Monthly Archives: August 2011

How To Nurture Hope

Jason Clark posts an email on leadership by Steve Bagi, ‘Hope … where can I get some?’ Bagi lists ten ways to build hope, and they’re good.

I’d like to see him reflect more on the problem ministers have of being surrounded by people with little hope – not necessarily the naysayers in the congregation but also those facing various pastoral crises and difficulties. I’d also like him to take personality traits and perhaps medical predispositions to depressive tendencies into account. (And while writing this post, WordPress suggested Trait Theory as a tag: I’ve not looked into that.)

Nevertheless, I like the thought of surrounding yourself with people of hope (#3). It reminds me of the effect of having fellowship with Christians of strong faith.

I have hope in the face of a problem when it is in an area of my competence. I may not know the solution immediately, but I feel sure we shall discover it.

Prayer needs conversion to the mode of hope, too, at times. When we do not know what to do and we pray, an important component is the attitude we bring to prayer. Do we have hope that in coming before God in prayer, we shall eventually be led to the right decisions or actions?

What nurtures hope for you?

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I Like A Church Like This

I found this via the blog of Dave Lucas, who I didn’t previously know, but who has just visited this blog. He got it from here. This sounds like the kind of honest, caring church I love.

Sermon: Be Filled With The Spirit

Ephesians 5:18-21
When I arrived in my first circuit, I could tell that people wanted to ask me a question, and they were nervous about it.

“Do you drink …… tea or coffee?”

Why were they nervous to ask me that? Because my predecessor didn’t drink caffeine at all, only water. Honestly, he wasn’t a Mormon. He also – perhaps unsurprisingly – didn’t drink alcohol, and there was much amusement at a church lunch when he innocently took delight in a trifle that had the odd additional ingredient. When he asked for seconds, his wife looked furious, and he didn’t understand why.

Whatever our views on alcohol, it wouldn’t be too contentious to suggest that Paul’s words, “Do not get drunk on wine” would command our widespread assent as Christians, whether or not we are teetotal. (Although the number of Christians who seem to disregard this in practice worries me.)

My own conviction is this: the argument for being teetotal is usually based on the idea that alcohol is misused in society, and so Christians should set an example by abstaining. However, I think that is a flawed argument. The existence of misuse is not necessarily a reason for disuse, but for right use. There are many good things that are misused in our society, but imagine if we expected all Christians to abstain from all of them. I’ve never heard anyone say that because sex is misused, even married Christians should be celibate!

There is a case for some Christians abstaining from something that is abused in our society, as a witness that life is not about being given over to these things as idols. So I believe some Christians will be teetotal, some will be celibate, some will embrace voluntary poverty and so on. The issue for all Christians is whether we receive these things with thanksgiving and are not given over to them.

That, I believe, is key to what Paul says here. Are we given over to things such as wine, or to the Holy Spirit? We know what being given over to wine looks like, and it isn’t attractive.

The question for us then becomes, if we give ourselves over instead to the Holy Spirit, what will that look like? We could have a discussion about whether or not that involves ecstatic experiences – after all, some of the disciples at Pentecost were mistaken for being drunk – but the real issue for Paul is not the ecstasy. He isn’t against it, he documents his own dramatic spiritual experiences elsewhere. For him, what matters is that when we are given over to the Holy Spirit, certain changes happen in our lives.

We’ve already thought about that earlier in this sermon series when we considered ‘the fruit of the Spirit’, where Paul’s focus seems to be on what the fullness of the Spirit looks like in our character. Here, he goes on to describe what the fullness of the Spirit looks like in church life, before we ever get out into the world. In urging his readers here to be filled with the Spirit, then, he maps out what a Spirit-filled church would look like. That description comes in four verbs: speak, sing, thank and submit.

Firstly, speak:

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Verse 19a)

When I became a Local Preacher in my early twenties, the chaplain at the Church of England comprehensive school I had attended heard about it and invited me back to preach at a Christmas communion service there. When I was a pupil at the school, I was uncomfortable with the high church worship and never took communion. However, when I returned to preach, I joined the queue and took the sacrament.

Afterwards, the chaplain, whom we all knew as Jim, said to me, “I’m so glad you came and made your communion.”

I thought about those words: ‘made your communion.’ ‘Made my communion?’ They’re very private and individual, aren’t they? Sometimes we see worship as a bunch of individuals all separately in the same building worshipping. We speak to one another before the service and afterwards, but speaking to one another with the ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ makes little sense to some of us.

Well, it does unless worship is a place where we are meant not only to address God but to encourage one another. A Spirit-filled church is a place of encouragement.

Hence you get someone in the New Testament like Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of Encouragement’. He certainly was. He believed in Paul and commended him to the apostles when they were distrustful of him. He took on Mark when Paul thought he was unreliable. He was responsible for encouraging two men who between them would go on to write half of the New Testament.

Were time to allow me, I could tell you more tales than I wish about church members who were the opposite of Barnabas – who stabbed people in the back, or who had Olympian levels of bitterness. But a Spirit-filled church will be a place where we encourage each other. Specifically, we encourage one another in the faith. It is not that our speaking is limited to social pleasantries, but that it has a spiritual, Christ-centred content and goal. We can display that on Sundays, but also in home groups (which are so vital in this respect) and at other times. If our spirituality at KMC were measured by how much we speak encouragement to one another, how would we rate?

Secondly,sing:

Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord (verse 19b)

Some people read here about singing ‘in your heart’ and assume that this is something we do silently and perhaps privately. However, that would be to misunderstand the Jewish use of ‘heart’. For Jews, the heart was not the seat of the emotions (that was the bowels), but the centre of a person’s being. So to sing and make music to the Lord in your heart is to sing to the Lord from the very centre of who you are.

This, then, tells us that Spirit-filled worship is not just our public praise in a Sunday service. It is something that we do ‘at all times and in all places’. It comes out of who we are, so it is not merely about completing some formalities. Spirit-filled worship is a response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that comes from the depth of our being and co-opts every part of our lives to express the praise that is due to his name.

Yes, Sunday worship is in some sense central to that, but only if it is representative of what is going on in the rest of our lives. Unless that is true, we are guilty of hypocrisy.

Not that any one of us is perfect, and in that sense we are all hypocrites when we worship, but does our worship come because we are grateful for what the Father has done for us in Jesus Christ? Does it come because we therefore think that the only gift we can give is the entirety of our lives laid down in adoration and service? Is that at least our basic orientation?
Hence worship only begins on Sunday. As Brother Lawrence famously learned to practise the presence of God while peeling vegetables in the monastery kitchen, so we practise his presence in our conventional daily tasks, doing them as for him. Any duty can be offered in worship. Any job or profession can, too, not just the caring professions and church work.

The Spirit-filled church is not just detected on Sunday. Her worship continues from the call to worship on Sunday morning to a benediction on Saturday night.

Thirdly, thank:

always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 20)

This, of course, is a continuation of what we’ve just been thinking about in the ‘singing’ of worship: true worship is about thankfulness, gratitude for what God has done. Specifically it is ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

I have occasionally conducted an experiment in a church service that shows whether this is the focus of a congregation’s worship or not. Here is what I have done: you can be briefed, in case I ever try this here!

At the opening prayers, I have asked people to suggest topics for praise and thanksgiving, with the idea that I will then weave their suggestions into an extempore prayer that expresses the congregation’s sense of praise. It is interesting to note what themes people suggest – and, perhaps more to the point, what they don’t mention.

Time and again people will say they want to praise God for the goodness and beauty of creation. But only rarely will they want to praise God for what he has done in Jesus.

Now granted if you’re going to nit-pick, Jesus was involved in creation. But what hardly ever comes out is someone requesting that we praise God for his redemption in Christ. Either we are too shy to mention it, or it is not central to our consciousness. Whichever alternative you take, it’s pretty devastating.

Yet as Paul reminds us that our thanksgiving to God is ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’, one thing he is surely reminding us of here is that Spirit-filled worship is Christ-centred. All sorts of people can be thankful for creation, but who can be thankful for redemption? Those who follow Jesus can.

Jesus told his disciples that when the Holy Spirit came, he would remind them of what he had said and done. In other words, the Spirit comes not to glorify his own name, but that of Jesus. (Hence the old chorus, ‘Father we love you, we worship and adore you’ is wrong in the third verse.)

So a third sign of Spirit-filled worship will be that it is Christ-centred. Specifically, it will focus on the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection as much as on the creation. Do we regard the Cross as a tragedy, or does it make us sing? Do we shape our lives by the Cross? Because Spirit-filled worshippers will sing in gratitude for the Cross, and they will take up their own crosses of unjust suffering in devotion to the cause of God’s kingdom that Jesus is bringing in.

Fourthly and finally, submit:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21)

There is a lot of argument as to whether this verse belongs with the section we are thinking about, or the subsequent one about relationships. I believe it belongs to both, and acts like a hinge between them. ‘Submit to one another’ is Paul’s tagline for all Christian relationships, both in the church and in the home.
In this respect, all the issues about leadership, power and authority are secondary. People with more concern about whether they are exercising power – or whether they can – are not concentrating on the main thing, which is that we submit to one another. Not only do we no longer belong to ourselves but to Christ, it is also true to say that we no longer belong to ourselves, we belong to each other. This raises issues about how we share our gifts and possessions, and how we seek to give consideration to one another, preferring others ahead of ourselves. No wonder one of the early Christian leaders, a man named Tertullian, once said,

We share everything except our wives.

That’s the kind of mutual submission that the Spirit brings. When we know what Jesus has done for us, giving up the glory of heaven for the poverty of a manger and the ignominy of the Cross, all questions of lording it over people have to be crucified.

I guess many of us have problems at one time or another in our lives with going on ego trips. Sometimes it’s self-conscious, sometimes it’s an unconscious thing, broadcasting our insecurities to the world without us even knowing we’re doing it, or perhaps even knowing we’re insecure. Either way, however, the person who goes on an ego trip is demonstrating one area of their lives where they are not filled with the Spirit.

Why? Well, what is God doing in building his Church? He is forming us into a new community, the community of his kingdom. He is making us into the sign and foretaste of the coming age. And in the age to come, all the ugly designs on power in this world that see people belittling others, or trampling those below them while grovelling to those above them, will be gone.
To prepare ourselves for God’s kingdom, and to be a faithful witness to it now, the Spirit leads us into the counter-cultural practice of mutual submission. Our status in society doesn’t matter, nor does our level of authority in the church. What matters is that the Spirit leads us into mutual submission. As the hymn puts it, ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you.’ So in the early church slaves became bishops, because social status was immaterial. There was even a Bishop Onesimus – could it have been Philemon’s runaway slave whom Paul wrote about?

In conclusion, then, Paul has begun to show us what giving ourselves over to the fullness of the Spirit looks like in church life. We become a community known for speaking encouragement. Our worship comes from the heart of who we are, and permeates all of life. Our thanksgiving means our lives are focussed on and shaped by the Cross. And we joyfully submit to one another, regardless of rank and in defiance of social norms, because the power games of the world are unlike Christ and must not be allowed to infect his Church further.

All this is, of course, a work in progress. Can we see signs that God is doing these things among us? Where do we need to be more open to the Spirit?

More Shame From Televangelist Hell

The Independent reports on OFCOM sanctions against a Christian TV channel for showing programmes where pastors have claimed to heal diseases such as cancer with the likes of olive oil and Ribena (i.e., blackcurrant squash), which was supposed to represent the blood of Christ.

For someone like me who does believe in the healing ministry, this is particularly sickening, because this irresponsible behaviour masks the quiet, humble and gentle ministry of many.

I did a quick investigation online into one of the pastors named, a certain Paul Lewis. Was it just bad English that said he had not a BA or an MA but an MBA in Theology? (If you doubt me, read it here.) I guess ministry is big business.

Oh, funnily enough it is: you can buy his Anointed Prosperity Kit, which includes the ‘miracle olive oil soap’, by the way, along with the ‘divine prosperity cross necklace’ (because that is what the Cross is all about). It would be hilarious were it not so horrific.

But not to worry, he’s a real Mother Teresa type at heart. Back to that ‘About’ page:

Only once in a life- time does some-one come along with such a gifting yet humble and caring spirit to share on missions, orphanages, crisis care intervention and more to the brothers and sisters in the World.

So nothing to worry about there, then, after all. I must have it all wrong.

The trouble is, how does the Christian Church guard against these situations? We can’t do anything to stop individuals setting themselves up like this. Does anyone have any bright ideas?

Dumbing Down Reaches Photography

Yesterday, I took Mark on a belated treat for his seventh birthday – a tour of Wembley Stadium. We had a wonderful time, with a knowledgeable and witty tour guide called Dominic.

I took my camera gear, and have posted photos for my Facebook friends and for friends and family on Flickr to see. (Sorry, but I don’t usually make pictures of our children public on the Internet.)

And I got annoyed. Later with myself when I realised I’d been careless with the focussing of some shots, but earlier I seethed inwardly when going through the security check at the stadium. As the officer checking my bags noticed I had a LowePro camera bag and that I had a DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses, he gave me a friendly warning.

“Don’t change your lenses on the tour, or the guide will think you’re a professional photographer, and they’re banned from the tours. Choose one lens and stick to it.”

So now you know. Amateur photographers don’t use SLRs. Clearly we only use our phones, or at best a compact.  Is that the level we’ve sunk to?

I Have Come That They Might Have Meetings

While on holiday, we met an old friend. She had been one of my church members in the circuit before last. I had trained her as a Methodist Local Preacher, and then supported her as she candidated for the ministry. Now she was the local minister in the town where we were staying.
It was a wonderfully happy reunion, and it was interesting to talk with her as a colleague in the ministry. We had so much more than ever before to talk about, and even more in common. She loved so much about being in the ministry, but one thing drove her mad. It does me, too. Meetings. For all the emphasis on the call to preach, care, lead, envision, pray and so on, the institutional side of church life often takes over. Those who hope to cast big picture visions find themselves weighed down by the minutiae of detail and micro-management. Well can I understand why the ‘new church’ leader Gerald Coates once parodied Jesus’ words, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” by saying, “I have come that they might have meetings and have them more abundantly.”
My conversation with my friend reminded me of an article I had found just before going away. Well known British businessman John Timpson wrote a response to a question, and he called it ‘Our meetings get in the way of any work being done‘.  Timpson says,

I have a theory that the fewer meetings you have the better you do.

Is he right? I certainly smile at his illustration of the supermarket chain Asda having a meeting room with no chairs, to keep chat to a minimum. While I imagine there are echoes there of Privy Council meetings, I also have mischievous thoughts about our Church Councils being conducted that way.

What do you think? Is Timpson right?

A Transformed Heart

Here’s a great quote:

A transformed heart is like a magnet set near a compass – it disturbs and realigns the direction of those it comes close to.

From a reflection on Psalm 51 on the Inspire Network.

Isn’t that just the problem – transformed hearts disturb others? Is this one (of many) reasons for conflicts in our churches?

Sermon: The Spirit Of Adoption

I’m back after holiday to preach tomorrow morning for the first time in three weeks. Here goes:

Romans 8:1-17

When I was in my early years at secondary school, the girls used to debate who was the dreamiest pop star. Was it Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson, Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers, or was it David Cassidy?

In David Cassidy’s case, they would sing along with a glazed look in their eyes:

How can I be sure
In a world that’s constantly changing?

That others, such as the Young Rascals and Dusty Springfield, had charted before him with the song, was immaterial. It was David Cassidy singing ‘How can I be sure’.

While I’m not trying to suggest that we boys were too superior, given that the music wars for us at that age were between Slade and Gary Glitter, I do want to concentrate on that question: ‘How can I be sure?

It’s a question that has been asked in many ways by many people over the ages. In particular, Christians have asked it this way: how can I be sure that God loves me? Catholics would point to the sacraments as a sign. Calvinists would talk about the promises of God in Scripture – except then someone would say, but how do I know they apply to me as one of the elect, not one of the damned? So some moved on to other supposed signs of divine favour, such as wealth and prosperity.

Into this debate came John Wesley, with his particular doctrine of assurance. One thing Wesley stressed (along with such things as the promises of Scripture) was the work of the Spirit in assuring us we are children of God. And the classic passage about the Spirit revealing to us that we are children of a heavenly Father is this one in Romans 8.

So, then: in what ways does the Spirit affirm and strengthen our knowledge that we are sons and daughters of God?

Firstly, it’s a matter of being led by the Spirit:

those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (verse 14)

Let’s be careful here: language of being ‘led by the Spirit’ has been horribly debased in the church. ‘I feel led’ gets reduced to the most trivial of forms: ‘I feel led to eat a Mars bar’; ‘I feel led to wear blue jeans’, and so on. No: Paul’s point about being led by the Spirit is altogether more serious, and far removed from the frivolous use of the language sometimes found in Christian circles. For what precedes is this:

For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (verse 13)

We are led by the Spirit in order to be Christlike. The Spirit enables us to resemble the family likeness.

Most of you have noticed how much Mark looks like a redheaded version of me. When he was born, a church member jokingly told me never to take a paternity case to court, because the judge would take one look at me, one look at Mark, and throw the case out with laughter. On the other hand, when I was born, someone next to my mother in the maternity hospital looked at me and said to her, “He doesn’t look like you, he doesn’t look like your husband – what does your milkman look like?”

We expect children in some way or another to display a family likeness. One of the ways we know we are children of God is that over a period of time, we start to behave more like Jesus than we did before.

This is not to say it is easy. Nor is it to expect instant miracles. For ourselves, we may find it hard to detect the changes. I find that the key more often is that others notice the changes in us.

The story is told of a pupil at a school whose behaviour was so bad and so disruptive that the staff no longer knew what to do with him. One sanction after another had been tried. Every punishment and every incentive failed to bring about any change in him. He was as dreadful as ever.

Eventually, the Head Teacher called the boy into his office one day. He said to the young man, “We are at the end of our tether with you. There is only one thing I can think of to try, if you and your parents will agree. I want to adopt you as my own son. You will come and live with me. You will take my surname. Every time you are in trouble, it will be my name that is dragged through the mud.”

The boy agreed. His desperate parents agreed. This was the turning point in the boy’s life. Not that he became perfect, but he knew he was loved and wanted as an adopted son. For it isn’t just the fact that we take on the family likeness as evidence that we are adopted children of God, it’s also that spiritual adoption changes us. It works both ways. Being led by the Spirit is the evidence of adoption, and adoption entices us to be led by the Spirit.

All of which leads to the second strand I want to share with you this morning. If the Spirit reveals to us that we are adopted children of God, then that means we are loved by the Father. Hence Paul says in verse 15,

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, Abba, Father.

The Holy Spirit not only changes us in holiness more into the family image of Christ, nor only does the impartation of grace motivate us to live differently, the Spirit also enables us to call God, Abba, Father. Not merely reverence, but closeness: you will have heard many preachers tell you that ‘Abba’ is the word a Jewish child used to address their father in tenderness and trust. No wonder Paul goes onto say in verse 16,

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Not only in the pages of Scripture but also written on our hearts is the knowledge that we are children of God, dearly beloved children who can address him as Abba.

I have a favourite story I love to tell about this. Several years before I met Debbie, I once went out a few times with a girl whom I used to meet in London. We would have a meal and see a film together. On one occasion, she told me over the meal before the film that she had something serious to tell me. I went into pastoral mode and she said, “I’m an adopted child.”

Endeavouring to be sensitive, I adopted an expression of concern.

“No,” she said, noticing my response, “you don’t need to worry. I’m glad I was adopted. It means I know I was wanted.”

Those words have stayed with me. ‘I know I was wanted.’ I believe we can see our status as adopted children of God the same way. Being adopted into the family of God means we know we are wanted. When the Holy Spirit whispers into our hearts that we are God’s sons and daughters and that we can tenderly call him Abba, we know we are wanted. After all, God set out on a mission of love to draw us into his family. In Christ he even took on human flesh and later died for us. How much does God want us? Jesus opens his arms wide on the Cross and says, “This much.”

What does that do for us? Does it not give us the most amazing sense of security in the love of God? We do not have to be like the girl in a field pulling petals off a flower, saying, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.” The Spirit’s testimony to our adoption through Christ as God’s beloved children gives us a rock solid hope in the love God has for us. Let us never allow ourselves to think that God only begrudgingly has us in his kingdom because Jesus won him around through the Cross. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but all that he did for us came from the Father’s heart of love for his created beings.

This wonderful love of God, then, is not only meant to be a ‘safe space’ for us, it’s more. The safety that God’s love gives us is then the jumping-off point from which we can leap into great risks of faith for him.

And that takes me neatly into the third and final point I want to make about the Spirit’s witness to our adoption into the family of God. It’s about our inheritance as God’s children. Verse 17:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs— heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Parents who care for their children will make provision for their future, as much as they reasonably can. Our wills lay that out for Rebekah and Mark, not only financially, but also we considered their care, should we die before they reach the age of majority. All being well, they will have an inheritance.

The curious thing for the children of God, though, is that we have an inheritance, even though there is no remote possibility of our heavenly Father dying! We shall inherit the glory of a resurrection body (verse 23) along with our great elder brother, Jesus. It will be our inheritance to reign with him in God’s new creation.

And that knowledge holds us in good stead now. For while the certainty of God’s love for us enables us to dare great things for him, we also know that daredevil faith leads to suffering, just as it did for Christ. Just as Christ suffered, so shall we. But just as Christ had an inheritance to anticipate and it kept him going, the same is true for us. As children of God, we have an inheritance with Christ. We have an eternal destiny in the purposes of God, and so when difficulty or opposition comes our way now, we need not keep our eyes fixed purely on the trials of the present: we can look into God’s great future and remember what our heavenly Father has willed for us – a will we inherit not when he dies (which he won’t) but when we die.

In this, we have something that not everybody has. The story is told that during Jim Callaghan’s tenure of 10 Downing Street in the 1970s, he had one particularly tortuous meeting about the Troubles in Northern Ireland with Ian Paisley. Callaghan and Paisley could not agree about anything in their conversation. Eventually, exasperated, Callaghan said, “Surely we can agree that we are all children of God?”

“No,” thundered Paisley, “we are all children of wrath.”

To our ears, that may seem a typically severe Ian Paisley statement, and in one sense it is. But Paisley was right that not everyone is a child of God. While we are all God’s offspring in the sense that we owe our existence to him, not all are adopted into his family. That happens by his grace to those who entrust their lives to him in Christ.

And when we do that, we receive the love God has been longing to pour out on all (which may be obscured by a term like ‘children of wrath’). We are adopted, because he so wants us in his family and not outside, and we can take risks because we have that great security. And we are guaranteed an inheritance that means we can cope with the setbacks and the resistance to our faithful living, because we know what the Father in his love has for us.

This is what the Spirit of adoption does, in revealing the Father’s boundless love to our hearts.

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