Sunday, July 24, 2016

I went to church: 5 things I learned

As we've just moved from Exeter to Nottingham. I've no desire to compare our old and new church families - they're unique, similar in many ways, shaped by their respective history, people and communities.... and we're newbies in our new church just getting oriented.

In this post I want to reflect on five particular strengths that impacted me from our time at our previous church.

All churches face different challenges at different times in their pursuit of faithful communication of Christ through the words and lives of their members. A cookie cutter approach won't do, and much prayer, thought and action is needed.

I hope you'll hear questions and issues to think about here rather than prescriptive answers.
1. Gospel Environments. Everything communicates. It's possible to say true words but to deny them by the way the tone or posture they're said it. What do people expect? Is the setting welcoming or explicitly or implicitly excluding? Does what's said and when it's said jar or fit with what you'd expect socially and culturally - there's nothing wrong with challenging cultural norms but you need to realise you're doing it. Is the language understandable - it's easy for a church to encourage people to be bi-lingual, with it's own christianese dialect in church that's gobbledegook for those outside, such jargon is deeply unloving. That doesn't mean watering things down at all, it means working harder at saying things in ways that make sense to more people. 
Signage, time-keeping, tidyness, temperature, refreshments, quality of literature will all contribute to or hamper the communication of the gospel by removing obstacles and offenses, or putting additional unnecessary barriers in the way.
 2. Emotional Intelligence. A secular psychological concept that builds on things in gospel environments. In another word: empathy. People may not care that you know until they know that you care. 
It's easy as a public communicator to be distant and impersonal and unknown, but it's better to be engaged and personal and known. Honesty and vulnerability and sense that this is not just for you makes a lot of difference. Some things are harder to hear than others, That doesn't mean you shouldn't say them, but you need to take enough time to say them well. No subject is off-limits, some just can't be talked about well 'in passing'
Nothing helps you think well about 'Gospel Environments' and 'Emotional Intelligence' than having a guest in the room on a Sunday morning... you never want to say, feel or think 'I wish my friend wasn't here today...'
3. Connect Cards. Following Jesus is all about taking a next step with him - so give people ways to do that. A next step might be church membership, talking with someone, joining a group or course, or just finding out information. Giving people a card they can fill in and take to a 'connect point' can faciliate this. Steve Tibbert's observation that this is far more effective if you then phone someone within 24 hours seems well taken. A card system may or may not be the best way to do this but, one way or another, why wouldn't you offer someone a way to take a next step as easily as possible? I learned a lot from the loving diligence of our 'integration' team.
4. Church size matters. Our church was a growing church, numerically. A 13-14 year old church plant, that had reached around 100 when we joined five years in, and tops 300 today - though the average attendance is nearer 200. Churches want to grow because they want more people to know Jesus. The size of a venue and gathered crowd makes everything less forgiving - when it comes to sound, verbal communication, literature etc. a lack of knowing people means lack of quality isn't just overlooked. 
Finding smaller contexts to connect relationally becomes more and more important as you simply can't know everyone. Scale means gatherings are more and more populated by strangers (which should be true of any church with an open door...) so safeguarding issues multiply, and the need for rigorous systems for registering and protecting kids are needed. I've also learned the benefits of 'church management systems' - we used ChurchApp to track people and ensure that people don't fall between the cracks when they can't know or be known by everyone.
5. Outward-oriented church. It's easy for church meetings to be in-house focussed, and the gathered church is a special community, but it must always have open doors and be oriented towards the good of the surrounding community.  Israel was meant to be a light to the nations, and that mandate is only strengthened by the ingrafting of the nations to the tree.
The goal of the church is not to create its own isolated sub-culture, but to be good for its surrounding community, to contribute through it's people to the social, commercial and spiritual good of the community, to be present, and to be enabling its members for their ministry in their work, home and neighbourhoods. 
We designed our website so that its first audience was a friend of a member - not the church member themselves. We paid to have our SEO set up well and that's meant that many found us through the internet - whether as someone exploring faith or someone new to the area looking to join a new church.
As we put together a church brochure we intentionally used pictures of the city not just of our various gatherings - what are we here for? I was thankful that the pain of leaving wasn't just being pulled away from people in the church but most of all from leaving people I know in the city around whom my life has been built. 
I loved that one of our Community Groups embeded itself in its neighbourhood using its time and skill to love the local primary school - serving as classroom teachers, as governors, by sports coaching, providing musicians for a school production... nothing wrong with doing RE and school assemblies but the church can bless people in many other ways too.  
There's more I'm sure, but these are a few things I'm really thankful for.

Our new church has different strengths and weaknesses and I hope to have much to contribute and much to learn as I serve.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Great is thy faithfulness

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not
As Thou has been Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Jesus my brother,
Always to catch me when often I fall,
Bursting with joy to bring me to Thy Father
Faultless and pure; with no blemish at all.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Spirit my helper,
Promise of grace and salvation assured.
Lifting me Christ-ward when I’m worn and burdened,
Giver of peace as my heart is restored.

(Additional verses: Matt Giles)

Image: Ray - Morning Dew, Creative Commons.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

We're all foreigners, widows and orphans (gospel-shaped ethics in the Law)

I'm reading Exodus with my seven year old. In chapter 2:23-25 we read:
 The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
The LORD acts and says in chapter 4:
 22 Then say to Pharaoh, “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.”’
Which, through the defeating of the Pharaoh brings the people to worship God. There, before being taught of the LORD's beautiful means of atonement through the types and shadows of the Tabernacle and Priesthood they're given some hard-hitting case law to help them build a community life that reflects the heart of God, being "holy as I am holy..." The tone is very much one of ensuring care and accountability and confession before God.

This includes in chapter 22 these poignant word:
21 ‘Do not ill-treat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. 22 ‘Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. 24 My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.
The gospel-shaped motivation here is stunning. You were foreigners, so treat foreigners well - though you were oppressed, show care. The focus on foreigners, widows and orphans is all about those who cannot provide for themselves - human beings in our basic sinful condition, in need of one of who can provide for us. We may wear a facade of competency but we are more dependent than we are independent.

And, if you don't show mercy to those in need, then when they cry out you'll be to the LORD as Pharaoh was, for he will hear their cry and put you to the sword. A strong warning. And a reminder that receipt of salvation is intended to turn us inside out toward others. Christian faith should never result in us forgetting where we've come from and all that the LORD did in rescuing us as we cried to him... Then let us love because he loved first loved us. So simple, and yet I am so sinful, selfish, stubborn and prone to stuff up. The Word of God cuts deeply, and this divinely inspired case law is no exception - calling and turning me to the LORD.

In the end, a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is one who cried to the LORD and was heard by the LORD - and O how he heard! How magnificiently, how wondrously, how cruciformly, how lovingly in Christ... a love accompanied by the gift of the indwelling Spirit who opens our eyes to Christ, and teaches us a new way to be human.

Image - Creative Commons - Nicholas Vigier

Saturday, July 16, 2016

An introduction to the Psalms

A few thoughts on the Psalms...

1. Psalms are for singing. Today some churches only sing Psalms. Certainly they were part of the songbook of the early church who were told to sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. It's objected that if you sing the Psalms only you wouldn't sing the name "Jesus" though you'd sing lots of his titles and in my view develop a deeply Trinitarian worship life that is theologically and emotionally rich.

 2. Psalms are poetry. Look for lines that repeat ideas or themes. Subtle changes add nuance and weight to the lyrics. Psalms also use images and illustrations to help us not just think but see, not just reason but imagine.

 3. Psalms is a structured book. A song book can be arranged by author, title, theme etc. The Psalms are arranged theologically. In an age when we barely see a whole verse projected on screen we need to learn that songs have context – in other Bible books and within the book of Psalms itself. 
 "Moses gave to the Israelites the five books of the Law… David gave them the five books of the Psalms." Midrash commentary, Psalm 1:1
Book 1 Psalms 1-41 Genesis Humanity and The Man (Christ/Adam)  
Book 2 Psalms 42-74 Exodus Israel as a nation  
Book 3 Psalms 73-89 Leviticus The Sanctuary  
Book 4 Psalms 90-106 Numbers Israel and the nations  
Book 5 Psalms 107-150 Deuteronomy God and his word 
4. Psalms are sung by the Christ (e.g. 22,23) or about the Christ (e.g. 34,45).
Written in Hebrew, translated to Greek, and English. Messiah (Hebrew) = Christ (Greek) = Anointed (English). Jesus is the Son anointed by his Father with the Holy Spirit. In Psalms he is also called The Angel of the LORD, The King, The Man. In Psalm 45 we hear the Father singing about his Son (and those adopted in the Son).

5. Psalms are quoted in the New Testament to tell the gospel story.
 Hebrews 1:8 ‘Of the Son he says…’ (45).

 6. Psalms are deeply emotional. Laments, complaints and celebrations. Songs for all seasons of life.

 7. Psalms titles are Scripture too. e.g. 45
 ► According to Lilies; (a song for the season of Passover, when the lilies flowered in Israel)
 ► A Maskil (a teaching song)
 ► of the Sons of Korah; (sets the song against the backdrop of the story of Korah and his sons in the book of Numbers. Rebels who were sentenced to death and were raised to life.)
 ► A love song. (the subject - a wedding song for the Christ)

Image Creative Commons Daniel Go.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Penal Substitionary Atonement for Kids

My son and I are reading Exodus. We've reached chapter 21, the brief section of law before the instructions on Tabernacle and Priesthood. A recurring theme was the phrase "put to death" as the consequence of sin.

v12 “Anyone who hits a person and kills him must be put to death. 13 But if a person kills someone accidentally, God allowed that to happen, so the person must go to a place I will choose. 14 But if someone plans and murders another person on purpose, put him to death, even if he has run to my altar for safety. 
Which made sense to him though it feels very alien in our culture. He's got some decent redemptive history and biblical theology from the Jesus Storybook Bible, we've read Genesis and Exodus 1-20, and he's got a good eye for the shape of the story.

Then we read verse 15
“Anyone who hits his father or his mother must be put to death.
Which produced one of the more viceral reactions I've seen from him in Bible reading. And a cry of "that's stupid!" and the slightly more constructive "what about forgiveness?!"

Last week our reading of the New City Catechism app on my phone had got us talking about penal substitution and atonement and what it means that Jesus bore the penalty of sin in our place. He loves learning big words and these had got in deeply to describe things he already knew.

I asked him what he thought v15 was about... why would it say that... what does it tell us about how important it is to relate to your parents well... more than that, what does it tell us about how serious hurting others is... how would you feel if you'd done it (which he has!) if you heard this at Mount Sinai or later...

What could be done? What if someone could take your place?

"Like my brother", he suggested. I noted that perhaps his brother might have his own issues to deal with... he agreed. I never came up as a possible candidate - he knows all too well that I'm a sinner. What about someone else?
"Remember what we looked at last week."

He picked up the whiteboard pen and began to write. (My son's bedroom used to be my study and he loves having my old whiteboard to write questions, draw diagrams and work out big words.)
The penalty of sin is death.
Jesus dies in my place.
I picked a couple of books off the shelf (more remnants of the study... we'll rehouse them after we move house and I'm minded to re-read these two soon...). What we've noticed is that Jesus was "Pierced for our transgressions", or, "In my place condemned he stood."

That's good news son isn't it! Yes! We continued our conversation before praying, thankful that though we face death we don't have to sort it ourselves.

He takes our place. There's no other story like that. It's good news to me and to my boy, and for any one who will entrust themselves to one who is qualified, able and willing to put himself in our place. In my place.

In my place (c) Matt Giles, 2014

In my place
You were humbled and made nothing willingly
Though in very nature God, took to Your knees
To bear my weight of sin and set me free
You took my place 

In my place You were innocent but beaten for my guilt 
You were heir to life but mercilessly killed 
Now through Your wounds my sickness has been healed 
You took my place 

You were obedient to heaven’s cause
Eternal glory shall be Your reward

In Your place, In Your name
I am hidden deep inside 
I am carried in Your life
In Your grace, In Your wake
Stand the many righteous made
Through Your humble choice to stand in our place 

In my place Though a King 
You had come down to be a slave 
To the curse that plagued the ones that You had made 
But were strong enough to burst open its chains 
You took my place  

For a good man some might dare to die 
Christ for sinners, 
You were crucified 

To the name of Jesus 
Be all praise and glory 
Wisdom, thanks and honour 
Power and strength forever 

Every knee will bow down
Every tongue will confess 
Jesus Christ is the Lord King forever, amen

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why didn't Christ come earlier if humanity has always needed saving?

I was asked this question recently. I like questions because they help me think. Jesus is a great asker and answerer of questions. What would you say? A few thoughts.

Jesus was born, lived, died and it's claimed was raised from the dead, 2000 years ago. Eyewitnessed and leaving an impression on human history that is hard to deny.

Why then? 

Bible writers tell us Jesus came "at just the right time" (Romans 5:6) and "when the set time had come" (Galatians 4:4).

The Bible daraes to speak of a mysterious thing called time. From Genesis 1, evening and morning, seasons... not just time but a purposeful progression. Time is  a curious and intruiging thing.

But why the wait?

The misconception is that this was a delay to salvation. Salvation was, the Bible says, planned before creation, and was always available. It's clear that Enoch, Abraham and Ruth, David, Anna and Simeon and many others knew the LORD.  There was no lack in revelation. The Triune God made himself known truly.

So, why did Jesus come?

To become one of us and to put humanity to death, so that by his death we can step into God's family. This was always possible - by faith - but the actual events that would make that possible hadn't happened.

The new thing in the New Testament isn't the idea of the incarnation, crucifixion or (as some suggest) that God is Trinity. That's all in the Old Testament - the new thing is event of the incarnation, the event of the crucifixion and resurrection and so on. There is a fresh sense of the spreading of the gospel, in the power of the Spirit, to the nations of the world but the idea of a 'Gentile' believer in the God of Israel isn't a new thing - see Ruth, the people of Nineveh and many others.

Throughout the Old Testament God's story was unfolding. He laid out the grammar of his gospel that would mean we could interpret the events of Jesus' death and life - through the types and shadows of the law and prophets. All that Tabernacle, Priesthood, Monarchy and more describes and reveals how human beings can relate to the Triune God.

And, God was wratcheting up frustration of sin and expectation of divine action. Centuries of a story that make people ask: How does this God keep forgiving people? Doesn't he care about their rebellion and betrayal? Evidently He's a justifier of sinners but is he just to do that?

The coming of Jesus is the answer - in the crucifixion of this Jesus divine wrath against human sin is dealt with. Jesus comes at the right time, when we were powerless, ungodly - he stepped in and did what we could, would and were never going to be able to do.

Why did he come when he came? 
Because it was the right time, the set time. It was time to end the childish immaturity of a people living under law, and step into the maturity of adoption (Galatians 4:1-4).

The danger with the question is that it sounds really noble to say "this God isn't fair because what about those people before Jesus." The answer given is that they had every opportunity to entrust themselves to the Triune God as their salvation. And much more do we.

And while we look back, we need also look ahead. The story of humanity also has an end point, an unknown time in the future. A time that delays to give us opportunity to respond through undeserved divine patience to the good news that has been proclaimed for 2000 years... a time that will be unexpected to discourage us from complacency.

Christ is available. God has become one of us. One of us is a member of the Trinity. And the good news is that we're invited into his story, his family, his time.

A few centuries ago Samuel Rutherford wrote:

The sands of time are sinking, the dawn of Heaven breaks;
The summer morn I’ve sighed for—the fair, sweet morn awakes:
Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land...

The Bride eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory but on my King of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth but on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.

For myself, I've known Jesus for almost 19 of my 37 years, and I only wish we'd begun to walk together sooner.

Image - Creative Commons - bitslammer.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

I went to a Cupping

On Thursday evening I went to my first Cupping. This is wine-tasting for coffee-lovers.

We gathered in the very cool offices of a local web company, a table set with boxes of with samples of some newly roasted coffees, bowls and spoons, with seven of us gathered for a couple of caffeine tasting hours.

We tried out five coffee roasted by Dave Stanton of Crankhouse Coffee. Dave is a friend of a friend, who runs his own roasting business. We buy our church coffee from him because it's good coffee, and because as people who love our city we choose to support a local entrepreneurs and culture makers.

We began by looking at the beans and seeing the difference in appearance between washed and unwashed beans. They were ground and we took in the different aromas. And then we added water and waited for four minutes. We took in the aromas again before slurping from our spoons and looking for the different smoothness, acidity, and flavours.

Dave presented us with Kenya Kainamui AA, Kenya Kiambara AB, Ethiopia Biftu Gudina, Guatemala Finca El Rincon and Brazil Sertaozinho Yellow Bourbon PN. I hope to buy some before we move.

My initial reaction is that I can tell that there is a difference, and I can discern which will be the most expensive ones. My palate struggles to identify what I'm tasting but I'd like to refine and develop the ability to identify tastes more clearly. It takes great attentiveness, care and commitment for Dave to roast his beans rightly, so too for me to appreciate their quality.

This complex chemistry, shaped by soil quality, altitude, weather, processes of washing and roasting and brewing, time and temperature, does something to us. What is that?

The following evening I went to an open air concert at my wife's school. Warm evening sun and the combined skill of dozens of people playing instruments crafted by many others. My wife conducts one of the choirs, and what she can draw out of the human voice wows me, as do the sparks of her facial expression and her dance moves. As with coffee I can instinctively and generally appreciate the quality of good music as opposed to a dischordant performance, but just as it takes skill and time to compose and play well, so too I'm drawn to learn more to appreciate its nuances and detail.

The concert showcased a completely different aspect of the cultivation of this world by people. Just as there are deep and rich tastes contained within coffee beans, so there are the rhythms and melodies of orchestras, choirs and bands. In both cases the effects are sensory, emotional and physical on the participant, whether drinking or listening.
'Culture is what human beings make of this world - both in terms of the things we make from this world, and the meaning we draw from our engagement with it. Culture is the fruit of the human quest for meaning in the world.' Andy Crouch
Human beings are culture-makers. From chaos, humanity creates culture. The fingerprints of humanity on this world are intruiging, fascinating, imagination-filling. The forming of the formless, the filling of the emptiness brings out rich colours and tastes and sounds. And stopping to enjoy these does something to the soul that it's hard capture in words. Why is that?

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

I went to a Corbyn rally

On Saturday I went to my first political rally. Some of our best friends invited us.

I'm not deeply political. It wasn't really part of my upbringing but I've become more politically aware over the past few years. A the same time, British society seems to have become more political too - maybe it always was and I wasn't noticing. Social media might be dominated by pictures of cats but political conversation isn't far behind that.

I vote and I've gradually reached some fairly settled convictions on the political compass though I'm still learning. I've written about the EU referendum result here for Premier Christianity.

We share similar politics to our friends, though they're far more invested in the cause than we are. I respect their views and their commitment. I find my nominal politics challenged by their living faith in it. Our friends were organising this rally - they and their son marked up with Jeremy Corbyn t-shirts. I think it's cool that a 7 year old is politically aware, I hope they might think the same about my faith-thinking 7 year old. I'd like my son to develop political convictions.

The content of the rally was news updates, speeches, and music with a guitar and songsheets. Curiously similar to the components of many a church meeting. A few observations and questions...
1. We were there because of our friends. That could be risky for them - what would we make of them in this setting? Friendship gave us a sense of trust. These friends came to church with us and commented "Your church is like you are..." - they saw that the tone matched. Would that be true as we ventured 'on to their turf'? How did they feel about inviting us?
2. We were outsiders and newbies. The only people we knew there were our two friends - who were organising the event and so were busy talking to lots of other people. That's a strange experience. I wondered what would it take for me to come back if our friends weren't there? I didn't recognise anyone else - interesting people who live in my city with whom I've not crossed paths before.
3. My weird-o-meter was on high alert. As someone who regularly has a part in organising public events I'm acutely aware of how speech and music come across in large gathering. How many of those present really represent the cause... how many were just as newbie as us? Does every community have its oddballs? Who is "the normal person" in the gathering? The rally was open air - what would my friends think if they saw us there? As I explore politics would I be perceived as more deeply committed than I am? What would be assumed about me? Everything communicates something.
4. Politics, for some, is an all in thing. It's time consuming. It's a community. Is it possible to be part of a faith community and a political community? Those involved care passionately about society, about their vision for it, and they're sacrificial in their engagement with it. 
As someone who communicates faith for a living I've also been thinking about the message of the rally. We heard hysteria and rants and measured speech from the microphone... the placards were pro-Corbyn and anti-Tory/Blairite. In language I'd use in my faith community "it was all very in house".  Was the aim to stir up existing enthusiasm? Was the aim to win observers to engage?  What woudld it take for me to make a next step in my political journey? What would such a step be? How would I do that?

I think you can be politically-committed and committed to the Christian faith, though I find my faith moderates my expectations of what politics can hope to accomplish. My family of faith happily includes people with radically different political persuasion, whose conscience - shaped by their culture, class, education, faith, talents, experience, aspirations etc - leans them towards different ways of seeking a just and fruitful society, different ways to respond to the longing for a good life and the evident injustice, brokenness and darkness in the world.

Christian faith gives significant room to hold a wide range of political beliefs and approaches. More than that, politics is part of the amazing cultural mandate of humanity and can be leveraged for great good. Taken alone it falls short of being able to bring about the deepest and most far-reaching change that Jesus can and will bring about.

As a Christian Minister I call people to know Jesus Christ not to hold a particular political position or support a particular party. However, an implication of this Gospel should be to participate actively in society rather than to retreat from it, which at least means some level of political engagement... 

The rally showed me more of what matters to those involved, opened my eyes to a new community in our city and got me thinking more about how involved I am. Having politically-minded friends has inspired me to get involved more as we move to a new town, though I'm not entirely sure what that looks like yet.