Thursday, June 30, 2016

Welcome to the family of God

Galatians is a gift that keeps on giving. The gospel might be simple enough for a child, but there is depth and nuance that rewards careful and repeated study of the Scriptures - especially when done with a friend, with a cup of the finest coffee for a couple of hours.
1. Departure from the gospel is (1v6) to desert him who called us in Christ. Which is to say that to have faith in the gospel is to be in relationship with the Father by being in Christ. Opposing sound doctrine is to set yourself against Christ and his Father. Heresy defames and derides and dishonours Christ. The gospel is the Father's welcome to the divine family.
2. Departure from the gospel is to be severed from Christ (5v4). Which is to say that to have faith in the gospel is (4v19) to have Christ formed in you. Clothed in Christ, indwelt by Christ, baptised into Christ. The gospel is Christ's welcome to the divine family.
3. Departure from the gospel is to turn from the Spirit with whom you began (3v3). Which is to say that to have faith in the gospel is to have the Spirit cry Abba Father from your heart to the Father (4v6). The gospel is not a faith we adopt so much as the good news of the God who will adopt us. The gospel is the Spirit's welcome to the divine family.
4. Departure from the gospel is to draw back from those who belong in God's family (2v12). Which is to say that to have faith in the gospel is to be united with all those who Christ welcomes whatever culture, gender or class (3v28). Flesh divides, external markers and standards to achieve exclude - faith supremely includes. The gospel is welcome to the divine family, by belonging to the church locally and globally.
In the language of Paul's letter to the Galatians, the gospel is a word to hear with faith (3v2) saying: on the basis of the curse-bearing, blessing-bringing, meaning-filled crucifixion of Jesus Christ you are welcome into the life of the Triune God.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Do you see this woman?"

Extracts from Sermon: Jesus loves good people - Luke 7:36-50 at Grace Church Exeter

1. SHE LOVED JESUS (36-38)
 [36] One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. [37] And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house…
 “A woman of the city, who was a sinner” I wonder if you know someone like that? Perhaps you think of yourself like that? Curtains twitch when she walks by… we won’t speculate about her back story, but you get the idea of what people thought of her, and the hurt, pain, stigma she must feel…

She’s the person who because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, track record, assumes – and not without some evidence – that church wouldn’t be for her. Can you imagine what it takes for her to get to Jesus that day? Simon – the host, as we’ll see - hates that she’s there. He makes himself feel better compared to her. She knows. Could you be where she was? Or would you run and hide? She teaches us what church can be. Church – ‘sinners’ who go to Jesus.

Face tear-stained. Hair matted with dirt and perfume. She is a model follower of Jesus. But, how do you get from fear to faith... from sin to your Saviour?

[39] Now when the Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 
Can you sense Simon’s disapproval? He is not impressed. Can you picture the awkward grimace on his face?
 [40] And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Gulp. Gritted teeth. Jesus is being so gentle with him, he could blow him away… And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” Is this respect? Does he want to hear? Excited? Fearful? [41] “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. [42] When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. 
I used to work on the counter at Natwest Bank. It wasn’t always the most interesting work, but I loved working day in day out with people. And money is an open door to the human heart. I remember the customer who’d bring in loads of ID to withdraw five pounds… and the woman who objected to any security questions for her small withdrawal of ten thousand pounds. We also helped people with debt. I’ll never forget the change in the face of one customer. She came in exhausted from sleepless nights over her credit card debt of £25000. You could see the exhaustion… the desperation… the fear on her face… heavy shoulders. And then the visible relief when we’d worked out a plan to clear the debt. We weren’t able to cancel debt. Of course the bank would make money from the whole thing, but we could help people to structure payments.

 Jesus doesn’t restructure debt. 

The story of Jesus is about the debt of sin. Bigger than any financial debt. Cancelled. Completely. Wow – is that how you see Jesus? The one who cancels your debt. Imagine if you let that loose in your life.

The debt-canceller. The visible relief bringer.

 Simon’s not there yet…
 Now which of them will love him more?” [43] Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” 
Simon knows the answer. Sort of. Do you? What does he see when he looks at this woman? This woman is the answer. Does he see? Does it get it? He has more in common with her than he realises. She knows that all the debt of all her sin is now cancelled. Her face is stained with tears and dirt, but there’s visible relief. She knows she hadn’t trusted God, and Jesus has loved her.
• There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone always has to pay.
 • There’s no such thing as cancelling debts for free. Someone has to pay.
At the cross, Jesus gave his life for our lives. Our sin has bankrupted us. We are ruined. In debt with no way back. But he exchanged his life for mine and yours. His riches for our poverty.
The more debt cancelled, the more love overflows.
 • What does she know that he doesn’t yet know?
 • What does she know that you don’t know - that you have been pushing way?
 • Does his love for her make you feel uncomfortable? 
She’s the poorest person in the room but she is rich in love.
[44] Then turning toward the woman [Jesus] said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. [45] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. [46] You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
Ouch. Ouch. Have you been there? Have you been there when Jesus makes you feel Ouch? Where is Simon now? Dazed? Exposed? About to kick back? Three times Simon failed by comparison. Have you had Jesus do this to you?
 [47] Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” [48] And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” [49] Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” [50] And [Jesus] said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 
Jesus is the God who doesn’t chase away sinners.

“Who is this man going around forgiving sins?”  God with dirty feet, who came to die for us. A God better than any God our world has ever heard of. But, Simon doesn’t think he’s much of a sinner. Forgiven little, he loves little. Luke says, Simon is a Pharisee: An important person. Good. Well-read. And he knows very little about the sin in his life. Lacking in love – he doesn’t love Jesus… and he doesn’t love the people of his town… he’s aloof and scornful rather than engaged and involved.

What about you? It’s not that Simon can or should actually really love everyone. But this woman is an actual person in his town, in his neighbourhood, and for that matter, that day: in his house. His life and her life have intersected, and not for the first time. And he is appalled at her.
 • Who gets met with your silent disapproval?
 • Who is the subject of the muttering beneath your breath?
 • Who would make you feel awkward if you found they were sat behind you this morning?
 • What are their names? 
This unnamed woman’s story makes it abundantly clear that Jesus doesn’t think anyone is beyond his love. Not even this good man Simon. Simon is shocked that Jesus will be near this woman, but not at all shocked that Jesus came to his house. I’d like to judge Simon; but horribly, painfully, undeniably, I recognise his face in the mirror.

What about you? It’s an ‘Ouch!’ moment. What of the greed, the selfishness, the pride, the hate in my heart? What of my condescension and despising of those who voted differently to me? What of the deep line of sin that runs through my heart too? But in this moment Jesus invites Simon to start again. Facing the darkness of our hearts is unpleasant – but better to see it than to continue unaware. Seeing our sin is an opportunity to run to Jesus. This woman is in so much of a better place than Simon…
• There is more sin in Simon than he knows.
• There is more love in Christ than there is sin in Simon.
• There is more sin in Dave Bish than I know.
• More love in Christ than there is sin in Dave Bish.
• Dare I say, aware of how offensive this is to say: there is more sin in you than you know.
• But, there is far more love in Christ for you, than there is sin in you. 
Do you see this woman? Do you see this Jesus? Do you have the dawning sense that Simon is meant to be getting that there's far more need of forgiveness in you than you realised... could you let The Debt-Canceller, The Visible Relief Bringer loose in your life today by entrusting yourself to him?

Friday, June 24, 2016

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (James K.A. Smith)


James K A Smith is highly rated as a theologian and philosopher. I've enjoyed his earlier books 'Desiring the Kingdom' and 'How (not) to be secular', the latter an introduction to Charles Taylor's epic A Secular Age, along with his work at Comment magazine that helpfully engages Christian faith with the workplace and wider society.

Smith comes from a pentecostal background but has moved to a more liturgical churchmanship and that's reflected in the tone of the book.

The basic idea is that we're more than just learners, we're lovers. The question is, what do you want? And the disturbing reality for us might be that what we think we want isn't really what we want. We're shaped by our sinful desires and the secular liturgies of our age. For, if we're lovers not just learners, is a starting point, then Smith's next step is to say that we're shaped not just by knowledge but by habit - by the routines and rituals of our days, which makes the music we listen to and the trips to the shopping centre formative - unless we engage with their worldviews, imagination, liturgies and restory ourselves with the gospel.

Smith's examination of the liturgy of the Shopping Mall is repeated here from Desiring the Kingdom, and there are some great interactions with George Lucas, Tsarkovsky's Stalker which includes a kind of reversal of Orwell's Room 101, an great analysis of the film American Beauty, and 'classic' quatable quotes from Antoine de-Saint Expury and David Foster Wallace.

I thoroughly agree we're lovers. My one fear with Smith's thesis is that his focus on habits and liturgy might detract from the centrality of the gospel word as formative for us. The word which is never intended simply for intellectual engagement and learning, but to call hearts to the Christ who first loves us.

I don't think he'd disagree with that. Smith rather speaks into the malaise of modern abandonment of liturgy and devaluing of the very ordinary life of the church in prayer, confession, baptism, communion, and preaching as the ordinary means by which we put on Christ. This is scripturally sound, though the book doesn't really argue the case that way.

Smith retells the story of the man caught in a flood who declines a canoe, boat and helicopter - because God will rescue me... noting that like him we readily ignore the means God has long since provided for our growth. These are good habits that do us good. This is a lesson I've been learning from him and appreciating - and this book pressed that home further for me.

There are helpful chapters on discipling children in the home and in the church which warrant attention and further thought. Gone must be entertainment ministry replaced with participation in the life of the church and the gospel story.

Smith's material on the need to view the worship of the church (the whole gathering not just the singing) as more than just expression of the heart but rather as formation of the heart is brilliantlyl perceptive and challenging. Where many low-church evangelicals fear formal liturgy and it's repeated retelling of the gospel story week by week, Smith champions this as vital for our growth - to train and win our hearts against the stories of our sin and society and for the gospel. I've heard him bang this drum before but he bangs it well and we do well to listen.

It's a book well worth reading, more than once. James K A Smith's You are what you want comes with endorsements from Miroslav Volf, Tim Keller, Alan Jacobs and Cornelius Plantinga among others.

Available in the UK from with bulk buy discounts.

Images - Dave Bish

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cruciformity: Learning the way of the cross.

X-marks the spot. It's the crux of the matter. 
  • Trinity is cruciform - the Father, full of love, sends his Son, in the Spirit. The Father is the Father of the crucified Christ. Christ is the Christ who gave himself in our place. A crucified human being is a member of the Trinity. Cruciform love is at the heart of the Triune God.
  • Salvation is cruciform - we're saved by Christ's self-giving death for us. There is and was and will never be any other way into the life of God than through his wrath-averting, penalty-bearing, debt-cancelling death. The seed dies, and then brings flourishing. Darkness gives way to light.
  • Revelation is cruciform  - the cross is the heart of divine revelation, the reference point and the place where God's glory is most vividly seen. The context for everything this God says is the cross... thus human communication of the faith is "Christ and him crucified."
  • Sovereignty is cruciform - we're, as Newton put it, "held in the hands that bled for us." Divine power is exercised in crucified love.
  • Discipleship is cruciform - united to Christ we're crucified with him and will finally be raised with him. Today we endure, finally we'll reign. First the cross, then the crown.
  • Headship is cruciform - I'm head of my wife as Christ is to the church, dying to myself, giving myself for her. Headship isn't forceful or powerful, it means service and pursuit of what's best for her. As Sibbes says, Christ governs his church "with sweetness and love." Cruciformity. 
  • Christianity is cruciform.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Held in hands that bled for us"

I spent Tuesday at the Proclamation Trust's annual Evangelical Ministry Assembly. I think it's about 10 years since I last went - it's always felt too far from Exeter, but with a month before we move out of the South West to go the opportunity arose and I'm so glad I went because of...
1. The understated humility of Vaughan Roberts and Adrian Reynolds. Vaughan reflected on how he'd heard older gospel ministers in the past being thankful for God's faithfulness in holding on to them, and how many years later he sees the same in his life.  
Granted it was a room of largely British people (and perhaps more culturally conservative than average), I loved the understatedness of the occasion. A large crowd but no hype, just ordinary brothers and sisters together. The tone wasn't so much celebration of the achievements of the last year (good as that is to do) but of thankfulness for God's grace in the gospel, to have kept us looking to him.  
2. Being treated to a biography of John Newton and the story of God's persevering grace with him. The high point for me the reflection from one of Newton's letters (apparently now mislaid by John Chapman) of "how unspeakably wonderful to know that all our concerns are held in hands that bled for us." The cruciform sovereignty of the God who gave himself for us. 
3. A rich confidence in preaching the gospel of Christ from the Bible, acting on the basis of what God says. Jonty Allcock offered a compelling, attractive, humble argument to persist in gathering people to Jesus from Luke 5 - "because [Jesus] says so." This was also reflected in a concern to equip churches to disciple children - and the excellent resources introduced to help with this. 
4. Catching up with old friends and acquaintances, people staying true to God's word because he's kept hold of them for another year. One day wasn't enough to get to all the familar faces but valuable for a handful of conversations and two more extended meet-ups.
I hope to be there again next year, and not just for one of the days. Somewhere over 1200 people were there from 750 churches. Leaders young and old seeking to turn again to Christ and continue to make him known.

Pic: Chris McBurney.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

What is it like to follow Jesus?

Something in me wants to be able to say you'll be healthy, wealthy, satisfied, fulfilled etc. 

But, chewing over what Paul writes in Romans 8 and what the Sons of Korah write in Psalm 44 (which is cited by Paul) it seems that a life following Jesus is more like 'dying all day long'.

It's the Father's plan to make those who follow Jesus more like Jesus. To conform us to the image of his Son. Jesus was not rich, powerful, privileged. He sunk down and down and down to death.

Is it really that bad?

The secular liturgies of my culture and the hopes and dreams of my sinful heart really hope not. I'm Western, we're winners. But it doesn't take much living before the brokenness of life breaks in to my life or to those around me.

It won't do to try and cover over the cracks, it won't do to just push the suffering out of sight and out of mind... it wont work and it wont help. The hardship of life isn't just the acute moments that can be met with intense and brief responses. So much of what's wrong in life is chronic. It'll still be here next week and next year. It wont go away. It wont get better. Not yet.

As a believer in Jesus what can I say? 
  • The Lord who saved me also afflicts me. Dare I say that? What's the alternative? To say that the world is out of control? To live at the whim of chance? 
  • The Lord who saved me is not against me. I remember him and he remembers me. I hold on to him, he holds on to me. But that doesn't mean I don't suffer. It probably means I will suffer - how can I follow him if I don't follow him to Calvary? 
  • The Lord who saved me is working for my good in this.
  • The Lord who saved me will heal more than I can imagine - this might be bad but the bad days of this life are as bad as it will get - there is resurrection life to come but not today.
  • The Lord who saved me does not give me all the answers. There are aspects of "why?" that I can know and many that I cannot. In the fire I may lose all things, but in the fire I have him.
When, to Timothy, Paul writes proverbially about the Christian life he tells of farmers who could lie in but wouldn't have a harvest if they did... soldiers who could enjoy civilian pursuits but would give up their commander's pleasure to do so... athletes who could cut corners but wouldn't take the crown if they did....

Paul pictures those who finally reign has having endured... those who live as having died.

I might have a happier life outside of Christ now, but at what final cost? And there's no guarantee of that ease, though some things might well be easier away from Christ. In Christ I know that hardships will come. Patience, gentleness and joy might be learned in ease but are more often formed in the fire. Christlikeness comes through cruciformity. The hard seasons, momentary and ongoing, are the places where growth can happen - though they're also opportunities to become bitter and reject Christ.

What's it like to follow Jesus?

It's like having Jesus - walking the path to crucifixion with him, for the joy set before us of having him. This might not sound like the attractive over-promises of the resurrection-now brigade, but what relief and hope for suffering souls... what sense is senseless days... what comfort from the Christ whose words are 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

In Scripture we find Christ himself

From Richard Sibbes on 2 Corinthians 1
God has given us his Scriptures, his word. The comforts that are fetched from there are strong, because they are his comforts. It is his word. The word of prince comforts, though he be not there to speak it. Though it be a letter, or by a messenger, yet he whose word it is, is one that is able to make his word good. He is Lord and Master of his word.

The word of God is comforting, and all the reasons that are in it, and that are deduced from it, upon good ground and consequence, they are comfortable, because it is God's word. He is the God of all. Those comforts in God's word, and reasons from within are wonderful in their variety. There is comfort laid out there for the Christian including:
  • Liberty
  • Free access to the throne of grace
  • Adoption as a child of God
  • Justification
  • Being an heir of heaven
  • The promises of grace
  • The presence of God
  • The assistance of his presence.
These things out of the word of God are wondrous plentiful. Indeed, the word of God is a breast of comfort, as the prophet calls it: "that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” Isaiah 66:11. The books of God are breasts of comfort, wells of comfort. There are springs of comfort.

God's word is a paradise, as it were. In paradise, there were sweet streams that ran through; and in paradise stirred the voice of God, not only calling, "Adam, where are you?" terrifying of him, but the voice of God promising Adam the blessed seed, Gen. 3:9.

So in the word of God, there is God rousing out of sin, and there is God speaking peace to the soul. There is a sweet current of mercy runs from the paradise of God; and there is the "tree of life," Rev, 2:7, Christ himself, and trees of all manner of fruit, comforts of all sorts whatsoever. And there is no angel there, to keep the door and gate of paradise with a fiery, flaming sword. No! this paradise is open for all. And they are cruel tyrants that stop this paradise, that stop this fountain, as the papists do.
A sweet current of mercy runs from the word of God.
In Scripture we find Christ himself.

Image, Creative Commons - David Wright

Monday, June 13, 2016

What happens to the plane will also happen to you

Some notes on 2 Timothy.

1. The Christian life is union with Christ.
In Paul's letter to Timothy, his parting word to a junior leader he says that the Christian life is in Christ. There is
  • 1v1 the promise of life in Christ Jesus
  • 1v9 grace in Christ Jesus
  • 1v13 faith and love in Christ Jesus
  • 2v1 grace in Christ Jesus
  • 2v10 salvation in Christ Jesus
  • 3v12 godly life in Christ Jesus
  • 3v15 salvation through faith in Christ Jesus
The Christian life is outside me - in Christ. It's not about searching for the hero inside yourself - we look to the hero outside of us. I'm not the hero, Jesus is.

2. The Christian life means Christ in me
When Paul reflects on Timothy's family he sees faith that has lived in his grandmother, mother and now lives in him. It's a curious idea - indwelling faith? (1v5)

He then speaks on the power, love, self-discipline (1v7) that Timothy has by the gift of the Spirit God gave him (1v7). This is in stark contrast to the fools of chapter 3, who have "a form of godliness but deny its power" (3v5). (Folly and wisdom is a massive theme in this letter - but that's for another post.)

The Christian life isn't about adopting a pattern of life, a mere outwardness. Christ is given to the believer by the Spirit who lives in us and brings about a change of heart - new love (more in chapter 3) and a new pattern of life (chapter 2). It's not about what I do - it's Christ in me.

3. Indwelt/indwellers are called to be suffering heralds of the indwelt-indwelling God.
When you indwell Christ and he indwells you then... join in suffering for the gospel (1v8). Suffering (1v12) that Paul experiences as a herald of the gospel to the Gentiles (1v11), and which is Timothy's if he too will be unashamed of the gospel.

[KJV says that Paul preaches to the Gentiles, as does 4v17, but the NIV and ESV omit the word Gentiles/ethnos from 1v11... textual variant in Greek manuscripts, though I'm not sure it changes any meaning.]

This gospel is the one that concerns God saving us, not by anything we do but because of his purpose and grace, grace given in Christ before time - and then revealed in time by the death-destroying incarnation and crucifixion of Christ.

The Christian life is one of heralding Christ (1v11, 4v2), passing on the gospel (2v2) from the Scriptures (3v15) - a spreader of wisdom because we have first found wisdom in Christ and begun to be enwisened by him. Throughout the letter Paul associates heralding Christ with suffering (1v8, 1v12), suffering is the pattern of the "in Christ" life (chapter 2), a mark of the "in Christ" life (chapter 3), and the unavoidable path of life "in Christ" (chapter 4 - where Paul sees Psalm 22 as not just about the Christ but typical of the Christian life too).

Life in Christ is like the life of Christ.
2v11-13 Dying now, then when he returns living;
enduring suffering now, then when he returns reigning.

Image - Creative Commons - Jamie Golombek

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Small Town Jesus (Donnie Griggs)

I first encountered Donnie Griggs at a conference near Exeter a few years ago - his beard makes quite the impression but more so his diligent commitment to his small town in the USA, to love his town and build a church that is unmovable on things of first importance and flexible on other matters.

Donnie is a regular visitor to the UK and I heard him again in February 2016, again in Exeter. Those messages, along with one by Dan Romer, are worth a listen. Advance UK February 2016. Donnie was again  banging the drum for gospel-centred contextualised ministry and asking his probing questions. There's a reasonable overlap between those recordings and his book Small Town Jesus.

Listening to Donnie in Febraury was another repentance moment in my life, through those sessions I got on the phone to a good friend who doesn't know Jesus to spend more time with him...  decided to re-commit to one coffee shop in our city and start talking to the staff...  resolved again to love people and seek to speak of Jesus... When you're prepared to do that I think you can challenge others to take the same path in their parish.

The first half of the book is an apologetic for reaching insignificant places - against the backdrop of a growing (and important) focus on seeing churches planted in big cities. Donnie's small town has a little under 10,000 people - a lot of Britian is like that. I grew up in a village of just over 5000 people - a small town in many ways. Many UK cities are made up of swallowed-up small towns, which merge into their city, but also retain a local identity within which a church has the opportunity to love people and speak well of Jesus. A lot of Universities are similar in scale.

The second half of the book focusses on understandinng your own, enaging with its mindsets - both to redeem and to challenge, landing with direction toward "being a good local." Much of this feels reminiscent of Mark Dever's The Gospel and Personal Evangelism.
"When you don't think you will ever see wait staff or store staff again, you don't naturally make any effort to get to know them...  in a small town... you will find yourself constantly bumping into these people again and again. ... so take every opportunity to be kind and courteous." (STJ, p150-151)
"When considering how you can engage the culture of your small town with the gospel. please don't settle for contextualised church programs and church facilities. Love where you live and serve where you live... Let integrity, generosity and compassion be something the whole town cannot escape when they are around you or the folks in your church." (STJ, p156)
Each of the chapters in the second half of the book ends with a pop quiz of questions to ponder - ideal for individuals and for church leadership teams. The questions are challenging and should probably come with a health warning - big changes to life might be called for to love our towns. Whatever answers you end up reaching, Donnie's questions are high value.

I know I've got this wrong before and I've seen churches get this wrong. There's one in our current neighbourhood. I know they're sincere Bible people. They're lovely. They put up banners. They've given their own homemade parking tickets to locals who they've said can use their car park, saying that they need the space for their events... despite the fact that they use up the parking that is there for locals to use... the same locals they probably want to introduce to Jesus but haven't quite figured out how to connect with. I can't help but feel they're missing it. Donnie can be a helpful friend.

Personally, we're about to move to a town within a city, perhaps not technically a small town, but a place that nonetheless will have its own mentalities and passions, a place I will engage with in the years ahead one way or another - how can I be a good local? How can I commit to the people I will be among - my neighbours, the school gate, a running club, getting to know people in local shops and so on.

The future of the church are the people of my town... we celebrate those who already know Jesus but the vast majority don't. What if some of the problem is that we're getting in our own way... putting up unnecessary barriers... by our laziness, selfishness, carelessness or other sins.

Donnie Griggs' Small Town Jesus is a small book, an easy and engaging read on one level, but one that I'm going to spend some time with. Donnie isn't calling for a copy and paste approach to life and ministry so this book may not give me many answers - but it asks me lots of questions that I need to answer and that I'll need to be asking of others and I get to know them if I'm to learn to love our new town.

In many ways Donnie offers an application of Jon Tyson's reflection from a big city "love people and be available."  Small Town Jesus comes with a track record from the story of One Harbor Church in Morehead City, and with an eye to ask questions of aspects of life that I'm not sure rarely get examined - from the name, style, venue choices of a church through to the self-denying challenges of taking up the pursuits and passions of people in your town (in Donnie's town that means things like hunting and sailing and surfing...) even if those things initially hold little or no interest to us...   but when did taking up our cross and dying to self mean just doing the things we want to do.

Donnie challenges me to become all things to all people and take obstacles out of the way. If there's to be offense let it be the cross... if there are to be places where church and town jar let it be over sin rather than the culture we've copied from somewhere else.

This book would be good for you...
  • If you're a church leader or on a leadership team.
  • If you're a home/community group leader.
  • If you're in any kind of local / town church. 
  • If you're in a citywide church it'd probably speak to any geographic-level community life, and to individuals who participate in their own locality. 
  • If you're part of a University Christian Union then, I'd argue, you're working in a small town so this book would give you serious food for thought.

More at and
Buy from Amazon in paperback or kindle.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Wiggly Roman Road: A missional-pastoral tension

I've spent the last couple of years reading through Romans with several people. One of the many intruiging things is Paul's purpose in writing. We get some hints in the first chapter  but the bulk of the explanation is in chapter 15.

Essentially Paul is somewhere in the balkans and has exhausted his missionary opportunities there. His passion is to preach where no-one has preached before and that's no longer possible there. He has his eyes on Spain, and going via Rome is his plan. However, he decides to take a massive detour via Jerusalem to deliver money he's collected from churches for the famine hit Jewish churches, and consequently he's written Romans to be delivered by Phoebe while he makes that journey, before reaching Rome and going on to Spain. Tradition tells us that Paul never made it to Spain but rather ended up arrested in Jerusalem, shipped and shipwrecked to Rome where he was tried and eventually martyred.

Paul is a driven missionary, with a call to unreached people (15:20), but his detour compromised this and meant that he didn't get to preach to people in Spain. Roman roads tended to be straight, Paul's is particularly wiggly. Why?

Peter asked Paul not to forget the poor in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10) and Paul's ministry is intertwined with a commitment to provide for the poor believers in Jerusalem, as detailed in Philippians, 2 Corinthians and here in Romans 15. In his words in Romans, a spiritual blessing - the gospel - has flowed from the Jews to the Gentiles, and a material blessing is now to flow the opposite way (15:27).

The gospel, it seems, doesn't merely unstoppably advance, it creates along the way a culture of practical care for others believers - particularly across the Jew-Gentile divide, of which Paul writes quite a lot in Romans. What does that mean for us? At least a recognition of the Jewish heritage of the church and an engagement between a missionary priority and a pastoral care of believers.

Paul could've taken another path. He could've gone straight across to Rome and quickly on to Spain. Phoebe (16:1) could've delivered the money to Jerusalem - perhaps with less danger than Paul faced... both missions were high value... carrying the money or carrying a mountain-peak of New Testament literature.

Suppose Phoebe took the money, and a letter "Judeans" explaining why Paul had gone on to Spain.
"Dear Judeans, Rejoice that the Gentiles are grafted into the Jewish tree. They have sent you material  blessing for you needs. But, Paul however has higher business to attend to and so couldn't be with you in person. He's gone to Spain..."
Paul's gospel preaching in Spain might also then be changed. He'd perhaps have got there which would be good, but in weighting new people ahead of existing people his appeal becomes an appeal to Christ and his kindness but with a less personal care.

There are false dichotomies in abundance here... and some of us are doubtless called more to pastoral gospel ministry and others to evangelistic gospel ministry (the content is the gospel in either)...  but surely we should at least feel the tension between the two.
  • Do you need more of the tug back to the roots of the faith and care for believers, slowing your evangelistic ministry - new people must hear but needs must be met too? 
  • Do you need more of the push to evangelistic ministry framing your pastorally caring ministry - needs must be met but new people must hear too? Too often church settles for where it is and fails to sacrifice its preferences and needs for the sake of those who don't yet know Christ.
Romans is, I think, a deeply missional letter - Paul's robust teaching on election building a framework for the necessity of preaching, and the persistent theme of God's all-day-long kindness to stubborn sinners... which is good news for the nations, and good news for those who have already taken refuge in the Christ... all of which makes it also a deeply pastoral letter too.

Image - Creative Commons - Hazel Hernandez

Monday, June 06, 2016

The Way to Win

The magnificience of foolish weakness.
I'm reading The Lord of the Rings with my seven year old at the moment. I'm loving returning to a book that I last read nearly 30 years ago lying on a beach as an 8 or 9 year old. Obviously I've seen the films since but there's nothing like a book for taking you into another world. As JK Rowling has put it:
"Wherever I am, if I've got a book with me, I have a place I can go and be happy."
We've reach The Council of Elrond in the last week. It's striking to hear the Company of the Ring debate how to go forward. Boromir - as we might - suggests using the ring against Sauron. He is told that they can't wield it's power - ultimate corruption would follow rather than victory.

There is silence. And then it falls to the little creature from a backwater of Middle Earth, to the Hobbit Frodo to say
"I will go. Though I do not know the way."
The great ring of power can only be carried to its destruction (and it must be destroyed not just taken away) through the weak journey of the unlikeliest hero.

The magnificience of patience.
At the same time we're reading Exodus. My boy has asked the obvious question that heavyweight theologians have asked. Why does the LORD make the king's heart stubborn... He saw that it's both ways - the king is already a snakey figure. But why add to it rather than let them go?

Then we got to chapter 9 and saw
9v15  - the LORD says I could've used my power to destroy you. 
9v16 - the LORD wants to show his power in the whole world (to lead Rahab to mercy...)
9v17 - the LORD says that the king still doesn't want to let the people go.
And Moses says:
9v30 - you still do not fear the LORD
It would be more expedient to quickly liberate Israel with divine power. There would be less suffering. It would surely be possible. But, the LORD shows mercy, patience and kindness, revelation, opportunity to turn to him for the king - and for the broken spirited Israelites. This king is never going to turn to the LORD for mercy (ditto Sauron, I suppose), will Israel be any wiser?

The magnificience of the Triune God.
The plagues ramp up the revelation - its striking how Israel is preserved in the later plagues while Egypt burns... until we get to the death of the firstborns... and the conclusion of God's gospel proclamation in
4v22-23 Then say to the king, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son. I told you to let my son go so he may worship me. But you refused to let Israel go, so I will kill your firstborn son.’”
This of course is the the LORD whose final gospel word is the provision of The Son to liberate slaves for adoption into his family. Power and force are not how oppressive evil is overcome, the great stories bring justice and life through weakness and patience... most of all the beautiful sacrifice of the obscure, un-eye-catching Jesus who sunk from heaven's throne through the weakness of infancy and further down to the darkness of crucifixion.... unavoidably through death rather than by killing, not by force but to illicit faith.

Image - Creative Commons - Idreamlikecrazy