Saturday, 24 December 2011

The making of a King

This year has seen the toppling (or passing away) of several national rulers. In a number of cases the ruler lived in opulence whilst the common people generally struggled to make a living.

Scripture is full of injunctions against this kind of thing, with a number of them in the book of Jeremiah. Chapter 22 verse 13 is clear enough: "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice ...". But I think v15 says it most profoundly:

Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?

On Christmas Day we celebrate the birth of a true King. Not a cedar panel in sight, nor any gold plated taps or grand marble halls. In fact no proper lodging at all, effectively ranked along with the animals just below 'peasant status' in the world's eyes. Yet it is a true King indeed, one whose reign will be characterised by righteousness and justice.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Life doesn't seem fair

So the North Korean leader has passed away. Time will tell what line his son takes. Maybe at last things might improve for the citizens of this impoverished nation?

I often wonder why certain leaders seem to be allowed to survive for so long. Mugabe is now a very old man, and yet he still maintains a tight grip on power with prolonged negative consequences for the people. Why does God allow this?

Jeremiah effectively asks a similar question in chapter 12 - 'why does the way of the wicked prosper?' (v1). People go on doing wrong, and even believe God can't see them (v4). Its not right.

God seems elusive in His answer, but v5 tells Jeremiah that he has to be prepared to tough it out over the long haul and in the face of even bigger problems. In Jeremiah's day God was acting, but in ways that operated at levels hard for Jeremiah to comprehend (which v6 forwards allude to).

Life doesn't seem fair here on the ground, but God is on the move at 'macro-levels' beyond our understanding. The writings of Jeremiah is one example of this - it should inspire us believe that it is also true today as we watch world politics take its twists and turns.

Monday, 12 December 2011

We become what we worship

I've often read Isaiah 6:9,10 '... they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears ...' and the gospel references to it (e.g. Mark 4) and thought "that's not fair! If they could see or hear, they might turn and be forgiven. Why not let them see or hear?".

Yet I have been missing a key principle. Psalm 135:15-18 talks of the people worshipping idols - idols cast from silver or gold. Motionless statutes. They may be well fashioned, carefully crafted eyes and clearly recognisable ears. But of course the object cannot hear, nor see - it is merely a human-made object. Why on earth would anyone worship a mere thing ... but that is exactly what the people do.

V18 then says 'those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them'. And there is the rub - the simple fact is we become what we worship. If we worship blind & deaf statutes, we become blind & deaf ourselves. If we worship money, our lives will reflect this. If we worship stuck-in-the-mud tradition, then we will surely become stuck in the mud too.

Be careful what you make your god - you may end up being just like it. Unrecognisable compared with the true and living God, and unable to recognise the true and living God.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Turn that light on

Bible passages un-ashamedly use the theme of light and darkness in various places. One of the classic Christmas readings, John 1, talks of Jesus bringing life which is the 'light of all people', and a 'true light that gives light to everything'. Many cultures, and indeed other religions, similarly use the concept of light.

For Christians the whole light business continues beyond its focal point of Jesus. For example in Ephesians 5 the believers are told they are 'light in the world'. In other words they are not just to look to the light, but to be light themselves. Their life, their actions, are tightly linked to the real deal, Jesus himself.

Now in this regard most of us may feel no better than a second rate low energy light bulb, but this Ephesians passage tells us that God's plan for continuing to illuminate the world involves us as light bearers. Check out v13: 'everything that is illuminated becomes a light'.

How we live is vitally important (hence v9-11 and v15f) since how we live equates to our 'luminance', so to speak. The great words of John 1 continue to be a reality in the contemporary world through current day believers ability to shine.

So Christians - turn that light on!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Timing is Everything

I often think that the most frustrating thing for the Son of God to be limited in a human body must be the fact that he now had to follow the passage of time just like the rest of us. Compared with being outside time, the Alpha & Omega, this must have seriously cramped his style!

Yet Jesus apparently embraced the limitation. In Jn 7 his brothers urge him to seize the moment and get on up to Jerusalem (and presumably get the whole Messiah thing really rocking). Yet Jesus was content with waiting: 'My time has not yet come ...', he replies (v6).

He is quite right in what he says next. For us 'any time will do' - impatient, not content with waiting, want it all  now, on tap, instantaneous. We who have known and only known time all along can't seem to cope with it. Jesus, coming into this limited sphere, seems quite content with it.

Furthermore this is the pinnacle of the mission of God we are talking about here - the whole creation groaning and waiting for the precious redemption to be made possible by Jesus. And yet Jesus is quietly waiting: it isn't time just yet. We want the immediate outcome, but for Him it is a matter of timing.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Prayer Making Way for Trust

Psalm 52:8 says 'I will trust in God's unfailing love for ever'. We want to be trusting God, we want our trust to endure, we want it to survive thick & thin.

Yet I wonder how often we forget that to actually put trust into practice can mean stepping back, chilling, letting God take over. The story of Peter's miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12 is a great story and brings much encouragement. But it also illustrates (in a somewhat humorous way) how we need to pray earnestly, and then step back to let God be God and do His thing.

The church are full of desire, energy, and demonstrate great zeal as they pursue their prayer meeting into the night - undoubtedly seeking God with all their might for Peter's safekeeping. Look how in their zeal they fail to recognise how God has acted (v15)!

Nothing wrong with their earnest prayers, nothing wrong with their zeal, after all did not Jesus teach that we should pray and pray and not give up (Luke 18)? But at some point these prayers must make way for trust - resting in God and leaving it to Him. At that point there is little more we can do, God must take over. We must quietly await.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Glimpse the Big Picture

Every now and again you need a fresh glimpse at the Big Picture, a lofty sense of what God will achieve in the fullness of His time. Most of our days we have to deal with the stuff of life, and it is not always pretty. There are setbacks, frustrations, tiredness - enough to make you wonder if there was ever a way through.

Yet a passage like Isaiah 51, especially v1-8, is one of those 'look up' passages. God is on the move, he is dependable, he is trustworthy. Just as he worked with the forefathers, God is working still in ways that can transform even the darkest of situations.

Such activity is not just limited to a small locality, but has ever widening scope (v4 and 5). Yet don't just expect things at ground level, look up! V6 says things are happening above and beyond what we can normally expect to see.

Lets face it, our planet is subject to decay, things wear out. But God's saving work has no sell-by date, no point beyond which it is of no use. Allow eternity to factor into your thinking.

Yes I'm afraid there are times when things do look pretty dire - but in each generation God is in the salvation business. That we can be sure of. Allow yourselves a fresh glimpse of the Big Picture.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Celebrate Your Local Food

Yesterday was a good day in the centre of Ely, since it was 'Ely Apple Day'. With people coming together on the cathedral lawn, all kinds of apple produce available, and fun & games as well, it was a good time.

With so much food transported across the country and across the world, we have forgotten our dependence on God's provision that once upon a time used to be virtually all locally based. Our assumption in the West is that food supply is ubiquitous and continuous.

Of course live in other countries, like the Sudan right now, and you will have a completely different view. We do our global neighbours a complete dis-service if we go on behaving as if there was no problem with food distribution.

Today is
I am proud to take part in Blog Action Day Oct 16, 2011 
Blog Action Day, with the topic of food. As we talk about food, we would do well to remember where it comes from, celebrate the food we can produce locally, and remember that distribution is not always uniform across our diverse planet.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Live Well with Less

Sainsbury's new marketing slogan is 'Live well for less', hoping to help us shop wisely and make economies and yet still be able to enjoy some of the finer things in life.

Its a good sentiment - we should be able to make savings and live on a tighter budget, and yet still have some good things at least from time to time. Yet ultimately they would still want us to go on consuming at an ever increasing rate.

Isaiah 58 talks about true fasting, with the heart of the issue being how we treat other people. If we temporarily deny ourselves and yet don't do anything about injustices that rage across the world, we are not really fasting at all and thus should not be surprised if God does not hear us.

Maybe a better slogan for us to adopt is 'Live well with less'. For a start we cannot expect everyone to come up to the current Western standard of living - the world simply does not have the resources. So for there to be global justice we must learn to live with less. Indeed in some areas we need to go without, in other words a kind of fast, especially when our patterns of consumption may hold others in poverty.

In fact the slogan may then even be better reversed. By us choosing a lifestyle 'with less' may in fact enable others to 'live well' perhaps for the first time.

Friday, 7 October 2011

God doesn't need to play catch up

Typically we decide on an initiative for witness, something we as a church will do for God, and then mobilise in two directions: one is the resources/organisation to make it happen, and the second is in prayer. If we are not careful we are implicitly saying to God "Here's our plan, will you please bless it ...". Through our prayers we spell out to God our plans, and look to Him to resource it, make it work, even magnify it beyond our original estimates.

All this operates in a mode where we kind of expect God to 'catch up' with our idea. Yet the reality is that God is probably miles ahead of us. It's us who need to play 'catch up'.

In Acts 10 Peter finds himself going to evangelise in the home of a Gentile - something that 24hrs earlier he wouldn't have considered an option. He didn't suddenly think "lets increase our witness, and start finding some Gentiles who will hear us". No! The Spirit had to shake him out of his siesta! It was the Spirit's action that opened the whole ministry to the Gentiles.

Lets get real. God doesn't need to play catch up with our plans; we need to catch up with where the Spirit is leading us, often out into areas which previously were simply not on our map.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Faithful Science

At a recent seminar looking at the question of faith & science, three questions were posed:
  1. Does evolution pose an unassailable problem against scripture?
  2. Is evolution all clear-cut?
  3. Does evolution negate God?

The answers to these is surely 'No! No! No!'.Christians need not fear evolution as a theory - partly because it is just a theory rather than any proven (or provable) explanation.

Scripture tells us that God created, evolution suggests a mechanism within that creation. If you are prepared to allow for God to work through physical/natural mechanisms (as indeed He surely does every day), then theoretically He can work through evolution.It is always good to take stock from time to time.

Evolution still leaves questions unanswered, still has big holes in its portfolio of supporting evidence, and has not been demonstrated in a laboratory (for the species 'jumps' the theory proposes). So although many biologists accept the theory as 'the best explanation', it currently only stands as 'the best explanation' and nothing more.

Finally it only really speaks into just one subset of the overall cosmic riddle, leaving the big question of how 'biotic life' got started in the first place. Some would say that the kick-start to such life was a huge 'grant of luck' - hardly an argument that negates God. So evolution can remain as a theory, and maybe even improved upon or amass better supporting evidence, but rest assured the eternal God won't be going away any time soon (or ever for that matter)!

Friday, 30 September 2011

Geo-political God

If you take the Old Testament seriously you have to accept that there are times when God is actively geo-political. Isaiah 21 verses 1 to 10 is just one of several examples. Through various events a great and proud nation (in this case Babylon) will fall. To those depending on Babylon for help, this is bad news. To those oppressed by her, it is the opposite!

Just like the vision Daniel saw, the prospect is fearful and troublesome - a 'dire vision'. A great and prosperous nation, with people happily eating and drinking, will be brought low. The seemingly unshakeable will be dusted down to its very foundations.

What troubles me is that I sense alot of pride in western leaders these days. They are now at least saying that economically we are all in big trouble ... but they still insist their next bailout plan will save the day. When America's credit rating was downgraded Obama had the audacity to say that his country would always have a AAA rating. Well I hope he is right, but how can he make such a golden prediction?

Could it be that our great and prosperous nations are now in line for some shaking down? That would indeed by quite troublesome, that most would perceive as a 'dire vision'.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Time Warp

Our understanding of time is typically very warped. Every moment kept in lock step with everyone else and accounted for - tick, tick, tick.

On the face of it today was a waste of time. Drove for an hour to gather with other ministers to pray, couldn't find where we were supposed to meet and so arrived eventually over half an hour late. When we got there we found the meeting had been cancelled anyway - a wasted trip.

So my wife and I stopped for a coffee and then went to a nearby public gardens that the kind church receptionist pointed us towards. There we found our 'wasted time' was a gift - a chance to catch up on things we hadn't previously had time to say, to pray together, and chill.

Having been there half an hour some bloke came over and randomly started to speak to us. The conversation was a bit chaotic, but very soon him and his mate discovered we were Christians and started confessing that they had made a mess of their lives to date. With both now fighting alcohol addiction they were struggling to make sense of life and welcomed the prospect of us praying for them.

Pray we did, with one of the guys now moved to tears. We shared some more about God's love and the prospect of forgiveness and getting things back in order. After giving them a few tips, and pointing them towards the church we had visited the conversation came to an end. They were much encouraged, and so were we.

Curiously last Sunday I had challenged the congregation to 'make space' and allow for potential God-appointed moments. Our 'wasted trip' turned out to be precisely one of those times.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Encounters with Purpose

The stories recorded in Acts are a good place to look for examples of God encountering different people in a variety of ways. For starters there are the blinding lights that threw Saul to the ground (Acts 9), and elsewhere there is the conversation between two travellers journeying on a desert road (Acts 8). Through this term we will look at a number of these stories to see different aspects of God meeting with people.

Yet note that even in these two stories we already see that the encounter with God does more than just affect the individual at the time. These encounters are both life changing and life forming experiences. The persons are never the same again, and things take a new turn as a result of the encounter.

In short, God meets with people for a purpose. With Saul we of course know that he was turned from persecutor to apostle. With Philip and the Ethiopian the wider significance is perhaps less obvious, but no less real. The Ethiopian was brought fully into God's salvation family, and Philip is affirmed as an evangelist travelling in his own right. It is a fair assumption that both went on to spread the good news still further.

As such these encounter-stories move on the bigger story of God's saving purposes for the whole world. I pray that we all have encounters with God, where God meets with us in a tangible and special way. But I pray that they are encounters with a purpose, and not just an experience in and of themselves. God is more than a cuddly teddy bear: He has plans for the world and meets with us (with tenderness and care) to bring us on board with His greater purpose.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Compelled by Love

A book I can massively recommend is 'Compelled by Love' by Heidi Baker of the remarkable Irsis Ministries. Her message is simple - lose everything in love for Jesus, and pour out that same love to others.

Possessions, status, recognition all count for nothing in her book, all that counts is the possibility of loving God and neighbour. The stories of God at work in remarkable ways pour off the pages, but with no fanfare - simply a desire to see Jesus and see others meet him.

I love the story of the trainee pastor who failed the Bible school they organise: she was sent out anyway to minister in His Name. Not long afterwards she saw people raised from the dead in the villages where she worked. Now I knew I should have failed my own college training ...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Work with what you've got

So you are all fired up and ready to get radical with the gospel message. What do you do?

Well you could start by doing what Jesus did, and working with the existing structures. Luke 4 verse 15f has Jesus teaching in the synagogues, making the most of what people are already used to. His message and application of scripture are outside normal expectations, but he brings them through the regular meeting.

Again in 5:12-14 with the healing of the leper, Jesus orders the man to do the appropriate thing and show himself to the priest, offering the prescribed sacrifices. Jesus could have so easily skipped that part and sent the man merrily on his way, yet he seems to have a respect for the existing order.

All this is consistent with God's incarnational approach: God works within the created order to reveal Himself and His ways. God steps into our world (in the form of Jesus), and Jesus works within our structures and systems to achieve His purposes. In short He chooses to work with what he's got.

So when you are ready to get radical and be out there, which is all good, consider how you might first start by working with what you've got, rather than assuming you have to start everything up from zilch.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Bad things happen

So why do bad things happen to good people? An age old question, which some people unfortunately can never get past.

Check out psalm 41. It says those who look out for the weak are blessed, they get the Lord's protection and preservation. And so they should - they are good people.

Yet could it be that these very same people, the blessed ones, the good ones who look out for the needs of those less fortunate than themselves, get sick (v3)? Is the 'them' here the ones looking after the poor, or the actual poor?

If the former (the carers), then how can that be? Since they are so blessed, why doesn't God ensure they are always in good health?

In v4 we have one crying for mercy, for healing. We don't know what the sickness was, but v8 describes it as 'vile' and presumably life-threatening. Not good!

I have often read stories of previous pioneer missionaries and how so often they got terribly sick (in some cases even dying of their ailments) and pondered this point - not realising the psalmist had beaten me to it.

Clearly being on God's side and taking part in His mission doesn't immunise us from whats up in the world, sicknesses included.  We are not talking a ticket to an easy life here, but one that can endure the full scoop of suffering in all its forms. It need not be a sign of God's displeasure (v11), in fact in some cases it may get so bad that it is only the integrity of your relationship with God that you have left (v12-13).

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Overcome evil with good

Amongst the gloom and doom of the spread of riots, I love these reports epitomised by this hastily put up website.

Evil can triumph by the perpetrators of it pushing ahead with their behaviour, but also by the good standing by and doing nothing. These reports however show the good subverting the bad, using the same technology (twitter, facebook etc.) to organise at the grassroots level, to get out there and make a positive difference.

Christians or otherwise, these people are putting into practice Rom 12:21 - overcome evil with good.

Politicians, commentators and the general public will doubtless look to the institutions for answers, but deep down we all have a choice to make. Do we assume it is someone else's problem, or are we aware of our own personal calling to subvert darkness with light, to overcome evil with good.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The Way of Love

If you have attended a wedding this summer, chances are you have heard 1 Corinthians 13. Yet look back just one verse and change the punctuation and the real context of the passage is not romantic love between a couple at all:

Now eagerly desire the greater gifts and yet I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak ...

I'm not against those classic wedding sermons, but lets not forget the real point of Paul here is how we use the Spirit given gifts - how we operate in service to each other and the world. We can serve in all kinds of whacky and wonderful ways, but without love they are of little use.

The most excellent way is gifts-with-love, not gifts-lacking-in-love. So use of gifts cannot be about yielding power or bringing to bear. Instead they are to come with patience and kindness, with no place for envy/boasting/pride/dis-honouring/self-seeking or being easily angered.

Such a way of love will persist into eternity. The gifts right now are valid, they have their time and place, but the under-current of love will go on and on as with the eternal nature of God.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Keep Your Eschatological Perspective

A common theme in both of Pete's letters is his 'eschatological perspective', i.e. his understanding of what is going on now in relation to the 'end times', when God brings everything to its proper conclusion. Phrases like 'ready to be revealed in the last time' (1 Peter 1:5) is just one of many examples of what I mean.

With such a perspective Peter calls on the members of the churches to be holy, to live godly lives, to endure sufferings, and to be prepared to talk about their hope. Peter is clear that we have a responsibility in the 'now', and that we should take that responsibility seriously because it prepares both us and the world for the eventual conclusion of all things.

2 Peter 3:3 onwards tells us that we need to keep a certain mindset, a frame of reference, in how we understand these things. Simply focussing on the 'now' together with recent history is not sufficient - it is a blinkered view. Rather we need to keep in mind the bigger picture of God's purposes - that we are working towards a proper conclusion intended by God.

Such a big picture mindset is both firmly grounded in the reality of today (not just pie in the sky thinking), but is also eagerly looking forward and awaiting the greater reality of God's purposes. Its a perspective we need to constantly keep in mind.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Mark the beginning

If you stick with the earliest manuscripts for Mark's gospel then the end is very abrupt - chapter 16 verse 8 leaves us with trembling and afraid women too scared to talk to anyone. Even with Mark's fast paced style, this hardly seems a fitting ending to the so-called 'greatest story every told'.

Incomplete though it may be, there is something appropriate about it. Mark started back in chapter one verse one with the phrase 'The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah'. Now in chapter 16, Jesus has been born, has lived, died and risen again. The instructions in verse 7 are to gather the followers in Galilee, i.e. reconvene where we had left off, a place of mission and God's saving activity (just as in chapter one and onwards).

In other words 'the mission continues ...', and thus so will the good news that started in 1:1. To put in a nicely rounded ending to the book might actually miss this crucial point!

And what of the bewildered women? Well the death and resurrection massively shifted things up a gear in the scheme of God's purposes. Thats alot for anyone to take on board, and could rightly leave even the best of us speechless. The assumption is, however, that going forward we will not remain silent but instead play our part in the continuing mission, adding new chapters to the story that Mark began to document.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Where did all the blokes go?

Have you ever noticed how the men seem to disappear into the background through the crucifixion and resurrection in Mark's account? If you stick with the earliest manuscripts (and thus omit 16:9-20) the apostles are not on the scene at all. Joseph of Arimathea comes into the frame with a bold move, but apart from that it is now the women who make all the running.

They are there at the cross, seeing things through to the bitter end. They watch to see where the body is laid to rest. Furthermore they then return to ensure a fitting burial (with all the trimmings) after the pre-Sabbath rush-job. Even with practical details yet to be sorted (a stone to be rolled out the way), they set out anyway.

Where were all the men?

Even allowing the longer ending, the men exhibit unbelief on two occasions and have to be rebuked for it.

At such a crucial phase of the overall mission, it seems to be the women Christ-followers who stayed with the action. It seems to me that in fact they were the ones who were leading the way.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Satisfying the Crowd

Pilate released Barabbas and handed Jesus over to be crucified in order to 'satisfy the crowd' (Mark 15:15). The mob ruled, a great injustice was done, Pilate proved to be spineless.

The unfolding of the newspaper scandal over the past few days (weeks, years ...) has brought about a sense of public revulsion. Dodgy/illegal practices have been exposed, and as each new revelation comes to light the problem is understood to have run very deep.

Yet I would imagine that at the time many of the journalists and possibly executive staff who were involved believed that they were simply satisfying the crowd. The News of the World was clearly successful, outstripping its rivals by far, largely because of its history of scoops and exposures. The public had an appetite for this kind of stuff.

That does not excuse their practices though. They went beyond what was right and cultivated a murky world. Rather than showing moral leadership for the country, they became corrupt in themselves.

Being in any position of influence, leadership or authority requires good character, being beyond reproach. We see that in expectations of leaders in the Old Testament, as well as the stated requirements for leaders in the New. It requires people in those positions to 'do the right thing' and not simply to 'satisfy the crowd'.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Say it Like it Is

Sometimes you may wonder why you didn't keep your big mouth shut. And yet other times you are absolutely right to say it how it is.

Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:53-65) seems to stay pretty quiet while a string of half-baked accusations are played out. The various statements and testimonies did not agree, so the trial was going nowhere. All Jesus had to do was remain quiet.

Yet in v62 he chooses to answer. Not just with an 'I am' (which in reality probably did not amount to that much since most likely various people had claimed to be the messiah over the years) but with an appropriation of the prophecy of Daniel 7 (see verse 13-14).

Man oh man. Why did he have to say that? Why didn't he just keep quiet a bit more? Associating with Daniel 7 equated him with God-like status that went beyond being another messiah-pretender. Torn robes and condemnation were the sure result. Jesus just certified himself as one worthy only of crucifixion.

And yet in v66f Peter in effect also keeps quiet. He doesn't say it how it is.

One man pursues his calling and purpose. Another is left in tears.

Thursday, 7 July 2011


For most of us, life presents us with plenty of choice and all kinds of possibilities. Choice, choice, choice. Just go to the supermarket to buy some loo roll - and see how much choice you have! Will you go for the soft option?

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane also had choice and saw alternative possibilities. In Mark 14:36 he says 'Father everything is possible for you ...'. Everything is possible, indeed with faith as small as a mustard seed things can be sooooo different.

Yet Jesus also understood that in God's purposes there is 'a way', in this case one particular way. To have faith in God was not to stand back at a vast array of inviting options and say 'I'll take that one please ...', but rather to deliberately go the one way, which in this case was nothing like the soft option.

Is that 'big' faith or a particular kind or quality of faith? A faith in God and His ways; His ways that choose a path through all the myriad possibilities that leads truly to a better future.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Clear out the dead wood

An aspect of Jesus' ministry that we seem reluctant to apply to our own setting is how Jesus seemed intent in identifying and clearing out the dead wood. Like many I am bemused by the fig tree business (e.g. Mark 11:12-14, 20-21), but I am increasingly convinced that it is symbolic of the unfruitfulness of the Jewish people in general.

The clearing of the temple courts, and the parable of the tenants in Mark 12 support this, pointing even to damning judgement on the whole system (Mark 13).

The problem is, of course, that it is easy to point the finger back 2000 years and say 'well they got it wrong' and yet assume that no such parallel might exist today. Can our own unfruitfulness be totally excused?

Paul seems to have understood this in some way. In 1 Corinthians 9:23 he sums up his work for the sake of the gospel so that 'I may share in its blessings'. In other words Paul appears to entertain the possibility that he might somehow miss out. It strikes me that if Paul of all people figured that he might miss out, then how much more the rest of us?

Monday, 27 June 2011

A Request Too Far

Jesus: Lord of all, King of Kings. Yet he cannot grant the request of the sons of Zebedee (Mark 10:35 - 45). Their request, it seems, is a request too far.

Compare v35 with 11:24. Just a chapter apart, using the same words 'whatever (you/we) ask', and yet entirely opposite ends of the spectrum. Its not even as if James and John were going to skimp on their commitment - v39 indicates they are to go the same way as Jesus, a scary way that he has just spelt out for a third time (v32-33). Yet the 'whatever' in this case cannot be promised.

The difference is surely the object of faith and the intended purposes. The incident in chapter 11 is a call to put one's faith in God and what He is doing. If you line up with that, anything is possible - from withering fig trees to dramatically changing circumstances.

The contrary is one's own purposes which all too quickly boil down to self-glorification (10:37). I guess that now seems obvious. The worrying thing, though, is that these contrasting verses indicate that the dividing line between the two can sometimes be incredibly thin.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Us and not Them

Any group naturally forms a sense of identity. We all do it. Especially in our churches. Of course the way we do it is right, and the way of others not so right. After all, there are good reasons why we have our church and they have theirs...

Funnily enough this 'us and not them' attitude was even around in Jesus' day, before any churches had actually started, or a single basis of faith had been presented for signature!

Look at Mark 9:38 with the telling words 'he was not one of us'. Not a member of our group, so cannot possibly be following right teaching, believing the right things, entering by the narrow gate ... or is that 'our' narrow gate?

Jesus demonstrates a more generous approach. Of course not everyone who calls him 'Lord' will enter (see Matthew 7), as graphically illustrated in Acts 19, so a considered generous approach seems to be necessary. Yet with our tendency to build hard boundaries we would do well to remind ourselves of this episode in Mark from time to time.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Stock up on Affirmation

In my last post we looked at how Jesus' way was the way of the cross, and being a disciple for sure means following on the same kind of course. That's not easy, and Jesus didn't try and dress it up to make it look more appealing.

Yet God doesn't leave us without resources for such a difficult journey. The very next episode is the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13).  This extraordinary event goes beyond what is normal, and note how within it are the affirming words of v7. Apart from anything else, it seems that at this point Jesus was stocked up with affirmation from his heavenly Father, affirmation that he was indeed on the right track.

When we have to face a difficult episode God doesn't leave us stranded on our own, but drops things in that enables us to keep going through the circumstances. It might be a 'mountaintop' experience, or it might be words spoken to us even through another person, but somehow God will get through that He is with us. Such a supernatural lift might be just what we need to continue on the hard course and not deviate onto the easier options.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Choose Your Messiah Carefully

Mark 8 records another one of those 'switch' points in the story, this time where Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah (v29). Things had been going well: the tally of miracles and healings nicely accumulating, and the Pharisees put in their place on more than a few occasions. Next stop surely the Romans in Jerusalem!

Yet the real 'switch' is v31, where Jesus starts teaching about what must actually happen. It doesn't sound very Messiah-like, and soon Peter wants to get this negative talk straightened out. Today we really cannot appreciate how strange Jesus' words must have sounded to people who were so totally up for a leader who would ride on in triumph. The talk of rejection and being killed was probably so odd that they didn't even hear the words about rising again.

The trouble is Jesus doesn't stop there. For this Messiah is looking for followers who will be up for a similar pattern of life-laying-down. Within a few sentences discipleship suddenly just got a whole lot harder.

We all have our own pre-conceived ideas of what our saviour-hero should be like, or indeed what they should do for us. What does your 'Messiah' look like?

Yet Jesus calls us to choose between these pre-conceptions and a way which involves not getting everything your own way. And how we choose now can have ramifications for the future (v38).

So weigh it all up, and choose your Messiah very carefully.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Ministry Cycle

I sometimes wonder if we get the pattern of ministry all wrong. We often make alot of effort to make ministry available (in whatever form) 'all the time' (be it every day, every week for 52 weeks of the year etc.). We do well at mustering resources to support this, building appropriate infrastructure, support etc. to enable it all to happen.

From a couple of episodes in Mark 6,  one could argue for a different approach. In v6-13 they are sent out with minimal resources. They are going to have to rely on whatever God turns up for them. Success was not guaranteed (v11).

And then in v30-32, on their return, Jesus takes them on a retreat. Time to refresh in His presence.

Quite different to the 'resource for continuous ministry' model.

Okay, so the needs are always there and can tend to cram in on us (v33f), but still the time alone was sought out (v45 - 46).

Maybe we would be better to try and identify cycles: stepping out in faith, going with what He gives, and then returning for deliberate periods of refreshment in His presence.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Human Factors vs God Factors

Mark 6:1 - 6 records a sad occasion. The people in Jesus' home town proved to be full of unbelief and ministry opportunities turn out to be threadbare.

The problem is that the people looked at all the human factors. After all they knew Jesus as one of their own, and could name his parents and siblings. Surely he was no one special, he was one of them. Why should he be any different?

They saw Jesus the man. Just a man.

With their eyes, concentrating on all the human factors ('this is what we know ...'), they weren't able to see the God factors that were right in front of them.

Sometimes, whilst remaining wise and prudent, we have to let down our guard that is built out of human factors in order to see what God is doing before us.

If we don't, we risk our whole perception becoming rigged against what God is actually doing. In such a scenario we will find ministry is threadbare, we contribute to the loneliness of those God is ministering through, and we should not be surprised if they move on.

Monday, 6 June 2011

What was he thinking?

Jesus used parables. We all know that. Some are deep, some are fun, some are great for making into sketches etc.

But don't they make things harder to understand? Why not spell things out direct, crystal clear, line by line. Surely that would make more sense, avoid room for mis-understanding, get straight to the point.

Note in Mark's gospel how it kind of seems like he actually 'switched ' into using parables (round about 3:20f). Perhaps this was a response to his authority (in driving out demons) being directly challenged. For at this point onwards he seems to want to separate people into the hearers and non-hearers, an effect achieved by using parables.

Yet here is something even more curious, especially for us as we work out how to do mission. Mark tells us that Jesus explained stuff later to his close followers (4:10, 33-34), and yet Mark himself only records a couple of these explanations. Why doesn't Mark give us the detailed handbook to spell things out clearly?

It strikes me Mark was writing with mission purpose, telling people about Jesus and his work through the book. Does the book generally keep to the original parables to have the same separating effect?

Maybe there are times when working with people we need to use the parables, and through them discover who is really interested and who is only there for the beer.

Friday, 3 June 2011

On the Move

If you want to look at Jesus you have to be prepared to take a journey. Jesus simply can't be treated as an interesting museum piece, static, frozen in time for all to view at their leisure.

No, Jesus was on the move. Mark's Gospel soon has Jesus moving on to somewhere else, apparently often leaving crowds, fans and supporters behind. In the first three chapters alone just look how many times moving on/out/up/back figures in the story.

Yet this dynamic nature extended to those he interacted with too. He was moving, and he wouldn't allow others to remain static either. He calls to follow, he sends the cleansed-leper on his way, he commands the paralysed to walk, he gets Levi to round up his (dubious) mates and so on.

To encounter Jesus requires and inevitably leads to movement. Karl Barth wrote that theology must follow the living God. Yes if we are to understand God, we are going to have to be on the move.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Lonely Walk of Ministry

Mark's gospel accumulates momentum incredibly rapidly. By v15 Jesus has already been baptised by John, led into the wilderness, and is ready to declare "The time has come".

With power encounters in v21f there has hardly been time to get followers on board and already news about him is spreading, crowds are gathering.

Jesus' itinerary seems rapid-fire too. v38 has him moving on leaving an apparent revival behind, which leads to yet more driving out demons and healing. With all this 'good stuff' going on, it seems hard to imagine how ministry could get any better.

Yet by v45, i.e. before we have even made it to chapter 2, Jesus is forced to hang out in lonely places. For Jesus, popularity does not necessarily equate to staying on the correct course, and so he is forced out to the margins.

The walk of ministry, even with so much blessing and goodness happening amongst so many people, can turn out to be a lonely road to take.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

When Power & Status Doesn't Cut It

I couldn't help chuckling earlier this week when the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world, found himself grounded. Driving in an elite bullet proof, bomb proof, chemical attack proof car with the national flags flying, his journey was brought to an abrupt halt by a humble ridge on a drive-way.

Now a lady called Deborah together with a man ironically called Barak (!!) had a song of praise to God that is recorded in Judges chapter 5. The song opens by musing on 'princes' as well as kings and rulers, i.e. people of status and presumably some degree of power.

Yet look at the detail. In verses 2, 7, 9, 10 it comes across that the real heroes were actually ordinary people. People who stepped up to get on board with God's actions. The reality was that they were led by a woman (v7, probably quite an odd phenomenon back in those days). In fact v8 and v10 almost seem to mock those of status and power, with God instead achieving his purposes through mere villagers.

So Deborah and Barak can praise God that the real princes were in fact willing volunteers (v9), not those who had the fancy means of transport (v10).

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

What is Truth

So last time I talked about people's tendency to believe. Discussing this with a friend who claims to be an atheist, my friend said that while we might have a tendency to believe (in God), it would be better to only trust in what we can indisputably prove to be true.

An interesting point, I thought, and worthy of further discussion. The problem with such this position is, however, that in reality we all make decisions that are based on more than 'just what we can prove' all the time. A big example is getting married, of course. Do we do scientific tests on our partner to prove they are (and will remain lifelong) compatible before the wedding day? Well my wife had a scorecard for me (!), but it was hardly scientific.

No, our epistemology (what we accept as truth) is actually a somewhat fuzzy and variable thing, even for quite ardent rationalists. We all make decisions based on a range of factors, many of which we can't possibly know all the outcomes of. Was that breakfast cereal good for me this morning, or is it in fact increasing my risk of cancer?

So in witnessing to people who want to try and run only on the 'rational' tram-tracks, it makes sense to not request that they check their brains at the door of the Gospel Hall, but to work with them to use their brains to understand the broader spectrum within which their understanding of truth in fact works.

Who knows? Maybe they may then discover their understanding has room for God after all.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Belief in Human Nature

This article summarises a comprehensive study around the world concerning our tendency to believe in the divine and/or supernatural. It concludes that humans are naturally predisposed to believe in some kind of God.

To myself and many other Christians this of course will not be a surprise.
"God has made us that way", we would say. Yet I think it would be a mistake to point to a study like this and suggest such evidence proves there is a God. The two are not necessarily the same, so lets not claim they are.

What it does do is give evidence from large scale research (presumably conducted on a secular basis, using rational methods) that coheres with the Christian worldview. In other words, it adds up.

An atheist would hold quite a different worldview, and would have to come up with other explanations of the human tendency to believe shown by this study. Of course such explanations are likely to be speculative at best, taking them beyond the 'rational position' that they like to claim underpins their atheism.

And so the atheist is no better off or no more clever than the Christian, having in the end to adopt and hold a position 'by faith'.

Conversely whilst a Christian has to live 'by faith' each day, there is a coherent logic to their position.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Righteousness and Law

People often talk of God's standards and 'doing what is right' in terms of immutable laws, i.e. things God has decreed or ordained since the dawn of time that we are all supposed to live by.

Curiously though, the understanding of OT Law to be told to Hebrew children doesn't quite match this. Deuteronomy 6:20 - 25 spells out that the law is more about maintaining the people's identity as God's saved & covenant people, the people He rescued out of Egyptian slavery.

The law of Moses in these terms therefore would seem to be a boundary marker for who they are as a people - keep within the Law and you will be able to go on prospering as a covenant people. Their sense of righteousness is therefore 'conferred' on them by staying within these bounds: v25 says 'keep the law and God will continue to see us as His righteous people'.

Now I do believe in immutable laws myself - I think there are certain aspects of how God has created us in the universe that requires certain behaviour, both to avoid it all going horribly wrong, and to live up to the expectations and plans God has for us. Yet seeing a 1:1 mapping between these and OT laws may well be a mistake.

Which of course is what Paul effectively spells out in Romans. The OT law, he writes, was not 'bad' as such, but as an identity marker it shrinks into insignificance when compared with the righteousness that can be conferred on anyone by faith in Christ.

And so it is that the records we have of Paul & Co witnessing to the non-Jewish people show them not pointing to chapter & verse of OT law, but focussing on what is possible in Jesus Christ.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Just Say the Word

Deuteronomy 8:3 talks of learning to depend on God, looking for His every word just as physically we need daily food. We need God's word to direct us, to challenge us, as well as to nourish us.

What is interesting is that it might only take just one single word.

In Matthew 14:22f Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat, to join them later. That leads to the extraordinary episode where Jesus is walking on water. Peter seems to have some inspiration and faith that he too can defy the normal physical laws of gravity. He says, 'Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water'.

And Jesus just says one single word: "Come".

With that Peter is able to get out of the boat and do an incredible thing. It was a single word, for Peter, for that moment.

The Word of God is an extraordinary thing. It only takes one single word, but with a word directed at someone in the appropriate place at the appointed time, the normal physical laws, what we would expect to happen in the circumstances, become suspended.

Learn to depend on the Word of God. Be alert to those opportunities where faith can kick in. And when they come, look to God to just say the word.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


After years of stalling, putting off, and not getting round to it, this year I have finally done some re-decorating.

Its mostly painting the walls and ceiling, but then there's the gloss on the (fortunately quite few) bits of woodwork. Now I'm not one to strip back to the bare wood - just a bit of sanding and then a new top coat of gloss will do me, thankyou very much.

The trouble is many seem to have that same attitude regarding their faith. They are quite happy to let their belief be something that glosses over certain areas of their life. Although something much more radical - stripping back and starting over - is called for they settle for what amounts to little more than a touch up here and there.

Hebrews 4:12 says the Word of God cuts through to our innermost being. We would do well to let the Word do its work, rather than run the risk of simply becoming whitewashed on the outside, but in fact dead on the inside.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Bodily Resurrection Matters

Take a read of 1 Corinthians 15. Go on, the whole chapter.

Take your time - it is quite dense and heavy going ...

Encouraged by the time you get to v57? I hope so - He gives us the victory!

So what of v58? Tacked on the end, does it really fit after all that hard hitting stuff about the resurrection?

Yes it does! Because Jesus was raised in the body, it shows us that there is continuity of creation. For sure things will be changed, beyond what we can get our heads round, but the continuity means that aspects of the now will carry through to the eternal future. So the whole chapter becomes a call to mission - to work to put things right now ready to be carried into eternity.

Ever struck you why Jesus put so many things right during his earthly ministry (healings etc.)? He was demonstrating the coming Kingdom, putting things to how they should be in anticipation of what is to come.

We are to do the same.

Of course at the moment death & decay are still soldiering on, so we will have frustrations and disappointment. Yet that should not deter us from the task: death will be swallowed up in victory.

So stand firm, don't be put off, get on with the mission task - the work of the Lord. It will not be in vain.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Ultimate Trust

As we saw earlier Jesus relied on his heavenly Father for his cosmic vindication. There was nothing on earth that could save him, or see him through. No pep talk, no Dutch courage, no secret weapon. Just ultimate reliance on God.

This was surely a key aspect of the atonement - that a man would ultimately rely on God to see him through. With that action of the one man, the many can follow.

And we follow not on just wishful thinking, a belief, a view of a few, but based on a reality. The risen Jesus shows us that he was vindicated, and so the way through is indeed possible.

Of all the Old Testament sacrifices and atonement offerings, none led to the reality that we now see in the risen Christ. Whilst such offerings had their place and validity, God is not looking for the tokens and bits & pieces we might choose to present. He is looking for us, ultimately coming to rely on Him.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Cosmic Vindication

Jesus was silent before his Sanhedrin accusers, except for the words recorded in Matthew 26:64. The clear allusion to Daniel 7:13 (and Psalm 110:1) was enough to seal his fate. It was a robe-tearing moment, for the priests the charge of blasphemy was now proven.

But here Jesus was simply sticking to the same story he had been giving all along, that ultimately his heavenly father would testify to who he was (e.g. see John 8:18). His vindication would come from God, and would be on a cosmic scale.

So the taunts from the hot under the collar priests in v68 to 'prophesy' were futile, just like the various requests for a sign Pharisees had made through his ministry. Such 'earthly' signs are nothing compared to what will be seen in the fullness of time.

The story of Jesus only makes full sense once we understand the complete vindication that he will receive, a vindication so 'out of this world' that I will call it cosmic vindication.

The resurrection, of course, tells us that such cosmic vindication was indeed given.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Carried on Eagles Wings

Isaiah 40:31 is an encouraging verse: "they will soar on wings like eagles ...".  Many a time I have heard it quoted, and in the past year people have kindly offered the verse to me by way of encouragement. It is a great image - a fantastic bird gliding effortlessly in the currents and slip-streams high above the ground.

Now it could well be that Isaiah was picking up on a reference in Exodus, where God is describing how he brought the people out of Egypt (Exodus 19:4). Curiously that was an episode firmly on the ground. In fact it must have been something of an ordeal - they had to walk into the desert, and learn to trust God totally for their protection (chapter 14) and for the most basic of provision (chapter 15 & 16).

Clearly with the benefit of hindsight (or a bird's eye view!) one can see how God carried them through the somewhat arduous journey. Yet at ground level 'how on earth can we survive this?' must often have been a relevant question.

It seems to me that the encouragement therefore is not that God will lift you out above & beyond the pain or difficulty, but he will lead a way through in which (once you have got your head round it) it is apparent that you only made it with His supernatural help, i.e. above & beyond what could normally be expected.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Path of Suffering to Enable Salvation for the Many

Joseph (of dreamcoat fame) utters some extraordinary words in Gen 45:4-7, and echoes them in Gen 50:19-21. The pain of the past, though real, is somehow dissipated and put into the context of a bigger picture whereby Joseph can show forgiveness and peace towards his brothers. He sees himself on a path that God has marked out, that has a bigger salvation purpose (v7).

Remember that his brothers had gone way beyond jealousy and had all but killed him, allowing him to be carried off as a common slave and leading his father to believe that he was dead. Though God had then given him success as a slave, that then landed him in prison. Joseph was well and truly on the receiving end of harsh treatment and injustice - a path of suffering.

Yet God brought Joseph through to his current exalted position by which many could be saved. It's interesting that Joseph doesn't seem to refer back to the dreams he had (Gen 37), he simply now understands that God has been at work not for others to bow down to him, but for the salvation purposes of God.

Here we have a 'type' (i.e. a pattern or model) of Jesus, who was also led on a path of difficulty & suffering through to eventual exaltation by which many would be saved.

As Christians we are called to follow in this same way.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Giving it your all

One of the verses that keeps me going is Acts 20:24 - 'I consider my life worth nothing, my only aim is to finish the race ... testifying to the good news of God's grace'.

We are all missionaries in one way or another - all called to testify to God's grace, to be witnesses. Some are higher profile, some more obvious, while others have more subtle roles. But the deal is that anyone who is in Christ is likewise called to take part. It is not an optional extra. Full stop.

For some it means great sacrifice, but God will uphold them. For inspiration check out this video of a schoolgirl from North Korea

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Organic Growth II

Having looked at the constitutional aspects, how about getting the activities off the ground:
  •  Dream big, but start by thinking small - attempt things that seem within reach so that: 
    • we could achieve what we committed to do
    • avoid the temptation to try and do too much and then fail, losing moral
    • learn from the smaller projects to give us confidence in then tackling bigger things
  • Simplify wherever possible – things get too grand and complicated too quickly, so go back and simplify to make things easier to achieve
  • Demonstrate some early successes (i.e. find some low hanging fruit)
  • Work up from the grassroots, and allow things to grow bigger naturally rather than jump straight into 'we will take over the world' type schemes
It seems to me that most of these are principles which new mission projects would do well to take on board.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Organic Growth I

The community association I am involved in is developing a life of its own, which it seems to me is a good thing.

It has been interesting to watch its growth. From the inaugural meeting of March 2009 where we didn't know how many would get involved, it has now won awards for its street party last year, and selected as one of four projects nationwide to demonstrate the value of community development training.

From the outset there have been some key principles that have made it easy for the organisation to get started and develop. In terms of organisation these are:
  •  a very simple and open definition of 'membership': anyone involved in any capacity in the area who wants to get stuck in!
  •  A light-weight and flexible constitution that only requires the standard key positions of chair, treasurer and secretary, and beyond that being very flexible: the management committee could be anything from 3 to 10 official members
  •  building in further flexibility, i.e. allowing any interested person to be co-opted on so they could contribute and help organise things as well
This open and flexible approach sets the bar for participation very low, since a key aim of the association is to encourage people to get involved. Not rocket science really!

Well thats the boring constitutional stuff! The next episode will talk about the dreams and setting about making them a reality ...

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Kingdom moments like these ...

Like the rest of us I have watched developments un-fold in Egypt with interest. Yesterday was a real delight though, as I watched news reports similar to this one:

A kind of an impromptu mass 'Soul in the City', as people just 'mucked in' to clear up, clean up, and take joyful pride in their city, their Egypt. Young, old, men, women, wheelchair bound and the most nimble seemed to take a role.

Surely this gives us a glimpse of a kind of a Kingdom moment? People set free and liberated, naturally empowered to join together in unusually high brother/sisterhood to work for a better place for all to enjoy. Where barriers between people just seem to fade away.

Yes there are big questions: tomorrow, coming weeks and months for these people are going to be tough. The circa >65% youth unemployment quoted in some newspapers is not going to be fixed overnight. But for a moment, perhaps just a moment, something at least resembling the Kingdom has been experienced and witnessed.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Mission Theology Imperative

In the essay by W. Shenk (re-)published in 'Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity' he asserts that 'only theology that motivates and sustains the church in witness and service in the world deserves to be accredited'. He is absolutely right.

He also urges that the 'Western captivity of all theology ... must be broken', i.e. we must now incorporate and learn from our sisters and brothers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. These are the Christians at the cutting edge - we have much to learn from them.

This accords with my own experience whilst on a short term trip to Zambia with Mission Direct, where I was able to see first hand Christians getting stuck in and doing all the kinds of things that are written up as theory back home.

The world we live in is quite different to the one from even just a couple of decades ago. The stage is now different, with multiple heartlands of the Spirit's activity reaching out and interconnecting across the globe. As we appreciate these interconnections, we must learn from each other rather than assuming that one heartland has the monopoly on answers for all the rest.

Monday, 31 January 2011

What is Church II

Last time I gave a possible definition of church. Now to unpack ... 

... a group of people who interact together 

Jesus gathered people together intentionally. We are made for relationships, with God and with one another. We must recognise the handicap that Western individualism gives us in this respect. 

to learn how ... 

the church is provisional, non-static, ever renewing, revitalising, anticipating the greater that is to come. This side of eternity it has never arrived. 

to echo back to God ... 

made in God's image we are to reflect His glory, to follow His ways. This will include worship along with ... 

and the wider world ... 

drawing others to God as well. Fuzzy boundaries are likely as the group not only points to salvation by its existence, but by what it is and does as well. 

... the 'Yes' that He has already spoken to us. 

It is all God's initiative. We bring nothing to the party, except that which He has already given us. Joining in, we find ourselves part of God's mission purposes - God reaching into our lives and the lives of others. We thus find we are not only believers but also His executives in a world of need.

Now that is what I call church!

Friday, 28 January 2011

What is church?

A standing joke of the Church Planting module I did at college was that the tutor always avoided defining for us what 'church' actually is, preferring instead for us to figure it out.

Interestingly at a recent Alpha course evening we did the session on church, and teased out of ourselves what 'church' is. From that discussion the following emerged as a possible definition:

Church is a group of people who interact together to learn how to echo back to God and to the wider the world the 'Yes' that He has already spoken to us.

I think there is alot in that statement. Maybe in future posts I will try and un-pack it a bit.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Small Group Woes

I have been dissatisfied with church small groups for a long time now. My complaint has been that they gravitate too easily to all theory and no practice, i.e. lots of (good) Bible study, but no practical action. Maybe groups in cell churches fare better, but most small groups seem to end up in the same rut as far as I can see.

In such a state, how can small groups effectively perform (or even resource) mission?

The excellent book 'Missional Small Groups' by Scott Boren sums up exactly my feelings on this subject. Boren helpfully distils groups into four categories (or 'stories'):
  1. The story of Personal Improvement
  2. The story of Lifestyle Adjustment
  3. The story of Relational Revision
  4. The story of Missional Re-creation
He suggests that most groups get stuck in either no. 1 or no. 2. I think he is correct. In these first two stories good things happen for the individual, and they may contribute to a good small group experience, but they fail to engage people in an alternative rhythm of life. Mission, if discussed at all, is then an awkward 'add-on' which only the keenies are interested in.

The book goes on to describe different rhythms that develop a different way of being both as an individual and as a group -  a way that is open to God's mission purposes around them.

Small groups - think again!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A Converting Ordinance?

Wesley once described Holy Communion as a 'converting ordinance', i.e. an event in which people can encounter Christ and make that initial decision to turn and follow Him. Sounds a bit surprising, doesn't it, since we tend to think of Holy Communion as something reserved only for Christians.

We might not necessarily resolve that question here, but the episode in Hezekiah's reign, recorded in 2 Chronicles 30 has some parallels. Hezekiah re-institutes the Passover meal, but not just for the select few. He does it in style.

He extends the invitation far and wide across Israel. Bear in mind the deep split between Judah and Israel at this point - only two chapters earlier they were in military combat against each other.

His call is for people to come back to God - to 'repent and believe' in today's parlance.

People were called to the feast from far off: geographically far off but also spiritually far off. Israelites had accumulated a terrible record regarding staying close to God, so this was much more than just freshening up one's discipleship. Full blown turning of one's life around was going to be necessary for many.

Of course people came with all kinds of impurity and mess in their lives, but Hezekiah trusted in God to do the necessary restoration (see v18-20).

This is a great episode of extending generosity and grace in the context of a serious religious rite. Somehow they managed to do it without de-valuing that rite. Somehow they reached out, providing a space where God could work, calling & restoring people back to Himself.

Some might even say, a converting ordinance?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Standing by Our Decisions

Nobody likes to be told they were wrong. We all have to make decisions, from choice of latte through to those that will impact the lives of others. Once the decision is made, we typically try to defend it to the hilt, because admitting we were wrong doesn't come easily to us humans.

So the injunction by the King to his newly appointed judges in 2 Chronicles 19:6-7 is no surprise - 'Judge carefully' - because they don't want to have to discover they were wrong.

Yet there is an interesting slant to his instruction: 'The Lord is with you whenever you give a verdict'. Presumably that means that God somehow goes with the flow even if the verdict is not actually sound?

If so, it surely reminds us that God is a God of grace. He will allow us to make decisions, both good and bad, and allow them to unfold. In other words, He stands by (at least in some way) our decisions.

I guess from that there are two practical applications:

  1. If someone else makes a bad decision, we need to work out how to extend grace to them too.
  2. We need to remember that just because God seems to be going along with our decision, it doesn't necessarily mean it is good! So we need to be open to the prospect that, in time, we may discover we were wrong after all.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

When its all sorted, keep seeking God

I had not appreciated until this month how 1 Chronicles is all about King David. Apart from various lists at the beginning, the whole book just covers King David. Saul barely gets a mention, and all the other kings must wait until book II.

The book demonstrates how he is the chosen King, has a consolidated position, everyone behind him, and the promise of an everlasting dynasty. There are a couple of mis-haps mentioned, but its basically all good with King David on the throne.

As ever universal mission purposes reverberate, e.g. 22:5 with the planned Temple being magnificent in the sight of all nations.

Yet despite the impression that Israel had at last 'arrived', and had it 'all sorted', David still gives this advice for the future, recorded in 22:19, "now devote your heart and soul to seeking the Lord your God".

Even when everything is fab, hunky-dory, dominoes lined up ... we must go on seeking God. Do not assume you have arrived in this sense, but continue looking for Him.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Why so hot under the collar?

Like many I watched the BBC Nativity dramatisation just before Christmas. Of course such a TV programme is always going to provoke a broad range of reactions, but I was surprised to read this article about it in the Daily Express.

The article quotes a Christian leader speaking out against the programme, with the leader vociferously attacking the BBC and it's portrayal of the Christmas story, giving rise to the Express' headline that the series was an insult to the Christian faith.

In my view, the remarks of the person quoted are not well judged or warranted. Of course the drama puts an interpretation on the events, and in places goes beyond the gospel text. That is inevitable for such a programme. I felt the story-writer took an approach that was plausible, and which made the story realistic for the contemporary viewer. For me that is not an insult, but a great opportunity to explore with other viewers the dynamics of the original situation, and thus touch on the big picture of what God was doing.

It is true that members of some other faiths get very upset at the slightest imaginative or supposedly non-orthodox portrayal of their faith stories or characters. Yet as Christians are we to respond likewise?

No, there is no need for that, especially in this case where no offence need be taken. Rather we can engage with such material and discuss with casual viewers in a positive way, which potentially makes the Gospel accessible to those who would otherwise not contemplate the true meaning of the 'greatest story ever told'.

Friday, 7 January 2011

When all else fails, leave it to God

A few days ago I heard an encouraging story from a lady about her health. Just a few years ago her breathing was getting worse and worse. Numerous tests diagnosed a lung problem, and the prognosis was not good. With no cure possible the hospital consultant advised her that she could expect confinement to a wheelchair and constant use of a portable nebuliser.

At this point she concluded that all human options are exhausted, only God can help now. She accepted that she may become wheelchair bound, and left the future in God's hands.

Within months she found her symptoms had gone, her breathing much easier. She visited the hospital consultant who was surprised to find no sign of any problem within the lungs, and no explanation of how this could be so.

Since then she has led an active life with no restrictions, and has been instrumental in church ministry where she lives.

Sometimes we just just have to leave things in God's hands.