Friday, July 31, 2015

Water for coffee


I love Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood's work. His coffee shop Colonna & Smalls in Bath is my favourite place to spend a morning with a cup of coffee made by his team and a good book. Sadly, I rarely have the opportunity to do this though that just increases its specialness.... Maxwell's related Coffee/Craft Beer house in Bath, Colonna & Hunter, is also great.

This is a world made beyond necessity with gratuity. Food could just deliver nutrients but it tastes! Maxwell's book Water for Coffee is coming soon and is the fruit of study into the way treatment of water has a bearing on the taste of coffee. I love that sort of attentiveness to the minutiae of life.

If you wanted to be really nice you could buy me a copy...  hopefully someday when the nappy bill falls I'll be able to afford the £26.99 price tag. Nothing that's worth having is cheap...

Water for coffee.
A taste here:

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Beyond Necessity 3: The Hour - what's free costs


MP3: BEYOND NECESSITY - JOHN 2:1-11

When Jesus’ mother says: “the wine has run out” (v4)

Jesus, before he acts says to her: “it is not my hour” (v4) Which as it turns out doesn’t stop him from doing something… but is a hint that there’s something more going on.

 Everything Jesus does here is a trailer, a picture, a foretaste of something more. When he says “it’s not my hour” he’s saying this is not my wedding, so this isn’t my responsibility. But, one day it will be. One day it will be his time not just to save the bridegroom of Cana from humiliation and to provide for his guests.

One day will be his wedding day and he will provide richly for all who are there. But, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone has to buy the bread. Someone pays.

When The Times newspaper took its website behind a paywall the readership of the site fell but they proved that people are prepared to pay – less people paying something was more effective than lots of people paying nothing for content that cost to produce.

To give life to the world is going to cost Jesus. John records more of Jesus talking about this hour. John 12:23-24 “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit.”

Jesus will die to bring life to the world. This is awkward because John and Jesus are telling us that this is a world dying. Though we probably know that.

They’re telling us that we are dying. Though we probably know that.

John and Jesus are telling us that we can’t refill our own glasses, we need what only he can do. Which I don’t like at all…  I like to be comforted in my anxiety by Jesus, I'm not so keen on his confrontation: why don't you trust me?

My GCSE Science teacher told me I wasn’t going to get a top grade and so I shouldn’t be entered for the Advanced paper. I fought back. Got my head down. Got an A grade. I get kicks from trying to achieve. That's (sort of) fine for my Science GCSE but Jesus says: when it comes to your life, you really can't just kick through.

And Jesus says: “No. This one is beyond you. But that’s not the end.” The Wedding at Cana wasn’t the end game. John calls it Jesus’ first sign. A signpost. The destination: Jesus dying. Dying, to bear much fruit. The sign shows us something of his glory. The destination shows that glory more fully. The glory of Jesus: beyond necessity gratuity, lavish love. Death to him, to bring life to me. Because there’s nothing free that doesn’t cost someone else.

Why?

The storyline of the Bible starts with a wedding and ends with a wedding. It’s a great love story from beginning to end. The bridegroom of Cana is quite typical. A numpty. A fool. Tight-fisted. The Bible pushes for a deeper diagnosis. Hear this in the story of Hosea and Gomer. The story of this couple is told as a picture of God and humanity. Hosea like God, Gomer like humanity. He loves her but she betrays him. But, like God, even as Gomer gives herself to her lovers, Hosea makes the costly move to win her back from her slavery and selfishness and stuff-ups.

Hosea takes responsibility for his wife's waywardness. So too Jesus takes responsibility for our wandering hearts.

The generous hearted puritan Thomas Watson said: the capacious heart of Christ beats strongly for humanity, all the more as we run from him.

Back at Cana, what was meant to be a perfect day stood on the brink of ruin and there’s nothing the bridegroom can do to fix it.

 Jesus doesn’t do nothing; he doesn’t point the finger; he doesn’t humiliate. He confronts the situation. He acts. He provides. He gives. The launch of Jesus gives a window into the heart of Jesus. The man who goes beyond necessity into gratuity though it will cost him his life. The launch of Jesus gives a window into my heart. I’ve failed and fallen and I can’t fix it. There: Jesus comes, finds me, stops me, and points me to see his beyond necessity love in his death for me. His arms pinned open in love to fill my glass, to fill my heart. He takes full responsibility for me.

And that day in Cana Jesus friends – v11 – believed in him.

John calls them “disciples”. People with L-plates on. And their journey with Jesus will be like that. Here they see. But they’ll completely miss the next thing John reports about Jesus later in this chapter. Two steps forward, one step back. It’s clumsy and messy like a three-legged race. But, Jesus doesn’t check my track record or my story to see if I qualify for life. He doesn’t require me to be impressive enough.

No, whether I’m exploring faith or have journeyed with Jesus for years – a window into his heart reveals the same thing: From beginning to end, for all of life, the whole deal with Jesus is that he takes the cost on himself, beyond necessity and utterly gratuitous, to bring me to himself.

Jesus, I’m empty, thirsty, parched. You are lavish, generous, gratuitous. I receive you. Amen

Image: UCCF Uncover

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Beyond Necessity 2: The Wine


MP3: BEYOND NECESSITY - JOHN 2:1-11

Jesus’ mother says: “The wine has run out”

What happens next?

I. Jesus could do nothing. 
That would be socially acceptable and reasonable. It’s not the guests responsibility to act. Jesus goes beyond necessity and responds. Jesus could say: oh good. Now these people can stop being so happy. The term puritan describes 15th Century Christian believers. It’s been said “puritanism” is the fear that someone somewhere is happy. The characterisation is unfair but Christians can be a lifeless crowd at times. At the Uni bar with Christian students all too often they’ve all ordered water or a coke when the place serves beer.

 II. Jesus, in providing wine, could just make cheap wine. 
 That would be expected. The party is old and no one will notice if the booze isn’t very good. But he goes beyond necessity and makes fine wine, good wine. I was asked to speak on campus at a lunchtime lecture on how Jesus brings fullness of life while we were offered sandwiches made of the most horrible economy bread. Something was out of whack. But, that’s not to say we need to go all hipster/artisan/snobbish about food and drink. But we could learn from Jesus’ culture. Day to day simplicity about food, and then a regular practice of festivals and feasting. I suspect I could use more variety – more plain food, and then more richness. In Jesus’ world food is more than a means of delivering nutrition, we’re made beyond necessity with taste buds.

III. Jesus could make a fool of the Bridegroom of Cana. 
 The man is a numpty who failed on the most important day of his life to provide for his friends and family. I remember towards the end of our wedding reception seeing all the left over food and thinking “we could’ve invited more people” but wedding caterers know what they knew 2000 years ago. You do not risk running out of food. Cana’s bridegroom is a fool, neglectful, stingy… but Jesus doesn’t make a fool of him. In fact he offers him redemption. Quietly. He fixes the problem and only a few of the staff and his friends see it. The best man (chief servant) doesn’t know. The rest of the guests don’t know about it. The man is saved from humiliation. Jesus could take the credit and make a fool of the man – but he doesn’t. And John echoing the heart of Jesus could expose him and record his name but he doesn’t.

IV. Jesus could bring righteous judgement. 
 He’s come into a world that John has described previously as a dark place in which Jesus is a shining light. He could offer a cup of poison and be delivering justice. But he’s going beyond necessity and pointing to something more. He comes eating and drinking. He comes adding life to the party. It’s beyond necessity. It’s gratuitous. It’s lavish. John says: this was Jesus’ first sign (v11), and he revealed his glory (v11). Here is the launch of Jesus. A window into the heart of Jesus. Not stingy, not neglectful, but gratuitous, open handed, gracious. Jesus goes beyond necessity to gratuity. And Jesus is communicating to the careful observer that he is the one who will bring about a great feast. 500 years earlier Israel’s prophet Isaiah had said (25:6-9) that there would be a day when there would be a great celebration on a mountain, with the best meat, the best wine, a day when the people of the world say: this is our God. And we could leave this there and have seen something but there’s something more to catch…

To be continued....

Image - from UCCF Uncover John

Monday, July 27, 2015

For this is what it means to be a king


King Lune at the end of The Horse and His Boy articulates leadership:
“For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.” (King Lune)
First in. Last out. And in the bad years wearing your fine clothes to laugh louder at the little you have.

I love how Lewis voices the third of these through Lune. It strikes me as an easily missing component. The leader doesn't say - these are hard times so let me protect my plate, he doesn't say let me not worry that other lack as I feed myself. The true leader experiences the lack.

And the leader embraces a joviality with the circumstance rather than a misery. Kings know how to feast when there is plenty and they know how to feast when there is lack. They're thankful. They have joy. They are wholehearted. They're first in and last out.

In Lewis' story the exiled Shasta journeys through many struggles, accompanied unknowingly by Aslan. In the end he'll become a Prince, the royal son he was always meant to be but never thought he could be.

Shasta's twin Corin doesn't want to be King, he's happy to relinquish a long anticipated future for the carefree existence of remaining a prince. Shasta however has been trained for leadership through his impoverished childhood, through his dangerous journey. Wisdom grows slowly like fruit. The Horse and His Boy is exactly a book about wisdom, about journey.

Wisdom and folly. Or, pride and humility.

The theme continues in the varied stories of Bree and Rabadash encountering Aslan. Both are proud. Bree humbles himself - and is commended for being quick to do so. Rabadash remains defiant and is transformed into a donkey. Bree has learned wisdom on the hard road, scars and all. Rabadash has failed to become wise as he wielded his power against others.

Leaders are first in, last out, and rejoice even in the hardest times.

Image: Rex Boggs

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Beyond Necessity 1: A window into the heart


MP3: BEYOND NECESSITY - JOHN 2:1-11

For some the hero is Napoleon or Churchill, or a sporting superstar. I find myself inspired by the story of Steve Jobs. I love the combination of passion for beauty combined with high level engineering that Jobs' Apple represent. And perhaps he's just the genius who could make it happen but I'm intruiged.

When Jobs died Walter Isaacson's biography was published. How do you turn an enormous book into a film? That's the job of The West Wing and The Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin. Up there on my list of inspirational people too for the Walk and Talk scenes and characters in The West Wing.

Sorkins approach has been to build his film around the launch moments. Get a window into the man by catching his mindset and his heart around those high pressure moments. I can't wait for the film.

What about a window in to the heart of Jesus?

I know that Jesus provides. His Father in heaven clothes the flowers and counts the hairs on my head. I have no grounds for anxiety. But when life gets bumpy thats how I feel.

I shared this with a wise friend some months ago and he said it sounds like you’re trying to carry the people in your life on your shoulders, and that’s hard work. Imagine instead if you were running a three-legged race with the people around you. It’d be clumsy and messy but a whole lot less stressful. Pondering Jesus I don’t just see him, I get a window into my own heart.

As John shows us the launch of JesusTM, its low key. Films are launched in London - unless you're Alan Partridge in which case there is good reason to launch in Norwich. This is in a little town in Galilee. Yet this account has crossed into our culture. Any church wedding includes the phrase “Jesus attended a Wedding at Cana” and the story of Jesus turning “water into wine” is one of his better known miracles. Few would put the two together, and less know the significance John draws from it.

A brief word on miracles. 
The biographies of Jesus record him doing miracles. If you’ve grown up in the West that might be troubling. We assume that this world is all there is. Suppose you had always lived in a sports hall (like the one our church meets in). One day someone comes in saying they’ve come from Exeter. With them an iPhone, Credit Card, a Crankhouse Coffee. You might examine the devices and coffee and find them extraordinary to your experience of life. What it all means is a question of whether the person seems credible. John marks miracles as signposts. He says: this isn’t normal. And he asks us what they point to.

John asks: What do I make of this Jesus?

Two headings as we approach this account - continued in the next two posts.
1. THE WINE: BEYOND NECESSITY (v10)
2. THE HOUR: WHAT’S FREE COSTS (v4)

Image - from UCCF Uncover John

Monday, July 20, 2015

"A God who adopts us rather than a religion we adopt"


I was told that Trinity is the obscure and difficult bit of the Christian faith. Rather embarrassing because we can't really understand it. I was told: don't read John's gospel with your Muslim friend because that puts Trinity centre stage.

That'd be news to Mark (Matthew and Luke too), as Mark begins by declaring that it is good news that Jesus is the Christ (anointed by the Father with the Spirit) and the Son of God (Son of the Father).
And it's not long before Mark is showing us the Father's delight and love for his Son, conveyed by the Spirit at his baptism. And the Spirit is seen driving Jesus into testing - a foretaste of his suffering - before he announces the nearness of the kingdom of the Triune God.

There's a Western fear of Trinity. One of the classic Systematic Theologies of this generation finally gets to Trinity on page 227 having covered a lot of ground on other subjects. Given Jesus says (Luke 10:20-22) that the only way the Father gets known is by the Son revealing him, God isn't someone you figure out from creation - though the created world is singing about who he is.
Trinity ought to come sooner. Like on page 1?

Our problem may be in part that we build our theology with a strong dose of Greek Philosophy which means we're big on there being one big God who can be described by strings of big God words (omni-this-that-and-the-other) which are probably true, but then Trinity comes in down the line. Here we have One God in Three Persons.

The East (for all its foibles) would rather tell us about Three Persons who are United in Love. There is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we can look at the way they relate to one another - as observed above in Mark's gospel. Their dance tells a story.

The Father loves his Son.
The Father delights in his Son.
The Father gives all to his Son.
The Father rests everything on what his world does with his Son.
As Donald Fairbairn writes: The heart of Christianity is the Father's relationship with his Son.

A story into which we are invited to participate. As Paul writes to the Galatians, we can be baptised into Christ, putting him on as a garment which means we stand as him. We are him to all Trinitarian purposes. We come to the Father in the Name of Jesus. Jew or Greek, Male or Female, Slave or Free, all united IN HIM. Before the throne of God above...

And moreover, the Father who sent his Son into the world also sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts so this is not just skin-deep acceptance but all the way to the heart. And the Spirit cries out Abba Father.

Which is to say: when the Father turns his eye to those who believe in Jesus he sees his Son.
And: when the Father turns his ear to those who believe in Jesus he hears his Son.
Whatever my story, whatever my social background: he'll treat me as he treats his Son. .

And we can join in by the Spirit making us fruitfully more like Jesus, and we can join in and pray as he prays. Which is the point of 'Abba' praying - it's not a question of whether that's a childish or mature 'Daddy' but rather: this is how Jesus talks to his Father. Come and join the divine conversation.

We have the opportunity to line our lives up with who we are if we've entrusted ourselves to Jesus. There's nothing to earn, deserve, or be disqualified by. It's all free. All gratuitous. All gift. Which is thoroughly mind-blowing and awe-inspiring and love-filling.

Monday, July 13, 2015

To live like a Narnian


Picture: A wooden cabin equipped with a few pieces of furniture, where it is raining inside.

Described:
“Not only is it rather delightful to walk around the hut, hearing and watching the water drench the small interior, but such a simple manipulation of reality proves much more powerful in confronting the established understanding of interiority. Turning what we know on its head forces us to interact with our imagination. We tend to think the threats come from outside and shelter is inside. But can we see differently? Will we let our preconceptions be challenged?”
(via Inside Paris' giant sticky tape tunnel - The Architectural Review)

In Lewis' Silver Chair the dour marshwiggle Puddleglum fights the Witch's enchantment
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world…. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."
Her story is a pit and a dull world. Even if it wasn't true his story of Narnia is better.

Imagine. But, he's not just taking a story that sounds better:
“…you can play that fiddle till your fingers drop off, and still you won't make me forget Narnia; and the whole Overworld too. We'll never see it again, I shouldn't wonder. But I know I was there once. I've seen the sky full of stars. I've seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And I've seen him up in the midday sky when I couldn't look at him for brightness." 
 Artist Mako Fujimura says:
 “To have faith takes imagination.” 
(Cultivating Faith: The Work of an Artist)

Not to embrace fantasy, not to an imaginary world.

We get culturally, emotionally and rationally persuaded of the way we see things. We see the way we see.

What would it take to change our story? The haunting memory of something more...  a better argument... a different way of looking at things... a nagging question... a person who changes how we see everything else. All these and more.

Some sort of intervention, just as Harper Lee was steered by an editor to re-write Go set a watchman as To kill a mockingbird. Not all stories are equal, and by early reports the editorial guidance led to a far better account. Lee imagined Atticus and co, but her first piecing together of their world fell short - the re-write revealed a classic.

Stories can be held up against one another, both on their own merits and for their effects.
"...I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
Lewis' essays are persuasive, his stories and pictures grip more deeply. His move from essayist to children's writer was a step up not a step back...

Image - creative commons: Saturnino

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Anguish and Outstretched Arms: God's purpose of election (Romans 9-10)


Similar but more detailed reflections on this subject: PDF Download - How should I think and feel about friends and family who don't believe in Jesus?

One of the dilemmas of Christian faith is that it makes massive claims about eternity. Believe in Jesus and you have life with the good God forever. But, evidently not everyone believes. What do you do with that?

In Romans 9-10 Paul teaches about "God's purpose of election" (9v11). A deeply loaded term but let the context define it. It's a hard passage written as a Q&A with some surprising answers.

Paul wrestles with hard questions - could he give up Christ so his family could have Christ? No, but catch the depth of his heart. He writes with anguish and tears - he's cut deep by his questions.

The original manuscript of Romans 9, if we had it, would be tear-stained.

Election takes knowing God and says it's not about who you're related to, whether you have the advantages of a birthright, good deeds, or anything. The way to life is all gift. Along the way Paul makes many highly disturbing statements.

He says:
There are those of flesh. There are those of promise. (v8)
There are those of works. There are those of faith. (v11)
The initial observations from Abraham's family are ok - until Paul cites Malachi "Jacob I loved, Esau I hated."

But the question anticipates outrage: Isn't God unjust, unrighteous?

No says Paul. It's not unjust for God to love - that's what the cross is about. And it's not unjust to judge - human sin is that bad. He repeats his case - in a way that doesn't seem to advance it, though it draws in the story of the Exodus to amplify things - there are those who get mercy, like those who committed adultery with the Golden Calf, and there are those who are hardened who ignore God's salvation, and through their rebellion Rahab's come to faith.
There are those hardened. There are those who get mercy. (v18)
There are vessels of wrath. There are vessels of mercy. (v22)  
Hard edged categories. Offensive words. Ouch verses. Hard sovereignty? Yes - but here the intention as he quotes Hosea (9v25). A love story, of love that pursues the adulterous, that pursues the betrayer, that goes after those who are going after idols. A story in which:
Not my people are the kind of people who can become his people.
Not loved can become loved.
Which is to say:
The qualification for becoming one of God's people is that you're not.
The qualification for receiving mercy is that you're facing wrath.
Vessels of wrath endured with patience, are perfectly places to become verssels of mercy. On what basis?

The only real issue is the stone in the way - the stone of stumbling and of faith: Jesus. God's purpose of election is about Jesus and he's available as a gift to anyone who will have him. Nothing in a person, their story, their heritage can exclude them. Stumble over him or believe in him and that tells you what kind of vessel you now are.

Paul has four actions when it comes to election:
  • Anguish - Romans 9 is a tear stained page.
  • Prayer - For people.
  • Speech - God isn't reluctant to have people with him. He's not difficult to find. He's near in his gospel word. His arms are open wide all day long. (Chapter 10)
  • Receive - Jesus. To his amazement he has found the one he wasn't looking for (10v20).
Some questions will remain unanswered but there is no reluctance on the part of God. He seeks people. His word has gone out through all the world. He is there, he is not silent, he has never been silent. Christ is revealed - and repeatedly so has those who know him witness about him... and he keeps being found by people who aren't even looking for him.

He stands all day long with his arms outstretched (10v21).

Image: Nathan

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

"None of these is without difficulty"


Last Sunday I preached from 1 Peter 3, on 'An Understated Journey'.
(Download the mp3 here: An Understated Journey - 1 Peter 3:13-22)

Most of which is deeply challenging but fairly straight forward to understand, except that it includes this:
“…he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah…”
 I mentioned this to a friend who is doing a PhD on Peter’s letter. The conversation went something like this:
I said: I’m speaking on this passage. 
He said: That’s the most difficult verse in the New Testament of the Bible. I said: agh! help?!
He said: I’ll listen to the podcast… 
I said: Thanks. Gulp. 
There are two kinds of difficult verses in the Bible…
1. Difficult to understand – like this verse. There are a small number of these.
2. Difficult to live – like “love your enemies.” There are more of these and they’re much more weight-bearing. 
Time to think hard!

  • Peter is describing part of a journey made by Jesus 
  •  What’s clear: Peter is describe Jesus’ journey: suffering, death, being ‘made alive’ and then he says v19: he went… and v22: he went to God (to bring us to God - v18). 
  • •The difficult bit is one part of this journey. Scholars agree that on his journey Jesus was communicating. 

The question is WHERE and TO WHOM.

 Three possible ways to read this:
1. Jesus communicated his final victory over his enemies (Origen. 3rd C.)
2. Jesus communicated, figuratively, through Noah (Augustine, 4th C.)
3. Jesus communicated to unseen heavenly realms, including to those who have rejected God there – including figures mentioned in the account of Noah. 
Contemporary scholar Edmund Clowney notes:
 "None of these is without difficulty." 
German church leader Martin Luther wrote in the 16th Century:
 "I do not know for a certainty what Peter means." 
Peter says Jesus communicated to SOME PEOPLE, SOME WHERE.

The debate is over WHO and WHERE.

I’m not sure too much weight hangs on which answer you think fits best. I think the third probably fits best but 'none of these is without difficulty.' But what's the difference? The passage is descriptive of a journey made by Jesus, and broadly speaking we could find verses to back up him doing all of these things. The gospel of Jesus rings out in the seen and unseen, and throughout the ages.

Which answer I pick changes my understanding of a part of what the cross, resurrection and ascension achieve slightly, it doesn't particularly change the application of the section.

Not all puzzling things carry the same weight.

There are seemingly more significant questions here like – did Jesus rise from the dead - is the Christian hope reasonable? Can Jesus bring people to God? And if so, what’s that God like?

I have plenty of questions I want to ask of others, and I’m glad that there are places to do that and people who can and will and do respond respectfully. In a pluralistic society the message and manner of Jesus says – let’s be respectful and reasonable and responsive to one another. Let’s open up constructive conversation.

My hope is that approaching this question in this way provides some help for other difficult verses in the Bible. These questions helped me navigate.
  • Is it difficult to understand or difficult to apply?
  • What is clear here, what isn't so clear?
  • What are the main historical readings of this?
  • How much hangs on how this is understood?
  • How tentative or confident should I be in my handling of this? 

Image: Dan Partridge for Grace Church Exeter