Monday, December 12, 2016

MP3s from 3 conferences that could help you share your faith

My wedding certificate lists my occupation as evangelist. A teller of good news. I was on the UCCF relay programme at the time. It's always been a passion in my Christian life --- in part because my formative years as a believer were as part of a Christian Union, the first Christian books I read were by Becky Pippert and Bill Hybels...  though honestly an unevangelistic Christianity doesn't really make much sense. Evangelistic ministry isn't just evangelism but also includes equipping other for witness.

I drift from time with people outside church, and I drift from courage to speak up, I struggle to be patient, and I struggle to believe that Christ is for all. Other people help me.

I ended up at three conferences this year that have been helpfully corrective to the trajectory of my year, to my dull heart, and to decisions we've made as our family have relocated this year.

I hope they coudl help you too.
1. Advance UK . Advance is part of the newfrontiers family connecting churches in the US, South Africa and UK. Donnie Griggs on evangelism and Dan Romer on Christ from Song of Songs. Donnie book Small Town Jesus overlaps with his material here. 
2. Proclamation Trust - Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2016This diverse gathering in London focuses on word ministry and was deeply refreshing to me, even in the one day I attended. Especially Jonty Allcock from Luke's gospel. And, Vaughan Roberts on John Newton helped me see Christ as more precious. 
3. FIEC Leaders 2016FIEC is a fellowship of 565 churches in the UK. Ed Stetzer was brilliant in sharing a simple and clear practical vision for sharing our faith. High value for me and for our team.
Images - Tamaki Sono - Creative Commons

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Trampolines and Brick Walls: Don't flex on the gospel, do flex on everything else to love the church and advance the gospel.

In his 2005 book Velvet Elvis Rob Bell argued that the church has a problem because we think of theology as like a brick wall - rigid and systematic, whereas we should look at our theology as being more of a trampoline - flexible and in which some of the springs can be safely removed. The analogy seems really attractive, though it's pretty flawed - not least because you could removed more bricks from a wall than springs from a trampoline before everything would fall apart... but beyond that it's also woefully ignorant.

In writing to Galatians Paul wont have any of this anti-doctrinal faith. He tackle gospel denial and says it's Father-desertion... he speak of gospel truth and it's about the Father's revelation of the Son. It's life-filled, relational, and write-down-able. And accuracy matters - because it's curse-worthy to believe a different gospel, and to teach others to hope in something contrary to Christ. Theology is about the knowledge of the Father and his Son by the Spirit - it's not cold and rigid, but without accuracy we're not talking about the same God, just a similar one. Or in Galatian language "a different gospel that is no gospel at all... a perversion of the gospel." 

But, some things are flexible and some things aren't. The gospel can't be up for grabs, a lot of other stuff must be - at least when it comes to ministry practice.

In Galatians 2 Paul tells one of three stories to his Father-deserting friends that build his case that they should get back to where they began rather than heading off in a different direction. He tells that he went to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel for them (2v5). It's worth a big detour upstream to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel in Turkey - just as later it's worth a big detour to to Jerusalem to maintain the unity of the Jew and Gentile churches in Rome.

Though there were false brothers in Galatian - counterfeit-christians - the church itself hadn't lost the plot and they recognise that "God who was at work in Peter... was also at work in Paul" and "they recognised the grace given..." to both Paul and the Jerusalem church. One gospel.

What's curious is the test for finding out whether Jerusalem is true to the gospel.

  • Paul takes Titus in the expectation that gospel loss would mean he'd be compelled to be circumcised (v3). Meanwhile, in Acts 16v3 (possibly around the same time, depending on how you date Galatians), Paul gets Timothy circumcised so he can take him with him.  To be clear: If the Jerusalem church compels Titus to be circumcised that's evidence that the gospel has been lost, but when Paul gets Timothy circumcised that's the gospel advancing.
  • Likewise, in Paul's next story - Peter stands condemned for putting himself back under food laws, and in effect saying to his Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch that they're not welcome unless they take on the food laws too. But in Romans 14v21 Paul says it's best not to eat if that'll cause problems for your brother or sister from a Jewish background.

Context and motive call for different practices. It's a recipe for inconsistency but necessary for the inclusion of diverse peoples and for taking the gospel diverse peoples. And it works because, the gospel isn't a matter of out conformity. Habits, festivals, food laws and bodily markings aren't the issue. Loving the church and reaching new people require different approaches at different times and in different places. What would we need to flex to ensure that the only obstacle is the gospel?

Paul embodies this by being prepared to become all things to all people to win some... and by his substantial detours - twice to Jerusalem - to demonstrate bond between the Gentile and Jewish churches.

The real mark of the gospel isn't what we wear, eat or celebrate. It's the Spirit of the Son indwelling the believer by faith and enacting our adoption. All else is flexible. Sadly churches fall out over loads of things, but a true gospel priority should mean most of those things - important as they are - are matter over which we're more than happy to flex, to serve other believers and to reach those who aren't yet believers. Sadly, we tend to hold on to things for the sake of having church how we want it to be.

If I get this then I'll be radically committed to welcoming any other believer and removing things that are obstacles for their conscience out of the way, and to welcoming those who don't believe by changing anything at all - apart from the gospel. If I get this I'll be incredibly flexible and inconsistent in my view of almost everything in church life... though that'll look messy, I suspect the gospel shines brighter against that messy backdrop.

Image - Creative Commons - Missle

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Greatest Gift - Of Sainsbury's and the Incarnation

The nativity scene can seem sweet, inspiring and utterly removed from our day to day experience of life in this broken world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Step back and we find that in the beginning was The Word - a communicative being, who was with God. The Word is also called the Son, Jesus. And God is called the Father. Both are God. This is the Triune God. And from eternity past the Father has been giving the gift of himself to his Son and the Son likewise to his Father in self-giving, overflowing love in the Holy Spirit. Love that created the world, and love that steps in...

Sainsbury's Christmas advert is on the money - the greatest gift we can give is ourselves... though, you have to ask how that makes any sense in a secular material worldview? But through the lense of the Christian faith it makes perfect sense. In Biblical terms, it's love that is at the heart of the universe.

The Christmas story is the story of God with flesh on, God in meet, God becoming a human being. John writes in the opening of his biography of Jesus: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."  Now, God dwelling is nothing new, the whole story of the Old Testament is a story of God dwelling with his people - this God is a God who dwells. And, the notion of God in flesh isn't exactly new either. The Old Testament tells of the coming of a son of Eve and a son of David to restore all things... the new thing in the New Testament is that the incarnation happens.

The song asks - what if God was one of us? And the Bible's response is... see for yourself, in the accounts of John, Mark, Luke and Matthew.

My God is so small and so weak, a vulnerable baby in a feeding trough. Or, as the 4th Century Egyptian pastor Athanasius brilliantly asks and answers:
"Why didn't Jesus come in more impressive form - as sun, moon, stars or fire? Why come as a mere man? Because he did not come to dazzle us but to put himself at the disposal of suffering people..."
He turned up as one of us, a member of the human race not to dazzle us (as if we need more sparkly lights) but to put himself at our disposal. He makes himself available to needy suffering sinful humanity in exactly the way we need him to be.

In the Sainsbury's advert 'Dave' thinks he needs a clone to do his work so he can be with his family. What we need isn't someone to pick up the stuff we don't want to do but to live our lives and die our death for us. We need the head of a new human race....
"He did this so he could put us all to death by dying in our place... out of sheer love for us."
The death of Jesus puts humanity to death to abolish death for us and bring us into his new resurrected humanity. Christmas and Easter go together. The story of the word become flesh is the story of a seed who came to fall into the ground so it could bear much fruit, of a man striding towards the hour of his death. A light walking in the darkness, among a people who corrupted God's dwelling place, a people under wrath, a people who can't shape up but rather need to die and be re-born, re-made.

And says John, the coming of God the Son as a member of the human race leads to the knowledge of the Father, and the adoption of any men and women who receive the Son into the family of God. Forever, familial, relational, participation in the life of God given to all kinds of people who receive the God who forever became one of us.

Image - Stefano Corso - Creative Commons

Monday, November 28, 2016

Spot the difference? Reflections four months after re-locating.

In last four months we've moved from a provincial city in the South West of England to a larger city in the Midlands. Lots of things in our lives are different now... wise friends counselled us in August that there is difference that is good, difference that is bad, and difference that is just difference.

Much is similar. 
  • We still live in the UK. 
  • We're still in a church that uses a mix of old and new music, and where the normal ministry approach is based on expositional bible teaching. Sunday meetings are basically very similar. 
  • Both are in student cities, and in both most people in the church came to faith in a different church somewhere else in the UK. 
  • A majority of both churches are middle-class graduates. 
  • The local UCCF staff worker is a member of our church in both cases, and the church is popular with students.
  • The speciality coffee scene is strong in both locations.
Some things are different, and could be bad or good depending on various factors...
  • Politically, we've moved from having a Labour MP to a Tory MP, and from a Remain area to a Leave one...  In our previous church, the Sunday after the vote in June was sombre, with visible lamenting. In our current church, support is evident for both sides.
  • As winter hits we'll probably get less rain and more snow. 
  • We've left the beaches, and traded Dartmoor for the Peak District. 
  • My job is a bit different - though essentially an expansion some aspects of part my old job, with other things I used to do covered by other members of the team here. 
  • My wife isn't in paid employment at the moment which makes for a big difference in her day to day life compared to teaching part-time previously. 
  • Our school age boys were at the same primary school but are currently at different schools. 
  • Our current church is part of the FIEC, our previous is in the Newfrontiers family. 
  • There's much overlap in that but some differences in theological emphasis and practice, most noticably a difference between informal and formal membership, and elder-led vs. elder-led/congregational polity.
More noticably, here's a few of the differences we've experienced which probably all fall into the third category and probably have the most impact on us.
Large City (320k) vs. Small City (120k)... The large city brings increased cultural and ethnic diversity. Both cities are very green, but in our old city you could see the hills beyond the city wherever you were. 
Small Town Life (35k) vs. Small City life (120k)... A corollary to living in a big city is that it's made up of smaller towns. We've found ourselves very much in a small town in a big city. There's enough here to mean we only very occasionally venture out into the wider city. Previously, I might traverse our smaller city often, I rarely need to leave our neighboorhood now. With a combination of church, running club and school gates it's rare to walk through town now and not see someone we know - even after four months. You might walk further to get that same experience in a larger setting.
Large multi-congregational church (500-600) vs. Large single-congregation church (250-300)... Our old church met as one congregation in a large venue - it felt very big and the sense of scale effected a lot of how things neeed to be done. Our new church meets in a space that is half the size, and has 3 morning congregation and 1 in the evening. Numerically our new church is twice the size, experientially its like being in a much smaller church. Alongside that, the actual scale increase means a staff team here that includes almost 3 times as many people in full/part time roles.
Local church vs. City wide church... Most of our new church live within a mile of our Sunday venue. In our old church we were gathered from across a bigger cityscape. Community functions differently in these two approaches. In our new church people think about the locality of our building and happily walk to church...  in our old church people would travel further and think of their lives more widely... that said in both locations people think nothing of travelling for work and to a supermarket. On a geographical Triangle between Church - Home - Work, home and church are nearest.
Church with a building vs. Church without a building... Our old church ran through home groups, our new church has strong home groups but also has the capacity to run many midweek ministries to serve different parts of our community. In our new church this most significantly includes a large midweek work with International Students from nearby Halls of Residence. When your Sunday venue disappears from Monday to Saturday then your visible presence is a community scattered into all areas of society... without a building its more natural to join in with what's going on, having a building makes it more likely that you'll set up your own stuff. There's 'go and tell'  and 'come and see', and a place for both.
70 year old church vs. 13 year old church... Both our old and new churches have a median age that is young - early-30s at a guess with a large number of students. By virtue of being around for longer our new church has a wider demographic spread, and includes people who have grown up in the church. Our new churches includes within its umbrella a 3 year old church plant into one part of our small town. Both churches have some history of sending people out to other nations or parts of the UK into church ministry, relative to scale and time. Both churches are transient but some of our new church have been members of the church for decades longer than our previous church has existed.
I'm sure there are other differences and similarities... some are gains, some losses, very many simply difference.

Image - Creative Commons - Forsaken Fotos

Sunday, November 20, 2016

God's Purpose in Election: 4 things we do. 6 things God does

The question of God's sovereignty and our freedom in salvation (and life more generally) is no easy question. On one level it's an unresolvable tension. In his book "How do you know that" Ellis Potter suggests something of a solution - to not try to fit the two things into a pie chart - a percentage to God and a percentage to us... there's no satisfactory solution there. Rather than flattening to a 2D plane, what if we consider them as two intersecting discs, our experience of freedom and God's purpose.

Both real, certainly experienced as real. What can we say?

Limiting ourselves to Romans 9-10... Our angle on the painful dilmma of friends and family who don't know Jesus when you do... and then God's.

What do we do?
1. WE HAVE ANGUISH AND SORROW (9v2) Paul has "unceasing anguish" and "great sorrow". There is no permission to go any further in this conversation if we're not similarly affected. There is a right emotional tenor to this doctrinal wrestle and it cannot be cold and detached. One imagines the original manuscript of Romans 9 is tearstained.
2. WE HAVE DESIRE AND PRAYER (10v1) Paul has great desire for his friends and to come to Christ. And he prays for that to happen.
3. WE SPEAK OF CHRIST (10v14) Paul preaches the gospel word that brings Christ near to anyone who hears it.
4. WE ARE HUMBLED (9v29) "Unless the Lord Almighty had left us... we would have...". But for his grace we know there would be no hope for us. We were at the end of ourselves, hopeless except for the grace of God. Confessing our own sin isn't a first step to trying harder, nor to write ourselves off... but rather to turn and receive his compassion and mercy though we'd rightly deserve to be hardened and cast aside.
What does God do?
1. HE DEALS IN GRACE (9v6-21). He has a purpose of election. People who find life in the Triune God are not excluded or included on the basis of birthright, DNA, genealogy, nor on works - good or bad, effort or desire. We call this grace. It seems outrageous - that God would visit his love on anyone, or not, should provoke us to cry injustice!
2. HE GIVES NEW NAMES (9v22-26). God's purpose is to take vessels of wrath and call them vessels of mercy, to take not loved and make them loved, to take not his children and call them his adopted children. The best, and only candidates, to become part of God's people are those who aren't.
3. HE DEFIES EXPECTATION (9v27-32). Those who find Christ weren't even looking for him, whereas you can be zealously religious and miss him. But for his intervention we'd all be gone. That's a shocking change in perspective, but an honest one. Though grace makes that scandalous, works-based religions just make it impossible, for who can be good enough?
4. HE SETS FORTH CHRIST (9v33). God's purpose of election puts a stone in the road. Some stumble over this stone, some believe in him. The issue is always, always, always: what do you do with Christ. CH Spurgeon said this gave him great encouragement - when he preached Christ no-one would have good reason to reject his message - no one could claim ethnicity, or track-record, or class as an excluding principle. The only 'valid' response is to say "But I don't want Christ" -- to which the preacher can't help but say, look again, look again at him!
5. HE SENDS PREACHERS (10v5-15). God's purpose is to come near in his gospel word. You don't have to sack heaven or exhume a body to get to Christ, he comes near in his word. He "richly blesses" all who call on him, and everyone who calls on him... calling requires hearing, which requires a preacher, which needs someone to send preachers. God sends preachers - like Paul to the people of Spain who haven't yet heard. Public preachers and conversationalists, people with 'beautiful feet' to speak of Jesus.
6. HE HOLDS OUT HIS ARMS (10v16-21). God provokes hard-hearted people by having those who aren't even looking for him find him... and he holds out his arms all day long. The issue always is that people become obstinate, they don't want the humiliation of a saviour like Jesus Christ, they don't want the weakness of a crucified saviour. 
The same 2 chapters yield these observations. Rather than tension, we should see fresh depths of grace, motive to introduce people to Christ and to cry out in prayer to the God of grace.

Image - FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD: LETTERS TO EXILES - Episode 4 (Jean Valjean)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Leviticus with a seven year old

For several years we read The Jesus Storybook Bible with our first son. It's given him a solid biblical theology and eye for the gospel. At Easter we gave him his first Bible, the International Children's Bible (NCV) and he and I have been reading it since then, from Genesis, through Exodus and recently into the opening chapters of Leviticus.

We ended Exodus with the shock of Moses being unable to enter the Meeting Tent. And then God calls, speaks and says... and we're listening in.

Early on we've noticed the repetition. Initially my boy was annoyed by this but it's helped him learn brilliantly - which is part of the point. We're keeping the pace up as we read which serves to draw attention to the repetition that we might miss if we read more slowly. With some variations, we're seeing that coming to God involves this sort of journey...
1. His rescued people sin.
2. That makes them guilty.
3. They can present a sacrifice, which must have nothing wrong with it.
4. They can put their hand on it's head to take their place.
5. The priest cuts and burns it up.
6. The aroma of this sacrifice is pleasing to the Lord. God smiles!
7. They belong to God (NCV for atonement)
8. They are forgiven.
9. As the Lord commanded.
The whole book is a picture of what Jesus the True Priest and True Sacrifice accomplishes and it's memorably, vividly, repetitively teaching us the grammar of atonement... who we can be 'in Christ', in the presence of God.

We noted, with relief and joy, the journey from Moses being excluded from the Meeting Tent at the end of Exodus to Moses and Aaron entering it at the end of Leviticus 9. Christ is revealed and the people shout with joy

"O perfect love, O perfect sacrifice, 
fountain of life poured out for me... 
I am found in Jesus." (Neil Bennetts)

Image - Creative Commons, Daniele Civello

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The affections of a Father

I love my five year old. He's a brilliant boy who has some special needs - nothing particularly severe, and likely the consequences of his epilepsy. We don't really know.

In the opening moments of church this morning I'm sat with him on my lap. I'm one of the ministers, but with no formal responsibilities this morning. The boy is restless even before the service begins.

We open with some notices and a reading from Psalm 103. The boy is getting louder and more distruptive. "We're a big family"says the service leader. Welcome to the family! (and truth be told: we are welcome.)

Then he reaches Psalm 103:12
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
A moment of grace - I'm tempted to get annoyed with my son. I shush him. I'm frustrated. But in that moment - I'm reminded and refreshed - I am the restless five year old in the arms of the Father from whom every family gets its name, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and all those graciously adopted into his family. He's not embarrassed with me. He's not chiding me. He's being compassionate with me. In Christ, mine are "...the affections of a Father who will never let [me] go."

As the first song begins, we exit to the foyer to spin around and dance and jump and wrestle properly, before his group starts. "Son I love you," I whisper in his ear, and his eyes shine brightly.

Image - Creative Commons - tonko43

Friday, October 07, 2016

What kind of society do we want to live in?

It's hard not to be deeply affected by Sally Phillips documentary A World Without Downs. This is an investigation into two of the biggest human questions. She opens, winsome, engaging, self-deprecating, to camera:
What kind of society do we want to live in? 
And who do we think should be allowed to live in it?
We all have to answer those questions.
We all do answer them.
The question is what answers we give and why.

For decades/centuries we've lived in 'the story of progress' or 'the myth of evolution' as CS Lewis dubbed it. Not a scientific comment so much as a narrative that says, change is better, we're advances, and survival of the fittest, and our happiness must drive us forward. I recognise this story - I grew up in it, I grew up believing it and many of its implications, it's hard to let go of it.

For the church this grates in part because it's parasitic on Christian hope - as John Gray notes, how on earth does the secularist justify a moral statement about change being good, it's stolen hope. It also grates because built into the DNA of the church is the ethos of Old Israel from the Pentateuch that calls for sacrificial care of the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, that is to say for the vulnerable who cannot provide for themselves.

This is not rooted just in a law given to a community, but in the heart of the Triune God whose salvation for humanity is precisely helping those who cannot help themselves - a category which in ultimate terms includes all of us.

It's an ever present concern for the church - what kind of society are we... who is welcome here? As it should be for a parkrun community, a school gate community, an office culture and so on.
Cat Caird muses on the disturbing parallels to the film Gattaca. The brilliance of scientific endeavour appears to have pretty much made Gattaca possible, the question is whether we're prepared to go there or not. Just because we can, doesn't mean we should?

We need to ask what kind of world we want to live in? We need to ask why our answer is compelling? We need to ask how our answer can be justified? And we probably need to get beyond asking what kind of world we want to live in to ask what kind of world is this...?

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Sow to the Spirit?

Galatians 6v8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
What does this mean?

In the final paragraphs of Paul's letter to his friends in Galatia what is he saying?
(a) Eternal life comes from good works?
(b) Or, something else.
Everything in Galatians says that option (a) can't be the case. You can't write for 5.5 chapters about how it's not what we contribute and then say it is. Context kills that, though sooo many commentators play that dischordant note.

Throughout the book two categories are established...
Faith / Spirit / Sonship vs. Flesh / Law / Slavery.
In chapter 5 those under the law will not inherit as they are slaves - their life will be marked by the works of the flesh. The works are an inevitable consequence not disqualifying acts. Likewise, those who live by the Spirit crucify the flesh and the Spirit produces fruit. But fleshly acts aren't disqualifying, and neither is there to be assurance in Spirit-fruit.

In Galatians what we do isn't where assurance is found. The whole book is designed to get the Galatians looking outside themselves to Christ as the way they get righteous, he who gives the only true ethnic marker of God's people - The Spirit.

Surely then, sowing to the flesh is to put yourself under law, whereas to sow to the Spirit is to believe the gospel. Fruit, to some degree, will follow but the believer's boast is the cross not the self and what we have or have not done - none of these things are anything, only new creation counts - what God has done by his gospel word.

The life I now live, isn't my life - it's only faith in the Son.

Which means...

  • The Christian faith is gospel not just ABC but A-Z (Galatians 3:1-5) - the Christian life is our union with Christ, hearing the gospel word with faith.
  • The Christian community can be honest about sin (Galatians 6:1-3) - the presence of sin isn't disqualifying, only the absence of the gospel, and our absenting ourselves from the Father who revealed his loving Son (1:6-9, 1:16) who gave himself for us (2:20). We are more sinful than we even know, but the gospel is sweeter than we can imagine. Imagine the freedom to stop striving, to stop faking and hiding, that's sonship.
  • Don't worry - not saying sinning is ok. Set your eyes on the cross and you're looking at the place where flesh is put to death and life in Christ is offered - no better place to convict of sin, no richer place to have your heart changed - to enter the battle between the old habits of the flesh, and the your new life as an adopted son in God's family.
We reap what we so, or much more: we reap what he sowed, watered and grew for us. No person is too good for that, no person too bad, no one has the wrong ethnicity or history. The gospel really does say, in Jesus' name: you are always welcome.

Image - Creative Commons - .martin.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Church in a student city?

I've written in the past some Top Tips on finding a church for Christian Students.

How about from the perspective of a Church in a Student City? 
If you have students in your church and/or are a viable option then be available to students.

There are two Universities in our city and though we do get students from both we're no where near being a local church for one of them... as prospective students from Trent Uni have done Student Linkup I've usually suggested they try a nearer church than ours. For Nottingham Uni we are 300 metres from the edge of campus or a mile from its centre... so I think we're a pretty good option.

As term rolls on there's a responsibility on us to quickly stamp on any attendance at two churches - its just not healthy. Care deeply but don't hold too tightly - if a student goes elsewhere that should be ok. Resist consumeristic competitive pitches and plead that students visit only 2-3 churches and then commit to somewhere.

Anyways, I suggest...
1. Be hospitable. 
Students are away from home from the first time, so open your home. A family table, a sofa and a house with the central heating turned on will make more of an impression than you can imagine on a cold November day for a student with full-blown homesickness. 
That's all the more true when it comes to international students, vast numbers of whom never enter a British home. Few better places for discipleship than over a meal. 
2. Be unshockable. 
Whether about their theological questions or their lifestyle  - don't be shocked. No good comes from being outraged, it just makes people shut down, hide and not come back. Discipleship is messy, we've all got L-plates on. Let grace abound... and in that context you can challenge people to follow Jesus.
3. Be patient. 
A student has just become an adult. They're still figuring out who they are. They've got growing to do. Impending deadlines will feel like the biggest crisis ever, and while you may know well that there are bigger things to face in life, these are genuine anxieties for an 18 year old. 
Also, a student is likely to grow immensely in three years - intellectually, personally... University is a place where people get formed. Rapid change can happen quickly... but as with all other change - less tends to change in a day than you might want, and more tends to happen in a term or a year or three than you could imagine. 
4. Be intellectually rigorous. 
Students are studying at degree level - which varies depending on the institution - so don't patronise them. They may behave like children at times, but they're capable of thinking like really high-level adults -- sometimes even more so with international students who are being groomed for the top economic and political roles in their country. 
When it comes to discipleship, be intellectually rigorous. Don't bypass the hard questions. Don't belittle the issues they're wrestling with in tutorials and lectures. No question should be off-limits -- if you want to minister to students, you have to think hard! Lets be doing degree-level faith with a child-like humility.
5. Be passionate about CU. 
There is a unique mission opportunity at University and CU's are designed to engage with that. Students learn to lead and they learn to share their faith. They'll fail big time, but when that happens they'll need encouragement not mockery. 
Strong churches and strong CUs tend to exist in the same locality. 
CU isn't about more Christian meetings, it's about intentional time with friends at Uni who don't know Jesus. CU meetings are however great opportunities to invest in students faith and stretch them for the unique challenges of their immediate and future contexts. 
Sharing the faith isn't just for CUs of course -- church is about that too, and if we want to serve students our churches better not be full of unnecessary obstacles - let the gospel offend, but other things need to go. "Can a student easily invite their friends who are interested in exploring faith?" is a question to be working hard to answer. If not... what are we doing?!
6. Be equipping for graduate life. 
University isn't just about witness, in fact it's not even primarily about witness - it's about studying. Studying is a students job - even if they don't always think so. They're paying for it out of their future salary, just like you're paying for your retirement out of your current salary. It's expensive. And it's about forming a person for either a particular vocation or any number of graduate work opportunities. 
Faith foundations are often laid in student years - for better or worse. 
Most of that advice should probably apply to any non-student 18-21 year old who walks through the door too. Around half of 18 year old Brits go to Uni which means half don't, and we'd be wise to remember that. It's good to give students attention if they're part of your parish, but for all their capacity to influence the world they are also just ordinary people.

For what it's worth.... at Beeston Free Church this year we're shaping our student ministry around meals and church home groups (with Bible study, prayer etc), Serge's The Gospel Centered Life course, and Evan Koon's For the life of the world: letters to the exiles and Donnie Griggs' Small Town Jesus. Why? To give students a church family, relational contexts to explore their questions, a focus on the gospel and its deep application to life, a wide-angle lense on Christ for all of life, and a place to assess priorities for sharing their faith in the small town that is the University.

Image - Luftphilia -Creative Commons

Saturday, August 27, 2016

I went to a Parkrun

I've been running for a couple of years. I woke up a week after my 35th birthday and had the motivating realisation of quite how out of shape I was and that this would only get worse if I didn't do something about it. I worked my way up to 5km and then to 10km, running 4-5 times a week over the first three months and maintained a habit of doing 2-3 10km runs a week since.

We've moved to Beeston and I decided to join a running club and start doing the Beeston Parkrun five weeks ago. Running with others is still very new for me. To be honest, the idea of a running club and timed running had intimidated me before, but I'm enjoying it and haven't felt any of the pressure I imagined might be the case.

Some observations...
1. I'm reasonably fit but way behind some. I'm averaging a top 60 finish out of 180-220 people which feels good. PB currently 24:37.
2. Running with others makes you run faster as they pull you along, or it destroys you in your head as you see people run away from you. I'm learning to run with people who are roughly comparable to me, and to run my own race. A new skill and I feel fairly incompetent. My times are relatively consistent, three out of five times within a 9 second window. 
3. I didn't think I was a competitive person, but when you run timed it's hard to not compete - against yourself if not against others. That's pushing me to get fitter and faster, and that's probably no bad thing. 
4. Parkrun, here at least, is a friendly community. People run at 9am on a Saturday morning because they enjoy running. Numbers fluctuate but there's a substantial regular crowd I've seen every week. It's a diverse community, ethnically, socially, and in age and fitness. Beeston Parkrun "winners" tend to be in their early 20s and are running 17-18mins for 5km. There are some very fit and fast people in the older age bracket! Everyone is welcome however quick or slow they are. 
5. Going to a local cafe for breakfast after makes it more fun. We share an experience round the track and then get to know one another more over large mug of coffee and poached eggs on toast for £2. 
6. Doing Parkrun as a member of a running club is great because it makes the Parkrun an easier social experience - lots of familiar faces. A handful of people from our church join in too.
7. Clear instructions are given, newcomers are welcomed and oriented and applauded before the race, and volunteers are celebrated too. It's a simple thing to do that makes a big difference.
8. People muck in and help out to make it happen. I've not been on the roster yet. As a newbie I'm keen to get a good series of runs done before taking a week 'off', but I look forward to volunteering later in the autumn.
If you've never been before, why not get down to your local Parkrun next Saturday morning.

Images - Creative Commons - Steve Miles.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Psalm 2: The Word of His Wrath

The British Government responded harshly to Guy Fawkes conspiracy. Hung for his crime. And remembered for his conspiracy even 411 years later.

What of the human conspiracy to dethrone God?

Psalm 2v4 – heaven laughs 
And – the LORD scoffs 

On the one hand, it’s laughable and futile… heaven says “as if…”
The crowds mocked Jesus in his crucifixion, and mockery means what the next verses says:

Psalm 2v5 – he rebukes in anger 
And – he terrifies in wrath Heaven’s anger is stirred. 

What is the terrifying word of God's wrath?

Heaven speaks. ‘I have installed my king on… my holy mountain’ 
The true king is the Lord Jesus, the LORD’s Anointed one.
When is he lifted up? Where is he crowned? At the cross.

 God’s word of wrath against human sin is the cross of the true king. Not immediate judgement on the world… Not to hang, draw and quarter us… No. To put forth the true king to bear the wrath stirred by human sin. To offer himself in our place.

 It’s unimaginable that King James would’ve done that isn’t it? Could King James of the King James Version of the Bible fame have put himself in Guy Fawkes place? A good man might die for his friends, but for his enemies??

No-one would give themselves for those who conspire to destroy him? But, King Jesus does exactly that – look at his cross, and see there – the kindness of God which we so despise, displayed and enacted in him giving himself for us.

The cross is a terrifying word of wrath - this is what sin deserves. But it is also a word of hope - bear your own sin, or have him bear it for you.

Image - Creative Commons - Luciano Inline

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Psalm 2: My name is John Johnson

In the early hours of Saturday 5th November 1605 a man claiming to be John Johnson left a cellar underneath the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and was promptly arrested. Inside were found many barrels of gunpowder. So ended an 18 month conspiracy led by Robert Catesby and involving the arrested man – not called John Johnson but Guido Fawkes.

Catesby, Fawkes and co had sought to kill King James and replace him with his daughter Elizabeth. A political move to suit their own purposes. Who will be on the throne? They said; we will choose.

Three thousand year old song, Psalm 2 describes a similar kind of conspiracy on an altogether grander global political scale. In v1-3 the kings of the earth plot together.

1. Who is the conspiracy against? 
V2 The LORD and his Anointed 

 That is to say, the Father and his Christ. We do sin against one another but Psalms tell us that our real problem is with the LORD and his Christ – human beings conspire against God, to overthrow him and place themselves on his throne. When we harm one another we’re harming those made and loved by the LORD and his Anointed, defacing and damaging their image bearers.

 2. Why do they conspire? 
V3 “let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” 

I wonder if that’s how we see God’s word in our lives? Restriction? Hosea 11:4 speaks differently, God says “I led them with cords of kindness, with ties of love… I bent down to feed them.” Why does humanity conspire to overthrow the LORD and his Anointed – because we mistake his kindness for cruelty, his love for restriction.

Who will be king? We will, because God can't be trusted to act for our good... and so we act like co-conspirators with Fawkes... hiding in cellars, trying to cover our tracks with a quickly adopted false names. All because we doubt that the LORD and his Anointed aren't kind.

I know a little of my own heart and the anxiety I experience when I'm out of control. I want to pull the strings. My hands might not be strong enough but when I'm holding things at least it's 'in my hands'. Can we be honest about ourselves? Can I? And, is there any possibility that we've misread things? Might his restraints be for our good? Might his bonds be safe for us? When we look at Jesus in action can we really label him as cruel? When he says that to see him is to see his Father can we really say a cruel deity lurks behind a kind Jesus?

In the next part we'll see how the LORD answers the conspiracy, but for now: see the kindness of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Unanswered is the problem - we have conspired... what then for us in the hands of the true king?

Image - Creative Commons - Antony

Monday, August 22, 2016

Who's in and who's out?

Paul Hiebert's 1978 paper 'Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories' poses the question of what's required to say someone is or isn't a Christian. He poses the senario of an illiterate peasant in Indian who professes faith after hearing the Christian gospel once. What would it take to say they're actually a Christian?

This sort of thinking could be applied to other things too - I'm a member of a running club, Suppose there's a person has paid up but never runs... and there's another person who runs with us but hasn't formally joined... who is the club member? So too, political parties etc.

Hiebert looks at the way Christian faith is popularly considered to be a bounded set - with a clear boundary between Christian and not a Christian based on orthodoxy or orthopraxy, where the key task is to get someone over the boundary. There's much good in the model, but Hiebert's question is - what about his new believer Papayya? He's in a culture without a church and he's just confessed Christ... his life looks fairly similar to before he believed. And if you quizzed him about his beliefs, so much of his thinking is shaped by his pre-Christian culture... he'd fail many tests of orthodoxy. Is he in, or out?

What if there's another model? Hiebert suggests centered sets. Here there is still a boundary but it's a centre point, Christ. What counts here isn't how close you are to the centre, but which way are you moving? One can be near or far from Christ in terms of knowledge or experience, the issue is whether one is seeking to follow Christ or moving away from him.

I've heard this choice described as the difference between having fences or gathering around a flag, well or campfire. Both still have a clear boundary category, both still have in/out criteria.

Fires, wells and flags are more attractive than fences, though both models still have boundaries in reality, and I'm not sure either can fully deal with the massive adjustments in worldview understanding that cause Hiebert to raise the question concerning new believer Papayya.

Seems to me that both models offer a helpful insight.

In the end, the Christian gospel is an in/out matter, Adam or Christ, lost or found. Both models accept that. Bounded-sets offer help when it comes to assurance - when you're in you're in, and nothing can take you out of Christ. Bounded sets offer helpful clarity and confidence. And fences protect those inside from wandering into danger, being attacked from the outside, and enable biblical measures of kind discipline that exclude to jolt someone into repentance. Bounded sets fit are institutionalised when a church has a formal membership, the approach enables strong mutual commitment. But, what do you then say or do about non-members...?

But Biblical language and categories also call for growth and progress,that the notion of centred set allows us to think more about what in-ness and out-ness look like, and offer the helpful categories of direction of travel, journey, L-plates, progress and joy in the faith that are helpful for aspects of Christian discipleship and soften the temptation towards them/us mentality. Campfires are attractive and warm and we - human beings - all need the gospel. Centred-sets remind us that there is more of Christ to be had for each of us. Papayya can be "in" because of his new direction of travel, though his faith is low on understanding and low on change. I something similar see that in the beginnings of my own walk with Jesus.

What if you think of a church in terms not of it's confessing membership but more in terms of its parish... everyone in the parish is either moving toward faith or away... on the final day, who is in and out will be evident. Here and now, many of our measures are what Jonathan Edwards calls 'signs of nothing' - no certain proof either way.

Healthy church practice surely needs to hold in tension the clarity of a bounded set and the movement of a centred set. Faith without boundaries is unkind. Faith without concern for growth is unclear.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mission as prophetic dialogue

Some interesting observations on Christian mission from Roman Catholic priest Stephan Bevans' paper Mission as prophetic dialogue. Not my general 'go to' for insight, but I enjoy reading widely, learning from the differences, learning from what's good even if sometimes there are bones to spit.

Bevans, with Roger Schrader, begin with God:
That mission is dialogical is rooted in the reality that God... is dialogue. God is not a lonely monad but a communion of persons, distinct from one another and yet one in identity and purpose... This communion of giving and receiving Love overflows into the entire cosmos that God created out of sheer grace, and calls it into communion with Godself. This is what we mean by God’s mission, the Missio Dei.
Union with Christ brings us into the life of God.
Through Baptism, Christians share the very life and of the Trinity, and so they are enjoined to carry out God’s mission in the same dialogical way. Concretely, this means that Christians who engage in mission need to make real efforts to “bond” with the people among whom they minister.
Mission that is shaped by being friends and good neighbours fits with the God of the Christian gospel. A different gospel might validate a different kind of posture - there are plenty of deities you could imagine that would fit with a distant and detached approach - but Trinitarian religion is dialogical, friendly, loving and about moving nearer to people where they are.

Citing, V.S. Azariah in 1910:
“...the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS.” Mission as dialogue is ultimately about ministering out of real relationships, about making friends.
Or, as Jon Tyson puts it - 'love people and be available'. 

Churches can run ministries and events and programmes to connect with others, but the nature of the God who knows us and who we know and proclaim leads us toward favouring a relational and personal posture - to the slow work of making friends.

In approaching the task of such missional friendship, Bevans counsels...
...the missionary always recognizes that she or he is a stranger and guest. As a stranger he or she needs to realize how little he or she knows, and how much she or he needs to rely on the local people for knowledge in that place. And as a good guest, missionaries should not presume too much. Even presuming to help out by doing the dishes or something like that could be an insult to the hosts. The missionary needs to look and listen long and hard so as not to abuse the privilege of being hosted by the people of a certain place. One does not enter another’s garden lightly. One enters first of all to gaze and admire, to enjoy the beauty of what is there. Maybe after getting the trust of the gardener the visitor might be able to give advice about planting or watering or arranging—but even then it should probably be done gingerly.
We may be very keen to invite others into our garden, to meet us on our turf, to enter the places in which we feel safe, but we go first to theirs, tentative, careful, teachable and aware of our capacity to blunder and offend. Developing that kind of sensitivity might help us to make our own garden more accessible.
[Paul] writes, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1Thess 2:7-8). If the gospel is to be brought to people effectively, it must be presented worthily—it must be lived. A dialogical spirit is not simply a prerequisite for preaching the gospel, in other words. Even less is it merely a means to attract. It is an integral part of the Good News itself: the God of the gospel is a God who really cares, who is really involved in this world, is a God who respects human freedom. Our gentleness and self-gift in mission are sacraments of the gentleness and self-giving of God as such.
Mission implies real involvement 'in this world', the long yards of being a stranger and a guest, looking and listening long and hard, and making friends. A posture like that creates space in which to speak worthily and compellingly. As Donnie Griggs advises: Let integrity, generosity and compassion be something the whole town cannot escape when they are around you or the folks in your church. 

See also - Tanya Marlow - For every wannabe missionary: Assimilate or go home.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

I went to church: 5 things I learned

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Great is thy faithfulness

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

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

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

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

(Additional verses: Matt Giles)

Image: Ray - Morning Dew, Creative Commons.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Image - Creative Commons - Nicholas Vigier

Saturday, July 16, 2016

An introduction to the Psalms

A few thoughts on the Psalms...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Creative Commons Daniel Go.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Penal Substitionary Atonement for Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my place (c) Matt Giles, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

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

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

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

Why then? 

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

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

But why the wait?

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

So, why did Jesus come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few centuries ago Samuel Rutherford wrote:

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

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

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

Image - Creative Commons - bitslammer.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

I went to a Cupping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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