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.


  • 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.

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?

  • 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.

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.