Wednesday, 6 March 2019

From the mouths of infants ...

A friend of mine told me a wonderful story. He had recently taken his granddaughter (circa 5 yrs old) to a play at a local theatre. With an audience of about 200 the play only had 2 characters - both workmen nearing retirement.

The whole play centred on their dialogue. The pair were out to do a job (repainting a playground), but it was all about their conversation - in which they recounted their life stories spent together right from childhood at school. It was clear that the pair were friends, but the exchange revealed issues and dis-chord that had been present since their school days.

Just when I was thinking 'blimey, that sounds intense, how did your 5 year old cope?' my friend explained how his granddaughter was totally engrossed in the play. One of the characters revealed that the other, Fred, had hurt him when young and that no apology had ever been forthcoming - a revelation that now flummoxed Fred after all this time.

It was at this moment of heightened tension that my friend's granddaughter suddenly stood up in the middle of the audience and called out:
Its okay Fred, its never too late to say sorry!

I'm not sure how the characters recovered and continued the play, nor whether the next line in the dialogue resonated or clashed with this outburst. But to me it demonstrated a wonderful point: that even our young children can boldly inject profound theological truth in the midst of adults.

Psalm 8 verse 2 talks of the power of infants - as adults we really should stop kidding ourselves that we have the monopoly on profound speech and understanding. In fact sometimes we need a young person to say it direct and break through the layers of cruft that adults have accumulated!

Thursday, 17 January 2019


Psalm 133:1 is well known for the words "How good it is when God's people live together in unity". It is indeed good! Yet the fact is it is also hard work, and effort that must be sustained if there is to be fruitful unity in the long haul.

Unity requires more than us just meeting to worship with one another from time to time (though it is of course good to do that!). Unity requires that we make that extra bit of effort to communicate and include. It requires us to share our thoughts and plans with a genuine openness to 'the other'.

It requires us parking to a significant degree that which would be solely our own agenda, our own 'way of doing things'. It requires us to pursue joint operations even when it might seem to be 'just easier' to go it alone. It requires us to suspend our suspicions.

I'm sure many of us know all this. But what we might also forget is that unity requires us to keep on doing the above ... to keep on making that extra bit of effort to communicate more widely and include, for example. On one level this is simply because our regular 'bumping into occasions' are with those we work with, with those in our own organisation. So naturally we share / bounce off / touch base with these people a lot more than we do with those in other organisations. We therefore have to work harder and network more intentionally to overcome the relative deficit.

Our different organisations probably have different top line visions or directions of travel. There is nothing wrong with that, but again it means that on our joint operations we have to work that little bit harder to rehearse the value and reason for our co-operation - it won't come as naturally as within our own organisation.

All this means that we have to keep working the pump, so to speak. An initial well intentioned gathering will be good but will only get us so far. To pursue unity will need more sustained effort, applied and re-applied over and over.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Three Phases of New Initiative Gestation

We can learn by taking a step back and observing some patterns. They can inform us for the future, and hopefully help others. One of the patterns we have seen concerns significant new outreach initiatives.

Good ideas are not necessarily that hard to come by - but waiting on God to see if they are God ideas, and the timing He has for them, is more of an art than a science. Yet in each case some clear phases can be identified.

The first, stemming from a good idea and a desire to pursue it, is the Pray and Research phase. Of course prayer factors all the way through, but there comes a point where you have to gather data, know-how, visit others doing something similar and so on. It helps build a picture of how the idea may become reality, and confidence grows as various 'how would we do that?' questions get at least attempted answers.

The second phase is the Pray and Wait. Eventually enough data is gathered, but God has not given the 'go ahead' yet. The waiting time is indefinite, i.e. as long as it takes! This is where the most spiritual depth is required, because of course any 'keenies' will want to press ahead but rushing will not bring achievement. Learn to 'sit light' with the whole idea - maybe this is not the God idea for your community after all! If it isn't, better to let the Spirit gradually erode it away than force it. Assuming the idea and desire endure, then keep praying ...

The third phase is the sense that it is now 'Green Light'. It may well be through an earthly 'compelling event' that the green light comes - but it will become obvious because God will give it a natural momentum. That which God commissions quickly feels like a freight train - it is not going to stopped easily! There may be rapid growth or just the simple ability to keep going, perhaps against the odds. In either case, of course keep praying!

Of course the third phase generates alot of activity and things can happen quickly ... but don't let yourself become so busy that you are unable to step back a bit, reflect, and start to observe the patterns. Maybe you too will conclude that along the way there have been discernible phases not unlike the above.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Military Language, War and the Gospel

As our 100-year anniversary of the armistice at the end of world war one recedes, and our remembrance activities give way again to everyday activities, it is worthwhile reflecting on the categories of war and war related terminology used in the Christian faith.

People take part in acts of remembrance for many reasons - honouring the endeavours and personal sacrifices made by those in generations before us is one. Ensuring that as a society we remember the harsh reality of physical war and hope that it serves as a lesson to us and our descendants is another. Neither of these is hard-set against the gospel message, though in the light of the gospel hard questions about war naturally arise.

Yet Paul used military-like terminology, claiming we are in a spiritual battle (2 Corinthians 10 verses 3 to 5). He talked of weaponry and armour (Ephesians 6). Yet it is also clear that Paul saw this very much as a spiritual struggle and in no way advocated anything remotely close to the physical (and military) struggles that the people of his own heritage had undertaken (characterised chiefly by the book of Joshua).

Paul experienced push-back and opposition. He saw this in spiritual terms and was not reluctant to describe these in terms of dark forces (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2 verse 18).

We see that Paul wanted advance - but it was gospel advance, not human-force or human-power advance. Yes he wanted to be persuasive and compelling ... but all in the spiritual sense targetting heart, mind and spirit. This means ultimately the advances would be advances of God loving people -  demonstrating Kingdom which would mean setting people free rather than any coerced compliance.

So whilst in society we might rightly remember those fallen in conflicts, and whilst we might usefully use (like Paul) military metaphor or imagery to help awaken us to the importance (and difficulty) of the spiritual task before us, we must not confuse war as generally understood by society with the gospel.

Recently a friend posted this quote by Spurgeon, writing in Victorian times (therefore before the great wars, yet still in a period of various military campaigns and expression of military might):

'The great crime of war can never promote the religion of peace. The battle, and the garment rolled in blood, are not a fitting prelude to 'peace on earth, goodwill to men'. And I do firmly hold, that the slaughter of men, that bayonets, and swords, and guns, have never yet been, and never can be, promoters of the gospel. The gospel will proceed without them, but never through them. "Not by might." Now don't be fooled again, if you hear of the English conquering in China, don't go down on your knees and thank God for it, and say it's such a heavenly thing for the spread of the gospel – it just is not.' (C.H. Spurgeon, in a sermon preached 1857, during the Indian Mutiny.) h.t. Mark Woods

This captures it well for me. Some may believe that physical war or military action becomes necessary in some circumstances (people will differ on this point). Yet as Christ-followers we cannot believe that it will ever rightly bring the gospel of peace.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Cultural Translation

One of the questions that we must keep returning to is this: 'What words and images can we use to effectively communicate the message of Jesus, the cross and the resurrection to today's people?'. Given that culture, language and its idioms constantly change, are we updating ourselves adequately to continue reaching people?

Note that this is not about re-thinking the theology of the cross, about abandoning previous understandings or thirsting for new models of the atonement. It is ensuring that we use words, expressions and forms that speak into people's own worldviews in ways that they can understand, so that their eyes are lifted God-ward in Christ. We don't want our message of the cross to effectively be like Japanese to the English speakers of today or tomorrow!

Thankfully we do not necessarily have to be deeply studied theologians to assist this task - we just need the Spirit to be at work and to take notice. I read yesterday that a young person had had their attention caught by Christ and wrote this to Christian leaders by way of their own thankyou: ".. Jesus was put on the cross for us so we don't have to put the blade to our own skin ...".

Brilliant - straight to the point and right there in the vernacular of current youth culture.

One sad characteristic of current youth culture is surely the number (near epidemic proportions?) of people self-harming, somehow caught up in a belief that harming (typically cutting) oneself will cover mistakes, or feeling of 'bad inside', or senses of loneliness or emptiness - as if the cut(s) will somehow atone for and remove them. Of course, as each person discovers, it is a fleeting feeling and only hours or days later proves to be a hollow relief - those negative feelings return all too quickly.

Somehow in our 'enlightened society' something (spiritual?) has convinced people to turn on themselves. In religious terms it is no better than the primitive behaviour of the prophets of Baal who slashed themselves (see 1 Kings 18) to invoke or please their (false) god.

Yet this young person has realised all this is false and because of Christ is unnecessary. Whatever may make us think we have to turn on ourselves is wrong ... because Jesus has suffered enough already, in our place. Our mistakes: dealt with by Him; our 'bad inside': probably quite real, but in any case dealt with by Him; our loneliness and emptiness: met by Him who has suffered to take and resolve it all.

We do not have to be cut ... because He has been cut for us. No more need for our own blades.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

From Angst towards Kingdom Best

We can all suffer from angst. Any single day in ministry can present us with a shed-load of angst inducing items be they small or large, and worse still these accumulate day on day.

The writer to the Hebrews says we 'do not see everything subject to them' (Hebrews 2 verse 8), i.e. we do not see everything as it should be. Those of us in ministry would want to shout out 'you can say that again - what we see is trouble and obstacle here there and everywhere!'.

Thankfully the same writer bids us to look up. 'But we see Jesus' follows in verse 9. He is crowned with glory in the heavenlies, a place we are invited to. A place where God's purposes find their completion.

So this week, with our list of angst seemingly running at a seasonal high, I hit on a spiritual exercise with my most valued partner in ministry. We decided to list out each angst, and against each one we then expressed what the 'Kingdom Best' might look like relating to that scenario. Some were niggly, e.g. 'that people reply to emails in a timely fashion to enable ministry plans to be well-made', others were bigger - 'that reconciliation might be possible between such and such people'. We then methodically prayed through each one: as we looked to Jesus, risen and glorified, we voiced the Kingdom Best for each scenario, a process that helped us let go of the angst, or at least see it in a new perspective.

Somehow the next day our mountain of angst didn't seem to be quite so large!

Monday, 13 August 2018

Grace Shadows

In Acts chapter 5 things rise to such a point that merely the shadow of Peter has to fall on someone for them to have the possibility of healing (see verse 15). Crowds gathered and pressed in to be part of the action, resembling the times when Jesus moved among the crowds and ministry took place.

An interesting feature of these episodes (both with Jesus and with Peter / the apostles) is that the healing / relief / comfort brought came liberally, seemingly with little head-knowledge interaction or stated belief. And with virtually zero doctrinal formula (except, when Peter did speak, the words 'In the name of Jesus ...').

So where was the repentance on the part of the recipient? Where was their prayer of commitment? In these incidents they seem to be missing.

Instead we see grace simply swiping across people, much as a shadow might swipe over someone as a person passes by. That is enough! God is at work, grace is being marvellously and liberally poured out.

The grace comes first ... things change ... living in a new way (lifestyle changes) hopefully come later (but note it is not guaranteed).

The religious establishment - the guardians of orthodoxy and 'correct' interpretation of scripture - couldn't seem to get their heads round these events. Their reaction was jealousy and (foolish) attempts to curtail.

Foolish because - as we all know - you simply cannot grasp hold of a shadow!