Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Culture, creativity and curiosity

A few things people have made that I've enjoyed in 2015.
  • Best Film: Mad Max Fury Road
  • Best novel: Wise Blood (Flannery O'Connor)
  • Best TV series: Wayward Pines
  • Best podcast: Radiolab
  • Best album: Get to heaven (Everything Everything)
  • Best 'Christian' album: There is a light (Liz Vice)
  • Best non-fiction book: So, you've been publicly shamed (Jon Ronson)
  • Best 'Christian' book: A Wilderness of Mirrors (Mark Meynell)
  • Best training resource: For the life of the world (Evan Koons & friends)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Must we be beautiful people?

"You were never called to be average"
Tweeted the church leader, then retweeted by others, nearly seven hundred times.

To start with, this is like loopy politicians expecting every school to get above average grades... clearly most people will be average... and half might be below average, though granted some will be above average.

And then, there's that this is not remotely Christian. Now, sure, human beings are remarkable, divine image bearers, and I'm not saying we should ignore that. We're wonderfully, uniquely made.

But, the Christian faith isn't about being a star, being beautiful, being a winner. Karma is the worldview for winners. Christ is for losers. Winners can humiliate themselves to follow Christ but it's hard for them to do that.

Christian faith is the story of the Triune God, of the Son who was sent in the fullness of the loving Spirit to utter humiliation, in becoming human, and down and down, to being executed for us.

What are the marks of the Christian life?

 Ordinary. Mundane. 
 Mediocre. Normal. 
 Unspectacular. Plain. 
 Unimpressive. Humdrum. 
 Repetitive. Unseen. 
 Boring. Average.

I used to love to sing 'I'm gonna be a history maker' but really...  in a thousand unseen acts of service, yes...  in the daily dying for my wife, my kids, my friends, my enemies, yes....

The poison of celebrity culture has got in deep. Who are the most influential Christians in the world? Really, all the ones I've never heard of and never will. But we I buy into the game like everyone else. I follow the 'big names', buy their stuff. And I'm not necessarily criticising them. If you have a voice use it for good, but who needs to be a voice... can't I just be happy to be ordinary?

Jesus Christ was un-eye-catching, and the servant-of-all. The least. The disregarded. The excluded. The rejected. Not the darling of a well-lit stage. Not the charismatic leader of a religion, cause or business. Jesus Christ and him crucified, foolishness and weakness, divine wisdom and power.

Nothing necessarily wrong with presenting yourself well. Good design and good communication are important. But Christian faith isn't a product to be sold by hyping up people's value... but by hearing about the one who emptied himself of everything to stand in our place.

Something is dischordant about attempts to create impressive beautiful Christianity. Though, of course, there is something strangely beautiful about the cross of Christ that makes a deep impression on all who will have him.

Image - Creative Commons - Eric Hines

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


In the NY Times Bruce McCall instructs in the art of The Perfect Non-Apology Apology.
"Caught red handed... It wasn't me" pleaded the philosopher Shaggy...

1 Samuel 13:8-14. It's early in the reign of Israel's first king, Saul. Around 1000BC. They've rejected God by wanting a king like the nations around them. And they get Saul, an impressive figure. He's just getting started but here it all goes wrong.

He was the King the people wanted, but not the King they needed.
The Sin (v8-9)
The Enquiry (v10-11a)
The Excuses (v11b-12)
The Judgement (v13a)
The Sentence (v13b-14)
Saul's fall begins with him waiting. His people are nervous and deserting him. The enemy is near. The prophet hasn't shown up yet. Impatient Saul takes matters into his own hands and seizes the prophet/priest office for himself, making an offering to God. And then - in perfect tragic/comic timing - Sauel turns up. "What have you done?" What indeed. What were you thinking Saul?

Saul had been given a set of responsibilities but this wasn't one of them. He stepped out of what was asked of him... and then didn't take responsibility for what he should've done. Ever done that? 

(a) Folly
What's the word for this? Samuel calls him a fool, and a breaker of God's command. He;s failed to trust The Father, and his spiritual father Samuel. 

(b) Blameshifting
Saul having taken responsiblity for things that weren't his responsibility is passing the buck like a hot potato.
I blame the people for being scared. 
I blame the enemy for being nasty. 
I blame the prophet for not being here.
And given all of those circumstances I was forced into making an offering to God. Forced. O yes, forced. Reluctant, but y'know: I did it for God. I blame him too. This problem you put here, God...
I blame God.
There are always circumstances, but it's never really the circumstances. They just provide the context, the trigger, the situation. Caught red-handed Saul dives into cover-up mode. "Saul is not the second Adam, he's the first Adam revisited." (Tim Chester)

Scapegoating. Irresponsible. Feckless. Saul, instinctively answers being caught with a non-apology apology.
"Every leader sins. But those leaders to fail to take responsibiltity for their sin and turn from it will find that they have nothing left to lead." (Peter Leithart) 
Here, and again later, the problem isn't so much the initial sin - that was bad - but the failure to own it. The story of Israel isn't a story in which salvation is found by covering up your sins - fig leaf style. The story is setup to give the freedom to be honest about everything - and to find one who will cover you. Saul tries to be the king of kings and save himself, instead of bowing to the real king who will be his scapegoat

And, as the King, so the people. And Saul leads his people round and round in circles, down and down into deathliness. But this will not go on forever. Like Adam, Saul throne cannot be allowed to go on forever - it will be given to another, a King of God's heart. "David is not even in the frame of the story...Samuel is speaking of Jesus" (Jacky Lam).

The true and better king is needed, pictured by Saul's heir David, realised in Great David's Greater Son, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Where Saul was a fool who deflected responsiblity for mistrust of God, King Jesus is wise and trusts his Father, and in that take responsibility for my folly and mistrust.

I shift the blame to keep myself out of trouble... and in the short term that might work but in the long haul this fecklessness will ruin my life. Lies catch up with us. Failing to take responsibility means I don't learn, I don't grow. It's vulnerable to be exposed... and to trust that there is one sufficient for me.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

When I am the hero / When Jesus is the hero

A meditation on Psalms 1-2.

When I am the hero then the Psalm tells me that I'm blessed if I read the Bible day and night and keep away from the bad guys.  When I am the hero they are the bad guys and bad will happen to them, but I am the good guy and all will be well.

When Jesus is the hero I see him typified in Israel's King who is to model trust in the LORD, to have his own copy of the Word. Jesus trusts the LORD and is the fruitful one. When Jesus is the hero we are all the bad guys. Our life like chaff.

When I am the hero they are the bad guys who conspire against the LORD and find him oppressive and restrictive... and I hope they'll get what they deserve, and tell them so. Listen you bad guys and face what's coming to you.

When Jesus is the hero, he is the one against whom sin is committed. The LORD's Anointed. As we rage against his cords of kindness. We are the bad guys who conspire against him. Where we expect heaven to be silent to human protestations, the gospel message sounds.

When Jesus is the hero he's the word of wrath, the king enthroned on a cross, the one crucified for sin. The fruitful tree is crucified on a tree. When Jesus is the hero he's the one in whom we're invited to find refuge. Whoever I am, whatever I do, despite and because of the conspiracy, rebellion and chaff in my heart: He's for me. The Psalms are the songbook of the church because the church is the company of conspirators who respond to his gospel by allying themselves with the one against whom they rage(d).

When I am the hero, blessed am I for my devotion, and cursed are those who sin...

When Jesus is the hero: happy is Jesus and happy are those who though they rage and conspire against him take refuge in him. And there, I can be honest about my experience of sin, have empathy for my fellow human beings because we're so very alike, and rest only in the gospel word of the Son, the fruitful King who was crucified...

This gospel shape turns out to be better motive to read the Bible than having to do it to become blessed - I read to find Christ and entrust myself to him - which is where blessing is really found. And since this gospel is announced for the conspiring kings then however bad things get, however mistaken, however undevoted I've been.... however rebellious, however conspiring, however cold, however passive-agressive, however distracted... I can always and immediately and safely come again and hide in Jesus.

Image- Creative Commons - Stefano Corso

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Our most compelling storytellers

"Our most compelling storytellers will be those who have suffered firsthand the tragic flaws of the postmodern story and thus possess the empathy and insight necessary..." (Curtis Chang)
When Curtis Chang wrote, in 2000, about postmodernism his focus was, prophetically, on the stories of a Post-Christian Society and Religious Pluralism.

I'm not sure postmodernism is quite the terminology today, but the two areas he focusses on are very relevant. He also uses the language of metanarrative which might be disputed. Chris Oldfield shares from Westphal (1982) noting that "Christianity is not a metanarrative." 

Chang's Engaging Unbelief (IVP, 2000), invited the church to engage others by "entering the challenger's story... retelling the story... capturing that retold tale within the gospel metanarrative..." This "requires operating within the challengers worldview" as "fellow indwellers in the shared story" carefully reworking it to expose the "tragic flaw", a weakness that causes the downfall of the other's story.

I picked Engaging Unbelief up from my shelf again recently, and am reminded both how influential it has been upon me, but also how much I still have to learn. Chang observed, engaging postmodernism 15 years ago, that we need "storytellers who have lived the postmodern story from the inside... our most compelling storytellers will be those who have suffered firsthand the tragic flaws of the postmodern story and thus possess the empathy and insight necessary..." (p172) The same would for engaging any different worldview.

The empathy and insight he calls for are easily absent - surrounded by voices of agreement it's sadly true that "For nonbelievers especially, the sort of sermon commonly preached in church tends to assume what it actually needs to establish... " (p156) How easy to preach to the choir. I'm thankful for much of my ministry education so far being in frontline student ministry where common ground could rarely be assumed. Can it ever? Whether among students, graduates, middle class or working class... little can be assumed in a post-Christian or religiously pluralistic culture...

Academic analysis, like Chang's, is interesting but his call isn't just for smarts, but also to empathy. Compassion. Shared life. When I speak I speak as one human being to my fellow human beings, let me never forget that. For 18 years I didn't see the world through the lense of Christ - and much of that worked for me, but there were flaws and problems there too. We breathe the same air. We walk the same roads, celebrate together, weep together...

The gospel is Christ, but this exceedingly good news can and must be told in many ways.  "The gospel metanarrative is too rich and too alive to be boiled down to a timeless formula that can be repeated verbatim from one generation to the next..." (p163) But this is not a call to accomodate to people, rather "we seek to let the biblical Story ultimately define what is relevant." (p165) Enter into others stories, sympathetically drawing out the consequences of their stories, some of them painful, and persuade of a new story from within.

Evangelism is an offensive idea but we're always being proselytised, stories are always competing with one another, in conversation, in advertising, in culture, in church... "establishing a story's superior explanatory power is crucial in determining whether it can capture all other challengers. A metanarrative must not only explain an external reality better than other stories; it must also explain the other stories themselves... a metanarrative must provide a metaexplanation: why it explains correctly while the other story fails." (p84)

Chang's book takes works by Augustine and Aquinas as it's worked examples of entering into the worlds of Rome and Greece - one toward a post-Christian society, one toward religious pluralism. From there, to retell the gospel in a way that restates the Christian story, more engagingly and more persuasively. Rather than, "Christian rhetoric towards nonbelievers [which] sounds polemical and incomprehensible, something along the lines of 'Believe me when I claim the Bible is true because the Bible and I say so.'" (P114)

There's little substitute for spending time with people to get where they're coming from. But, led by Chang, I'm keen to read more and learn more too. I've read plenty about Aquinas being compromised by dependence on Aristotle, but Chang argues he's entering into and reinterpreting Aristotle to win Aristotelians, especially Muslims, to Christ, which, if successful is rather different...

Experiencing others stories from the inside inevitably brings accusations of compromise in pursuit of faithfulness. Missteps are entirely possible (see my previous post on Arius)... but perhaps unavoidable, and failing to enter into others stories is far from faithfulness too. Is Luther right to say that Aquinas compromised the gospel by dependence upon Aristotle, or is Chang right to say Aquinas engaged Aristotle to retell the gospel to Aristotelians? One, the other, or a bit of both...? I'm not sure yet!

Faithfully communicating about what you believe with those who see the world differently isn't easy, it calls for thoughtfulness and heartfulness and humility. Being true to Christ means meeting people where they are, as they are, and looking at the world the way they do...

Chang notes, for our age, a welcome "into the family of Father, Son and Holy Spirit [completing] the... unresolved story. This family is where doubters are reassured and the marginalised are welcomed. It is the experience of God's love... the first generation to experience widespread breakdown of the family long for this experience. Their personal stories often are filled with the doubt and pain caused by divorce, abuse and other family dysfunction... yearning for true family must be addressed by our rendition of the gospel." (p168) "An unimaginable final feast with the Father awaits us, but we must travel by faith on this journey home." (p133)

Friday, December 04, 2015

In search of common ground

The Christian faith isn't new. It was to me in 1997, and I bought the idea from the 'charismatic movement' I found myself in that real Christianity was only really found in 1970... I probably misheard because I'd spent my childhood believing the story of progress that is quick to dismiss the primitive people who went before us in pursuit of the latest upgrade.

I need the light of those who have gone before me. "The breeze of the centuries." The Egyptian pastor Athanasius, of the 4th Century, is very helpful. He was called on to respond to his fellow Egyptian, Arius. They were part of a generation who emerged from an age of violent persecution into a time where free dialogue about faith was possible. Sixteen-hundred years later, we emerge from Christendom into a time where again few know much of the Christian faith.

Arius was keen to enter the conversation but Athanasius shows that Arius compromised his faith in pursuit of common ground. Athanasius writes:

Arius is trying to engage with people but he's lost the plot and dishonoured God in the process - whether accidentally or deliberately. He calls God The-One-Without-A-Beginning. He looks at creation and says "this had a beginning so let's agree that God is whoever made all this". That sounds reasonable but it dishonours Jesus, and deliberately so. He's claiming Jesus as a superman - the best of us and our example. 

This sounds impressive and reasonable. As with many who try to work God out, this misses the mark completely.

Instead of saying God became Human so Humanity can enter the life of God, they say Jesus isn't God. It sounds reasonable to say Jesus is a good teacher and a good man. It's reasonable to be impressed. But this is bad in two ways. Firstly, they puff up the humblest servant who ever lived, portraying him as a superman - an intimidating example. Secondly, they do the opposite of what they're attempting: they push the God who came near out of reach.

There is better news. If Jesus is God come into the world then he is the one who came to die, not as an example of great love but in love to mend what is broken (through his death that puts death to death) and  to make his Father known. Let Jesus be the signpost. He says he is the Son of God. God, then, is his Father. The Son who uniquely makes the Father known to us. Know yourself as one in need and so receive his help. Rather than busying yourself for him, sit at his feet and listen, knowing him and his Father.

How much better is that? If we call God the unmade maker all we're doing is saying that the creation was created. It sounds like we all believe in God. There's nothing wrong with looking for common ground but reducing God to a word without any meaning doesn't get us anywhere. Some might want a God they can approach as slaves to a master, saying "O, Uncreated One" but that's a shadow of what Jesus says. He said pray "Our Father". We're not slaves but sons, as we come in Jesus' name.

The good news of Jesus tells of the Father who will adopt any of us, through the open arms of his Son, through the Son who came to seek and save those who were lost. Clever people might like a Power-God they can get their head round, but their philosophising is just fantasy... The God and Father of Jesus is a God who doesn't require smartness of us, but rather loves out of sheer love.

Arius gets agreement about there being a God of some kind, but the real issue is "what of Jesus?" Jesus gets the ultimate common ground - God who become one of us. Jesus won't impress those who want to be impressed, but is the God who meets us right where we are, as one of us, in our shared experience of life in this broken world, in our mortality. And there he meets all kinds of people, any of us, on common ground, to bring us into the common life of the Trinity.

(Paraphrased from Athanasius' books, Against the Arians and On the Incarnation, with help from their interpreters, especially Peter Leithart, Glen Scrivener and Mike Reeves)

Friday, November 27, 2015

What Preaching Is

One of the things I love about my current job is training younger preachers. By the grace of God I've probably preached around 500 times over the past 15 years and hopefully I've learned some things along the way but I've still got plenty more to learn. And however many times you've done it, every sermon starts as a blank page...

I've particularly been helped by Marcus Honeysett, Dick Lucas and Tim Keller's approaches to preaching - to hol out Christ to people where they are. Andy Stanley's 'Communicating for a change' was a gamechanger in terms of getting away from complexity to simpler sermons and better connection with people.

For all the skill and good grammar, I wonder whether preaching is more a matter of conviction than it is technicality.  There is craft to learn in good communication, in filtering how much to say, how to articulate it clearly, convincingly. And the preparation process varies. This is an art more than a science.

I'm persuaded by Keller that more time with people than time in the study is a good idea (though Keller would probably presuppose a rigorous theological education)...  we must have Christ in view and people in view, because in the end it comes down to something like...
Sermon preparation is Exegeting Christ from the text and Repenting to Christ.
As I sit in front of a Bible text and a blank page the goal is to exegete Christ from the text. The Bible is, one way or another, in some way or another, from one angle or another, about Christ. Seeing how takes good grammar, good understanding of context, of Biblical and Systematic Theology and the illumining of the Spirit.

If I'm not drawing that HIM from the text I've missed the point... and better get repenting to him, crying out for him to make himself known through the ink on the page and the light of his Spirit in my heart. When I see him, the posture of preparation is one of kneeling. Let me repent again to him.

Pixar and others tell us that stories are about the "once upon a time... and every day... but then one day..." moments. And so it is with the gospel. I live my life blissfully/sinfully unaware of Christ in some way in at least some part of my life, but then I encounter him in the text, and everything begins to change. I'm called to fresh repentance - however long I've been walking with Jesus or not.

And then, what is preaching?
Preaching is doing [all of the above] in front of people.
One human being in front of other human beings. All of us somewhere in the middle of life, and - whilst I want to initiate a conversation, entice them to see that what we're going to look at matters - my goal must be to exegete Christ from the text in front of people, with people, for people, and then to lead the way in publicly repenting (repeating and restating the repenting I've done in my study) so that together we might all go to Christ.

When that's my goal - we'll get to Christ. When that's my goal - I stand inches ahead of people having already faced what the Spirit says through this text in the preceding days rather than over and apart from people. I come as a broken person, convicted, humbled, needing Christ for myself.

Encountering Christ does wonders for my posture and tone, my compassion and tenderness, not to mention my desire to be clear and persuasive. Encountering Christ doesn't wonders for me, turns my life inside out, upward and outward.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Life You Never Expected

Andrew and Rachel Wilson share their story in the middle of raising children with special needs.

Our own parenting journey hasn't been without its challenges over the past six years - some of which I've shared, some I've not. None of our situations are as severe as the Wilson's. In the pain and the frustration and the disappointment we've found grace we never knew we needed or could receive.

There's something amazingly reassurring and compassionate and real in the tone of Andrew and Rachel's voices and I commend this podcast to you. It's cliche to say light shines out of broken pots, but that's what I hear in their voices. I respect and have learned much from Andrew-the-theologian, Andrew-the-apologist, Andrew-the-thinker, but I'd take Andrew-the-parent any day. I'm glad Andrew is doing a PhD, that will serve people well, but so too does this story, forged in the pain of life.

The Wilson's are living 'the life [they] never expected' which is, of course, true for many of us. Their interview relates to their book on the same subject. Like Emma Scrivener's A New Name (on anorexia), whether you share their experiences or not, you'll find in their journey, light in the darkness, company in the loneliness, honesty among the well-meaning platitudes that are the best many people can offer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An extraordinary gift for ordinary people

[8] And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. [10] And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. [11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. [12] And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12 ESV)

I'm preaching in a couple of weeks time... here's a few scribbles, your interactions welcome.

Glen Scrivener notes (in a sermon on this passage which I think is excellent) that the film Prometheus is a photo-negative of the Christmas story. I'm no great fan of the Alien films (unlike my wife who loves them) but I found Ridley Scott's 2012 film to be an intriguing exploration of what it means to interact with our makers and to explore more of the human condition.

The genre gives a great canvas to explore grand themes. In this case, the intrepid and courageous crew head off to find our makers, and find only that they hate us... a theme reflecting in the other parental relationships in the film. An exploration of the story of progress that seeks to throw of those who went before and assert ourselves in this world.

Quite a contrast to the events of the Christmas story.

Angels, regularly on stage in the early chapters of Luke, do what Luke repeatedly records them doing: shining with good news. They are evangelists from the courts of heaven. Far from reporting heaven's hatred for it's offspring (Acts 17), they record that God is not far from us - indeed he is to be found in the nearby town.

There is here an extraordinary gift for ordinary people. 

The audience here are very ordinary. 
A group of labourers on a night shift. Not the courageous. Not the great and the good. Some of us think very highly of ourselves, especially in our youth, but we are for the most part: ordinary. Life is mundane. Life is ordinary. And the subject of the angel's good news is "for all the peoples". His claims will carry a exclusivity but it is utterly inclusive.

The good news delivered is of a gift. 
"Unto you is born." My two year old can't quite sing happy birthday to you properly yet, so he sings "Happy to you", which is the sentiment of the angels. Good news to you. A gift to you. A Saviour. Managers and Leaders are brought in to turn company's and football teams around. The language of salvation is used in those situations - but where managers make demands, Saviour's save. All is gift here. Exclusively inclusive because it doesn't depend on us but upon the giver and the gift.

Who is this gift to the ordinary? An extrordinary one. 
Firstly, the Christ. Great David's Greater Son, God's anointed one - the Spirit anointed one as Luke-Acts will make abundantly clear. The one abundantly overflowing with the loving Spirit of the Father steps into the world.
Secondly, the Lord. God come close is God made small. God in a manger.

Christmas doesn't tell the tale of a God who hates us, who keeps distant, despising and demanding of us. Nor of a God for the intrepid, courageous, bold and able. Rather, an extrordinary gift, God himself for the ordinary. The story Luke tells - which you could read for yourself - is the story of the self-giving God. God in a manger who grew up to be God on a Roman Cross... for our salvation is one that is very great - rescue not from relegation or disappointment but from death and corruption. Gift, to us and for us.

Steve Jobs is portrayed by Aaron Sorkin as describing the problem of his (our) human condition as being "poorly made." Sin, in a phrase, acknowledged and yet with the blame deftly shifted. If we are poorly made we can blame our maker for our failings. Luke would tell us, we are God's offspring - fearfully and wonderfully made and yet thoroughly and deeply corrupted. Yet all is not lost. And that's the point at Christmas. Far more can be mended than we know (Spufford). The sad things can come untrue (Tolkien). We can be saved from the darkness within ourselves and the divine judgement under which we stand. How? Because heaven sends the Spirit-anointed Son into this world. God's gift: Himself.

Image - Creative Commons - FutUndBeldl

Saturday, November 21, 2015

At the Table with Sibbes

One of my heroes of faith is Richard Sibbes. Mark Dever summarises that for Sibbes the Supper was not a means of conversion - that only by the gospel word - but rather strengthened, confirmed and assured of faith already present.

Sibbes speaks of The Lord's Supper, in Bowel's Opened: The Saint's Comfort:
God gave his Son to death, to shed his blood for my sins. What would become of the hunger-bitten, thirsty soul, that is stung by Satan and his temptations, were it not for the blood of Christ to quench our thirst, and the body of Christ given by the Father to death for sin? Were it not that the soul could think upon this, where were the comfort of the soul? All this is represented to us here in the sacrament.
 We feed on the body and blood of Christ spiritually, and are refreshed by it as our bodies are refreshed with the bread and wine. God does not feed us with empty symbols and representations, but with things themselves, that the soul which comes in faith to partake of Christ crucified, and be knit to him, who is in heaven. There is as sure a union and communion between Christ and the Christian as there is between the food and the body when it is digested.
Let us come to this blessed sacrament, this sweet food of our souls with hungry appetites and thankful hearts, that God has given us the best comfort of his word. He will feed us so sweetly that nothing is good enough for our food but himself, with his gracious word and truth. Let us be very thankful and stir up our appetite for him.

How shall come?
  • Firstly, let us think seriously of our life this week past. For Christ, the food of the soul, relishes well with the sour herbs of repentance. Let us stir our hearts to repent of our sins and sorrow at our corrupt nature and life, and feel our lack. Then Christ will be sweet to us. As the Passover lamb was eaten with sour herbs so Christ our Passover is eaten with repentance.
  • Secondly, come with purging. Many things clog the stomach. Do not come in worldly wicked and malicious affections but lay them aside.
  • Thirdly, consider the need of spiritual strength. We need his assistance. Let us often frequent this means of grace and come prepared to find Christ making good on his promise in his best time, so we can say with the truth of heart, experience and feeling with the church: My beloved is mine and I am his.” 
Image - Creative Commons - 10MFH

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Come to the Table

Part 1 – Liturgy 

Here is the traditional shape of a church service for most of church history, across the traditions... a pattern of Word and Sacraments... whereas today many evangelicals would emphasise either Word and Spirit or simply the Word.

1. The Liturgy of the Catechumens / Word 
  • Bible Reading
  • Preaching
  • Creeds
2. The Liturgy of the Sacraments / Eucharist
  • Confession
  • Eucharist
  • Sending out into God’s world
Only the baptised could participate fully in the second part of this service. Catechumen’s gain access after a period of Catechesis designed to educate desire for Christ, building up to Baptism and a first Eucharist.

  • What would the experience of this kind of service be like? What does this include that we miss - what are we missing out on? What's missing that's normal for us?
  • What does the two-stage service communicate about the value of Baptism and The Supper, and the church? 
  • Jonathan Edwards was fired (in part) for wanting to keep this ‘barrier’ at the Table... why would Baptism be the qualification for eating and drinking at the Table? What's helpful about that and what's difficult? What questions does this raise?
Part 2 – The Table 

The key texts for interpreting the table are that Jesus says "this is my body/blood given for you" and "do this in remembrance of me" "proclaiming his death". Understanding has varied in the history of the church... As a rough over simplified sketch...
  • 11th Century - The East and West split over Trinity & Politics, not so much over communion. Few today would understand which side of the argument they'd fall on. Does the Holy Spirit come from the Father, or from the Father and the Son? From this, 1000 years of schism in the church. There's a richness in much Eastern liturgy of the Supper that feels like reading Calvin most excellently in Alexander Schmemann.
  • 16th Century – Protests against Rome by Luther over many issues, including The Supper. 
  • Luther says the Bread and Wine remain but doesn't resolve how. 
  • Zwingli pulls away more strongly towards symbolism that emphasises a solemn remembrance. 
  • Calvin finds a middle pathway and sees the Holy Spirit as the one who makes Christ present at the table.  
  • Rome condemns the Reformers for their teaching in this area and the Protestant Oxford Martyrs are killed over this issue in a highly-charged political context.
  • Taking up each of the five major positions - how do you view the table from this perspective? How important is this moment? What expectations would you have? What questions would you have? 
Part 3 - Calvin

Monday, November 16, 2015

You're invited - Jesus calls and Jesus cares (Luke 13:1-9)

You grind to a halt. Car after a car ahead of you. And you’re stuck. You were already running late. Then your phone battery dies too so you can’t call ahead. You will miss your appointment. 
  • What happens next? How do you feel? 
  • Do you respond it by pounding on the steering wheel?
  • Do you rage outwardly, against yourself, other drivers, the council for the roadworker… 
  • Do you rage inwardly – especially common when you have a passenger… 
  • How did this happen? Why didn’t you charge your phone? Why me? 
  • And when you finally arrive will you ‘fess up? Will you cover up? 
The way we react to what happens to us shows what’s in our hearts. 
Knock into me and coffee might spill from my cup. Why? On the one hand because you knocked me. But on the other hand because there was coffee in my cup. Circumstances reveal what’s in our hearts. Good days, bad days, all circumstances reveal what we’re like.
[Thanks to the brilliant people at CCEF & BCUK for these senarios and observations...]

As we share experiences as a community the temptation is to think that taking away the bad situation would solve things? Would it? Or, to think that if we could just control response that would help? Would it? It’s said that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart… and Jesus is into heart-change not just outward change.

1. JESUS CALLS (1-5) 
The people tell Jesus about a tragic event. A political atrocity done by Pilate. v1. And Jesus will retell as second example about a tower that fell and killed people in v4. That’s just two examples. Paris, Beirut, Lebanon... examples never go away.

What would you say if asked about such events? Jesus’ responds with questions, answers and a challenge. The question? Twice.
v2: “do you think that these… were worse sinners…?” 
v4: “do you think they were more guilty…?” 

Jesus doesn’t explain why these events happened. Not because that doesn’t matter. But because he has something else to say here. Jesus looks at how we respond to seeing suffering in our community. In this section of his gospel Luke records Jesus inviting us to read the times. We check whether it’s going to rain before going out… so look at the world and see what is going to happen.

When someone suffers does that mean they’re worse than me? Do bad things happen to bad people? As a teenager I loved that kind of approach to life – I was a good kid, so that meant good would happen to me… right?

When Jesus is asked the question he answers, twice: Do bad things happen to bad people? v3: No. v5: NO. In the heat of suffering Jesus addresses our hearts with an unexpected. Twice he says:
v3: “unless you repent you too will all perish” 
v5: “unless you repent, you too will all perish” 

Faced with the heat of suffering in our community, Jesus turns to our hearts. He asks: when someone nearby is wronged, when someone is hurt, when someone is ill… What do I think? What do I feel? What do I do? Where am I with Jesus?

Jesus knows that we might judge others but he wants us to repent. REPENT is a big word. It can sound heavy-handed. It just means turning around. To repent is to turn. The question is to what or who? Here it’s about turning to Jesus. In the heat of the day Jesus is concerned for my heart. Seeing my heart is painful.

Naturally, I want to run and hide in the darkness, and cover up what I’m like so you won’t think less of me. But seeing is an opportunity. A moment of grace.

Will I turn from my anger, my desire to be in control, my judgement of others? But I can't change my heart... God can, and so Jesus speaks - by his word all things can be changed. He invites us to come to him. To come to his cross, where his arms are wide open to receive me. There my old heart can be put to death. There a new heart is offered.

Tragically, going to Jesus, isn’t always my first move. When there’s suffering in my community…
  •  When my son gets sick: I think it’d be better if he was well.
  •  When my friend is struggling at work: I think it’d be imagine it’d be better if his situation changed.
But Jesus is more concerned with dealing with my heart than with taking away the heat. I think health and wealth and choice and fulfilment would be good for me… Jesus says better to lose everything and come to him, than to have everything and continue to be unfruitful. I think of people I’ve walked with in faith. Friends with depression, terminal cancer, struggling in their workplace.., Or, caring for members of my family through serious and chronic illness in recent years...
  •  At times: numb and exhausted.
  •  At times: frustrated and struggling to see. 
  • At times: bewildered and confused..
  • But, looking at my life, and those I’ve walked with… good fruit from turning to Jesus.
  • The pain may not go away. 
  • The job may not get easier. 
  • The suffering may not ease. 
Turnig t ohim is like being in the hands of a metalworker, engraving a piece of steel. The scrapping of the metal grating in the ear, but in time a beautiful engraving begins to emerge. Without turning to Jesus it is all too easy to remain bitter and hard, and for that to increase.

For Jesus in this conversation – and for us – it’s not really about suffering, tragedy, pain and betrayal. The issue is human heart and sin. All situations - good or bad - give me the opportunity to turn again to Jesus. A friend challenged me about something he'd observed in my behaviour. A painful moment. My selfishness, my self-interest was exposed. Why wasn’t I being generous? Why wasn’t I giving myself to know them? How had I not seen that before? What hope is there for someone like me?

Get away from the dull glow of the city lights the sky darkens, and then the stars shine brighter.

Seeing my sin is a moment for seeing God’s grace all the more brightly. There is mercy in Christ I never knew I needed. One look at my sin, sent me to ten times at Jesus. It’s one of the beautiful things about the church community. Our rough edges rub up against one another, showing up the attitudes of our hearts. Helping us to grow both in the good days and the bad days....

2. JESUS CARES (6-9) 
Jesus then tells a parable. What’s the story? In the Old Testament Israel were described as a vineyard, and Jesus picks up that picture. There’s the owner of the vineyard and he wants his trees to be fruitful. V6: He went to look for fruit on it. He says he’s been looking for years and he’s found no fruit. v6. So Jesus says: v7, cut it down. But, the man who looks after the vineyard for him says, v8: ‘…leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ 

He calls for "one more year” to cultivate this tree. Luke carefully organises the eyewitness reports he’s collected. He puts things next to one another to highlight aspects of who Jesus is. This story is about the same thing as the conversation before. The owner is looking for fruitfulness, just as Jesus was looking for repentance. Time is given. “One more year.” There is a moment to respond.

This is a story of care and compassion shown by the man who we can understand as representing Jesus. It’s a picture not an allegory, so we’ll not over read the detail. We don’t want to pit the owner against the worker – for example as if somehow Jesus is more compassionate than his Father. Luke is clear that Jesus makes his Father known - there's no nasty Father hiding behind a loving Jesus, and knowing Jesus is to know his Father.

See Jesus. See him care for the unfruitful tree. Giving this moment now to turn to him. He doesn’t want the tree to perish, be cut down or removed.

Parables aren’t just neat illustrations though... Parables test our hearts. They offend. And we need to catch the sting of this one. There’s suspense: will there be fruit before the axe falls? There’s scandal: He says we’re unfruitful. Dead in the water. Will we agree and so receive his care?

Naturally, we want to think of ourselves as full of life. Jesus says we’re lifeless and helpless to change ourselves. "We might look colourful and bright like a Christmas tree, but we’re dying inside." [Glen Scrivener]

We might try to cover it up, but we know it. We’re offered skin creams to look younger. We might follow the Newspaper headlines and avoid bacon or coffee or cheese to live longer. But in the end: everyone dies.

But, Jesus isn’t really talking about death. He warns against “perishing” – twice in verses 1-5. Jesays says, if we fail to repent, we will perish. Jesus is not saying that people who don’t trust him will suffer atrocities… nor that towers will fall on people. Evil and suffering in this world don’t check your beliefs or behaviour. Jesus is talking about something worse than death.
  • Being cut down and removed. 
  • Perishing. 
  • The axe, ready. Judgement, coming. 
  • Oh to have a deeper horror at my sin, and dread of being away from Jesus. But when Jesus warns… 
  •  He doesn’t do it to chase us away. 
  •  He calls. He cares. 
  •  In speaking of judgement there is always an invitation. 

Jesus works his vineyard. Tills the ground. Prepares the soil for the roots of grace to spread far and wide. He wants us to know him – to enjoy him like the summer harvest. Our experience of life exposes our hearts. Ordinary situations give us opportunities to turn to Jesus.And turning, we meet Jesus at his cross.
  • The one who was innocent, but had atrocities committed against him. 
  • The one who was innocent, but the tower fell on him. 
  • The one who was fruitful, but was cut down and removed from the vineyard. 
  • The one who freely offered his life in our place. 
In any community there is bad happening and good happening to people. I remember walking into a church meeting after five days in hospital with one of our children. Bruised, fragile, exhausted but glad to be there. A few people knew our situation though many didn’t. Sat around me many people in good days, bad days. In every seat human hearts responding well and responding badly to situations.

This morning and this week: Jesus has moments of grace for us. As you catch yourself, or others catch you, raging, frustrated, judging, despairing, covering up… Right there is the opportunity to turn again to Jesus. He’s calling. He cares. He won't turn you away if you turn to him, so will you turn to him? You’re invited. And he’s yours if you’ll have him.

An old puritan prayer puts it this way 
“Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water. 
As life reveals our hearts, and even in this moment, Jesus is calling and caring for us. Inviting us to turn to him and have HIM.

Image: (Creative Commons) Spill by Darrol.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Today I visited a Mosque: A faith community observed

This afternoon I volunteered as a parent on my son's trip to the local Mosque. My work flexes enough to make this possible and I was interested to encounter a different faith community in our city.

Six reflections.

1. 42 six year olds.
Respect to the teachers, teaching assistants for all they ever do. And also to the Imam and his assistant for handling that many kids and patiently fielding their questions.

2. Community.
There's a strong sense of community at the Mosque. They consider it better to pray together than alone. While the physicality of praying together seems strange to those who've never seen it before there's something beautiful in the unity.

3. Faith and cultural differences.
Kids are curious about the rituals, beliefs and languages people have. They have questions. My son found talk of God without Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be strange which was encouraging, and an opportunity to help him understand more of our faith and that which was being presented to us in word and actions. One of the teachers seemed nervous around these questions but the men from the Mosque were more than happy to engage questions about Allah in a world of other gods and religions...

4. Washing.
Much was made in our visit of the ritual washings before prayer.

Knowing we've read The Jesus Storybook Bible with our son for years, not least the story of Namaan, the difference between an Islamic approach to Allah with it's outward cleaning, and the Christian belief in being counted righteous and being 'clean on the inside' was vivid. For me but also for my son.

That in Christ I come mucky and messed up to pray "in Jesus' name" when at my worst rather than having cleaned myself up is freshly beautiful to me this evening.

5. Simplicity.
To quote - we speak to Allah by praying, we hear him by reading the Quran. Oh, for Christians to get the simplicity of Prayer and The Book...

6. Faith observed.
We observed something of Islam in a Mosque visit - we talked a lot about their washing, their toothbrushes and habits of individual and corporate prayer. Is this a true picture or a school trip caricature? What would a visit to a church reveal? What would I choose to talk about and to display? If I believe in 'everyday church' that isn't really about ritual or piety, what does that look like? And in any case what kind of picture do the observations people get to make reveal. 

Curiously little was said of what Islam is in terms of belief. That may not have been the brief. We heard a little about Mohammed and him being an example - even to his toothbrushing habits, but not much more. I don't think a church visit is scheduled, Jesus gets Christmas... which might be helpful, though again only gives an incomplete picture.

I look forward to ongoing conversation with my kids about our faith and the faith of those around us.

Image - Creative Commons - Hector de Pareda

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

I believe in the prosperity gospel, don't you?

I don't. I mean not really. I know better but in practice... all too often I think I'm entitled to health and wealth and choice and fulfillment. And if I don't get that just watch me prickle.

When the heat of life (diagram thanks to Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp) burns down on me it's the illnes and the financial insecurity and the limitations and the boring jobs that draw from my heart frustration and annoyance and other unpleasantries.

As Lane and Tripp (and others) note - when a drink is spilled from a glass, there's water on the floor on the one hand because something knocked it, but on the other hand because it was in the glass in the first place. Nothing comes out in my words and actions that doesn't originate in my heart.

When ease drives my decisions, when safety sets the agenda, when satisfaction is required I might well be in the territory of good things but I'm off the grid when it comes to the promises of God in Christ.

He never said every little thing was going to be ok. He never said I would get to do the job I wanted. He never said I would be employed. He never said my kids would be strong and successful. That's not Christianity, it's the prosperity gospel (a classic case of a gospel that is no gospel at all).

And yet, deep in me - from the depths of my heart, and from the air that I've breathed these last 36.5 years  such entitlement feels utterly normal.

The ordinary and the everyday situations and knocks of life in my community expose the reality of my heart. And in that moment I can harden myself and justify myself and tell myself that my response is reasonable and acceptable... or I could repent to Christ. [Worth noting that the heat of happy days can illicit the darkness in my heart just as much as the bad days.]

Horrified and exposed and without defence I find a moment of grace.

Instead of fruitless unrepentance that's heading for being cut down and cast out, I might instead find the one who was cut own and cast out for me, for us! As Sibbes puts it, none of us who come to Christ with in need are ever turned away.

In the sound of the gospel, ringing in the ordinary moments of the day, I can mortify that stinking sewage and bile of sin that pours out of my heart by being led again and again to the cross of Christ. And there, find new life, new heart, new spiritual fruit... a different way to approach the situations of life.

And there I might find contentment in the company of his people. There I might find Christ and become just a little more like him who faced the harshed heat not so my life might be easy, but so that together, day by day, we might know him just a little more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Two thing are necessary

We're reading through Luke and Acts at church, and in Luke 10:38-42 comes a clash between Martha and Jesus over Mary not helping out in the kitchen when Jesus' visits but instead sitting at Jesus' feet. An invitation, as my friend Joe preached recently, not to choose between busyness and contemplation, but to 'rest inwardly' on Jesus. How I need that!

Some further scribbles from my notebook...

What does Jesus talk to Mary about?
We know from chapter 10:22 that Jesus alone makes his Father known.
And given chapter 11:1-13 is an invite to speak to the Father I think we can conclude that's what Mary is hearing about. That's the necessary thing. Without this we have nothing else.

And so I need to be in the the sound of the gospel - whether as I read the Scriptures myself, as I read them with others and we apply the gospel together, under preaching, through baptism, the Lord's Supper and the prayer of the church family. By all and every means possible my dull heart needs the gospel of Christ to put to death my sin and turn to Christ.

But two more questions...

How can I know the Father?
Jesus makes him known, but Luke doesn't teach relationship without atonement. That's an error when The Father is cast as the father in the story of the sons. The father there is Jesus - who comes out to seek both sons... just as Jesus came into the world to seek us. That story and this incident occur on Jesus' journey to Jerusalem. His death alone makes it possible for me to know the Father through the Son.
" thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:42   
"Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Luke 24:26 
Two things are necessary - to listen to Jesus... and for Jesus to die. The word of the gospel puts these together articulating audibly the news of the Christ's cross.

Why would I want to know the Father?

  • Firstly, I wouldn't. In myself I disbelieve the gospel, I'm adverse to God and love myself above all else.
  • Secondly, as I hear the gospel I encounter  'the beloved son' (Luke 20) the cornerstone and crushing stone. In the gospel I see my opposition to the Son, our pursuit of his inheritance for ourselves, our self-justification (Lawyer in the good Samaritan story), our anxious labouring,  which sets me up against the Gift.... and I receive a call to another way.
  • Thirdly, what there is the treasure of the gospel. We can see the joy of the Father and the Son in the Spirit, in Luke 10:21, and if we call on the Father, in the name of the Son, we're promised the Spirit (Luke 11:13)

One person is necessary
Two things are necessary, my hearing from Jesus what he says of his Father who sent him, raised him and appointed him judge of all. The necessary is Christ. To welcome him, to receive his help in my helplessness (like the man by the road in the good Samaritan story) is both the end of me and my new beginning.

Monday, October 26, 2015

To end all wars

I listened to a revisited Radiolab episode at the weekend 'Update: New Normal'. It began with the question - will we ever stop going to war? The observation offered was that a 20+ years ago we were optimistic, but now 80-90% don't think we'll ever stop. What do you think?

A century ago the first world war was thought of as 'the war to end all wars' but this has plainly not proved to be the case. Wars have increased not decreased. One nation or cause attacks others, and their allies dive in to pursue justice. Just wars are responses to unjust action. Honorable people fight on our behalf - lest we forget. I breathe a sigh of relief not to live in an age where I'm called on to fight, and give thanks for those who have fought for our freedom and for others.

Can we change? 
The Radiolab episode tells the story of a company of Baboons, granted a plentiful supply of food they appeared to become less violent. It's said that the reason there are so many wars in the middle east is the lack of water... and we note that there's enough food in the world to feed everyone. Lack of resources leads to wars.... wars lead to lack of resources... chicken and egg.

The Baboons appeared to change for many years but life in a violent world crashes back in and the old habits are restored.

Can religion or faith have anything to say to this?
Many would say religion is one of the major causes of wars along with the resources question. Differences in worldview certainly appear to lead to war - more than necessarily belief in any particular god. We war because we see the world differently, we see the world differently because we war...

The thought might be had that faith would offer a pathway to change. Might a new religious idea enable us to live differently?

In the Athenian Areopagus the philosophers listened day after day to the latest ideas, the Twitterati of their day, seeking world changing wisdom, looking for each days Trends. A Messianic-Jew called Paul turns up in the nearby marketplace one day espousing 'Jesus and the Resurrection' - and attracts their attention. Paul's message is that human beings have ignorantly failed to know God. Now he calls people to turn to him
[31] because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31 ESV)
Paul wasn't (probably) speaking about war and peace, but does speak in fairly expansive terms about life.

The Christian faith doesn't say - we can learn to live in peace - more that we can't. But, that God "has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness" - justice will be done. Wrongs will be put right. The Christian is pessimistic about the prospect of wars ending here and now, but persuaded that time will be called on all our fighting. Judgement day will come, not in Hollywood-apocalypse-style, but in the righting of all wrongs.

This will be "a great and magnificent day" (2:20).

The United Nations, the Hague, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions attempt to resolve conflicts but this will be by "a man whom he has appointed" (also 10:42). Who is this man to judge the world in righteousness? He is the crucified and risen one who has been appointed to the task by
[24] The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, [25] nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. [26] And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, [27] that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, [28] for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24-28 ESV)
And as his offspring we ought not to be ignorant...
"we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. (Acts 17:29 ESV)"
This is a striking, even offensive, observation on humanity. We war but our greater problem is a warring against our maker. A twisted view of him which unravels everything else. He has fixed a day when this will be ended. And before that day invites us to turn to "a man" - this resurrected Jesus who laid his life down for those who fought against him, his image bearers and his world.

An end to wars is good but the good man is our greater need. He who alone can bring justice to the world.  Wouldn't deep justice be the end of me? Wouldn't I be convicted of my war crimes, for the violence of Dictators and Generals resides in my heart, misreading God I misread myself and my fellow human beings - overrating myself and underrating others and seeking advantage over others. I don't command armies against nations, but I command my heart against my neighbour, colleagues, family.

The Christian change in a warring world is a call to turn to the appointed man. In speaking of him, Paul is "preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ" (Acts 10:36).  A peace I yearn for and yet in some sense don't really want... and a peace I cannot accomplish. This announcement of peace says that wars will one day cease... but that we cannot really change, though we might taste something of the peace that is to come.

Can wars ends wars... history suggests not for countless reasons. Can plenty end wars... history suggests greed triumphs and injustice remains. Paul says: As Christ ends our unjust war on him (with all its collatoral damage) by giving himself to us... Christ is the end of war. "He himself is our peace." And so we might pursue peace.

Some scoffed at Paul. Some wanted to explore more. Some believed.

See also:

Image - Creative Commons - Walt Jabsco

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Marmite Moment of Faith

I've come across these three observations lately on Christianity and Secularism. Food for thought.
  • Christianity and the University experience notes that evangelicalism, in Universities, seems to equally produce activism and drive people away in equal measure.
  "Evangelicalism... is a destabilising influence... triggering enthusiastic activism and disillusioned withdrawal in apparently equal measure."
  • Charles Taylor in A Secular Age says the desire to move from monastic seriousness and popular nominalism about faith to a reforming call for everyone to be serious and consistent and zealous about their faith has led to more secularism... this includes a shift from meaningful cosmos to silent universe, and the shifting of meaning from 'out there' to within me. Is nominal faith so bad? How much do I really understand of my faith? How consistent is my walk really?
  • Steve Bruce suggests that the charismatic renewal ought to be interpreted as sucess for secularism rather than a push back against it - intensifying some faith but furthering its withdrawal from society. [The charismatic renewal] "can be seen to facilitate rather than interrupt the secularisation process." (Steve Bruce/Michael Horton)
My conviction - the gospel is both utterly inclusive invitation and utterly offensive - so any growth and decline can be considered to be a fruit of that. For no reason in me I'm drawn to Christ, for countless reason in myself I would be turned away from him... in every generation and culture... Christ is the cornerstone and the stumbling block.

However, might there also be something in people being turned off from faith by our (my) approach, zeal, language, posture, piety, inwardness, emphases, adding an unnecessary offense and barrier? Have our changed (from 500 years ago) assumptions about the world, ourselves, religious expression, and society produced a distorted gospel? Is this a better day for the gospel or a worse one, or just a different one?

The only hope - to be thoroughly about The Christ - he who offends the self-righteous, and humbles them... he who welcomes the outsider and the failure and seems too good to be true for some... the scale of the church and the state of society must be given some attention and then we get to our business, holding up Christ for all.

Spread the Marmite, as it were, and let the taste tell. And, put it on good fresh buttered toast, not spread too thickly.. etc.

Image: Creative Commons - Celeste Hodges

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Knowledge of sin is a gift

One says "Church talks about sin too much. I don't like it."
Another "You don't talk about sin enough - I've been so unaware of my sin in recent months. You've failed me."
Another asks "What sin are you into at the moment?"*

Call it, as Spufford does, the HPTFTU. Call it the many names it's given in the Bible. Call it sin.

In an age ('human history') that trivialises sin, that sees it clearly in others... the knowledge of sin, my sin, is desperately needed.

The story of Old Testament Israel can serve us in seeing this.

Twice Paul asks "What advantage in being a Jew?" in Romans 3:1 and 3:10.

Firstly, much advantage - because they had the oracles of God. Paul's approach is Biblical Theology as he retells the story of Israel in Romans 1-3, how they betrayed God, how he gave them over to their sin, how his arms were wide open to receive them in repentance but they received his kindness as freedom to harden their hearts further and store up wrath against themselves, how they failed to be a light to the Gentiles caused them to blaspheme instead of to worship (by and large).

Having the oracles of God is great and is a key plank in a New Testament theology of the Old Testament: God's word written. And their unfaithfulness doesn't make God's word a failure, rather it justly leads to condemnation. Exposure to the word of God is encounter with God but at times people harden their hearts.

And then in a necessary tension because not all questions are yes or no, some are both...

Secondly, no advantage at all. Jews and Gentiles alike are under sin. A litany of Old Testament quotes proves what is already clear - the Jews are sinful to the core, as also are the Gentiles. The law God gave them should've been a diagnostic as well as a provocation - it should've bought knowledge of sin, and 'stopped every mouth' among them. No boasts. No defence. But rather, to proclaim the kindness of God to them... and so holding the whole world accountable to God for their response to his kindness...  and if they have rejected that kindness themselves and still seek to defend themselves, then 'their condemnation is just.'

God's design through Israel was to use them as a trophy of grace, a light to the whole world, shaped by his word, their hearts exposed by his word, called to repentance by his word, proclaiming his amazing grace to them. A deep knowledge of sin combined with open arms of kindness --- requiring an answer to the question: He justifies, but how can he do this justly? (Which is answered in 3:21-26)

Imagining there is no way I can be justly justified is one of the many reasons I might what to play down my sin and fake it to God and people that I'm really not so bad... because I suspect I might need to be able to make a defence for myself. How dark my heart, how slow to believe, how self-seeking...

In the gospel of Jesus, the knowledge of my sin is a gift to me.
In the gospel I am invited to repent of my sin.
In the gospel I can come to Christ as I am.
In the gsopel I can come as I am IN HIM on the basis of his crucifixion.

Knowledge of my sin is uncomfortable and yet I need knowledge of my sin. Without the word of God calling me I will not turn again to him. Knowledge of sin isn't about being picky. Nor judgemental. I might look down on Old Testament Jews for their sin but mine is no different. In the gospel community, one broken and betraying person speaks to another and says: let us go to together to the fountain and drink Christ.

And if when I've been dull to my sin - what a gift to realise for therein lies the opportunity to repent. I reach a fresh vista of grace. I am in fact always dull to my sin. At times I think I'm holy, but I'm not. Time and grace reveal my past ignorance. Tim Keller notes that we tend to look back on ourselves and see how foolish we were, so we might be well served to assume present folly as a starting point. At times I don't think I'm holy, in those moments: I might just be on the cusp of holiness. I'm more sinful than I could ever know, far more than I realise today - and in the days to come I might just begin to see a little more of that.
"There is no substitute for receiving love, grace and spiritual feeding from others in an environment of care." Honeysett. Fruitful Leaders.
In the company of friends over breakfast, Romans 3:1-20 has been part of that gift to give knowledge of sin this morning. Neal Plantinga's Not the way it's supposed to be has also served me well in this. I don't have to fake that I'm not sinful - I dare not. And we mustn't expect sinlessness of leaders in the church either. We are people in need of change helping people in need of change. And with God's word ringing in my ears let me embrace this knowledge as a gift, and much more the gift that is Christ who receives me.

* This question is lifted from an example in Fruitful Leaders by Marcus Honeysett
Image - Creative Commons, Nik.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Exodus is good news

Chapters 1-19 God hears, remembers and saves his people from their slavery to Egypt. They're broken spirited and unable to save themselves. Their salvation doesn't overcome their slavery to sin which becomes very evident as they begin to travel in the wilderness. The serpent out there is struck down, rescue from their serpentine heart will require an even greater salvation. What is pictured here will come to pass as the Father sends his Son to bring many adopted sons to glory...  with life from the true Lamb, the true Rock, the true Bread, the true Moses...

Chapters 20-24 God comes down and meets his people at the mountain - he rescued them for himself. As rescued people he calls them to reflect him to the world. "Be holy and I am holy." How? By providing for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner among you who can't provide for themselves. This is what the Triune God is like. He did this for his people. Could they now walk in his footsteps? God will meet his people again time and time again, and finally embody all that he is as he walks our streets, and gives his Spirit so we might be changed from within to reflect him to his world...

Chapters 25-40 God pitches his tent with his people, a place of atonement at the heart of the camp, and O how they need it as their almost immediate adulterous betrayal shows, yet in his jealous love God moves into their neighbourhood rather than ending them. And the script rolls on into Leviticus to explore how atonement leads to the dwelling of God with humanity. One day the true High Priest will go on behalf of his people into the true Tabernacle and offer true Atonement for all time and the true Curtain will be torn open, and the broken and the betrayer will come with their names written on His heart and be seated with Him there.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Gift and the Galatian Problem in my Heart

Paul writes to his friends in Galatia and in verses 1-10 offers a substantial opening to the letter.

1-5 Paul, the Galatians and his gospel
First century letters begin with the sender, then introduce the audience.

Paul is an apostle - sent by God to people with the gospel.
The gospel concerns
  • Jesus who gave himself for our sins
  • Jesus whose death was to deliver us from the present evil age (whatever that might be)
  • Jesus who was raised by his Father
  • That this was the Father's will.
  • That this is for the Father's glory
  • That this is grace. Gift.
6-10 An astonishing situation
Paul observes that his friends have turned from the Father who called them in Christ. They have deserted God. A desertion, forsaking, betrayal, a relational abandonment. The evangelical who looks picky about doctrine might be that, but really their goal is to ensure that we are true to God the Father of Jesus. We can be lacking in some knowledge and still be knowing the same person, poorly. But there comes a point when our knowledge cannot truly be said to be of the same person at all. In Galatia the knowledge of God is being lost... all too easily for me.

This serves to
  • Distort the gospel - smashing its face almost beyond recognition (the mechanics of which become clearer later in the letter - a dramatic fall from grace into exclusive practices.)
  • Disturb the church - who were otherwise at peace in Christ.
  • Damn the preacher - for the crime and for believing their own false message.
  • Delight the world - who dislike the gospel but love the ego massage of alternatives.
(as someone else has alliterated)

Paul's letter is a call for repentance. They've turned their faces from God and he wants them to come back.

And I need that too. But for the call of the Father in the gospel I won't
  • Believe Jesus' death was for my sins, nor needed to be. And I'll want it to be something more sanitised.
  • Believe that my old life was evil, nor that I needed to be delivered from it. Indeed I'll take offense at the notion than evil is anything other than something out there.
  • Believe that Jesus was raised, nor needed to be. What first century naivity, surely?
  • That the Father's will matters, not least ahead of my own. Don't I know best?
  • That the Father's glory matters, not least ahead of my own. Don't I matter most?
  • That the Father is good and gracious. 
I kid myself that I'm inclined to believe but all this is gift, all this is grace. And all I have in Christ is from Christ. The Scriptures are written to show Christ to me once again, to bring him before my eyes that I might truly and increasingly know his Father. I know him but I am fickle. I know him and I need those outside me, preachers and friends to sound the message again to my ears, to placard and paint this news before my short-sighted eyes.

The gospel of Jesus is good news, the very last thing I expect to hear from anyone, not least from God. But nonetheless in Christ all my expectations are confounded and confronted and arms held wide open to me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Wilderness of Mirrors

I received a review copy of A Wilderness of Mirrors from Mark Meynell and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

It's obvious in reading the book that Mark Meynell loves words and culture and people. It's a well written, accessible look around our world that gets under the skin of our cynical age. Mark helps us to see how the Christian faith then speaks to the issues he explores. A keen observer who, as his subtitle implies, wants us to trust again.

This video gives a feel.

One of the observations that particularly struck me was the contemporary love of conspiracy theories - because these give the opportunity to find significance in otherwise meaningless tragic events. As we suspect there is significance in life, but where to find that is important, A Wilderness of Mirrors helps us find better answers.

I've read and appreciated James Smith's How (not) to be secular and Charles Taylor's A Secular Age recently. A Wilderness of Mirrors is more accessible and more engaging.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Sharing your faith at University

Evangelism, or proselytising, sounds spooky, weird, and manipulative, and the kind thing you’d do to people you don’t like. Our society hates the idea of imposing your beliefs on others, though have you ever tried that? Like getting your flatmates to do the washing up?

A few comments to begin with.
  • You're not selling Jesus. I've worked in sales, it can be a dirty business though there's nothing inherently bad about selling things. But Jesus isn't a product for sale - he's a person to meet. It's different.
  • Calling people ‘non-Christians’ is plain rude. No one self-identifies that way in our society, so it’s lazy and a power play to define others by not being like you. Christians are 1-2% of the population at best, defining people as "not us" is arrogant. And counterproductive if you want people to explore faith and change who they follow.
  • Having a ‘mission week’ sounds colonial and oppressive. Would you want to be on the other end of someone's mission?
  • Though I’m 100% for culturally appropriate events where the good news of Jesus can be explain and heralded. A talk at a pub quiz is just strange though.
  • But, whatever people say, it really is ok to talk about money, religion and politics.
  • Especially at University. More interesting conversation takes away the awkwardness - if you never get past football punditry then evangelism can feel like "And Hart saved... hey, y'know Jesus sav..." Just don't go there. Ever. Ever.
  • When people don't listen it's horrible. If you've ever had a salesperson or a politician or a JW come to your door you'll know what that's like. Don't be the rude evangelical who throws doctrine at people. I've been there. People tolerate a lot of weirdness in life, Christians epecially, but that's no excuse for being weird (and this comes in many varieties including in our society being overly intense, overstated).
  • Research suggests that people become more religious at University not less.
  • Inviting others to consider Jesus is not inherently weird or evil.
 [5] For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. [6] Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. [7] But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. [8] So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. [9] For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thess 2:5-9)

  • Flattery
  • Greed
  • Glory-seeking
  • Burdening others
  • Being gentle
  • Being motherly
  • Being affectionate
  • Sharing your life and the gospel.
Paul makes ten references to ‘the gospel’, ‘the word’ or ‘the gospel of God’ in the first chapter and a half of his letter – as that message which brings people to be ‘loved by God’ (1:4), turned from idols to the Father awaiting the return of his risen Son who will deliver those receive the gospel word for the day of wrath. A cosmic event has occurred and another is to come and God’s means of communicating to his world is through people gentle, motherly (and fatherly as he later says), affectionately sharing their changed lives and the gospel word with other people.

If you follow Christ, you're loved. So then love.

People say that preacher Francis of Assisi once said “preach the gospel always and if necessary use words.” He didn’t. And if he did, he would’ve been wrong. In the end words are always eventually necessary, one way or another.

But, you don’t automatically have the right to be heard by anyone… “I’ve read and heard almost every missional strategy out there. In the end, love people and be available” Jon Tyson (Trinity Grace Church, New York)
  • Invest in friendships without an agenda. You, me, all of us – are made for community. 
  • Take responsibility for your budget and budget for a generous social life. 
  • Take responsibility for the people in your life. Learn to cook. 
  • Do what you do, and do it with others. Which doesn’t mean invite 9 Christian friends around and one person you can all gang up on. That's intimidating. That’s just weird. But shop, eat, play, open-door, have Netflix and a big enough screen, be a hub for people…
  • Listen, be interested in others, because people and this world are really interesting. Be interesting by being interested in others. Podcast 
  • Share the gospel of God –take responsibility for your words – it’s not enough to just parrot a gospel outline if what’s heard isn’t what you meant. How do people think/feel about the ‘Christians’ or ‘Evangelicals’? Do you know? 
  • Who you live with next year is basically decided by the end of October - the decision isn't explicitly made but the people you've got deep friendship with by then you'll probably live with. And if you only hang out with the CU people you'll have to live with Christians. If you want to live with a Christian then one day in the distant future I suggest you marry one. Christians can really be quite annoying so until you have to live with one, don't. (Yes, I'm overstating my case...)
Dr. Daniel Strange, says gospel communication is subversive fulfilment.
FULFILLMENT - The gospel fulfils right desires that human beings in the image of God have. We look for the right things in the wrong places. What we really want is Jesus. He calls us to himself.
SUBVERSION - The gospel subverts the wrong desires that ruined and rebellious human beings have. We look for the wrong things in wrong and right places. Jesus says no, and calls us to himself. 
Be patient! When asked him what he'd say if he had one hour to share his faith, founder of L’Abri, Francis Schaeffer replied, "I’d listen for 59 minutes and talk for one."

Develop emotional intelligence – which as it happens will also make you a whole lot more employable and a better friend. More curious, more self-aware, harder to offend, quicker to empathise.

Use UNCOVER. Do what the first CU members used to call "personal work" - you, a friend and a Bible.

Eugene Peterson “There are no experts in the company of Jesus. We are all beginners.” 

Sit alongside people and let Jesus do the talking. Let him walk off the page. You, me, anyone – get born again by the word of God. Love people and love them enough to invite them to consider Jesus.

[13] …when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess 2:13) 

Don't be afraid to open a Bible. This is a living word. This is where people can meet Jesus. And as you do it, always pursue honest answers to honest questions. Keep your L-Plates on. Have the humility to get help from those ahead of you who can guide your reading to develop a thoughtful mind and a large heart.

Get to CU. Get to church.
Get to
Think hard like Terrence Malick. Love deeply.