Monthly Archives: May 2012

New Wine Leadership Conference

I am at the above event but cannot currently bring you regular updates here as the wifi is down in the B & B where I am staying. I can do a short post like this from the WordPress app on my phone, but it isn’t suitable for extended typing. Twitter is a good place for keeping up on it. My tweets are here or follow the official conference hashtag #nwlc12

Free Gifts And Happiness

Coca-Cola did this as a publicity stunt, I’m sure. But isn’t it a parable of the Gospel? Isn’t it the kind of thing the church is meant to be doing all the time – lavish, free, unconditional giving to the world?

(Thanks to the weekly email from Share Creative for this.)

A Contradiction In Terms: An Inward-Looking Church

Remembering the old quote attributed to Emil Brunner that ‘the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning’, it is sobering to read ‘10 Warning Signs Of An Inwardly Obsessed Church‘ by Thom Rainer. Some of Dr Rainer’s ten signs sound not only familiar but widespread to me.

What do you think of his list? Would you add any? Would you challenge any?

Whatever you think, the tenor of the article underlines even more for me the importance of churches being mission-focussed. (By which, I don’t simply mean, ‘raising funds for others to do mission’.) Stuff about the priority of worship often deteriorates into narcissistic arguments about personal taste and aesthetics. I agree that ‘mission exists because worship doesn’t’, but that is all the more reason to have mission-minded churches.
I’m reminded of the words of Ian Brown, former lead vocalist of the Stone Roses, who talked about his own spiritual quest in an interview in Q Magazine in November 2007:

My spiritual quest is for me to understand God. I’ve gotta educate myself, cos the church isn’t going to show me God. They put themselves next to God so that you’ve got to go through them to get to God. I don’t believe that.

It’s time we stopped getting in the way and being part of the solution for people like Brown.

Evolution, Faith And Apostasy

Read this important lecture by Scot McKnight.

A Book Recommendation For Preachers

Derek Tidball
, ‘Preacher, Keep Yourself From Idols

I was first introduced to Derek Tidball’s work for pastors (as opposed to his other writing) when I read his book ‘Skilful Shepherds‘ at the beginning of my time in theological study. It takes the pastoral task way beyond the hints and tips of old-fashioined ‘pastoralia’ into a proper setting of pastoral theology, and Tidball anchors this in the distinctive contributions of each New Testament writer. More recently, I was to benefit from the way he convincingly (to me) showed the variety of approaches to ministry that every NT writer teaches and assumes in ‘Ministry By The Book‘. Not for him the nonsense that there is only one form or pattern of church leadership handed down by God.Elsewhere, he has written on sociology and the NT, but I have not read any of those titles.

Therefore it was with some expectation that  I came across ‘Preacher, Keep Yourself From Idols’, which came out last year. It is the printed form of his Ockenga Lectures on Preaching that he gave at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in March 2010. Unlike the other books above, these two hundred pages are a quick read. He takes the many good things that preachers can unduly elevate and distort their ministry. So he is particularly good on ‘the idol of entertainment’, where he points out our need to be interesting, but reminds us that not all churches need to be Premier League, any more than the local football club has to be. He is excellent on ‘the idol of professionalism’, in which he draws a careful line between the need for excellence on the one hand and the danger of divorcing our work from our relationship with God. When he writes about ‘the idol of immediacy’, he strikes a particular chord in today’s instant culture and in the cult of crisis spirituality by calling for the patient on-going teaching of the word.
If I had one frustration, it was his chapter on ‘the idol of busyness’. Quite rightly he notes the importance of preaching as part of the church leader’s task. (This one of three chapters out of twelve that are clearly directed towards ministers. However, he does not generally take the line controversially espoused by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book ‘Preaching and Preachers’ that preaching should only be a ‘full-time’ occupation.) He observes how matters such as complex legislation intrude on our time these days, and pleads that we continue to give sermon preparation the priority in our diaries that it needs. Quite right, too. But I longed for him to tell me how, rather than just give me a couple of footnotes.

Beyond that, though, I thought this was an excellent addition to my preaching bookshelf. It isn’t a manual of preaching. It’s a character-building book. And it’s no good learning how to if you’re not growing in Christ as a preacher. So far as I can tell, it hasn’t been published in any ebook format, so you’ll have to go the old route as I did and pick up a paper copy. I believe you’ll be glad you did.

Sermon: Ascension – The Forgotten Festival

Acts 1:1-14
Like every English football fan, I turn into an amateur pundit when an England squad is announced for a major tournament. It was thus with interest and trepidation that I followed Wednesday’s announcement of Roy Hodgson’s squad for the Euro 2012 tournament. Were I a Frenchman, I would be quite pleased with the England squad. I wondered how certain players could be forgotten – notably Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon. The fact that Lennon plays for Spurs, Crouch used to and that Spurs are my time, did not cloud my judgement at all.

And if we think about forgotten men, we come in the Ascension to the forgotten festival. For many Christians, it’s Christmas, Easter and hopefully Pentecost. Ascension gets overlooked. Whether it’s because it always happens on a Thursday, because biblically the event it marks happened ten days before Pentecost, I don’t know, but it is certainly our forgotten festival.

But perhaps there is one reason that leads to our embarrassed silence about the Ascension, and that’s all this talk about Jesus rising up out of sight in a cloud. It all sounds so primitive, so unsophisticated to our scientifically tuned ears. We make our assumptions that the ancients believed that earth was ‘down here’ and heaven was ‘up there’, whereas our knowledge of astronomy and related disciplines seems to make that unlikely.

Yet how else were ancient people going to understand that Jesus had returned to his Father’s presence? Some riding off into the sunset, like the hero of a Western movie, wouldn’t have worked. Could it be that the strange account in Acts of Jesus being taken up from the disciples and obscured by a cloud (verse 9) is the only way God could have communicated this to them? I like to think this is an example of what John Calvin called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’, that many things are just so beyond the human mind that God can only show them in any way to us by simplifying them to our terms. Some of the creation stories may do the same, taking Babylonian myths of the day but importing very different meanings into them.
So the first theme of the Ascension for me, then, is this one of divine mystery accommodated to puny human minds. Let us not think with all our additional knowledge today that we are in any less need of God accommodating himself to our own failures to understand him. As Charles Wesley put it about the Incarnation in one of his hymns,

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

‘Incomprehensibly.’ The saving works of God are so beyond and above our thinking and our imagination that the Lord has to find ways of communicating them to us that can make some kind of sense to us.

Hence I would say that a major challenge of the Ascension for us as Christians is to embrace the mystery of God and to stop thinking that we can put him into little boxes of our own making. If God chooses to put small boundaries around his revelation so that we have some chance of comprehension, that is up to him. But it is not for us to say what the limits are. It is not up to us to say, ‘But of course God could not do such-and-such’ – unless it contradicted his character.

Therefore, at Ascension-tide, let us face the challenge that God wants us to think bigger about him than we ever have done before. We may find it hard, but it may be essential. Indeed, unless we do, how ever will we truly worship him? If we are the ones who set limits on who he can be and what he can do, then is he any longer truly God? If God contracts things to help us understand, then that is his business. But we have no business in contracting God for ourselves with the tool of unbelief.

The second theme the Ascension has for me is the joining of earth and heaven. That Wesley hymn I just quoted starts with the lines,

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree

And the Ascension is about the uniting of earth and heaven. Jesus’ journey from earth to heaven is not a vacating of earth – after all, ten days later he will send his own Spirit. It is about the joining of earth and heaven.

Remember that this is central to Jesus himself. In Jewish thought, the Temple was the place where earth and heaven met. But Jesus presented himself as the true Temple when he said, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it,’ referring to his death and resurrection. Earth and heaven meet, and worship is the fitting response. The Ascension shows us, as does the Incarnation and other aspects of Jesus’ ministry, that he is the one where earth and heaven meet. He is the true Temple. He, therefore, is to be worshipped and adored. Ascension is a reason for worship.

And so we might be puzzled by the Ascension, but we need to get beyond the default modern reaction in order to worship the one who has brought earth and heaven together. Ascension tells us that Jesus is worthy of all our praise and honour, not only as we sing and pray but as we live for his glory each day.

That call to worship leads us neatly into a third theme, which is that Ascension shows Jesus as both Lord and king. Tom Wright tells how one of the ways in which the myth of Roman emperors becoming gods at the time of their death is that a slave was – shall we say – ‘encouraged’ to report that they saw the soul of the dying emperor flying to heaven at the moment of death.

When Luke tells us the story of the Ascension, witnessed not by conscripted slaves but willing disciples, and not just a soul but the whole raised body of Jesus, his initial audience is surely meant to understand that this is a claim that here is the true emperor of the world. Caesar may call himself Lord, but the true Lord is Jesus.

The Cross, of course, has already declared that Jesus is King. ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me,’ he had said. Pilate had put up the notice, ‘King of the Jews’, and the Gospel writers mean us to understand that this is ultimately not a criminal charge, nor a statement of irony, but the truth. Jesus is enthroned as king on the Cross. The Resurrection then sees that king’s kingdom coming in power. Now this is capped by the Ascension as a visual sign of his reign. Jesus is Lord and King of the universe.

But it all means that he reigns in a different manner. He had reminded his disciples that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over people, but they were not to be that way. They were to serve. His own enthronement, as I said, was to be on the Cross – in suffering. And as we bow before our ascended Lord and King, we commit ourselves to work for his kingdom in sacrificial ways. If we worship Jesus, the true Temple who brought earth and heaven together, and we should because he is both Lord and King, then that worship cashes out in costly service. Ascension, then, asks us the question: what has my devotion to Jesus Christ cost me? Because if it has cost us nothing then we may never have understood Jesus in the first place.

There is a fourth and final Ascension theme I want to share, and it’s reflected in Hebrews 10:11-18. What does Jesus do when he gets back to the right hand of the Father? He sits down. That could mean a number of things. It could be another statement about his authority – after all, a Jewish rabbi sat down, rather than stood up, to teach. Remember that is what Jesus himself did when he preached at Nazareth. He has not stopped speaking, and as we are reminded elsewhere in the Scriptures he has not stopped praying, either.
But I prefer to see the sitting down in the terms of a rest. When Methodist ministers apply to retire, we have a quaint practice of going before our Synod and ‘asking permission to sit down’. Before we retire, we are deemed to be in what is called ‘the active work’. When we retire, we ‘sit down’. It is about a sense of completion (although the church may still call on us to do certain things).

And the ascended Jesus sits down, because the main burden of his work is done:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,  and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.  For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)

As Jesus said on the Cross, ‘It is finished’, so the Ascension confirms that fact. Everything has been done to ensure salvation. We are forgiven through his death. We have new life through his Resurrection. From the right hand of the Father he pours out the Spirit so that we can live sacrificially for his kingdom. As the ascended Jesus waits for the final destruction of death, he has given us all we need to lives as little Jesuses, to be the faithful people and new community he wants us to be.

Ascension, finally, then, says, let us rise to the task. Jesus is waiting.

N T Wright Sings The Theology Of Creation And New Creation

It doesn’t get better than this for me. A great theologian – N T Wright – putting theology to music. Here, he sings ‘Genesis’ – words that he and Francis Collins, of the Human Genome Project put to the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’.

(Originally featured at The Rabbit Room.)

We Don’t Do God … In Church

This topic keeps coming up lately among friends and colleagues. Why are we unable and unwilling to talk about God and talk to God, even among Christians? What stops us? What disempowers us? What could be stranger than Christians who don’t want to talk about God or with God?

Prayer meetings are dying, but on the other hand in my experience they’ve never been popular and it’s also true that Sunday evening church services are dying. A prayer meeting on a Sunday evening maybe a fatal combination. A crisis will galvanise us together, but regular bread-and-butter corporate prayer isn’t attractive.

Conversations after church – we default to the weather and our aches and pains. We might just talk about whether we liked the hymns. Maybe there will be the odd comment about the sermon, but it won’t dominate the caffeinated discussions.

Small groups tend to be just that – small. Some of that is about personality – some people are comfortable in discussion groups, and some indeed get too comfortable, putting others off with their belligerent expositions. Others feel exposed.

The one person who must talk about God and who must talk to God is, of course, the minister. She is our representative. He can do this for us.

And all of this before we even get to the question of talking about God outside the boundaries of the fellowship.

Some years ago, the Methodist Church recognised this problem. A national survey of church life identified that in our tradition we were strong on social issues but weak on talking about our faith. So it produced some material to help: Time To Talk of God. There was a lesser-known follow-up course on evangelism, Talking of God. But how much has changed?

If I am right that little has changed, why might this be? There could be all sorts of reasons:

* Our fear of others is stronger than our sense of God’s love

* We like to have just enough religion to feel we’re ‘in’, but not so much that we’re regarded as fanatical

* Churches (including leaders) are not offering the best education and training in the faith that we could

* Church leaders actually like hogging the power and influence, and don’t introduce more than they have to that would empower others. It’s nice to be the ‘expert’

These are all just some initial random thoughts about the issue. If I sat down longer, I might put together some eloquent piece about our lack of eloquence. But I’d rather just bash the keyboard and get this out quickly to ask – what do you think?

A Pastor’s True Vocation …

… is to be a fashion consultant. Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Pastor Ed Young Junior‘s Pastor Fashion. Oh yes. The man who brought you the book Sexperiment now tells you all you want to know about skinny jeans and testosterone. Is there a connection?

I just missed these classes at theological college. I took the trivial stuff like biblical studies, doctrine, church history, pastoral theology and missiology. Eugene Peterson, you got it so wrong.

Meanwhile, Erwin McManus launches a fashion range, but he seems to be doing it for more arty reasons. Apparently, he says,

This is an incarnation into the world of art, story, and creativity.

At least if you read the whole of this interview with him, one of his motivations is job creation.

The Methodist Church Is Smart On The Phone

Two years ago, the Methodist Church launched an iPhone app, with promises of similar apps to come for people who use a Blackberry, Windows Phone or (like me) an Android phone. Today, the new app lands! Twurch of England, take that! Come on you trendy Baptists, where are you?

Seriously, well done to our media team. This is one of the many areas where we need to be involved.