Friday, March 28, 2014

An addendum to "Is all sin criminal?"

I've been thinking about my previous post and wanted to clarify something that's really important to me. I'm concerned that some might misunderstand my point just because of the title and so I want take it a little clearer having thought about for a while.

Essentially my point is this: Should we consider all sin (things that we do that do not honour God) to be outside the law?

I want to avoid being misquoted and misunderstood as suggesting that some things that we might call sin out to be called criminal. That's not the case. I just wanted to raise the question of how we understand the relationship between the legal system, the rights of the individual and our theology.

Does that make sense? I hope so!

Maybe I should also add that the real challenge that faces the church is not how we control the state but how we express the kingdom. When our incarnation of the gospel is an expression of exclusion of certain groups of society, then how can we expect them to be reached when we hold them beyond arms length? Are they only allowed to draw near the cross when their behaviour or beliefs are acceptable?

Is all sin criminal?

Without any heart fanfare, the news this morning made mention of the the fact that as from midnight gay marriage becomes legal in the UK (or maybe just England and Wales, I'm not sure). anyway, I was wondering when the first pronouncements might be made about this from those who have spoken so loudly about it in the past and what it says about our society's general decline. Now I've blogged before about how I see the issue and that in my opinion it isn't the ultimate threat to our way of life that some evangelicals would suggest. I'm also not so sure that the floods and storms are necessarily God's angry response to our secular government's decision to pas this measure into law.

And that's the point. We live in a secular society, and the best secular society can do is to protect the rights of all its members, or seek to do so.

In the shower this morning I was thinking about this and wondered how a conversation might go between myself and someone who wanted to understand what I thought about the whole thing. Where would my emphasis be? What questions would I raise and what reasons might I give? In the end, what is my theology, or rather how does my theology work itself out in practise over such an issue.

I remember reading John Stott's Issues Facing Christian Today when it first came out in the early 80's/late 70's. What I took away from that book wasn't necessarily a series of systematic doctrines about certain issues, but rather a way of thinking about things that was hopefully more Biblical than just textual (i.e. based on a broader understanding of the whole Bible than just the direct application of a handful of proof texts). I wasn't thinking about the book in the shower, but it's that thing about facing issues and thinking "Christinanly" about them that's the key.

I wonder if the reason we, as Christians, have got ourselves in a stir over this and other things is that we have confused the idea of what does not honour God (i.e. sin) and what is criminal. It seems to me that while all crime is  a sin, because all crime surely offends God, not all sin is a crime. Think about it for a moment. We don't criminalise lying, except when under oath in a court, but telling untruths is surely listed as dishonouring God. Similarly we don't arrest a couple for setting up home together yet from a biblical perspective we would probably agree that such a choice does not sit comfortably in the context of a desire to live a God-honouring life.

So there you have it. not fully worked out, not all the nuances explored, just a simple thought: Is all sin a crime? You tell me.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Early morning exercise

Ah the joy of getting out of bed and walking/running around the streets before breakfast! The last couple of days Anne has been on the later train and so I've got up early with her and we've gone out for a quick 25/30 minutes walk before having breakfast and starting our respective days.

It's amazing how energising it is to spend just half an hour outside at the start of the day. Not that the last few days have been warm spring starts. On with the thermal base layers, hats and gloves; pockets stuffed with tissues for the inevitable nee blowing requirement. And of course the challenge of leaving a nice warm bed for the cold kiss of frosty air. Nevertheless out we have gone and good it has been. At least for me.

Once I get started I want to keep going for as long as I can. Something inside just seems to shout, "Run!" Sadly the knees are not so keen so I keep to a pattern of intervals, walking some times, running others. Today we used lampposts, running two, walking one. That was fine until we turned a corner and realised the next two lampposts were quite a long way away.

I don't suppose I'll ever be running 5 or 10k's anymore, the knees won't take it and running isn't the only exercise I get. I often tell people that you use just as much energy walking a mile as you do running it, the only difference is how quickly you use it (and technically speaking what you use to some extent to produce the required energy).

The most liberating thing is to understand that there are no rules that say you must run. The only "rule" has to be to get out and do something and have some fun doing it. Yes it can be tedious if you're training for some endurance event, but for the average person to stay healthy the guideline remains 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 times a week.

So go on, pull on the running tights and thermal top, cover it all up with a t-shirt or two and a pair of yoga pants, dust off your trainers and enjoy some air while it's still comparatively fresh! Your porridge will taste great when you get back!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Racket stringing update!

Well I took the plunge and restrung one of my playing rackets. In fact I've now strung it four times with different strings in different combinations.

Although quite tedious process, it's quite rewarding to string the thing and then go and play with it and see what difference the strings make. Now I'm not an ATP tour player, but even I noticed a difference. I'm lucky enough to have 3 rackets, so I have two that have been strung by the club coach for me, and I play okay with them, so having a third racket for experimental purposes is a great help. It means I don't have to restring one I like and risk getting it terribly wrong!

My first shot was with a hybrid mixture of the original Head string that the rackets come with from the factory and a synthetic gut of similar diameter. Tennis strings come in 4 or 5 thicknesses. Then I did it again with the same pattern but a different tension. The third attempt was just the factory string at the recommended tension.

My last try was to use the same pattern the coach uses in my other rackets. I figured that if I could get the same playing characteristics from my stringing as I do from his then I was doing a reasonably good job. I tried it out last week and it was fine. So I'm rather pleased with that.

The question now is how many experiments do I perform? There are so many variations of string from which to choose, one could spend the next year trying new combinations. There are hexagonal and pentagonal profiles, monofilaments and multi-filaments, braided, kevlar, titanium, synthetic and natural gut. And what about colour!! Blue, yellow, gold, red, white, black, natural. So much choice!

For the time being I think I'll stick to the strings I've got, but I might just be tempted to try something new!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Does local democracy work?

Well, in answer to my own question: We shall see.

I'll confess that the older I get the less interested I am in voting, especially in National Elections and even European ones. I'm not sure my vote actually means anything, and the argument that if you don't vote you have no right to comment or complain is just ridiculous. None of us vote for the FIFA presidency, but many of us have an opinion about it! In fact, not voting can be more meaningful than voting as long as it's not arrived at by apathy and worn out arguments. Although disillusionment with the political system as it is is probably one of those old arguments!

Anyway, to local democracy. We've got local elections coming up in our borough and I got canvassed the other day. To my surprise I heard myself say that I was beginning to think that local elections might be more important than national ones. If local democracy can be made to work better, then maybe there's hope for national democracy.

I've decided to involve myself in local democracy over an issue that impacts my immediate community. I've taken the first step in writing to a local councillor and refreshingly I got an honest and hopeful reply. A good start. The last time I wrote to political office I got short shrift and was told the Prime Minister knew better than I did. Something history might suggest was somewhat wide of the mark!

Local councillors probably have a tougher job than some of their Westminster counterparts. After all they often have full-time jobs as well as serving on the council (rather than having lucrative consultancy jobs outside parliament-or is that just cynical?). I'm hoping that my initial burst of enthusiasm isn't snuffed out by lack of action or response.

As I said at the start: We shall see!!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lost along the way but still looking!

A number of years ago I got very excited about the emergence of something called conversational evangelism. Alongside things like servant evangelism and ordinary people doing ordinary things, it seemed to me that we were on the verge of recapturing the simplicity of evangelism as an act of sharing our lives and stories with others. No complex spiritual laws to apply and no carefully crafted answers to the 7 main objections or whatever it was.

That conversation appears to have moved on given the quick internet search I did this morning. Conversational evangelism seems now to be defined as pre-evangelism and even appears to have drifted into the old area of apologetics. Now I don't have a problem with apologetics as such, I just wonder how you can effectively argue a logic, reasonable case for faith in a post-modern world. does post-modern man or woman really want to be convinced about absolute truth?

Perhaps I'm doing the journey a disservice, but I'm concerned that as evangelicals we still only have a single way of measuring our kingdom effectiveness and we can't see the bigger picture of a person's move towards God in any other terms than those of a prayer of commitment. I'm all for people putting their lives into the hands of God and acknowledging their need, but does that mean that any other conversation, i.e. conversation that doesn't lead to conversion, is nothing more than the preamble to the real thing? I hope that's not where we are headed.

As I continue to struggle to work out what it means for me to live a kingdom life in partnership with God o his mission, I often find myself wondering about the value of the things I do. But do I really want to return to the guilty life of failed attempt to turn the tables in witnessing.

Somewhere along the line there is a place for an intentional conversation, but knowing when and how to do that is never an easy task and ought not to be the determining factor in how good or bad I am at evangelism. At the very least let's acknowledge that there are many links in the chain that leads someone to faith and sometimes we are privileged enough to be there when the final link is added. But often we are just one link in many, and our goal should be to make sure we don't leave behind anything that blocks the next link in the chain.

So, if apologetics has become the defining factor in describing conversational evangelism, then so be it. I will need to look for a new term. On the other hand  it might just be that we can rescue a potentially significant thought and recover the idea that reaching others for Christ is a process not an event and all our conversations matter. For me conversational evangelism remains a process of sharing and hearing stories and exploring the kingdom links within them. The truth is that we don't all have all the answers and our evangelism ought not to be passed on any assumption that we do.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The God who comes looking

In my last post I talked about the mission of God and how I understand it. One of the themes of my preaching over the last 20+ years has been this idea of the God who comes looking. The gospel is a story about incarnation. God becomes human, lives among a people and can be touched, heard, and seen. It is a cornerstone of the good news.

But it's not just a theological truth. It expresses something of the heart and passion God has to be amongst his people, the people he loves. It starts in the garden of the early chapters of Genesis and runs through to the later chapters of Revelation. God comes looking for Adam even though he knows he's broken the commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In Revelation, the final stages of the unfolding story are described in terms of the new city. A place where God "dwells among the people and they will be his people and he will be their God."

But this isn't just a neat literary device, neatly drawing the two ends of a long narrative together. It's fundamental to the whole story and woven throughout it's pages. God is seen regularly making special excursions into the lives of individuals. He speaks directly to some and does extraordinary things in the lives of others. I think God's great desire to live amongst his people is most clearly exemplified in the building of the Tabernacle. When you read the description of the tents and the design and layout of the Tabernacle, you might think it's designed to keep the people out. Clearly demarked areas and processes to be followed, threats of imminent destruction and judgement for failure to follow the rules might make you think that God was excluding them rather than including them.

But shift your perspective for a moment and ask yourself how does a holy, perfect God live right in the middle of an unholy and imperfect people without destroying them? If the natural outcome of an encounter between the unholy and holy is that the unholy is judged and with that judgement comes destruction, then the Tabernacle becomes the only way God could achieve his desire to be among the people without destroying them. Mercy does indeed triumph over judgement.

Ultimately this passionate desire to live in close connection with humanity is seen in Jesus Christ as the holy God becomes flesh and blood. Amazing isn't it, to think that there was a time in human history when a person could touch God without dying a sudden death. When God comes looking, it's because he loves you.

Yes, there are those salutary moments when judgement breaks out, when the holiness of God seems no longer to be able to dwell with the unholiness of humanity. But the overwhelming narrative of the Bible is that God comes looking for us and does so because in some way heaven is incomplete without us and he can't stand the idea of us not being there. He will do and has done whatever it takes to make it possible for us to live with him as he desires to live with us.

For as long as I get to keep preaching, I'll keep talking about the God who comes looking.

Defining God's Mission

It's somewhat presumptuous of me, or anyone to think that we can actually define what it is that God wants to do in the world. We can however look at what he has done and what he says about what he does, and try to interpret that in a way that helps us participate.

For a long time now, my guiding principle for understanding my relationship to the mission of God has been in the form of this simple question: Lord, what are you doing, and how can I help? It comes from reading John 5 and the statement of Jesus that he does "only what he sees the Father doing". I've been around church long enough to have sent enough time conceiving grand plans on the assumption that God would naturally bless whatever it was we were planning to do. Rarely, if ever, did we stop and ask ourselves what he was already doing in our communities and neighbourhoods.

With the advent of missional church language and through a process of reflecting on why evangelism was so hard and how we could make it a more natural expression of our discipleship, I began to discover a working vocabulary that has helped me redefine the mission and my relationship to it. It is not complete yet, ad I guess probably never will be. I also must report that as yet we haven't seen anything spectacular, we haven't planted a thriving new church with a whole new outlook on community engagement. We're still on the journey and I'm none the wiser about what God is doing in my neighbourhood.

But, over the years, I've come to a few realisations and conclusions that have helped me see God's mission differently to way I saw it back in the 70's and 80's. Those realisations include the following:

  • First, generally speaking, church works for people who like church and it doesn’t work for everyone else! 
  • Second, people who don’t yet know Jesus aren’t really unhappy, unfulfilled and having a bad time. They actually seem to enjoy their lives far more than the average Christian enjoys theirs. 
  • Thirdly, the simple fact that God is on a mission and has a church through whom he wants to work, and with whom he wants to work in partnership.

The church's mandate is to partner with God in his mission rather than seek to plan and do the work for him. Mission is much more than just evangelism. John Stott once defined mission as everything the church does. I didn't fully comprehend the implications of that statement at the time and even questioned whether it was true, but that was mainly from the perspective of looking at what the church was doing and wondering if it was actually part of God's mission. Looking back, I think I understand more fully how this fits in the context of we might now call the missional church.

The other thing that shifted my perspective was the concept of servant evangelism and the idea of ordinary evangelism. The latter is best summed up in the words of Jim Henderson, which I'll paraphrase from memory:

If ordinary people can't do it (i.e. evangelism/mission) in ordinary ways, ordinarily it won't get done.
I do believe that taken together, these concepts have helped me understand more deeply where I fit in big picture of what God is doing. It needs seasoning with some intentionality and a few other things,  but overall being ordinary, doing ordinary things, but understanding them to be part of trying to see what God is up to and partnering with him is the natural environment for my part in his mission.

As to defining that mission, well I got asked to preach this last Sunday and I chose to share our story in the context of talking about some of these things. I defined God's mission this way:

To let everyone know that God is for them and not against them. That he loves them with a passion and we can make this known through the things we say and do and the quality of the relationships we share.

That mission is redemptive (restoring the broken relationship between humanity and God through the cross of Christ) and it’s active (God came looking, Jesus said, “Go!” He sent the church to the world, not the world to church.)

This is the kind of church I believe Jesus wants to build. A church made up of people who will partner with him on his mission to bless the world and share the message of his redemptive love and sacrifice. Being missional is about making disciples who make disciples so that the world can be saturated with people who love Jesus. It's not about doing more mission. It’s not just about becoming socially active or engaged.

We do what we do because we are the people of God partnering with God in his mission to the world. That mission is primarily a mission of incarnation, where God comes to dwell amongst the people he loves and seeks to redeem them into relationship with him.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Balance the reports please!

As you know I rather enjoy playing tennis. I'm also quite interested in watching it and reading about it. I often go to the BBC website to news of tournaments. But I have to say I'm rather disappointed in the BBC website's reporting of the semi-finals from Indian Wells in the last couple of days. There was an article about Federer and Djokovic. 19 sentences, all as single line paragraphs, detailing the two semi-finals and making references to Federer's new coaching team. Fair enough, not a bad summary of events.

Then I went to read about Li Na's semi-final against Flavia Pennetta. Shorter at 11 sentences, but here's the rub, only 4 of the 11 sentences were actually about the match. 6 were about Federer and Djokovic, 1 about the fact that both finals were on Sunday.

It might sound picky, but I found it really frustrating that whoever wrote the second report thought we need more about the men's final rather than the women's tournament. There wasn't even a mention of the other ladies semi-final.

There's little I can do about it, and I'm not sure I'm going to take it up with the BBC, perhaps I should. It just annoyed me that someone thought a decent report about the ladies matches in their own right would not be enough to make the article worth reading.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Hannah took her vow to dedicate Samuel to God's service very seriously. Her prayer was profound and heartfelt. It came out of her sense of deepest need and trouble. But her promise was no simple off the cuff remark, uttered like a "get out of jail free" card. The kind of promise we make to be good if only the presenting situation resolves itself in our favour. Hannah's promise was no virtual promise, no promise without intention to see it through.

It was a promise she would keep. She would take Samuel to Eli and leave him there. How hard must that have been? How strong must she have been? How flippant some of our promises must seem in comparison. How littered are our lives with broken promises made in the heat of the moment but lacking any intention to fulfil.

Think about Hannah the next time you hear yourself making a vow.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Another new skill!

Over the last couple of years I've been thinking about learning how to string a tennis racket. Why? Well because it's interesting, at least it is to me! Perhaps I have an inquisitive nature or just some deep need to try new things.

Anyway, I bought myself a stringing machine around Christmas time and I finally got around to setting it up and having a go. The delay was mainly due to working out how to calibrate the tensioning system. There instructions are clear and I bought a tension checker when I got the machine. The only problem was that I wasn't sure the checker was accurate. The scales didn't seem to match (Pounds and Kilos) and I didn't know which one was wrong. Anyway, I got some fishing scales and compared the two, but this still didn't satisfy my scientific need for accuracy. I needed up weighing a large bag of cat litter using both devices and decided which scale I could trust.

With the machine set up, I took and old racket and set about stringing it. I've done three now and worked out a few useful tips. The most important one being to keep my fingers out of the way of the brake lever when tensioning the string! It locks out with quite a snap and if your finger is in the way it's both painful and messy when it hits the soft bit just below the nail (ouch!)

I haven't yet strung one of my playing rackets, but I will take the plunge at some point and do one now I'm okay with the process. The difficult bit is making sure you've got notes of where the main and cross strings start and finish. Quite how you do that when you buy an unstrung frame I don't know, maybe they come with instructions.

So why am I doing this? Is it just because it's interesting? Well yes and and no. Strings can have an impact on the way you play. The more tension they have the more control you have and the lower the tension the more power there is. Different strings have different playing characteristics, and it might be fun to explore different combinations to see what effect they have. And it's a nice thought that when a string breaks you can bring the racket home and restring it yourself. They say that you should restring your rackets as often in a year as you play in a week. At the moment that would mean restringing my rackets every 2-3 months! Three rackets at £12 a racket works out at £144 to £216 a year! Not that I do that, but if I did and if I did it myself I think it would work out at between £2 and £5 a racket. So quite a saving.

In reality, you get your racket restrung when you break a string, probably once every 6-8 months in my case. So I'm not saving a fortune, just learning a new skill and keeping the grey matter working. 

Speaking of which, I'm currently reading a book on biomechanics alongside finishing off "Bounce". I find the whole biomechanics thing really interesting, and when I've finished that book I have one on myofascial structures to read. I feel a trip to a coffee shop coming on!

Monday, March 03, 2014

Cracking on through "Bounce"

To people who have never reached a national or international level of competition, it may appear that excellence is simply the result of practicing daily for years or even decades. However, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. 
I came across this quote in a paper by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely called: The Making of an Expert. I read the article because I'd also read a piece on the BBC website around the topic of practice and excellence because I'm working my way steadily through Matthew Syed's book, and very interesting it is too. While it would be a rather reductionist simplification of the book, the basic premise is rather simple: Practice not talent makes for excellence.

From what else I've read, the 10,000 hours principle of purposeful practice is both a generalised average, some achieved excellence with fewer hours and some with considerably more, and really only the beginning of understanding the path to doing something well. Other evidence does appear to suggest that there are factors other than practice that contribute to one's overall ability to achieve your goals. For example, some research suggests that visual acuity is better is better performing athletes where their sport involves what we might call hand-eye coordination.
It is however quite clear that too often we buy into the talent myth, and limit our own potential on the basis of our perceived lack of talent. Most of us don't like practicing things we find difficult to do, and, when we do try something harder, we are quicker to declare that we can't do it than we are to encourage ourselves to persevere.

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere along a continuum of complex abilities married to purposeful, deliberate practice. Practice that stretches and challenges our abilities from a position of what we can do towards what we can learn to do better.

The truth is that if you reduce either Ericsson's research or Syed's book to a simple algorithm, then you miss the point. If I want to improve the percentage of forehand's I make in a game, then I have to measure both my success rate and the repeatability of those successes. In other words, when I practice I have to have a goal in mind and I need some form metric to apply. That metic not only needs to take into account how many shots I make but how "good" my technique is when I make the shot.

Reading Matthew Syed's book carefully, thoughtfully and critically will draw you to those conclusions. Read it superficially and you'll probably be disappointed in ten years time when you've practiced for all the required hours and still not achieved greatness!