Thursday, August 27, 2015

God's proposal in his gospel: Love in a Roman Sandwich

Over the past year I've been reading Romans with a few different groups and individuals, and will be doing so again with several more soon. It's been great to dig into this heavyweight letter repeatedly. Working through this passage by passage, seeing it's message unfold, and as with the best stories, things become clearer with repeated viewing.

It's widely agreed that the letter breaks into four coherent sections, which together build Paul's argument as he writes to the church in Rome to catch them up in his attempt to serve the churches of Judea and take the good news of Jesus to Spain.

A few thoughts on part 2: chapters 5-8.

Structure is important in any literature because its one of the tools writers use to convey their message. I think that's particularly true here. Several commentators have identified some kind of chiastic structure, and I've found Peter Leithart's attempt at this particularly helpful (image above). The thought here is that it's like a sandwich with matching layers building to the meat in the middle. In this case five layers.

An argument flows from chapter 5 through to 8, but it also builds through parallels between sections to its centre in chapter 7:1-6.

Layer 1. Love and suffering frame this section. Suffering is described that is relentless, dying daily. This suffering is producing character (chapter 5) and however bad the storm gets will not separate those in Christ from his love. A love anchored in the crucifixion of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A love strong as death, stronger even.

Layer 2. Those in Christ move from Adam to Christ... they come to reign in life but not triumphalisticallyReigning in life is cruciform not triumphalist.  They suffer, weak, groaning, waiting as sons adopted in Jesus. This presents a bigger view of the world that says the world has not always been struggle and will not always be... it was once taken down into death and resurrection awaits.

Layer 3. There's no condemnation for those in Christ... they've been buried in baptism - condemned in Jesus' death and in hope of resurrection. Life is not to be patterned on performance but on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Are you baptised? Then there can be no condemnation, nothing to add.

Layer 4. A change of rule has occurred in those who follow Jesus - from commitment to "flesh" to commitment to "righteousness". The confident assertion of the back end of chapter 6 is tempered by the experience of chapter 7, and the believers raging against their wretched flesh and its persisting desires... in hope of eventual liberty.

Layer 5. At the centre of these chapters is a marriage illustration - framing the move through death and resurrection, from Adam's helpless race to Christ's fruitful family. The old marriage is ended and a new fruitful marriage begins... on the other side of the darkest night, one can stand in Christ's deathless 'always and forever' love. This is God's proposal in his gospel.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Preaching: Communicating faith in an age of scepticism (Timothy Keller)

I've waited for Tim Keller's book Preaching for a long time. I loved listening to his lectures on preaching with the late Edmund Clowney in 2008. I've found his online sermons from Redeemer church in New York to be very helpful. Keller's style draws on the influence of Dick Lucas at St. Helen's Bishopsgate. Lucas has influenced UCCF so it feels like something I've encounted on many occasions. Not least from another of Lucas' disciples, UCCF Director, Richard Cunningham.

As could be expected from a book on peaching Keller's focus is on Bible-centred ministry. The expectation of preaching, other teaching and conversation centred on the Bible - with the book focussed on the first two areas.

In my work on campus we had to assume a mixed room, different worldviews and at different stages of faith. Many 18 year olds who are happy to call themselves "Christian" haven't figured much of that for themselves, and many who wouldn't take the label are prepared to explore different eyes on the world. No reason to assume differently with a gathering of the church... besides even a long-time believer still has unbelief and definitely still needs to hear the gospel of Christ.

Keller speaks to his New York context but the beauty of his book is that he invites us to consider our own context and then to preach Christ there to all people, helping us not just to imitate his application but rather to ask the questions he asks, pursuing the relevant answers in our own context. He illustrates from his own, and ours may differ, but the importance of listening to where people are stands. The same Christ, the same gospel, from the same Bible, applied to different people...

Preaching is a large hardback in a relatively large print, which makes it feel accessible rather than technical, and that's no bad thing. It's just over 200 pages plus a practical appendix, a small paperback. To read the book and then re-listen to a Keller sermon is a useful approach, and then to ask how do have the same sort of goals, but in my voice to the people I'll be speaking to.

In talking about back stage / front-of-house communication, Keller has it nailed - warmly, winsomely, persuasively and engaging speaking of Christ to people.

Keller argues for Christocentric approach, as he shows in his own preaching, that our goal is not "live like this" but rather, you can't but Jesus has. "The change in the room will be palpable as the sermon moves from being about them to being about Jesus." (p179)

Reading Preaching as I prepared a sermon a couple of months ago led me to rework a couple of sections of my script... or rather to finish writing them where I might otherwise have stopped short of the mark. The difference was significant and I'm thankful for the intervention.

Preaching sits alongside a number of very helpful books on the subject, along with James Stewart, John Piper, David Jackman, Charles Spurgeon, John Stott, Andy Stanley, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others - not to mention the many preachers whose preaching and counsel have helped and continue to help me. This is too important not to keep learning.

Preaching: Communicating faith in an age of scepticism has sharpened me, refreshed me and equipped me to think more clearly, to communicate better. It's also helped me to understand Christian faith and to know Jesus better.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Evangelism, evangelistic and being evangelical.

People who follow Jesus talk about Jesus.

Much of the time we feel very awkward about it and sometimes we don't really want to do it. And truth be told, a lot of the time we don't actually do much talking about Jesus, and sometimes we feel bad about that. And then we do it and we do it badly, and we feel bad about that. God's happy people gone glum.

Sometimes church's talk about talking about Jesus. This can happen on a Sunday morning and can be very painful. I've done it. I've tried to do it. It's painful because people don't really want you to do it, and because in such moments you're left desperately hoping no one who isn't a Christian is in the room (scratch that: it makes me wish I wasn't in the room), because the weirdness is through the roof, and talk of manipulating or conquering people makes me want the roof to fall on me now...

At times the church can seem desperate to share the good news of Jesus, and yet its possible to walk out of a church meeting says "I'm so thankful I didn't invite a friend today...".

I do think it is possible to talk about talking about Jesus, and in a sense this post is an attempt to do just that...

A big danger is the development of a back-stage / front-of-house mentality, like Sainsbury's 50p challenge. The posture can be ugly. Which is odd because Jesus' posture never looked ugly.
(Yes there were moment where Jesus spoke to insiders and outsiders... but I'm not sure that's quite the same thing)

Beautiful feet - the characteristic of those who bring good news -  by definition aren't ugly. Weak, vulnerable, careful, but not ugly. There's nothing wrong, intimidating or weird about talking about what you love, what (and who) you believe. In fact, life is more interesting when people do this.

Evangelical doesn't have to mean weird.

And, if church spent its time engagingly talking about what it most loves (that is, if she talked about who she loves) in a way that makes sense to people, whatever their beliefs, then it wouldn't seem strange at all. This doesn't have to be overly intense, or in-your-face - better not to be. Rather, understated, reasonable, patient, gentle, kind and so on (like Jesus).

Evangelical doesn't have to mean rude.

The technical term here is "evangelism". Which just means telling good news. It's related terms - evangelistic (being about telling good news), and evanglical (people of good news). Neither trite, nor glum but filled up with goodness with gravitas.

Evangelical isn't a choice between being trite or glum.

The Christian faith says that the most experienced believer needs the good news of Jesus. Eighteeen years after I was first met by Jesus I still need to be evangelised. He's good news for me from beginning to end. And so too the person who has never considered anything of it. One message for all human beings: Jesus. All of us in need of being evangelised by Jesus. Not played, not manipulated, just invited to meet a person called Jesus.


1. Sunday morning church becomes a good place for anyone to meet with Jesus, where ever they are on their "journey of faith". More evangelism might happen by being evangelistic than by talking about evangelism. Why talk about evangelism when you can talk about The Evangel himself?

2. Preachers would need to learn to communicate the good news of Jesus is a way that is exemplary of how to actually talk about Jesus with other human beings. That surely entails a lot of listening, a lot less assumed agreement - most human beings don't know the Bible, don't agree with most of what it says, think that 'the Bible says' is a reason not to believe something rather than to believe it (and so on).

This, as it turns out, might help all listeners, whoever they are and whatever they believe, to speak more sensibly with others. Churchgoers might become more evangelistic, because we'd know better how to talk with our fellow human beings about all sorts of things.

3. The church could stop being bi-lingual, stop having back-stage/front-stage language, and just be about Jesus from A-Z for all people.  Which might make church more evangelical... astounded, aggravated, interested, intruiged - week by week - by the unimaginable goodness of Jesus.

Evangelical means about Jesus, like Jesus, for Jesus, and for people.

Sainsbury's looks creepy when it wants to manipulate customers to spend an extra 50p, instead of focussing on helping us to "live well for less" and "taste the difference" - which would probably mean we'd spend more...  Church looks creepy when it makes a big deal of talking about talking about Jesus, instead of just talking about Jesus. Which, as it turns out is fairly in keeping with the New Testament documents.

Very little is said about "evangelism" in the Bible. (Not nothing, but not much). What there is is a lot about Jesus. And the persistent expectation is that the God of the Bible is characterised by 'a spreading goodness'. A shining light of self-giving love.

The evangelistic, evangelical, evangelist isn't a Harry Wormwood (in Roald Dahl's Matilda), selling dodgy second-hand cars to unwitting customers. Rather, evangelistic, evangelical, evangelists are people on their own journey of getting to know Jesus better in the middle of life in this world, listening, loving, and inviting others to get to join them along the way.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Big eyes, full of wonder

"Everyone understand the complaint that our disenchanted world lacks meaning, that i this world, particularly youth suffer from a lack of strong purposes in their lives, and so on. This is, after all a remarkable fact. You couldn't even have explained this problem to people in Luther's age. What worried them was, if anything, an excess of 'meaning', the sense of one over-bearing issues - am I saved or damned? - which wouldn't leave them alone. One can hear all sorts of complaints about 'the present age' throughout history: blasphemy and viciousness. But what you won't hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong, that is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning. This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won't 'get to' it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it." (Charles Taylor, p303, A Secular Age)
[A Secular Age is on Tim Keller's master reading list for understanding culture]

Martin Luther is particularly illustrative of his age, a young man overwhelmed by the meaning of life - in stark contrast to our age.

Charles Taylor's diagnosis of this shift - the disenchanting of this world. The move from the heavens declaring the glory of God to the vast empty silence of space, from cosmos to universe. And from a porous self to a buffered self. From meaningful-time to just another day.

As Michael Ward notes, commenting on The Discarded Image, CS Lewis...
"...repeatedly encourages his readers to take a stroll under the sky at night. Looking up at the heavens now, Lewis argues, is a very different experience from what it was in the Middle Ages. Now we sense that we are looking out into a trackless vacuity, pitch-black and dead-cold. Then we would have felt as if we were looking into a vast, lighted concavity.
And, "In space, no one can hear you scream." 

We are left to search within ourselves - for a Disney-shaped hero or a business-book personality description, or whatever else we can find to give us some sense of life. But, as Luther notes "man curved in on himself" is our worst nightmare.

We've allowed the world to be put on mute, and the silence scares the wits out of us perhaps more than the noise did in Luther's day... though the replacement noise of social and other media is perhaps just as terrifying.

Schaeffer noted: "He is there, and he is not silent."

Lewis painted the world of Narnia to help us believe. Not by allegory, for you need biblical literacy to notice that. Rather, by re-enchanting us, by sparking our imagination, by what Charles Taylor calls "cross-purposes" that might awaken our ears to hear again.

Then, like Luther, in the sound of the gospel word, we might look out from ourselves, have our eyes opened - "big eyes, full of wonder" - to be apprehended by the one who has stepped into the room for those of Luther's age, of ours, and of every age.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Harry Potter, Narnia, Boxsets and Biblical Theology

Helpful insight from Andy Naselli:


I have a similar reflection having just finished reading the seven Chronicles of Narnia with my eldest son this month.

The story builds together and the threads make sense. Taking the books in the order they were published rather than chronologically served us well.

We began with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, a magical story in itself, continued the adventure with Caspian and Dawn Treader - familiar characters in an expanded world... then on to Silver Chair and the Horse and his Boy before the beginning with The Magicians Nephew and the end in The Last Battle which draw together the mythology of Lewis' world.

It's wonderful to run into Reepicheep again at the end of the story... to see the old professor we met in the background of The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe identified as one who had witnessed the beginnings of Narnia, and participates in its conclusion.

To trace the themes that recur through the books, whilst also noting the differences - as Michael Ward's work on planets notes the differing influences of each book.

Such is the quality of epic stories.

Similarly to read The Gospels first in the Bible - and then on into the New Testament narrative, to pick up the background in the Old Testament storyline - a story in the same world of Israel, Temple and Kings... before topping and tailing with The Pentateuch and Revelation, the story fits together and makes sense. And re-readings yield increasing fruit and insight that weren't noticed the first time around.

My favourite TV boxsets sadly don't always reflect such a coherent world or overarching story.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Christ is all of these

Christ is compassion
This world is broken and at times that crashes into my life.

In those moments what I need isn't so much an answer as someone who will be there. Christ is not God at a distance, he's God come near to me.

In the pain I'm often numb. It's hard enough to just carry on.

True words are true in these situations but are the things I probably needed to hear and believe before rather than in the middle of the situation.

It is not good to be alone and life's most painful moments are compounded by isolation. I need practical care in the moment - compassion.

He's the one who cares. He weeps with me. He listens. He dwells. He is here. And very often my experience of him is my experience of the Christ-ian who represents him to me by being there.

In time, I may be ready to take a step forward and grow. In this, he who is with me is not silent.

Christ is comfortable
Sometimes in the brokenness of this world I'm longing for something good but I've looked in the wrong place. I want good for my child who is sick and so does Christ though his comfort may not be exactly what I want it to be. Nonetheless all the good desire I have is fulfilled in Christ. In his gospel he speaks '"the comfortable words" (see the Church of England Liturgy) that I truly need though I may not see clearly.

I need Christ-ians to represent Christ to me as the comfort I need, as the one to whom my desires point. One who stands outside of me can help me pursue what is good in Christ rather than in other places. People who can help me to identify my right desire and wrong action, and what those desires are truly made for.

He does not bruise the broken reed.

Christ is confrontational
Comfort alone is insufficent. Sometimes what I want is wrong, it would damage me and/or others, and it conflicts with Christ, setting me against him. In these times he confronts me and calls me to die to myself. The things I'm not prepared to let go are my gods, my idols. We set ourselves up against the LORD and his Christ considering his bonds of kindness to be oppression (Psalm 2) with deathly effects.

I need Christ-ians to represent Christ to me as the confrontation of all that is "not the way its supposed to be" (Neal Plantinga). One who stands outside of me can help me pursue what is good rather than what is bad. People who can help me to identify my wrong desires, recognise this and return to Christ.

Christ is cornerstone
When all is said and done, there is only one upon whom I can build life, there is one to repent to: Christ. And as I walk through life I will either build on him and flourish, or stumble over him to my loss. My daily diet must be to return again to him.

Left to myself: I doubt him. I disbelieve him. I deny him.

And, I need Christ-ians to represent Christ to me as the only good cornerstone. One who stand outside of me can direct me to the life that is found outside of me: he who is all compassion, who is comfort, who confronts, and who is all of these and more.

Image: Creative Commons: aehdeschaine

Monday, August 17, 2015

Preaching Workshop: Uncover Jesus

Helping people grow
I've had the privilege of working with some excellent young men over the past couple of months to prepare them to preach at Grace Church Exeter. I love discipling and training others, helping them to develop their gifts. Growing in preaching is one thread in a larger canvas of this.

We need people who can faithfully and clearly and imaginatively and persuasively and listeningly offer Christ to people, whether from the pulpit or over a meal or a coffee, or walking down the road, formally or informally, frequently or occasionally...

As has been said "the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God" and when God speaks, the Universe gets created... human hearts get re-created. Ministry of the Word (and prayer) is at the heart of the church. Some are set apart to do this full-time but there's a place for many more to play as they work, rest and play.
  • Joe participated in a similar exercise last summer and has become the third member of our preaching team over the past year. Our interaction is largely around preparation for these sermons, though our history includes a term of disipling him at the start of his time at University eight years ago. He's now a school teacher.
  • Scott arrived at our church just under a year ago and we've done a range of theological and biblical training together over the last year. He's also got stuck in to helping us sacrificially as a family in a difficult season. He'll give a day a week to study with me and serve our church team from September for a year, whilst working four days a week as a teaching assistant.
  • Paul, I met when he was studying at University. We've read the Bible together for nearly 4 years alongside other guided reading. He's served and led teams across the church, while studying and since. He has grown into an excellent young Christian man who I feel privileged to know. He did two days a week with our church team last year before starting a graduate job in our city as a pensions advisor. We consider him a part of our family and he is dearly loved by our children.
Growing in preaching
Initially we planned to preach through Esther over 4-5 weeks. I invited my friend Matt Rowland who is a curate at the local Anglican church to helps us get into the Biblical text. I'm very thankful for his input with us.

We spent four evenings together, studying the text before beginning to think about communication and preaching. Our goal is to draw out the meaning of the text, with the conviction that this will centre upon something of who Jesus is as the hero of the Bible, and to deliver this is a way that speaks to people as people, somewhere along their journey of faith, calling for appropriate next steps.

A series
Late in the day, with wise counsel, we switched to preach from John instead of Esther. That set us back a bit in preparation (and meant one person had to withdraw). In some ways this doubled the benefit of our time together - giving us an in depth study of an Old Testament book, consideration of the task of preaching, and then application of all of this to John's gospel.

This intensified the preparation period for actually writing the sermon but I'm not sure thats a bad thing. Its easy to put in lots of extra preparation without gaining much more clarity.

Considering scenes from John's account of Jesus' life set us a simple goal to show something of Jesus so people might explore faith and experience more of Christ. We picked four of the passages in UCCF's six part Uncover John series.

Download mp3s
Here are the four 27-28 minute sermons that came out the other end of our preparation.
I commend them to you to consider the life and work of Jesus.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Three Horizons - Interview with Clive Parnell (Part 2)

Clive Parnell is a friend and former colleague of mine, his latest album Three Horizons is out today. We had a chat about his work.

Continued from previous post.

4. As someone who follows Christ, why is music important to you? 
Music is important to me as I think it is a creative gift that I have to be a steward of, and to enjoy.

I believe we are made in the image of God and part of this is that we are creative.

I love watching the occasional festival on TV, you see all kinds of people raising their hands and singing at the top of their voices - part of being human is being with others, to be part of a body and part of this is celebration and this celebration often involves singing.

I do however feel that this celebration should not be reduced to just a Sunday morning and just with "Worship songs" - I am concerned that many Christians may think the only way to express creativity is to write and lead worship music.

God is so much bigger than this - Christ and the gospel of Christ should impact the whole of life. That is why I have no problem writing songs about theology. relationships, transitions in life, the search for belonging, the search for hope, rest. food, drink it is all under the Lordship of Christ.

I hope this inspires others to explore more and to dig into the depths and heights of who God is in the whole of life and inspires creativity.

5. How is this reflected in your family and your church? 
I guess I encourage my family to be creative but don't force music lessons on them, It has been encouraging to see my son playing bass and my daughter playing piano (in fact I wrote three songs on her keyboard) - I also want my family to engage with popular culture and often chat about art, music and film with them as well as discussing the news and worldviews.

As far as Church I want to encourage the visual and so we use powerpoint in talks. We also have blank walls in the sanctuary and change these each time we change the sermon series. We also run a festival as part of the Edinburgh fringe. We have various genres of music and an art exhibition. I realise not everyone is in to art but we can all be creative in various ways.

6. What are your hopes for this album?
My hopes for this album are that people enjoy it - I hope that we are able to get some airplay on local and national radio so people may enjoy it but that it may generate discussions on areas such as the journey of life there are three horizons there - start, middle and end.

I think this album, more than any I have written before can go way beyond the Church walls - not in a preachy way. I don't think it is. But in a way that brings life - for somebody to be inspired, for somebody to sense joy - I am also making this album in partnership with MAF and they work on three horizons - flying out to bring help food, medicine, water and the good news to some of the most needy people in the world through flying tiny please into remote areas. 30% of the sales of the CD is going to support their work.

So I hope this brings life.

I hope that it may inspire others to pick up a pen and write and inspire others to focus beyond their own horizon.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Three Horizons - Interview with Clive Parnell (Part 1)

Clive Parnell is a friend and former colleague of mine, his latest album Three Horizons is out on Monday 10th August. We had a chat about his work.

1. What provoked me to write this album? -
Good question - ah where do I start?  I started working on another batch of songs that followed the last album, songs that were more from the church for the church (worship) but in the middle writing these songs I started writing what I would called singer/songwriter songs. Songs about the whole of life. You can't force these songs. When they come they come. But I think there was a moment that sparked it.

I am creative person so even going for a walk involves me interpreting the world around me.

I noticed a lot of swallows gathering on some rooftops and saw this happening for a few days in a row. I had read a newspaper article that said this happens before they fly off together to South Africa. It is crazy to think these tiny birds fly all the way from the UK to South Africa but not only that they rest there and come back again - therefore the idea of migration and journey came to me. Migration has a purpose the animal kingdom migrates with a purpose but in the midst of that there is adventure, rest and hope. I guess this sparked a host of journeys considering the whole aspect of being home, away from home then returning home.

I also did a masters in theology, and in particular hermeneutics. In many ways you could narrow these down to "Three Horizons" What's behind a text? What is the text (genre)? and what does the text mean (application)? - within this there is study from people like Vanhoozer looking at the performative work of the word.

Words have a transformative affect so when a couple say the simple words "I do" when getting married these work on different horizons. I am also exploring this in a creative melodic way - wow there is a lot of jargon there and it doesn't sound very rock and roll

2. Who or what has particularly influenced the creative process this time? 
In September/October 2014 I went to about 6 gigs which is unusual for me as I am normally performing. It was really refreshing to hear different artists. It inspired me to try and write songs that connect with everyone. Songwriting is a craft and I have not arrived by any means. It has been great to write some of the songs on this album with David Lyon who also plays keys in the band.

There is a real discipline to writing at times, and we worked on this together for over a year. Meeting up once a month in a studio in the middle of Glasgow. Sometimes we would come with half a song, or a small idea or no ideas, but we would write, chat, eat, write a bit more.

It was not always straight forward as what is inside your head does not always transpose or you get different ideas, and they don't sit together. I love how there is healthy tension in working with others as it reminds us that if we want to develop we have to be willing to listen, learn and improve and that is very humbling at times. in addition to above - Graeme Duffin and Sandy Jones have a wealth of experience, they bring lots of creative ideas to the table and are able to develop the songs.

I tend to go into the studio with the songs with a structure and a vibe in mind - this album has a indie/folk/soul vibe

3. How has this made a difference to your life? 
There can be a real insecurity in being an artist - on your worst day you think: who on earth cares about this music? Why do I really need to bother? On the best days you hear how a song has really impacted somebody's life. To be honest - with all the different plates I juggle I wondered if I should really make another album at the start of the year. It involves so much work behind the scenes too.

Objectively there are thousands of bands out there - does the world need another album? would be a passing question in my mind - But then the songs started coming, walking the dog, sitting on a train,and driving in the car. I started to see afresh that the songs are not just about making a CD but it is part of who I am.

I write and make music because that is who I am. It is who I have been made to be. If it was only my dog who heard my music I would still write as that is part of my gifting. So I guess this process has shown me that it is important to use your gifts and that art is important. It is a language, it does make a difference and it may not be the language everybody gets, but I do believe it impacts our hearts in a way few other things do.

To be continued on Monday.