Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Joining God in the renewal of all things

Some excellent resources from Trinity Grace Church, New York. on a big vision for life in this world.

"The gospel is for all things, everything was made by and for Jesus, holds together in Jesus, will be reconciled in Jesus. The creator and the redeemer are one and the same."

A culture of renewal:

"Can we have vocationally minded pastors and theologically minded entrepreneurs, and sermons in which as people listen they're coming up with new business ideas..."

Renewing education:

 Renewing (traditional) fine art:

"The role of the church is to implement the victory of God through suffering love." NT Wright

Jon Tyson asks these questions:
1. Ask, what's wrong? Act to confront it.
2. Ask, what's missing? Take initiative.
3. Ask, what's good? Get behind it.
4. Ask, what's confusing? Clarify and compel people.

"Culture is to bring order out of chaos so things can thrive."

If Jesus was where you are what would he do? What to start, stop, bless, clarify.
Have you figured out the thing you're meant to be about? What do you really want to get into?

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Psalms are Christian (Mike Reeves mp3s)

The Psalms are many people's favourite book in the Bible but can we read them as a whole? How do they speak of Christ?

My favourite book on the Psalms is Andrew Bonar's Christ and his people in the book of Psalms, which is available as a free PDF on Google Books.

If I had to listen to something on the Psalms, then these mp3s from Mike Reeves would be my pick.
Mike is the author of The Good God (UK) / Delighting in the Trinity (US) and after many fruitful years on the staff of UCCF has now been announced as Theologian-at-large for Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He says: "we long to fuel love for Christ, the reformation of the church and the spread of the gospel." I think these mp3s will do a bit of that!

Download mp3s
Psalms - introduction
Psalms - Book 1 - part 1
Psalms - Book 1 - part 2

You can hear Mike preaching Psalms at All Souls.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Are we creating safe places for real questions from real people, for doubts and journey and unresolved mess?

Today I had my final regular meeting with Toby. He's been a member of my church Community Group and served as the president of the Evangelical Christian Union at Exeter University. I hope it'll be a lasting friendship, though he leaves the city this weekend.

Over the past couple of years we've met, eaten, shared life and hours and hours of conversation about his questions and doubts, no question unaskable - though I don't claim to have every answer. We've talked about leadership and relationships, and together we've devoured Galatians and half of Genesis.... It's been fun.

I find some young leaders with tender hearts are prone to disqualify themselves. They need space to work through their questions and the implications of knowing Jesus. I hope I've helped Toby with that.

This morning we met at The Quay in Exeter. Ideal in a "heat-wave".

We chatted about his future aspirations before being interrupted by an uncharacteristically friendly Brit who asked if he could hang out with us for a bit.

Our acquaintance had been sat sipping cider with his feet in the canal for a while, talking about stealing a boat, and was emerging from being betrayed the night before...

It was great to chat with this supermarket warehouse worker, and we quickly got to talking "religion" - "how do you guys know each other?" he asked: church Toby replied.

We covered a whole range of subjects around Christianity, satire (do we mind The Life of Brian? Surely, if true then Christianity can handle satire, welcome the engagement...), we talked about the ugly idea of karma and suffering, God, the decisive issue of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.... but I was most struck by two things.

Firstly, many believers he knows - and he'd grown up going to the youth group of a large evangelical church in the city - seem to just dismiss "evidence" and appeal to blind faith... failing to engage with his and other people's questions. He seemed surprised that we were prepared to think hard about hard questions and wrestle with the issues. It reminded me that we need to help people to do this more. Asking questions is good. The church should be a place people feel very safe to do this.
How can we make the church a safe place to ask questions and raise doubts? Why are some of us scared of questions? Have we done the thinking that means our faith can stand when suffering comes? Dare we? Why are we scared of sharing our doubts and concerns? What do we think would happen if we were vulnerable? How would church meetings look different if we did that? 

Secondly, he said he'd expect a church not to want people aren't believers to come and be part of their community. Wouldn't that be abusing their kindness? Please God let than never be true of us...  the church should be exactly the place where people should feel most welcome, where grace can be exploited... a place to belong long before any beginning to believe.
How can we invite people to come on the journey with us? We have questions and there are things we don't know... why expect anyone else to have got themselves together... How can we hold confidently to what we do know in context that is safe for discovery and journey... How would church life have to change to ensure that the very people Jesus sought out would feel as welcomed as they did by Jesus?

Eventually we left him to enjoy the sunshine and headed off to get a coffee somewhere. I hope we raised questions for him. I hope we provoked his interest.

I regret that we didn't more clearly lay a pathway for him to come along to one of our church meetings. We talked a lot about church, but did we give him a obvious next step? I could and should have done better. Each experience in life is an opportunity to learn and I intend to do just that.

I'm keen to open my eyes more to the people around me in my city: people with real lives; real pain; real questions; in need to real hope and a safe place to work things through.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Connect: how to double your number of volunteers

Churches (and my work with Christian Unions) are all about volunteers. If people don't serve nothing happens. A church can staff some things (when the people give):
"those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel."
A church may staff some administration too but few can do much more than that. Nor would it be healthy for a church to collectively decide to give a fortune to staff things when the body could collectively serve one another.... besides which the Sunday meeting of a church has opportunities for everyone to serve in some way.

The opportunity is great. A church exists to give the people of its city (town or village) the opportunity to encounter Jesus... (likewise a CU for a University)...  Men and women who know the service of Jesus for them delight to serve others. But how do we facilitate that? How do we help people serve?

Nelson Searcy is pastor of The Journey in New York City. This book has the feel of a book built on theological foundations that is applied in lots of detail. It's more on the business end of the bookcase than the theological end, though it'd be a mistake to think this book isn't dripping with theological insight.

Some highlights for me:
  1. Serving is about opportunity rather than need. Need suggests we're underprepared and undermines confidence in what we're doing. Opportunity engages people. The Sunday gathering of a church is a place to engage people on their journey with Jesus.
  2. Make serving easy for people. Get everyone in the lake of serving in some way... don't worry about what, just something. In time they can climb a ladder to other areas of service.
  3. A compelling vision of getting involved. Combined with good realism about the need to keep some doors closed, to require people to meet certain standards, yet at the same time many who don't believe can serve in some capacity. Church is about something good, so why shouldn't people want to get involved?
  4. A strong and thoughtful pattern for encouraging and celebrating service.
  5. Searcy's background is in engineering and he's great at providing diagrams. The feel of the book tells me that Searcy isn't just a systems guy because he likes systems, but he loves people and so builds systems to serve them.
Connect contrasts a sequential believe then belong then become model of serving with a more simultaneous view that while belonging people can move towards believing and becoming.
"Non-Christians should start belonging and becoming even before believing. The outward expression of God's work in individual hearts is more fluid than we've traditionally allowed."
For Christian Unions I think this book suggests that we should:
  1. Be more enthusiastic about inviting people to serve. It's not a bad thing. My first opportunity to serve was when someone said at my second Christian Union meeting "We have opportunities for anyone who is interested in design and communication to join our publicity team." ...I subsequently served on the worship team and as a worship leader, as publicity team leader, part of the CU leadership team, and co-lead the International Student ministry over the next two and a half years, as well as serving in my church's student ministry. But it started with an invitation and a clear pathway to get involved. I'm convinced serving has been vital to my growth as a Christian - not least because it gave me access to excellent training and more experienced leaders... who wouldn't want that?
  2. Have clarity about the responsibilities and requirements of roles. Searcy has people sign covenant agreements about serving. CUs have been strong on doing this doctrinally but including things like commitment to being trained would be helpful. This requires some careful thinking and hard work to lay out the pathways and think about how people will connect with what we're doing. Effective use of connect cards at all our meetings to engage people with us for the first time and for ongoing steps of service is a vital tool.
  3. Small steps in service bring ownership. A Christian Union annually and weekly has the challenge of engaging members of the University into a journey with Jesus and to helping others into a next step with him. Helping everyone make a next step is vital.
  4. A culture of encouragement. Searcy suggests noting down the names of people who are serving whom you can deliberately encourage - probably privately with a note or in other ways. Are my eyes open to see the good that others are doing and to spur them on?
The book is an easy read that will require further thought and action both in my work with CUs and my own involvement in my church. I'm looking forward to putting some of it into practice in my context. I've read other books that show that every member has a part to play, this is the first one which considers how we can help that happen more.

Buy Connect by Nelson Searcy (2012, Baker Books)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The same old story, retold

A rare cinema outing last month reminded me that classic stories can be told again and again. The superman story, this time as Man of Steel, doesn't get old. Most retellings are imperfect and this one was a mess in places, but the key elements pull deeply on our hearts.

Much more must the Christian story be retold in each generation. Not so much with better effects and a few different philosophical murmerings (as with Man of Steel), perhaps more like Homer's Odyssey becoming O Brother Where Art Thou? Some hard work is needed because this is an eternal story for all cultures - the truest story, the true myth, that introduces the Triune God to his world, and opens our eyes to where we find ourselves.
“The core issue of contextualisation is the effective retelling of the story of God in our culture.” (David Capener)
There are lots of ways of doing this. Differences might be subtle rather than obvious - and the Christian knows that what they say still has to represent Christ truly.

I think Michael Ward is on to something big with his Planet Narnia thesis, that suggests the real deeper meaning in The Chronicles of Narnia is a weaving in of themes to do with the planets. Yes there may be Aslan allegory, but much more Lewis is painting a story of a meaning-drenched Universe. See that and we might yet begin to see the world as it really is...  A story of a sacrificial Saviour is great (and echoed in almost every great story) but we need renewed wonder too... and much more.

Don Carson writes on Contextualisation in his epic book The Gagging of God (chapter 12 especially). I'm writing this for myself as I ponder what it means to live and speak for Jesus where and when I am.

Sound contextualization shows people how the plotlines of the stories of their lives can only find a happy ending in Christ.” (Tim Keller)
Carson observes that we find ourselves asking "why don't people come to church?" and the answer we're like to receive is "why would you even think you should we would come?"

He continues, "if people are failing to invite friends to church for any reason other than the offence of the cross, then it's the pastors' fault" Is our Sunday experience inaccessible? Is the gathering of the outward-moving Triune God excluding those whom the gospel welcomes?

This isn't theoretical. I want my friends to know Jesus, and I wrestle over how to talk about my faith and over bringing them into a Sunday meeting. Church is more than Sunday but somewhere along the line you have to meet the family...

What if we struggle because we've been raised in the style and language and categories of another age, or just a generic (and failing) Christian culture?

Leaders set the tone and have to work to win their congregations away from serving their own preferences to existing for mission. The target market of the church isn't the few Christians in our city, we're here for everyone else aren't we? If a pastor says we don't need more church-plants in our city - and only a few percent of the city are Christians - isn't something wrong?

This isn't chiefly a style issue. It goes as deep as the hardware of the church. A church built on historic confessions of faith of whose Sunday's people say "I'm glad I didn't invite my friend" or "I could never bring a friend to church" isn't as healthy as it'd like to think it is.

Tim Keller says we have hardware (theology), middleware (philosophy of ministry - the implications of our theology) and software (what we do). Many today think that because they have the EA/UCCF/Westminster Confession as their hardware then all is well. But if the hardware isn't or can't translate through middleware to software then our confessions are detached from reality. Which, fwiw is  at least part of why Newfrontiers historically made the mistake of rejecting writing down its theology. The early leaders of this Baptist renewal movement knew churches who had the words on paper but saw that they weren't affecting what happened in practice...

A contextualised church has to be self-theologising. Not necessarily independently - few situations are utterly unique. And theological thinking should happen with interaction with the historical and global church.... nonetheless indigenous work is needed. Carson notes
Contextualisation is a slippery term with diverse connotations… at its best contextualisation simply takes the indigenous principle one step further: churches should become not only self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propogating, but also become self-theologising. Churches  should think through their theology in their own context. Calvin did not reprint Augustine, he did his own theological work.”  
I love Calvin's Institutes but that's a way to articulate the faith in the 16th Century when you're asking the King of France to defend Christians. And it's brilliant but there are reasons why I'm not posting a copy to David Cameron...

Are we doing our own theological work or just republishing the past and relying on how things have been said and done and thought about before? Christianity isn't just a static set of propositions, the gospel describes the move of the Triune God towards his creation... for all times and cultures and contexts. What is non-missional Christianity? How can we tell his story today?

NT Wright has some thoughts.

Interview with NT Wright (Part 2 - A relevant gospel) from Evangelical Alliance on Vimeo.

We need to consider how can we articulate Christ in our culture and show people that he is the goal of their stories. "How can we effectively tell the story of God today?" asks David Capener.
The Church of England requires:
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.”  (Article 34)
Which meant don't do your church meeting in Latin but the principle has to cut much much deeper than that.

Changing the words might sound like a departure from the faith, but it need not be. Every articulation of sound doctrine happens in a context. The Nicene creed is theology shaped by 4th Century debates over Trinity that fails to engage with 20th Century debates about the authority and integrity of Scripture. We honour our history not by photocopying it but by thinking long and hard about the answers and the questions of our forefathers. It's not faithfulness to not contextualise if we're just serving what suits us... faithfulness is when we're truly heralding Christ to people.

John Piper said after 9/11 that it was no longer enough to assume we all mean the same thing when we say "god". I'm not sure it ever was.

What would it look like to express and articulate the Christian faith where we are in a way that actually communicates?

Every time we speak we attempt to communicate, and we tend to kid ourselves that we're doing that more effectively than we are. And if we don't get through we blame the listener. My low-light of the excellent HTB conference was Steven Furtick's quip "I'm preaching better than you're listening." No one gets to get away with that. Sorry! If the listener isn't listening then the preacher needs to be more engaging. The gospel advances by the preaching of the gospel but preaching isn't magic incantations. We know that because we adopt indigenous language but if our words and categories can't be understood then we are failing to communicate... and perhaps failing to be Christ's body here.

How can we tell the story?
How can we build the categories people need to hear it?
How can we capture imagination?
How can we engage questions? And ask good questions...

My scribblings. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Harmonising the gospels?

My friend Adrian Reynolds cautions against the practice of harmonising the gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I want to heartily agree. It's noble to try and fit the pieces together, and as he notes it's useful to demonstrate consistency between the eyewitness accounts.

The message can however become blurred if we combine all the accounts. We hear noise and obscure the intention of each author to show us a different angle on Jesus. There is another way! The beauty of the gospels is partly they they give four consistent but diverse accounts to lead us to belief in Jesus. Each has particular emphases to show us about the person and work of Jesus because only looking at one facet of a diamond never reveals its true beauty.

So, assure yourself that they're consistent and coherent (by reading them).

And then come and enjoy the differences. Earlier this year as students across the country dug into the Uncover Luke's gospel I set them an exercise on the cross (inspired by Goff Hope). We armed ourselves with highlighter pens and looked at Matthew, Mark and Luke's accounts of the crucifixion to identify what was common to them all and what was distinctive in each. John's angle is substantially different so the process of comparison isn't needed to see what he says.

Doing this enabled us to isolate Luke's particular message and emphasis, in the material that is unique to Luke and the subtle differences in phrasing that he uses in other places. This proved to be an incredibly fruitful way to hear Luke's voice concerning the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus. It was also a very tangibly engaging way to read the Bible.

There are moments that might raise questions... Can we reconcile this or that difference in the account?  Questions about the thieves only being reported to mock in one gospel and one being converted in another? A cry in one gospel that's given words in another gospel...  It's a brilliant way to get God's ink on your face.

Why not try it? Here's the example we did.... Pick up some highlighter pens and give it a go!

 E-sword's gospel harmony tool lines up all the parallel passages in the gospels enabling the same exercise to be done throughout the gospels to hear each voice clearly and therefore see Jesus more vividly.

Monday, July 08, 2013

MP3: Jesus wants the rose

Download: Jesus wants the rose (mp3)

"There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish. It was so fragile and I fear that it will not survive the winter."

The dying Marcus Aurelius speaks in the film Gladiator. A hope. A dream. A whisper. Such was Ruth's story. Last night she'd gone to see Boaz. The proposal moment in her story. He'd accepted her invitation to marriage but then said: there is another person more eligible than I. We must ask him first. Boaz lived by the law of God that reflected the heart of God to provide for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner.

And so she goes home, hoping that her dream will not vanish, her fragile hope for the future.

The morning comes and Boaz gathered the closer redeemer and 10 others at the town gates of Bethlehem. Twelve, with the town and Ruth in the background. Shrewd Boaz offers the land of Naomi. God's story isn't ethereal spirituality it's about mud and dirt too. The story of God is people and place, where will God and people live together. The redeemer accepts until Boaz reveals the "small print" - you get Ruth too. And he walks away.

A moment of rejection that Ruth must've feared. Sat there, wondering. Fragile. Will he want me? Will either of them want me? If you really knew me you'd know the rejection of my Moabite family as I married an Israelite. The 120 painful child-less months of my marriage. The grief of his death. The departing from Moab. The journey. The taking my life in my hands as I gleaned in the fields. And now this.

And we too might feel so vulnerable. Meet someone new and make a good impression - but what about when they get to know you, and your past. Can they cope with you? A friend shared that he feels this way. He asked if I do too. I said, no. And thought why. And I realised that I make poor first impressions but imagine "if you really knew me, you'd like me". I said, "I think I'm a whole lot more self-righteous than you". We both look too much at ourselves. Neither is healthy.

Matthew Henry comments that Ruth was never said to be beautiful, but if she was then surely the grieving and the travelling and the gleaning will have withered her lilies and roses. She's like a rose, passed around a room, looked at and touch by everyone, damaged and scarred by life.

And, will Boaz have second thoughts?

Who would want me? (Ruth 4:1-6). 
Good news: he give everything (v7-10). 

Boaz lays his future aside. Closes all other doors to have Ruth. He carries the cost that the other guy wouldn't. See the young man marrying a single mum and taking on her kids. Beautiful.

Who would want her? 
Let it be known: Boaz wants the rose!

[In this recurring theme of the rose I'm combining Matthew Henry's quote with Matt Chandler's illustration from this video]

This is a model of a godly man, a holy man. Not superior or holier than thou, but serving. Seeking out the needy, the weak, the excluded and seeking to meet their need. This fore-father of Jesus foreshadows him. He looks like him. Literally probably, as a middle eastern man, but also in character and action.

Who would want the dead, rebellious, lifeless humanity who become the church?
Let it be known: Jesus wants the rose.
Jesus comes and acquires a bride for himself through his death. He gives his life to give her life. For the church.

Not just for a private piety and personal relationship with the church.
It's change the world amazing that we can enter the life of God. And from that:

He builds from nothing (11-12). 

The ceremony is witnessed by people - and then written down. And then at last, to Boaz relief, attention turns from him to the LORD. The LORD will make Ruth into the new mother of the nation, and he will give the offspring. The LORD makes and gives. All from him. Working with nothing. Working with broken people. Dead people. Lifeless people. Through a marriage to build a society. Through the church to remake the world.

And it's all very ordinary. Those who know Jesus become fascinated with this world, they act to preserve it from decay and they dignify people.

  • My new favourite room on the planet is Colonna and Smalls coffee house in Bath. My wife indulged me a trip there recently. A place where environment and aesthetics and flavour matter, and are taken seriously. The death of a coffee bean to give life to people. A magnificent example of how this world should be. Coffee might not be your passion, but let your eyes be opened to enjoy something of this marred but beautiful world. I've no idea of the worldview of those who run Colonna and Smalls, but they've seen at least a glimpse of this world as it is meant to be.
  • I've suggested in the past that a dentist is a good analogy for how many of us see God as a necessary evil. I repent. Dentists fight decay - they're remakers of the world. As are binmen. 
  • Or, see the millions in service industries in the UK. Given the option of treating people as people or degrading them. I worked for a year in a high street bank and was pretty successful, not because I'm charming, but because I treated people consistently and well, humanly. Those who know Jesus aren't unique in doing this... knowing Jesus they can join him in the remaking of the world.

The story of Jesus isn't a fragile whisper it's a loud shout: Jesus wants the withered rose. And he'll take the rose and remake the world with her. And it looks as ordinary as two people getting married. The kind of thing that happens every weekend. Ordinary but packed full of life, like a coffee bean, like people waiting to die so that life can come.

Let it be known: Jesus wants the rose.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Jesus wants the rose

UPDATE: MP3 Sermon from July 7th 2013 - Ruth 4:1-12 Jesus wants the rose (33mins).

Matthew Henry writes of unlikely biblical heroine Ruth:
"She was never said to be beautiful; if ever she had been so, we may suppose that weeping, and travelling, and gleaning, had withered her lilies and roses"
Ruth is a ruin, she was childless after ten years of marriage, and then widowed, and now living in a community where she's a vulnerable outsider.

In Ruth 4:1-12 Boaz pursues marriage to Ruth. Another doesn't want her, but he wants the rose. And he takes up the full force of the heart-of-God-revealing-law to protect her and provide for her and give all that he has to her.

Boaz wants her, withered as she is. Much more does the true and greater Boaz, Jesus want us. Boaz, forefather of Jesus foreshadows him. An example but husbands, but first an invitation to all of us.

With all our shame, with all our "if you really knew me you'd know" fear of rejection. Jesus wants the rose. Jesus wants you.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

You gave everything for me

"[Jesus] looked, like Boaz, with compassion on the deplorable state of fallen mankind. At a vast expense he redeemed the heavenly inheritance for us, which by sin was mortgaged, and forfeited into the hands of divine justice, and which we should never have been able to redeem.

[Jesus] likewise purchased a peculiar people, whom he would espouse to himself, though strangers and foreigners, like Ruth, poor and despised, that the name of that dead and buried race might not be cut off for ever.

[Jesus] ventured the marring of his own inheritance, to do this, for, though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor; but he was abundantly recompensed for it by his Father, who, because he thus humbled himself, has highly exalted him, and given him a name above every name.

Let us own our obligations to him, make sure our contract with him, and study all our days how to do him honour."

Matthew Henry, Commentary.