Blog Archives

The Church Limps Into The Social Media Age

Here is a brave attempt by a country parish to use social media (in this case, YouTube) to advertise for a new vicar. They seem to know they’re struggling with the technology but are not afraid to laugh at themselves. It’s amusing, yet touching:

Via David Keen.

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Facebook Makes You Sad

Apparently, the more time you spend on Facebook the unhappier you will be. According to this research,

Those who have used Facebook longer agreed more that others were happier, and agreed less that life is fair, and those spending more time on Facebook each week agreed more that others were happier and had better lives. Furthermore, those that included more people whom they did not personally know as their Facebook “friends” agreed more that others had better lives.”

And also,

An earlier study conducted last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics also found that children and teenagers can develop “Facebook Depression” when being overwhelmed with positive status updates and photos of happy friends.

It all seems to be down to the image we project on Facebook. We’re all shiny, happy people, apparently:

Why would this be? A few possibilities occur to me:

1. We like to play pretend, and portray a good image of ourselves.

2. Being honest is altogether too dangerous in some circles. “I’m fine.”

3. Despite all the trend towards openness encouraged on social networks (watch out if Facebook changes the privacy controls again), some of us are careful about posting negative things, even if we honestly believe or think them.

4. We’re prone to a ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ mentality, due to a lurking pre-existent sense of dissatisfaction with our lives.

Of course, none of this is true in the church …

Pastoral Ministry To Daleks

Sometimes, you meet someone who longs for change but just keeps defaulting back into the old bad habits. Meet Derek:

Romans 7:24?

Latest Music Reviews

A little sideline I have is to write a few music reviews for the Cross Rhythms website. I have just written reviews on another four, and thought I would take a moment to highlight two of them. Christian music gets slated in some circles for being inferior to the mainstream, and there is some justification for this criticism. Art gets reduced to propaganda, and an ‘it will do’ attitude sometimes has to prevail for budgetary reasons. However, the two releases I am about to mention stand worthy comparison with anything I have heard anywhere in the last year. No bones about it.

The Redemption Center‘s album Land Of Plenty is top-class Americana. It has joy and melancholy, personal devotion and social concern. If you like the Jayhawks, Steve Earle, the Vigilantes of Love or Lost Dogs, this is for you. Go to their listening room to hear the album.

The other album is vastly different – from The Redemption Center, from anything else I’ve ever heard. Jason Carter is a virtuoso guitarist, particularly known for playing a baroque instrument, the harp guitar. Along with his twin neck acoustic classical guitar, he adds looping and sampling from around the world. So his CD Falling has influences from Germany, Finland (professional female funeral singers), Afghanistan and the North Korean Military Orchestra and Choir. Yes, really. The more western stuff can sound a little like Phil Keaggy‘s instrumental albums, but it’s largely quite demanding stuff to listen to – I think one track had fourteen beats to the bar, for example. So it is very surprising when he ends with a reading of Abide With Me!

Here is the relatively conventional You Shine

and here is the more demanding Pühajärve

Enjoy!

My First Gig

What was the first gig you ever attended? Mine was in 1976 at the Picketts Lock Centre in my native Edmonton. I was a brand new sixteen-year-old Christian, and the local churches were about to hold a mission with the evangelist Don Summers. In the run-up to the crusade, a concert was staged by a mainly American Christian band called Liberation Suite. Originally from Texas, they for a period of time lived out their faith in Troubles-torn Belfast. None of the money-and-luxury-grabbing lifestyle seen latter on the Contemporary Christian Music scene in some quarters for them. Here is later footage (1991) of them performing a medley of Irish Jig and Emerald Isle, their song about their heart for the people suffering in the Troubles:

They had another Irish connection. They had recruited Stephen Houston on keyboards, a Christian convert who had been playing in Irish prog-rock band Fruupp. Because of that, I had expected their music to be quite proggy. It turned out more like Chicago – not the sappy, sentimental Chicago post-If You Leave Me Now, but the brassy, earlier version.

The band had been recommended by a church youth club friend who had recently gone off to study at Surrey University in Guildford (only a few miles from where I am now). He had seen them perform there. In particular, Dave Goodwin raved about a song called Run Run Lucifer, and it became my favourite song by the band, too. Again, here’s a YouTube clip of the band performing that song (again, later – this is 1990):

Why write about this now? A few months ago, I discovered that LibSuite, as they were often known, had issued a Live In Europe CD that commemorated a gig they had played in 1976, the year I had seen them play. I ordered it from the only available source, CDBaby. However, after several weeks, they emailed me to say they could not supply it. I decided to contact the band via their website, to see whether there was any other way of obtaining it. To my great joy, drummer Randy Hill sent me  a copy, and it arrived yesterday.

I’m not suggesting every LibSuite fan contacts Randy! But it was a lovely sign of a band that has always had a good heart.

George Kovoor On The Web

I don’t think I’m going to preach a brand new sermon this week. The Lectionary Gospel and Epistle are both fascinating: both Luke 7:36-8:3 amd Galatians 2:15-21 (especially if you take the latter in its context from verse 11 onwards) raise the question of table fellowship being used as a sign of who is included in or excluded from the people of God. In the case of the Luke reading, I don’t think I can yet improve on a sermon I preached three years ago on it, despite yesterday reading the chapter on the incident in Michael Frost‘s recently reissued expanded edition of Jesus The Fool. (Highly recommended, BTW.) When it came to Galatians, I again dug out Tom Wright‘s book from last year, Justification, which inspired my recent sermon about justification based on Romans 5:1-11. However, this time, much as Wright enlightened my understanding of the text, I didn’t come away feeling I had something to share with a congregation in a sermon.

So I thought I’d point you to something else on the web. Someone else, actually. Last year while I was on sabbatical, I blogged about my encounters with the extraordinary George Kovoor, current Principal of Trinity College, Bristol.  Well, George has just launched his own website, Kairos Global, and I commend it to you. At this stage it’s rather sparse, but you can start to gain a feel for the ministry of this remarkable man. The lead article that begins on the home page will certainly give you a flavour. There are also a couple of videos, showing five-minute extracts from longer presentations. One is also available on YouTube, so by the magic of WordPress I reproduce it below:

I can’t say I can work out what he’s doing broadcasting on TBN Europe in the company of the Creflo Dollars of this world, but Jesus didn’t worry who he mixed with (any more than the late Rob Frost worried about broadcasting on God TV) and at least it gets some sound teaching out there.

I think George’s site will be well worth watching, especially if it is updated frequently. If his admin can put on some of his talks, whether text, audio or video, in full, it will be invaluable for all of us who care about the evangelisation of the West – and, indeed, the entire world.

Oh, and for something lighter, you can always join the Facebook group George Kovoor Is Mad.

God: New Evidence

I’ve been aware through mailshots and emails for a few months that the Christian missionary charity Focus has been putting together a new resource called ‘God: New Evidence’. With contributions from scientist-theologians such as John Polkinghorne and David Wilkinson, there are videos you can embed in your own blog or site free of charge, which are also available on a DVD for £14.99 (currently UK PAL only – NTSC following later). You can view them on the site or on YouTube by searching for the user ‘godnewevidence’ (omit the quotation marks). Here by way of a taster is the first one:

You can also become a Facebook fan or follow the project on Twitter. Bible translator and former biologist Eddie Arthur commends it here, as does Anglican priest Doug Chaplin here (with the reservation that he thinks cosmology might be more sympathetic to faith than evolutionary biology).

This is an encouraging and worthwhile resource. We should be careful not to claim too much for it in response to Dawkins hysteria. Just because Dawkins and his friends claim science can disprove God, we shouldn’t rush to assume scientific research can prove every aspect of Christian doctrine. (Not that I’m suggesting Focus think this, I’m more thinking about how people might try to use the material.)

What can we claim? Passages such as Romans 1 make it clear that an appreciation of the world carries with it a basic revelation of God – but no more. The Focus material is therefore an excellent argument for the existence of God, and forms a foundation which the Holy Spirit can use in further revealing the Good News of the Kingdom in Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection.  In short, rational evidence gives us not complete proof but enough evidence for trust in God. The latter requires the work of the Spirit in a person’s life.

Sermon: Your Labour Is Not In Vain

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

The last time I was invited to preach in a Baptist church was in the mid-1990s. I was ministering in Hertford and the then senior pastor of Hertford Baptist Church and I worked a pulpit exchange. The day before it was due to happen, I went down with flu and the inexperienced assistant pastor had to put together a sermon from scratch and preach in my place.

So I’d like to thank Paul for the invitation to preach here tonight. We first worked together on re:fresh08, and he then invited me to join the board of Ministry Today. It’s very kind of him to give me this opportunity, just six months before my family and I leave Chelmsford for pastures new.

To our Bible passage, then. You might think this is a strange choice for this time of year. We’ve just about got Christmas done and dusted, and here are some verses about the Resurrection! It is the climax of the apostle Paul’s teaching on the Resurrection. Some say it contains the text that should be placed over every church crèche: ‘We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed’ (verse 51b).

But, no, I’m not going to preach on that tonight, despite being the father of young children and the changing of nappies being a memory from only five years ago. Instead, I want to preach on a verse that has meant a lot to me. It has kept me going in bad times, even when I haven’t understood it. Not long ago, when I was going through a rough period, I was thinking about this verse. Someone who knew life was difficult for me prayed with me, and without knowing I was thinking about it, she prayed this Bible verse with me. It is very special to me. Because it has sustained me, my prayer is that it will encourage you if you are sailing through choppy waters in your life.

What’s the verse? It’s the very last one of the passage, verse 58:

‘Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’

I want to explore it with three questions: what, why and how? What is the problem? Why does this verse help? How can I live it out?

Firstly, then, what is the problem? Let me tell you some of my own story. From the age of five, teachers expected me to go to university. My favourite subject at school – this will put you off me! – was Maths. Accordingly, when it came to choosing my A-Levels, I selected Maths, Physics and Chemistry. I decided I wanted to study Computer Science at university, and received a very good offer from Imperial College, London.

One month before the A-Levels, it all went wrong. I suddenly began to suffer excruciating neck pain. I never sat the exams. I tried to repeat my final year at school, but although I would have been physically fit enough to take the exams twelve months later, I would never have done myself justice. I decided to leave school, take a job and review my future long term.

That job proved to be a clerical one in the Civil Service, working in social security. I worked for what was then called the Department of Health and Social Security – or, as our critics called us, the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity. Much of it comes under the Department of Work and Pensions these days, or even HM Revenue and Customs.

I can tell you the odd funny story about that time. Not least when I had a job making sure that self-employed people paid the right National Insurance contributions. One day in the post came a letter from a woman who was returning her self-employed papers. She was winding up her business due, she said, to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. I looked up her records: she was a clairvoyant.

But mostly, those were chinks of light in a dismal and depressing job. What on earth was I doing there? Why had God allowed the neck problem? My career didn’t advance and the work didn’t normally use my abilities.

And Paul says in our verse, ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ I suggest that my experience of working life – and it can be the same in the ministry sometimes – is that we wonder what on earth we’re doing here. Our job doesn’t seem to achieve anything. Our studies at school or college seem to be going nowhere. Our experience of family or friends isn’t anything to write home about, however much effort we put into relationships. Has that been your experience? Perhaps it is right now.

And Paul says, ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ What we are doing sometimes does feel like it’s in vain. However hard we work, we aren’t achieving anything for the kingdom of God or our own personal fulfilment.

But you know what? Paul himself knew this experience. He refers elsewhere in this chapter, this letter and other letters to not labouring for the Lord in vain (15:10; 9:26; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16). Not only that, he recognises it is a possibility for the readers of this letter. If you go back to the beginning of chapter 15, you find a clue as to why he dictated this chapter:

‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.’ (Verses 1-2, italics mine.)

So if you feel like your efforts are in vain, let this give you good heart. You are not alone. Your experience was familiar to the great apostle and the early church. Don’t feel condemned. God understands you, and his word has encouragement for you.

It may be enough just to know that, but I’m going to move on to my second question, why does this verse help? Because if you’re anything like me, you want to know the whys and wherefores of an issue. Now I’m a parent of a six-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, that comes back to haunt me. “Why, Dad?”

But ‘why’ is important. Why can Paul tell the Corinthians to ‘be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord’? What is it that means the know that ‘in the Lord’ their ‘labour is not in vain’?

There is an obvious answer. As we’ve said, this whole chapter is about the Resurrection. If you want to know why to keep on keeping on, the answer is the Resurrection. The Resurrection is what makes everything we do for the Lord worthwhile.

How does the Resurrection make our labour worthwhile? Let me pick out one thing Paul says about it from earlier in the chapter. He says in verse 20, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ (italics mine).

It’s this notion of first fruits. In New Testament times, you got to celebrate the harvest twice in the year. Not only was there the equivalent of our harvest festival in late summer or early autumn, there was a festival of first fruits in late spring. It happened at Pentecost. People celebrated the fact that the first fruits to be picked were the sign that the full and final harvest would come later in the year.

When Paul calls the Resurrection of Jesus the ‘first fruits’ he says it’s the promise of the full harvest, in other words, when all will be raised from the dead. It’s the promise that just as God the Father restored Jesus to bodily life, so he will physically resurrect all people.

It’s part of the great New Testament vision for the future, God’s new creation. The new heavens and the new earth. Whatever God destroys at the end of all things, he will make all things new. Our future is not to be disembodied spirits floating on clouds and playing harps, it is to be bodily resurrected people living, working and worshipping in God’s new creation.

And that vision is why the Resurrection helps us when we feel our labour is in vain. It’s because everything we do in the Lord’s service now is a sign of the new creation. We don’t know how God will incorporate or transform all our work for him now into the new heavens and the new earth – it will be ‘in ways at which we can presently only guess’[1].

Something Martin Luther once said about the Second Coming helps me envision what this means. He said that if he knew Jesus were returning tomorrow, he would plant a tree today. In other words, the new creation with the resurrection of the dead makes all those little deeds of goodness today worthwhile. Tom Wright puts it this way:

‘You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world.’[2]

I think we best approach this as visionaries and dreamers. The other day I took a school assembly as part of a series about heroes of the faith. My topic was Martin Luther King. I downloaded from YouTube a video of the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech from 1963, and edited it down. During the assembly I showed a couple of minutes from the speech, beginning with the ‘I have a dream’ refrain, which doesn’t come until about twelve minutes in. So the children just saw the clips where King said he had a dream that his four children would one day be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character, and where he said he had a dream that one day black and white children would sit down and play with each other as sisters and brothers.

At the end of the assembly, I asked them to shut their eyes and imagine their dream of what God’s new world would look like, then to pray they would be brave enough to work for it.

And I think something like that is what Paul calls us to do here. What is your dream – based on Scripture – of what God’s new creation looks like? What do you believe is coming with the resurrection of the dead and the new heavens and new earth? How would you ‘build for the kingdom’[3] OF God? Can you be a dreamer for the kingdom with the passion to put your dream into practice by the power of the Spirit?

So to my third and final question: how can I live it out? Well, note that Paul talks about being ‘steadfast’ and ‘immovable’ – that is, steadfast and immovable in the gospel. The foundation for labouring hopefully is to nurture our faith. My Christian tradition has historically referred to certain practices as ‘means of grace’ – special things which God particularly honours as ways in which he builds us up in the faith. These include worship, prayer, taking Holy Communion and sharing in a small group. Today Christians often call these and other similar practices ‘spiritual disciplines’, and my congregations will tell you I am always banging on about them.

We need to renew our commitment to those regular, faithful acts where we deliberately put ourselves in a place where we expect to hear the voice of God. It won’t always be spectacular, but that isn’t the point. It’s more like an ongoing regular healthy diet than an occasional banquet.

And most especially when we use ‘means of grace’ or ‘spiritual disciplines’, the big issue is not simply to go on a head trip because we have understood something afresh or heard God speak. It’s to put it into practice. We can learn all the doctrine we like, but unless it’s a basis for godly action, it’s a waste of time. So let’s be grounded in the faith, taking advantage of opportunities that come our way, and from that foundation let’s spring into action.

But there’s one other emphasis in the ‘how’ that Paul makes and I’d like to stress it. I confess it’s one that challenges me. He talks about ‘always excelling in the work of the Lord’ (italics mine). I know the call to excellence is one thing that Paul your pastor feels very strongly about. Why does it challenge me? It isn’t that I don’t want to be good at what I do for the Lord – far from it. As somebody has put it:

‘If everything comes from God’s overflowing grace, can we measure service to Christ grudgingly?’[4]

There is no way we can hold a good conscience as Christians if we serve grudgingly. The gospel reminds us of God’s overflowing grace, and any response encouraged by the Holy Spirit is going to be a wholehearted one. That of itself encourages us in the direction of excellence, whether it’s something we do in church, whether it’s direct and overt witness to Jesus Christ, or whether it’s going about your studies or your work diligently and conscientiously.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. But where this challenges me is this: I can easily sign up to the ‘excellence’ idea when it’s about something I know I’m gifted in. Excellence becomes uncomfortable for me when I have to confront my weaknesses. To a certain extent I just want to concentrate on my strengths. To some extent that’s fine. I can advocate a creed of ‘do what you do, do well’ and find other people to cover the areas where I’m not strong. That’s a good and proper understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ where we all have our differing gifts and we all need each other.

However, if I’m not careful, it can degenerate into a cop-out. I spent some time last year during a sabbatical from work studying ministry and personality type. Part of this involved going away on a course. The tutor used a well-known tool that analyses the preferences of different personality types. For as long as we were looking at the preferences of different personality types, I was happy. But he then said this: it’s good in the first half of life to concentrate on your strengths. In the second half of life, it’s worth thinking about whether you can improve some of your weaknesses.

I didn’t want to hear that.

Then yesterday, I was reading a book I’m reviewing for Ministry Today and while it is a title aimed at pastors, there was a chapter on ‘excelling’, and a paragraph that related to this point:

‘What are your strengths and your weaknesses? Sharpen your strengths, and develop your weaknesses. Become better where you are good, and become good where you are weak. No matter what leadership gifts you think you lack, God is able to do great work in and through you. Believe in your call, then work and pray.’[5]

If you’re not called to leadership, ignore that reference. But we are all called. Is this something we can do – to become better where we are good and become good where we are weak? By the power of the Holy Spirit it certainly is. What a way to spite the enemy if he has discouraged us to the point of thinking our labour in the Lord is in vain! We can turn it back on him by redoubling our efforts, because we believe in the risen Christ and the coming new creation.

As I said at the beginning, we are due to leave Chelmsford in six months’ time. One of my goals in that period is not to be ‘demob happy’ but to use it partly to improve some of my weaknesses. For me, that’s a part of aiming to excel ‘in the work of the Lord’.

Could you make a commitment like that? Let’s pray.


[1] Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope, p169.

[2] Op. cit., p219.

[3] Op. cit., p157.

[4] Anthony C Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary, p290.

[5] Royal Speidel, Evangelism in the Small Membership Church, p114.

No Sermon, Just A Video

I am not posting a new sermon this weekend. I’m preaching a couple of old ones tomorrow. Blogging also remains light, due to personal circumstances behind the scenes.

However, I have created a simple video of images for a harvest psalm (Psalm 67) and set it to Ian White‘s son ‘May the peoples praise you’. Facebook friends will find it on my profile, but I have also uploaded it to YouTube, so courtesy of them I thought I’d share it here. For those who like the song, it was released on his CD ‘Holy Ground‘.

We Love The NHS

I may have been critical of our current Labour Government again on Wednesday, but I am generally supportive of them when it comes to the NHS. Some of the recent attacks from the States (and even here) look dumb in the extreme. Can we just remind the Investor’s Business Daily that Stephen Hawking is both British and alive, for example? (Even the corrected version of the article, to which I have just linked, doesn’t fully correct all the facts and still leaves room for doubt about the role of the NHS with respect to the brilliant scientist’s health.) And as for the views of Conservative MEPs Daniel Hannan and Roger Helmer that we should abolish it because 80% of Americans get better health care, well hang on: for all the faults of the NHS (and I’ll come to some of them), a Christian has to remember not just the 80% but the 20% – that is, the poor. Oh, and twice as much GDP is spent on health care in the US than here. Who is going to campaign to double our spending, even on top of the rises under the current administration?

So it’s not surprising that Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister who ‘got down wiv da kids’ by making policy announcements on YouTube, has now sent a message of support to the Twitter campaign #welovethenhs. Of course it’s political that he does so, but – hey – I actually agree with him here. (Just as I do on his concern for the welfare of the poorest nations in the world.)

Why? For theological reasons. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. That has to be seen corporately. I have had it argued to me in the past by conservative American Christians that it is the sole preserve of the church to offer healthcare and healing to society. Yeah, right. Because that is going to cover everyone, isn’t it?

Less cynically, although I come from the Arminian theological tradition and am therefore meant to view almost everything John Calvin said with suspicion, I find value in his concept of ‘common grace’ – that the sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous, as Jesus said. Surely health and healing would be among such common blessings.

Personally, I have benefitted from the NHS. Most recently in major terms, it was the nasal surgery I had in May (a septoplasty and submucus resection, for those who like the medical swearwords). That surgery corrected a lifetime’s breathing problem. Nobody questioned me about the level of my medical cover, or whether my premiums were paid. I was simply treated. Then, a week ago, on the night before going away on holiday, I began to suffer pain in the right rib area. A phone call to NHS Direct led to advice that I should attend our nearest Accident and Emergency unit at a nearby hospital. They soon reassured me I didn’t have the feared spontaneous pneumothorax (OK, I’m showing off, that’s a collapsed lung) but had something close to a torn abdominal muscle. Triage, chest x-ray, time with a doctor, all without question, through until 2 am from dedicated professionals. Then away on holiday the next morning. First class.

No, it isn’t perfect, and I have some issues with it. The ‘postcode lottery’ is a common concern. For the uninitiated, this refers to differing policies in different areas, resulting in some people being eligible for treatment in their location but others in another area not being, perhaps due to age or general priorities.

Then there are issues of the budget being used up for causes that give me moral problems. The widespread use of abortion is the obvious one. Some uses of cosmetic surgery might be another. I could easily add othercontentious treatments to this list, and I apologise for just brief comments – however, the purpose of this paragraph is not to go into fine detail, but simply to mark up the fact that I have concerns about several significant areas.

But let’s get it straight. Supporting the NHS does not make you a Marxist, so let’s ditch that bit of ignorant propaganda that seeks to label people rather than engage with the issues. That kind of nonsense makes it sound like McCarthyism is back from the dead. Most Christians in the UK of various political and theological persuasions would concur that being in general favour of the NHS (whatever particular quibbles we have) is thoroughly consistent with Christian principles.

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