Thursday, 29 December 2011

Album of the Year 2011

Here are my top 5 albums of the past year. They are not necessarily the most popular, but they are the ones that I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again. See what you think!

In descending order:

5/ Let them talk – Hugh Laurie
This gets on the list because it was such a huge surprise! Who would have thought that the star of Jeeves and Worcester, indeed Stuart Little’s dad, would have such an authentic blues voice. But he does, full stop. This is the real deal.

4/ Worship Central – Spirit Break Out
I get bored quite quickly with contemporary worship albums, all recording the same songs, in the same way, long after we have already got bored singing them in church. However, although this album has some familiar songs, it is just brilliant. There is a real momentum about the Worship Central guys, and there are some great songs, done really well on here. If you only buy one worship album a year, get this one. Job done.

3/ Laura Marling – A creature I don’t know
Riding the wave of new generation British contemporary folk pioneered by Mumford and Sons et al, Laura Marling is far too young to write this kind of mature, compelling music. Somehow it works. I’ve listened to her bitter sweet, powerful songs most days through the autumn and it is still growing on me.

2/ Soul UK – Beverly Knight
Oh what a voice, what an album, what magnificent soul arrangements, what great production for a British album! This deserves to be number one and to be heard by the nation. They should be made to listen to music like this at school, they should make music lessons play this stuff and help British kids to clap on the off beat, feel a groove and sing like a Diva. You have to buy this album.

1/ Let England Shake – P J Harvey
This brilliant, weird, edgy album has been my hidden pleasure over the last year. I still don’t understand it, it remains disturbing – the hunting horn at the start of ‘This Glorious Land,’ the Islamic lament which cuts across ‘England’. At her worst P J Harvey is odd and irrelevant. At her best she is glorious. This is her at her best, and everyone ought to get this, even if they don’t ‘get’ her. It remains a breathtaking album of poetry, culture, music and madness.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Book of the year 2011-The Top 5

5/ The Spirit Filled Church – Terry Virgo
Quite simply, there is no better book which sets out in a few simple chapters to explain why we do New Testament church life in the way that we do. I have already given away a pile of these, and anticipate that I will continue to wherever we meet people that want to know why we do what we do.

4/ Meeting of the Waters, 7 Global Currents that will propel the future church – Fritz Kling
This was outstanding, even more so because at the time it was a free download on the kindle! I have not read a book on missions that I agree with more, and which speaks with an understanding of the post modern west, and the new wave of 21st century social justice missionaries. Even if you have to pay full whack for this book, you must buy and read it.

3/ The Snowman – Jo Nesbo
The rise of Scandinavian crime literature is unabated this year, filling the void behind Stieg Larsson. All Nesbo’s books are gripping, this one is utterly compelling. This stuff is dangerous for downloads, you will finish one and get straight onto Amazon for the next!

2/ Fathering Leaders, Motivating Missions – David Devenish
I read this one slowly, and it is still sinking in. I have never read such a thorough manual on how to lay New Testament foundations around the world, particularly into cross cultural situations. This book is already shaping how we work, and again will be one that gets given away time after time. It is going to serve us for many years to come and anyone who counts themselves as a Christian leader simply must have a copy on their shelf.

1/ The Case for Working with your hands, or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good – Matthew Crawford.
I prematurely declared this my book of the year back in March this year. It was so provocative, so well written, so much a voice needing to be heard in our generation, that I risked everything with an early announcement. Though I have read some good stuff since, I still can’t get past this wonderful book as my best of the year. Rather than wax lyrical again, the whole review from March can be found here

So Matthew Crawford sadly couldn’t be with us today to get his award, but you could make him a happy man I’m sure by buying his book, and getting your toolbox out of the shed.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Book of the year 2011

Here is the annual award for my book of the year. It is totally subjective, based on my own peculiar reading habits. Last year, a new publication of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer took the crown. Who knows, it may just be that my habits and the best seller lists have collided a little more in 2011?
This year I have enjoyed some great fiction, getting especially hooked on a succession of Italian police procedurals by writers such as Andrea Camilleri and Michael Dibdin. It’s also worth noting that I have read more books as Kindle downloads than paper copies this year for the first time ever. I don’t expect that trend to ever reverse.

In descending order:

10/ Notes on them and us – Justin Webb
A great little read by the presenter of Radio 4’s Today Programme. This is an anthropological study on the relationship between us and our cousins across the Atlantic, based on Webb’s years of living stateside. An endearing read, which surprisingly argues for a divorce from our ‘special relationship’.

9/ Revenger – Rory Clements
No year of reading is complete without a good dose of Tudor historical fiction. Clements doesn’t disappoint in a year when we are waiting for a new CJ Sansom book.

8/ Dangerously Alive – Simon Guillebaud
I blogged on this autobiographical diary back in May when I read the book. Others have not enjoyed the diary approach, but the stories and faith of these boys own missionary adventures in Burundi still grip me 6 months later.

7/ Room – Emma Donaghue
My wife made me read this, and I held out until I was left at the airport in Zambia with nothing else unread on my kindle! I hated the first few chapters, annoyed at the child’s voice through which this captivating story is told. But stay with it, and it turns into one of the most gripping, moving, and disturbing reads of the year.

6/ The Popes – John Julius Norwich
This was my big book for the summer holidays. A biography of every Pope from the beginning until the present day. It deserves a mention just for that feat, but to then be written in such an engaging style that it becomes a page turner gets it on the list! The author certainly doesn’t hold back on dishing the dirt on the Papacy, but also speaks well of those who have worn the hat deservedly.

The Top Five will be posted tomorrow……

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Dear God.........

I've been doing some preparation for our New Years Day prayer celebration today and came across these fantastic children's prayers to God.

I'm sure some cynical adult sat and made them up, then posted them on the net, but the part of me which still weeps at High School Musical really wants them to be real prayers because they are so powerful! I've heard enough of our own family efforts over the years to laugh and cry in equal measure at the beauty of a child's thinking allied to their simple phrasing when it comes to bedtime prayers.

So here goes with my favourite ones. (Imagine a small American child kneeling by their bed, with a small American voice, maybe the lispy girl from Miracle on 34th Street!)

Dear God,
Thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.

Dear God,
I read the bible. What does beget mean? Nobody will tell me.
Love Alison

Dear God,
I like the story about Noah the best of all of them. You really made up some good ones. I like walking on water, too.

Dear God,
Please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.

Dear God,
Do you draw the lines around the countries? If you don't, who does?

Dear God,
I bet it's very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it.

Dear God,
How come you did all those miracles in the old days and don't do any now?

Dear God,
Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they each had their own rooms. It works out OK with me and my brother.

Dear God,
I keep waiting for spring, but it never did come yet. What's up? Don't forget.

Dear God,
I am doing the best I can. Really !!!!

Dear God,
If you watch in Church on Sunday I will show you my new shoes.

Dear God,
I do not think anybody could be a better God than you. Well, I just want you to know that. I am not just saying that because you are already God.

Dear God,
Please send Dennis Clark to a different summer camp this year.

Dear God,
It is great the way you always get the stars in the right place. Why can't you do that with the moon?

Dear God,
I didn't think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday night. That was really cool.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Rubik's cube, Mother Teresa and suffering

In 1982 I tore open the Christmas paper on a small box, and something magical fell onto the patterned carpet. This cube of hidden meaning, it's secrets known only to a few with special knowledge - this stuff of the philosophers stone or Da Vinci code - the Rubik's cube!
Everyone had one for a while, they were all the rage after we had outgrown our chopper bikes and space hoppers. Nerdy kids on Saturday morning telly became household names for completing the Rubik's cube in 13 seconds, before most of us had even worked out which way up we were holding it!

The basic premise of the Rubik's cube was to mess it up, then try and put it right. Each face of the cube needed to be restored to its rightful colour. Sounds easy right? No - I think I managed one side, but then each move you made to correct the other colours messed up the good work you had already done. It drove me mad. I resorted ultimately to cheating. Taking a blunt knife from the kitchen drawer, I prised the thing apart, dozens of small cubes scattering around the room, then collected them up, and pressed them back onto the central mechanism in the right order.

When we think about the big question of evil and suffering in the world we are presented with a similar picture in the bible, this idea that we are out of relationship with the God who made us. Indeed, the whole created order is totally dislocated. Like a Rubiks's cube which no one has been able to solve, maybe it never will.

However, the big story of the bible also offers a breathtaking solution to the problem. The God who came and suffered and died amongst us.
When the stone to the tomb was rolled away, Jesus emerges alive! He overcomes death, goes through it like a pioneer and we begin to get a glimpse of future hope for us and all creation which is realigned.
Jesus promises us : ‘I am making all things new.’ No tears, no pain, no sin, no death or suffering – winter is coming to an end, spring is coming. A new creation is arriving, a new order of things, it’s already broken in!

Jesus resurrection guarantees this realignment of all that has been out of joint. It enables us to hear the hard but incredible words : ‘Our present suffering is light and momentary compared to what’s in store in eternity with those who know God.’

Mother Teresa put it this way : ‘In the light of heaven, the most awful suffering on earth will seem like one awful night in a bad hotel.’

This great insight from a lady who probably never experienced the frustration of a Rubik's cube, but she did know a thing or two about suffering and pain. And it's to the broken world of Mother Teresa that the Saviour brings a solution. Not just to endure this messed up world stoically, but to allow God Himself to be messed up in order that we could be put back together. The Saviour of the world invites us to follow him into a Rubik's like transformation of our own lives which begins to bring order and purpose out of the chaos.

Friday, 2 December 2011

What's in a name?

What's in a name? These days we are quick to saddle our offspring with the names of the latest pop star or cultural phenomenon. For the OK Magazine fanbase and the celebrity obsessed, there remains an increasing trend to even name the poor child after the place of their conception, as though they need that message in their head as they grow up. And so, a generation of little Britneys, Brads, Brooklyns and Broom Cupboards emerges into the world, understandably unsure of their identity!

What's in a name? In old money, a name used to express something of the true identity of the bearer. Mr Bun was actually a was Mr Baker as it happened! The name of Jesus Christ is such a name. It tells us something important about who he is, and helps us to understand what he isn't.

In the language of his day, this was a name loaded with meaning. It would be like me calling my son Geoff Hurst Junior - everyone would know my expectations as little Geoff grew up into greatness! In the same way, this Jesus was known from birth as the Saviour, the rescuer. The one who would liberate his people. No pressure then.

And the Christ. It's not like a surname,'Excuse me, Mr Christ, your table is ready now.' No, the Christ was the Messiah, the one that all of his ancestors had looked forward to, the one who would lead them into triumph.

What's in a name? With this understanding, no wonder the Jesus of the gospels waved his name around in the manner of an American policeman waving his badge. He knew his authority. An authority which could open every door, overcome every hurdle, break through every barrier.

What's in a name? With this kind of authority, it's no wonder we can begin to think about praying in the name of Jesus, being saved in the name of Jesus, getting healed in the name of Jesus, being baptised into the name of Jesus, even asking for anything in the name of Jesus.

What's in a name? So much of what has been done in his name over the centuries has been carried out by those who have not understood his true identity. To paraphrase the popular political slogan - There is a God in heaven who looks down on our illegal wars, our injustice, our unequal wealth and selfishness, and he agrees - 'Not in my name.' That's just not who he is, it's not his identity.

What's in name? It's no good just dressing up as a policeman. You can step out into the traffic and wave your badge but you will still get run over. You have no authority in yourself. Those who are learning their true identity, and that of Jesus, will also learn to exercise authority through relationship with the one who holds all the power. It's in his name where we will best understand who we are and all he calls us to be.

All this is good news which speaks right to the heart of the identity issue for the little lost Britneys, Brads, Brooklyns & Broom Cupboards of our generation.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Yellow weather warnings and the fog of separation

Yesterday I exchanged tweets with the Met Office. Having been awoken by the radio news of a so called 'yellow' weather warning, I was concerned that I may not be able to safely leave the house with my wife and travel to the deepest outer reaches of Ikea on the Purley Way. I just wanted to check...and they kindly replied to say it was ok!

On Intro3 tonight we are looking at the day the sky went black in the middle of the day. Something more than a weather aberration which the forecasters missed. This was unprecedented before or since. Mark's gospel confirms 3 hours of darkness, a withdrawal of natural light which represented something hugely significant.

In the dark, on a hillside, a carpenter from Nazareth was dying on Roman cross. Jesus Christ, enduring awful physical pain, was slowly suffocating and crying out 'my God why have you forsaken me?'
This desperate cry of abandonment aimed at heaven should have had an answer, someone should have come running. Yet not only was heaven silent, but the darkening sky showed the angry judgement of God on His Son who had been perfect.

At the same time, in the heart of the city, at the Temple a curtain is torn. A heavy duty, thirty feet high divider between the parts of the temple we can walk in, and the holy parts that none of us can enter. Nothing can pass through, the curtain is a giant no entry sign to keep sinful people away from a perfect God.

Now as Jesus breathes his last, it is ripped from top to bottom. God has initiated something, even as it seems heaven will not respond to the heart breaking cry of the dying son. In a moment, history is changed, the curse is reversed, and God opens the door to us. The one who was inaccessible now stands behind an open door and welcomes us right in!
The no entry sign gone, the great separation between God and man which has stood since Adam ate the apple,is bridged. We are able to come once again into relationship with the perfect God who made us. Without guilt, without fear.

We’re following Jesus, into the darkness, and out into the light. Our sins have been forgiven. On the cross He took our punishment. He was put outside the city, so that we could come into the temple.
He took God’s judgement so that we would be free to come in. Jesus is rejected out there, so that I can be accepted in here. Jesus endures darkness and abandonment in order to lead us out of the fog of lostness and separation, back home to the Father who made us to live forever in His house.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

When Angela met David.......

Today David Cameron, British Prime Minister, flies out to meet Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Angela has a sneaky friend from France who has put her up to this but he has left her to do the talking. Basically France and Germany intend to give Dave a bit of a talking to over his stance on the Euro bail out. It will not work. We may all be European cousins, but we just don't understand each other, and we never have. This is how it will go.....

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Real Jesus & the quest for a better vacuum cleaner

Mr Kipling spent his life trying to mass market exceedingly good cakes. Bernard Matthews gave himself up to the lifelong quest for the beautiful turkey roast. Steve Jobs pursued the most intuitive tech, Geoff Dyson tried to turn vacuum cleaners into sexy gadgets that even men might consider getting out of the under stairs cupboard and plugging in!
And it works both ways - In any marketing, customers are looking for a brand which carries authentic values, searching for something they can trust to do what it says, looking for a product to stay loyal to and identify with. That's why aspirational real life scripts work so well in John Lewis Christmas adverts. People are hunting down truth and authenticity, they want to belong to something with meaning and purpose - great advertising taps into this subliminal need.

On Intro tonight we are asking questions about the real Jesus. Could there be any truth in the claims he makes about himself? Is there anything authentic in his story? Is there any meaning in the narrative of his life which is capable of meeting the deep need in all of us to belong to something greater than ourselves, or simply our desire for a better vacuum cleaner?

It's hard to know who or what to believe in our sceptical, cynical society. We expect lies or failure to lurk behind the newspaper headlines. We anticipate breakdown and betrayal behind the glossy magazine celebrity wedding photoshoot. We struggle to believe our politicians when they accuse one another, knowing full well their own hypocrisy will soon be exposed in sensational revelations in the press. In the same way, we don't really believe the hype in advertising. Mr Kipling's cakes are in reality exceedingly disappointing, and Bernard Matthew's mass marketed turkeys were anything but beautiful!

Is it possible for us to literally believe the claims that Christians make about Jesus Christ, the carpenter from Nazareth who lived on planet earth 2000 years ago? Is there any truth in these stories that will draw us from the shallowness of consumer culture and into a more life defining quest? Could it really be that this historical Jesus is more than a footnote in history, but the authentic one - the real thing, the one this broken world has been waiting for, the Saviour, God’s own son?

CS Lewis puts it best: A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.
You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is the Son of God.'

Whether you think Lewis is right or not, take a look at the views of some ordinary people we interviewed in our town this week.

Intro Course 'Who is Jesus?' from New Life Church on Vimeo.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Steve Weiss & the US 36th

In the summer of 1944, Steve Weiss,aged just 18, was fighting his way into the South of France against intense German resistance. A part of the US 36th Infantry Division, these boys had been called up from Texas, trained in the outposts of Louisiana, before being dropped in North Africa to make their way by sea to the Bay of Salerno, Italy. By 1943,landing in the face of desperate opposition, they gradually advanced, pushing further north as winter approached.

By the following summer, boys had become men, growing up in a maelstrom, a storm of the most awful fighting. The liberation of France was now their goal, getting back home still a distant dream.
During a night attack near Valence Steve Weiss stumbled into an enemy position. 'Rather than the men behind me coming in on either side and flowing out to make a skirmish line which we'd learned in basic training back in the States, they ran away. I recognised at that moment that the American army was every man for himself.'

Incredibly, Weiss survived the night, but found himself behind enemy lines. Rather than withdrawing from the fight, he instead joined up with the French Resistance, battling alongside them for a number of months before he was able to rejoin his unit.

The fighting continued relentlessly. The boys of the 36th spent longer on the front line continuously than any other unit, 144 days in one particularly nightmarish stretch. Having seen friends die next to him and having endured the terror of his stint behind enemy lines, Weiss found the internal battle became the hardest. Twice in these late days of the war he deserted the front line, paralysed by what we would today call battle fatigue or high level post traumatic stress.

This boy who became a man far away from home, fighting for us and our freedoms, learned to cope and got on. His inner demons understandably continued long after he returned home in peace time, his heart remaining in turmoil. Part of the coping srategy for Weiss was to train as a Clinical Psychologist, no doubt in an attempt to understand his own mind, then to help others who had been through similar agonies of body and emotions.

With incredible brevity, this simple statement from Weiss says it all for us on Remembrance Day. In hearing it, we see ourselves in his shoes and wonder if our hearts would be so strong, so enduring in the face of naked fear as the young boy Weiss.'There is no easy way to prepare teens and young men for war when their desire to serve their country collides with their desire to stay alive.'

Dr Weiss - we salute you.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

More than fat talking dogs and meerkats!

I hate those annoying insurance adverts. The fat Churchill dog, the fatter Go Compare man, those talking Meerkats – they drive me up the wall, but even I have to admit that they are effective. Sadly, the product they are selling is lodged in our national consciousness.
Recent surveys show that more 11-16 year olds believe Churchill to be a fat talking dog who says ‘Oh Yes!’ than the leader of the wartime coalition who says ‘We will fight them on the beaches!’ Families have even been buying meerkats in specialist pet shops, but asking for refunds when they discover that they can’t actually be taught to speak like a parrot! Arrrrrrgh!

Tonight we are using another insurance slogan ‘Morethan’ to launch our Intro course. Morethan thankfully conjurs no images of operatic insurance salesmen or talking animals, but it does enable us to ask the honest question ‘Is there more than this to life?’
Thom Yorke, the influential singer songwriter of Radiohead featured in a recent Guardian interview. Asked about his ambitions, he said, ‘Ambitions for what? I thought that when I got to where I wanted to be everything would be different. I’d be somewhere else, it would all be white fluff with clouds. But then I got there and I’m still here…….I’m just filling the hole, that’s all anyone does…..the hole is still here’

We could dismiss Yorke’s comments as the angst of a successful man who should wake up and realise how good he’s got it. Perhaps your life has been the opposite, the things you’ve done not led to big breaks , but hardship? Whether we’re doing well and on top of life, or struggling with real issues, there is a nagging emptiness which shouts out the ‘morethan’ question.

Richard Dawkins and the new breed of strident atheists would have us ignore the ache. Cover it up, or fill it with some substitute. The recent bus advertising campaign from the British Humanist Society trumpeted, ‘There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life!’
Is that the solution, ignore it and hope the question goes away? Or is there a more honest approach in actually asking the morethan question? Was Philosopher Blaise Pascal right all those years ago when he asserted that there is a ‘God shaped hole in each of us’?

Rather than ignoring the inner ache, or keep on running through the stitch, would it not be better for us to slow down and examine for once what the problem really is? Rather than feeding the need, pouring money, success, achievement, sex, food, into the gaping wound – why don’t we look for a new way, search for some truth which may ultimately satisfy?
Is there morethan this? In the words of the fat talking dog, ‘Oh Yes!’

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Literally: Jamie Redknapp & the Resurrection Man

I'm writing the ‘Resurrection Man’ talk for our Intro course today and wondering if we can ‘literally’ believe this stuff? It depends of course on what we mean by the word. Certainly not the ‘literally’ of Sky Sports football pundit Jamie Redknapp. These great phrases were all uttered during recent televised football commentaries.

“He literally turns into a greyhound.”
“He’s literally left Ben Haim for dead there.”
“Centre forwards have the ability to make time stand still. And when Chopra got the ball, it literally did just that.”
“He had to cut back inside onto his left, because he literally hasn’t got a right foot”
Redknapp maybe literally murdering the English language, making it say things that just can’t possibly be true, but can the same be said for the gospel accounts? Is it possible that they really meant for us to accept and believe the remarkable things they said?

The gospels all show a bodily resurrection of Jesus the carpenter, just over 48 hours after He was certified dead on a Roman cross in front of watching crowds.
This is surely the most outrageous & fantastic of all the claims that Christians make.
Not a spiritual resurrection, nor a mystical one. Not just a resuscitation, there can be no other plain meaning but a bodily, historical, flesh & blood raising from the dead!

This idea of a literal resurrection remained true for Paul in the years that followed. He didn’t try & back away from it in the face of Greek learning. In true Redknapp style, he risked hyperbole by claiming, 'If Christ hasn’t been raised our preaching is useless, so is our faith.'This blog & your response to it are pure emotion, full of feeling, but ultimately empty, if Jesus is not literally alive today.

Paul goes on, ‘If we only have hope for this life we are to be pitied’.
You can feel sorry for me, shake your head in pity at a man who has wasted his life running after a fiction. You can believe Dawkins that I am deluded to follow a fairy tale – if Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead.
The stakes for those of us who call ourselves Christians literally couldn’t be higher. The question for those who are not so sure, literally could not be more important.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

1 for a 1000, Arabs, Jews & Jesus

Yesterday, an emaciated Gilad Shalit returned home to Israel a national hero. His short journey, televised around the world, the first step in the long-awaited prisoner exchange between the Israeli government and the Islamist group Hamas. Whilst Shalit shook in front of the cameras, the West Bank & Gaza strip saw jubilant scenes as the expectant crowds prepared to welcome the simultaneous release of over 400 Palestinian prisoners. Another 500 will follow them to freedom in the next few weeks.

One man for a thousand is an extraordinary exchange, whichever side of this deep divide you stand on. The BBC were at pains to report that this was nothing more than a political transaction, there should be no reading between the lines of a greater peace narrative.

Even so, it’s hard to escape the powerful symbolism of one man being exchanged for the freedom of the many, especially when you paint in the scenery that this particular backdrop offers. 2000 years ago, a similar crowd shouted for the release of a prisoner and the execution of another. Once again, the mob got their way. This old story is still the one that marks out history, & defines the present,longstanding Arab/Israeli conflict.

In the big narrative of the gospel of course, the tables were turned. Shalit walks free today, exchanged for 1000 Palestinians who also return to their families. Jesus, walked into death, in order that a multitude might be led into freedom. Here the rich symbolism runs out of road – there is quite simply nothing to compare to this kind of prisoner exchange.

Despite the cynical pessimism of the BBC, perhaps this story can help to open the eyes of some to the most important peace issue of all – that of man and his maker. Surely, the peace between neighbours finds it’s rightful place when we get peace with God? Either way, there is no getting past the scandal that the root to reconciliation for these dislocated peoples lies in the story of a Jewish Jesus whom both the Jews & the Arabs continue to reject. Let's not be cynical, let's pray for them.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Paternoster power!

I've enjoyed reading books by the magnificently named Dutch Sheets, & the even more unlikely Preston Sprinkle this week! We just don't make names like that in the UK.
My favourite quote of the week comes from a proper, solid, sensible British name, Richard Foster. His classic on Prayer is every bit as worth reading as Dutch Sheets. Both will get you out from under the sheets earlier in the morning and onto your knees.

Writing of the Lord's prayer, Foster says:
"For sheer power and majesty, no prayer can equal the really is a total prayer. Its concerns embrace the whole world, from the coming of the kingdom, to daily bread. It is lifted up to God in every conceivable setting. It rises from the altars of the great cathedrals and from obscure shanties in unknown places. It is spoken by both children and kings. It is prayed at weddings and death beds alike.
The rich and poor, the intelligent and illiterate, the simple and the wise - all speak this prayer. As I prayed it this morning, I was joining with the voices of millions around the world who pray it this way every day. It is such a complete prayer that it seems to reach all people at all times and on all places."

Here is this breathtaking prayer, from Matthew 6, in the Message paraphrase:

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what's best— as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You're in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You're ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Rob Bell vs William Booth

Bell or Booth? Opposite ends of the theological spectrum, yet compellingly provocative in their own way. I’ve been reading Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’ this week, alongside some great old sermons by William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army & agitator of the comfortable religious of the late 19th Century.

They are uncertain bedfellows on the surface – Booth’s strident, hell fire Victorianism sitting uncomfortably on the Ikea sofa alongside Bell’s skinny decaf gospel for post moderns.
Whatever you think of their eschatology (their views on the end of everything), you’ve got to love their overwhelming desire to impact society with a gospel which is far bigger & broader than simply preaching salvation.

Both are desperate to engage relevantly with their prevailing culture, using creative language that builds a bridge for the good news about Jesus to travel across.
Both are longing that we get out of our comfortable Christian places, roll up our sleeves & get our hands dirty being the friends of sinners, the defenders of the weak, the hope to the hopeless.
Both are wanting to re-establish the current disconnect between our future hope of heaven, & an urgency for a taste of heaven on earth now for those who live in a relative hell.

They both say it with a slant, but you can’t argue with their passion. Let me give you a taste of both now, see for yourselves.
Rob Bell: ‘A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, whilst the rest of humanity spends forever in torment & punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s clearly been communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith, & to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided & toxic & ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness & joy that our world desperately needs to hear.’

William Booth: You must do it! You cannot hold back. You have enjoyed yourself in Christianity long enough. You have had pleasant feelings, pleasant songs, pleasant meetings, and pleasant prospects. There has been much of human happiness, much clapping of hands and shouting of praises, very much of heaven on earth.
Now then, go to God and tell Him you are prepared as much as necessary to turn your back upon it all, and that you are willing to spend the rest of your days struggling in the midst of these perishing multitudes, whatever it may cost you. You must do it. With the light that is now broken in upon your mind, and the call that is now sounding in your ears, and the beckoning hands that are now before your eyes, you have no alternative. To go down among the perishing crowds is your duty. Your happiness from now on will consist in sharing their misery, your ease in sharing their pain, your crown in helping them to bear their cross, and your heaven in going into the very jaws of hell to rescue them.'

Whichever side of the fence you fall on, whether it’s into Booth’s or Bell’s back yard – The greatest danger for those of us who profess to be Christ followers is that we talk in our churches & define our doctrines, whilst the plight of the poor in spirit gets worse, whilst injustice & sinful poverty increases, & whilst even in our streets, people live & die outside of a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ the Saviour.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Work, Rest & Romanians

We have been right over the last few years to learn much about rest, leisure, family time, date nights, fun with friends in church life. We’ve been right to turn from a frenetic, 'church meetings every night & 3 times on a Sunday' works mentality - Out from a need to be seen to be working hard for God, & into a grace fuelled rhythm of life which releases us from legalistic busyness.
However, perhaps we are in danger of losing the strong New Testament exhortation to work hard as we partner with God. Is it just possible that we risk settling so snugly in the slippers of our 21st century lifestyles that we now think it’s just going to happen or someone else is going to do it?

Whatever culture (legalistic church or lazy postmodernism) we have unthinkingly soaked up – the scriptures encourage us to get up on our feet & work hard by the grace of God for the spread of the gospel. This is an exhortation to hard work like we have never known, but allied with the beautiful rest of grace deep in our souls.
This Sunday as we look at the second half of our Big Vision, we mustn’t be afraid to talk about hard work in these terms.
Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves, to allow ourselves to be unsettled. Not to provoke a return to the rose tinted days of church busyness, but to release a new day of passionate, missional impetus in our generation.

We’re not going to lose the value of protecting our family time, but shouldn’t we be provoked by people like my friend Ioan Ianchis in Cluj, Romania who is now planting his 30th church since communism fell. Earlier this year I asked Ioan, ‘When do you rest?’ ‘Rest?’ he said, as though it was a bad word to be washed out of his mouth! ‘I’ll rest when I go to be with the Lord. In the meantime, I have work to do to make sure Romanians are changed by the gospel!’

Or maybe the bright lights of church history will stimulate us. Wesley who slept on his horse some days because of the unrelenting travelling & preaching schedule. Booth who was so troubled by lost men & women in Gateshead when he was still a Methodist Minister, that he walked away from his comfortable church of a thousand in order to spend himself for the tens of thousands who were outside the walls & didn’t want to hear his message.

Don’t worry, we’re not going to lurch into some boot camp mentality. But isn’t it time to wake up & redress an imbalance as we begin to live urgently again in our day? Isn’t it time to at least ask ourselves whether we are in danger of putting our own comfort ahead of the great commission? So much ministry today is directed inward at self awareness & healing. Much of this is so valuable. But there is a greater commission than my needs being met. It’s time to be propelled from introspection & self protection, back out into a broken world with force.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Jeremiah Lanphier & the longest thirty minutes.

As we conclude a powerful week of prayer today in East Grinstead, let me encourage you with one of my favourite prayer meeting stories. Whether you have been to our meetings or you read this in another part of the world – allow these words to catch your attention.

On 21st September 1857, a businessman named Jerimiah Lanphier invited workers to join him for a Wednesday lunchtime prayer meeting. His purpose was to reverse a decline in church attendance & Christian living.
On the first Wednesday he paced up & down the room borrowed from the Dutch Reformed church, fear & anxiety growing as the minutes ticked by. No workers appeared, no prayers came, only his. Jeremiah persevered, he decided to pray the full hour as publicised. Then, as the clock turned 12.30, he heard the first steps into the room. Eventually six came, ready to pour out their hearts for those outside of Christ.
Twenty came the second Wednesday. Within six months, 10,000 businessmen were gathering daily in New York for prayer with the persevering Lanphier rejoicing that he had pressed through in that first half hour!

The writer John Piper says, ‘Undoubtedly the greatest revival in New York's colorful history was sweeping the city, and it was of such an order to make the whole nation curious. There was no fanaticism, no hysteria, simply an incredible movement of the people to pray.’

God was clearly working behind the scenes to bring together a set of catalysts for such an underground movement which so quickly fountained above the surface.
Those who came to the meetings were broken men & women. Another great depression had come like a thief in the night. Wall Street crashed on October 14th. Forget our own Credit Crunch & the Lehman Brothers – here the entire economic system of the country collapsed in just one hour!
Heman Humphy writes of that day: ‘Like a yawning earthquake it shook down the palaces of the rich, no less than the humble dwellings of the poor, & swallowed up their substance. Men went to bed dreaming of their vast hoarded treasures & awoke in the morning hopeless bankrupts.’

From that first half hour of torment, Dr Edwin Orr estimates that one million nominal believers had come back to Christ & one million more unbelievers had been converted in the two years that followed. 50,000 converts in New York alone. What began with six people spread nationwide, by 1859 to Ulster, down into Ireland, into Wales, Scotland & England. Over one million converts were added to the churches in Great Britain.

In this new day of austerity, where banks collapse & economies are often false – where are the Jeremiah Lanphiers who will pray, who will not despise the day of small things, & who will believe that God is already at work behind our backs to sweep in another lost generation?

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The 100 Year Prayer Meeting

We are getting ready for a week of prayer here in East Grinstead. Wherever you are around the world as you read this blog, let this account from Pete Greig's 'Red Moon Rising' stir your heart again.

'The year is 1727 & the summer sunshine is flooding through the windows of a country church near Dresden, Germany, where a community of refugees has gathered to share communion. The bread & the wine are especially meaningful to this particular group, who have known their fair share of bursting veins & broken bodies.

Just five years earlier they had fled across the Austrian Alps under fierce religious persecution, hounded by the Counter Reformation away from their homes & livelihoods. Leaving Moravia in search of a new beginning, this rag-tag mix of politically incorrect misfits had been granted permission to settle here in Saxony on the estate of a 22 year old aristocrat called Count Nikolaus Von Zinzendorf. Here they hoped to build a truly Christian community, peacefully united around the bible alone.
But five years later we find this new Jerusalem torn by small minded discontent. The Moravian refugees have spent half a decade competing, disagreeing & dividing. The body is well & truly broken & Zinzendorf, now 27, has had enough.
That's why he's gathered them here today in the church at Bethelsdorf, insisting upon apologies all round. And now, finding themselves forced to reflect on the broken body on the cross & the broken body of their community, hard hearts are softening. One at a time, people stand, some with tears running down their cheeks, to confess sinful attitudes & express forgiveness.

And that was the moment it all began; the movement that would somehow rewrite the history books of the next three centuries. There in that village church on 13th August 1727, the Spirit of God moved with such power in the repentant hearts of those Moravian dreamers that they began to pray like never before & continued without a break for more than a hundred years.
A moment of grace had given momentum to a movement for change which would re-landscape much of the Western world right up to the present day. Tucked away in the immaculate village of Hernnhut, where modern day Germany meets Poland & the Czech Republic, those Moravians quietly determined that the flame of God's presence should 'be kept burning on the altar continuously' without ever being allowed to go out. (Leviticus 6.13) And so they organised themselves to keep 'the watch of the Lord', praying in one hour shifts around the clock as the very heartbeat of their community.

As they maintained that flame of intercession, the fire of their own prayers consumed them. The Moravians soon found themselves burning with passion for those without Jesus, compelled by His great commission & His great compassion simply to go. And so in 1732, after five years of continuous prayer, Zinzendorf, the young leader of the Moravians at Hernnhut, quietly commissioned the first great missions thrust of the Reformation.
Moravians quickly spread out all over the known world, propelled by that incredible prayer meeting, preaching the gospel wherever they went, often at great personal cost. Two members of the community even volunteered to sell themselves into slavery so as to carry the gospel to the plantations of the West Indies.
When an unknown clergyman named John Wesley was converted through the joyful witness of Moravian missionaries on a transatlantic ship in a storm, he headed off to Hernnhut straight away for discipleship from Zinzendorf.' Red Moon Rising - The story of 24-7 prayer. Survivor

Just as the French & the English never intended to skirmish for 100 years when they began fighting, nor did the Moravians have a clue what their prayer passion would lead to. What will emerge as we humble ourselves again this week? Robert Speers is right when he says, 'The Evangelisation of the world depends first upon a revival of prayer.'
Will you join us in getting back on our knees & lifting our hands & voices to the King? Surely a week asking God to overrule in this lost world for good is not a week wasted?

Friday, 22 July 2011

Lucian Freud, the lost boys & the perfect elder brother

Lucian Freud the famous realist artist has died today. His portrait work is known for it's spreadeagled, warts & all presentation. You won't like what he produces if you sit for him, but it will be realistic, every bulge, every inch of mottled skin, every imperfection exposed.

His art was as real & ugly as his life unfortunately. For decades, Lucian & his younger brother Clement were estranged. When Clement died a couple of years ago, the full picture of the divided brothers was hung on the wall for all to see.

The intense dislike of one another dates back to their earliest years. Stories abound, but the truth seems to lie in a race which they ran against each other through Hyde Park as boys. With Clement winning, Lucian shouted 'Stop Thief!' A passer by apprehended Clement, whilst Lucian sprinted on to victory.

For such a trivial boyhood rivalry to harden into a lifetime of hatred is deeply sad. Perhaps we should expect nothing less of the grandsons of Sigmund Freud, the Psychoanalyst. His extravagant theories of responsibility for such loathing probably point the finger back at him anyway!

Not long before Clement's death, Lucian was asked whether there was any chance of reconciliation. He replied in pugnacious style: "Why on Earth would I want to speak to him or see him again? I was offered a knighthood but turned it down. My younger brother has one of those. That's all that needs to be said on the matter."

So his younger brother was buried without him there, & now Lucian goes to the grave having carried an elder brother's resentment for a lifetime.

Cain & Abel, Esau & Jacob, Joseph & his big brothers, the Prodigal Son & his elder brother - these stories all show the same underlying anger that we carry in our hearts. A self justifying, self pitying, judgmental loathing which produces fruit of bitterness & hatred. You don't need a Freud to tell you that this is no healthy way to live!
The irony of all these tales of angry sons & lost boys is that we have a Father who invites both brothers to the table. The Father of the Prodigal welcomes the one son & pleads with the other angry son for him to also come back into intimacy.
Our way home is not through gritted teeth, or just forgiving & forgetting - rather by following our true elder brother, Jesus Christ into the love, acceptance & forgiveness that we all so desperately need, & which can be ours in the Father heart of God.

It's too late for Lucian & Clement to do anything about it - but what are we going to do with the years of estrangement & heart ache which we carry around?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

3 Strikes & You're Out!

In solidarity with our colleagues who are exercising their democratic right to strike for their working conditions today, I thought I would post my top 3 strikes in living memory.
These are what we would call old school, proper strikes. No questions of these conflicts being voted through by a minority of members, or protesting over pensions - this was the hard stuff, these disputes matter in the here & now to millions of workers who were living hand to mouth. And these were no knee jerk, down tools reactions which our Gallic cousins are famous for - these strikes were entered into with a heavy hearted foreknowledge that it would hurt the strikers & their families even as they sought to change the direction of the government. In descending order:

Strike 3: The General Strike 1926
Amidst the changing social landscape of the post world war & flu pandemic turmoil, the Baldwin Government took on the Miners. As a million men were locked out from the pits, the TUC took 2 million other working men out in support, stirring a revolution which threatened to bring down the Government.
Even King George V was initially supportive, telling those who criticised the workers to 'try living on their wages!'
But as a large proportion of Britain's working men downed tools from John O Groats to Lands End, the tide of sympathy quickly turned. Workers were accused of making war on the people & fermenting anarchy.
By the time the weakened TUC went cap in hand to Downing Street on May 12th to call off the strike, they didn't even have the guts to insist on an agreement that employers must take back every man who had been on strike.

Strike 2: Miners Strike 1984-85
The strike which dominated our TV news in the mid 80's & thrust fame on the unlikely scrape over hair hero that was Arthur Scargill.
The NUM had helped to bring down the Heath Government in 1974, but now was broken over the rock of Thatcher - humbled & reduced, political power in the Unions permanently diluted to this day.
From March 1984 to March 1985, the nation was split with divided loyalties. Extreme poverty after a year without wages broke the back of the strike, & long standing bitterness towards Tory power & the Police remains undiminished a generation on. Just as significantly, the social history of working class England which had developed since the Industrial Revolution now lay transformed. Trained, skilled men now out of work for years, or taking jobs in faceless retail parks. Proud communities of workers, living near their work now seeing the town & the street degenerate. We have yet to see the full consequence of this change in value for the working man in the UK.

Strike 1: Gdansk Shipyard. 1980
As Ship workers went on strike over high food prices in the Summer of 1980 in Communist Poland, the world expected their rebellion to be ruthlessly crushed by the state machine. Instead, the Government backed down & the first non communist controlled Trade Union emerged under the charismatic leadership of an electrician called Lech Walesa. At their height, over 9.5 million workers were members, over a third of Poland's working men.
Their sheer size & the post Gadansk momentum lifted Solidarity above a mere trade union to become a kind of reformation movement. It is no hyperbole to say that Solidarity changed the destiny of Poland, was a major part of the domino effect which brought down the Communist regime, eventually leading to Walesa the Union Leader becoming Walesa the President of Poland - & all this whilst sporting one of the finest moustaches in modern history!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

A new Nicene for 21st Century Pagan Britain

Father’s Day was well celebrated last Sunday. What slipped by unnoticed, unless you conform to a more traditional denomination, was the fact that it was also Trinity Sunday.

The language we use to describe who God is & how He works in the world is up for grabs again. During the first 400 years of Christianity, believers went to great lengths to load their language with rich theological meaning that would resonate with their culture, & most importantly, be understood by the ordinary man on the street. Creeds like the Nicene which now most Christians find dusty & dry were bright with colourful revelation about the God of the bible to a world which thought & spoke from a different cultural language. These mighty creeds crossed the bridge into pagan cultures & allowed the gospel to take root.

In the 1600 years or so since the Nicene Creed, we have come full circle. What commentators call post-christendom is really nothing new. It is simply a return to a challenging age of opportunity for Christian thought & language in a multi cultural, pagan 21st Century.

Our culture contaminated 21st Century Christian has even lost contact with some of the deep truths which previous generations treasured. And whilst the churches have moved away from creeds & systematic bible teaching, pagan cultures have flooded in & filled the thinking gap.

When the average Christian hears or reads the word ‘God’ on Trinity Sunday, they are not generally thinking of the Triune being, Father, Son & Spirit. Not many of us preachers eagerly look forward to this teaching opportunity of Trinity Sunday in the church calendar!
Leslie Newbigin put it this way in his old classic, ‘The Open Secret’:’The working concept of most ordinary Christians is – if one may venture a bold guess – shaped more by the combination of Greek Philosophy & Islamic theology, than by the thought of the fathers of the first four centuries.’
If even the church is confused about who God really is, is it any surprise that the rest of our unchurched society has a mixed message?

Quite simply, we need a new creed for today’s crowd. One which sounds a clear note again, to teach & encourage believers, as well as challenge the best guess views about God of post moderns which fall so far short of reality. New language to describe ancient ideas from our forefathers. New ways of communicating truth to those who will not otherwise hear & understand. New words to affirm the age old truths that God has revealed Himself as Father, Son & Spirit for our sakes, for our generation!

The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Ed Miliband, Terry Virgo & Ernest Shackleton - a new kind of leadership.

It’s the time of year for football managers to play musical chairs, scrambling for the nearest vacant seat that offers more money or security. In politics, Ed Miliband looks increasingly likely to be stabbed in the back by a Labour party who gambled on the wrong brother & lost. In Libya, Syria & that other corrupt world power, FIFA, leadership is in question. The pace of leadership change is huge – the patience of the paying public shorter than ever. Like never before, the world needs more leaders, but what kind of weak, people pleasing leaders emerge from the bad soil of this kind of distorted culture?

Reading Terry Virgo’s new book, ‘The Spirit Filled Church’ , a high bar is set for leadership. Read this passage & get your idea of leadership redefined by some glorious truth rather than the demands of a self centred world:
‘If the church is perceived as simply a gathering of people who attend religious services, little leadership is required. Leading the meetings & preaching sermons are all that must be mastered. If however, the church is seen in a different light, namely as the focal point of God’s purposes for world evangelisation & the key centre for discipleship, training, envisioning & releasing ministry, then leadership takes on a totally new meaning.’

‘Leaders are needed who will genuinely inspire a following by their godly character & charismatic gifting. Good leaders are worth their weight in gold. Christians count it a privilege to follow them. The ascended Christ is determined to have a mature & well functioning church, & to accomplish this He has made anointed leadership a top priority. He has ascended on high & has given some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists & some pastors & teachers.’

If Terry is right, then it is the unlikely academy of the local church that becomes the melting pot for all those who aspire to leadership, to be shaped & formed into men & women of conviction. Those who themselves will shape & transform our society so often devoid of true, bold leadership. The church, that old battle scarred institution, with all her faults & failings – still the hope of all the earth!

Where are such men & women? Are they queuing at the door to get on the programme? Are they thrilled & inspired by what they observe in the lives of those of us who already lead? Maybe they are bored, caught up with the minutiae of life? Maybe they lack courage to see themselves standing above the parapet? Perhaps we have failed to lead them into passionate & dangerous lives? The spirit of Shackleton’s old call should be heard again by those who are looking for such a leader to follow. Writing in the press in 1907 before his expedition to the Antarctic:

'Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.'

Shackleton’s haunting words don’t sound that different from how Paul viewed his apostleship. The scum of the earth, ship wrecked, beaten, misunderstood. Words describing leadership which put fear into the hearts of many who draw back, but draw dreams & greatness from the few who step forward. Now doesn’t that make you yearn for some adventures in leadership which change the world?

Friday, 3 June 2011

Fredrick Alliston & the life of a dangerous Hindu radical

Fredrick Alliston (Great Grandad) left on a boat for India around 1897 where he lived for 25 years. His story is one of huge decisions made at great cost with both eyes fully fixed on a greater hope to come.
Serving as a Salvation Army Officer, working as an Evangelist to the Hindi speaking natives, Fredrick operated out of the British compound. His desire to see locals impacted by the gospel, frustrated by the colonial British culture into which he brought converts & their desire to simply assimilate Christianity as Britishness.

Here is where Fredrick made the call that all heroes of the faith have made at some point down through the centuries. He decided that his need to genuinely reach Hindus with the gospel was greater than his need to live in safety & comfort amongst the 'little England' crowd in the compound.

This was no easy turning point for any man, particularly one with a wife, Louisa, & by now a growing family of small children. How quickly we make choices today based on the perceived risk to our family - Fredrick deemed it a greater risk to remain settled, valued a greater prize than comfort would bring, thought it better to lose it all for something he could never lose.

With Louisa & the children in tow, they moved quickly out of the compound. Ignoring warnings from the British that they would be out from under their protection, recklessly blocking their ears to threats that they would be cut off from safety & their own kind, they came out. Abandoning themselves to the only hope they had left. That some might be reached.

Just moving out was not enough. Fredrick knew he had to gain acceptance amongst the suspicious Hindus. In leaving the compound he buried even his own identity as an Englishman & a Salvation Army Officer. His western clothing left behind; His name changed to a name understood by Hindi speakers : 'Bringer of Light'. This is who he was now, this was all there was to him.

As a family they absorbed Hindi customs & food, they lived in their squalid housing, they caught their diseases. They even died weakly, needlessly like the impoverished locals. Fredrick & Louisa had ten children whilst out in India. Three were buried there. Given up for the sake of the gospel through the kind of accident, fire & disease that they would never have been exposed to in the security of the expat community. After one such death, Fredrick cycled for 3 days & nights with his child's body in a box upon his back, searching for a burial place that would be safe from digging animals.

What a cost, some might say too great a cost. What is it that drives a man to live so radically, so dangerously? What is this glimpse of future hope & glory which enables a man to value the spread of the gospel over settled, safe living? What is this madness that brings a man to his knees beside the graves of his children, only to get up again & press on further, deeper?
Friends, the world desperately needs more of this kind of madness. The certainty of future grace to come which releases incredible hope & joy through suffering for millions down through the ages, & still today. We don't long for Fredrick's trials, but we are awakened with a raging thirst for his authentic hope in God that might just change our lost generation!

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Dangerously Alive!

I finished the outstanding book, Dangerously Alive over the bank holiday weekend. Detailing the adventures of Simon Guillebaud in Burundi over the last 10 years, this book is not for the faint hearted. It will provoke, unsettle & make you smile in equal measure.

The book is full of stand out quotes, but from amongst them, these words by Robert Capon stood out all the more: As we move inexorably into the summer, another day, another week, another month - allow them to stir you from any sense of complacency or self centred, comfort eating religion that so easily settles over us. How about a different approach? Over to Guillebaud & Capon:

The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news.
Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn't change people into wide eyed radicals any more; He changes them into 'nice people.'
If Christianity is simply about being nice, I'm not interested.

What happened to the radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside down? What happened to the category smashing, life threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire & was considered dangerous by those in power?
What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever He went?
What happened to the kind of Christians who were filled with passion & gratitude & who every day were unable to get over the grace of God?

I'm ready for a Christianity that 'ruins' my life, that captures my heart & makes me uncomfortable. I want to be filled with an astonishment which is so captivating that I am considered wild & unpredictable &, well, dangerous. Yes, I want to be 'dangerous' to a dull & boring religion. I want a faith that is considered 'dangerous' by our predictable & monotonous culture.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Myra Wattinger & the voice of God

I've been reading Jack Deere's excellent 'Surprised by the voice of God' again this week. His story about Myra Wattinger is well worth retelling here.

Alone & penniless, Myra wondered through the South Texas towns of the 1940's, finally getting a job caring for an elderly man. The pay was pitiful, but at least she had the security of a place to sleep & food to eat.
Myra had a history of what psychiatrists today would call 'rejection'. She & her husband had recently divorced. Although he was prosperous he refused to give her any money. Her parents had died when she was an adolescent, so she had no one to turn to for help.
As Myra sat in the house watching her elderly employer sleeping, she thought her life had sunk as low as it could go. Sadly, she was wrong. The devil had planned a new torment for her, something that would even bring her to the point of killing herself. One day, while the old man was sleeping, she found herself alone in the house with one of his sons. The son, an alcoholic, had previously made sexual advance towards Myra. Although Myra had made it clear that she found him & his actions repulsive, on this day he was determined not to be refused. He raped her.

Nothing in Myra's short, difficult life came close to the humiliation of that afternoon's violation. 'How god must hate me', she thought. 'Why else had he let this happen, what have I done to make him so angry?'
Whenever she tried to talk to God about her situation, she heard nothing from him. It could have been the turmoil of her emotions or the fact that she had no real history of conversation with God, that kept her from hearing his tender comforts & promises. But Myra didn't ponder either of these options. Instead she concluded that God had abandoned her.

Sometimes when things can't get any worse, they do infact. The incidence of pregnancy in forcible rape is incredibly low, less than 3 pregnancies out of every 100 rapes. Myra's body defied those odds. It seemed to her God had gone out of his way to add one last torment to her misery - to have become pregnant through the rape. God was forcing her to carry the drunken brute's child.
Even if Myra had been able to support a child, she had no intention of supporting this child. She had been forced to endure the humiliation of the rape but she was not going to let the rapist, or even God, force her to endure the humiliation of the pregnancy. It just wasn't fair. She shouldn't have to suffer any more consequences from that horrible afternoon. She decided to kill the baby.
Her Doctor wouldn't co-operate. Quickly Myra found out that in South Texas in the 1940's it was not easy to get an abortion from a physician. She still thought the best course of action would be to kill the baby, with or without the help of a doctor.

These were the thoughts battling for the control of Myra's mind on a spring afternoon in 1943 as she trudged back home from the Doctor's. Sitting on the back porch of the home where she had been raped, a new option came to her mind - suicide. Just at the point when the thought of suicide seemed to offer the quickest end to her pain, there came an urge from somewhere deep in her spirit to pray. She looked up to heaven & cried out, 'Lord, I'm carrying this child & I don't know what to do.'
She was never really sure afterwards if the voice was audible or not. It was, however, as clear as any voice she had ever heard. God said to her, 'Have this baby. It will bring joy to the world.'
Those 2 short, divine sentences, dispelled all thoughts of suicide & abortion. Heaven's words have a power that no voice from hell can match. When Myra heard those words, not only did her destructive thoughts leave, but the joy of heaven entered her soul & crowded out the depression & anguish. She was convinced God would give her a baby girl whom she would call Joy, for according to God, this baby would bring joy to the world.

On October 9th, 1943, Myra brought her baby into the world in the charity ward of St Joseph's Hospital in Houston, Texas. Things began to go wrong immediately. Myra almost died in childbirth. The baby turned out to be a boy & not a girl.The next few years were not easy for Myra or her young son. They were often separated with the boy in a foster home.
Over the following years, the son showed no promise at all for fulfilling his heavenly destiny of bringing joy to the world. He did become a Christian in his early teenage years, but showed no promise for Christian work. In fact, he was so incredibly shy he simply could not speak in any kind of public setting.

The summer after the young man graduated from High School he went to a revival meeting - a Friday night - He heard God calling him to preach. It was as clear as an audible voice, though no one else would confirm it. They all knew this young man was not gifted for any sort of public ministry.
On Monday he went back to work at the Chemical plant. Most of the men who worked at the plant were not Christians. Their conversation was filled with profanity, dirty jokes & sexual references about their wives & mistresses. While this talk had never bothered the young man before, what had happened the previous Friday night made all the obscenity unbearable. As he listened to the men on the job, & again at lunch, where 200 workers gathered around 2 flatbed trailers, the young man was overcome with compassion for the workers & filled with anger at the sin separating them from Christ.
Suddenly, without realising what he was doing, he jumped up on one of the flatbed trucks & shouted to all 200 of his co-workers, 'Listen to me!' The men stopped chewing on their sandwiches & stared in amazed silence.
'I am just a boy out here trying to learn how to be a man. All you men are teaching me is how to talk filthy, think filthy, live filthy, be filthy! Men, I wouldn't talk about a dog the way most of you talk about your wives. But God loves you. And he gave Jesus to die for you.' This was the introduction to the young man's first sermon.
Pipe fitters, insulators, craftsmen & their helpers sat stunned as they heard these words. As the young man continued to preach, the conviction of the Holy Spirit swept over them. When he stopped speaking, no one said a word. They just hung their heads & shuffled back to their jobs - without realising a revival had just begun in their chemical plant. Over the next few weeks the young man had the privilege of leading many older workers to Christ. It became apparent that he was called to be an Evangelist. Some thirty years later, that young man has been responsible for leadings millions of people to believe in Jesus as their Lord & Saviour.

His name is James Robison. In the spring of 1943 his mother was truly surprised to hear the voice of God.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Mashed screw heads & some old authority on marriage

I’m preparing a sermon for our first wedding of the summer tomorrow & I’ve been captivated by the idea of Jesus teaching us about married life. In Mark’s gospel it says he gathered the crowds & ‘he taught them.’ His chosen specialised subject was marriage.

In this frantic 21st Century, post modern, internet age – it seems a little odd that we might be taught about marriage by a single guy from the middle east who lived 2000 years ago. Yet his is not just another voice in the multitude of relationship advice that is out there – another user guide for dummies in the Amazon top 10. No - He has something to teach which is so foundational that we would be foolish not to sit up & listen. Ultimately, it says more about who Jesus really is that His words are still shaping our lives in this generation

He speaks as the one who was there in the beginning when God made man & woman. He teaches as one who was involved in the planning process for marriage & worked on the design brief for procreation. When we recognize this, we have to acknowledge that he is free to speak with an incredible authority to us. Because of who he is, a marriage between a couple who recognize his authority to speak & shape our lives ought to be the most secure, most loving, most sexually fulfilling relationship there is.
The reason we so often we fall short into disappointing, dysfunctional or even broken marriages, may be that we fail to allow this amazing teaching which comes with authority to penetrate our selfish hearts.

In 1984 when Toby Pass left the Woodwork room at Forest Boys School to go to the toilet, I fastened his almost completed letter rack to the work bench with big fat screws & in doing so mashed the heads for good measure.
He couldn’t take it off. Try as he might, the teacher couldn’t remove it either. It was a sword in the stone moment. For all I know it remains joined to that work bench to this day – an immovable monument to my adolescent misadventure!

Jesus teaches us that marriage stands or falls on this kind of authority. What God has joined together so tightly & completely is never intended to come apart. Jesus teaches us that it is God Himself who joins us. It is His authority as the creator of mankind & designer of married life which means no one else has any right to touch, break or interfere with this wonderful new union.

When God declares a man & woman joined, like the letter rack on the bench – the intention is that they stay joined. Our happy couple tomorrow enter a brave new world in the fast lane of 21st Century culture with these old truths of Jesus teaching them & holding them together from the start.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Osama Bin Laden & the vicious cycle of bad theology

There are many things that have troubled me this week. I still don't understand the AV voting system & I only have a few hours left to go to the polling booths! Spotify want to charge me for music which I have got used to streaming for free. The Turner prize nominations have been announced.....need I say more.

However, my most uncomfortable moments this week have arisen whilst watching the world press & internet feeding frenzy on the story of an older Arab man who was shot dead in front of his family. Osama Bin Laden also happened to be the most wanted terrorist in the world.

I'm uncomfortable about all of this on so many levels. Whilst not wanting to drop into a knee-jerk anti american conspiracy theory diatribe - I find the chanting, cheering crowds outside the White House deeply troublesome. I remember 9/11 - it was terrible. Is there a just reason for going after those responsible & bringing them to justice? Yes, absolutely.
However, has the link between these acts & Osama Bin Laden ever been firmly established? If so, is he still the kind of threat or aggressor which justifies an outright act of war against him & his family?

Arrest & justice yes - shoot him dead when he has no weapon, throw his body in the sea, take a few grainy photos on an iphone - it's all a bit wild west, wanted dead or alive. I thought we were propagating the kind of modern democracy which had left revenge killings behind & went in for fair trials. To follow it up with TV broadcasts of whooping celebrants is the sort of behaviour we despise when we see it in the flag burning, gun toting middle east - why is it any more acceptable in the USA?

Ultimately, I'm uncomfortable with the notion of hunting a man for almost 10 years in order to shoot him dead. For a society which tells the world they are 'one nation under God', these actions preach a different God to the one I know. Our theology really does shape us - the things we believe about God really do impact the way we behave in the world. If we have been raised on the God of anger, the God of revenge, the God of retribution, is it any surprise we act this way? We are totally sincere, but we are sincerely wrong. This is the way of the zealot, the religious bigot, the terrorist - the way of the Apostle Paul before he had a true revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ. Here the American Pastor who burns Korans & preaches hate is no different from his Islamic counterpart.

If bad theology has got us in this mess, what could some better theology do to break this vicious cycle? The bible presents us with God made flesh, the man Jesus who said love your neighbour as yourself. The radical God who says love your enemies, love those who persecute you. The extreme God who says when they strike you, turn the other cheek.

I'm not attempting to square the circle today, nor am I looking down from a high moral standpoint above our American friends - I'm aware of our own national faults as Brits! Perhaps if I had been in New York or known someone who perished in the Twin Towers I would be thinking differently.
However, the things Jesus said & the way that he lived, even giving himself up as an innocent man before His enemies - this example of extreme love should at least challenge our foreign policy positions & the outworking of armed strategies in dark & dangerous places. Imagine, if we allowed our home affairs to be governed by the same precepts that drive this kind of foreign policy? Our streets would be full of blood killings & long standing generational feuds between neighbours.

Is the world better off without Osama? Quite possibly. But is there a better way to live, a better way to understand who God is through the way we behave towards one another? Certainly.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Top 3 Significant Royal Weddings in English History

Congrats to Wills & Kate, very happy for them both! By the time the confetti has been swept from the Mall this will have probably been the biggest TV event in history - a day where we throw off the lingering heaviness of post colonial shame & remember how to be Great Britain once again. A day where we suddenly feel confident in celebrating our identity in one giant street party before the world's eyes. A day where our ever shrinking planet shares in a truly global, tribal event.

So it is a genuinely significant day for us all, not least the happy couple. Whilst Wills & Kate may wake up tomorrow to the realisation that their ascension to the throne may take another 40 plus years, we can take a look at the top 3 Royal marriages which have had true & lasting significance.

In reverse order!

3/ William & Mary
William, Prince of Orange, married Mary Stuart on 4th Nov 1677. The Dutch Stadtholder was actually marrying his first cousin, & she just happened to be the daughter to James, next in line to the English throne should his big brother Charles die...following so far?
Charles of course did die & James II, a Catholic ascended the throne. The reason this particular Royal wedding was so important is that the daughter & son in law arrived by boat in Devon with 15000 troops the day after their 11th Wedding anniversary! James fled under pressure & vacated the throne which was taken up jointly by William & Mary.
The settlement they agreed with Parliament meant that no genuine Monarch would ever rule again in England. The Divine right of Kings was diminished by powers ceded to government, & the curious compromise of a democracy with a Monarch began to emerge. Here was one wedding which has consequences which still resonate today.

2/ Edward & Mrs Simpson
OK, he had already abdicated by the time the former Edward VIII married twice divorced Wallis Simpson in 1938, but this wedding is the reason we are all having a bank holiday in front of our TV screens today.
Quite simply, Edward's younger brother George VI took the throne & a whole new family line of Royals, including our very own Elizabeth, Charles & Wills came into play.
Even more significantly, without this strange episode in history, Colin Firth would have been denied his Oscar for the King's Speech!

1/ Henry & Catherine of Aragon
This has to be the most important marriage in English history, but for it's untimely ending rather than the many years of relationship. So much has been written about the monster Monarch Henry, but had his marriage to devout Catholic Catherine been sustained we must wonder whether England would have ever entered the Reformation? Our 500 years of history since, our odd democracy & compromised church/state relationship would surely look so very different. Our architecture, our Colonial spread & impact in competition with the Spanish, our national characteristics - all changed for ever because this marriage did not last.

Wills & Kate, enjoy many happy years waiting for your turn without too much burden of history!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Grace Identity

Identity theft is big business. If you are looking to diversify as a criminal mastermind into a growing market - ID theft is the next big thing! The UK government estimate the cost to our economy from this kind of 'victimless' crime is over £1.2 billion a year. The real figure is probably higher with so many smaller crimes remaining unreported. No wonder Ministers have contemplated allocating budgets they don't really have to bring in national ID cards.

What is it about our identity that is so important, so precious? The age old philosophical question, 'Who am I?' has been debated over the generations by all the great minds. A Google search on that phrase today will necessitate you trawling through a mammoth 15,300,000 hits. Last year the Science Museum in London opened a permanent interactive exhibition dedicated to the question 'Who am I?' Or if you want to explore lower culture, check out Jackie Chan's 1998 movie classic of the same name!

In the scriptures, the Apostle Paul gives us his take. ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ This from a man whose earlier years were characterised by the kind of religious hatred & bigotry that we today associate with terrorism & race hate attacks. In the early days Paul never questioned his ID or purpose. He was sure, a zealot, a man who knew the answers & never stopped to ask questions. Such certainty about the rightness of his identity led him to persecution & murder.

David Hamilton was a Loyalist Terrorist in Ulster during the hight of the troubles. Hardened in his identity & his cause, he was surprised by his very own Apostle Paul experience. In his own words: 'I had an experience of God that turned my life right side up. I was locked up one night in my cell, as usual and I looked over at my bed and there was a Gospel tract. My cell mate said, 'What's that?'

"I held it up and read it, rolled it up in a ball and threw it out the window. Fifteen minutes later and suddenly this thought came into my head. 'David, it's time to change, become a Christian.'

"I knew something had happened from the very first day I became a Christian. There was definitely a heart change in me. There was an IRA man, heard them all [the other prisoners] laughing at me in the canteen and I had had a fight with the same man two weeks before in the prison laundry, I went over to him, and said, 'I'm sorry about the fight we had.'

"He spat in my face. I had no feeling of any kind to retaliate or attack him. I just smiled at him and wiped the spittle off my face. From that day to this I've never had a fight, today I'm a pastor in a church in Manchester."

What is this grace that it can take a religious bigot & terrorist & cause him to say, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’? Grace & forgiveness changes everything, even the most deep rooted parts of our identity are transformed, made brand new.
Paul got it right when he acknowledged this change to a new man only comes in burning every bridge & following the one man who really knew who He was. 'If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation, the old has gone & the new has come.'
The kind of transformation in our identity which allows a terrorist to wipe spit from his face & smile can't be discovered at a Museum,through a Google search or even from a Philosopher - But by looking at the Man who was spat at, rejected & killed because of His identity as the Son of God. Now, by the grace of God, I am what I am.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Dead works, Damien Hirst & the macabre scent of formaldehyde

I was drawn & repelled in equal measure by the various animal body parts that used to be kept suspended in big dusty jars of formaldehyde on the high shelf in our biology lab at school - a jar of eyes bobbing around as you took it down & shook it like a snow globe had an endless, macabre fascination value for this schoolboy.

Damien Hirst must have seen a gap in the market. His horrible, provocative art collections of entire cows & other animal parts in formaldehyde has sold at auction for over £100 million. Essentially a collection of bits stolen from my school biology lab, this is quite a feat to pull off. I wish I had thought of it first instead of limiting myself to stealing the cow eyeballs one at a time to put in Toby Pass's lunch box!

This trade in literal dead works also blights the contemporary church today. We like to think that we are safe from dead religion & ritual - These old ways are the preserve of the tired denominations, those who display their formaldehyde jars of pennance, lenten fasts, saints, the rosary et al in the hope that they might get right with God. The truth is that it is far easier to see religion & deadness displayed in other contexts & cultures than our own. This week, I have had ointment applied to my eye after removing a wood chip. We perhaps need to take the log from our own eye as someone once taught us -we maybe need to wake up to the creeping danger of dead works on display in a contemporary church near you & me!

Church history teaches us that most breakthrough, pioneer movements become their opposite within a generation or two. Methodist, Salvationist, Pentecostal - take your pick, they have all collected their fair share of jars full of dead works. If Jesus can say to a New Testament Church in Sardis way back in the beginning, 'You have a reputation for being alive, but really you are dead!' then we ought to sober up & take a good look at ourselves.

Dead works creep up on us in all kinds of ways. Other than a shock artist like Damien Hirst, nobody deliberately sets out to create a dead work. But unwittingly we find ourselves immersed in them. Next time you find yourself saying, 'But we've always done it that way', or wondering if anyone remembers why it is that you are gathered this sunday morning - wake up & smell the formaldehyde!
The best antidote to the whiff of old age around our churches is the aroma of fresh faith, vibrant hope, total trust, absolute obedience, deep Christ like love - where such fragrance is present, the spread of deadness has been halted, indeed, here there is new life & health. Someone open a window in here & let's get started!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

No vintage classics: 5 books you must invest in!

There has been a lot of noise over the last week in blogs & chatrooms about the Orange Inheritance prize for vintage classic literature. In short, which book out of all the millions written would you pass down to the next generation? There wasn’t much on the list that took my fancy, Thomas Hardy apart.

The problem with all these 'Desert Island discs' moments is our inherent human dishonesty, allied with our desperate need to impress people. When asked which book has changed our lives, we lie in the face of the uber cool culture police & spout a list of books we feel we ought to read, or at least would feel good about being run over with it open on our kindle! The harsh reality is that most of the really cool stuff in films, music, books & popular culture generally is (say it quietly) a little bit boring!

Have you noticed all those facebook apps that do the rounds asking you how many of the top 100 books or films you have read or seen? They fall into the same trap – we can’t possibly look stupid in front of our 1000’s of unreal facebook friends so we tick ‘yes’ to Dostoevsky when we would really rather curl up with Catherine Cookson & a family sized bar of Galaxy! This Emporors New Clothes approach helps no one, least of all those who just want to enjoy reading or be provoked, stirred or stretched by a good book.

I’m often asked for book recommendations – this alone is a strange one to handle, not wanting to impose my eclectic taste for police crime thrillers & theology on anyone else! If I had to choose only 5 books which every Christ follower should have on their shelf, & invest some time in actually reading – I would highlight the following Note – I’ve made an assumption that a good translation of the bible is already in your possession!

1/ Systematic Theology – Wayne Grudem
Everyone needs to buy at least one big theology book in their lifetime, & if you buy this one, you won’t need another. Quite simply, no one has put it all together in such a straightforward manner & so thoroughly as Grudem has done here. To do so for a modern readership without any of the language or cultural differences that slow us down with the older versions makes this an investment that will be invaluable for years to come. I’m still dipping into mine most mornings almost 20 years on from purchase.

2/ Surprised by the Power of the Spirit – Jack Deere
Again if you are looking for just one book which sets out a clear doctrine of the Holy Spirit & tracks the path which our generation has come down to get there – this book is the one. Still fresh, still thorough, still deeply biblical yet engaging in the narrative of Deere’s surprise encounters with a God he thought he already knew.

3/ The Spreading Flame – FF Bruce
Every believer needs to understand our roots, where we have come from, & to see that most of what we encounter today has been around in some form or another before. Bruce’s masterful retelling of the spread of Christianity in the early years will never lose its relevance for this reason.

4/ Revival – Brian H Edwards
You must have a good book on Revival. Preferably have many, but if you can only buy one, this is the best all rounder. There are countless others which will give more detailed accounts of certain times & eras, but Edwards overview & thoughtful analysis brings it head & shoulders above the rest of the pack.

5/ Operation World – Jason Mandryk
This is no dusty textbook. You will have it down from the shelf every day as you grow in your heart for the nations & the spread of the Kingdom. This incredibly well researched book which began as a labour of love for Patrick Johnstone of WEC decades ago, has been updated recently. There are better text books on God’s heart for the nations, better missionary biographies – all of which will do you good – but nothing will get you engaged in prayer & action like Operation World.

These are 5 books from amongst the many which do have a 'heritage' feel to them & I would be glad to pass onto the next generation.