Monday, March 25, 2013

Suffering: Voices from a different vantage point

A while back Charles, tweetably, wrote to his friend:
"There seems to me to be too much misery in the world."
And from the pain he reasoned away from god. Martin Luther argued that we might well be expected to do that. If we work from our situation its natural enough to think that there is no god, or that any god there is is evil. And in the darkness Charles Darwin despaired as his daughter died.

Darwin's story has left ripples in all our stories - yet where does a godless view leave us? Grasping, gasping:
  • "Pitiless indifference!" cries the former professor of public science. Yet who can be indifferent to evil. Indifference is the opposite of love. It's neat to say there is no evil and there is no pain, but no one really believes that. The Dalai Lama might want to do away with all desire but he still fights for the liberty of his people... 
  • "Karma!" cried the England manager and the Soap Opera stalwart. I remember reincarnation sounding cool in a Religious Education classroom as a teenager. And it does for the innocent, the optimistic - for the one whose life has no pain. But, for those who suffer it makes it their own fault. Hoddle got fired.
  • "Positive thinking will make it better!" cried another voice with a gleam in its eye. Another well meaning friend unwittingly saying: try harder, it's your fault. Christians do the same when they say - "if you have enough faith..." Mustard Seed. Attempted pastoral care becomes an accidental punch in the face. 
I don't, and don't mean to, demean the desire of my friends for my restoration - their presence, their prayers, their positivity, their company, their compassion, their care are priceless, glimmers of the true light. And so, with them, I come back to Jesus who knows the meaning of pain and suffering more than anyone.
  • Here is the one whose life let's me admit that it seems senseless. That it feels pitiless. "Meaningless!" weeps Great David's Son. There is too much misery. I have questions that don't always have (or need) answers and he lets me ask them. Not to the sky but in community and to community. Repeatedly. 
  • Here is one who doesn't make it all my fault. At times I'm the architect of my own suffering, but rarely.  There's not often much - anything -  that could've been done differently. Besides, we are where we are, and there should still be care for those who do get themselves into trouble.
  • Here is the one who says that evil gets what it deserves - and people like me who are no better are invited into life. All history has to pass through the moment of Jesus' death.
  • Here is the one who gives room for the desire for things to be better. Who doesn't quash my hope. Whose story is too gritty for trite answers. Who ensures that the light still overcomes the darkness but doesn't pretend that there aren't dark clouds in the sky. And he knows what its like to be under a dark sky. And he frees me from living for health and happy days - the worship of which leaves the pain feeling doubly worse.
Jesus stops me reasoning from my own angle. Rather, with anguished Martin Luther, Jesus counsels us to consider the view from the vantage point of The Cross. Hear the God who suffered with and for us speaks into our suffering.
"In times of peace or troubled seas, the cross, his blood, my liberty." 
(Lyric, Hear the Sound, Freedom Bath + Bristol)
Hear the sound in the middle of it all. A voice crying from the wilderness in the middle of the room. The friend who lives with ongoing pain and yet believes that there is life for others. Such voices have tenderness and reality that can't be faked and wont be easily ignored. Voices that acknowledge that the world is sadder than we realised. And that there is more hope too.
  • The world seen from the cross of Jesus looks different. 
  • The word heard from the cross of Jesus sounds different. 
Sadder, deeper, richer, darker.

Have a look at the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby talking about the death of his young daughter, 10 mins into this iPlayer programme (available UK until 31 March 2013). 

Friday, March 22, 2013

An origins story that makes emotional sense

Everything dies. This rings true. It grates, it hurts and its simply observable. Whether or not we can find meaning or significance in it, it still happens. And no one is reliably stopping it from happening. There are no 200 year old faith-healers. Life expectancy might be rising but life still comes with a sell-by-date.

Jesus says unless a grain falls to the ground and dies it doesn't bear fruit. There is death that has purpose.


Death is what Jesus spoke in the garden on the evening at the start of the seventh day - in the Bible's 3300 year old story of origins, written down by Moses.

We could discuss whether the book is historical but at the very least we have to say that it makes emotional sense. I think it is historical but for now just ask the emotional sense question. We all have our origins stories -- and we need origins stories that can make emotional sense of where we find ourselves... Emotional resonance isn't enough in itself, but it's a vital part of how we find the scheme of things.

The story is told of humanity who were naked and unashamed, and then became naked and shamed, and fearful and hiding. The aspiration of life without insecurity and the reality of the way we hide from one another has huge emotional resonance for us today. You might have questions about the figure called The Serpent - though the idea of personal evil isn't so far fetched - but the story has great explanatory power for our present experience.

So too does it's diagnosis of how this horrible wrongness entered the world. They weren't just rule breakers. Physics laws might describe and even define the world but laws alone aren't enough to explain who we are. We're relational beings, and this story says we became relational betrayers and ended up with relational breakdown. That rings true in our experience of life.

And at the worst possible moment Jesus walks into the room. Or at least, into the garden. Gasp. Jesus invites them to relationship, seeking to win their hearts again.  He came looking for rest in relationship with them and found that his beloved humanity had run after other lovers. Still he reaches out to them.

Again, you might have questions about whether there is a God who can walk in the room. That question matters - but the possibility shouldn't just be excluded. A God who gets involved is both appealing and the explanation offered for the person at the centre of human history, Jesus of Nazareth.

In the mean time, taking the story on its own terms. He steps in, and he speaks good news to them with a question: where are you? God's response to human betrayal is a question, an invitation, and offer of life.

But not without cost. They've been corrupted. They are "flesh".
And the flesh can't live. It's dead.
But life is on offer.
Life in the Spirit. Life in the love of God.
Life in the community of God.
But, life in the Spirit only happens through death and resurrection.

Death is curse and mercy.
  • Firstly death to himself. There will be an epic battle between good and evil. And there will be victory. It's a story that resonates with the cinema screen and our hopes and expectations of happy endings. The seed of the woman will crush the seed of the serpent. A man will come and defeat evil. At cost to himself. He will be bruised. Jesus who prophesies this will himself be that seed. The desire for evil to be defeated resonates. And this story also now begins to deal with the historic reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The story makes emotional sense but now we have to deal with historical sense: what to do with Jesus.
  • Secondly, death to our spreading goodness. In an act of frustration and mercy Jesus speaks death to the very things he'd called us to do. Humanity was to image God in the world by filling and cultivating the world - filling up what God had begun. I've witnesses the pain of child-birth and completed a day's work exhausted. It rings true. We're not left to attain a godless prosperity and heaven on earth. The Grand Designs Life is just chasing the wind. And the cold light of day is an act of mercy.
  • Thirdly, death to bring forgiveness. People of the flesh try to cover up their sin with fig leaves. A pathetic attempt to cover our embarrassment and shame. Right instinct, wrong way. Jesus puts animals to death to show that blood must be shed to bring life. In this case only temporarily, but in the end he will be the final sacrifice, whose blood will allow humanity to be truly clothed forever. Not ultimately naked, but clothed in Jesus himself. There will be blood, and so our shame can be covered.
  • Fourthly, death to bring rest. They're kicked out of the garden. He came for rest but has to exclude them. Angels block the way into Eden as they will to the tabernacle and the temple until Jesus dies to tear that curtain down. A Muslim may offer paradise, a Jehovah's Witness may offer peace, but the offer of Jesus is himself.

The dwelling of God, in the end, will be with humanity.
The home of God, in the end, will be with humanity.

They incidentally do appear to respond to Jesus invitation. Adam calls his wife the mother of all the living in an act of faith. And they raise their children asking whether these might be the serpent-crusher who can bring life to the world. Their third son lives in the days when people call on the name of the LORD. In fallen Adam's house the gospel is preached and people are repenting...    dying to self to life in Christ.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

FAQ: How to introduce a speaker?

At church and at Christian Union meetings I hear speakers introduced and I get introduced. Sadly this is often quite cringeworthy and ineffective. Can we do better?

In How to Deliver a TED Talk Jeremy Donovan writes on the subject. The famous TED talks videos don't include their speaker introductions but they do happen. He highlights that it would be possible to introduce a speaker by giving their full CV or biography but that doesn't help.

It seems to me that the basic rule on an introduction is that it needs to briefly tell the listener:
Why should I listen to This Person and On This Subject.
This can be Informational or Anecdotal and should be brief. Three options:
  • Interview the speaker.
  • Introduce the speaker.
  • Have them introduce themselves.
I'm inclined to think its better to introduce a speaker rather than interview them. What you'd discern from an interview can be found out in a conversation before hand. The speaker wants to be focussed on giving their talk rather than trivial or serious things about who they are in the moments before they speak. Self-introduction is fine and probably for a regular speaker that is sufficient - though every meeting should be done with an active awareness that there should be new people present and that we'd want them to feel included rather than excluded.

Anything said upfront in any Christian meeting should be said under the assumption that a Christian from another context could be there who might not speak our dialect, and more importantly that someone who isn't a Christian could be there and should be welcomed both directly and indirectly. If we talk like we expect it to be an "in house" meeting then people will tragically treat it as such. If we consider our speech to include people we'll have a form of meeting that fits with the content of our meeting, with the good news about Jesus.

Many an introduction "fails to tell the audience what is in it for them." (Donovan)

At our recent leaders conference I asked one of my team in to introduce me before I gave the first of three talks to new student leaders from Psalm 45. I did the preparation work for this - on my own and then conversationally with her. I asked her to say that I had 15 years of experience in student mission, that I'd sat where they're sitting as a new leader. Perhaps more helpfully, she also shared that she and I had worked through the material together over the previous three months and she'd really enjoyed and been helped by my passion for Jesus, that and she was confident that they would too. It was my first attempt at seriously preparing an introduction but I think it was quite effective. On a different occasion and subject a different introduction would be needed. The point remains:
"Emcees must establish the speaker’s credibility without making them appear superhuman." Donovan 
The speaker needs to have something to say, but also be human enough to stand with us not appear to be too far ahead that we can't join them. What's said should be relevant to the occasion. Telling people about the speaker's Physics PhD is probably not relevant unless its a talk on a Science related subject. Telling people about the speaker's family background isn't that relevant unless they're coming to speak on something related to that.

The other thing to be aware of is setting the stage - speakers and hosts should make sure that any mics, stands, cables are set up rightly with good sound levels. Having to fiddle around with PA/AV at the start of a talk is deeply distracting and easily avoided by a few minutes preparation before the meeting starts. When I arrive at a CU meeting as a guest speaker I want to speak to the person who will introduce me (and often read a Bible passage), the sound/visual team and whoever I'm handing over to at the end of the talk. That means I've tried to personally connect with five people, and clarified our working relationship in the meeting.

A little thought can make a huge difference and sometimes the relationship is enough as Donovan illustrates:
"My central theme was secrets to delivering presentations that help little companies close big company deals. Just before we took the stage, John Friess, a busy entrepreneur and the evening’s emcee, admitted to me that he had neglected to review my introduction. He took a brief look at the copy I handed him, crumpled it up, put it in his pocket and said “Trust me.” Needless to say, my blood pressure immediately rose more than a few points. John took the stage and proceeded to tell a brief personal story about his struggles with pitching to investors, partners, and customers. He then shared with the audience the story of how he met me and of my passion for trying to give everyone I meet the tools and the feedback they need to become inspiring communicators. I could not have asked for a better introduction." 
Often that'd be possible because we invite people we know to speak -- or on the strength of someone else's recommendation. The right story or the right information tells those who have come why it'll be worth them listening.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What about God killing people in the Old Testament?

On Sunday evening I spoke at a church student group and afterwards one of the students spoke to me, looking for help in responding to this question that her friend, who isn't a Christian, had asked. She wanted to be able to give a thoughtful and helpful answer.

The story: Jesus led the people of Israel out of Egypt around 1300BC, through the wilderness for 40 years and into a partial conquest of the occupied land of Canaan, using them to judge the inhabitants of the land. The story is told in the Bible book of Joshua and its context. The whole Old Testament tells an epic story in which the God we know when we know Jesus sets the stage for his coming into the world to die for us. In wars and political dramas and small personal stories we see the grammar of this good news built up.

The fact remains: God used his people to kill other people. Gulp. What can be said? I'm not looking to explain it away. I want to ask how the Bible as a text "deals with" it. I'm not interested in easy answers, because these questions can't have easy answers. And I'm not wanting glib answers. It's a question about people dying. That's serious.

It's curious isn't it how it feels wrong... In the age of the Hollywood blockbuster we're fairly desensitised to death - though when you read it on the page it cuts deeper. Why should we care? Do we have a world-view that can make emotional sense of that? And why do we read the historicity of narrative and the existence of God more readily when it comes to the blood-stained pages (or at least some of them)?

Let's not say: The God of the Old Testament is mean and of the New is nice. 
a) Because we have one Bible, one God (in three persons).
b) Because of Ananias and Sapphira. What's with that?
c) Because it's not Love vs Wrath. Wrath is love's right response to evil.
d) Because the Bible's own self-reflection is that the God of the Old Testament is too gracious not too mean. The persistent question isn't why people die its why they keep getting forgiven. See the objections of Jonah the prophet sent to tell good news to the nasty city of Nineveh. He rages at God: I knew you'd forgive them so I ran away from preaching too them.
In Ten Words: Actually, 'The God of the Old Testament' is too forgiving.

Also, just worth noting: The Bible is a bloody and physical and messy book. Peter Leithart observes:
"Theology is a 'Victorian' enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place. Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions... Ponder these questions: Do theologians talk about the world the same way the Bible does? Do theologians talk about the same world the Bible does?"
Let's not concede the word genocide.
Genocide is such a loaded word after the atrocities of the last century. On which, notice that people killing people isn't a primative thing, it's a very modern thing -- and are the kinds of thing that cry out for answers, reconciliation and justice. We can watch the News and weep.
Genocide tends to be those in power killing innocents. That's not what happened in Canaan when the people were put to death.

i) They were given 400 years to turn to Christ from killing their children and various other evil practices. That's pretty excessive patience. Before we weep over their deaths we should weep over the evil they perpetrated while God was being patient with them.
ii) Played out on the stage of global politics was the liberation of Israel from slavery Egypt 40 years earlier (told in the book of Exodus). Everyone in Canaan knew about that. The account of Rahab tells us that everyone knew and everyone took a view on the matter.
iii) People, like Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, heard and turned to God. Everyone could do that.
iv) No-one had to die. They were asked to leave the land that they'd been occupying. They heard all that they heard, and stood their ground. Those who died died in defiance. It's a picture in human history of the defeat of defiant evil. A picture of Jesus' death and resurrection.
v) The same people used to exile/judge Canaan were subject to the same judgement themselves when they were exiled because they'd turned from Jesus to do the things that the people in Canaan did. There was no favouritism here.
"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
We find a story in the Bible that tells us that we are fleshly people - corrupted and broken beyond repair. Our condition is terminal. Yet, it is possible to die and be reborn to a new life that isn't fleshly - life in the Spirit. The flesh is into being bad or being good. The Spirit is into enjoying a loving relationship freely. Humanity is made to live life in relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The God of love is not indifferent to evil. He is jealous for his people and his Son and for his image in this world. He burns against those who harm what is good. And it's not that the story calms down in the New Testament, instead we find The Commander of the LORD's army who led Israel into Canaan becomes a member of the human race and his executed in our place outside the city of Jerusalem in the first century. This is the God who gets involved and bruised. The Triune God takes upon itself the wrath that sin deserves. It's a new moment in the love-filled life of God, a moment full of anguish and pain, to bring sinful people like us home to live in the life of God.

Our life is in his hands, but he cares, and invites us. And gives us ample opportunity. Every Old Testament judgement, like every Old Testament mercy is a road that leads to the cross of Jesus.

Those are a few of my words, what are yours? What are your questions? 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Life is better with music

There's something about music that gets into the heart like nothing else can. Songs express the overflow of the heart's desires and one person's song can inspire, influence and teach others. I've not bought any new music in over a year - and £15 got me these (thanks to the generosity of some friends). I've recently acquired some newly released worship music from four different churches.

Each is born out of their own situation and their church's journey and I'll not attempt to critique them, only to commend them with a few thoughts.

City Sounds comes from City Church Bristol (newfrontiers). I was given a copy of this CD. It's really half an album, of home grown songs produced by the team from Phatfish and it has all the quality and the kind of sound you'd expect from that. Good music with lyrical richness. Our favourite track is probably Into the Light. Good music for a drive up the M5.
Rend Collective's Campfire is an intruiging idea - an album recorded around a campfire, the idea of a community gathered. I wonder if that's more a concept than a reality - can you get sound quality like this round a campfire? I like to think so. The sound is Mumford-esque and full of surprises and the feel of a cool gathering. I love the track Movements and the re-work of Be Thou My Vision and you get the folky version of 10,000 reasons which I've enjoyed singing in church & CUs. This album made me smile as I walked down the street.

Hear the Sound was also given to me. This is a live album from Freedom Bath + Bristol. The songs Freedom and Hear the Sound both quickly got into my head. The music is immersive and stirred my heart to worship as I fell asleep night after night. Uplifting music, simple lyrics consistently inviting me to enjoy the freedom I have in Christ. Probably my favourite of the four albums.
Let it be known is the latest Worship Central (HTB) album. It's another live album which is a great approach for worship albums. In style it's about as far removed from Rend Collective as you can get... as far as a Northern Irish beach is from the style of central London. Let it be known track with its dance beats and rap has been the most sticky track for me so far along with Guardian (a mix between I am sailing meets Graham Kendrick's We Believe). - and inevitably some of these songs will have a wide usage.

I'm glad that new songs are being written - and that these four albums only represent a little of that. My friends Matt Giles and Olly Knight are worth keeping an ear out for too with songs that flow from their lives and their churches.

We are the singing people. We have much to sing about.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

MP3: Who are you one with?

Last Month I spoke for Exeter University Evangelical Christian Union as the third part of their series based roughly on Glen Scrivener's 321 Gospel summary.

The question:
Who are you one with: Adam or Christ? 

I took as my text Song 5:11-6:3 which might seem a bit strange but I feel the weight of the history of the church supporting my decision to preach Christ and his union with the church from that exquisite book.

Download: Who are you one with? (Dave Bish, 44mins)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

MP3s: Psalm 45 (ForumSW)

Last weekend it was my honour to preach Christ from Psalm 45 at three sessions of the ForumSW weekend.

These were designed to provide the WHY behind lots of talk of HOW and WHAT for those who will lead in Christian Unions in the next year, giving every student in the South West the opportunity to respond to Jesus.

We were indebted to the CU Staff: Tom, Brian, Cat, Becca and Jo for their seminars on finances and time management, unity, leadership, partnerships between CU, church, University, and mobilising and motivating the team, hitting the ground running for mission. We didn't record those sessions.

And I give thanks for the 88 student leaders who came.

Download here:
Psalm 45:1-5 -- Love Sings 
Psalm 45:6-11 -- Love Invites 
Psalm 45:12-17 -- Love Endures
DRAFT study guide to Psalm 45 

Image: Anna Hopkins, used by permission.