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Sermon: A Covenant For Worship And Mission

Still finding it difficult to get back to regular blogging – the diary has been frantic for the first couple of weeks in the new appointment. I hope to resume soon. Meanwhile, here is tomorrow’s (no, this morning’s) initial sermon for Knaphill. It’s Covenant Service, and I’ve introduced a sermon series on Jonah to highlight the theme of mission. A Local Preacher did Jonah chapter 1 last week. I join in at chapter 2.

Jonah 2

Last Sunday morning, while I was innocently engaged in taking my first service at Addlestone, something dastardly happened here at Knaphill. I understand that Graham Pearcey brought the rest of my family up to the front where they were asked to share information about me.

I understand you were told that I cannot sing. Well … that is entirely correct. You will want to shower the AV team with chocolates and expensive unMethodist liquids for them fading down my microphone during the hymns and songs.

But while I am poor at singing, I nevertheless love music. Not without cause did I mention in a piece I wrote for Flight Path, the circuit magazine, that one of my favourite gadgets is my iPod. One band I particularly enjoyed during early adulthood was Talking Heads. Their most famous song was called ‘Once in a lifetime’. The lyrics to the first verse go like this (don’t worry, I won’t be singing them):

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself living in another part of the world
You  may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?

And that – it seems to me – is a good place to begin looking at Jonah chapter 2 in this series on Jonah, the reluctant missionary. How did I get here? There are three questions I want us to ask about Jonah from this chapter, and they take us a little further along the road of his journey into the mission of God. So the first question is this: how did Jonah get here?

And I think my short answer is that Jonah has a warped view of the life of faith, and this leads him away from God’s call to mission. When the call first comes to go to Nineveh, he heads for Tarshish (1:3). Tarshish was a luxury destination: King Solomon’s fleet had returned from there with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). In the ancient imagination, it was like Paradise. It was Shangri-La.[1] Jonah preferred comfort to calling. That’s something we might well chew on as we renew our Covenant with God later in this service. Are we opting for comfort or calling?

One of the circuit Local Preachers clearly thought we had come to the land of milk and honey in moving from Essex (oh dear) to Surrey – as if it were some contemporary Tarshish. Maybe not so much land of milk and honey, but land of Waitrose. Many others have informed us that the manse is in the most desirable road in the village. So have we come to Tarshish?  Let me make one simple observation: by coming here, our insurance premiums have increased!

A recent report suggested that one reason many children of church families don’t continue in the Christian faith is that what they witness from their parents and their church family is not radical, risk-taking faith in Jesus Christ, but comfortable, respectable living. It has no attraction. It is Tarshish faith, and you end up living in a fish.

Jonah has another warped attitude to faith. Let me introduce it this way. Suppose I ask you what the main purpose of Christian faith is. In my experience, the answer most Christians give is, ‘to worship God’. Wrong answer.

Are you shocked by my saying that? Consider this: it was Jonah’s answer. He told the pagan sailors in 1:9, ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’. His life was about worship. But just focussing on worship didn’t stop his disobedience and his destiny in the alimentary canal of a large fish.

A better answer about our purpose is not that we are here to worship God, but that we are here to glorify God. The Westminster Catechism, so beloved of Calvinist Christians, more correctly says that our ‘chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. We glorify God both in the church and in the world, in worship and in mission. A church that simply concentrates on worship and on internal matters is one that will find herself sooner or later in a predicament.

In this respect, Jonah stands in the book as a representative of ancient Israel, who was called by God to be ‘a light to the nations’, but who was reluctant to fulfil that destiny. The historical Jonah described in 2 Kings 14:25 is one who is more concerned with nationalism than with the blessing of the nations[2].

If we want to end up – metaphorically speaking – inside a fish, spending our time swimming in half-digested food and toxins, then we could do no better than to concentrate on worship and internal matters, and give no thought to engaging in the mission of God. That – and his preference for comfort – is how Jonah ended up in the fish. Are there warped faith priorities that have put us in a similar place?

The second question is this: why is Jonah in the fish? You may say I’ve just answered that question. But I want to take it further. Why has God put him in a fish? There is a surprising answer.

We may think that his hotel reservation in the belly of the fish was God’s punishment for his disobedience. However, Jonah was booked for drowning, when the pagan sailors threw him overboard. God sent the fish, not to punish him, but to rescue him. The fish is like some underwater lifeboat, come to save him from going to what the Jews called Sheol, the place of the dead[3]. In his prayer, Jonah sees it as deliverance (vv 1-7).

This location of filth and acid is actually God’s salvation for Jonah. The disgusting stench of the fish’s belly is … grace. By this drastic course of action, God preserves Jonah for his purposes of mission.

Grace isn’t always prettified and beautiful. After all, it depends on nails hammered through the flesh of Jesus onto a cross of wood. We affirm that ‘God works for good in all things for those that love him’ (Romans 8:28), and that means he acts in grace as much through the nasty episodes of life as the joyful ones. One author called it ‘A severe mercy’. You may identify with this from your own life. How many of you look back on certain painful or traumatic seasons of your life and realise – at least in retrospect – that God was working for good through that experience? Maybe he did something in your life that could not have happened unless you had endured something unpleasant.

I believe we can apply this to the life of the church as well as to our individual lives. Think of it like this. Jonah is rescued from death by God’s provision of the big fish. Consider the number of churches that have died. Look at their buildings now turned into carpet warehouses or places of worship for other religions. Now reflect on the fact that this church is still alive. Say what you like about things having been better in days gone by – although I believe that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and that the golden days were probably only nickel-plated. Whatever your fond memories of what you believe to have been better times, and whatever you might not like about church life as you know it today, the fact is that God has preserved this church.

So the question is why he has preserved us in grace. Surely it must also be that we might glorify him. Surely we are here not only to worship him but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, through our deeds and words.

Which means you now know why I picked Jonah as the opening sermon series for my time here. I wanted to make it clear from the outset that I do not believe I came here ‘to run the church’ or ‘to keep everybody happy’. I came with a vision for a church that both gathers for worship and disperses for mission. I believe God has preserved this church in his grace and mercy for such purposes. At this Covenant Service, will you join with me as we renew our commitment to Christ in walking this way?

And that begs the third and final question: what will Jonah do? We read his response in verses 8 and 9:

“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit God’s love for them.

But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ “

He rejects idols and promises to sacrifice and keep his vows. Idols are those things or people we set our hearts upon, and to which we will sacrifice. They can be good things to which we wrongly assign absolute status. I am sure you can think of many examples without much problem, especially within our society.

However, since we are considering our own lives right now, let me offer some suggestions about the sort of idols that can afflict religious people[4]. We can be guilty of racial or denominational pride. We can be guilty of moral or doctrinal superiority. But let me offer one particular idolatry that afflicts us all too much: church work itself. This can manifest itself in various ways. Here are a couple of examples.

At one stage in a previous circuit, I had to look after an additional church temporarily for eighteen months. During that time, one of the faithful elderly ladies died, and I was asked to conduct her funeral. I met with her relatives, who told me that the church had been her whole life, not just in terms of worship and fellowship, but it had formed her entire social life, too. Clearly, they thought I would be pleased to learn of this.

However, it saddened me greatly. Why, when we are called to glorify God in both worship and mission, would we spend all our time in the church? Could it have assumed a level of importance far beyond what the New Testament calls it to have?

The other story goes like this. Some of you may remember the controversy in the mid-1990s over the dramatic charismatic-Pentecostal experiences of the Holy Spirit that were labelled as the ‘Toronto Blessing’. At the height of that time, I flew to Toronto and spent a week at the church which was at the epicentre of the movement. As well as their regular Sunday morning services, they were running seminars for pastors morning and afternoon every weekday, and they were holding renewal meetings six nights a week. Without exaggeration, thousands of visitors from around the world came to the church every week.

You will not be surprised to know that in such a spiritually intense time and with the church attracting so much attention, enthusiastic members of that church were volunteering left, right and centre to help at the renewal meetings. Some wanted to come and be on duty every night.

But the church leadership said, ‘no’. Much as they needed the help to run all the meetings, they limited church members only to helping with one evening renewal meeting per week. On other nights, they wanted them to attend a home group, do something for Christ in the community and spend time with their families. I think that by doing that they not only encouraged balanced Christian living, they helped their members avoid church idolatry.

So, no, I don’t consider it a badge of spirituality to be down the church every night of the week. Renewing your covenant with Christ today might mean lessening what you do at church in order to give more time to family and community.

And we ought to take this seriously, because in these words of his I quoted a couple of minutes ago, Jonah uses language that is pertinent to the theme of covenant. ‘Those who cling to idols forfeit God’s love for them,’ reads verse 8 in the TNIV. But God’s love here is a weak English translation of a word that stands for God’s faithful covenant love. Dealing with the idols in our lives is about maintaining the faithful covenant relationship with God. Idolatry is something we should examine at a covenant service. It gets in the way of our calling to glorify God in the church and the world, however worthy it appears to be.

When we deal with it, then – like Jonah – we can offer our sacrifices and keep our vows – the vows we make at something like a covenant service.

So – in summary, God is calling us to renew our commitment to glorify him in worship and mission. To that end, as we make our covenant with him afresh today, will we stop making our personal comfort and other things – even church work – our personal idols? Will we reject those things that lead us to treat internal church life as a priority that has excluded our involvement in Christian mission? Will we recognise that the difficulties and uncongenial aspects of our lives individually or together may even be tools God has used to preserve us for this twin calling to worship and mission?

Could it be that God has brought us to this point – like Queen Esther – ‘for such a time as this’?


[1] Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant, p 15f.

[2] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, p 134.

[3] Leslie C Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, p 213.

[4] As suggested in Tim Keller’s book above.

Sermon: Love, Jesus-Style

John 13:31-35

One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.

Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.

I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.

But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.

At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?

Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.

But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Verses 34-35)

I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?

I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?

Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.

To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.

When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.

It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.

Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.

It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.

At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.

Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.

Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.

We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”

Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”

We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.

And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.

Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.

Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.

Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?

Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?

Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?

And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?

Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.

What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.

Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.

If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.

But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.

Nothing could be more important.

Sermon: The Wilderness – Jesus’ Favourite Getaway Destination

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

At this time of year, much conversation revolves around, “Are you going on holiday? Where are you going?” One of Rebekah’s classmates was missing on Friday’s final day of term, because his family was driving and ferrying to France. Others have flown to Disneyland. Our children wonder why they haven’t been on an aeroplane yet, but we have more modest ambitions and budgets. It still doesn’t seem long since we weren’t confined to the school holidays, and could book cheaper holidays.

Where would you get away to, if you had the choice? I would fancy New Zealand (not just because I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films), parts of the United States and I’d like to return to Norway, having once done a mission there. After all, where else would you spend nine days in August, but north of the Arctic Circle?

Where would Jesus go? Like a couple in my first circuit who every year travelled with a holiday company specialising in camping in the wildest parts of the world, Jesus’ preferred destination was the wilderness. When he wants a break with the apostles, he invites them ‘to a deserted place’ (verse 31), and that almost certainly means a wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of a wilderness as a good place for a spot of R and R. I think of somewhere that is too hot, and too dry. That’s why it’s a wilderness, after all. I think about the children of Israel wandering aimlessly and disobediently in the wilderness for forty years, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. A wilderness doesn’t have good associations for me.

But I want to talk today about how the wilderness is a good place in the spiritual life. It is somewhere the Christian Church has known in former centuries as a desirable destination, but in our comfort-saturated world we have lost sight of that. I am thinking not simply of the wilderness in a literal, geographic sense, but also the spiritual wilderness, when our lives seem dusty and barren. Come with me, and see why it is good to be in the wilderness with Jesus.

The Apostles
At my first theological college, we were introduced to the tradition of the Quiet Day once a term. A visiting speaker would address us in chapel two or three times during the day, but we spent the rest of the day in silence – even our lunch. One of my friend made a cardboard speech balloon with the word ‘hello’ on it and brought it to the dining room once!

One year, I decided I would spend the day reading a short book about community. Only a hundred and twelve pages long, I thought I could easily devour it and think about it in a few hours. It was called ‘Life Together’ and was by the famous German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

A hundred and twelve pages? Fat chance! If I got through twenty, that was all. Why? Because every paragraph was challenging. The comment I most remembered was one where Bonhoeffer said that nobody should attempt to live in community if they couldn’t cope with solitude.

The apostles in our reading learn community and solitude in the wilderness. Jesus invites them there in order to rest, because he wants to get them away from the notion that non-stop busyness is what makes someone a good or valuable person. You have to come away from that way of life at times in order to reset your priorities. And our priorities are not just to do, but to be. After their recent mission, Jesus calls them away from people to the loneliness of the wilderness, so that they might be with him. When he had chosen them in Mark chapter three, he had not only set their ‘job description’ as including preaching, healing and exorcism. Before all that, their call was ‘to be with him’.

How we forget that for ourselves, too. We reduce Christianity to a series of lists – a to-do list, a tick list, a shopping list. We forget that we are also called to spend what one Christian called ‘A Royal Waste Of Time’ with God. So Jesus urges us sometimes to put the busy schedule away, because it is ruining us. We become like car drivers who never fill their tanks with petrol, and then wonder why we stutter to a halt. And if it requires the drastic action of removing us from the busy place to restore us, then Jesus will take us to a wilderness, so that all we have is him – not our status, not our rôle in the church, just him.

Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, this is a challenge. For the extravert, who gets energy from other people, the wilderness reminds her to depend not on other people but on God. For an introvert like me, who is energised by being alone with books and the like, I am challenged to rely on God and not on other tools. But what is sure is this: Jesus knows we need to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’, and he will take us to the solitude of a wilderness if that is what it takes.

The Multitude
And yet the apostles still can’t get away completely. They escape in a boat (verse 32) from the ‘many [who] were coming and going’ (verse 31), but when they arrive at the deserted place, there is no peace for them:

‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’ (verse 33)

The apostles have preached the good news, cast out demons and cured the sick (verse 13). It’s like they are victims of their own success. Well, not their success, because it is the work of God, but right now the multitude can’t see that. All they see is need – their own need – and that this group can help them.

Thus we traditionally interpret this episode as being about the importance of putting aside your own need for rest in order ‘to spend and be spent’ for others. But what if we turned it around and considered the thought that God had a purpose for the multitude in bringing them to the wilderness to receive what they needed? What if we concentrated on that?

If we did, I think we’d see that when we are in need, God may well bring us to a wilderness for our own well-being, renewal and healing. Why? Because God calls us to come out of our ‘Egypt’ and journey to our ‘Promised Land’, but the route often goes through a wilderness. We need to leave Egypt behind, with all its temptations and bad influences, but the journey to Canaan is not a quick and simple one. In purifying the pagan influences of our own personal Egypt, God takes us to a stark place in the wilderness where he strips away the toxins that have infected our souls.

When God draws us into a wilderness experience, it is the most natural reaction in the world to kick and scream as we are dragged there. But God the loving Father does this for pure, holy purposes.

One thing is for sure: when God leads people into a wilderness, his intention is to do great things. What happens to this multitude? What we’re reading is the preface to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They have tracked down the apostles, rather like first century stalkers of paparazzi, but whatever their motives, they end up stranded a long way from civilisation and without food. In that wilderness place, God through Jesus provides generously for their needs.

So it may be with us. We may wonder why we are in a wilderness. It may be due to our own rash choices, or it may directly be in the purposes of God. But God in Christ has good things for us in the parched places of life.

Jesus
Finally, we read about Jesus and the multitude:

‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Verse 34)

What does that have to do with a wilderness theme?

The clue comes in the phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. To which a considered response might be, ‘Huh?’

If it makes no sense, the clues come from the Old Testament. When Jesus thinks the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, there is a strong Old Testament background to that thought. In Numbers 27:17, Moses in the wilderness asks God to provide a new leader for Israel ‘so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need a leader in the wilderness.

And in Ezekiel 34:5, God’s people are scattered in the wilderness of exile ‘because there was no shepherd’.

Both times, God’s people are in a kind of wilderness, and they need shepherds, or leaders. However much God wants to bless his people in the deserted places, they still need a leader. But how does a Jesus-like shepherd lead the people of God in the wilderness? Isn’t it complicated, leading people in strange, unfamiliar and unwelcome lands – rather like we find ourselves in today?

Surely the ministry of Jesus was like leading his people on a new exodus to the salvation he would bring. He helped them navigate the way through the wilderness into the good things of God’s kingdom. You might list a whole catalogue of things that could involve, but the navigational work of the Christian shepherd in the wilderness comes down to the three priorities elucidated some years ago by Eugene Peterson in his book ‘Working the Angles’. They are prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. Anything beyond that, whether a current fad or a venerable tradition, is probably extraneous. Just because ‘it has always been done that way’ or because loud voices demand a particular course of action are no reasons to depart from the essential practices necessary to navigate the way through the wilderness.

You may say that Jesus walked this earth in a simpler time, and he did. There are complications provided by the society we live in today. But that is no reason for the Christian Church to add unnecessary complications to the cause of leadership in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. The compassion of Jesus when he saw the crowds simply led him, in the words of Mark, ‘to teach them many things’. Through prayer and study of Scripture, he knew the word of his Father and how to navigate the rocky terrain of the wilderness. There, in the barren desert, Jesus led the multitudes by teaching them the kingdom of God, and by feeding them and healing them. Simple stuff – and therefore a challenge for the likes of me!

Conclusion
So – it may be surprising to cosseted twenty-first century Christians that Jesus wants to bless his apostles and his multitudes in the wilderness. It may surprise us that his favour does not rest on fevered activity, but on a rhythm of ‘being’ followed by ‘doing’ (and never the other way around).

Yet we’re used to Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down, aren’t we? This is the kingdom where the king was enthroned upon a Cross. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so astonished that Christ would use the privations of a bleak location as the scene for our growth in grace.

And in a complex world, the way in which Jesus leads and guides us through the rocky places towards lands of milk and honey lacks much of the complexity our culture deems necessary for everyday living. He also cuts out the all-singing-all-dancing approach the Church has mistakenly baptised, in favour of simplicity: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.

Maybe it’s time that a church in the wilderness pared things down to essentials.

Maybe then, we might find life.

For Young Preachers And Ministers

My regular reader will know that I have all sorts of questions about what ordained ministry means, and whether we have constricted our understanding of church leadership through our doctrines of ordination. However, as well as reading the contemporary missional texts that for me provide most of the challenge in this direction, I have wanted for a while to read some more classic material. Eugene Peterson is a master of profundity about the pastoral task, with titles such as ‘Working The Angles‘, ‘The Contemplative Pastor‘, ‘Five Smooth Stones For Pastoral Work‘, ‘Under The Unpredictable Plant‘, ‘The Unnecessary Pastor‘ and many others.

But who to read in my own tradition? The initial answer for me has been to cross the Pond again in my thinking, and read William Willimon‘s book ‘Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry‘. I bought it a couple of months ago, and began it last night. While I don’t think I’m going to agree with everything he says (Does Hippolytus win over Scripture in chapter 1? Do the chapter headings indicate that the pastor must also be apostle, prophet and evangelist?), I’m already finding it wonderfully stimulating. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up sharing several quotes on the blog. Here is something to encourage younger preachers, frmo page 21:

The clergy’s representative burden can also be a great blessing, a source of pastoral wisdom and power. A parishioner emerged from a little church on a Sunday, muttering to her pastor, “You are not even thirty, how could you know?”

Her pastor drew himself up to his full height, clutched the stole around his neck, and said, “Madame, when I wear this and I climb into that pulpit, I am over two thousand years old, and speak from two millennia of experience.”

Willimon observes, ‘The man may have been somewhat of an ass, but still his point was well taken, ecclesiastically speaking.’

I hope you are encouraged.

Christian Books: Amazon Versus Christian Bookshops

I’ve decided to draft a few thoughts after Phil Groom‘s comment and pingback on the last post. Please pitch in with your own thoughts.

I write as a punter, not a professional in the booktrade. I am a ‘professional’ who needs to keep reading Christian theology.

What is in favour of Amazon and the online stores? First of all, price. Stipends for most ministers are OK but not great (I’m not moaning, I knew what to expect), and this means being careful financially. The discounts available online are broadly, although not always, better than is available in a typical Christian bookshop. It’s important to note, though, that discounts online are not necessarily about being able to afford that on high volume titles, because that is not usually the case with Christian books – unless you count The Shack, I suppose. I am sure that most of the religious hardbacks and paperbacks sold at Amazon would fall within the parameters of what some commentators call ‘the long tail’, that huge array of low-selling stock that they specialise in, rather like online CD and MP3 sites doing well on back catalogue. Furthermore, I can use a price comparison site like Bookbrain to check prices if something has been published in the UK. 

Second is range. Some Christian bookshops are very restricted in what they carry, not only as a function of only being able to afford small premises, but on theological grounds. And yes, I say that as an evangelical! The days may be gone when Michael Saward could caricature Christian Literature Crusade as Constricted Literature Crusade, but it’s not long since I discovered an evangelical bookshop that didn’t stock Eugene Peterson. I really don’t want Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer: I know they sell and realise there are economic necessities involved here. I think it’s a moot point why that tat sells: is it the advertising power of certain Christian companies, and/or is it pastors promoting nonsense in the pulpit? (That alone is worth a debate, I think.)

But this is not simply about theological narrowness: sometimes the work I want to read is not published in the UK, so the ability of an Amazon to get stock from, say, the States, is a distinct advantage to me. 

What works in favour of the conventional Christian bookshop? It may be a truism, but it’s worth restating: Christian bookshops can (or should) be a ministry, with a certain atmosphere and ambience, whereas Amazon and their ilk are businesses. (Not that I’m having a go at business.) A Christian bookshop can win me over by the personal qualities of the staff, not just the discounts. Some work hard on this, a few don’t.

A few examples from personal experience: when I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the local SPCK shop had a terrible reputation with theological students. It should have been our first port of call, but it had staff who were like the Christian version of Bernard Black in the TV show Black Books. Two disgruntled former employees left and set up a rival operation called St Denys. They knew they needed to reach students, and set about to do so. Good coffee was offered to every visitor. Students producing ID received 10% discount. The staff were theology graduates, and knew the field and gave good advice.

Similarly, my old friend Brenda Franklin at CLC in Chatham when I served in the Medway Towns was the exemplary Christian bookshop manager, and followed a difficult situation. She knew the trade and knew her faith. She always went the extra mile to trace a book. She was familiar with new titles, had read widely herself and could give an opinion. Most of all, she set up a specific scheme to reach out to local church leaders with monthly newsletters. While I didn’t often order expensive academic doorstops from her, I ordered more than I would have done if I had only wanted to save money. You could say that what she did wasn’t rocket science, but having come across the odd Basil Fawlty (as well as Bernard Black) in Christian bookshops, the Brendas of this world are a delight. 

My other example of excellence in the ministry of a Christian bookshop would be a current one: Jo Jones at the ‘Guy Harlings bookshop’ in the Chelmsford Diocesan Resources Centre. You’d expect Jo to have a good idea of what clergy are interested in, and she does. She knows it even more as one training for ordination herself, but I guess that means sadly for us we’ll lose her from the shop before too long. This is the first appointment in which I have ended up taking school assembiies. Jo has been brilliant for her knowledge of useful books. They would have been available online, but the advice couldn’t have been, notwithstanding the customer reviews on websites, which don’t count for as much in my eyes.

One last thing to mention before throwing this open is the rise of Christian online stores. I guess the most prominent one I know for books is Eden. They seem to have a wide knowledge of the church scene, across all sorts of traditions. They also sell CDs, DVDs and other resources. There is a reasonable discount, which I appreciate, although the postage costs are a disincentive and have driven me back at times either to Amazon or a local bookshop. I can’t get advice from them.

Wider than books, I should also mention Cross Rhythms Direct. Their main speciality is CDs, with some DVDs, and they have recently branched out into books but are far less confident there. CR began as a print music magazine for the Christian scene. The CD prices are the most competitive I know for Christian music, although you can opt out of your discount to give to a worthy cause. Many of the CDs have reviews, but that is where I need to make a disclosure: I am one of their CD reviewers!

Well, hopefully that’s enough to get a discussion going. What are your thoughts? Over to you!

Sabbatical, Day 61: Not Perfect, Just Forgiven – Or More?

I’m going to raise a theological issue in a moment. Please don’t go away. It doesn’t require (many) long words, and it’s about an important issue in Christian life and witness. It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a year or two, but never thought a lot about. But it has come up again today while I’ve been reading Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘, and it’s rather more important than the continued slow broadband speeds I’m trying to diagnose here. (Something like 200k speed instead of our usual 1.8 meg or so. I’m currently running a full virus check as part of PlusNet‘s faults procedure.)

So here’s the issue. What do we expect of Christian behaviour? Twenty years ago at theological college, I was in conversation with a tutor. I don’t remember the topic, but I must have expressed some disappointment about church life in a placement. He replied, “David, never forget that the church is a company of sinners.”

And I wanted to reply, “Yes, but …”. We are a company of sinners, but I don’t like that most cheddary of Christian slogans, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of unacceptable conduct. (Says he who is the chief of sinners. But I don’t want to excuse myself, either. I’m too good at rationalisation.)

The difficulty surfaced again when I read Eugene Peterson‘s book ‘The Jesus Way‘ in 2007. Much of that book is routine wonderful Peterson, but I found one part awkward. In using the example of King David’s life, he rightly trumpets the extraordinary grace of God in bringing forgiveness after forgiveness. And again, I thought, “Yes, but?” The grace of God is truly astonishing. How he picks up people like me, dusts us down and sets us on the road again is staggering.  My ‘but’ was that I wanted to read something about transformation. If it was there, I missed it. 

And that is the one area where I have struggled with Keller. There are so many riches in ‘The Reason for God’. I loved the passage on page 57 where he said that the problem with Christian fanatics isn’t that they are too serious about the Gospel, it’s that they aren’t serious enough, because they act like Pharisees rather than those who know grace. I also appreciated the fact that he tackles so many of the popular objections to faith, including the one where people rightly say that the behaviour of Christians doesn’t always compare favourably to that of non-Christians. 

Now Keller rightly says that Christianity isn’t about moralism. It is – again – about grace. He also says the Christian faith has theological resources for understanding, if not expecting this dilemma. We can expect non-Christians to live outstanding lives, because (using the Calvinist term) he bestows ‘common grace’ on all. We all have the image of God in us, however damaged, is how I would put it. On the other hand, Christians are still sinners. So in believing the best about non-Christians and the worst about Christians (something we rarely do in the church), we need not be surprised if people who do not share our faith outshine us at times.

I am refreshed by the way he consistently goes back to grace. I think he is a shining example of not shooting down those he disagrees with in some crude culture war. Yet I think non-Christians have a point about expecting Christian conduct to be better, even without misunderstanding our message as one of moralism.

I have wondered whether Keller and Peterson’s Presbyterian traditions have anything to do with this. I’m thinking of the debates at the Reformation about justification. Essentially the Reformers separated justification and sanctification, whereas the Catholics conflated the two. Thus the Reformers, in emphasising their difference from Rome, stressed justification as being by the free grace of God through faith in Christ. Sanctification, in the sense of holy living, is also by grace through faith, but the Reformers wanted to separate it out as clearly as possible in order to deny any possible thought that good works merited salvation. So I would suggest it’s possible for someone in a strongly Reformed background to end up emphasising justification (in a Protestant sense) and underplaying sanctification. Might this explain Keller and Peterson?

The weakness I can immediately see in my argument is that the theological college tutor I mentioned was a Methodist. For Methodism has a subtly different tradition here, as I understand it. Wesley was with the Reformers in preaching that sinners were saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. But he moved onto sanctification much more quickly than the classical Reformers did. If you had faith, then (as in Galatians 6), that ‘faith worketh by love’: it was evident in a new lifestyle. The new lifestyle did not save you, but it was the evidence of having received salvation. It was gratitude for salvation, not the cause of it. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work of assurance, which was more than the objective promises of Scripture that the Reformers had stressed. With a theological heritage like that, then whatever one might think about Wesley’s controversial doctrine of Christian Perfection, you will not settle for ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’

So do the likes of Keller and Peterson allow us to be too easy on ourselves, or is that just the wonder of grace? Does Wesley lead us into moral self-flagellation, or is he simply calling out the cost of discipleship? And for those of you who might know Keller, Peterson, Presbyterianism in general or Wesley better than me, have I misread them at any key point? I would be very interested to read your comments, because – as I said in the opening paragraph – this is an important issue in Christian life and witness. For it is about the nature of salvation and a proper portrayal of Christianity to the world.

As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, “I’m listening.”

Sabbatical, Day 26: George Kovoor Is Mad, Myers Briggs Is Sane, Worship Is Amazing

George Kovoor is mad. It’s the title of a Facebook group, and it’s true. I discovered the group last night when the man himself sent me a friend request and it was on his profile. He is a member.

As I thought, I wasn’t able to set up an appointment with him today, as he requested yesterday. When I was here in the 1980s, you needed to ask the Principal’s secretary two weeks in advance if you wanted to see George Carey. So when I went to see the current secretary, sure enough there was no window when both  GK and I were free.

However, she made a suggestion. Why not reserve a seat next to him at lunch? The staff and students here all have yellow chits they place on tables to reserve seats in the dining room. She tore up a piece of yellow paper, wrote my name on it and told me where George sits. I went and marked the seat next to him.

It was duly a crazy conversation. Just I am very clearly an introvert, so George is as clear an extravert as you are likely to meet. He conducted simultaneous conversations with about five of us. I referred yesterday to how he has a collection of projects all in addition to being Principal here. He referred to my bookmarking of Butler and Butler‘s fairtrade clergy shirts, and it transpires he has an involvement in the marketing of clergy attire himself.

During the meal, George asked for a bottle of tabasco sauce. We expected him to use it on his chicken and spicy rice. No. He drank it directly from the bottle. Tonight, I have learned from some of the students that it is his favourite party trick, especially in front of men. However, it has given the students an idea for something when they hold a ‘superheroes day’ here in a fortnight to support Comic Relief. Pastoral confidentiality does of course mean that I cannot reveal their plans on a public blog.

At the end of lunch, he said he was sad we couldn’t match our diaries but was still keen to meet. So I’m having breakfast with him at 7:45 am tomorrow, when he gets into college.

On a calmer note, the course today has been just what I wanted when I booked it last year. I’ve taken very few notes, but so much has fallen into place. Without turning it into the psychological equivalent of a horoscope reading, my personality profile under Myers Briggs makes so much sense of my strengths and weaknesses in ministry and in other relationships. Jerry Gilpin who is teaching the course is another former Trinity student. He was in the year above me. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up over coffee tomorrow. Already he’s given me some recommended reading on personality type and ministry. So far it includes Faith and Psychology by Leslie Francis, Growing Spiritually with the Myers-Briggs Model by Julia McGuinness, In the Grip by Naomi L Quenk, and he’s going to check on the title of a book by William Bridges.

I’ll sign off soon. I need to pack stuff ready for leaving here tomorrow lunchtime. Lectures start at 9:15 and I have to vacate the room by 10. I need just my morning stuff and laptop bag ready to go.

There won’t be chapel worship tomorrow morning, because the students will be worshipping in their pastoral groups. So I have worshipped together with the community for the last time. And I wanted to say this. Whatever nit-picking comments I’ve made about services this week (and that’s my personality type, too!), I have so far failed to mention the extraordinary sense of devotion and commitment to Christ that surrounds you like a magnetic field in the worship. I’m struggling for a way to express this gracefully and without sounding condemning of others, but I have missed being in a community like that. I believe that when you are in a group of Christians like that, then iron sharpens iron. Others lift the level of your discipleship. Sometimes they don’t know they’re doing it, but they do. I wonder how much of this energy gets dissipated when people leave.

I don’t know whether it’s as unrealistic to reproduce this in the local church as it is to bring back to a congregation the ‘spiritual high’ some people experience at conferences. I’m tempted to think there is a difference here, though, because this is an ongoing, day by day, week by week community, not an annual gathering of thousands. Am I crazy to have lofty ambitions for the local church? I always have been a (failed) idealist in that cause. One of my tutors at my Methodist college, David Dunn Wilson, picked up on my tendency in this direction and told me to remember that the Church is a company of sinners. Eugene Peterson has a similar tone in his book The Jesus Way, in which he stresses the importance of forgiveness from the example of King David’s life. I agree with both of them up to a point, but Christians are more than forgiven sinners. It’s something the Methodist tradition knew in its infancy with John Wesley‘s call to ‘scriptural holiness’. Somewhere I still believe that a community of forgiven sinners also needs deep intentional aspirations to holiness.

Or am I barking?

Eugene Peterson Interview

Read this interview with Eugene Peterson – the focus is his most recent book, but he covers the general issue of pastors and language. So there is stuff on the importance of silence, of being conversational and not controlling, yet scepticism towards dialogical preaching and retaining a place for proclamation in the pulpit.

Reading

It’s half term, and I’m taking this week on leave. Daytime, I shall be having time with the kids, of course. We’ve been exchanging Tesco Clubcard vouchers for money off ten pin bowling and a meal at Café Rouge.

But in the evening, I’m beginning to delve into some newly arrived books. Yes, they are all Theology, and that might seem a strange choice when I’m away from ‘work’, but few things restore me like a dose of good reading. (Yes, I am an introvert, if you hadn’t guessed.) Here is what those nice people at Amazon and The Book Depository have sent me lately:

Eugene Peterson, The Word Made Flesh: Peterson explores the issue of language as a spiritual concern by examining the parables of Jesus in Luke’s so-called ‘Travel Narrative’ and in some of his prayers.

Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: I love the parables of Jesus, and this looks like being the standard work for the next several years. A few months ago, Scot McKnight was raving about it. Then Paul Beasley-Murray did the same in Ministry Today. Already, I’m hooked. He has a subtle, multivalent treatment of the parables. For years I’ve loved Craig Blomberg‘s book Interpreting The Parables, because he so thoroughly took to pieces the anti-allegory school and gave a brilliant history of schools of biblical interpretation. However, it was beginning to feel a bit simplistic in some of its expositions. I think Snodgrass will bring the subtlety.

Colin Greene and Martin Robinson, Metavista: What do we do, mission-wise, after postmodernity? Greene and Robinson are sketching a vision. I met Greene five years ago on a Bible Society course at Lee Abbey, but I’ve never previously read his books. I was pondering buying this one when I saw him interviewed by Alan Roxburgh on the Allelon website. That convinced me.

Christopher J H Wright, The Mission Of God: another Scot McKnight rave. Eleven or twelve years ago, I bought Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, in which he interprets the book missiologically. Later, I bought his exposition of Ezekiel, which attempts something similar. This is his magnum opus, bringing together his skills as a biblical scholar and his past experience as the Principal of a missionary training college. Wright argues that the whole Bible is a missionary document. I believe this will be required reading for all of us concerned with the ‘missional’ approach. It promises to be the most important work of missiology since the late David Bosch‘s Transforming Mission.

Ben Witherington III, The Letters To Philemon, The Colossians, And The Ephesians – A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles: I’ve bought several of BW3’s commentaries in the last year or so. I’ve been looking for something to complement and contrast Andrew Lincoln‘s majestic Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians. Witherington is a prolific, eloquent and brilliant writer. 

Richard Burridge, Imitating Jesus – An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics: For someone whose calling involves helping people with ethical decisions, I don’t read as much as I should on ethics, although I’m indebted to Changing Values by David Attwood and The Moral Quest by the late Stanley Grenz. Burridge is flavour of the month in some circles I know, not least in Chelmsford, where he gave a Holy Week lecture earlier this year. Not long ago I reviewed his commentary on John’s Gospel, which was superb. This too has been well reviewed, again not least by my friend Paul Beasley-Murray. I had a quick dip into his section on Paul and homosexuality, and while not everything Burridge said convinced me, he said enough to shed new light for me on this painful debate.

I won’t read all these books cover to cover. Some will just go straight on the shelf for reference. In the case of others (e.g., Snodgrass) I shall read the introductory chapters before squeezing them into my statutory thirty yards of bookshelving in this study.

Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you think of them?

What are you reading, or have you read recently, that you would recommend?

I would be fascinated to know.