Monthly Archives: February 2012

Evangelical Scholarship And The New Perspective On Paul

For many years, I’ve been suspicious of the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul‘. It’s only in recent years, as I’ve read the works of people like Tom Wright, that I’ve come to see it as far more biblically respectable than I previously thought.

Recently, Frank Viola has interviewed two scholars who propound this view. The conversations are about far more than this issue, of course. I commend them to you. He has interviewed N T Wright himself and he has interviewed Scot McKnight. They are well worth a read.

Christians And Sunday Employment Legislation

I am saddened by the reports on Thursday of the South London Christian Celestina Mba who lost a case for constructive dismissal against Merton Council, which she claimed on the grounds of being forced to work Sundays. Much as I care about Ms Mba’s distress regarding her faith, was she right? She worked helping children with severe learning difficulties. Surely the Council was right that they needed care seven days a week. Does this not fall within Jesus’ call to ‘do good on the Sabbath’?

Is it not quite different from the 2005 case of Stephen Copsey, where he lost because the quarrying company he worked for trumped his religious beliefs with economic justification? That one looks like the idolatry of money; sadly, Ms Mba’s case looks nothing like that.

Or am I wrong? Have I missed something?

Ash Wednesday: Would You Like Tacos To Go With Your Ashes?

USA Today reports on an initiative called ‘Ashes To Go‘ in which Episcopalian priests are today offering the traditional Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes out on the streets for people in a rush, the same clientele who grab breakfast to go in their daily beat-the-clock dash to work. (According to the article, Roman Catholics officially disapprove, since it should take place within a proper church service of repentance.)

According to the Ashes To Go site,

“Ashes to Go” is about bringing spirit, belief, and belonging out from behind church doors, and into the places where we go every day.  It’s a simple event with deep meaning, drawing on centuries of tradition and worship to provide a contemporary moment of grace.

I have found an ashing service powerful in the past, but I’d never thought of taking it to the streets. Specifically, I have noticed that it has not been the ‘traditional’ Methodists who have appreciated ashing, but the more charismatic Methodists. This may seem surprising that such a liturgical act might appeal to those who are regarded as being ambivalent to overt form and structure, but I think the connection is found in the sensory experience.

For me, to receive the imposition of ashes and then to share it with others is moving to the point of being emotionally troubling. That is not a criticism, as I hope you will see as I explain. I deal in the currency of death through ministry, offering comfort to the bereaved and celebrating lives well lived. That makes the connection graphic, especially last week when twice I buried the ashes of someone whose funeral I had taken a few weeks previously. As I watched the crematorium attendant release the lever on the urn and witnessed the ashes pouring down into an empty cube of soil, I wondered what the grieving families were thinking. Were these ashes really a beloved husband or father? What will I think when it is the cremated body of one of my parents?

Not only that, five years ago I had a cancer scare. It was a false alarm. A routine medical found blood in my urine, and I was referred urgently for urology tests. Nothing sinister was discovered. The doctors assumed I had either had an infection or was under stress. (I think it was the latter.) Ever since that episode, my inflamed imagination has wrongly interpreted every bump as a carcinogenic intruder. Silly, I know, but true. I live thinking almost daily of death, and whether I am ready to meet Christ. In moments of spiritual fever, I think more about my sins than God’s grace.

All of which brings me to an excellent editorial in today’s Guardian. It tracks changing attitudes to death in connection with Ash Wednesday. To quote a chunk of it:

These days, if we are asked how we want to die, we generally say that we want it to happen quickly, painlessly and preferably in our sleep. In other words, we don’t want dying to become something we experience as a part of life. This would have made little sense to generations past. For centuries, what was feared most was “dying unprepared”. Death was an opportunity to put things right. To say the things that had been left unsaid: “Sorry”, “I was wrong”, “I always loved you”. We used to die surrounded by our extended family. Now we die surrounded by technology, with a belief in medical science often replacing the traditional puzzle of human existence.

Ash Wednesday inculcates that idea of being prepared for death. The putting right of relationships, the readiness to meet our Maker, and so on. And if that’s the case, then maybe there is a missional application for the imposition of ashes. Perhaps those Episcopalian priests in the States today are doing something significant. When someone asks the ultimate questions about life, death and meaning, it’s not surprising when God comes into the thinking. Ministers will identify that at the other end of life’s spectrum when a couple have their first baby. Facing death in all its reality rather than the saccharine illusion so regularly trumpeted today could well mean a gospel encounter. I am sure earlier generations understood that better than we do, where death is on the NHS.

Yes, dust we are and to dust we shall return. But one day our mortal bodies will be reanimated by the Holy Spirit in resurrection.

HT for video and USA Today story: Bob Carlton on Facebook.)

Uncle William The Missionary

One autumn Sunday in 1983, a Chinese student turned up at my home church in London. He’d come over from Hong Kong to study civil engineering at a nearby institution. Rather than go to the Chinese Church in London, he chose to find a local group of native Christians with whom to worship for the three years of his studies here.

That was how we met William. Or ‘Uncle William’, as he became known to us.

He got that name on one of the many days he came back to our parents’ house for Sunday lunch. My sister and I told him how when we were children, we addressed our parents’ friends as ‘Uncle’ or ‘Auntie’. “Well,” said William, “I am your parents’ friend, too. You should call me Uncle William.” So we did, even though he was younger than me.
Over those three years we had great fun. We tried to convince him of the existence of the Wombles, an endangered species on Wimbledon Common, but he didn’t fall for it. When he travelled with us to attend Spring Harvest in Prestatyn, we told him he would need his passport for the Welsh border. It didn’t work.

But when we told him about the male and female haggis animals on the Scottish mountains, we got away with it. We span the old yarn that the males have shorter legs on one side of their bodies and the females have shorter legs on the other side. Thus they have to go opposite ways around the mountains in order to meet and mate. If they go past each other, it means another circuit.

William thought this was nonsense, and announced that he was going to visit a relative of ours who would confirm his suspicions. The moment he went out of the door, we rang her, knowing she had the gift of the straight face …

I have only seen William once since those days. It was ten years ago, when he paid a visit to London with his bride, Vicky. My sister hasn’t seen him at all since 1986, I think.

Today, we saw him again. He was in London for a short break and came down to see us. He hasn’t changed. He looks just as young, he still has the humour and it truly was one of those occasions where it felt like we were picking up only from last week, not years ago.

It struck me tonight that William’s example of worshipping with the locals rather than simply with his own fellow ex-pats was a model for all who seek to share in the mission of God. Get involved in the local culture. Don’t stay in the compound. Don’t huddle in the comfort zone. William didn’t.

William, the title of this piece of music is for you today:

What Is The Gospel?

Scot McKnight is worried:

He’s not the only one. I’m currently reading Michael Frost‘s book ‘The Road To Missional‘, in which he builds on the work of N T Wright and the late David Bosch to say that mission is alerting the world in announcement and demonstration to the fact that Jesus is King.

What they all seem to be getting at is that we have reduced the gospel to easy-believism. ‘Just accept Christ as Lord and Saviour.’ ‘Repent and believe.’ Well, yes, except the emphases on ‘Lord’ and ‘repent’ often fail to connect with Jesus’ frequent command in the Gospels to follow him. Indeed, these approaches are often embarrassed by the Gospels, drawing purely on a certain reading of Paul and only concentrating on the death of Christ, plus perhaps his birth to prove he was divine. The bits in between seem irrelevant to this approach.

How, then, should we summarise the Gospel? How would you summarise the Gospel? Indeed, can we summarise the Gospel briefly?

Sermon: When Life Goes Pear-Shaped (Habakkuk): Habakkuk’s Prayer

Habakkuk 3:1-19
The first time I conducted a baptism service, the passage for the day was about John the Baptist. In my sermon, I made a crack about John the Baptist and Jesus the Methodist – only to discover that some of the happy couple’s family worshipped at Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford.

But today, I can proudly announce to you that I have discovered a Methodist in the Bible from before the birth of Christ. Habakkuk.

Why do I make this facetious comment? Because Habakkuk sang his theology. I have often said that if you spotted three Christians going to worship on a Sunday morning, each carrying a book with them, the Anglican is carrying a prayer book, the Baptist is holding a Bible, and the Methodist is holding a hymn book. It says something about our spirituality.

And as Habakkuk responds to God’s second answer in chapter 2 with a prayer, he sings it. That strange beginning in verse 1, complete with a Hebrew word to trip up the reader, highlights it:

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.

Shigi-what? ‘Shigionoth’ is a rare term for a dirge, only used at times of complete reliance upon God’s faithfulness[1]. There are also references (not translated in the NIV) to another Hebrew musical term, selah, in verses 3, 9 and 13. Finally, the book ends with these words:

For the director of music. On my stringed instruments. (Verse 19b)

Habakkuk’s prayer, then, is not a private prayer that happens to have been preserved, but one that has been turned into a public act of worship. Just as we often look in our Bibles and see much of the words of the prophets written in poetry, so here Habakkuk has used a creative gift to share his prayer of response to God’s word. By sharing it that way, he makes his prayer memorable and the content usable by others. Could it be that when we have an insight into faith, we might consider using our creative gifts in order to share it with others?

But that’s a little off on a tangent, something that might spark one or two of you into action. For the bulk of this morning, we need to consider the message that Habakkuk preserved for us in his sung prayer, even if we no longer know the tune.

Firstly, Habakkuk sings about God the Deliverer in the past. Verses 3 to 7 use language that is reminiscent of the Exodus and the Conquest of the Promised Land. In other words, Habakkuk looks back to see and to celebrate what God has done in the past. He goes back to the greatest act of deliverance that the Yahweh, the God of Israel, has accomplished in history, and reminds himself – and others who will hear or sing this song – of that event. If times are bad now, this is the God he believes in and trusts. When God’s people were oppressed by an unjust nation before, this is what the Lord did. He delivered them from Egypt and brought them into their own land.

I believe Habakkuk takes strength and comfort from this. He knows that God has not changed. God is still able to do this. So he fortifies himself with a theological history lesson that underlines for him the character and the actions of his Lord.

It is something we Christians can do, too. We can remember God’s great acts of deliverance in Jesus Christ. We can celebrate his Incarnation, assuming human flesh in order to redeem it. We can celebrate his death for our sins and his resurrection for our justification. We can rejoice in how his Ascension tells us that he reigns.
Indeed, Jesus has provided a particular way of doing this regularly. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. Every time we share in Holy Communion we remember. And although the bread and the wine particularly point us to the giving up of his body to death, in that act of the Lord’s Supper we celebrate everything from creation onwards. Notice how the great prayers of thanksgiving move through the history of God’s saving acts, climaxing in Jesus Christ. Every time we eat bread and drink wine in obedient faith to Jesus Christ, he provides a way of remembering who he is and what he has done for us. It’s not just an act of memory, it’s not merely a feat of the intellect, Christ engages our sight as we see the bread broken, our hearing as we listen to the thanksgiving, and our senses of touch, taste and smell as we receive the elements. It is a full, sensory experience of remembering the God who has delivered us in Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, this Christian remembering of God’s deliverance in Christ is not one that leaves a two-thousand-year gap between those events and the present day. On the one hand, our sacramental remembering puts us back at the Cross, as if we were truly there. On the other hand, it brings the past into the present, making those past events effective today.

When we face our questions, doubts and troubles about the state of the world and about the state of the church or even our own lives, let us invite the Holy Spirit to sing the great song of remembrance in us, that encourages us to believe in our faithful, redeeming God at the worst of times as well as the best of times.

Secondly, Habakkuk sings about God the Warrior in the future. Now I have to say this is not so obvious in English translations, and here I rely on the scholars. As we move into 9 to 15, there is still a description, it seems to us, of God acting in deliverance in the past. However, not all the language here quite so easily fits the Exodus and the Conquest.
What it seems to be is this: Hebrews had a way of speaking as part of their language that is strange to us. Whereas in English we are used to a series of tenses in our verbs that are variations on the present, the past and the future, Hebrew was more complex when it came to a sense of time in their verbs. One example of this is what is called the ‘predictive past’. In other words, something is predicted to happen in the future, and the speaker is so certain of it that he or she speaks of it as already having happened in the past. When Jonah prays to God from the belly of the fish, he hasn’t been delivered, but he prays as if he has. Scholars think this part of Habakkuk 3 is also a ‘predictive past’. The prophet has been fortified by the act of remembering God’s acts of deliverance in the past. As a result, he now has faith that God will also act mightily in salvation in the future. He is so trusting of this that he sings as if it has already happened.

What does that mean for us? Something like this: if we have remembered God’s deeds of salvation in the past, we have reason to hope and trust for the future. Think of how we sing the old hymn, ‘This, this is the God we adore’ and recall those lines,

We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.

That, effectively, is what Habakkuk is singing. He has praise for the past, and that leads to trust for the future. Praise for the past and trust for the future are not separate. They are connected. Because we know what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we can trust him in the future.

Think of it in terms of human relationships. What is our reaction if someone comes to us and makes false accusations against a loved one? We tend to say, “But that is not consistent with what I know about the one I love.” In other words, we fall back on what we know of their character and their deeds from the past. I know it isn’t a perfect illustration, because it’s possible that someone might hide things from us, but I hope you see the basic point. In our faith, we do something like that. A whisper comes in our ear that God cannot be so good, because all this evil is going on around us. We respond by saying, “But I know what God is like. He sent his Son. And because he did that in the past, I will trust him for what is to come.”

To summarise so far: Habakkuk’s song is first of all a great song of remembering, in which we engage with what God has done in the past. It then secondly is a great song of trust in the future, because of God’s past deeds. But that leads to the third and final part of the song: what about the present? After all, now is the time when things are bad. In Habakkuk’s case, it was the wrongdoing of God’s people and their looming punishment through the evil Babylon. For us, we may be exercised by other dark scenarios. It may be war, famine, injustice or economic turbulence in the world. It may be closer to home in the form of personal sickness or troubles. Either way, there isn’t much light at present in between what God has done in the past and what we trust him to do in the future. How shall we live now?

Habakkuk offers a glorious climax to his song:

I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.

Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights. (Verses 16-19a)

He is content to wait, and we’ve talked about that last week. But while the harvest fails and there are no animals on the farms for food, he rejoices in the Lord his Saviour and finds strength in him. This is an astonishing confession of faith in which the prophet basically says, “I’m not in my relationship with the living God just for what I can get out of it. I will not limit my faithfulness to the good times. God has made a covenant with his people, and I am committed in return to that covenant.” In that faith commitment Habakkuk finds joy and strength in the Lord, despite dire circumstances.

As I pondered this, I thought about which of my Christian friends leave the most impression on me. Yes, some of my dearest friends in the faith have a lot of money but have used it with a near-secret generosity to support missionaries in obscure former Soviet states, and they have also used their financial nous to advise those with far less than them. But even those people have faced devastating personal losses.

And I think of a couple I know, where both husband and wife were in professions ancillary to medicine. Yet both of them have been struck down by differing disabilities. In the fifteen years I have known them, neither has been in paid work. They depend to a large extent on the benefits system, and the forthcoming changes might well not be very kind to them. Yet they have raised three fine daughters and they both have such a vibrant faith, even though neither of them has yet received the healing from God that to my eyes would make an immense difference to them. They have suffered at the hands of a church leader, too, yet I would be proud to have them in any congregation I served. Their fig tree has not budded, so to speak, and they have no grapes on their vines, yet they rejoice in the Lord and find strength in him, because they know that God is faithful and they have committed themselves in faithfulness to him.
Are we in some form of darkness right now? Is it to do with world events or personal circumstances, be they ours or those of someone we love? Can we dare to sing with Habakkuk? Can we sing of God’s acts of salvation in the past in Christ? Can we sing of our belief that he will act again in salvation in the future? And while we wait, can we sing in defiance of the darkness, of our joy in the Lord and the strength we find in him?

[1] David W Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p68.

Backing Off From Controversy? Contrasting Christianity Magazine’s Interviews With Mark Driscoll And Richard Chartres

It’s been a month since it all kicked off. I know that, because my subscription copy of Christianity magazine belly-flopped onto the welcome mat today. Last month it was that interview of Mark Driscoll by Justin Brierley in which Driscoll accused British preachers of being cowards.
This month, their main interview is with Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London. He’s a worthy subject for the in-depth treatment. He’s known to be close to the royal family, and hence preached at William and Kate’s wedding last year. My post citing his sermon led to the busiest day on this blog ever. He’s been part of defusing the stresses between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp. These topics and others are covered.

But there’s one dimension missing. I’m surprised and disappointed. Why does the interview not cover Chartres’ decision last year to suspend one of his area bishops, Pete Broadbent, over his controversial remarks in social media about the chances of William and Kate’s marriage lasting the distance? What exactly is the working relationship between royalist Chartres and socialist republican Broadbent?
As I see it, either party – Chartres or the magazine – could have nixed the subject. Chartres might have made it a condition of being interviewed that the question were not asked. Or Christianity magazine itself might have had reasons not to go there, because Broadbent is one of their consulting editors. Surely its omission is not accidental. That would suggest an incompetent journalist, and I don’t believe that.

But either way, when I saw the front cover, my natural inclination was to go straight to the interview and see whether that issue was covered. But no, it isn’t even publicly disallowed, say, by the bishop saying, “I’m sorry, that touches on areas of confidentiality and so I can’t discuss that.”

So can someone offer an explanation of this strange hole in the interview? Was it ruled out by Chartres? Did Broadbent ask the magazine not to raise it? Or did the magazine want to step back from controversy after last month? I’d be surprised if it were that last reason, because I think they came out of the Driscoll feature with great credit.

Whatever the reason, this loyal subscriber would be keen to know. And I imagine I’m not the only one.

What Do We Do With Anger? Walter Brueggemann On The Psalms Of Vengeance

Someone once said that most of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us. Enter the famed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann:

HT: the Pastors’ Weekly email from

Brueggemann proposes there are three things we can do with our anger when something unjust has happened to us:

1. We can act it out – but surely Christians don’t want to do that;
2. We can deny it – but then it comes out somewhere else, perhaps in our family;
3. We can give it to God.

It is that third way which he says is present in the ‘imprecatory Psalms’.

I love Brueggemann’s illustration of the parent who has to deal with two children, where one has been hurt and accuses the other of having caused the injury. The wise parent doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry,” but, “Let me deal with it.”

Yet so often I see options 1 and 2. I see option 1 in the way some Christians support aggressive international policies by their governments. I see option 2 among those Christians who know they need to forgive, but mistakenly think that means denying their anger. Brueggemann is right, it does come out somewhere else. Either they take it out on an innocent party, or on someone who has only wronged them a little. Or they suppress it and it turns into something like depression. (Not that I am saying all depression is caused this way – it isn’t.)

Option 3 is the ‘healthy option’.

My Unfunny Valentine

Vicky Beeching has written a great blog post, ‘Why I struggle with Valentine’s Day‘. In it, she shares some of the reasons (and not just the obvious ones) why she, as a single woman, finds 14th February discomfiting every year.

She talks about the privileging of eros love over other forms of love, and its reduction to fairy tale, fantasy and sentimentality. And to that, as one who peruses Valentine’s cards every year, I would add, its reduction to crude lust. There is much more in her post, and I commend it to you.

I submitted a comment, and I’d like to relay it here. I feel like someone who sees both sides of the coin on this one. Yes, I am married, but ‘the man to whom this miracle happened was over forty years of age’ – I was 41 when I married Debbie. Even now I have to put an annual recurring appointment into my diary to block the evening of Valentine’s Day, otherwise I accidentally schedule church meetings or pastoral visits. I can assure you, that does not impress my lovely wife.

And indeed I remember the way in which being a single adult in the church means being treated as second-class, or being viewed with suspicion, those whispers about what my sexuality might be supposedly just out of my hearing. The one time in my twenties I received a Valentine’s card it was an unfunny joke by a young woman at church.

The one time during those years that Valentine’s Day meant anything to me was while I was at my first theological college. That morning, my Aussie mate Steve led chapel worship. “Good morning,” he said, “and welcome to morning prayer on Valentine’s Day.”

“This,” he continued, “is the anniversary every year of the day Lynda and I lost our first baby.”

Of course I would never have wished that experience upon them, but for the first time I heard someone who understood that 14th February was painful for many.

If you love someone, I hope your Valentine’s Day is good and beautiful. But let’s be good news for those who will have a sick feeling in their stomachs.

Whitney Houston: Conflicted Soul?

My first thoughts upon reading this morning about Whitney Houston’s death at the age of just 48 were most unworthy of a Christian. I recalled a conversation with another young Christian at church when she was first famous. My friend Karen said, “Isn’t it great that Whitney Houston is a born-again Christian?” I gave her a withering reply. “Oh yes? ‘Saving All My Love For You‘ – that nice Christian song about adultery?”

I went on to think about her cover of George Benson‘s ‘The Greatest Love Of All‘. All the stuff about building up children’s self-esteem might be very well meant, but ultimately it’s pop psychobabble about self-love, closer to narcissism or idolatry.

And as for her cover of Dolly Parton‘s ‘I Will Always Love You‘ that substituted bombast for Parton’s delicacy, don’t get me started. For my money, Linda Ronstadt got the balance right:

To me, Whitney Houston took the soul out of soul music and prepared the ground for the horrors of Mariah Carey.

Like I said, not a very Christian reaction, however true, or however much I might feel I had legitimate arguments for these points of view. This was hardly taking seriously the sensitive social convention not to speak ill of the dead, even if I did so only in my own mind.
But then I found a link to a Christianity Today piece in 2009 (via Tony Watkins on Friendfeed) that spun off her then latest release, an album called ‘I Look To You’. It detailed her upbringing in gospel music. I knew that. It acknowledged her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown and her crack cocaine addiction. I knew that, too. It set out her connections with the gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans. It talked about lyrics and interview comments that were by turn both opaque and transparent in terms of faith. Now it was showing me things about her of which I was ignorant.

And I wondered … you never can tell what is behind the smoke and mirrors of PR machines, but maybe she was someone who struggled when she made the stepped into the wider world from the church. Plenty of people do. They are people we are meant to help and support.

Not that I knew her. (Obviously.) As a friend of mine called Matt Bird posted on Facebook this evening,

I will always remember Whitney Houston responding to a crowd of fans declaring their love for her. “How can you love me? You don’t even know me!”

Almost all of the commentary is guesswork, and maybe not all of it is appropriate. But I hope she found that grace was always there for her struggles and torments.

I think that’s a more worthy Christian response.