Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Revival and prayer

It seems that major turning points in church history and revival have often been associated with extraordinary times of prayer. We are often exhorted to prayer on that basis. But what is the evidence for this in the Bible? Luke-Acts are famous for their emphasis upon prayer. But until recently, I hadn't noticed how prayer is not just mentioned a lot, but is interwoven into the narrative so that at major turning points prayer is always in the picture.

Here's a list: the coming og John the Baptist (1:13), the birth of Jesus, the temptation, the choosing of the apostles, the sending out of Jesus's followers, prayer before cross, prayer at the cross, Pentecost, the beginning of persecution in Acts 4, the gospel to the Gentiles (Cornelius’s prayer is heard), and the sending out of the missionaries.

It's not just that prayer is mentioned a lot but that the very structure of the story is embedded in prayer. This would seem to indicate that prayer is always associated with every significant work of God. I wouldn't want to say that things happen just because of prayer (God's grace is always prevenient) but that prayer is always 'around' when big things happen! Perhaps we might say that the existence of fervent prayer is itself a demonstration of an extraordinary work of God.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Churches for Justice?

Some quick arguments in favour of churches using resources for social justice in this world.

1. I care about justice for myself and fight for it ergo I should care about justice for those around me.

2. I spend personal money/resources on things that increase my comfort in this world (you may be surprised to know that I don't give all money away to evangelistic outreachs). As far as I know, no one has ever accused me of doing something wrong by doing that. Why is it wrong, then, for us to spend money and resources to increase other people's comfort?

3. Evangelism is the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Judge of the world. How can I not care about justice?!!

4. The gospel invites people into a community of what? Surely, it's, amongst other things, a group of people who are godly enough to love justice.

5. If I do evangelism without seeking justice then I will incur the same condemnation the prophets proclaimed upon Israel.

6. The church is commanded to do many things - they should never be pitted against one another. We don't say "let's only do 8 out of the 10 commandments as our resources are not great at the moment." You try to obey everything with what you've got.

7. Given the proviso of 6., I still think that our resources are always enough to do God's will. God always supplies what is necessary for His people to do good, love Jesus and proclaim the gospel. If we feel that we don't have enough then we shouldn't give up trying to follow the Lord (!) but rather ask Him for resources!Personal experience in church ministry has confirmed for me that God supplies when we try to obey Him.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Creating, Judging, Saving

I've just finished a series of sermons looking at God as Creator, Judge and Saviour -which has been for me very instructive and edifying in re-formulating some biblical theology. If I may, let me share the main things the Lord has been teaching me.

1. Creation and salvation are very intimately connected. God saves by re-creating and his creative work is ultimately saving. The Bible begins with creation and ends with new creation. Christ's life, death and resurrection all have a strong theme of re-creation. And salvation encompasses the whole of me and the whole of the world - it's not a detached 'spiritual thing' that is only about my soul.

2. Judgement is a positive re-ordering of the world, a putting of things to rights and not mainly condemnation (though it includes that). It is about establishing justice, fixing, mending, ordering. Judgement and salvation are very closely linked in that salvation is just and judgement means renewal of the world.

3. God saves us for something, and not just from something. Salvation is not primarily about God letting us off or absorbing punishment (though it includes them), but about the creation of 'shalom' in the world. It is a positive thing and needs to be celebrated! God's goal in salvation is to bring His 'shalom' and glory to the world.

4. I need to think more about Jesus's resurrection as the focal point for all of these things. He is the beginning of a new order which means new creation, judgment and salvation. All the world is moving towards resurrection.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

National Alpha Ad

Alpha has launched the first ever national Christian TV ad. It'll be on E4 during Big Brother in September. It's really good! They know how to communicate. Follow the link below.


Friday, 18 May 2007

Christ as the end of the story

Looking at Col 1:15-20 again this week in Bible study I was again very forcefully struck by Christ as the beginning and end of all things. This means that everything there is finds its suitable end and purpose in Him - every living thing, every element of culture, every story. Christ is the North Pole towards which everything is ultimately being drawn - even when they resist Him. Even in denying Him no-one can escape the fact that Christ is their purpose and goal. He is the end of all things.

So, Christ is always the end of every story, the ultimate answer to the question, the fulfilment of all things. All our aspirations are really about Him. This gives us an important nudge in apologetics. Preaching, proclamation and discipleship should be connecting all our stories with that one end of every story. We need to be seeking to understand how Christ is the Lord over every narrative and every search for meaning. Everything in ourselves, our culture and our world is screaming out for fulfilment in Him. The story may want to deny Him, but it cannot deny Him cos it's His world. This should give us tremendous confidence in speaking to individuals and our culture. Their hopes and dreams and accounts of the world can only find resolution and fulfilment in Christ. One day the reconciliation will be complete and every story and every hope and every search for meaning will find itself in Christ. What a day that will be!

Inclusive church?

I was on the website for Inclusive Church (liberal Anglican pressure group) and I was interested by their vision: "We have a vision of a liberal, open church which is inclusive of all, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. We firmly believe that this vision can and must, be rooted in the scriptures."

How can anyone be against inclusion?! Surely the gospel is the most inclusive and all-embracing force in the world. There are no limits to the grace of God or who He will include in His salvation. I consider myself to be a big recipient of this grace. If the gospel was not amazingly inclusive I would not have been included. So, I can't be less than very happy with a vision of a church that is inclusive of all regardless to race, gender or sexuality. In fact, that seems to me intrinsic to the very definition of church. How on earth could I define it otherwise?!

But as always, the same theological words mean very different things when put into different theological paradigms. The difference is between Inclusive church and inclusive Church. What is primary? A particular ideology of inclusion or ecclesiology? Church is, by definition, exclusive - it consists of those who are "called out" from the world by God's grace. It is, by definition, holy and distinct. Thus, the church is not inclusive of every thing nor every kind of practice or lifestyle. We welcome all but the welcome includes a call (to all of us) to repent. If you want to include without calling to repentance, then you are no longer talking about Church, but a religious club. A 'church' without repentance is not the Church.

The Inclusive church ideology, rather than embracing church, is actually subverting it. It's erasing the boundaries between the church and the world. And to be honest, the world has never been very impressed by a marginal religious group that simply echoes what it is itself already saying.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

He reigns on high

Given that is Ascension day today, what does it mean for me?

1. Life only makes sense if you look at the exalted Jesus.

2. He reigns over my sin

3. He reigns over my death.

4. He reigns over every principality and power that would attack me.

5. He reigns over every problem, every suffering, every persecution I will ever encounter

6. Nothing more can be added to my salvation. He has "sat down."

7. I am where Jesus is: reigning, exalted and victorious. I possess in Him all the glory, honour and life I will ever need.

8. His earthly ministry continues in me by His powerful Spirit.

9. My future is exaltation, glory and praise from my Father.

10. I'm free cos I'm with the King!

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

How the future hope shapes my discipleship

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (Jim Eliot)

Neighbour love and Evangelism

It is not uncommon to hear the idea that the greatest act of love is to tell someone the gospel (I heard it today). Now, I have to confess that I'm really not too sure about this one. I wonder whether the statement is confusing a few different things. I stress that I emphatically believe sharing the gospel is the most important thing we can do. I am simply disputing whether it is necessarily the most loving thing we can do. It is crucial to distinguish between these two things.

Let me try a thought experiment. Joe is a very good friend of mine and he is terribly in debt, so that he will soon go bankrupt and everything of his will be repossessed. I am incredibly wealthy and easily have the capacity to bail him out with no real effect or hassle for myself. Now, if I were to bail him out that, would that be a demonstration of incredible love?

1. It is certainly the thing he most desperately needs and it is certainly the most appropriate and necessary response to his situation.

2. It is a kind and good thing to do.

3. But I think it's hard to argue that it is an act of incredible love. Meeting someone's pressing need is an act of love, but this pacticular action would not be very self-sacrificial. It would not cost me anything. In fact, bailing him out would seem a rather obvious thing that many people would do, given such wealth.

4. Simply bailing him out may not actually be loving at all, as I may have ulterior motives such as manipulating Joe or wanting to look good.

The point is, one would expect the "most loving thing we can do" to involve a high level of self-sacrifice or selflessness. But evangelism may well not involve much sacrifice on my part at all. It may actually be very easy to do. Christian love, though, focuses upon self-sacrifice: after all, the model is the sacrifice of Jesus himself. The example of his love is not his teaching ministry, but his death. He does not demonstrate his love in his telling us the way of salvation, but in his dying for us - "greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Now, of course, evangelism may well be done out of great love and with great cost (as many martyrs awesomely demonstrate), BUT EVANGELISM IS NOT THE SAME AS LOVE. This is demonstrably true in that one can share the gospel without any love whatsoever (Philippians 1:15-18). Evangelism can be done religiously and godlessly. In fact, 1 John 3:16-20 tells us that without certain demonstrations of practical love, then evangelism is useless and hypocritical. The great danger in equating evangelism with "most loving thing I can do" is that I think I will have fulfilled the 2nd commandment by simply telling someone the gospel. Given the above, I can't see how that can be true. If, as a Christian, I love someone I will always tell them the gospel, as that is the most important thing. But love will demonstrate itself in many and varied ways that may call fo rmuch greater personal cost than sharing the gospel.

So, let me suggest that love is not the same as evangelism, rather its role is to motivate it and shape it, as it is every area of the Christian life. Love will demonstrate itself in lots of concrete ways, but will always involve a self-sacrificial lifestyle modelled on the Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Light of the World

Looking at John 9:1-7 the last few days (Jesus healing the blind man) I was struck by the paradigm of new creation running through the whole account. The language of light, day, work and the use of mud all echo the creation accounts. Here we have a new week of creation in Jesus. Light is breaking out in our spiritual eclipse, a new day of creation has started, God is working for our salvation/new creation and we are being re-shaped 'from the earth'. All this is centred in Jesus - the herald of a new world.

How do we get it? The blind beggar cannot see Jesus. Jesus even seems to make his condition worse by putting mud on already blind eyes! And, further, He gets the poor guy to take a trip all the way down to the pool of Siloam. Why doesn't Jesus just zap the man? The beggar is forced to obey Jesus's words in the dark with mud on blind eyes - yet he does it. And he gains sight. And light. We need to do the same: 1. trust that He is the light of the world in our darkness 2. obey His words in the middle of our darkness 3. and do it even when it seems He's put mud on our eyes.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Spurgeon on grace

As always, a great story from Spurgeon's book "All of Grace", and a great example of grace-filled preaching.

" I HEARD A STORY; I think it came from the North Country: A minister called upon a poor woman, intending to give her help; for he knew that she was very poor. With his money in his hand, he knocked at the door; but she did not answer. He concluded she was not at home, and went his way. A little after he met her at the church, and told her that he had remembered her need: "I called at your house, and knocked several times, and I suppose you were not at home, for I had no answer." "At what hour did you call, sir?" "It was about noon." "Oh, dear," she said, "I heard you, sir, and I am so sorry I did not answer; but I thought it was the man calling for the rent." Many a poor woman knows what this meant.

Now, it is my desire to be heard, and therefore I want to say that I am not calling for the rent; indeed, it is not the object of this book to ask anything of you, but to tell you that salvation is ALL OF GRACE, which means, free, gratis, for nothing."

Psalm 32

A few quick thoughts on the amazing Psalm 32. It is a wonderful overview of salvation by grace alone. God does it all from start to finish:

1. I don't get blessed by being really good but by being sovereignly and wonderfully forgiven (v.1-2).

2. I don't cover my sin, but the LORD covers it (v.1). In fact, blessedness is conditional on me not covering my sin (v.5)!

3. I am vulnerable and insecure, but the LORD sets me on a high place away from the waters of judgment (v.6-7).

4. I am a fool and disobedient but the LORD makes himself my Pastor and Instructor (v.8) and surrounds me with covenant love (v.10).

The LORD does everything for my salvation! My job is simply to confess my sin.....

God-centred Economics

After hearing a great talk on money last night, I was stirred to write down something I've been learning about money recently.

Surely, what we need when it comes to money is not more exhortation, but a transformation of our worldview. We need a revival at the heart of our collective and personal economics so that the whole way we look at finance has the LORD at the centre. In reading through Exodus, I've been very struck by how the whole economy of Israel is centred around the LORD. The Sabbath, Jubilee regulations, gifts to the tabernacle, sacrifices and festivals are all profoundly economic. They all involve a new orientation of Israel's economy towards worship and justice. The economics of Israel is deeply God-centred and structurally acknowledges the LORD as the Giver of all things and the End of all things. The LORD is the Alpha and Omega of money as well as everything else.

The whole basis of this economy is grace. The LORD has provided Israel with everything and so Israel joyfully gives their tithe back to the LORD. I thought of an analogy here. Imagine you become unemployed and have no means of income, and then a very rich businessman comes along and makes you an offer. He says that you can run his business and live off what you make. You can make as much (honest and just) money as you want - the only thing he asks for is 10% of the profits. You can keep the rest of what you make. That would be, frankly, an incredible offer. But that is what the LORD does for Israel (and us). All that we have is from Him and provided by Him - we just give back 10%. I think that leads to a very different attitude to money and economics. On the one hand we are profoundly grateful for the 'rich businessman's' generosity, and, on the the other hand, we think that 10% of the profits is nothing (we will probably want to give even more out of sheer joy!). All this is about seeing that there is, in one sense, no private property in the kingdom of God. The land of Israel is always the LORD's and only on loan to the people to farm it and use it. It still belongs to the LORD. Whether it's wealth or talents or ability or intelligence or skills, everything we have is on loan from the 'very rich businessman.' If I decided to keep the 10% for myself, it would seems a reprehensible act given the grace that has been given to me.

To conclude, my lack of giving is not just about a lack of generosity in my character, but about a problem in my worldview. It reveals that my personal economy is not centred on the LORD i.e. it is idolatrous and is basically being run by a false god. I've forgotten the rich businessman who owns the business.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Jonathan Edwards on true humility

Edwards in the Religious Affections discusses what he calls the difference between 'Evangelical' and counterfeit humility.

He argues that legal humiliation brings despair, but the self is not truly bowed, nor subdued. There is no real humility or mortification in the heart (i.e. the wicked at the judgement will see their sin but will have no motification in their heart)
On the other hand, evangelical humility sees the odiousness of sin itself, it exalts God alone, it involves emptying oneself and entails denial of the world.

Real humility is the one thing hypocrites fail in. Edwards warns us to beware expressions of humility that do not bring broken heart! “There are many full of expressions of their own vileness, who yet expect to be looked upon as eminent and bright saints by others as their due..” He comments that there are ‘Christians’ who will say that they are sinful, but if you actually rebuke them and tell them so they are very hurt.

Edwards says that we are often most proud when we think we are most humble. So amidst outward displays of humility, one actually thinks highly of one's own attainments in religion as compared to others. The secret language of the heart says “I am an eminent saint.” For such people, it is natural that they are masters in matters of religion. They think they have great experiences and are proud about them.

But true holiness means that I esteem others better than myself. This brings a serene inward disposition. Such a person does not think it natural to take the part of a teacher – they think others should do it. They are more eager to hear than to instruct, They do not speak with a masterly, bold air but they speak with trembling. They do not assume authority, but subject themselves to others. They see their own sin.

True experience of God is always broken-hearted joy.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Popular Culture = evil?

Is popular culture bad? I'm not so sure myself. It seems to me that some of the critiques of popular culture by Christians simply echo high culture snobbery. Is it really better to have 'good ideas' when they are just as fallen as EastEnder's dialogue? I'm not so sure that Dostoyevsky brings us any closer to Christ than Agatha Christie.... I wonder as well whether a lot of 'popular culture' is actually far more sophisticated and democratic than much 'high' culture. See here for an interesting critique (which I don't quite buy) of popular culture by an American Christian thinker. Any takers for a debate on this?

Leadership Thoughts Pt 3

What is leadership? It seems that really it is all about influence. A leader is someone who de facto has influence of some kind. A leader is trying to influence things in a certain direction. But the big question for Christian leaders is: how am I to influence? John Piper has a great definition of leadership: it's about getting God's people to God's goals in God's way. I stress this last bit because I think it's very tempting for Christian leaders to veer towards a "goal-justifies-the-means" way of thinking, mainly because the goals are so laudable. The end is so great that it's easy to forget that the path to it is just as important. It's very easy to start 'cutting ethical corners' with people, relying upon charm, half-truths, guilt and manipulation to get people to God's goals. If people do what you want don't want them to do (which is actually a pretty frequent experience in Christian ministry), you can be left a bit high and dry. So, it's easy to try to use a wrong kind of leverage in order to get your way. In other work contexts people are employed and have to do what the leader tells them to do, in the church it's all voluntary and you just don't have those normal means of coercion other leaders have. So, Christian ministry is a really bad place for insecure people because your position is always radically insecure. And, if your focus is not on getting people to God's goals in God's way, your insecurities can make you a really manipulative and unpleasant leader - in spite of the fact that you are also a Christian!

Friday, 4 May 2007

Leadership Thoughts Pt 2

It seems to me that one of the key roles of a church leader is to inculcate Biblical values in those he leads. In other words, a major job of church leadership is to engender a certain kind of (godly) culture. It is the leader's job to reinforce that culture at every point through his speaking, his behaviour and through the way things are organized. The creation of a culture, though, is quite different from simply having an 'official line' on something. A culture is what people actually do and say, rather than what they officially 'should' do and say. Culture is the real set of values that people have, and not the theoretical one.

Now, the issue here is that any church culture is created by a whole number of implicit, unconscious messages as well as by overt ones. What I don't say, or what I imply, is actually just as important in shaping the church culture as what I do say (when was the last time I took a close look at what I don't say?!!). So, for example, I may well 'officially' believe in the gospel of justification, but actually in my manner and style of preaching communicate legalism. Thus, we end up with church which 'officially' believes the gospel but actually lives out a sub-gospel. This is very hard to see because my official beliefs deceive me to the reality of the situation. Or, the way the church community is organized and the atmosphere of our meetings may well inhibit evangelism and promote other values - all the while I talk about how important evangelism is. I'm saying one thing but the whole community structure and atmosphere is saying something else. If a leader is to really inculcate values and change a culture then he has to work at this level and not simply make grand statements or produce vision documents. It is here that communities are changed, or not. It seems to me that it is the leader's job to notice and take hold of these things.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Leadership Thoughts

It's striking that the pastoral epistles mention that one of the qualities to look for in a (church) leader is good management of one's own family. It seems that there is a strong connection between how a leader 'performs' at home and how he 'performs' in church. It makes, when you think about it, a great deal of sense. Who I am at home is really who I am. It's not easy to wear a mask in my own house and with those who are closest to me. They see right through it. Pretense and 'ministerial airs' are not really sustainable with those closest to me and are quickly broken down. So, the way I relate and love my family says loads about my real character and maturity. I can suppress and paper over frustrations in 'public church settings', and so appear more godly than I am. I don't do that in our 'home church setting' as easily! This isn't just an issue of hypocrisy vs. authenticity though. The patterns at home are bound to surface in my ministry. If I'm controlling, brash or cowardly at home you can bet I'll be like that at church. If I can't love my wife/kids then there's also many others who I won't be loving. Leaders' family life and relational patterns echo all the way through their ministry. There's a saying that "no man is a hero to his valet"... and it just strikes me that if my family doesn't see any spiritual heroism in me (however mixed with sin) then I jolly well can't lead others towards it. Perhaps someone should be talking to leaders' families about what they make of us who lead.....

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

What's wrong with a bit of pot?

I was asked this question a number of years ago by a Christian girl I'd known on camp. Everyone around her was smoking it and she was just confused about what the problem was. She kind of felt that she as a Christian shouldn't, was tempted, and couldn't come up with loads of good reasons not to. And it got me thinking really: what is having a joint all about? I've met this issue a number of times subsequently in various forms, including having a guy high as a kite in Bible study (not to be recommended). By the way, it's funny that we don't really talk about drugs (apart from alcohol) more when actually everyone around us is doing them. I guess it's cos we don't meet (more illegal) drugs that much in our little subcultures. Perhaps we need to get out more?

Now, it seems that drug-taking can have a whole range of motivations and contexts:

1. It can be a kind of secular spirituality i.e. a seeking after transcendence and meaning.

2. It can be self-medication, alleviation from pain and escape from trauma.

3. It can be about the appeasing of withdrawal symptoms once dependent.

4. It can be about pushing boundaries and experimentation.

But the key thing in all of these motivations (apart from nr. 3) is that experience is the answer. Drugs are about pure experience - reality, truth, morality, hope, relationships etc are all transcended or relativized (temporarily). Experience is everything. Drugs are, in a sense, the logical end of the postmodernism preoccupation with experience. It's interesting that the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault was a massive experimenter in all kinds of drugs.

Compare two modern dystopias. Orwell's 1984 envisaged a society controlled by a Stalinist state of Big Brother, but Aldous Huxley in Brave New World envisaged a society controlled by drug-induced pleasure where truth and art have been removed. Which one is is more like us?! Drugs are just everywhere and really are one of the icons of our age. Inner cities are obviously blighted by drugs, but the issue is just as big among City professionals. The point is: any culture giving itself over to drug-induced experiences (and I'm including alcohol here) has got a major problem. This is not just because of physical addiction, violence and crime, but because such a society can no longer be truly free. It has abdicated freedom and truth for 'happiness'. I reckon we're moving more and more towards this - experience itself as the means of transcending the limitations and dissatisfactions of our lives.

"What's wrong with a bit of pot?" One answer is: the only real way to gain transcendence without making myself a slave is with Christ. Pot will always enslave me inside my own head. It not forgive me my sin, nor will it give me eternal life.