Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Prayer: Am I mature enough to ask for help?

Prayer is both instinctive and seemingly impossible.

In the late Spring of 1979 I was born six weeks early. As a result I spent the first month of my life in intensive care in a Sheffield hospital. I was small and weak and utterly dependent on others. I would then, and for many more months to come, cry out when I was in need.

Fast-forward twenty years and I've grown physically, intellectually, socially and in many other ways. I'm studying Maths at Bath University. I'd been a big fish in a small pond but I was now a very small fish in a big pond, struggling to keep up with high level mathematics. Would I ask for assistance and direction from my tutor? No, I made every effort to cover up, to pretend things were ok and to avoid the one person who might assist me.

It occurs to me that for all the growing I'd done I had perhaps become less mature too?

What could be so difficult about asking for help?

To pray is to ask.

Jesus' friends asked him: teach us to pray (Luke 11:1-13).
Teach us to ask. Teach us to cry out.
And he said: Pray, Father.

When we do that we're speaking to His generous Father as our Father.

He said, when we do that we'll receive the Holy Spirit. We'll be welcomed into the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as adopted sons in the family of God with the church. We pray together: Our Father.

Coming in clothed in the true Son and so having no need to be ashamed, no need to hide our weaknesses or pretend than we need nothing.

Only he makes this possible.

The Father prayers of the Son (four of them in Luke's gospel) lead him to the anguish of trusting his Father in Gethsemane, and to crucifixion itself. In union with Christ his prayers are ours too, his path ours. We come to know his Father as he does... we go through the anguish of learning to trust and facing the death of our selfish selves.... and come with him into a different kind of life.

In the last year I've deliberately sought to grow in skills and understanding, felt my capacity stretched. Excellence is good and to be pursued. It's good to be good at things - to cultivate strengths. Doing Strengthsfinder a few years ago was some liberating self-knowledge. There are things I can, by the grace of God, do.

And there are things I can't do. This year, I've found myself out of my depth, facing unexpected situations that were and are beyond me. It's been another year of learning to cry out again, of admiting weakness in my ability, situation and character, and turning again to one who is generously for me. I need help from Jesus and his people.

In community, in the church, there are always some who are rejoicing and thriving... and always some who are struggling and weeping.

To ask for help is good. 
To be asked to give help is good.
To receive help is good. 

I'm watching my four year old son learn the same lessons as his Dad. When my four year old is whacked by his two year old brother his instinct is to fix the situation himself with violence. He's learning to come and ask for his parents to intervene, and so learning what it means to pray. Trusting that we can and will act in goodness.

He'll spend the rest of his life learning and re-learning this. Me too.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: From heaven he came and sought her

Central to any understanding of Christianity is understanding the signficance of the historical crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Everything flows from this. So it makes sense for any Christian who can to meditate deeply on the meaning of the cross of Christ as much as possible. 

I've really valued taking time to slowly read through heavy weight books like John Stott's The Cross of Christ, Ovey, Sach & Jeffery's Pierced for our Transgressions, The Cross from a Distance by Peter Boltand excellent essay collections The Glory of the Atonement and In my place condemned he stood. More pop-level books like Cross Examined are great too.

Chapter titles suggest the focus: "We trust in the Saving Blood", "For the Glory of the Father and the Salvation of His People", "Because He Loved Your Forefathers", "For Whom did Christ die?" and "The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of God in Christ." 

I worked with Jonny and David Gibson on the beginningwithmoses.org resource a decade ago so when I saw they had edited a new book on the cross I pinged them a message and blagged a free copy.

With that said let me tell you a bit about From heaven he came and sought her.

This book is 700 page compendium of essays including contributions by Blocher, Motyer (on the cross in Isaiah), Piper, Schreiner, Strange and the always engaging Carl Trueman among others. As a result some chapters stand out more than others and there is some repetition in the book as authors interact with key texts and historical moments.

The focus of this volume is 'Definite Atonement' which is the writers term for what might more often be called Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption. This is about the effectiveness of the cross for his people. The editors state that "the doctrine (of definite atonement) is a fitting and necessary corollary of penal substitutionary atonement." (p34). This is about "the shared intention and accomplishment of Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

The book claims to offer a Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral perspectives. It's a rich offering on a subject that isn't without controversy. There are historical complexities, hard Biblical texts, wider theological issues and significant pastoral concerns around this subject. I'm glad to have a rigorous approach to hand - the questions are hard - concerning the love and character of God, the possibility of salvation for people and many other areas - but God's people today, and throughout history, do not run away from the hard questions. This book is evidence of that honest pursuit.

I loved the attention to the details of exegeting key texts combined with an unpacking of the historical theology. I found myself encouraged by the exegesis and challenged and enlightened by the historical background.

I stand repentant and enriched, having misunderstood and caricatured some aspects of the debate over this doctrine. Expect the authors of this book, in their rigour, to suggest, imply and demonstrate from the Bible and from historical theology that you're in error in the way you believer and speak about the cross. That might be uncomfortable but better to be called back to Christ more truly than to keep my distance and remain in happy error.

The material presented here deserves engagement whether you come at it leaning more towards a limited or unlimited perspective on the extent and efficacy of the atonement.

Chapter 12, by Jonny Gibson ends like this: "As Husband and Head, Christ died for his bride and body; as Cosmic Saviour, he died for the world; and as the Last Adam, he died for a new humanity. In this regard, Christ truly is the Saviour of the world - an inumerable number of people from every tribe and language and nation.

I'm blogging this at just over half way through the book, in chapter 13 which beautifully shows the centrality of our Union with Christ to understanding what's happening at the cross, showing how "the saving work of God in Christ is Trinitarian", and citing Sanders: "Christian salvation comes from the Trinity, happens through the Trinity, and brimngs us home to the Trinity."... "the eternal Trinity is the gospel Trinity."

I'm finding this book really stimulating for my understanding, belief in, and articulation of the cross... leading me to increased devotion to Christ.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Waste Land: I never thought I would be a work of art

Lucy Walker's film of artist Vik Muniz is fascinating and deeply moving. Muniz is a Brazilian artist who returns to his home country to Jardim Gamacho, thirty miles over the shoulder of the famous Christ our Redeemer statue, Rio de Janerio's major landfill site. A place that is quite literally the end of the line... as working there is for many of its Catadors, who pick through the rubbish to separate out the recyclable material. From them and with them Muniz creates art. One of them later reflecting: "I never thought I would be a work of art"

The 90min documentary explores their world, their stories, the way that Muniz creates art and disrupts the lives of the Catadors offering them hope and the possibility of a different life. Is that good? Is it destructive? Can art really change people? We watched it together as a team recently and I'm still chewing over many of the questions it raises.

Get Waste Land on DVD

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Worship God UK: Bob Kauflin interview (part 2)

Concluding my conversation with Bob Kauflin about church music and the Worship God UK conference he's hosting in 2014....

Who are your role-models/teachers when it comes to music in church? 
Keith Green showed me that you don’t have to sit still when you play the piano. Matt Redman taught me how brief spontaneous moments can allow people to engage more deeply with the songs they’re singing. Paul Baloche has shown me much about what it means to be a humble musician. Stuart Townend has modeled beautiful, thoughtful, and theologically faithful lyric writing. Keith Getty has taught me a lot about passion for theology, diligence in writing, and beautiful melodies. C.J. Mahaney taught me about 90% of what has been important to me as I lead congregational song - listening to the Holy Spirit, caring for people’s souls as you lead, the importance of lyrics, the importance of actually seeking to encounter God as you sing and not merely sing songs, the centrality and power of the gospel, humility, joyful serving, and a bunch of other things.

Why do the words and music we use matter? 
God made us to remember and categorize words with music better than words alone. People forget sermons, they remember the songs they sing. As one writer said, “We are what we sing.” The songs we sing both reflect and shape the way we think about and relate to God, ourselves, and our world. That’s why what we choose to sing every Sunday is so important.

What's your process of preparing for a Sunday meeting? 
It varies, but generally I’ll start to put together a Sunday plan on Tuesday in preparation for our elders’ meeting on Wednesday afternoon. I have a general outline I follow - call to worship, songs, Scripture/prayer/confession, songs, welcome and offering, sermon, song, benediction. We will do communion once a month after the sermon. When I prepare I look at what was preached the previous week, what’s being preached this week, and always seek to make sure the gospel is being clearly presented in the flow of what we do.

How do you respond when someone thanks you at the end of a meeting? 
I say, “You’re welcome. It was my joy.” If they’re open to a deeper conversation, I might ask them what encouraged them about the meeting. That’s not to get them to talk about me more, but to give glory to God specifically for what he was doing in their hearts. I might also mention the contributions of others to what we did by saying, “Thanks so much. It’s a joy to get to work with the musicians on this team. They make it so easy." 10.

Sometimes people say that its more spiritual to be spontaneous than to have planned what you're going to sing... what do you think? 
We should never pit planning against spontaneity. God uses both. Proverbs is filled with exhortations to faithful planning and diligence, but in the end the Lord directs our steps (Prov. 16:1, 9; 19:21). Good planning actually helps spontaneity because we don’t have to constantly think about what’s happening next but can listen for a potential redirection at any moment. Those who are spontaneous every week end up doing very similar things over the long run, returning to the same themes, the same songs, and the same “spontaneous” prayers. Relying too much on spontaneity also trains us to look for the unexpected and strange rather than remember what God has already accomplished for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Why hold a conference on worship in the UK? 
Why should we come? Why WorshipGod UK? Nathan Smith leads the Sovereign Grace Church in Bristol and has been wanting us to come to the UK for a number of years. I’ve had the opportunity to lead at New Word Alive and in a few other contexts, and love the UK. And my wife, Julie, was born in Britain, so I have family roots. And some of us still feel a debt to the mother country.

Why should you come? Our heart is to encourage and equip church leaders and musicians, especially of small churches, who want to see their church passionately singing songs that are filled with the gospel and God’s Word in the power of the Spirit. Mike Reeves will be there as will Stuart Townend, Tim Chester, Jeff Purswell, Nathan and Lou Fellingham, and many more. We want to build on what God is already doing in the UK through others and hopefully contribute to the strengthening of congregational song jn the churches there. As we’ve led WorshipGod conferences in the states for the past 8 years attendees have told us they’ve grown in their love for the Savior, their knowledge of theology, and their musical and leadership skills. We also laugh a lot, give away free stuff, and seek to take God seriously, ourselves not so much. It’s our prayer that you’d be able to experience all that and more at WorshipGod UK, and we’d love to see you there!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Mary's Song

It's a first century equivalent of the Pregnancy-Scan Facebook post. The Magnficat is a remarkable song. Named for its opening words in Latin translation, in English translation the pregnant Mary sings: My soul magnifies the Lord.

Download mp3: Mary's song.

The song, though speaking of the baby Mary is carrying barely mentions the pregnancy, though it's subject is "God my Saviour" who is indeed the baby in her womb.

God steps into her world, like Vik Muniz stepping into the world of the workers at the Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janerio (in Lucy Walker's film Waste Land). Artist Muniz introduced hope and inspiration to the lives of the workers at a vast landfill site. Is that arrogant interference or presumption to turn up in someone else's world? Or might it be the very best thing that could happen. What happens when Jesus steps into this world?

The God who became one of us
Its a song that captures the essence of the Christmas story in which God comes to us. It's opening words are full of exhuberance and excitement. Is this classic power-play religion? Fundamentialism seeking to whip up a crowd? Where is the British reserve and understatement?

Yet, this is the excitement of a woman at the end of the line in the Roman empire, a pregnant teenager from a poor background. She has no power to wield, only the fruit of deep and careful reflection on her culture and her Scriptures, her song hits many of the notes of Hannah's song, the another young woman 1000 years previously.

Mary quite likely couldn't read or write but she'd evidently meditated deeply on the purposes and promises of God.

She calls for God her Saviour to be magnified... not in a magnifying glass because he's small.. but in the same way we magnify the blazing light of the sun by opening our curtains in the morning. Letting it's light into our lives.

The opening stanza is about the God who has come to her and seen her humble estate. A God she characterises as Holy... holy not in the sense of distance and otherness but holy as humbleness and humiliation. This God her Saviour is in her womb, a baby. Not just come to be with her in her low position but to be born as a baby, weaker than her, utterly dependent upon her... God with skin, God who cries...

I spoke with someone recently who told me about how moved he was by Michelangelo's statue of Mary, not holding baby Jesus but holding the crucified Jesus. He commented that though he wasn't religious, and is deeply committed to maintaining a deeply scientific approach to life....and yet he had been moved by this white carved marble... and inanimate object reflecting something deeply poignant. How do we explain that affectedness? What we can know is that Mary foresaw that - she knew that God her Saviour would be both helpess baby and crucified man.

Come with power in utter weakness to us in our weakness. Come to find us in our weakness, with our questions. Come to meet us where we are. Try Facebook's Year in Review tool - has it been a good year, a bad year? It picks out the most engaged with things you put on facebook this year. That means it reflects the happiest moments... and the most painful. Are you where you planned to be? Have you fallen off the tracks? At the end of the line? And it's not just circumstantial, at times we're culpable for our position.

Our created grandeur marred and broken by the deep problems in our hearts and in the world around us.

The God who challenges us
Mary's child isn't just for the weak, but also for the high. Those like Johan Sebastian Bach who in 1723 put Mary's song to music. The second stanza speaks of how Mary's Child will scatter the proud, dethrone those who elevate themselves and take down the rich. He knocks us off the high places on which we put ourselves...  In his death he will put that presumption that I know how to run life to death...

I'm no Bach but as a child of my time and a member of Adam's helpless race I believe in myself, think highly of myself, feel that I have much to contribute. I stand opposed to Mary's child.

And Mary's Child comes to me in my self-agrandising and brings me down... from my faux greatness to his real humiliation in lowness. He knows what it is to leave the throne and be made low... and he brings me low with him so I can be filled by him. He asks of me what he himself has done for me... he does the work, I need simply entrust myself to him, follow him into life.

A cold statue, a talented artist,... and much more Mary's child, interupt the course of our lives. Presenting us with different questions and a different direction in life. Mary's song is a song about Mary's child, the extraordinary one who comes in utter humility that disrupts our lives. Cry Magnificat!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Patterns, structures, maps and context

The Bible isn't a list of propositions it's a brilliantly written library of great literature - in narrative, poems, wisdom and also in letters. The letters are not just off-the-cuff emails. They're carefully crafted communication.

This term across the South West some of the Christian Unions have immersed themselves in Paul's letter to the church in Rome. It's ideal because it hits the basics of faith in the form of a letter designed to catch the Roman church up into a united participation in God's missionary movement in his world.

There's much structure in the letter. I love seeing the big picture and in a letter like this the context is vital to making sense of the whole.

1:16-18 tells of the revelation of righteousness and wrath in the gospel with the subsequent sections showing how God has long been patient with Israel, in kindness giving them time to repent. They hadn't and so the name of God has been held in contempt. Is it worth believing in this God who seems to care not about injustice? This question builds until at the cross of Christ (3:25) the wrath of God was revealed in the death of Christ - sin comes to death and the case is proved that God is righteous.

The laying out of the gospel story in the history of Israel continues in chapter 4 and much more later in the book. Israel and the law become a vital issue and 'problem' in the movement of the gospel story from Adam to Christ.

Peter Leithart observes, as many commentators do, a chiastic structure in Romans 5-8.
A sandwiching of ideas that highlights the themes. He sees:

A. 5:1-11: The justified have hope for glory in midst of tribulation, because of God's love
    B. 5:12-21: Adam and Christ: Adam's sin reversed
      C. 6:1-14: Death in baptism means deliverance from dominance of sin
        D. 6:15-23: Members are to be presented as weapons of righteousness
            E. 7:1-6: Death to the law through the death of our Husband
        D'. 7:7-25: Bondage to sin provoked by law; a different law warring in members 
      C'. 8:1-17: God delivered where Law could not, setting free from sin and death
    B'. 8:18-25: Creation will be liberated from futility to which Adam subjected it
A'. 8:26-39: Assurance of hope in the midst of tribulation; we will not be separated from God's love in Christ

A chiasm allows for the raising of issues, the developing of ideas and highlighting major themes. The pairs build on each other and our attention is draw to the central section, in this case about our death in Christ's death that ends our brutal marriage to the law to bring us into a new marriage with Christ. One only has to watch people's eyes pop out of their head as they read it to know that its the meat in the sandwich.

Around this centre, parts A & A' both speak about the hope we have even though we suffer. God's love for us means that through suffering we'll grow, and certainly not be separated from Christ. Actually we know more of him in our suffering. The thought is introduced at the start of chapter 5 and concluded at the end of 8 - read them together! (Preach them together?)

Parts B & B' go together to show the transition needed from Adam to Christ, to reverse Adam's sin and to liberate humanity and the rest of creation. Meanwhile we reign in life and yet groan in frustration. Read together we see the reigning and the waiting.

Parts C & C' show that we've been plunged into death with Christ, through his cross and our baptism... so too he put sin, condemnation, death to death as he died as one of us... and so did what we could never do for ourselves. He doesn't come to inspire us or to offer us a new rule book but to put us to the death our sin was heading for and then to bring us to adopted life in the Spirit as surely as he himself is resurrected. Reading both parts together develops the thought more fully.

Parts D & D' tell us that we're radically free from sin to live to righteousness, and yet experience the wretchedness of sin. There is a tension here in which a Christian lives... free and yet torn up inside as we lug around our old flesh in our Spirit-filled bodies. Where D feels overstated and is the kind of text that makes people think sinless perfection is possible, D' alone seems despairing. Together they resonate deeply. Together they show that Christian theology fits Christian experience. The Christian is free and yet constrained, liberated and yet still awaiting final resurrection.

And E shows us that the break from law and death is decisive, not because the law of God died... but because we did in Christ. The ultimate way out of a terrible marriage... our death... followed by our resurrection in Christ our true and better husband who loved us even to his own death for us. And if this is at the heart of his story then the recurring themes of being "in Christ" of union with him, of leaving Adam's helpless race to be born again into Christ is exactly what we should expect. An espousal story of union with the true husband.

It's the Bible's story from creation to new creation. As NT Wright observes, an Exodus story. From captivity to wedding feast... and yet the frustration of life in the wilderness. The framework of the story has been set out in history, it continues and concludes from all that has been done before. This is not a chaotic story, and seeing the structure makes it clearer...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Worship God UK: Bob Kauflin interview (part 1)

I met Bob in at an airport luggage collection area in 2008. I'd enjoyed his blog on worship and a number of his songs and I'd just picked up a copy of his book on worship. I was glad to hear recently that he's working with my friend Nathan to host a conference on worship in Bath in March 2014.  So, I pinged Bob an email with a few questions to whet your appetite....

Where does your interest in music come from? 
I've been involved in music for as long as I can remember, making up songs on the piano from the time I was 6. My mother was the primary influence and wanted all of her four children to study music of some kind. We had music playing in the house and in the car all the time, mostly classical and standards. By the time I was 12 years old I was hooked on studying classical music and playing everything I could by ear.

Why is music important for Christians? 
That’s a broad question because there are so many ways we can interact with music! Listening, singing, playing. Let me answer as it pertains to congregational song. Music is important for Christians because it seems to be important to God. There are over 50 commands in the Bible to sing, and over 400 references to singing. That doesn’t include references to instrumental music. Because music is so emotionally powerful, it can combine objective truth with subjective response. That’s how congregational singing can help us “feel the truth,” that is to say, it can help us be more impacted by God’s word and deepen our affections for him. Music can help keep our theology from becoming dry and simply a matter of the intellect.

How did you end up being a "worship leader”? 
Of course, every Christian is a “worship leader,” seeking to persuade others that God’s glory in Christ is to be exalted above everything on earth! But I started leading songs in the Sunday meeting in my church back in the early 80s. It seemed a natural extension of my love for the Savior and my musical training.

 How did that fit into "normal" working/family life? (I'm assuming you didn't start out on a church staff) 
 I started by playing the piano as someone else led. In a few years I was the one leading. Because it was something I loved to do and enjoyed doing, it didn’t seem to impinge on my time with the family. Of course, Julie, my wife, might tell you something different! Also, I don’t think my planning then was as thorough as it is now.

 What would you want to say to your novice-self if you had the chance? 
Nothing is more important to communicate to people than the gospel of Jesus Christ. No song, arrangement, vocalist, riff, or technology. People need to see the glory of Christ, not the glory of our presentation. Know God’s Word and depend on it to change people’s lives. See leading songs as a pastoral function before you see it as a musical one. Do more listening than you do talking or singing. Listen to the feedback others give you. In fact, seek it out. Listen to the other musicians that you play with.

To be continued next Tuesday.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Sin, death, wrath and Ashton Kutcher

Warning. This post contains words like sin and death and wrath.
Serious words filled with anguish and emotion and pain and sorrow.

It also has a paragraph about Ashton Kutcher.

Now, I'm not usually a fan of Ashton Kutcher's work but the 2004 film The Butterfly Effect is both deeply disturbing, upsetting and profound. Kutcher's character Evan finds he has the ability to change situations but it becomes apparent that each positive change has negative consequences... the ripples of chaos theory frustrate his attempts to fix his life. Ultimately, Evan concludes the only hope is to prevent his being born. Better not to have lived than to cause such trouble. It's a (sci-fi) solution to the deathly effects of sin but surely not the only way?

In Romans 6 Paul writes to the church in Rome saying:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
The Christian message doesn't say you can fix things with a new inspiration to follow. We shouldn't watch planes take off and feel inspired to sing "I believe I can fly".

A new rule won't help either. This broken humanity has had it. We're not as bad as we might be in every way but in our most honest moments we know the corrosive effects of sin in our hearts. I do.

"Biblically", Sin is a deathly thing.
We may think of it as trivial naughtiness in 21st Century Britain, but God uses it to speak of much deeper darkness in the human heart.
Spufford's HPTFTU isn't far off.
Sin is life's opposite.
It's anti-spirit, anti-creation.
Death is now unavoidable.
I feel it.
I convince myself it's not so bad but I know I sin against those I love the most...

When Jesus stepped onto the public stage - at his baptism in Luke 3 - it's for baptism, a moment in which he's numbered with the transgressors, in which he joins them in going down to death (to then be raised) with us, for us. It's a beautiful scene of triune love - with revelation of sin and death at its centre. Beauty always marred with brokenness. I see my deathly sin - taken seriously by the God of love who comes to us to bring us into his life. His story is all about death - his and ours.

So too, as the Old Testament law vividly draws out the grammar of the gospel it shows that sin brings death - consider the gory image of the sacrifice in Leviticus 1 being de-created, taken apart in every way.
Sin goes to death but another can take my place.
It's shocking to see.
It makes a deep impression.
Death of one to bring life to another.

A Christian isn't a death avoider.
The "flesh", the "sinful nature" can be finished off by embracing its death rather than trying to trivialise its trouble or paper over the cracks.

My sin can be put to death by believing in Jesus.
Trusting his death to also be my death.

The Bible tells how he became one of us to bring our sin to nothing.
To finish it off.
To give it the wages it deserves. i.e. DEATH.
Ending sinful life to empty sin of its poisonous power.
But the Jesus story isn't just death.
if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
A stark future is ahead. Adam's helpless race faces death.
But any member of that race can instead die in Christ.
Divine wrath will justly bring sin to death - in Adam, in Christ.
"The wrath of God is satisfied" - sin put to death.
Wrath reaching its just completeness at Calvary or in that terrible day to come. Either way, death.

But in Christ death isn't the end, because death cannot keep its hold on him.
...if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his

In Christ, death is not the end of us.
Not living in the first place is not the only solution.
One can be born again, resurrected.
We can pass through death in Jesus' death, and into life through his resurrection.

Down to the grave, up into life. Down and up. No other way.

The principle is called Union with Christ.
What happens to Jesus happens to us.
He died so do we. But if he was then raised, so will we.
He stands justified, so too we can stand justified.

In Christ, death is finished. Consider it so!

Why would I give my old dead body to more destruction when I could receive abundance of life. The gospel invites me to turn again to Jesus, believe in his death, believe in his resurrection and so consider myself dead to my old fleshly life and alive in Christ.

As I live in the present struggle with sin, my hope is sure:
There is no condemnation for those who are IN CHRIST, who die with him, who rise with him...

Friday, December 06, 2013

But why?

Early December and early March are the two seasons in my year when my job steps away from frontline student ministry to be involved in recruitment for new Staff and Interns. That process spreads over the preceding months to connect with people and invite them to apply, but then we come to interview.

Hour after hour of asking questions.
Hearing answers and examining them.
Thinking hard to understand the assumptions behind the answers.
Asking more questions. And then more.

Yes, but what do you mean by that?
Yes, and how did you do that?
Yes, and why did you do that?

It's good practice for normal life, for discipleship, for evangelism. The approach is very similar... the only difference is that in a formal interview permission has been granted to ask and ask and ask.

I find it to be a sharpening experience. A bit exhaustinng but enriching and envigorating.

It fights against just accepting forms of words and jargon and assumed ideas but making me dig deeper, questioning more carefully. Not for the sake of asking. But asking questions in love, in hope, for discovery.

I've been teaching students lately about how knowing Jesus should leads us to being intensely curious, fascinated people who are fascinated with people and all kinds of things. But it's all too easy to revert back into well worn paths and well trodden answers. Life is richer and better and more interesting than that.

I want to rediscover the inner four year old... to keep asking and asking and asking and not just accepting what I'm told. I want to feel the pain and the struggle and the joy and the liberty of hard questions and fresh answers, convinced that in a relational universe its good to ask and possible to know.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

One Forever (Rory Shiner)

I've really enjoyed Rory Shiner's short book One Forever recently which unpacks the centre of Christianity - our union with Christ. Here's his key illustration:

You can get the book and also access the original sermons in audio and video form from AFES.
Saved in Christ
Right in Christ
Holy in Christ
Gathered in Christ
See also Mike Reeves mp3s: Union with Christ

Friday, November 15, 2013

Aronofsky puts Noah on the big screen

The trailer for Darron Aronofsky's Noah is doing the rounds. With the possible limitations of Russell Crowe as Noah it looks pretty impressive. The release date in the end of March 2014 so I wonder if that raises some good possibility for a short Noah preaching series for a church or CU over Easter or early summer term. Who knows how big a film it is but advertising alone will get people thinking about the story.

Six years ago, the Guardian reported:
The script, Aronofsky tells me, is no conventional biblical epic. "Noah was the first person to plant vineyards and drink wine and get drunk," he says admiringly. "It's there in the Bible - it was one of the first things he did when he reached land. There was some real survivor's guilt going on there. He's a dark, complicated character." 
Noah is famous, compelling, features in kids books, has big-action and is right in the mainline of the Bible's story. You could easily get three messages from the Genesis 6-8 story if you wanted...
1. The world filled with wickedness. When this gets personal that's hard to hear but the diagnosis of Genesis 6 makes huge emotional sense as we look at the world today. The context is Genesis 1-6 tells us that the world should've been filled with goodness, again something that resonates in us and our desire for beauty and good design, care etc. A world being de-created in need of re-creation.
2. The one righteous man - a preacher of righteousness to the world, a picture of the true Righteous One, calling us through death to resurrection. It's an opportunity to speak of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Aronofsky says Noah's story tells of "new life emerging from old." We think every man is an island but John Donne is right, we're all connected... one man dies and we all die, but if he rises from the grave...
3. The hope of a renewed creation - see Noah, in a newly re-formed world, waiting to be filled with goodness. This is the hope of peace on earth, a new world, an end to pain... unachievable by the flood, unachievable by our utopian dreams... but achievable through the true and greater Noah.
Opening up the Noah narrative inevitably raises a number of big objections and questions like...
  • Did this actually happen? Is Genesis 1-11 myth or true myth? 
  • Was the flood localised to the middle east, or was it global? An opportunity to engage the question of whether 'the earth' in Genesis means the land... and to think about the widespread myths of floods in so many human cultures...
  • What kind of God floods the world? There are massive questions here about sin and the extent of sin and the wrath of God in response to it that don't sit easily with people (and probably shouldn't.)
In any case, Noah's story, is a myth - even a true myth - that we need to hear today if we're to know what kind of world we live in and what kind of hope we need.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Andrew Bonar's Psalms

I've started reading through Andrew Bonar's 19th Century commentary on the Psalms from Monday to Friday, to walk through the book of Psalms over 30 weeks. You can follow along via @bonarpsalms and http://bonarpsalms.blogspot.co.uk

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Esther 5: Gospelicity is upside down

Mordecai has prepared Esther. She's learned her lines. She's survived entry to the presence of the king. And then she asks not for salvation but for a feast... and given a second chance to ask, she asks for another feast. And feasts with the villain. Has power gone to her head? Has she forgotten her people? Is it the mother of all missed opportunities? Outcry. Despair...

Or maybe she's wiser than she looks...

Feasts are significant moments. Esther as a book is built on ten of them. Feasts are where hearts get exposed. Where real business happens. We moved our Community Group three metres from our living room sofas to our dining room table and it deepened our relationships significantly. It's the tragedy of many student houses - no dining room table. Buy a table and start shopping online together and cooking together and you not only save having to go shopping and save lots of time and money but you might just gain a depth of relationship.

God lays a feast for his people in Eden's garden... and for the elders of Israel after the Exodus... and for all-comers at the end of time. Jesus invites people to a feast and they receive his invite but then when the feast is ready many turn him down... their hearts exposed and they turn away.

Villainous Haman leaves the feast full of food and wine and joy. It looks like Esther has made things worse. The villain happy, but then infuriated on his way home by the presence of Mordecai. He gathers his family to boast of his greatness and complain of his nemesis. They spur him on to add vengeance to vengeance. It looks like everything is gettinng worse. The villain is going to make a spectacle of Mordecai....

Much more will Jesus be made a spectacle of on a Friday afternoon, he'll look defeated and foolish... but be victorious and wise and in reality be making a spectacle of all his enemies, crushing them in his own being crushed. Esther's has a greater wisdom, her feast look like the river running even harder against her people but it's the turning of the tide...  as Esther 5 ends things appear worse than ever, but the story is not over.

As they await the next feast Esther stands, as she does on eight occasions in the book, firmly in the favour with the king. Greater still does the true and greater Esther, Jesus, stand in his Father's favour and invite all to find refuge in him through the seeming foolishness of his wise death and third day resurrection.

Like making an Ogre the hero of a fairy tale, Gospelicity subverts what you'd expect by giving us exactly what we're longing for with a wisdom that looks foolish through the death of the son, the king. As Adam Clarke puts it, commenting on Esther 5, the cross explains Christ. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Esther 5: A gospelicious world

I love a good Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster but they don't tend to be the films I want to go back to again and again, the stories don't tend to under your skin. They're shallow, popcorn experiences with little character development. And that's ok. But we need richer stories too. Esther sits firmly in among the best short stories. Highly structured, with depth in the detail and the characters and brimming with suspense and emotion.

As the plot unfolds we're given just what we'll need to know about key characters but not in ways that seem too obvious. We're invited to ask questions - what was that about?

In chapter 5 events get particularly tense. Mordecai's rebellion against his arch-enemy Haman has triggered the threat of a genocide at the end of the year. The King and Prime Minister feast but everyone else is in uproar. Esther is in the position to act if she dare and instructed by her adoptive father she agree to go - 'for such a moment as this... if I perish I perish' she famously says.

The world of Esther is one of Kings and betrayals, of heroes and villains, of feast and spices, and of formal relationships.

You can't approach the king without permission. If you do you're likely to be exiled/killed unless he holds up his golden sceptre and receives you. Formal relationships set the frameworks for freedom and shape even though in the 21st Century we're deeply suspicious of formality, addicted as we are to spontenaity.

It's the third day. A moment pregnant with Biblical meaning, surely? Either we consider the details of the Bible to be coincidence or perhaps ina world where not even a sparrow falls from a tree without the Father knowing the details might be significant. Esther resides with the 2001 masterpiece Shrek, laced with allusions to it's canon - not so much nursery rhymes and films and pop culture but the canon of Scripture.

And so, Third days are days of seed-bearing plants (of death bursting out in life), of Seed being figuratively raised from the dead, of anointed one's winning victories... and drawing those allusions and types together: the resurrection of the anointed one on a Sunday morning. Esther's approach feels like death but the ambient music has a note of resurrection.

She's clothed in royal robes. Not naked. Not ordinary. No cause to be ashamed. She looks like one who belongs in the court with the robes given by the king. Esther's world is one in which that sort of thing happens.

And she stands in the court with the king. The X-factor results cameras lingering on each, mood music building, tension rising. What will happen? He receives her! Yes! Resurrected! And he offers her up to half his kingdom. She can have all she wants. Salvation is a whisper away... (to be continued in the next post)

Esther's world is Jesus' world.

It's a picture of the Christian's life. The true and better Esther passes through death and resurection to sit with his Father. And those who take refuge in him can follow him in. We're invited to a better access. No fear, we can run in confidently not casually but because all the terms of our formal relationship have been fulfilled in Jesus. The way is open and our Father has much greater generosity than Ahasuerus. Not just half the world but all of it as co-heirs with Christ. To pray is to taste resurrection life. Come on in?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sonship #galatiansfest

I've got the opportunity to preach three sermons from Galatians in November for a CU weekend and two seminars on sonship for another. I'm thinking of covering something like this...

1. Pleased to reveal his Son (Galatians 1v16)
This is Paul's description of his conversion to Christ - a devout and successful religious man he was apprehended by the love of God in Christ. The persecutor became a preacher. God reveals his Son and thats' what changed everything for him... he didn't get an idea from other people. People preach that revelation but the true source is always God. The Galatian Christians shouldn't think they should add keeping Jewish law to their faith because the Christians of Judea heard what had happened to Paul and rejoiced. They knew, without knowing him, that he was a gospel man.
Major theme - if you want to know God, see Jesus.
Hence CU gives people opportunity to respond to Jesus. Uncover etc.

2. The Son of God who loved me (Galatians 2v20)
Here Peter is confronted by Paul for fear, hypocrisy and failure to live in line with the gospel. He's step out of the blessing of the Spirit. Paul walks him back through everything he already knows. The penny hadn't dropped but perhaps this was another day in which it moved a little deeper. The climax of the pastoral conversation shows that the cross of Christ wasn't meaningless, but rather very meaningful. Little words sing the gospel: in, for, with.
Major theme - if you want to know Jesus, see the cross.
Hence CU is built on the cross of Christ. Not just ABC but A-Z. It's the same message for all - so everything we can do is double-barrelled, we're here for the University not just for Christians.

3. If a son, then an heir (Galatians 4v7)
The conclusion of a long argument about the law and how the Galatians don't need to add law to their faith in Christ. Clothed in Christ, the Father sees Christ when he turns his eye to them. Filled with the Spirit, the Father hears Christ when he turns his ear to them. Our lives aren't about us but about Jesus, we're hid in him. We're on the plan. This means relational participation in Christ's life in the Trinity and it means a share in Christ's inheritance - a wide lense Christianity.
Major theme - God treats you as he treats Christ.
Hence CU values everyone and values everything.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

God and Suffering: my story

Tanya Marlow hosts my 'God and Suffering' story today, reflecting on the expected events we've experienced this year with our son...

Brokenness under the skin.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Lee Mack: I would read the Bible

Desert Island Discs invites guests to select the music they'd want with them on a Desert Island, plus Shakespeare and the Bible, in a closing remark Lee Mack reflected:
"I'm glad you get the Bible, because I would read the Bible. I think it's quite odd that people like myself, in their forties, quite happy to dismiss the Bible, but I've never read it. I always think that if an alien came down and you were the only person they met, and they said, 'What's life about? What's earth about? Tell us everything,' and you said, 'Well, there's a book here that purports to tell you everything. Some people believe it to be true; some people [do] not believe it [to be] true.' 'Wow, what's it like?' and you go, 'I don't know, I've never read it.' It would be an odd thing wouldn't it? So, at the very least, read it." 
Comedian Lee Mack on BBC Desert Island Discs via Tony Watkins

Friday, September 27, 2013

Francis Spufford - Unapologetic

Don't miss these 80mins of Francis Spufford at the Theos Think Tank on September 26th 2013 reflecting on his outstanding book Unapologetic: Why despite everything Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. I've also enjoyed his book The child that books built.

Spufford finds a rare angle of appealing for the emotional sensibility of Christianity and recognises that many of our conventional answers miss the mark, not least the way we talk about sin. His answers may not be exhaustively satisfying but the answers we have already fail in many ways too.

See also Francis Spufford and Philip Pullman on Justin Brierley's radio show.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Halloween: Trick or Treat

A cracking bit of poetry on video from Glen Scrivener on the meaning of Halloween (yes it's not for six weeks yet but worth thinking about things ahead of time...)

Halloween: Trick or Treat? from 10ofthose.com on Vimeo.

For more see: Pete Dray speaking at Durham University in 2011 on Why God Loves Halloween (pdf)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

5 ways to do social media better

Facebook,Twitter, Blogs etc. Social media is a catch all for ways in which the internet allows people to connect and generate content to share, with varying degrees of commitment and privacy and possibility.

1. Accept that Social Media is real.
Social media isn't something to be pitted against "the real world" but is a part of how real people can connect with other real people. It might not be the same as face to face communication but it is real.
I've been a relatively early adopter when it comes to using these new media and feel like I've benefitted from that. But, it's easy to miss out on the opportunities that are available.Technology can have its pitfalls and can expose problems in us, but there are good things here. Don't feel weird about it.

2. Connect with people.
a) People you know - let the tools of the 21st Century add value to existing relationships.

b) People who like what you like - the internet allows you to find other people who are into things you're into. I don't just mean yes-men - I love to hear from people who see things differently to me. Hashtags are your friends to find new friends. Be broad - I love when I see a CU decide not to try to launch its own hashtag for freshers week (too niche and sub-culture creating) but instead engage with the university's own.

c) People in your city - your workplace, your culture etc...  follow local businesses - especially the ones you engage with in other settings, follow the local council, engage with events and bands and politicians and initatives. If you're a CU then engage with other societies, the Guild, the University, academics and faculties...

Members of Christian Unions know that they come into that Union as members of local churches, but to the University involvement with the local church represents an intruiging connection with the people of the city who will open their lives and homes to students... and with whom students can make a contribution to the good of the city.

3. Consider your audience.
Create content that engages the people you're connected with. Consider who will see your content. I've linked this blog to a facebook page not to my facebook profile because I've got lots of friends who I don't think would be automatically interested in everything I write here. I could've changed what I write (and may do that), and I can still post links to relevant posts... and my friends can opt in via the page.

Who is your page for? Is it an in-house members page or is it public? Intended focus shapes the terms of engagement. Unless you run a closed group then your page or group is a public forum. Your CU or church page shouldn't assume people are Christians - point yourself towards your University or your city, towards the shared questions of human beings there, and let that shape what you'll talk about and how you'll talk about those things.

I've been taking a lead on our church social media for a while - we run a blog, a facebook page and a twitter feed (and we have an 'members' group which functions quite well in house). Initially our content was church news and sermon mp3s - essentially pitched to church members and Christians moving into our city. Lately I've begun to slowly adjust this more towards our city - because we're not just in our city for Christians, we want to be part of the life of our city. That changes who we follow on Twitter and what we'll talk about. For a CU - sure you can talk about your events but talk about the sign up for Welcome Week, talk about exams and Guild elections, about the amazing things about studying this world, preparing for graduate life, celebrate other poeple's events and causes not just your own. Join God in the renewal of all things.

Personally, I'm fitting this in between everything else in life so it's still a bit more ad hoc than it should be, and I really should recruit a few more contributors to generate content and connections for us. We're not as consistent as we might be but I'm pleased with the direction of travel.

Considering audience also means understanding the medium. Twitter is low-commitment and low-relationship - you follow them because you want to (for whatever reasons), they follow you because they want to (for whatever reasons) but no reciprocity is required and no relationship is required. Blogs live from google and links from other social media, the dominant voice is the blogger but comments are open. Your facebook friends are mutually agreed commitments to share aspects of life - though each party decides how transparent they want to be.

4. Share.
Things Trend because people pass them on. When you spot good content share it appropriately. Spread the goodness. And... spread goodness rather than spreading evil. It's really easy to be argumentative but really pointless. Aggression is unpleasant.
Sharing makes a difference. If I post to our church facebook page we reach 50-100 people who already like the page, if I share that to my timeline the reach increases towards 500... if every member of the church does the same our reach would be in the thousands. And as long as we can generate content that is of interest to people's friends why shouldn't that happen?

5.  Interact.
Like things. Comment on things. Reply to things. Share things. You can be a passive voyeur but life is richer if you engage. You might lack time - but life has plenty of gaps and if you've got a smartphone you can tweet on the bus, while waiting for things to happen, though preferably not during a meal or on the toilet. Decide what level you want to engage at and then go for it. Don't mediate every moment through your smartphone but do adopt a suitable generosity with your life, questions and concerns because social media allows you to share life with others - and that can be mutually beneficial.

And, lastly, a particular bugbear. Next Spring, Christian, don't give up facebook for Lent... because facebook is a a tool through which you connect with me. And giving up your friends for Lent is even more bizarre than giving up chocolate.

Your community is talking, why would you want to stay out of the conversation?
I'm still learning. What's your experience?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Oliver Barclay (1919-2013)

Oliver Barclay died yesterday. A giant of whom the world was not worthy, now cheering us on in death as he did in life. Oliver was one of the leading lights of the UCCF movement over the past century, and a man whose fingerprints are left all over churches and individuals in the UK and far beyond.

I had the privilege of meeting Oliver one January evening in 2002 as a quirk of an accomodation plan that had landing myself and my good friend  and fellow UCCF intern Rich staying with Oliver and Daisy for a week. When you sign your name in the guest book on the line under John Stott you realised you're a minnow in a giant's house.

Truth be told, aged 22 I had never heard of Oliver when we were given his name in the dark corridor of UCCF's old Leicester office (a centre he had established). Little did I know how much my Christian life - formed over the previous four years in the air of UCCF - had already been shaped by Oliver's ministry. What we found behind their front door was a gentle, friendly, understated and deeply inquisitive 81 year old who with his wonderful wife demonstrated outstanding hospitality and kindness.

Oliver subsequently encouraged me to join UCCF's staff team in 2003 and became a supporter and occasional counsellor to me over the years. My wife and I would pop in and see them in Leicester from time to time - something made more difficult by our move to to the South West. Those occasional hours, the last of them in late 2010, were enriching and provoking and inspiring. He maintained a genuine interest in frontline student ministry.

Our last phone call (a couple of years ago) was him picking up something in my prayer letter - he wanted more detail to fuel his prayers and to humbly offer his wisdom and correction to the situation.

Read more in the obituary at uccf.org.uk
"He had no formal theological training but developed in himself – and cultivated in his staff – the ability to ‘think theologically’. He read through Calvin’s Institutes each year and prayed daily for a deeper understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ. He never lost sight of his dual task, to strengthen a witness to Christ both in the student world and among faculty. He followed news of UCCF missions closely until recent months, and remained as convinced as he had been in his early days that ministry in the university world was the most strategic way to build a thoughtful acceptance of biblical truth. We thank God for Oliver Barclay’s tenacity and far-sightedness, his shrewd judgment and his passion for the gospel; and we commend his widow Daisy and his four children to your prayers." 
Here are some words from Oliver, from his out of print UCCF booklet on When Science and Faith meet:
He worked hard to foster "a Christian mind" among students and graduates, demostrating the integrity with which one can follow Christ.
I give thanks to God for his work in and through Oliver. Another treasure, with his friends and co-workers Bill and Shirley Lees, and John Stott, now resting with his Saviour.

Here's a few comments from others:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

9 ways to nail the first CU meeting of the year

Christian Unions will have their first meeting of term in the next week or so. In the South West we're welcoming over 25,000 undergraduates to University and they're all welcome at our meetings...

How can you nail that first CU meetinng?

1. This is a gathering of human beings. 
This isn't "them and us". Our experience of reality is that we have a lot in common with one another. We breath the same air and share many of the same questions and concerns. At the start of the year no-one really knows anyone, every encounter with other people feels risky, people are likely to be guarded. Appreciate this and set the tone as giving people space. Avoid ice-breakers - they make people uncomfortable and do almost nothing to help people come out of hiding.
(There are questions to ask here about all our communication and social media - are we speaking publicly but 'in house' or are we speaking to the University as a whole...)

2. We're keen to be good for University life. 
Our message is get involved in University life, in clubs and socities, be intensely curious about people and your course and everything. Life fascinates us, blows our minds and breaks our hearts. Professor John Lennox of Oxford University says "Keep asking questions until someone asks you one back." We like that. We're not an exclusive and separate society, in fact our closest friends probably aren't part of the Christian Union though we aim to cultivate a good sense of community here.

3. We think it's good to be part of our city. 
We appreciate the place, local business, the culture and quirks and beauty of our city. We want to be at home here and contribute to the good of our city. We think it's good to connect with other people, and that a local church is a family that will welcome anyone with open arms. We're aware that most students never set foot in a non-student home at University and we think that's a shame. We've found that church connects you with a diverse local community. There are many other reasons to go to church, and many more you might give if you were speaking to someone you knew was a Christian... but here you're speaking to human beings in general.

4. People have a life
Start the meeting when you say you'll start - advertise an end time and hit the time. Keep things moving, and explain at the start what people can expect. If you start late in the first week people will assume they should keep coming late. If you over run you're ask people to choose between coming next week and doing the other things they want to do. Why force that unnecessary choice? An hour an a half is enough time to do a lot of things... a 75-90min meeting is probably sufficient.

5. People stick because of friendship and a sense of belonging 
Go out of your way to meet people and be friendly... even the most introverted of us wouldn't set out to deliberately be unfriendly. Imagine all the interesting people you could meet and the value that might add to life and the journey you might make together.

6It's the Christian Union meeting - so do speak clearly of Jesus. 
People will expect that. Christians know Jesus is revelant, but we'll need to show how that is the case, especially since we expect all kinds of people to be there. We want to set a tone that says, it's a reasonable and good thing to investigate the claims of Jesus, and everyone is welcome to do that. That's what Christian Unions are there for - give everyone the opportunity to consider for themselves who Jesus is...

7. Setting the right tone...

We want our meetings to be welcoming to everyone. Any kind of people you can think of could be in the room. And we're glad about that.

We want our language to be including not excluding. People who believe in the Incarnation don't throw rocks from a distance. We go and sit with people and listen and weep and smile and celebrate.

  • If we sing, we want our songs to be clear, to make sense, of beware of unhelpful language like military metaphors...   [Also, if you have a band they better be good... if they aren't then keep it simple, a good singer/guitarist beats a bad band everytime. 
  • If we pray we'll be simple and brief... model that anyone can do this. 
  • What's said from the front needs to be free from jargon and in jokes unless you want to communicate that you'd prefer the CU to only have you in it.
We're aware that confrontational language ranges between being off-putting and rude and offensive.

A good degree of emotional intelligence is necessary to lead a meeting. A desire to tick boxes to prove orthodoxy is a bad qualification to lead the meeting (though orthodoxy is great!) Those upfront need to be especially aware that there are harder-to-swallow aspects of who Jesus is and those things need framing with care and sensitivity and awareness of the connotations and implications they have for people, however unintended. What's modelled up front gets picked up in the seats.

8. Facilitating next steps...
Desiring to  give opportunities for people to make next steps from wherever they are lets not make too many upfront assumptions about people. Yes this is a meeting of the Christian Union but we meet as human beings, standing with one another. "You" is confrontational and divisive, "We" might not even want to call ourselves Christians let alone be Christians... and even if "We" are Christians that could mean a whole lot of different things... especially on opening night.

So, lets provide clear pathways. 
  • Get a box fifty £1 Bible's from 10ofthose.com that you can give away at the start of the talk to anyone who doesn't have one. Have plenty available along with relevant literature to resource people for their journey. A term card. An Uncover seeker study guide etc. 
  • Have pens and connect cards on seats and give people an opportunity in the meeting to fill them in. Including a 'volunteer' column will help everyone to have something to respond to and you can easily involve people and give ownership. Have somewhere accessible to hand those in and meet a leader at the end of the meeting. Follow up connect cards within 48 hours because that's friendly and . .

  • Serve people by being with people... asking questions and listening. 
Get this wrong and it sets a wrong tone in the meeting and you lose people and model bad ways to live... get it right and you're flying. 

9. And... what else?
Comments are open.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Learning to walk

"There is something intoxicating in the oldness of it, the strangeness and magic of the legends. It holds both joy and sadness. As we walk about the world, we tread on layers of accumulated culture; the earth is alive with stories. We in turn are ‘story-formed’. We, like our forebears are storytellers, and makers of culture."
James Watts, Shropshire Lore (see also Maximum-Life)

 "Walking upright, or bipedalism, is considered the threshold of being human, the skill that most distinguishes us from our ancestors. It's also immune to improvement. Walking can be a source of meaning. As long as humans have worshiped gods, they have walked to get closer to them. In the Bible, the greatest spiritual breakthroughs occur when the heroes are on journeys; Abraham going forth to the Promised Land; the Israelites crossing the Red Sea; Israel being dispatched to Babylon. From the Haj to the Stations of the Cross, the greatest pilgrimages contain walking."
Bruce Feiler, via Jon Tyson FlaneurYork, relcaiming the art of the leisurely stroll

"Jesus... walked a mile in our shoes so we could walk in his,"
Andrew Wilson, God and the walk (God*Stories)

Monday, September 09, 2013

You can't say that! Hard questions and real people and offensive Bible verses

Christians in University halls meet to read the Bible and pray. They form witnessing communities who invite those around them to investigate the claims of Jesus. An invitation is offered to join them on the journey of exploring their shared questions.

Recently, a colleague and I wrestled with this senario with our Bible's and a whiteboard and lots of questions...

Last year these students read the Bible books of  Luke, Hosea, Esther and Ruth. This year they've decided to work through Paul's letter to the church in Rome (Romans). Very mainstream. And given it was written to show that the good news of Jesus is for everyone and to motivate people to share that message it fits with who they are. It's no ivory tower document, it's from a pioneering leader who works with unceasing anguish and tears.

So far so good. In week 1 they'll read Romans 1:1-5 with a dash of chapter 15 to catch the purpose and theme of the letter. Everyone is new and so a message about how the Jesus who lived, died and was resurrected is good news for everyone is a good place to begin. Plus reading a letter from the start just makes sense.

The next week there will still be newcomers. Anyone who isn't there for their first time is only there for the second time. Those in the room live in the same building, probably have opportunity to eat together and may even study together. But, relationships are low level at this stage. Trust is low. Risk is sky high. Risk of misunderstanding and offence not to mention an inevitable fear of vulnerability.

This is all to be expected. But, logically, in the flow of the letter and when you've got 20 weeks to read it together, that brings us to something like Romans 1:16-2:5...

That means the first or second time you attend this Bible discussion group you're hearing some of the verses that today sound most offensive about human sexuality and divine wrath. Just reading the passage will sound those alarm bells... As it happens I think that the rough outline of this section is:
  • 1:16-18 Revelation in the gospel. The righteousness & wrath of God are revealed in the gospel of Jesus. The big question for the reader of the Old Testament is meant to be: why doesn't God judge sin - why does he keep just forgiving people? (See Jonah's despairing cry: I knew you'd forgive them!) - Wrath is on the table but not enough detail... if you just read these three verses it wouldn't in itself get you very far with anything. The question raised is answered in 3:21-26 which is the obvious next passage to get to - week 3. The answer is the gospel, the cross of Jesus.
  • 1:19-32 Rebellion by God's people. This passage feels very uncomfortable - lots of things being called sin, many of which our culture takes very sensitively. What's going on? Israel, who had the law, abandoned their God who subsequently gave them over to the outworkings of that first betrayal. This isn't news. It's on the public record in the Old Testament. This is documenting events rather than exposing secrets. Israel should've lived reflecting the heart of their God but they didn't, and one thing led to another..
  • A personal note. Usually this section is cited as "God's wrath is being revealed against the whole world for the sins that the whole world has done." I'm not persuaded that it says that, and I think the opposite is implied by the context. That's not to say it wouldn't be sinful to do what's described here, but that you might need other passages to show that fully. I found this article helpful: How is wrath revealed.
  • 2:1-5 Repentance because of kindness? Who could judge anyone else? Who could throw the first stone? God gave his people freedom. This KINDNESS was meant to win them back to him. The melody of the Old Testament: The God who holds his arms out all day long to his people (Romans 10:21). 
  • If you've received this kindness you wont point fingers at other people, instead being overwhelmed by that you'll hold your arms open to others too. Imagine that kind of community. It's delicious. Instead they continued to betray God and the nations around blasphemed God and asked whether there would be any value to knowing God for the lack of difference he made in the lives of his people.
The kindness of God is the perfect setup for building a community that reflects the heart of God.

But, relationship is low, risk is high,... and directly or indirectly it's almost impossible to be well heard when words like wrath and homosexuality come up today. It's pretty hard in the best of circumstances. And this probably isn't the easiest. There is huge amount of framework needed to explain to 21st Century Britain what those things do and don't mean and why a Christian might say what they might say about them. One liners and off-handed comments just wont do. I hear it happen. Careless communication obscures the good news of Jesus.

Look at it pastorally if that helps. In the room could be all kind of people, though it's almost impossible to know who during a Week 2 meeting. There could be, among others...
  • A student who isn't sure if they're a Christian.
  • A student whose lifestyle and/or orientation is homosexual. 
  • A confident student who want to come out strongly as hard-line on certain things and stereotypically lacks a good level of emotional intelligence.
  • A student who is interested in finding out about Jesus.
  • A student who is ashamed of things they've done and hoping no one will find out.
  • A hyper-sensitive Christian who is full of love for people and afraid of confrontation.
  • A student who doesn't really know where they are when it comes to their sexuality.
  • A typical slightly homophobic Brit who can't be bothered to be politically correct.
  • A student who just joined the student tabloid team and could use a story to write. 
  • A student of another religion who thinks all this grace stuff is pretty soft.
  • The discussion facilitator who is scared stiff of being unhelpful.
But, outwardly it'd be pretty hard to know any of that. 

A leader can (and should) model vulnerability and openness but it takes time, shared experience and courage for any group of people to be honest. So much is at stake for us if we let people see who we really are... Mostly we can't and don't uncover our hearts.

So my scenario paints the combination of a very hard subject with the complexity of any group of real people together. The messy lives are there whatever the subject being discussed.

The Difference between gospel convictions and gospel posture: As a Christian I believe in some pretty objective categories (people really either are or aren't 'in Christ'). My confidence however is of a kind means I'm inclined to be ambivalent towards categorising people. Holding on to the ambiguity helps us to explore things and grow and live in the uncertainty of our experiences.

In the moment, we're human beings with shared questions and stories and confusions and questions. A leader among people has no interest in putting people in boxes and lots of interest in facilitating next steps forward for each person and the group as a whole.
How can it be done?

Let's assume:
  • This is a group of human beings with shared questions.
  • The group leaders aren't looking for reasons to hide their convictions though they are keen to facilitate discussion more than expecting to directly instruct those in the room. 
  • The leaders are - as Paul says in 1:16 - not ashamed of the gospel. But that breeds tenderness and care more than anything else. 
  • The leaders genuinely believe the good news of Jesus is for everyone, for all kinds of people and really want people to explore that for themselves.
  • The leaders are keen to facilitate robust conversations and not avoid important things. They don't think disagreement is a bad thing, and they love people they disagree with.
  • They're keen to speak to the issues that are hot in their culture because they think Jesus is the true end of all our stories.
  • They also know that most people today think Jesus is meant to be about good morals, and that people who follow Jesus are judgmental hypocrites. 
  • And the leaders are completely sure that people who follow Jesus are into Jesus not morality, and that a holier-than-thou posture is something Jesus hates.  
And with such a concrete example...
  • Should they look at this passage in a group discussion at the start of the year? Are there passages and subjects that its not good to look at in certain times and contexts?
  • If they did how could they do it well? How can they frame it? What do they need to bear in mind?
  • If they don't, how do they handle skipping it? Does it matter?
  • In any case, the question - contextualising - is how can a group like this be sensitive to the issues in the room and so fruitfully convey the message of Jesus to the people in the room, showing them how their stories tie into God's story?
I have some questions. Over to you...

Friday, August 30, 2013

Scribblings on The Book of Daniel

Daniel is something of a pop-favourite when it comes to Bible books. Especially in the student world, because y'know, he was, like, a student, away from home. And that's cool as he works out where not to compromise as he studies, and then you get the challenges to pray even if it's illegal and so on. And then thankfully we run out of time before the crazy stuff in the latter part of the book.

The really famous bits? The lions den and the firey furnace. As Larry Osbourne comments, those aren't really the point because most people thrown to the lions die, and most people thrown in fire die. But something amazing is going on.

The book of Daniel is about dreams and politics and wars and the interactions of a refugee with the Government officials, and about the coming of life to God's people.

Six headings from  book by book with my further notes

1. Praise be to the Name of God forever (Daniel 1-2)
-- Christ the true exiled son pictured in the story of Daniel. We want to live wisely but we can't. But Jesus is the wise one who was exiled for us to enable us to live wisely.
-- Christ the true revelation, author of history - who speaks to power. We'd fear to speak and not have words to say, but Jesus is the revelation of God to the world. Those who know him have words to say.
2. The fourth looks like a Son of God (Daniel 3-4)
-- Christ with those who trust him, especially in trouble...  Our integrity fails, but he stands - and comes to be with us.
-- Christ the true king over all others. (Centre of chapters 2-7)  We're looking for leaders who can bring life and peace, we need this great king.
3. My God sent His Angel (Daniel 5-6)
-- Christ the true judge of all - live in light of him. Unjust leaders should be held accountable, and us too. He brings justice.
-- Christ the true Saviour. He faced the lions (Psalm 22 & 2 Timothy 2) and was raised up to life. So he brings us through death to life.
4. One like the Son of Man (Daniel 7-8)
-- Christ who is given authority over all. Snatching power is folly but wisdom is in receiving.
-- Christ the divine (8v28) - fall down and worship him like John in Revelation 1.
5. A Man dressed in linen (Daniel 9-10)
-- Christ the wrath averter through his death on the cross. Only he can save.
-- Christ the all glorious one.
6. The Great Prince who protects your people (Daniel 10:10-12:13)
-- Christ our strength til the end. His words are life-giving.
-- Christ in whom we shine. The wise shine like stars as they hold out the gospel word.

Some scribbles as I've been reading Daniel recently.

1. Daniel is royal seed, without blemish (1v3-4). I mean, just look at those verses. It's right in tune with the melody. Typology all over it. Royal Seed. Without blemish, like a pleasing sacrifice. Daniel is either going to be like Jesus or make us cry out for a true seed. Daniel's story is going to show us the Christ somehow. In pictures, Daniel and his friends experience cursed exile, death and resurrection. They are gospel-revealers who trust the LORD when no-one else does. Daniel is "Greatly Beloved" (10:11).

He is wise, and as 12:3 says those who are wise "shall shine like the brightness of the sky above... like stars.."  Daniel is the backdrop for Paul's famous words about followers of Jesus who are 'without blemish' and 'shine like stars.' (Phil 2v15)

2. Away from home... Exiled. This away-from-home-ness is about being under divine curse. Daniel will experience the full length of this from Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus. This Son of God going to the cross more than leaving home to go to University. I don't mean to under estimate the dislocation and loneliness of University but Daniel goes beyond that. Exile is also a picture for Christian life today - people made for a renewed creation still living in a frustrated world. Both Daniel's suffering and his engagement with his culture has stuff to say to us about life today.

3. Daniel studies the language and literature of the Babylonians, as Moses did the science of Egypt, and Paul the poets of Greece. HT: Calvin. There is application there for us here. It is good to be fascinated, to study, to learn. Would Daniel have been used to speak gospel to the kings of Babylon and Persia if he didn't know their world deeply? God gave him learning and skill but I think that means he spent time in the books and he excelled. Daniel is also a long term civil servant or politician, working from the throne-room of the kings of the world for a lifetime. Outside of work we only really hear of his prayer life and his visions which often leave him physically ruined.

4. Christ is also present in this book. Who's that in the fire with the other three guys? Who's that giving Israel into Nebuchadnezzar's hands and giving Daniel favour and wisdom. That's interesting by contrast to Esther where Christ isn't on stage. Why is that? And what implications for today... God seen, God unseen...
  • Who is the Angel who saves?
  • Who is the man clothed in linen? "Thus glorious did Christ appear" (M.Henry)
  • Who is the revealer of mysteries?
  • Who is the one like a son of man?
  • Who is the one with the appearance of a man?
  • Who the God who gives Israel over to Babylon, who gives favour and wisdom and kingdoms.
  • Who is the anointed one who will be cut off to avert wrath? (9v26, 9v16) "the angel predicts the death of Christ" (Calvin), "surely a reference to the crucifixion of Christ." (ESV Study Bible)
5. Christ is also prophesied in this book. Kingdom, then kingdom, then a kingdom: and then the kingdom of God that is forever. There is a large vision here of what happens in the gospel - set on the stage of global politics. Uncomfortable, horizon stretching stuff. No surprise when Jesus turns up telling people that God's kingdom is at hand. On the other side of that, we're adverse to authority figures and monarchy isn't exactly a compelling image either. Books like Samuel, Chronicles, Kings, Esther and Daniel probably go a long way to shaping how we're meant to think about kingdom language. But, do we know their song today?
What's Jesus' kingdom like?

6. There's a chiasm in chapter 2-7, the themes match in 2 & 7, 3 & 6 and 4 & 5, and this section was originally Aramaic so it would stand out. Likely one in 8-12 too in Hebrew. I like the way the words and the structure of the words convey the message. It needs to be read as literature. Everything communicates. And, there's a big emphasis on the Most High is King (similar to Daniel's name meaning God is judge). These chapters also talk to us about revelation - Daniel is in on the counsel of God, in on dreams like Joseph and other prophets, he communicates and mediates God to the king. Knowledge by revelation. Mysteries aren't mysterious they're things that God reveals... the chief mystery: the gospel.

7. Here be weirdos. The latter chapters of Daniel are the "historic home of cranks and loonies..." but I'm going to ponder it. What's clear is that kingdoms will rise and fall at the whim of one who will establish his kingdom forever. It may getting pretty grim along the way... Daniel's visions of what's to come make him physically sick and without strength (10v8), as good as dead at the sight of the man clothed in linen (very like John's vision in Revelation 1)... though it was God who made him supernaturally well in chapter 1, and it is the speaking of "the one having the appearance of a man" (9v18) of whom it is said "as he spoke to me, I was strengthened." (9v19) "The word of his grace is alone effectual to redress all our grievances, and to rectify whatever is amiss in us. One touch from heaven brings us to our knees, sets us on our feet, opens our lips, and strengthens us" (M.Henry)

The wise will finally understand... though Daniel the wise one seemed not to (12v10), yet he shall rest and awake to resurrection life (12v2).

What do you see in Daniel? What haven't I noted?