Thursday, September 24, 2015

Every little thing's gonna be alright?

No. Jesus never said that.

To follow Jesus isn't a pathway to prosperity. I grew in the secular west (as you might've), wanting to be healthy, wealthy and live for a long time. And none of those three things are necessarily bad. But, they're just not promise the Bible offers.

I believed the secular edition of the so-called prosperity gospel (which is no gospel at all because it simply cannot deliver, and when occasionally the system falls in your favour its no real salvation to have some more cash in the account).

The Christian 'gospel' is Jesus. Follow Jesus and you get him. You get him, and his Father in heaven as your father, and the Holy Spirit who fills the believers relationship with Jesus and adoption by his Father with his self-giving life.

For most of my life everything basically went ok. I passed my driving test first time. I didn't quite get the A-levels I wanted but I still got on to the course I wanted to do. I couldn't really do that course but I just passed it. And I've been employed pretty much continuously for 15 years since I graduated. (Though my current contract has an end date that gets closer by the day...)

Over the summer I realised how easy it is to 'trust God' when the money is coming in. You can say all sorts of things when you know the bills can be paid. I never struggled with anxiety. But when that security falls it's a different story.

Firstly, there's learning to trust God when its a tougher. And secondly, there's realising what came before wasn't really trusting at all, it was just the luxury of financial security - which some people have and many don't.

Anyone can look confident in God when the sun is shining.

The challenge has been similar facing serious illness with my wife and one of our children over the past three years. As things wobble, creak and smash into a thousand pieces on the floor, I begin to get the opportunity entrust myself to one who is entirely trustworthy.

Yet: the temptation is to believe he can't be trusted. I sin like Adam - betraying the one who loves me. Denying him, turning in on myself, assuming he's out to get me, rather than to rebuild and renew me.

"Through many dangers, toils and snares."
Remaking me isn't plain sailing.
The bumps aren't abberations.
In this messed up storm of a world, maybe the calm spots are the freak times.

Take up your cross. Hard-pressed. Many trials. That's what Jesus said.

The temptation is the trite answer. Baptising disney promises with Christian language.
"Search for the hero inside yourself..."
"Reach for the stars..."
Kill me now...

In troubled times I need a listening ear and practical help more than words.
Words are great for preparation and fortifying in the lulls.

I was humbled today to see a friend who has been through a far far worse than me in the past five years with his family. He made time for me. Keller's Walking with God through suffering in his bag. His storm has subsided a little lately, and he's refreshing himself with the help of another.

In the midst of it all: pray, weep, be. Silence. Coffee. Hugs. Time.
In those moments easy answers do more to make the speaker feel that they've helped than actually help. Though even the most blundering attempts at love are loving.

Words run out when I try to pray with my friend facing a horrible and chronic situation.

In the end: amazing. Yes. But generally not yet.
In the end: Jesus. And, in the middle of it all: Jesus.
This God knows what the storm is like.

Another friend, reminded me of this verse yesterday:
"A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed."

Jesus knows prosperity, resurrection, on the otherside of crucifixion.
He prospers having generously given himself for me.
He refreshes me and so knows refreshment in heaven.

Paul writes to Philemon:
"you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people."

I need such brothers, and I'd like to be such a brother. A refreshment to others hearts.

The Father promised his beloved Son. Utterly loved, crucified in love, for love, because I betrayed him. He is exceedingly more than enough in the darkest nights and as the dawn breaks.

"A bruised reed he will not break, 
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out."

Image: Broken Taco - Creative Commons.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The fatherly kindness of the kind Father

On the face of Romans 1:16-2:5 is about divine wrath and offers a list of sins. Culturally its highly offensive and uncomfortable. Applied however it offers a look in the mirror that invites us to receive divine kindness as good news whoever we are. It's a challenging study to have done at the end of freshers week in our second student Bible study of the year!

Unashamed of good news
Paul isn't ashamed of his gospel. What is that? What excites him? What makes him bold? Revelation - God has made known righteousness by faith. Not a new thing - he cites Habakkuk - but now it is coming. Now it is enacted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In the Old Testament people have been made righteous by God and much sin has been tolerated. How can that be done justly? How can God justly justify ruinous people? That answer waits until Romans 3:21-26 but before that much has to be established.

He tells of people who are without excuse. Those who have had a plain revelation of God made to them. And they have suppressed this and exchanged this truth for a lie, exchanging worship of Creator for worship of creation. Everything has been turned upside down. Sounds like Israel's story.

Therefore "God gave them up to..." Three times (24-25, 26-27, 28-32)

Paul says God let them get on with their self-destruction in all kinds of directions. Our culture might want to debate whether such things are so wrong, but for Israel - the focus of his discussion - they were according to the law. And the surrounding descriptions of being malicious and debased make clear that such a way of life is bad.  None of this is news - reading the Old Testament tells us this is how Israel often lived. That's not to say that the whole world isn't the same in the same ways -- its just not the focus here.

In his fatherly kindness God allows us to go our own way - much as the sons in Jesus' parable pursue their religious and irreligion (Luke 15), but in giving them up he doesn't abandon them, he remains concerned to welcome and embrace them into his family, when perhaps they are awakened by his gospel.

Is this to be understood as God's wrath revealed? 
I think not - at least not in full. He says that wrath is revealed - but also that this is stored up for the day of wrath. The Old Testament scandal isn't too much wrath but not enough. God's forebearance makes him look lightweight on human evil and injustice. And even when he turns to speak of the cross - it's not wrath revealed against humanity in general but turned aside from us onto the Second Adam, Jesus.

A day of wrath is to come but need not be faced by any. Tragically it will be because we presume to know better than God to our destruction.

Another warning in chapter 2:1-5. Don't judge others. It seems instinctive for members of Adam's helpless race to judge one another, to look down on others who are 'sinful' and elevate ourselves. Paul says don't go there. We're all the same. We go different ways but to the same end.

We should understand from God's patience with humanity that he is being kind. He lets us sin - which will have negative consequences for his own reputation (2:20, 3:21-26) but gives people opportunity to repent to him.

A gospel-shaped life
(1) Don't judge others sin - we're all the same.
(2) Pay personal attention to God's kindness to you, and turn to Christ.

If he'll be so kind to me as to give me time to return to him, how can I look down on another? What a challenge to the believer's posture in this world? Where we're perceived as judgemental and hypocrites, might we become bearers of good news of the kindness of God. Nothing to be ashamed of  in Christ there is kindness for any who will turn to Christ. Power to save any. If we dare believe such news.
"...they have rejected the fatherly invitation of God. And though all the gifts of God are so many evidences of his paternal goodness, yet as he often has a different object in view, the ungodly absurdly congratulate themselves on their prosperity, as though they were dear to him, while he kindly and bountifully supports them. Not knowing that the goodness of God, etc. For the Lord by his kindness shows to us, that it is he to whom we ought turn, if we desire to secure our wellbeing, and at the same time he strengthens our confidence in expecting mercy... But if any one brings this objection — that the Lord sings to the deaf as long as he does not touch inwardly their hearts; we must answer — that no fault can be found in this case except with our own depravity.[He] lead us, rather than invites, ...not the sense of driving, but of leading as it were by the hand." (Calvin)
Left to myself I doubt he is so kind. I try to minimise my sin. I try to justify myself. I try to elevate myself over others. But, the gospel of Jesus says - give up yourself and your own ways, and however bad it has got, however far you've strayed, turn and receive Christ.

In his Son he shows us his "fatherly kindness" (Calvin) for he is a kind Father. As Paul will says in chapter 10, let those who weren't seeking be found, those who didn't ask come to know him.

Further reading: Mark Horne - How is Wrath Revealed?

Picture: Ian Sane - Creative Commons

Monday, September 21, 2015

Amazing grace

It's been noted that grace isn't a thing but a person, Jesus. How do you find grace? Do you have to seek it? Ask for it? Achieve or deserve? Do I want it enough - do I want Jesus enough to come to him? Agh!!

In Hosea 2 God says "I will allure her..." to win his people for himself. Who? Those who are pursuing other lovers for their souls. As we run hard away from him, so he pursues us in Christ. When I don't want him, he's for me.

Or, famously, take the younger son in Jesus' parable. Returning to his father (Jesus) the son asks to be a servant. As he puts on his religious best and offers to knuckle down with more effort this time, he is received as a son, once dead and lost, now alive. When I think I have something to offer, he welcomes me into his family.

Or, in Romans 10, those who try to be righteous themselves miss God, but those who don't seek, who don't ask, those he finds, those he reveals himself to. While others to whom he holds open his arms stumble over Christ.

Or, the older brother in the above parable. His father (Jesus) goes out to find him but is met with religious objections about what he deserves to be paid by comparison to his undeserving brother. While I'm busy performing and grumbling, he's seeking me.

Equally, Jesus says - those who ask receive the Spirit (Luke 11), those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10). And He asks (Genesis 3): where are you? to rebels, to ruins...

To ask and to call is to do what Ole Hallesby observed: our best prayer is our helplessness.

I'm poor, he has riches.
I'm dead, he has life
I'm running away, he seeks me.
I'm not looking for him, he steps into my path.

"Am I worthy?" enough is a peculiar question in Christianity. I am not. But I'm not asked to be.

I need to be rescued from my rebellious irreligion and my rebellious religion. I'm in a hole that I jumped into and now can't get out of and don't want to get out of - but he takes hold of me and nothing is sweeter.

Only Christ, the Spirit-anointed self-giving Son of the self-giving Father would and could do what he does for me. Amazing Jesus how sweet the sound. Jesus is not earned or deserved, he is the gift of God.

The Christian faith says this is for you because of Jesus. He does all. He does everything. He is everything. A Christian relationship with God is objective before it is subjective - I totally think there is experience to be had, but that's secondary to the cast iron reality of Christ standing on my behalf on the basis of what he has done for me. It's mine by faith - as I lean on him, but only because he carried all for me.

Image: Mustafa Khayat - Creative Commons

Friday, September 18, 2015

Christian student? Find a church.

I posted this:
Let me explain a bit more.

For a start, whether you're a Christian student or you have other beliefs or are just exploring: find a church. It's a great way to get involved in life in your city and burst the student bubble.

But, if you are a Christian then church is your global family and it's worth getting to know them.

1. Research churches
I went to Uni when the internet was just being born. Today you can know about churches in your student city. Look online. Get a feel for some.

UCCF will help you find your Christian Union who will introduce you to a local church. And Fusion's Student Linkup will help too. There's no lack of information.

Chances are you've never chosen a church before and it can seem a bit overwhelming.
My top tip? Listen to some sermons - particularly from whoever looks like they're the regular preachers. 
Ask yourself: (1) do they talk about Jesus, (2) do they get what they say from the Bible, and (3) when my Uni friends want to come to church (which they will) would they feel welcomed, or is it assumed they're not there? 
Why sermons? (1) That's where you hear the heart-beat of the church, It is.
(2) In the long haul it's the teaching that makes the place. 
The worship might be cool, the coffee might be the best (thankfully ours is great!), and people may or may not be friendly enough to you. But it's The Word of God that is where the life is because the God of the Christian faith is a God who speaks, and the heart of what he speaks about: Christ crucified. Listen for that.
2. Commit soon.
Most student cities have lots of decent churches - students go to a dozen in our city. Please don't visit all of them or it'll be Christmas and you won't have settled anywhere. Give yourself a few weeks to visit a few, then...

a) Join a home group and love people
If you've come from a church back home and been there all your life there are two things that are probably true - firstly, you felt like you knew people, and secondly, it was probably fairly small - the average church only has a around fifty people.

Student city churches - and often those popular with students who can afford to put some staff into student support - tend to be larger. In a large church you're never going to know everyone and you don't actually want to. You need friends outside church. You'll be there half the time and often will sit with people you don't know. Enjoy meeting new people and different people. They're either your brothers and sisters or they're exploring faith - go get to know them!

Be aware that in student cities the population can be quite transient - half of our church have only been with us less than a year. No one really knows anyone. Those who look like they do are faking it. If you surround yourselves with students on a Sunday people will assume you have enough friends. Don't sit back waiting to be talked to by people - go talk to people yourself. Be the grown up!

And, that's where a home group is key. Get in people's lives and homes. You'll be the most flexible and available person, so fit around their lives. Babysit. Clean. Help out. Go shopping with locals. I've seen people do that with my family and it blows me away - they also have a really rich student experience.

Christian growth happens in 'one another' relationships. Don't go it alone. You need other people to knock the edges off you and to spur you on to grow.

b) Get on a rota
Churches take work to run what they do. In our church a Sunday takes 50 people... we suggest people serve one week in four on one team which means 200 people needed to create an envirovment in which people can explore, experience and express God's goodness. And, serving is a great way to grow your character. Plus, when you're on a team you get to know people.

I've seen students serve on every team in church life, and even be humble enough to lead teams.

c) Set up a standing order
That's a bit un-British and I doubt a church will ask you do this when you first visit. But, money reveals the heart... you have a budget (whether you realise it or not) and you will spend all your money one way or another.

You probably don't have lots of money but give from what you have. If you can tithe do - and by 'can' I don't mean you can afford it, but that it'll be sacrificial for you. Giving costs you really good things you wanted to do. Make sure you pay your bills, and live as generously as the grace of God to you. If you think you're stingy, ask for more grace...

And, when you're "paying" for your church you'll value it. That might sound cold, but it's true... and you're a grown-up now so pick up a spade and get stuck in.

And when you commit, and love, and serve and give the strangest thing happens: it becomes your church, and you'll say "We..." rather than "They..." about the good and the bad. Truth be told, Church is annoying and frustrating and painful and "the happiest place on earth."

Update - I was previously responsible for student ministry at Grace Church Exeter where the team will giev you a warm welcome. I'm now a Minister at Beeston Free Church where I'm overseeing student ministry. I hope you'll be warmly welcomed at either of these churches or the countless other churches who care passionately about students - not least because very many of those you'll meet there were once students.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Christianity IS boring, irrelevant and untrue...

The question is asked - Is Christianity boring, irrelevant and untrue? It's a leading question and the answer is meant to be no... but I've been thinking...

1. Christianity is boring
The Christian faith isn't entertainment for the soul. As an 18 year old new believer I wanted to be a history maker, to be a world changer. Not actually because of my faith but because I was an ambitious 18 year old.

Now at 36 I'm a mortgaged, National Trust member, married with three young children. And life is thoroughly ordinary. Maybe I missed the adventure I was meant for, maybe I compromised... but life's just a whole lot more droll and ordinary than my 18 year old self wanted to admit. Life is humdrum most of the time, punctuated with moments of feasting and fasting, with reminders of a bigger story than me.

The Christian faith occurs in the ordinary of loving my family (which includes food shopping and cleaning and listening), in friendship, in going to work, in showing hospitality and justice.. as well as in wonder and worship. At it's heart Christianity is the story of God who in Christ became ordinary and weak not impressive, and Christians who follow the Christ are something like that.

2. Christianity is irrelevant
It's a god of our age that demands helpfulness as a virtue. Christian faith isn't helpful, it's inconvenient and even harmful to the life I thought I was going to live. It challenges my ethics, time and pretty much everything really...  and my friends and family who don't know Christ get through life ok most of the time.

That's not to say that I don't think Christ offers the most coherent worldview for life that 'works' especially when life hurts. But 'works' really rather depends what you think this all "is"...

3. Christianity is untrue
Depends here what you mean by truth. But, I grew up with an immanent worldview. This world is all there is. This frame is my universe. Christ steps into the room from outside and says nothing is the way I thought it was. I don't default to believing Christian faith. I default to considering myself good, God absent or bad, people for my convenience... and the Christian faith asks me to turn 180 degrees and see everything and know everything differently.

The Christ is not the way to an exciting, cool, true life. The Christ is the way to his Father, and to renewed humanity - rebuilding everything from the ground up, and to participation in his family and the renewal of all things forever. That's not the life I always wanted. It's not the life I am predisposed to seek out.


...God, who said,“Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)

And encountering Christ ruined everything I thought life was about.

Image: Lex McKee

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Lord's Supper: The worthiness we can bring to God

John Calvin, at length, from the Institutes of Christian Religion 4.XVIII.40, 42:
Paul enjoins that a man examine himself before eating this bread or drinking from this cup (1 Cor 11:28). He meant that each should descend within himself, ponder with himself whether he:
  • Rests with inward assurance of heart upon the salvation purchased by Christ;
  • Acknowledge it by confession of mouth,
  • Aspires to the imitation of Christ with the zeal of innocence and holiness;
  • After Christ’s example he is prepared to give himself up for his brothers and to communicate himself to those with whom he shares Christ in common;
  • Is counted a member of Christ, he in turn so holds all his brothers as members of his body;
  • Desires to cherish, protect and help them as his own members.
Not that these duties of faith and love can now be made perfect in us, but that we should endeavour and aspire with all our heart toward this end in order that we may day by day increase our faith.
Let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine for the sick, solace for sinners, alms to the poor’ but would bring no benefit to the healthy, righteous and rich – if such could be found. For since in it Christ is given to us as food, we understand that without him we would pine away, starve and faith – as famine destroys the vigour of the body. Then, since he is given us unto life, we understand that without him in us we would plainly be dead.
Therefore, this is the worthiness – the best and only kind - we can bring to God is to:
  • Offer our vileness and (so to speak) our unworthiness to him so that his mercy may make us worthy of him;
  • Despair in ourselves so that we may be comforted by him;
  • Abase ourselves so that we may be lifted up by him;
  • Accuse ourselves so that we may be justified by him;
  • Aspire to that unity which is commends to us in his Supper to desire one soul, one heart, one tongue for us all.
If we have weighed and considered these things well, these thoughts, though they may stagger us, will never lay us low. How could we, needy and bare of all good, befouled with sins, half-dead, eat the Lord’s body worthily?

Rather, we come as:
  • Poor to a kindly giver;
  • Sick to a physician;
  • Sinners to the author of righteousness;
  • Dead to him who gives us life.
We shall think that the worthiness which is commanded by God, consists chiefly in faith, which reposes all things in Christ, but nothing in ourselves, in love – and that very love which, though imperfect, is enough to offer to God, that he may increase it."

Image: Alex Leung - Creative Commons.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Lord's Supper: God stuck between your teeth?

A rough sketch of some thoughts around The Lord's Supper.

Sanderson Jones, founder of The Sunday Assembly is intrigued by the experience Communion offers.
  "It's an idea that you can taste, I have some imagination, so this idea of grace and forgiveness... suddenly that idea of the divine is in your mouth. What a concept! It gets stuck in your teeth. It's something which is really interesting for me – what can I learn from that? How can you give people an experience?" 
The church isn't gnostic and unphysical - it has something tangible in its life.
“We smell good to God because we smell like Jesus…because we eat Christ every Sunday morning.” James B. Jordan 
 “The Lord’s Supper is simply the gospel (in edible form)” Anonymous 
Kevin Vanhoozer writes in The Drama of Doctrine reflecting on historical discipleship in the church:
“The ancient practice of Catechesis was a kind of ‘dramatic journey’ that sought to train new believers to participate fittingly in the Christian life. The instruction that early followers of Jesus received involved learning Scripture and educating desire. (Covering The Apostles Creed, The Lord’s Prayer and Ethics). The sermons and other instruction in Scripture were designed to entice people into the dramatic narrative of God with God’s people. The process of instruction typically culminated in the catechumen’s baptism, a dramatic entry into the drama of God – into the very life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 
Communion sets the shape of the church’s story.
“Without the Eucharist it is very easy for us to imagine Jesus as a great example, great teacher, or a great hero.” Table Talk 
And yet there is much confusion about the meal at the centre of the life of the church - the eucharist, communion, the Lord's Supper, the divine liturgy... even what we call it isn't always clear.

Ridley and Latimer were martyred for their view on The Lord's Supper in the politically charged context of 1554. John Piper notes that who could eat communion was the key issue in the sacking of Jonathan Edwards. More than martyrdom and sackings, this meal is about the crucifixion of Jesus. The issues on the table about The Table are issues of what the cross of Christ means and how we participate in all its benefits today.

Five positions in brief
1. Roman Catholic - the bread and wine are no longer here, the body and blood really are here.
2. Luther - Christ is with in, under and the bread.
3. Calvin - by the Spirit, Christ is present in the bread and wine.
4. Zwingli - Christ is in heaven, we remember with bread and wine in a solemn commemoration.
5. Schmemann (Eastern) - similar to the Catholic approach, but focus on this is a gift to us. We receive and are then sent out for the life of the world.

Positions 2,3,4 are Protestant and condemned by Rome at Trent. Calvin's focus on the Spirit clarifies the presence of Christ in a way other than the Catholic belief which he claims is overstated, and goes further than Zwingli who Calvin suggests makes too little of the meal. I love the gift emphasis in Schmemann (with thanks to Michael Hyatt for his audio commentary).

Liturgy is the pattern of the church. Historically the church has held a basic pattern of liturgy, some streams of the church reject this but probably end up inventing their own liturgy in search of significance and out of necessity to have some order.

Historical pattern from Justin Martyr, and the Anglo/Catholic and Eastern churches.
Part 1. Preparation and gathering (confession)
Part 2. Liturgy of the word (readings, preaching, creed)
Part 3. Liturgy of the sacrament (the Table)

Some worry that coming to the table too often will reduce it's value and turn it into a lifeless ritual... though few such people worry about this happening with its sung worship and preaching.. alternatively some worry that value is lost by infrequency, though rare things are prized too. As an Evangelical who has spent a good amount of time outside more formal church traditions I'm aware of the impoverishment we experience in lack of focus and explanation around the Table.

The Lord's Supper is climactic moment in the life of the church - a great banquet. I, for one, want to think more about this, to learn more of this, and to get more often to the table.

"As we break bread, as we pour wine, the Spirit shows us the love of Jesus for us." (John Hindley, Calvinistically.)

Not so much God stuck between your teeth, but by the Spirit, Christ stuck in your heart.

Further reading?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

What are the questions?

I read this on a church website recently. And I'm not criticising them or their website but I wonder whether its quite on the money...
For as far back as we can trace, mankind has always been searching for the truth to two questions; firstly, ‘Is there really a God?’ and secondly, ‘If there is a God, how does that affect me?’
Partly, Charles Taylor gets me thinking that questions change over time and cultures. Taylor notes that today people ask is there any meaning at all... whereas 500 years ago the question was more framed by: there's too much meaning.

It was unlikely that people in Europe would've been asking: is there really a God? 500 years ago. God and a meaning-drenched Universe were taken as read... whereas today we've put the Universe on mute and today in a post-Christian West our question might be more about whether: if there's a God is he good... while a big and impersonal God is the God we don't believe in.

Similarly as we presume upon good health, the question of suffering becomes massively important... and as our culture's ethics and moral norms change we're freshly offended by particular biblical teachings... yet, deep in the human heart the same distrust, disobedience and denial of the goodness of God remains.

In an ever changing world what are the questions? I suppose there's only one way to find out: to listen, and listen well to those around us. And then together we might pursue honest answers to honest questions, and find meaningful answers to the things that keep us awake at night, and even learn from others to ask questions that, for whatever reasons, haven't yet occured to us.

Image: In Question

Friday, September 11, 2015

The student experience can be amazing

This weekend thousands of students arrive in Exeter. Fifty of them did a Student Linkup over the summer at a Christian festival to get connected to church... I imagine a similar number have connected with the Christian Union (with a significant overlap between them).

Scare statistics abound but there's no need for a Christian student to be afraid of the University experience. There's no need for anyone to be afraid of it.

For years I worked with The Christian Unions. Amazing bands of brothers and sisters who love Jesus and want to know more about him and give other students the opportunity to explore his claims. Sometimes they're geeky, sometimes they're not - but they're made up of students who what do you expect. Sometimes they swing one way on the church spectrum, sometimes the other, but they love Jesus and that's what matters.

And then there are churches - to turn to my current working context. In every University town or city there are good churches today - evangelical communities, people who love Jesus and are figuring out what it means to follow him alongside people who are figuring out whether they want to follow him. Most who arrive at Jesus have never had to choose a church before - it's a weird luxury.

Ask yourself - do they love Jesus, and could I bring my mates here to explore faith with me? If yes, join. Get to know some people.

At University I met people who thought differently to me. I'd grown up not following Jesus and among the Christians I met I found people who were more thoughtful, who had more experience of life than me, among those who weren't I also found people more thoughtful than me with more experience of life. I loved the opportunity to live day in day out with others, to share life and work and play together.

At University I've seen people begin to follow Jesus and see the direction of their life change.

At University I've seen people catch a vision for what they can do in this world.

At University I've seen children become adults.

At University I've seen people mess up and find grace.

At University I've seen people learn to look at the world differently.

At University that was me, and many others.

Yes, sometimes its hard - though remembering to sleep when its dark and work when its not, to do your washing, to eat fruit and veg and do some exercise really does deal with a lot of the challenges - if you can make a few friends to share the journey with.

Sometimes people forget to be in the city they're in. The student experience can be a bubble that's hard to break out of. It's one of the great things about church - you can go and sit on the sofa of a family in the city...  meet the locals.

Also, there's all the local life to enjoy. Where we are that means beaches and Dartmoor, and the crazy Ottery Tar Barrels to name a few things. Enjoy the summers and winters of 2016, 2017, 2018...

When you mess up - get help.

Sometimes it'll feel lonely - so invest early on in friendship.

Enjoy your course - its your job, it's good for you to work.

Ask hard questions of yourself. Why do I care about what I care about?

One last thought - the student community is a peer led community... you can bow to peer pressure like most people do, but you don't have to. And generally, if you know who you are and what you're about you'll be streets ahead of other people and gain their respect rather than their rejection.

And if you're not sure what you're about (which most of us rarely are)- the Christian Union and the local church would love to walk with you, not feeding you pat answers, but pursuing honest answers to honest questions. 

Image: Exeter Med School.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

"See the blazing love of the Father and the Son for you"

You can do a lot with an hour. Yesterday morning I dropped in on a friend and we had some breakfast, read the Bible and prayed together. It was punchy and because we've been doing this for over three years (not always over breakfast) and are committed to helping one another to grow, there's no need for awkward cagey commentary about life - we can, easily enough, tell it as it is.

Time with people and the Bible: a gift that walks me back into the arms of Christ.

We're reading a bit of Ephesians together and I was very much refreshed by our brief look at 2:1-10 this morning. For my own benefit, and perhaps for yours, a few things that struck me.

If there's not much wrong in this world not much help is needed, and if not much help is needed then anyone can do what is required. I persuade myself of the middling and mediocre story and allow myself to be numbed. Headlines and disturbing images awake us from our stupor for a moment, but this also passes easily enough.

Verses 1-3. The darkness in me...
As Paul writes to the kinds of people who call themselves Christians, in first Century Ephesus his analysis of humanity is bleak. We were dead (several mentions of death on this page - in the previous and next section too). Disobedient. Deceived by others. With corrupted desires. And standing under divine wrath. Here I'm reminded of Neal Plantinga's book Not the way it's supposed to be, with its penetratingly Biblical diagnosis of fallen humanity.

Left to my own devices I don't think things are so bad. It's suits me to think that things ok. And yet, nothing in these verses feels alien. It resonates, its reasonable, its real life. We look back on those who went before us and are scandalised, so people will be by us, by our blindspots and perverse assumptions about what is and isn't ok in this world. By the grace of God not perhaps as bad as we might be, and we are given our latest breath to breathe...  I am not holier than thou, we're the same, family, very much alike. This story we might disagree, dispute or deny. But as Glen Scrivener puts it: it's happening.

Verses 4-7. A God unlike any other.
But God. By contrast. Rich in mercy. Great love. Intending to show the immeasuable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. Utterly unlike me. Utterly unlike any God I would ever imagine.

He takes what is dead and raises, and seats us... for in chapter 1 Paul tells us that Jesus was dead but is now raised and seated... what happened to Jesus happened to us... it happened to him because it needed to happen to us. Death is terrible, but this God of rich mercy, great love, immeasurable riches, grace and kindness IN CHRIST is into resurrection.

Left to myself, I picture God as indifferent at best, or against me. And myself left to whatever I can accomplish. My plans. But this word shines into my darkness and invites me to receive from the one whose arms are wide open. As my old boss Tim Rudge put it last week "Look again to the cross, see the blazing love of the Father and the Son for you."

Verses 8-10. Rebuilding my life.
By grace, by faith, not works, not my doing. The shape of this IN CHRIST salvation is all gift, and - as in Paul's other letters - it takes on my boasting, it takes on my self-promotion and nullifies it. Not boasting, rather I can walk in the good works I was made for. I'm seated IN CHRIST but get to walk here. Receiving the gift that is this participation in the Triune life I can gift to others.

Left to myself I boast. I care what others think of me and validate myself by them and my own view of myself. I locate my meaning inside myself. This word confronts me with magnificent comfort. This word turns me to think less about myself and more of Christ. 

In the light of his love, what a privilege to be a tiny mirror, reflecting glints and glimpses of his glory - a glory that, Ephesians 1 says, is worth praising, which is to fill all things... what kind of glory? Glory that is Christ, matchless mercy, lavish love, great grace, kaleidoscopic kindness. Yes I was grasping for adjectives by the end of that sentence, such is the nature of praise..

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Bible reading that sets hearts on fire

In his simple and yet compelling book You can really grow John Hindley turns to talk about reading the Bible. He reminds us that to read the Bible is to read Jesus' love letter to us. We read, fundamentally, to find him, to know him, to meet him.

Hindley advises us to read it like any book - not because he's a great expert, he's brilliantly upfront about how difficult he finds it - and to read with others, sharing our finding.

One of the challenges I'm aware of when it comes to the Bible is the need to read normally. To get past the bible paper, the reference systems and the two columns and recognise that God gave us a book. Back to school... with thanks to those who helped me learn the basics.
1. Observation. Discovering what it says? 
It's about Jesus.
Ask: Who? What? How? When? Why? Where?
Rub your face in the text and scribble on it.
Note what's repeated. Note what's emphasised, compared or contrasted.
Note the changes of scene. Note the connections?
What's the theme? Put it into a sentence... 
2. Interpretation. Discovering what it means? 
Most of interpretation is context.
How does this text fit in with the texts around it?
In light of the author's purpose in the book - what does this piece have to do with the whole? 
[The author's purpose is sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes implicit requiring a bit more detective 'observation' work considering the author, audience, context and themes] 
What's meant by including this? What wouldn't we know without it? 
3. Application. Discovering what to do with it? 
Given what it says and what that means... what should I do / think / feel / believe?
The great fight in life is to believe the good news of Jesus - I doubt, disbelieve, disobey, deny..
I live in a culture that wants me to be conformed to his image, why Jesus wants to change me to be more like him. Jesus calls me back to himself. 
Application is rarely individualistic and we need the encouragement of others to point us back to Jesus... so it's always worth asking others to share their finding of Jesus... Probably worth lining up some of our Bible reading with others to help us help one another.
Learning to read is a means to an end... opening up whole new worlds. And when it comes to the Bible: enabling us to hear Jesus' voice - to meet him whose voice shone light into the darkness of the cosmos and the darkness in my heart. In his word I meet him.

John Calvin said: "This is what we should seek... throughout the whole of Scripture: to know Jesus Christ truly, and the infinite riches which are included in him and are offered to us by God the Father."

When Jesus taught the Scriptures - as Hindley notes - They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32 ESV). Learning to read the Bible, and then reading the Bible is about pursuing Jesus and that uniquely sets hearts on fire.

Like John Hindley, that's not always my experience. But I'd like it to be. And I find John to be good company for that journey - on the page, and to my privilege in person on a couple of occasions. Any sibling in the family can help along the way. Walking with Jesus is both ordinary and extraordinary.

It doesn't require being intellectual or bookish, but God did give us a book and to miss him there is to embrace grey skies and cold autumn wind, when the warm and illuminating sunshine of the gospel is offered freely.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

For the Bible tells me so

Triune faith believes that God speaks. As Paul speaks about his conversion: God was pleased to reveal his Son... and Luke tells us that God isn't something we can work out, but rather we know the Father as the Son makes him know to us. A wonderful fellowship as the Father introduces his Son, and the Son his Father, in both cases by the Spirit.

The Christian faith doesn't accept that God is silent, nor that the heavens are silent. Though God does, in some senses, hide himself, there is revelation to receive for those who would hear it. He speaks through many means, through creation, people, and through spiritual gifts and many more pathways.

But this is not a license for subjective spirituality where my immediate experience can trump any other claim. Many are the shipwrecks in that ocean.

Rather, we claim: the Scriptures make one wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 3:14-16). All claims to hearing have to be tested and weighed and referenced to Scripture. That's not to say Scripture speaks to all issues specifically - at times prescriptive, in places it closes down options, in others it leaves many ways open without fear.

And so, we build our churches on hearing from the Bible.
So, Tydale and his heirs translate the Bible into the languages of the world.
So, the various traditions of the church all include some "liturgy of the word" in their services.
So, we preach and teach and talk about what the Bible says.

What is heard then needs to be believed, applied, equipping us for life.

Each day a fight to believe "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so." 
Each day an opportunity for those around me, outside me, to walk me back to the loving embrace of the crucified Christ.
Each day an opportunity to repent and believe this good news.

The road is long. The progress is often slow.

But, we press on - praying that God would shine into the hearts of people by his world-creating word and upon the face of Christ.

As I look at the term ahead I look forward to time with people - the big crowd on a Sunday morning, our Sunday lunchtime student Bible study, evening seminars, casual conversations, deliberate meetings, individual opportunities to disciple. I look forward to teaching through Romans over 20 weeks of group Bible study with students... I look forward to four evenings walking through the Bible from beginning to end... I look forward to helping people to kick start their personal Bible reading...

My work with UCCF often meant I was working with leaders, and I think that's led me to over-read maturity, to assume people know their way around the Bible, and can feed themselves. I'm getting over this, and I'm struck that Peter wasn't told to help the sheep feed themselves, but to feed them. I think there's a place for both - but it would seem against a tide of decreasing literacy, biblical and otherwise, there's much work to be done to give people access to the Scriptures, and thus to Christ.

In the short term there might be fabulous growth, which then whithers... their may be only the smallest shoots of growth which then explode into lasting fruitfulness. Ours is not to judge or measure in the short or even medium term. But, rather to offer Christ and so taste and participate in the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the Bible tells me so.

Image: David Wright - Creative Commons.