Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In the end hope

2008 began with a terrible tragedy in our church. We were of course not alone in facing tragedy this year or indeed any other year. I never posted the notes from the first sermon of 2008, I don't know why, but in looking for something particular I came across those notes. It would have been our covenant Sunday, but to have continued as if everything was normal would have been wrong. We needed to hear something different that day.

Here's what I actually talked about:

Today was planned as an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ in an act of covenant promise making. It seems to me that more than anything today we need to remind ourselves that our God is a covenant keeping God. In the midst of all the questions we may have, all the doubts we may feel, all the pain we’re experiencing, the one thing to which we can always return, the one person to whom we can always turn is our God.

Turning to him doesn’t mean that we will get an answer to the questions, it doesn’t mean that the pain will be any less or the doubts any easier to deal with, it just means we find a safe place for all those things. 

Because our God is a covenant keeping God, he never changes. He is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead and he’s the same God who rescued Daniel from the lion’s den. He’s the same God who worked out his purposes in the life of Joseph through the prison years, and he’s the same God who has rescued you from an eternity without him.

He never changes.

Trouble is part of life

Because we’re invited to enter into a relationship with him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he makes his promise to be with us through all circumstances of life. He doesn’t promise immunity from pain and suffering, in fact quite the opposite, for Jesus said:
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." John 16:33

The challenge is not how to avoid trouble as much as how to live through it in a way that honours God. To live differently, to respond graciously, to walk humbly with the Lord our God.
Ours is a covenant of hope and grace, so we ought to respond to whatever life puts before us with both hope and grace and a good measure of faith and love thrown in.

Responding to evil

Martin Luther King said: “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.”

How do we respond then to the events of this past week? Here are one authors responses:

• Lend a heartfelt word of encouragement, even though you may be a total stranger. With a few minutes of research, you can find out where to send a card, flowers or a special note to someone whose life has been touched by senseless tragedy.

• If something in the headlines moves your sense of compassion, act on it. Don’t let the moment become lost to your daily routine. Step out and find a way to help. God uses passionate people to do extraordinary things.

  • Use the headline news to order a special time of prayer or fasting on a daily or weekly basis, dedicated to those left in the wake of the frightening stories you have encountered.

  • Seize every opportunity to magnify God and the Gospel to others. You never know who is crossing your path. For all of the tragedy that makes the headline news, how much more has been averted by a simple encounter with someone who inspired a different pattern of thinking by introducing a stranger to the truth of God’s infinite love in action?

When a lone gunman entered an Amish school, killed a number of children and them himself, the Amish community, in the midst of their grief, urged the public to contribute to a fund for the widow and children of the gunman. In the grips of their own personal tragedy, they took the time to embrace another set of victims—the gunman’s family. God’s love is at work, even in a twisted and dark situation that defies logic. His light is still shining in Georgetown, Pennsylvania and the statement of evil worked through a deranged gunman falls silent in the shadow of God’s saints in action.

We can learn from this remarkable portrait, arising from the aftermath of loss and sorrow. When faced with the unthinkable, God’s love can render evil powerless when we step out and let it shine through each one of us. Each day we have the opportunity to redefine the events that take place around us. Our individual efforts will ease the pain, heal, restore, and bring about good as we reflect Him in the wake of the unthinkable. 
And personally, as you face the questions without apparent answers, perhaps you should take Philip Yancey’s advice and question your doubts at least as much as you question your faith.
It’s sad but true that most of us get derailed more easily that we get filled with faith. Maybe it’s our nature, maybe it’s the pernicious work of the evil one undermining our faith, but we question our faith in the light of our doubts rather than the other way around. But does the truth change? Does God change? If the answer to those questions is a resounding no, then our doubts should be questioned not our faith.

Second, do not journey alone. As you seek to walk by faith, do so in the company of others. The one who doubts usually does so whilst walking alone. The path of faith is one that is meant to be taken in the company of others.

Thirdly, let the good penetrate as deeply as the bad. As Philip Yancey says: If I awoke every morning, and fell asleep each night, bathed in a sense of gratitude and not self-doubt, the in-between hours would doubtless take on a different cast.


We grieve with hope, we say goodbye with hope because death is not the end. It does not set the agenda for life, the gospel does that. The love, mercy and grace of God set the agenda for life.

And we will praise our never changing, covenant keeping, comfort giving God.

Simon, Samaria and significance

Was Simon the magician in Acts the first example of nominal faith? That's the thought I pondered this morning as I read the central section of Acts 8.

It's a fascinating chapter, not only because of Simon, but also because of all the questions it raises about the nature of faith and the place of the Holy Spirit's indwelling in all of this. Were the Samaritans believers before the apostles came or not? Was Simon ever a believer? Did Philip miss something in his preaching? And so on. 

I tend towards the view that the faith expressed by the Samaritans was true, saving faith. When the apostle came they didn't preach again, they didn't point out anything that was flawed about the faith they found. What they noticed was a lack of experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit, which was rectified by the laying on of hands and prayer. Given the descriptive nature of Acts, I don't see here a pattern for the ongoing life of the church, so it's not a big problem, the big problem comes with Simon.

The same words describe his response to Philip's ministry as describe the general response. He "believes and is baptised". But maybe there's a hint that all is not well with his attachment to Philip. An underlying issue at work that becomes clear when the apostles arrive. Perhaps his faith response was motivated by bitter jealously because he was no longer the centre of attention.

Clearly Simon has used the right words but has not experienced transformation which is what becomes exposed when he tries to buy the ministry of the apostles, the real power sources as he saw it. If he was going to retrieve his position of greatness, these were the guys with whom he would have to compete.

Anyway, in the midst of the power struggle something gets overlooked if we're not careful. Having come to see what Philip has been up to, the apostles return to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in a series of Samaritan towns and villages as they go. One more barrier broken down by the power of the gospel, one more step along the way to fulfilling Jesus' words that they would be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and now Samaria. Only the ends of the earth to go!

Monday, December 29, 2008

The joy of ink!

The Grandparents have been staying with us over Christmas and my Father-in-law has been out to get his paper each day including yesterday. He's a Telegraph reader, I know, it saddens my heart too, but what can you do?  Anyway, I picked up the Sunday version and was delighted to read this letter:

Sir–It seems our identities today consist of numbers and passwords. Writing with a fountain pen, however, is a very visible, personal identifier. A letter or card written with a fountain pen has a unique combination of the colour of the ink and its light and dark tones as the ink flows from the nib with the width and strength of the strokes of each letter in response to the pressure used to write. All of this creates a message that is a true expression of the writer.

If you send a written thank-you note, you will be pleased with the response. Emails and text messages are fine for some communications, but to express individuality, pick up your pen and write. There is nothing like it.

Glenn Marcus, New Westminster, Canada

So it appears I'm not the only person in the world then that loves to write with a fountain pen. And my new one is a joy. all power to your pen Glenn!

The 39 Steps

Last night we watched the BBC's adaptation of John Buchan's the Thirty-nine Steps. It's the fourth adaptation of the book to film/TV that I know about. First to adapt it was Alfred Hitchcock in the 30's, then came a version with Kenneth More and then in the 70's Robert Powell played the central character Richard Hannay.

As with all adaptations of books, there are decisions that have to be made about characters and plots. What's interesting about all these version is that none of them end the same as far as I recall. In fact although they follow the basic elements of the original story, they all differ in the detail. 

So what's important? Is it more important to be as faithful to the detail of the original story as you can, or is it more important to be faithful to the central theme? If you took someone who's read the book and then someone who had seen the first film, a third person the second film etc., and asked them about the plot, you would get a pretty similar outline. Essentially our hero encounters a spy who gets murdered and Hannay falls under suspicion. He evades capture by both the police and the enemy spies and uncovers a plot which he eventually foils (in the films at least) by solving the riddle of the 39 steps.

This is, roughly speaking, how oral tradition works. It's the key elements that are of significance, and they don't change. Settings might vary, some characters might change, but overall the story follows a set pattern. To our still modernistic ways of thinking, variation is the enemy of accuracy, but it doesn't have to be seen that way. Variation can authenticate the core message.

So it is with some of our biblical records. They differ, but the core message remains the same. 

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Where are all the Christians?

I believe Bruce Logue was the guy who used to look after the Doable Evangelism blog when  I first came across it. In fact I think it was Bruce who first invited me to contribute a story to the blog. I'd been wondering what he's been doing since moving on, and today up popped a story from him. 

The story is about doing a wedding for someone he'd met while doing some radio work. You can read the whole post here, but I just wanted to draw your attention to his comment about Christendom:

What was striking to me was that most of the “christians” at the ceremony stood around in their own groups (the few that bothered to come anyway). A golden opportunity to grace others, and they huddled together. This is my critique of christendom: It is AWOL from the community at large. What’s sad is that the community at large is open-armed and happy to let us in when we behave ourselves.

-Bruce Logue

As I look forward into 2009, I hope that I will take the challenge to just walk across the room as Bill Hybels would say and make myself available in any way that God can use. A few weeks ago, while preaching,  I quoted something I remember the late John Wimber saying. It went something like this: I'm just small change in God's pocket to use how he pleases.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Getting just what I wanted

The one thing I make sure about when it comes to my journal is that I always use a fountain pen when I write. There's something special that I still love about the feel of using a proper pen with ink. I think it began with trying to make writing in my journal special, but now I think it's also connected with the unhurried way you, or at least I, write with ink.

I can scrawl in ink, but I try to be a little more careful. My handwriting isn't the best it could be, but I was surprised to be complimented recently when I had to sign in a a local civic building. Perhaps it's better than I imagine!

So I was thrilled to open my Christmas presents this morning to find among them a nice new Sheaffer pen. Okay so I chose it a little while ago, but it was so nice to actually pick it and write with it.

It replaces a very serviceable Parker pen that I've been using for the last 6 or 7 years, and all the Parker pens I've used since I can remember. When I was growing up a Sheaffer pen was the pen to which one aspired. The Sheaffer is somewhat heavier than the Parker, but the Parker has always been trouble free and I see no reason simply to stop using it now I have my smart new Prelude in matt black with gold trim.

Anyway, if you're not a fountain pen person then you're probably wondering what all the fuss is about. But if you are, you'll understand why I'm so pleased to have the pen I've now got. Now all I have to do is find something worth writing about!

Bemused and BeTwittered

For a few days I've been tweeting about problems with BeTwittered on my MacBook. For some strange reason it stopped working on the MacBook but worked fine on the iMac

Occasionally in the past I've had problems, particularly when there's been an update to Safari, but that's predictable. This time it just seemed as if Safari was looking in the wrong place for the application. 

The solution turned out to be really simple, so if you're a BeTwittered user, this may be helpful.

If you're getting a login failure and when you try to logout and back in you get an application not found message, then this is what worked for me:

Reset Safari (Safari ); enable cookies always (unless that's your default setting); refresh iGoogle. This should take you back to the BeTwittered login. Login and it should be fine. 

Don't forget to reset your cookie handling.

And yes, I am doing this on Christmas Day, I was just waiting for the in-laws to arrive and now they have!

The Image of God

I came across this extract from Brian McLaren recently and thought it would make a good thought for Christmas Day. As we celebrate the incarnation, what image of God does the world get when it looks at the church today?

What kind of image of God do we represent to the world outside of the church?

  • An uptight God who is about black-and-white easy answers and brittle, rigid logic and law, rather than about profound and many-faceted truth, self-sacrificing love, compassionate justice, and profound relationships
  • A conceptual God who is encountered through systems of abstractions, propositions and terminology rather than through an amazing story, intense poetry, beauty, experience, experiment and community
  • A controlling God who is cold, analytical, and mechanistic rather than a master artist, and lover who is passionate about good and evil, justice and injustice, beauty and desecration, hope and cynicism
  • An exclusive God who favours insiders and is biased against outsiders rather than a God of scandalous inclusion, amazing mercy, and shocking acceptance, who blesses “insiders” so they can extend the blessing to “outsiders”, thus making everyone an insider
  • A tense God who prefers people to become judgemental, arrogant, and closed-minded rather than compassionate, humble and teachable.
More Ready Than You Realize, Brian McLaren [p64-65] 
My hope is that the image we present is an image of profound grace, unconditional love and immeasurable compassion.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bible Reading Plan

I've been working on the reading plan for the New Testament today. I have to confess that I cheated a little by looking at and old whole bible plan I did a few years ago and just picked up the NT readings through the year. I'm guessing that there will therefore be some unevenness in the length of readings from day to day. When I did the original plan I know I worked on 96 verses a day to complete the whole Bible in the year, and I seem to recall producing a large spreadsheet to help me try and balance out old and new portions to about the 96 verse tally.

In case you are interested you only need to read an average of 22 verses a day to get through the New Testament in a year.

To be honest I'm less concerned with how long it takes a person to read their Bible than I am about the lack of Bible reading we generally do these days. If it takes you two or three years to work through, then take that time. As long as it isn't taking this long because you lack discipline, then it's not a problem. If, on the other hand, you have long periods when you just don't read, a simple plan might be just the thing.

So why didn't I just buy a plan to give out? Well I like to put Luke and Acts together as consecutive read, and I like to read a Gospel in each quarter of the year. Many of the plans I've seen start at Matthew chapter 1 and finish at the end of Revelation. By Easter you've probably read all four gospels that way.

Mary did you know?

I first came across this song by complete accident. When cable first came to Newark we got the Country Music channel for free. One day, while I had it on in the background as I was reading, on came Kathy Mattea singing a Christmas song called "A new kid in town" as I recall.

A week or so later I was in Nottingham wandering through the Virgin Megastore when I saw the CD from which the song was taken. So I bought it and played it one the way home. Many of the songs are wonderful to listen to and her voice is so powerful. Then came Mary did you know? and I stopped in my tracks.

So if you haven't heard this before, enjoy it and if you have I hope you like hearing it again. Merry Christmas:

Monday, December 22, 2008

Looking back~Looking forward

I had one of those moments today when I found myself quietly inspired, as against Saturday's moment when I thought the floor was sloping left to right (it's another of my odd migraine associated symptoms). Anyway, back to this morning. I was writing in my journal and decided to flick back to last year to see what I was writing about then. Normally I start a fresh journal each year, but this year I stayed with the journal I had used through 2007, mainly because it's thicker than most and I hadn't used up more than half of it.

Turning back the pages I came across a note I made to myself about three things to focus on for 2008: inspiring prayer, inspiring outreach and inspiring discipleship. Sadly a week later we got hit by the disappearance of Robert Gill and his death. All thoughts of being inspirational got lost in the pain of Robert's murder. 

So it was both challenging and comforting to reread those entries and to realise that one of the great values of a journal is that you need never lose track of a thought or a reflection if you maintain a little self-discipline about keeping a journal. And, as a result of reading the comments I made a year ago, I've decided to refocus my efforts to do these three things in 2009. 

I must say that although I'd forgotten about them, clearly God had not. I've been thinking about these issues on and off throughout the year. I hope and pray that this is not just a good idea but a God-idea.

Initially I'd like to work out one thing in each area that we can do to take a step forward as individuals and as a community. Jeff's NT giveaway makes me think it's time again to challenge the church, and myself, to a reading plan. Probably just the New Testament over the course of a year would be a good place to start.

Another thing I'm considering is a good look at Todd Hunter's Three is Enough idea to see if we can stimulate some deeper level relationships. I have other ideas in the pipeline of my mind and I'm mind-mapping them to see where they might lead.

So, once again my journal has proved it's value to me. I do not need convincing about the value of a journal and a process to review it. A blog simply isn't enough. For one thing it's way to public. Even a simple mundane blog like mine gets traffic and it would just be unwise to commit everything to such a media. 

So put a journal on your late entry Christmas list. It doesn't need to be flash, a simple ring bound notebook from Tescos will do the job. Even if you find it hard work to begin with, stick with it. I had to persevere over a long period before it became a regular part of my routine. Even now I have to discipline myself to get my pen out and start to write. 

But I'm pretty confident that if you persevere, you will find it so helpful.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

DAB Radio

We've entered the world of DAB radio with this Pure Chronos II triangular shaped radio alarm.

Set up was very easy: switch it on, let it autotune, listen to the radio. Setting alarms was easy too. The nice thing is that there are four alarms that can all be set individually. At the moment we have one for weekdays, one for Saturday and one for Sunday. They can be set to different radio stations too, which means we can wake up to Five-live during the week, Radio 4 on Saturday and Planet Rock Sunday morning if we really want to do that!

You can set the clock manually or leave it to pick up the time from the DAB signal. The tone is much better than our old analogue clock radio as you'd expect. And there's a nice sleep function too. Overall it's a nice enough radio and suits us fine.

There's one drawback that's not serious. You can't tell what the volume level is when you're listening. Not a big problem, you just adjust it so it's okay. But when you set an alarm, it asks you to set the level which starts off at '10' without giving you any indication of how loud that might be. In the end it's not too bad, but I did wonder if we were going to get blown out of bed the first time it came on!

I got ours from Amazon at only £39 reduced from £70, a bit of a bargain in my opinion. now all I need to do is wait for lots more stations to come online. A little mellow jazz would be good on a Saturday morning.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Facing idols

Here's an interesting observation from Experiencing God Day-by-Day:

Paul did not go to Ephesus to condemn those worshipping idols but to unashamedly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

We do not have to seek out and condemn today's idols. Rather, as we live out our Christianity, enjoying the abundant life God gives, our lives will discredit the idols around us.

Am I, are we, living out that abundant life in such a away that today's idols are discredited? 

Perhaps the reason the church seems so often to be known for what it stands against rather than what it stands for is because it's far easier to condemn the world than to live differently to the world. Words are cheap, actions are costly.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Penn says

Ed Stetzer posted this very interesting video on his blog.

Listen to what Penn says carefully, it's very interesting.

Fully Devoted Followers(6): Final thoughts

In conclusion!

Although I’ve not outlined them or said anything much about them at all, I want now to stress that spiritual disciplines are important. Prayer, fasting, Bible reading and study, worship etc. are all important, but only in so far as they enable you and I to imitate, to follow, Christ. If all you are doing by reading through your Bible in a year, a month or even a fortnight, is ticking a box on some spiritual achievement chart, then welcome to the world of the evangelical Pharisee! You may have a great reputation for being a walking concordance, but it’s really no use at all unless your life is changed at its deepest level because of it. Jesus is after all in the business of transforming lives and to be a fully committed follower of Jesus is to live a transformed life. Christians should be conspicuously different as I suggested earlier.

Probably the most helpful verses in the gospels on this matter are ones I saved until now. They are of course some well known verses and in fact they wonderfully summarise the best understanding of both old and new testaments on relating to and following God. Jesus quoted these words, but then so did others when faced with a similar question. In fact, as I’m sure you know they are often referred to as the great commandment because they were a well known summary of the OT commands. They are these words:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and love your neighbour as yourself.

In other words: Love God with everything you are and love others in the way you’d want to be loved.

Once again, being a wholehearted follower of Jesus is not a matter of religious practice but a matter of a heart fully yielded to him and a life totally given over to him. As John Wimber used to say: I’m just small change in God's pocket for him to use however he pleases. In the end a fully devoted life is based on a covenant relationship that is Christ-centred and that bears kingdom fruit.

In order to live that kind of life we need to:

  • Renew our focus on the person of Jesus and his mission for the church
  • Renew an attitude of servant-hood amongst the people of God
  • Renew our focus on the corporate and private prayer life of the church

Well, that's the end of this for the time being. There's probably a book in this somewhere, but I'm not sure I'd be the right person to write it and anyway, someone might already have done it. In many ways this is me thinking out loud about an issues that unsettles me as much as it inspires me. How ever you are seeking to put following into practice may God richly bless you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fully Devoted Followers(5): Justice

One of the speakers at the 2008 GLS said this: If you want your leadership to matter, lead in the things that matter to God. He then went on to talk about his particular passion for justice. Perhaps we could paraphrase this quote:

If you want your discipleship to be true to God's call on your life, then follow Jesus in the things that matter to him.

That list would almost certainly include issues of justice. Jesus announced his ministry in Luke's gospel with a quote from Isaiah about good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed. A concern for the poor and marginalised would seem to be a concern that Jesus would expect his followers to share.

In the Old Testament the people asked:

With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

And God's reply through Micah was:

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

It would seem then that to be a wholehearted follower of Jesus will mean that in some way will be concerned and active in the area of justice.

Fully Devoted Followers(4): What the Early Church did

The Early Church clearly rejects the idea of becoming Jewish in order to be a disciple of Jesus. Acts 15 tells one side of the story, and Paul’s letter the other, but the conclusion is the same: The law does not save you, Jesus brings the law to its fulfilment, a new era has begun.

Acts 2:42-47 is a description of how the Early Church worked out discipleship as a community of faith.

They did several things:

Devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Now isn’t that interesting that the devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, not the teaching of Jesus? Clearly we’re not meant to conclude that the church moved on from what Jesus taught, but maybe we have a hint here that what he did was valued at least as highly if not more highly than what he said. Rather than the Early Church simply regurgitating what Jesus had said, they sought to live out the life that he had modelled for them and taught them. His teaching was implicit and central to the teaching of the apostles. Perhaps this is why is was important to them to choose a replacement that met quite exacting criteria.

Second they devoted themselves to fellowship. Being in community expressed through the common life and sharing of possessions. One of the first challenges for the organisation of the early church focussed on the community life expressed through caring for widows (Acts 6).

To breaking of bread, an act of worship. But not just worship. They ate together, and the pattern for ‘breaking bread’ as a forerunner for our version of communion would almost certainly have been at the close of a meal.

To prayer. This is the first hint of something more devotional in the life of the followers. We certainly see them praying together from the start of Acts (1:14, 2:42, 4:24). But then this is corporate prayer not the individual prayer that many of us think of when we consider spiritual discipline.

As you read on through Acts you notice two recurring things about the early church, They seemed constantly to be in each others company and they prayed together a lot. It would seem therefore that two key elements of how the Early Church worked out fully devoted following was through fellowship and prayer.

Let’s return to the apostles’ teaching for a moment. As far as I’m aware the NT letters do not quote each other or make reference to each other save for Peter talking about how difficult Paul’s teaching can be sometimes, and when Paul refers to other letters he has written. Now, remember that these were folk who had grown up in a tradition where the pattern would be to quote Rabbi after Rabbi in order to argue a point. If that’s their background, why then are they not constantly quoting Jesus as the “Rabbi”, their great teacher? After all, everyone in Palestine would have known about his teaching and how it carried an authority greater than the normal teachers of the Law.

I’m not suggesting that the teaching of Jesus was unimportant to the Early Church. I tend to favour a reasonably early date for the Gospels. It seems logical to me that the early followers of Jesus would want to record the stories about him from reliable sources. And if Mark’s gospel are the memories of Peter and Luke’s the first part of Paul’s defence in Rome, an early date is not at all improbable.

Perhaps there is an even more simple explanation. Maybe the New Testament authors were much more comfortable quoting the Old Testament, as we know it, as their authoritative source. Something they would have seen and heard Jesus himself do throughout his ministry.

There’s room for more reflection and study here I think.

If we move beyond Acts, then Philippians 2 is a stand out passage on how the early church saw following Jesus. But it doesn’t stand alone. In Ephesians, Paul list a significant array of attributes covering theology and lifestyle.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fully Devoted Followers(3): What the gospels have to say

It would take a long time to make an exhaustive survey of the gospels, but here are some observations.

The sermon on the mount is possibly one of the most significant sources for a study of what being a disciple of Jesus might look like. Some of the key points are:

Let you light shine: In John 8:12 Jesus describes himself as the light of the world. Here in Matt.5 he uses the same phrase to describe his followers. In the sermon on the mount Jesus says that we should do our good deeds in such a way that they point people towards God. Of course this seems immediately to be contradicted in the next chapter when Jesus says: Be careful not to do your “acts of righteousness” in front of others, to be seen by them.

The point is that the followers of Jesus are meant to be conspicuously different not to draw attention to themselves, as the Pharisees did, but to give glory to God. And it’s a pattern that Jesus follows himself if we are right that the miracles, signs as John calls them, vindicate the message as is most commonly taught among evangelicals. Jesus himself challenged those who saw the miracles to connect them to the message and the Father and his relationship to the Son (John 10).

Secondly: Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees… you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. The whole issue with the Pharisees in the gospels was that their righteousness was about keeping the law in minute detail. Their problem was their inability even to live up to that standard. Religious practice is not the key. The righteousness of which Jesus speaks is nothing like that.

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount explores this through issues about our thought life (murder and adultery), our integrity (oaths), grace (turn the other cheek, go the extra mile), loving enemies, caring for the poor, prayer and fasting. (Fasting will be something to which Jesus returns later in the Gospel and once again will use to underline that religious practice is not the answer to the question: How do I live a life that pleases God?)

All this leads to the conclusion: Store up treasure in heaven, which in turn moves us on to living differently (we don’t judge others, we don’t worry).

Beyond the Sermon on the Mount

Take the low road: Matt. 18,19 and 20 pick up the theme of servant-hood.

In Matt.18 Jesus says that whoever takes a humble place is the greatest in the kingdom. In chapter 20 it’s Zebedee’s boys and the question: Who’s the greatest among us? The answer Jesus gives is: … whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.

Amongst the stories in between these two events is the encounter with the rich man who, once again, is asking: What must I do to please God? Is it keep the law, because I’ve done that. No, says Jesus, it’s deeper. Sell everything and follow me. I guess by now we’ve made the point that religious practice is not the answer to the question. Perhaps this is because we so often ask the wrong question in the first place. We ask, “What must I do?” rather than, “What must I become?”

Bear fruit: It’s in John’s gospel that Jesus speaks about the vine, the branches and the fruit. If we bear fruit we glorify our Father according to John 15. In Matt. Jesus talked about trees being known by the fruit they bear, and most notably of course is the fig tree that had lush leaves but no fruit and suffered the consequences mirroring the clearing of the Temple which had become a symbol of the fruitless nature of some of the first century Jewish worship in that place.

Do what Jesus did: You can’t read the gospels without noticing that the disciples of Jesus were commissioned to do what Jesus did. He healed, drove out demons and raised the dead, and he sent out the disciples to do the same (Matt.10). He also lived a life of self-denial and suffering. And he called his followers to do the same (Mark 8, 10). But heroic as these things might seem, there are other things that Jesus did that I would suggest a fully devoted follower would see to do too.

For example, he ate with sinners. He touched the unclean and even allowed the unclean to touch him. There was even one occasion when he actually celebrated the fact (the woman with the haemorrhage). More than one in fact, remember the woman who washed his feet.
The gospels then have a lot to say about following in the sense of becoming like Jesus, doing what he did not simply repeating what he said.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fully Devoted Followers(2): Where do we begin?

Before we get into trying to work how to live a fully devoted life as disciples, we must build on a proper foundation. If we build on a foundation of rules and regulations, or of programmes, we are headed in the wrong direction. We must recognise that the fundamental characteristic of a God-follower is a relationship with the God they follow.

A recurring OT refrain is: “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” The covenant of the OT is not the legal system encoded by God in the Ten Commandments and the Law, it is the relationship he establishes with the people as individuals and, importantly, as community.

The second important key to understanding and developing a fully devoted lifestyle is the concept of grace. Many Christians seem to think that grace is a peculiarity of the Gospel but it’s another cornerstone of God’s dealing with his people throughout history.

Of course Paul says it best when he says in Eph. 2 that we are saved by grace through faith. But grace runs through the OT story too. Adam and Eve, experienced the grace of God when he didn’t destroy them instantly after the fall; Abraham experienced grace as God kept his promise of a son even though Abraham had tried to solve it his own way; Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Hezekiah, Elijah, Samson, Daniel, even Rahab, all experienced grace.

Thirdly, there is the issue if faith. Hebrews tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. But the writer goes on to point out that the basis for his argument is that you quite simply have to believe that God exists and rewards those who earnestly seek him.

This then raises the question: What does it me to earnestly seek God? But any answer about "how" we do this has be built on the foundation of a life transforming relationship with God not some box ticking personal achievement scorecard.

Fully Devoted Followers(1): Defining the Problem

Making our Gospel too small

John Ortberg has some interesting things to say about this. He points out that there are three kinds of people that relate to Jesus.

  • There are strangers. The crowds, the people that are curious, who have come to see him, but who simply never get close for whatever reason.
  • There are admirers. People who have seen what he does, heard what he says, and say, “That’s good, we like this”. They follow him because of what they see, but it never really changes them. 
  • Then there are followers. People for whom life is never the same again. They commit to Jesus, they choose his way above any other way and they follow.

But, Ortberg argues, we’ve added a group between admirers and followers. We’ve added users. People who use Jesus to get to heaven. Our modern gospel has become the minimum we need to do in order to secure a place in heaven. And our discipleship has become the minimum we need to do in order to cause the least offence in heaven.

Look at one of the most commonly used illustration about becoming a Christian–The Bridge illustration. What is the focal point of this illustration? Salvation from sin. Two words which needles to say we have to explain to anyone not used to this kind of language, but that we use anyway! The whole point of the bridge is that one is destined for an eternity separated from God if you don’t trust Jesus to get you across the chasm of your sin on to God’s side. Now this is all true, but it’s not the whole story. It is an incomplete gospel.

Jesus was not just in the business of saving souls, he was in the business of transforming lives.

It is this narrow gospel that has caused us to reduce wholehearted discipleship to a matter of religious practice. If we say we believe the right things then we are deemed to be okay. We’ve made following Jesus more about what we know than about what we do, how we live.

A second issue that impacts upon how we understand true discipleship is literacy. We are, by and large, a literate generation. In the UK government figures suggest that literacy rates area as high as 99%. In the church we rely very heavily on being literate. But it was not always so. In the late 19th century around 20% of the adult population of the UK couldn’t sign their name with a mark of any kind. Go back to the First century and I wonder what literacy rates were then.

Now I’m not suggesting that First century followers of Jesus we illiterate, but access to written material was significantly less than it is today, and yet they managed to be fully devoted followers. My point is this: our modern literate society has caused us to define discipleship with reference to reading skills. Perhaps because we’ve produced Ortberg’s “users” it’s natural that we would measure them by literate standards because we haven’t taught them to live differently, just think differently.

This then is the root problem. We’ve reduced the gospel to a minimum level of an expressed commitment which in turn produces disciples of religious practice rather than transformed living. What we need to do is recover a better perspective of what the Bible has to say about following. We’ll pick this theme up in the next post on the matter.

Grateful for the opportunity

Yesterday, Sunday 14th Dec., I got the opportunity to speak at Bromham Baptist Church. Bromham is a large village the other side of Bedford to where we are in Cotton End. The minister there is a good friend and a few weeks ago he called me and asked if I'd be available to do an "in depth" Bible Study on a topic of my choosing.

The topic we settled on was to look at what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus, and I set about thinking how to answer that question without simply searching out Biblical support for the kind of thing evangelicals would naturally associate with discipleship. I wanted to try to get behind the models and patterns with which we are so familiar.

In the end the talk was a bit too long, and having delivered it once, I now have a better idea of how I would structure it to deliver the same content but in slightly more logical order. But I really enjoyed the opportunity and the challenge of doing some bigger picture thinking in this area. Discipleship remains a passion for me, and I only wish I were more personally disciplined in my approach to following Jesus.

As I review my notes, I think I'll try to blog the ideas and questions.

To tweet is biblical!

I didn't realise that king Hezekiah set a precedent for microblogging:

" Like a swallow, like a crane, so I twitter; I moan like a dove; My eyes look wistfully to the heights; O Lord, I am oppressed, be my security. 
Isa.38:14 (NASB)
I can't take the credit for finding this, it was posted by someone else on a feed I get. But it made me smile!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Preparing for dessert, half-way through Mealtime Habits

I'm just about halfway through Conrad's book, and it's really great. It's a refreshing, insightful, challenging, moving, thought-provoking encounter with Jesus. It's as if Conrad is pointing out the things you've noticed that don't always make sense in the gospels (and a few other places too) but were afraid to mention in case it was just you!

Each encounter includes some thoughts for reflection at the end. This was not the original idea, there were prayers written to conclude each reflection. It's a shame they are not in the book because a prayer is maybe what we need more than more thinking time, at least occasionally

Anyway, good news, if you want them, the prayers are available through Conrad's blog annexe. Here's a sample:
ENCOUNTER 15 - The Ungrateful Paralytic
Lord God, teach us to deal with reality — to accept responsibilities and to own our debts of gratitude. Forgive us when
we blame you and others for things that go wrong and for forgetting to notice people’s names when things go right.
When it comes down to it, we know that we have no idea why you chose us, except that perhaps it has more to do with
our shortcomings than with our qualities. Change us.
I'd recommend this as a great devotional book to dip into, especially if you've grown tired of some of those year-long daily reading books or dare one say even a certain 40-day purpose driven plan.

Oh, and by the way, not all the encounters are food related, just some of them!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ed Stetzer videos

Just watched this series of videos from Ed Stetzer.

Really worth the time.

Here's the first one to get you started.

Just another picture

While I was taking pictures of the frozen birdbath, I turned around and noticed the sun breaking through behind the yew tree that stands in the corner of our garden.

It's probably quite a young tree given the longevity of yews, and I guess it was planted because the house and the church with its graveyard all occupy the same plot with the other buildings. 

Still, it's a nice tree.

Falling temperatures

Not quite the frozen lakes and rivers of colder climates, but our frozen birdbath reminds us that it's been cold in recent days.

It could do with a clean too, the leaf probably came from either the pear tree or apple tree nearby.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sunday best

It's been one of those Sundays when you never think you're ever going to stop. I knew it was going to be busy, but I'm so tired I can hardly focus my thoughts at all. 

It started with a baptism. It's been some time since we've baptised anyone, in fact I can't remember the last one. It has been a fallow time. 

I went into church this morning to check that the heating was on and the place was warm. I decided to add a little extra heating but forgot about the limited wiring and as soon as they switched the urn on, the fuse blew. Half the electrics went out in the church. Not good 20 minutes before the start of the service. Fortunately I know where the fuses are and how to fix them, so I did that.

Power restored I could get myself ready.

The baptism was great. I love to hear the personal stories of journeying towards faith that are part and parcel of these events. When its just one person the story can be as long as they like because there is no queue of people waiting in line.

After the baptism it was home for lunch and then pack up the car with all the equipment needed for our first ever event in Shortstown. Confession time, I get quite stressed at times like this. Hopefully future events will be better coordinated but in the end it went pretty well and folk enjoyed it. And we had quite a few people there who are not connected to church. 

Tomorrow there's stuff to tidy up but tonight it finally time to relax and start thinking about next Sunday. Being busy just seems to be part of the December package.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Faith Schools

"Faith schools should not select pupils on basis of religion, says report" read the headline to an article that caught my eye earlier today. At first sight it sounds quite ridiculous that a school with a faith focus can't use that focus to choose its pupils. Would a science based academy school not want pupils who have an interest in science? Would you expect a drama school to major in nuclear physics?

But the truth behind the headlines is a little more challenging than that.

I've always had an uneasy feeling about faith schools as they are presented to us today. I remember when some evangelicals began starting schools in order, it would seem, to protect their children from non-faith education. This bothered me then and it bothers me now because I think it serves to separate Christians from the people we're trying to reach. It's a ghetto mentality and it does our children little good to be so separated from others who think differently.

As far as I can tell, the original faith schools were not focused on faith but on making education available to those for whom it generally wasn't. In other words it had nothing at all to do with teaching one faith but everything to do with expressing the values of a faith that said everyone deserves education. In the UK faith schools existed because there was no such thing as state education. The isolationist agenda was never part of the package.

So have faith schools had their day? I don't know, but when I was once asked whether, if we ever got the opportunity, the church would open a Christian School, my answer was, "Only if it's not just for Christians." For me a Christian School would run on Christian principles, have a Christian ethos but would not be there to make sure creationism was taught on the biology syllabus.

That, I have to say, is simply daft and only serves to make faith schools look anti-intellectual. Have we learnt nothing from past attempts by the church to suppress scientific thought and investigation?

If we're in favour of faith schools then we need to make sure our motives are less about self-preservation and more about excellence in education.

Hold Fast

Was jealously the first negative emotion in the Bible? 

Hold fast to what is good, or the world will take it away. Satan is the relentless enemy of good. When he saw that what God gave Adam and Eve was good, he set about to take it away from them.

Experiencing God Day-by-Day December 6th

As I read this with Anne this morning it suddenly struck me that Satan is actually jealous of what we have. His desire to be equal with, even greater than God himself is what drove him to jealously and he is jealous of what we have and wants to take it from us.

When he can't have control of your eternal destiny anymore because you've committed your life to Christ, he will seek to rob you of your potential and your effectiveness, of all the kingdom good that you've inherited. All good gifts come from God, and the devil will try and take them from you. So:

Test all things; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Showtime!" and Missional

Here are a couple of interesting articles from this week's Leadership e-newsletter Leadership Weekly. The first is "Showtime!" No More, a fascinating piece about one minister and church's journey towards a more authentic expression of worship and mission than they were experiencing through the performance driven production that worship had become for them.

The second feature is Missional Misgivings by Dan Kimball. In this article Kimball raises the question of whether there is the evidence to support the claim that the missional model is working.

What I found particularly interesting about Showtime was how they sought to move from anonymity to community. This seems to coincide with Conrad's point that we've made the kingdom of God an individual matter with community implications when in fact it might just be about community with implications for the individual.

Kimball's article is helpful in opening up the debate about how attractional and missional could, maybe even should, co-exist. I know some people see missional as a replacement for and a more authentic expression of true mission than the attractional model, but the bottom line is that the attractional model, however flawed it might be, does have a track record of seeing people come to faith. And whether you are a missional advocate or an attractional advocate isn't this one of your primary goals?

I guess I might just be odd in that I am committed to discovering a missional model for the local church that enables everyone to be involved in ministry and mission, incarnating the gospel in every area of community life, and I'm committed to wanting the local church to be attractive as a place to explore the questions we have and the solutions the bible offers. I don't see these as incompatible either/or's rather both/and. Mission with incarnation is just a show a and the first article tells us all we need to know about how potentially dangerous that can be.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

New Book

Some time ago I popped in to see one of my old tutors who happens to be Conrad Gempf the author of Jesus Asked: What he wanted to Know. We got talking about that book and he very kindly gave me a copy of this book Mealtime Habits of the Messiah.

It's finally made it to the top of my reading pile and I took it out for the afternoon to one of my favourite quite places and made a start on it. The forward by the late Rob Lacey and the introduction made me want to read the book all the way through right away. I like the way Conrad writes and this is a book that deserves very careful attention, not just a quick read on a cold Tuesday afternoon over a hot chocolate and a piece of tiffin.

The book centres around things that happened and stories Jesus told involving food. I have to say that I'd always been aware of the appearance of food in the Gospels but never really given it that much thought. This book has sparked my imagination in new ways and I'm enjoying the read.

In a couple of weeks I've got to talk about what it really means to follow Jesus and I think this book is going to really helpful in giving me some new trains of thought to follow. I was particularly struck by a comment about the kingdom of God and community. Much to think about.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Organic Leadership

Now this looks interesting. I first came across Neil Cole by reading Organic Church. The forward is by Reggie McNeal who I seem to recall was the guy on the video I posted near the beginning of my sabbatical.

Not due for release in the UK until March next year means I'll have to wait a while to read it, but read it I probably will. If anyone gets to it first and reads it, let me know what you think.

The synopsis on Amazon says:

Is it possible that the division between the clergy and the laity is unnecessary and, in fact, harmful to the church? In Organic Leadership, Neil Cole fervently says yes. But rather than doing away with the clergy, Cole argues that the answer is to raise up organically grown leaders from ordinary Christians and make everyone "clergy." Using examples from modern cinema, personal experience, and the Bible, Cole sets out to change our view of what a leader is and how one is formed. This fresh and revolutionary alternative will transform readers and equip them to challenge themselves and others to find the vision God has for them.
I really enjoyed Organic Church so maybe I'll re-read that while I wait!


You'll often hear the phrase "check your motives" in self-help texts and on productivity and relationship blogs. You'll hear it too in church, or at least I hope you will. When criticism and misunderstanding are flying, how you respond is very, very important. It's very easy to get dragged into an argument, sometimes over the most minor of things. So checking your motives before, during and after any conversation is very helpful.

Today's devotional reading from Blackaby is about not being quarrelsome. He says simply that, "There should be no quarrelsome Christians," and then goes on to say that if you find yourself quarreling often that you need to ask God "to clearly reveal your motives".

Such advice doesn't just cover quarrelling, but every difficult and challenging conversation that we have.

This is Blackaby's observation:

If your motivation for arguing comes from your desire to be right, or to be exonerated, or to gain the esteem of those listening to you, you are acting selfishly, and God will not honour you. God is not interested in how right you are. He is interested in how obedient you are... you reflect a Christlike character when you demonstrate patience to those who mistreat you or misunderstand your motives.

I've had my share of being misunderstood and I have done my share of misunderstanding too. I pray that I am more Christlike now than I was in the past and will be more Christlike in the future.

Conversational Evangelism video

I took a quick look at the Conversational Evangelism website this morning to what was new. Sadly no dates for conferences next year yet, and I still hope and pray that we might one day see the conference come to the UK.

If you're new to the idea or have just forgotten about it, here's a video that was produced for the most recent conference in Kansas.