Thursday, November 30, 2006

Immanuel—God with us

The problem with the familiarity of the Christmas story is not that it becomes so ordinary that we lose sight of its wonder, but that it becomes so extraordinary that we lose sight of its ordinariness.

The wonder of the story arises directly from its ordinariness. A one-camel town in the northern region of an occupied country. A simple tradesman’s family, not destitute but not wealthy either. A first son, born in unusual circumstances, but not in a palace, not even in a house. An ordinary upbringing, learning the family trade, going to lessons. So little of significance that no one ever bothered to write any of it down.

But this ordinary story is made extraordinary by the central figure, Jesus. He didn’t carry his father’s name, because Joseph wasn’t his true father. He had the rough hands of a carpenter, but that was not his life’s work.

At the centre of this simple story is the amazing claim that God became human. That the creator of the universe, so long untouchable by human hands, now lay resting in the arms of the wife of a carpenter.

Instead of being “up there”, wherever “up there” might be, he entered history in order to change history. God was now “down here”, living in our very midst. God was with us—Immanuel.

As Max Lucado puts it: Christ travelled from limitless eternity to be confined by time in order to become one of us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Advent for Protestants!

Jeff asked about resources for Advent in a comment on a previous post. Sorry to say that I don’t know of much that is available (although skip towards the end for a couple of books that I’ve found helpful). Over the years I’ve had to write stuff for myself and this is how I’ve done it.

For me, the value of Advent is in the opportunity to slow down and appreciate the wonder of God’s self-revelation through his Son. Christmas is such a rush when we try to pack the whole story into the small box that is a traditional Carol Service. So I’ve always tried to think a little outside the box to make the most of the time.

In case this is a completely foreign land to you, Advent consists of the four weeks running up to Christmas counted using the Sundays. So, this year, the first Sunday in Advent is December 3rd and the fourth will be Christmas Eve.

We make a decision to start using more overtly Christmas songs from the first Sunday, slowly building towards our Carol Service when we will sing many of the traditional carols with one or two more recent songs. We don’t want to sing all the same carols every week for four weeks, so we try to draw up a working list for the four weeks. Our style of worship makes this reasonably easy to do. We also make sure we frame our worship around the theme of the incarnation for these four Sundays.

Visually, we begin to decorate the church over this time too. It’s the advantage of having a building that you can do this. But there are other ways. We have artists in the church who do backdrops (we built a stable stage set one year!) and we’re trying to do some creative window designs (we have plain glass in our windows). We also have an Advent wreath. This has five candles on it, and we light one, then two, then three etc, week by week.

As to the themes we use, well I’ve mostly done those myself. It usually starts with something familiar within the context of the nativity story and I work out from there. So this year my theme is Love Unlimited and we’ll look at this through the eyes of the incarnation but we won’t start there. At the moment I’m working on exactly how I’m going to do this (I’ve been unwell for a couple of weeks and got really behind with the planning). I’m trying to work out the overall plan for the Carol Service and then use that to shape the weeks running up to it. Here’s the basic outline:

Love Unlimited

Promised in the past: What God said through the prophets and the Old Testament story
Anticipated at the time: What were people waiting for? What are people looking for today?
Fulfilled in Christ’s coming:
Completed in his time: A look at God’s purposes and future promises (probably!)

Some things may change as I work on these ideas, but you get the flavour.

Past themes have included looking at the nativity through the eyes of the different players. So we’ve done Mary’s story, Joseph’s story, the shepherds’ story. We’ve done things like Christmas Unwrapped, Not just for Christmas (how the story of Jesus affects the whole of life) and one year we looked at the names of Jesus and what they mean. So we did Emmanuel, Messiah, and Jesus (I can’t remember the fourth one of the top of my head).

This was last year’s poster and invitation.

One resource that does come to mind is a book by Max Lucado called One Incredible Moment. This is an anthology of extracts from many of his books. The narrative style lends itself to be read in services and I try to write in a similar style for the narrative parts of our events. Another Max Lucado book for Christmas is God came near.

We’ve also used videos. We’ve used some of the videos available through people like Midnight Oil and we’ve done some ourselves. Willow Creek have some great music and we’ve used music, PowerPoint etc to provide moments of reflection during services.

Okay, hope that helps and inspires.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Wonder of God's Mercy (2)

Recently David posted this comment on a previous entry:

I loved your blog, and I think it's a good conversation starter. I was wondering if you knew any Bible verses that back up that "grace is getting what you don't deserve."

The reason I ask, is that the Bible doesn't seem to back up that definition of grace too well. It seems more like grace is a characteristic of God rather than simply something He grants. In other words- Grace is the reason God does what He does (and that includes both justice and mercy).

I've been giving this some thought, and the bottom line is I don't have a verse, but I do the bible. Now I don't mean to sound arrogant or clever, but my point is this: I think the Bible supports this as a definition of grace, just as it supports the definition of mercy and justice. Actually the three part definition of justice, mercy and grace are meant to take us on a journey.

When you hear people talk about the outcome of some trial or court-case they talk about justice. They talk about the offender getting what he or she deserves, or more commonly that they don't. Every time a police officer is killed, there are those who call for the return of the death penalty in the UK. Or every time there is a case involving children or drunk drivers. We want to see justice.

But now put yourself in the position of standing before God. Do you want justice for yourself? Do you want to get what you deserve for everything, and I mean everything you've ever done?now? Didn't think so.

So we look for mercy. Mercy knows you've been speeding, but lets you off with a warning to slow down rather than a ticket. I guess it's what we call discretion when dealing in human affairs. Mercy says, "I forgive you", but that's as far as it goes.

Both of these are character traits of God, but the best is yet to come. Not only does God always act justly (no room to say, "That's not fair"), but he is merciful too. But there's more and that's where grace comes into it.

Not only does God forgive us but he gives us more than we bargained for. To be forgiven is one thing, to be showered with his love, that's something else. He forgives and he restores. He forgives and he reinstates.

So no, I don't suppose I could point to a single verse that defines grace as "getting what we don't deserve", but I think this is truly the heart of the good news both about Jesus and the good news that Jesus is in himself.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Advent 2006

In the past I've probably been guilty of making too little of advent. After 15 years in ministry, coming up with another Christmas service let alone four weeks of Christmas themed services, gets a little harder. It was a few years ago now that I decided personally to make more of advent.

I made this decision because I thought it honoured the church and the story to give it more time. All the stuff of a commercial Christmas squeezes the story into the smallest space possible, and we, I was guilty of doing that at church too. So now we have advent. Maybe not an advent that everyone would recognise, but we give ourselves time to appreciate the wonder of God's story.

Over the four weeks leading up to Christmas we'll sing Christmas songs as part of our worship, we'll share aspects of the story and we'll build up to our carol service instead of rushing headlong towards it. At least that's my hope. Our theme this year is: God's unlimited love. Here's our Christmas invitation.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

I hope you have a great advent too, and your expereince of God's unlimited love is deepened over the next few weeks.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Jeff asked about the postcard. Well, this is where you can find it.
I could send it as a Publisher file, or even a pdf, if you wanted.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The blood that cries forgiveness

You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which graciously forgives instead of crying out for vengeance as the blood of Abel did. (Hebrews 12:24)

The blood of the second son of Adam cried out for revenge, the blood of the only Son of God cries out forgiveness. We need to hear the second cry louder than the first.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth

Occasionally I get unsolicited emails telling me stories that either I know to be untrue, or that I later discover to be untrue. As a rule I never forward any of these messages.

Recently Conrad Gempf posted a reflection on how our complicity in perpetuating urban legends could impact how our faith story is perceived by others.

If you are easily tempted to pass on stories, and who amongst us doesn't pass on stories, that either come to you as email or by word of mouth, then this blog by Conrad Gempf deserves your thoughtful attention.

On the other hand, if you prefer a good conspiracy theory then try Andy White's Ebay post!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Emerging into to new ways of doing mission

When we began our series on Acts at church, we produced a postcard about Being part of God's Big Plan. It listed the following items:

Just walk across the room • Seek to serve • Show kindness • Show mercy • Pay attention • Share your story • Listen to someone else’s story • Ask open questions • Be natural • Let God lead you • Giveaway time • Ask God for opportunities • Get involved in something outside of church • Be generous • Be a good neighbour • Pray for someone • Be available • Spend time with the missing • Do what’s doable • Exploit the ordinary

Just recently I discovered, and found a comparison between traditional "outreach" and emerging "withreach". What interested me was the list of characterisitcs for "withreach".

You'll have to see the whole thing to get the comparison, I just wanted to think about those things about "withreach" that connect with being outwardly focused and a part of God's big plan.

What challenges me particularly is that for far too many years I feel that we, the church, have disconnected the mission mandate of Jesus (the Great Commission) from the fundamental challenge to Love God and love our neighbour (the Great Commandment). I seem to remember that somewhere in The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren talks about a great committment to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment makes great Christians.

I still struggle, but I'm trying to hold these two things together. I'm trying to love my community into the kingdom of God, but it's not as easy at it looks!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Two new places to explore

I came across these two related sites which have some interesting ideas on them.

Breakthrough Media and the Withreach conversation blog.

I liked the "attractional" compared to "incarnational" conversation starter.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Video killed the radio star

Okay so I'm no star and unless you are my generation you will have to use google to work out the reference of the title of this post, but every post needs a title!

Part of my current role as a minister is to act as the moderator for another nearby Baptist Church while they have no minister of their own. Given the baptist principle of the priesthood of all believers it seems a bit strange to have this position, but if it helps I'm happy to serve.

Anyway, they've been struggling to get preachers for Sunday services so I've stepped in and done several on video for them. It's been an interesting experience for everyone! For me it's meant preparing a sermon and the delivering it to an empty church whilst recording it on video. This has been quite a challenge. I've actually imagined the congregation being there and preached to them rather than doing it simply to camera.

I've then had to capture and edit the video and then create a final cut to hand over to the church for use. I'd say it's taken on average a day to preach, edit and produce one 30-40 minute talk. That doesn't include preparing the talk which I guess takes me around 10 to 15 hours. It's really hard to say because I don't just sit down and do it in one go, but I wander around with the idea in my head for days. I jot stuff down in a notebook and on my computer(s) (I'm really looking forward to Scrybe going live and giving it a go).

So, overall it's been quite draining for me personally, but what has it meant to the congregation that sits and watches a video rather than a live preacher? Well, they've actually enjoyed it. Once they got use to the idea that I was on the screen rather than there in person, it seems to have gone down rather well.

It's not a massively slick process yet, but I'm beginning to think that this could serve us well as God moves us towards the possibilities of multi-site church. Often we think we just don't have the resources to service such an endeavour, but maybe we are wrong. The church that's used the videos has live worship and live everything else apart from the message. We're even thinking that this is a way that I can preach there once a month without having to be there every month, just maybe every three months. This isn't because I don't want to go, it's just the reality of trying to serve two congregations.

Anyway, if you're in a similar situation, or even if you need to tap into some resources, try looking at a video series, it might work for you too. And if you want to video yourself, then with a simple DV camera and the right software, it's not that difficult to make it yourself. I'm off to my dressing room for a lie down and a massage!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

There is no future in frustration

I have this quote on my wall. I can't remember exactly where it comes from originally. I think it may be from Don Carson's book on prayer, which, if memory serves, is called Transforming Prayer. The book is a great expositional read of Paul's prayers.

Anyway, the quote sits on my wall and acts as a regular reminder that frustration will not solve the problems or address the issues. Last night one of our core leaders expressed a sense of frustration as he shared his concerns about the busyness of church and the time it steals from us all, hijacking our availability to be involved with the community. He spoke passionately about his own personal lack of connection with unchurched folk. I was moved.

His second concern was for the poor and how we serve the poor, not only in our community but in the world at large.

I hear his cry. It's my cry too. As a minister I find myself easily cut-off from the world outside the church. I have to make the effort to connect. And I too wonder about the effectiveness of my efforts.

My fellow leader said he was thinking of volunteering for our village care scheme. That's a great idea. Serving the local community is one of the things I feel the church should be best at. We also talked about how we use our money as a local church. I've posted before about my idea for an upside-down thermometer (the idea of setting aside some of our budget to give to the community as grants for small projects etc), but there's more. We tithe our church income and I'd like to see us being very clear about what proportion of that goes to relieving poverty and oppression wherever it might be. I'd like to see us move towards giving away a greater percentage of our income too.

What fascinates me is that earlier this year it looked like we were going to have a large hole in our finances. So we prayed and we gave and we more than closed that gap. Now, closer to our year-end, it's becoming clear that we've underspent and although we've under-given compared to what we said we would give, we don't look as if the hole is going to be there as we thought.

So God blessed us with a challenge, and he blessed us as we gave. We could just take the gift day money and add it to our building fund for the improvements we want to make. But I think we should ask God what we should do now. Perhaps he's done this because there is something really creative and lavish he wants us to do now we know we're safe. And even if we were not "safe" finanicially, we're a people of faith. If God calls us to give then should we not respond by giving?

I hope, and pray, that God will reveal this to us, and that we will be willing to listen.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A great looking application

I don't know yet, but having watched the video for Scrybe, it looks like a great application. I only came across it because I follow a blog by one of my tutors from college days and he only came across it because someone he knows blogged about it.

Ah the power for good that lies within the internet.

The demo video is here.

Palaces and kings

I wrote a post a little while ago about a verse about palaces and kings. You may not have noticed, I didn't, that I'd missed a "not" from the title. This is not without precedent, who hasn't heard the story of the Bible printed without the "not" in the commandments?

Anyway, without the "not" it read A Beautiful palace does make a great king! Of course it should have read:

A beautiful palace does not make a great king!

Now it makes more sense.

Of course, if you're like me you may well have read the title correctly because you knew it only made sense with the "not" in it. It's just one of those things that happens when you type. It puts me in mind of something that happened during my probationer years as a Baptist minister.

Because I didn't go to a Baptist college there were a few extra hoops for me to jump through before I could become an accredited minister. One of these hoops involved studying Baptist history and principles. Having completed the required study I wrote to my college supervisor about it all and meant to say...

Sitting the exams and doing the denominational studies was not really a bad experience.

Unfortunately I once again missed out the required "not". But I didn't realise that at the time, and was very confused when my supervisor said she thought it was important that we sat and talked about this experience. It was only two years later when I changed supervisor (my original supervisor moved away, not my fault I hasten to add!), that I reread our correspondence and realised my mistake. Hastily I wrote to my new supervisor to let him know about the error before I found myself referred to the minister's counselling service!

I wonder what word might be missing from this post?

PS I've corrected the title of the previous post in case you've just looked and wondered what I thought I'd missed!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My personal mission statement

The outward focused life is the subject of another blog to which I make occassional contributions. The blog can be found here. This post will also appear there in due course.

Being outwardly focused is only part of the lifestyle to which I aspire. On the wall of my study I have a personal mission statement. It reads like this:

Prayerfully motivated; outwardly focused; evangelistically active.

Being outwardly focused is in the middle for good reason. At first it fell there because that is how I wrote out the three part statement, but as time has gone on, I now realise that it is no accident that that it falls between prayerful motivation and evangelistic activity.

I want everything I do to be motivated by my relationship with God. Without prayer I lurch from one good idea to the next without much thought about its place in the overall scheme of things. I’m often aware that too much of the time we seek to involve God in what we are doing rather than seeking to involve ourselves in what he is doing.

I pray both specific prayers and general prayers. I ask God for direction and opportunities in particular areas of life and ministry and I also ask God for what you might call his general guidance as I go about my daily life. For example, I know God wants me to notice people and demonstrate his love towards them, so I can pray generally for an open heart and for open eyes in all sorts of circumstances. This is what I mean when I think about being prayerfully motivated.

Being outwardly focused has to have its roots in a prayerful openness to God’s purposes, otherwise it becomes little more than an exercise in good will to all men. I want to be a nice person, I want to be a kind person, but that’s not all I want to be!

Being evangelistically active gives me the context for being outwardly focused. It reminds me that the ultimate goal of my outward life is to point people towards the amazing God who has loved us and who offers us forgiveness and leadership, reconciliation and hope. It reminds me that I must add conversations to my actions, I must be prepared to a give a reason for my hope to paraphrase one New Testament writer. I don’t get many opportunities to help people “cross the line of faith”, but I get plenty of opportunities to help them on their way.

The more I seek to live an outward life, the more I realise that I need to keep my motivation and context connected with the purposes of God. My personal mission statement helps me do that.