Meal, the two disciples go back to the base of operations in Jerusalem and are transformed into witnesses."
Spare half an hour to hear Stu's sermon here:  
Hearing God Speak through Communion.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Resurrection - Unbelieveable? (Michael Green)

Here's New Testament scholar Michael Green speaking to students at Bristol University on the resurrection of Jesus.

Friday, March 07, 2014

#WGUK14 Here is love (Matt Giles version)

Matt Giles has added some extra verses to a well known hymn and taught them on Friday evening at the Worship God UK conference.

Here is love vast as the ocean
Loving kindness as the flood
When the Prince of life our random
Shed for us his precious blood

Who is love cannot remember
Who can cease to song his praise
He can never be forgotten
Throughout heaven's eternal days

Here is love, that conquered evil
Christ the firstborn from the grave
Death has failed to be found equal
To the life of him who saves


In the valley of our darkness
Dawned his everlasting light
Perfect love in glorious radiance
Has repelled death's hellish night


Here is love vast as the heavens;
Countless as the stars above
Are the souls that He has ransomed,
Precious daughters, treasured sons

We are called to feast forever
On a love beyond our time
Glorious Father, Son and Spirit
Now with man are intertwined

The Gospels - Unreliable? (Michael Green)

 Well worth watching 83 year old ever-energetic New Testament scholar Revd. Dr. Michael Green speaking to a crowd of students at Bristol University on this vital question:

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The resurrection has NOT already happened!


There are people in the church who say "the resurrection has already happened." They may not use the phrase but the idea is gangrene. It is deathly. It is setting up a snare for people. It is the stuff of shipwrecked faith. It cuts off the blood flow and leaves parts of you dead. Dangerous stuff.

But, really? So says Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 2).

Now, be clear. In the same chapter he says that Jesus is "risen from the dead." That resurrection has already happened. Our champion has his victory! But there is another resurrection to come.

The Christian life is union with Christ.
It is "if we have died with him, we will also live with him."
Repeated in parallel: "if we endure, we will also reign with him."
Death and resurrection. The cross and the crown.

But where are we today?

Some want to say we're in resurrection and reigning now.  I'd like that.

And in some senses we are. It's absolutely certain. As sure as Jesus' resurrection. Where he has gone we will go too. As for the King so for his people! We are seated in the heavenly realms as Paul says elsewhere.

But, here and now? Death or resurrection? The cross or the crown? The former in both cases. We might taste both at times, but predominantly now is on one side of this. Paul gets it as he tells the story (in 2 Timothy 4, based as GK Beale argues on Psalm 22's death and resurrection) of David and Jesus and himself and Timothy... there is a crown, after you die.

Understandably, with great longing and in anticipation of what's to come we can be tempted to get ahead of ourselves. But, if we have an over-realised discipleship (ORD), claiming for today what is largely ahead of us, we invite gangrene and ruin ourselves.
  • ORD can't handle Sin. We'll imagine that sin isn't a problem in life. We'll presume too much victory over our sin. And so sin will slip under the radar. We'll not take care to keep from the seduction of Dame Folly and to pursue the song of Lady Wisdom with due care. If you think there's only life and reigning then you'll forget to put sin to death, forget to have the Scriptures correct and rebuke your heart to lead you deeper into the love of Christ.
  • ORD can't handle Suffering. We'll imagine that the Christian life is to be triumphant and free of pain and tears. And one day it will be in the renewed creation. But as yet, this is not that day. If you think there's only life and reigning then you'll have no category for suffering, no grasps of the Psalmist's cry "we're dying all day long" (Psalm 44, cited in Romans 8) to make some sense of this fractured and fallen world.
It is more appealing to say that you can have it all today, that we can experience the fulness of resurrection life. But it's unreality. It's delusion. For now we die. Victory awaits but before that the race is hard. Day after day as we trust in the gospel that proclaims the death of death in the death of Christ, and the unveiling of life and imortality for any through faith in Christ.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

God's engineers and toilet cleaners: thinking about technology

I've been pondering the effects of technology on life, particularly through the lens of Christian life, ahead of a seminar on the subject at a conference later in the Spring. Some early sketches.

Many Christians measure their spiritual health by their personal bible reading. Yet, for 1500 years until the invention of the printing press that wasn't really possible for the vast majority of believers. They accessed the Bible, some times in their own language, as it was taught publicly, but wouldn't have imagined personally reading its pages.

Gutenberg's printing press changed your spirituality, though it made possible Popish indulgences that so provoked Luther. Technology changes your world. Technology, good, bad, neutral...

Christian conferences are also the fruit of technology that enables large residential and meeting facilities to be built and rapid transport to get people there, not to mention the technology that spreads word.Technology, good, bad, neutral...

Or think of the last century, weapons of war killed more people than any other century... and the tools of medical technology saved more lives than ever before. Some technology is only destructive, much can be used for good and bad ends. The tools of carpentry gave Jesus' adopted father his occupation, and were used in crucifixion. Roads can be an eyesore and spread pollution but Rome's roads allowed the quick spread of the good news of Jesus. The camera is the tool for capturing family memories, an artists eye and the abusive acts of the pornographer.  Technology, good, bad, neutral...

Among students we speak of a Christian approach to being an accountant or entrepreneur, engineer or educator. And people reply: what about a Christian approach to being a janitor? But the question is misplaced. We have toilets to clean because of ceramics and pipes and sewers and the great work of engineers... to create technology that has changed lives and increased health, and needs a degree of maintenance to remain good for us. There may not be a holy way to clean a toilet, except to do the work well. Technology can benefit life and create good work at all kinds of levels. Technology, good, bad, neutral...

We easily miss technology like the protestors against fracking who arrived dependent on the oil industry by car to sleep in nylon tents and sit on plastic chairs, heating clean water on their oil based stoves to drink coffee shipped on boats and planes fueled by oil...  Technology, good, bad, neutral...

Because of the physical and digital technology of the early 21st Century we find ourselves as members of the global village - interpreting our lives in light of events that would otherwise have had no bearing on us, our minds filled with things from outside our context... and now not learning things we would've previously have learned as we presume on the provision of Google for every day knowledge. In another age my wife wouldn't have a phone number and when distance separated us we'd only have been able to write by 'snail mail',... a little more recently I'd have learned her phone number from dialing it repeatedly... today it's information I can access but have never taken the time to learn. Technology, good, bad, neutral...

We're easily unaware of the technology we use, just as its not strange to hear people talk about getting away from the bustle of the city to be in creation, when you're arguably in a higher part of creation surrounded by divine image bearers in a cultivated and engineered landscape than you are alone in an place that hasn't been formed and filled by humanity.

In the early chapters of Genesis we find metal workers and musicians, technologists. Acts of being human, likely not by believers... but how much more should those who believe God seek to fulfill, in a fallen world, the mandate to have good dominion across the world, and to form and fill it, after the image of the God who shone light into darkness... into a world in which, through technology, you find yourself able to read, and access information, via an electronic device, powered by technology, with a body that has been sustained and nourished by food and water that reached you through a whole range of technology.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What does your heart love?


“A world view is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story/myth or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” James Sire (The Universe Next Door, IVP)

We all have worldviews though we may not realise we do... and we might have a false or partially false one... we probably all have inconsistencies.

Looking at the world John Calvin wrote: “There is no colour in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice” And yet, from the Bible he observed, “the heart is an idol factory” People are lovers but we love the wrong things, turning created things into our gods.

CS Lewis warns, tread carefully around idols:
 “It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment. The real universe is probably in many respects less poetical, certainly less tidy and unified, than they had supposed. Man’s role in it is less heroic. The danger that really hangs over him is perhaps entirely lacking in true tragic dignity. It is only in the last resort, and after all lesser poetries have been renounced and Imagination sternly subjected to intellect, that we shall be able to offer them any compensation for what we intend to take away from them. That is why in the meantime we must treat the Myth with respect. It was all (on a certain level) nonsense: but a man would be a dull dog if he could not feel the thrill and charm of it. For my own part, though I believe it no longer, I shall always enjoy it as I enjoy other myths. I shall keep my Cave-Man where I keep Balder amid Helen and the Argonauts: and there often revisit him.” (The Funeral of a Great Myth)
What's your myth? What's your idol?

 “If you really knew me you’d know that my life only has meaning if….”
[the following list was compiled by Tim Keller] 
•   I have power and influence over others” (Power)
• I am loved and respected by___” (Approval)
• I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” (Comfort )
• I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____. (Control )
• people are dependent on me and need me. (Helping)
• someone is there to protect me and keep me safe. (Dependence)
• my parents/other family members are happy, and happy with me.” (Family)
• I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” (Independence)
• I am highly productive and getting a lot done.” (Work)
• I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work.” (Achievement)
• I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.” (Materialism)
• I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.” (Religion)
• this one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me.” (Individual person)
• I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality.” (Irreligion)
• my race and culture is ascendant and seen as superior.” (Racial/cultural)
• a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” (Inner ring)
• Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me.” (Relationship)
• I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt.” (Suffering)
• my political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power.” (Ideology)
• I have a particular kind of look or body image.” (Image)

How does that connect with you? Does something resonate? Does it feel uncomfortable? We all have things we love. Few better ways to get to know someone than asking what makes their life worth living, when do they feel most alive... What do they love?

Discuss....  Part 1. IDOLS. Share your story. 
• What’s your idol, or the myth that enchants you?
• How did/does that show in your life? 
• How does your idol make sense to you emotionally? 
• How does your idol make sense to you intellectually? 
• Tell your story as persuasively and attractively as you can – talk about why you love your idol/myth. 

Discuss... Part 2. JESUS. Help one another. 
• How did and does Jesus confront the longings you pursue from your idol? 
• How did and does Jesus comfort the longings you pursue in your idol? 
• What does it cost you to follow Jesus? 
• How is Jesus better? 

Jesus is out to confront our idols, to put our love of them to death and through his resurrection to win us for himself, comforting our longings. He comes saying: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her… and speak tenderly to her…. Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’ and her who was not my beloved I will call ‘beloved.'"

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hearing God speak through prayer


People pray. It doesn't seem to matter too much what you believe. Muslim or Hindu, Christian or Atheist cry out to someone or something. Who hasn't found themselves in a hard place and cried out "O, God..." or in better times and cried "Thank God..."

Download MP3: Hearing God speak through prayer (30mins).

We pray. Yet, it's hard. You lie on your bed to pray and it feels like the words bounce back off the ceiling as you address your petitions to the light fittings. You find a quiet place to pray and suddenly everything you've procrastinated about for days seems urgent. You pray and you pray and you pray and nothing happens and so you give up. Or, you think my life is already too full and too busy, I have no time to pray. And the biographies of the greats who rise before dawn to pray make it worse.

When I'm weak I think I can't pray until I'm stronger. When I'm strong I don't feel the need to pray so much. I'm caught between a rock and a hard place. I wont when I'm weak. I wont when I'm strong. Yet my gut instinct is still to cry out....  perhaps Ole Hallesby is right: our best prayer is our helplessness.

LEARN FROM THE SON
Jesus' friends observed him praying (Luke 11:1, 10:21). He prayed! And they approached him, "teach us." A humility I struggle to find. Too easy to observe greatness and run. To see another and disqualify myself. Yet they ask. And how does he respond? Does he swat them away? Surely the eternal Son of God has better things to do! No, he says... "When you pray, say..." He smiles and welcomes their learning.

SPEAK TO THE FATHER
What will he say? They've seen him praying "Father". And he says, "pray, Father." Pray like I pray. My second son started to call me Dave. I want to take him aside gently and say, "You're one of three people on the planet who doesn't need to call me that. Call me Daddy." We learn. It's messy. Jesus invites us to step inside his own relationship with the Father. He prays as the eternal Son, we can pray as adopted sons. Not to Jesus' father but to He who now is also our Father.

Fatherhood is complex and broken in our world but there is hope if we let Jesus introduce his Father. There is no Father behind Jesus who is unlike Jesus.  And this Father loves those who have the impudence (ESV) to ask. He invites cheeky, shameless audacity (NIV). Knock on the door at midnight for three loaves to feed a friend. Not one, nor two, but three. Come, as Paul Miller says, to the Three-Loaves-God!

RECEIVE THE SPIRIT
And what will he give? Stuff? Yes but he's more interested in something more. The best fallen fathers give good gifts much more does the Father in Heaven... much more... much more... much more does he give not good gifts but the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Father may change our circumstance but he's more interested in moving into our lives in the middle of our story.

Jesus invites us into his relationship with his Father, by the Holy Spirit - caught up in these eternal loving relationships. Feeling like we can't get through? The way is open - you can't break in or buy in but he opens the way through his body, his death. Feeling distracted? He comes to us in the middle of it all. Feeling cynical? He welcomes our questions and our struggles. Feeling busy? This is no extra thing to add into life, it's a new life.

We might exclude ourselves, I can't call you Father! But he wont have us as slaves - only as adopted sons. Seek and find. We might think ourselves above asking, but he invites us to come into his party. Knock and he will open the door. Ask and much more than you could imagine is yours, freely.

Do you want him? Do you want to be in this family?

And, hearing God speak through prayer is not just for private personal prayer (which Jesus does speak about elsewhere) but for us together to come, to ask for our daily bread and our forgiveness together. To develop the habits of community who learn together from the Son to speak to the Father and receive the Spirit. Going through the motions is part of the messy business of learning, exploring, and growing. We hear as we live in communion with the Triune God, on the basis of the death of the Son who was cut off from the divine family to bring all kinds of people, even me, into that life with him, his Father and the Spirit.