Thursday, 12 December 2013

We three Iranians: Satellites stars and smart phones

As we prepare for another nativity, I've been considering the link between the Three Wise men from the East, probably Iran, and the thousands of Iranian believers today.

These three Iranians represent a massive prophetic promise. The first to come from far off to worship Jesus. Following a star, beginning a journey based on limited revelation, ending in submission to Christ and a total rejection of their old lives and world views. They point prophetically to the millions who have and will come to Christ from across Asia, from the Middle East, through Iraq, Iran, India and Pakistan. They are a foretaste of the many who will follow in their footsteps.

Today we don't hear stories of stars in the sky. However, there are many stories of Muslim background believers in the oppressive Iranian regime who have dreams and visions of Jesus. Many too who are stopped in their tracks by a satellite broadcast beamed into their homes, or a youtube clip about Jesus onto their smart phones.

Perhaps 60,000 Iranians around the world follow Jesus today. Three has become 60,000, just in our generation. A star has become a satellite, the outcome the same - a journey to find the truth about Jesus. The prophetic plan of God from the very beginning, to gather worshippers to Jesus from across the nations is accelerating.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Kings, carols and caricatures!

Maybe it's over familiarity, or the fast approach of another badly costumed kids nativity play -but the wise men in the story, found in Matthew 2, need to be commended.
First though, a few of our favourite myths need well and truly busting! These three Kings didn't just appear out of the mist, dropping into the perfect nativity scene with Shepherds, animals, Mary, Joseph and the lobster!

Most scholars agree today that their starting point in the 'East' was Iraq, Babylon, maybe even Iran. Either way, these guys came a came a long way, and they had been following the star a long time.
The fact that Herod orders boys under the age of two to be killed gives us an idea that Jesus was probably an infant by now. The shepherds were long gone, the manger back to it's animal use. Mary and Joseph would have long since presented Jesus at the temple and met Simeon and Anna. Indeed, verse 11 of Matthew 2 hints that the young family may now be living in a house rather than the original birth room behind the Inn.

It gets worse - The three fellas from the East almost certainly weren't kings, more probably wealthy astrologers. Perhaps Zoroastrian Priests, certainly pagans. The Jewish influence in Babylon and beyond since the exile would have left a legacy and an openness in some to the old prophetic promises held by the Jews.

Sadly, we don't even know there were three of them! The names, Balshazzar, Melchior and Casper, were probably made up in the 8th Century, in some kind of early Disney rebranding of Christmas! You will get as much truth out of the first verse of the Rev Henry Hopkins old carol, 'We three kings of Orient are' as you would from singing 'Rudolph the red nosed Reindeer!'

However many of them there were, and wherever they may have come from - it's more important to remember what they did and said: 'We saw his star in the East and we have come to worship him.'

It's easy for us to caricature the three Wise men, to box them into our inoffensive Christmas fairytale with their colourful costumes and non child friendly gifts. But all these Wise men had to go on was a flaky understanding of the Hebrew scriptures and a great big new star in the sky! This little bit of revelation is enough to make them very wise men indeed in my book.
We are those who have seen so much more than a star. We are the generation who have the big story in our possession, a greater revelation than any who have gone before us.
We are those who know who this child grew up to be. We are those who know about his miracles, his power, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension. We know he now sits at the right hand of God in glory, having made a way for all of us who believe to follow him. We know that he is returning soon to gather all of his worshippers, from all the ends of the earth, East and West, North and South, to be with him for ever.

Knowing what we know, don't these Wise men deserve a round of applause this Christmas? For making the same journey as us on a fragment of the story. For ending at the same destination as us, with all our knowledge, bowed together around the King that we have joined in worship of.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Fabulous Fifty Nine : Climate control for an uncertain time.

'One anothering' is one of those church phrases that the rest of the world rarely registers. However, the fifty nine one another references in the New testament are all so active and powerful that it's time we gave them a bit of airtime and started living them out.

Eat, sleep, read, repeat as the song goes (almost!) Through a time of unprecedented change at a local church level, my prescription is that we do just that. Copy and print. Stick them around the house, meditate on them in the mornings. We will mature as we align with this truth, as we let them become the default setting, the climate control for this season of life together in the local church. When there is so much change going on, we can quickly become consumed by the 'what' and the 'how'. All important, but these one another's show us that 'who' we are together through the process is far more important.

We could summarise them negatively : Refuse factions, refuse gossip, be wise on Facebook, don't email each other when you could talk. Don't hold onto hurts and grudges. Forgive quickly, don't get isolated, keep meeting with God's people that do you good. It's helpful to view them in contrast, but they hold most impact in the positive.

May these fabulous fifty nine verses of scripture lead the way, set the tone, dictate the culture, and help make the constant change, uncertainty and upheaval of church life a totally safe, secure, loving and growing environment!

1. “…Be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:50)
2. “…Wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
3. “…Love one another…” (John 13:34)
4. “…Love one another…” (John 13:34)
5. “…Love one another…” (John 13:35)
6. “…Love one another…” (John 15:12)
7. “…Love one another” (John 15:17)
8. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10)
9. “…Honour one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
10. “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16)
11. “…Love one another…” (Romans 13:8)
12. “…Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:13)
13. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7)
14. “…Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
15. “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16)
16. “…When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (I Cor. 11:33)
17. “…Have equal concern for each other.” (I Corinthians 12:25)
18. “…Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (I Corinthians 16:20)
19. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (2 Corinthians 13:12)
20. “…Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
21. “If you keep on biting and devouring each other…you will be destroyed by each other.”
(Galatians 5:15)
22. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:26)
23. “Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2)
24. “…Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
25. “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32)
26. “…Forgiving each other…” (Ephesians 4:32)
27. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” (Ephesians 5:19)
28. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)
29. “…In humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
30. “Do not lie to each other…” (Colossians 3:9)
31. “Bear with each other…” (Colossians 3:13)
32. “…Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” (Colossians 3:13)
33. “Teach…[one another]” (Colossians 3:16)
34. “…Admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)
35. “…Make your love increase and overflow for each other.” (I Thessalonians 3:12)
36. “…Love each other.” (I Thessalonians 4:9)
37. “…Encourage each other…”(I Thessalonians 4:18)
38. “…Encourage each other…” I Thessalonians 5:11)
39. “…Build each other up…” (I Thessalonians 5:11)
40. “Encourage one another daily…” Hebrews 3:13)
41. “…Spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24)
42. “…Encourage one another.” (Hebrews 10:25)
43. “…Do not slander one another.” (James 4:11)
44. “Don’t grumble against each other…” (James 5:9)
45. “Confess your sins to each other…” (James 5:16)
46. “…Pray for each other.” (James 5:16)
47. “…Love one another deeply, from the heart.” (I Peter 3:8)
48. “…Live in harmony with one another…” (I Peter 3:8)
49. “…Love each other deeply…” (I Peter 4:8)
50. “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (I Peter 4:9)
51. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others…” (I Peter 4:10)
52. “…Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…”(I Peter 5:5)
53. “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” (I Peter 5:14)
54. “…Love one another.” (I John 3:11)
55. “…Love one another.” (I John 3:23)
56. “…Love one another.” (I John 4:7)
57. “…Love one another.” (I John 4:11)
58. “…Love one another.” (I John 4:12)
59. “…Love one another.” (2 John 5)

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Great Expectations : Hope for hype hunters

Expectation: A strong belief that something will happen or be the case.
At its most potent this firm, unshakeable belief in a certain outcome produces anticipation, expectancy, eagerness and hope.

These are the feelings that flood through us when we are convinced something is going to change. They are powerful motivators, and when this kind of expectant hope is kindled corporately in a local church community, undiluted anticipation can rush through the whole and bring real forward momentum.

Our problem comes when reality fails to meet our great expectations. The irresistible force of our assumed progress crunches up against the immovable object of reality. And it's reality that bites. Time and again we fail to hit the mark, sometimes coming in close, sometimes nowhere near. Either way, we become conditioned to failure and disappointment.

Nothing saps hope in the local church more than this. We dared to believe, but look what happened. From the people who came out of Egypt to the disciples who found themselves locked in fear in the upper room, you can see their heads dropping, their hearts breaking, their courage fleeing.

What's the answer? Lower our expectations? Our defence mechanisms would give us this as the easy way out. Expect nothing from anybody and you will never be disappointed. Set really low targets, aim only at what you know you can hit, never show courage, never reach long, under no circumstances allow yourself to dream. It saves you from crushing disappointment, but you are living in the doldrums anyway and who is going to gather to such a damp and negative vision?

But we love the hype, we seek the superlative, and when real life disappoints, we hunt hype like a drug in the inconsequential things. Every World Cup that comes around we are definitely going to win. What good is a build up that manages our expectations so carefully that we are happy with defeat at an early stage? No,we live for the glory, the stand or fall, the die trying attitude - That's what we tune in to see, or gather to follow.

Back in the real world, we can't take too much disappointment before we just stop hoping and become cynical, reverting back to our emotional defence systems and lowered expectations; Conditioned to failure, better to survive in life than to dream.

In Ephesians 3.20 Paul paints a picture of the local church being the most robustly expectant people on the planet. No hint of cynical suppression to be found. Instead the polar opposite, wide eyed, sky high hope pumps through the passage.
'Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.'
No lowering of the bar here, rather a realisation that when it comes to the promise of God for his people, you can't out superlative God and his expectations for us.

Perhaps it's time that we stepped back from the edge of mere hopeful hype, or lifted our weary heads from dismal pessimism to realign ourselves to his definition of expectation?  Immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine - More than we could express or dare to believe - here is a true definition of expectation to re calibrate ourselves to.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The fighting talk of David Brainerd

After preaching on prayer as 'Fighting Talk' yesterday, I've been impacted again by the stories of David Brainerd, who died whilst a missionary to the Sasquehanna Native Americans in October 1747.

E.M Bounds comments that Brainerd 'did his greatest work by prayer', often alone in the depths of the forests, unable to speak the language of the Native Americans and so spending literally days in fighting prayer.
Brainerd knew that if he wanted to reach the Sasquehanna, he must find someone who could at least vaguely interpret his thoughts. Understanding this, he spent whole days praying, asking the Holy Spirit to come upon him so powerfully that these people would be moved by his message.

Dr A J Gordon in his biography of Brainerd wrote the following:
'Once he preached through a drunken interpreter, a man so intoxicated that he could hardly stand up. Yet scores were converted through that sermon. We can account for it only that it was the tremendous power of God behind him.'

Brainerd would not have seen himself as a superhero of prayer. He was simply a called man who prayed alone in the forest and agonised over those whom God had put on his heart.
His obedience to the compassionate heart of God was so stimulating to others, that when William Carey read about Brainerd's life story, he went to serve God in India. Later, Jonathan Edwards was so struck by the now sick and dying Brainerd, that he wrote: 'I praise God that it was in His providence that he (Brainerd) should die in my house, that I might hear his prayers, that I might witness his consecration, that I might be inspired by his example.'

Praise God for a man dying in my house? Oh that we might all be infected with a little of Brainerd's sickness and weakness before God in fighting, prevailing prayer!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Last night I joined the local church......

Last night I joined the local church.

I've come to town to lead the local church, yet I need to be a part, not apart from it. I need to be amongst the ranks of the new, the not yet known, the being made ready. I need to, not out of some cheap political stunt to identify with the troops before brushing the dust off and returning to my ivory tower of leadership. I need to because I too need the local church in order to be formed more readily and purposefully into the life that Jesus has for me.

I've not come to town to dispense life transforming grace. I've come in deep need of it myself, and the place I find it is in the local church. Unless I want to remain on a pedestal of professional perfection, I must recognise my need to encounter life change, discipleship through friendship. I'm not immune to it, not beyond it. Indeed, if I don't get shaped in this way I can't go on.

Whoever started the rumour that pastors, leaders, were above one anothering, called instead to model perfection in isolation? Who said we needed to be the best at everything, the furthest forward, the deepest thinkers, the most perfected? That's a lie spun by the insecure. Amongst God's people is where I belong.

Don't hear what I'm not saying - This is not some distortion of scripture that says leaders are just broken people who limp alongside their fellow strugglers and stragglers.
 No! I'm not called to misery, or introspective neediness. I do understand the need to lead and model a dependency on Christ. I recognise that I've been transformed, I'm being transformed, I will be transformed - But it takes a church to raise a Christian, and the loving momentum of a local church to challenge and shape me into the greater Christlikeness that enables all of us to look and sound more like him in this broken world.

That's why I joined the local church last night.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Tommy Robinson, EDL and the Apostle Paul!

The radio interviews with Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, over the last 24 hours have been extraordinary news! Emerging from 18 weeks of self evaluation in solitary confinement following a passport conviction, Robinson speaks with an entirely different kind of conviction -that of the ideological convert.

This crowd pleasing street fighter has reflected on his views, on his family and on ideas of race and violence, re-entering the world an apparently changed man. Resigning his leadership of the EDL, Robinson expressed concern about the increasing influence of extreme elements within his movement. He even apologised that the things he has said have not resonated with Muslims. Most surprising of all was this quote, 'I don't hate Muslims. Luton (his home) is a multicultural town, and from day one I've wanted to embrace everyone, all colours and creeds.'
There has been an understandably cautious welcome from British based Islamic groups, wondering as we all are, how a man known for such extreme views is now literally talking about embracing multiculturalism. I would imagine that a response of anger and defiance will come from the EDL any time soon.

I've been studying the conversion of Saul again this week. This EDL story has all the hallmarks of the original 'Damascus Road' conversion. Indeed, Tommy Robinson's change of heart only serves to put Saul's transformation into even greater contrast, and perhaps sheds a light on those around the world today who turn to Christ under oppressive regimes.
Whilst Robinson's new stance is to be welcomed, could you imagine if he not only renounced his old views, but then immediately converted to Islam, attended Friday prayers and began preaching from the Qur'an!
 It sounds crazy, unbelievable - and yet this is exactly the journey the Apostle Paul took. Saul the zealot for Judaism, in an instant, turning away from everything he has ever lived for, laying it all down to follow Christ -The false God of the false sect. 
The very people that he had been stoning to death as a rabble rousing Rabbi, he now embraces. The ones he persecuted and imprisoned, he now accepts their prison chains and their beatings! The disbelief around Saul's conversation meant that he had to leave Damascus by night. Neither the Christians or the Jews believed him. The first were still terrified of him, the latter now wanting to kill this apostate would be Apostle.

All of us to an extent have taken the Tommy Robinson path. When we come to Christ we have no idea of the true change of heart required for us to turn from our old lives, not just into a neutral position, but to fully embrace a brand new, opposing ideology. Around the world today, so many new believers in Jesus see the starkness of this decision, but like Saul, choose to turn their lives upside down for the sake of following Christ. Voluntarily taking themselves out of the safety of their families, culture and national identity, to identify with an oppressed minority.

So here's to you Tommy Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know! Your new world view, embracing all colours and creeds looks a better place, but there is a further step should you choose to take it, which will change you from the inside out for ever.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Seven Marks of a Healthy Church

Continuing the exploration of healthy church - Robert Warren's excellent 'Healthy Churches Handbook' contains a number of helpful steps. I've used these headings to provoke discussion amongst leaders in various contexts over the years, also finding them personally useful in my own setting. Whilst Warren writes to provoke life in established Anglican churches that have lost their purpose, his challenge remains relevant and provocative for those of us who consider ourselves to be in more progressive movements.

Understanding Warren's primary target church audience means we are not going to import everything he suggests, but the thinking process involved in his seven 'marks' is well worthwhile. I will simply paraphrase his marks below without comment. As you reflect on your own context, you will find they speak for themselves and leave you making mental notes and adjustments. They may even send you running for the whiteboard with your leadership team! Perhaps I will comment in more details on specific steps in future blogs.

A healthy church demonstrates life and fruitfulness in each of these seven areas.

1/ A healthy church is energised by faith.
Not just keeping going or trying to survive. Expecting in worship for people to experience God's dynamic presence. Motivated by an energy to serve God and each other. Engaging honestly with the scriptures in creative ways that connect to real lives. Nurturing faith in Christ over time, which helps people to grow as well as share their own lives.

2/ A healthy church has an outward focus.
It carries a 'whole life' concern that is so much greater than just church life. Deeply rooted in the local community and working with other believing churches, even business and local networks. This will demonstrate a prophetic stance about peace and justice, connecting faith with regular, daily lives and responding to real needs with acts of compassionate service.

3/ A healthy church seeks to find out what God wants.
Discerning the Spirit's leading rather than trying to please everyone. Asking the questions, who has God called us to be. Developing and communicating a shared sense of where we are called to go, then setting deliberate mission centred goals which help us to get there. Enabling people to make sacrifices in order to bring about this change and living out our faith together.

4/ A healthy church faces the cost of change and growth.
Conversely, an unhealthy church resists change and fears failure. We can embrace the past, but dare to take on new ways of doing things. We are free to take risks when things have not been working, learning from experience, responding creatively to challenges which face the church. A healthy church makes change a positive experience, affirming and building on even small, incremental changes.

5/ A healthy church operates as a community.
We are not functioning as a club or a religious organisation. So relationships that cause people to feel accepted must be nurtured in small groups. Leadership works as a team to demonstrate community in decision making and establishing health and life. In this safe family context, volunteer ministry is valued, and all the gifts are given expression and room to grow.

6/ A healthy church makes room for all.
We are inclusive rather than exclusive. Welcoming to newcomers, from children and young people to adult enquirers. This welcome is evidenced by our deliberate plan to help people belong and to be nurtured in their faith. A healthy church must be diverse - Different social and ethnic backgrounds, mental and physical abilities, all ages - this diversity is seen as a strength.

7/ A healthy church does a few things and does them well.
We are focussed rather than frenetic. We seek to do the basics well such as our public worship, pastoral care, stewardship and administration. Our work and call is good news - So we enjoy what we are called to do, and we remain relaxed about what is not being done. We are clear and coherent in our activities, linking them back into our discovery in mark 3 of the unique calling that God has placed on us in our context.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Healthy church - Tolkien v Friends

In our early church planting days, we were hugely impacted by an influential book called 'Natural Church Development' by Christian Schwarz. It was such a fresh voice at the time amongst a raft of church growth books, in that Schwarz majored on qualitative development in church communities, rather than just strategies for numerical growth.

Over the years since, these principles remain valid, although I now prefer to talk about 'Healthy church' and to shy away from any strategies that seek to overquantify growth in percentage terms.

Essentially, church communities who have prayerfully assessed their strengths and weaknesses, aware of their unique culture and context, will begin to engage more fruitfully with the mission that God has for them. This focus on the quality of our life and call together, rather than just a count of numbers attending, is a much more truthful measure of life.

God has given us a model in nature - A healthy plant will simply grow. Give it the right conditions, and the DNA takes over, growth and life comes, up to the measure that is inbuilt within it. So it can be with local churches, rooted in the nurturing soil of God's presence and purpose.

What does this look like in practice? Healthy churches see no tension with the question that so many wrestle with - are we here for the lost or for discipleship? Are we here for mission or for worship? Inward or outward?
A healthy church says a resounding 'Yes' to each of these questions - seeking to find what God uniquely wants for us in our context, facing the necessary change, and going after these few things as a community, but with the intention of living them out excellently and authentically.

A healthy church says 'Yes' to a DNA which naturally embraces both inward and outward ideals without conflict or imbalance. Loving The Lord with all our hearts and loving our neighbours inside and outside of the church community become the the integrating principals.
This is more organic than organised though, shaped around mission, not around ministry. A healthy church prioritises mission, simply doing ministry and one anothering on the journey, we begin to create a community on the move not in a cuddle huddle. 
What do such healthy church communities look like in practise? Well, it depends where you are and who you are. But look behind the context and a healthy church should look much more like a Tolkien adventure than an episode of Friends, growing old together and never venturing out of the apartment!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Lost Generation

I've been listening to the Rizzle Kicks on the radio on the drive into town today, with their sound commentary on the vacuum of real life for the average 21st century Brit. Those Rizzle boys may be fresh faced, but they do behavioural studies like old pros, grasping the emptiness that leaves a gnawing hunger in the unsatisfied hearts of our lost generation.

The underlying question is one of what or who we are worshipping-  Really? We all give ourselves to something, someone. A person, a lover, a child, work, money, sport. We define worship with this question - What or who are you giving yourself to? 
As men and women made in God's image, we are designed to give ourselves, dedicate ourselves to Him. That's how life is supposed to work: We're designed to live out our adventures within the deep safety of a secure relationship with God. In a hostile chaotic world, God still calls us to dedicate ourselves into his care and purpose.

It's always been that way. The big story of the bible gives us the boy Samuel, living in his own version of a lost generation. No knowledge of God, his peers had given themselves away cheaply, dedicated to foreign Gods, each to his own way. It's no surprise to find the comment that the word of the Lord was rare and there were not many visions. The light and glory of God had left the people. This was made physical as the Ark of the promise was taken by their enemies, the very symbol of God's presence with them - gone! A lost generation indeed.
Dedicated by his previously barren mother Hannah into God's active service, Samuel was ready to live the rest of his life in the temple for God's purpose and the sake of his people.

So what would our lives of dedication look like, were we to give ourselves fully to the cause of Christ? We don't live in the rarified atmosphere of the temple like Samuel, we are immersed in the confusion of our communities. Yet we are called to be set apart in the same way for the purpose of God in our lost generation. Each one of us, to come out of lostness - Out of the sterile barrenness of our beginnings, and into a new life of fulness and direction for Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. Leaving behind all the wrong things we prioritise for our dedication, all the idols we wastefully worship, all the dead ends and cul de sacs we blindly chase down. 

The early church came out of their lost generation and instead devoted themselves to the apostles teaching… God and to one another. So they were said to shine like stars in a wicked and depraved generation. Bright lights of dedication, beacons that shine clearly in a squalid and polluted climate. Now I think that's what the Rizzle Kicks are trying to communicate?!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Dangerous Calling

The magnificent, 'Dangerous Calling', by Paul David Tripp has made a timely intrusion to my summer reading plan. It is an uncomfortable mirror of a book, which frequently needs to be out down and considered with hones appraisal. For this reason it is a book to be read over a week or so rather than in a sitting.

At a time of personal transition, about to begin a new work in a new town, this paragraph on unhealthy expectations pulls no punches.

'It should be obvious that unhelpful assumptions made as the Pastor is coming to lead the church would be fruit in a whole set of unrealistic expectations. The biggest is that many churches simply don't expect their Pastor to struggle with sin. But he is not sin free! Since he is still being sanctified, sin still remains and is being progressively eradicated. They don't expect him to get discouraged in the middle of the war for the gospel. They don't expect him to be tempted towards bitterness or envy. They expect him to be a model father and husband. They don't expect him to be lazy or to settle for mediocrity. They don't expect that in moments of self protection, he will be tempted to be anti social and controlling.

They expect that he will be able to joyfully carry an unrealistic job description that would overwhelm anyone this side of Jesus's return. They expect that he will be content with significantly less pay than most people with his level of education. They expect that his wife is so fully committed to ministry herself that his coming to the church is actually a two for one deal. They don't expect that there will be moments when he is tempted to doubt the goodness of God. They don't expect that in a meeting or in the pulpit, fear of man will keep him from doing or saying the things that God calls him to do and say. They don't expect to hire a flawed man who is still desperately in need of the very grace that he is called to offer and exegete for others.'

Towards the end of the the book, Tripp comes to a conclusion which is true for all of us who lead, and all of us who form expectations as we follow leaders. 'There is only one Messiah, and I am definitely not him!'

Thursday, 8 August 2013

What Muslims Believe

Today is Eid Mubarak, the end of the month of Ramadan. It is always a time when Muslim friends and neighbours are very open in discussing their faith. However, most Christians don't really know what Muslims believe. Obviously, within Islam there are huge differences much as you will find within the range of beliefs across the Christian church. Having said this, the basic tenants below will be generally accepted by mainstream Mulsims the world over.

They believe in the one true God (Allah), and his total rule over humanity, a day of judgement to come, and life after death. There is no sense of assurance about receiving mercy from Allah on the final day, and so a life lived in merit, in accordance with the five pillars Islam is necessary.
Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, although God's ultimate revelation of himself was to Mohammad, through the Angel Gabriel, recorded word for word in Arabic in the Quran.

Here are the five pillars of Islam that Muslims must uphold:

1/ The Creed
'There is no God but God (Allah), and Mohammad is his messenger.' Reciting this creed sincerely in the presence of a witness is what makes you a Muslim.

2/ Fasting
During daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, Muslims may not eat, drink, smoke or have sex.

3/ Giving to the Poor
True Muslims are expected to give 2.5% of their income to the poor.

4/ Prayer
Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca at five set times of the day. These are set prayers in Arabic, with more optional prayers available.

5/ Pilgrimage
All Mulsims who are physically able to, are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their life time. Those who give money to enable others to travel believe that it gains them merit with God.

This is the briefest of all summaries of belief possible. It is not an endorsement or an attempt to highlight flaws - but even a basic understanding of sincerely held faith can open doors of understanding, perhaps breaking down some of the misconceptions which lead to fear, ignorance and sometimes unhelpful behaviour from Christians towards Muslims.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

'We must be prepared for the fact that we may be arrested' - A tribute to Samuel Lamb

When Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949 he quickly expelled the foreign missionaries and began a long programme of persecution against Chinese believers with the purpose of wiping out Christianity in the atheistic Mao cult state.  After his death in 1976, it became apparent that the very opposite had happened, and a vibrant underground, authentically Chinese New Testament church was flourishing.

One of the best known hero Christian leaders, Pastor Samuel Lamb, who pioneered through this era died lat Saturday  in Guangzhou, aged 88.

Lamb was arrested during one of the first big waves of persecution in Mao’s 'Great Leap Forward', imprisoned from 1955 to 1957. At the time, the estimated number of believers in China was in the low millions.

The only way to stay out of prison for church planters at was to compromise and bring their churches under the control of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-regulated Protestant Church. Refusing to take this step, and as the leader of an illegal church, Lamb was sentenced a second time in 1958 spending 20 years in labour camps.
Giving up everything for the sake of his call, Lamb saw his wife for the last time during the five months that he was on remand. She died in 1977, a year before his sentence ended.

In 1979 Lamb pioneered his house church  in Guangzhou. Numbers grew quickly, mirroring the fast and exponential growth all over China in that decade. Lamb was able to move his congregation to a bigger building in the same city, but to this day they remain an illegal house church congregation, only tolerated by the authorities.

World Watch Monitor make the following tribute:  Suffering played an important part in many of Lamb’s sermons. He was famous for repeating: “More persecution, more growth”. That phrase had not only to do with numbers of believers, but also with spiritual growth.

Lamb saw that China has changed in the past decades and that Christians are now granted more freedom. Still he wanted to make sure that Christians do not too easily assume that nothing will happen to them. Even though his congregation was still illegal, it hasn’t been raided in years but he always remained cautious about the government.

He always warned: “We must be prepared to suffer. We must be prepared for the fact that we may be arrested. Before I was sent to prison, I already prepared a bag with some clothes, shoes and a toothbrush. When I had to go to the police station, I could just pick it up. I was ready. People are still being arrested. You don't know what will happen tomorrow. Today the authorities are not bothering us, but tomorrow things may be different. I pray that we will receive the strength to stand firm.”

His death leaves a hole in the Chinese Church. Together with other renowned figures like Wang Mindao and Allen Yuan, he symbolised the bravery of a Church that grew at an unprecedented speed in world history.

Long after his passing it will be said in many churches that more persecution only has one outcome: more growth. Simultaneously, he became an example for millions of believers in China, where today estimates say there are now about 80 million Christians – some estimates claim one tenth of the population is Christian.
Samuel Lamb's story of steadfast resolution and determination has also inspired and encouraged millions of Christians around the world.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Bible highlights Amazon appetite!

Amazon's Kindle list of most highlighted books of all time reveals 6 bibles in the top 25, along with books from Bonhoeffer and Francis Chan.

None of this should be a surprise, accumulated bible sales remain higher than any other book, higher even than last summer's blockbuster Hunger Games trilogy which also feature highly on the rundown.

The ESV bible sits at number one. No surprises here either, as this version has been free to download for Kindle users since launch. For people who just want one bible, the ESV will always be the default purchase. The heavy duty study bible also comes high up the chart. Good pricing here makes it the online study bible of choice, the kindle version at only £9.49 when the doorstop hardback is a whopping £25.

To see bibles in the most highlighted of all time list is obviously encouraging in our secular age. More noteworthy though is the question of what people are actually highlighting. Its fair to assume that to make the effort to highlight a passage(and often share it through social media), it must have had an positive impact on the reader to such an extent that they want to create a reference point to return to. With this is mind, the passages featured suggest something about the appetite and the mind of the average reader.

The number one highlight of all time is not the oft quoted evangelistic challenge of John 3.16, but the more personal encouragement of Phil 4.6-7 'Do not be anxious about anything.....'
Exactly the same verse, but from the ESV Study version sits at number 6 in the list. Again, at number 18, this verse pops up, but highlighted in the NLT. So between these three versions of the bible, this one verse can be said to have had more impact and personal application for bible readers around the world than any other.

In these days of pressure for so many, it is no wonder that such words of hope and trust, worked out through prayer, with the fruit of peace in the life of the believer, have become so highlighted and shared. Looking at the other books on the list (Hunger Games aside) there is an emphasis on self help and life fix from Steve Jobs to Stephen Covey that makes the true message of the scriptures stand out all the more.

Lists like this show us more than just what people are reading and sharing - They highlight perhaps a western preoccupation with self improvement, but more positively, they demonstrate an obvious hunger for hope and change, and a willingness in post moderns to engage with scriptural truth to find satisfaction in the Jesus that they point towards.

Find the list here:

Friday, 5 July 2013

Famous last words.

Last words are powerful. They are spoken for maximum impact, when nothing else matters any more. There are pages full of them on the Internet. Some funny, some poignant, some sad, some totally fabricated!

One of my favourites was uttered by the over confident General Sedgwick before his last moment in the American Civil War. Looking over the parapet, he turned to encourage his troops with these words:"They couldn't hit an elephant from this dist...!"

Or how about one of the heroes of Scott's fatal race to the Antarctic? Knowing he was dying of exhaustion, hunger and exposure, Captain Oates left his colleagues in the tent, not wanting to slow down their retreat to safety, out into temperatures of-70. His brave, stiff upper lip British understatement at this moment of supreme self sacrifice? "I'm going out, I may be some time."

In my last words as a preacher in the church family that we've served in for the past eight years, we are looking at the most significant final words of all. In Acts 1.8, the soon to ascend Jesus tells his bewildered disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and that they will be his witnesses from their current home city to the very ends of the earth.

My final encouragement is this: A Spirit filled, Spirit dependent church, is one where every ordinary disciple is empowered by God; Looking and sounding like Jesus, noticeable to the world around us for our power and spiritual authority.

So it's a specific power to enable us to do a specific job. But are limits on us with regard to this resourcing- Both chronological and geographical.
Jesus promises us to be with us in this way, empowering us through His Spirit to the very end of the age. Then He commissions us to go in this power to the very ends of the earth.
There are two distinct 'end' points in view for us here, two lines to cross- Until Jesus returns to planet earth, and until every people group, every distinct culture on earth has a living, vibrant New Testament church witness to the truth about Jesus.

This is why we've received the Spirit. Until he returns or until the job gets done, we run as hard as we can at these two finish lines. No talk of retirement or easing up - Until my last breath is gone, my last pound is spent, my last prayer is prayed - We are called to live in the power and authority of the Holy Spirit and be a witness to Jesus.

William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army understood this. His pioneering church expanded with the speed and depth which shows that it was rooted in the original, grand apostolic plan. Booth's last public words shortly before his death in 1912 were these: "While Women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight, I’ll fight to the very end!”

Few of us will have our final words recorded for inspirational posterity- All of us are called to be filled with the empowering missionary Spirit, then to run and fight with everything we have until the end of the age and out to the ends of the earth.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Larry Botter and the Parchment of Special Educational Need

Larry lived in a normal house with normal parents, but as he approached secondary school he became increasingly aware of his special powers.
In the womb eleven years ago, Larry's number one X chromosome had developed differently from the others, leaving him with magical powers of memory and a raised X scar on his forehead which he hid under his thick mop of unruly hair.

Unfortunately for Larry, the other children began to notice that he was different, and hiding his special powers was becoming more and more difficult.

Professor Mumblemore had invited Larry to join Vogwarts from September, (a special school hidden away from the authorities beneath the South Downs that could only be reached by a flying taxi). However, He who must not be named at the Ministry for Education thought that Larry and his parents were absolute Muggles. Conspiring with Larry's current school they hatched a secret plan to shut Larry in the PE cupboard until he was 16 so that Professor Mumblemore and his team of Magicians would be unable to bring out the best him.

It may sound like bad fiction, but this is just another true story of an ordinary family who are discovering Autism and the need for Autistic children to be able to access their learning in a different way from the mainstream. As the Muggle Parents in the story, we are still finding out about our Larry and realising that he will flourish in the right learning environment.

Sadly, we are also learning that the school system and Local Education Authority are set up to thwart anyone who doesn't fit into the 'one size fits all box' of learning. Thankfully there are individual teachers and support staff who are working undercover to undermine the Ministry master plan. There are also excellent Medical Experts within the system who will not be cowed by pressure. No one from the Ministry will tell you about it, but there is even financial help in the form of the Disability living allowance and even Carers allowance if you qualify, all of which will be invaluable in your fight.

Having finally obtained our parchment of Special Educational Needs, we are just about to start writing on book two, Larry's continued fight to get into Vogwarts.

We understand the pressure of funding, and the difficulty Education departments face in handling these cases. However, a system which is fundamentally unfair and adversarial is unhelpful to all parties, but especially loaded against the family, and ultimately the child. There ought to be a fairer, quicker and cheaper way when medical evidence clearly shows overwhelming special need.

One day the system will change, and the needs of autistic children will be recognised within Education budgets and planning. In the meantime, Muggle parents everywhere remain locked in unequal battles with the heavy powers and financial resources of the State trained upon them. Only deep love for the nurture and future of the child compels them to press on.

To be continued........

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

My Manchester Top 5

I'm really looking forward to being back in Greater Manchester this weekend. Almost 10 years in the great county of Lancashire has been interrupted by the last 8 in equally stunning Sussex. However,telling friends that I'm returning north this weekend has produced expressions of pity and a looks of concern on our behalf!

We all know about the poor weather, the funny accents and this stuff they have up north called 'industry' - but for the benefit of my champagne drinking, sun kissed southern soft friends (also a caricature in case you were wondering!) let me give you my top 5 from the most excellent city of Manchester!

1/ The Museum of Science and Industry.
In my view this eclipses anything that London has to offer. It tells the story of our social history magnificently, focussing of course on the dual horrors and splendours of the industrial revolution. From the biggest machines to the best interactive displays for kids - MOSI is a must visit place. That the government are considering closing it in order to preserve funding for London museums is appalling and morally wrong.

2/ The Lowry Centre.
I know that Salford Quays has now gone up in the world since the BBC discovered the north and moved in en masse. I know that the Lowry Centre itself is not a particularly attractive building in a particularly attractive area - but anywhere that you can visit for free in order to see a large collection of LS Lowry paintings makes it a place that I would happily return to time after time.

3/ The Pennines.
Forget the Lakes, they are too far away for any reasonable person. Forget the Peak District, it's too close to Sheffield. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Pennines! The magnificent span of bleak hills and moorland that overshadows Manchester and shaped my life for many years in Oldham. I know belligerent Yorkshiremen will argue boundaries, and that the best parts are on their side. But once you are up there, only minutes from the city, but high and lonely, who cares if you are in Yorkshire or Lancashire. Pots and Pans on Saddleworth Moor remains my favourite bleak place in the world.

4/ The Pie Shop - Redgrave Street, Oldham.
The meat and potato or cheese and onion pies from the shop at the end of our street were the main reason for the early onset of middle aged spread. A lunchtime walk for a hot pie, the inevitability of being unable to choose between meat and potato, meat, or cheese, and so bringing all 3 hot pies home.....the fragrance in the house for the rest of the day, the meat juice running down your hand and inside your cuff.......

5/ A pint of JW Lees in Mr Thomas Chophouse.
I discovered JW Lees ale with glee, not just for the taste, but in those days for the pound a pint pricetag. A slow pint at lunchtime, away from the city centre office for a few minutes was one of the great pleasures of my early years in Manchester. Maybe now it's become a nasty city centre parody of itself kind of pub, but back then, just after the Manchester bomb, it was at the heart of my discovery of the real city and the real people.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The magic of cut flowers - things women already know about romance that men don't yet understand!

We are continuing our Marriage Central seminars this weekend. One of the books that we have been recommending to our couples is the excellent, 'Mars and Venus in the bedroom', by John Gray. He takes the well known Mars/Venus analogy of Male/Female differences and applies them pretty frankly to the most intimate parts of our most loving relationship as husband and wife.

Essentially, the old generalisation that 'he wants sex and she wants romance' means that it does seem as though we have arrived on earth together from different planets. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than behind the bedroom door. Most of the book is definitely for 'couples' reading only, and not subject matter that I would quote liberally from on my blog! However, this simple passage about the magic art of buying flowers ends up explaining some of our differences in ways that even us Male Martians can begin to understand - ladies, really, we do need it explaining to us at this kind of level - just thank me for trying!

'I remember once asking my wife to pick up some flowers at the grocery store. I knew that women like cut flowers, but after a while I wondered why I should keep getting them. After all, I casually thought, she could easily pick them up while she was out shopping.
To her, this kind of reasoning was definitely not romantic. Through eventually discovering the importance of buying her cut flowers, I was able to understand the importance of all romantic gestures.
To feel romanced, a woman doesn't want to buy her own flowers. She wants her lover to do it. She doesn't even want to ask for them. If she has to ask, it doesn't count as romance.
His self motivated purchase of cut flowers for her is a symbol that he cares for her and understands her needs. These kinds of symbols are a very important part of romance.
She doesn't want a potted plant but cut flowers that will die in five days. Why cut flowers? So that in five days he will again go out and prove his love for her by purchasing more flowers! Buying a potted plant is just not romantic. It is one more thing she will have to take care of!'

Friday, 24 May 2013

We've all got a bit of Wesley in us on Aldersgate day!

On this day in 1738 John Wesley was famously converted at a Society meeting in a room on Aldersgate Street, London. I say 'famously', although it wasn't particularly noteworthy at the time, other than for Wesley and his close circle, but the repercussions from this evening in London were to spin out down through the generations to such an extent that we continue to remember today.

Having tried and failed in his attempts at religion, and even church leadership, Wesley was hugely impacted by the example of genuine faith that he observed in Moravian believers. Observing their attitude and prayer life during terrifying storms on board a boat bound for America, the lack of peace with God in his own soul was highlighted. Wesley was so deeply disturbed that he lamented on his return, 'I went to America to convert the Indians but oh,who will convert me!'

Frustration growing, Wesley's story finds him arriving heavy hearted at Aldersgate Street, 'very unwillingly' according to his journals. In this state of broken reluctance, he heard someone reading from Martin Luther's preface to Paul's letter to the Romans, and suddenly everything changed. It wasn't even the scripture itself - it was just Luther's notes!

Wesley describes it this way: 'I felt that my heart was strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.'

The following New Year, whilst worshipping at 3am with a Moravian group, the Holy Spirit fell so powerfully upon Wesley that many in the room cried out and fell to the floor. From this time on his life and mission were never the same again. As opposition came from the parochial and established church, Wesley boldly declared the whole world to be his parish. Over the 50 years or so that followed, he proved it. Covering 250,000 miles on horseback and preaching somewhere in the region of 42,000 times (average of 16 times per week!)

More staggering than this personal, prolific ministry output, Wesley trained over 200 other preachers and in Britain alone, left over 70,000 people in new Methodist Societies. Because of this reproductive, multiplying DNA, within 10 years of his death there were over 825 Wesleyan or Methodist church plants in Britain.

We remember Wesley's conversion today, because if the 'six degrees of separation' laws have any basis, most of us who call ourselves British believers are connected more closely to Wesley than we realise. My own line emerges this way. Young William Booth, converted into dying Methodism a century later, breaking out to reach his own generation in true Wesleyan style - my own great Grandparents were caught up in this new movement, seeded by Wesley, their whose lives and future family heritage changed for ever!

Friday, 17 May 2013

Dense crowds at Moriah Chapel. A reminder.

In November 1904 something new was happening in Moriah Chapel, Loughor, Wales, as over 800 people raced to get there night after night from their daily business to squeeze into the small building.

The Western Daily Mail reported it in this way on Nov 11th of that year:
A remarkable religious revival is now taking place at Loughor. For some days now, a young man named Evan Roberts, a native of Loughor, has been causing great surprise at Moriah Chapel. The place has been besieged by dense crowds of people unable to obtain admission.

Such excitement has prevailed that the road on which the chapel is situated has been lined with people from end to end.........The preacher soon launches out into a fervent and at times, impassioned oration. His statements have had stirring effects upon his listeners. Many who have disbelieved Christianity for years are again returning to the fold of their younger days.

One night, so great was the enthusiasm invoked by the young revivalist that, after his sermon which lasted two hours, the vast congregation remained praying and singing until 2.30 in the morning! Shopkeepers are closing early in order to get a place in the chapel,and tin and steel workers throng to the place in their working clothes.

Psalm 78.2-4 says: 'I will utter hidden things, things from of old. What we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation. The glorious deeds of The Lord and his might and the wonders that he has done.'

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Marriage: Mars, Venus, dogs and balloon flights!

Charles Darwin was considering marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgewood, and wrote some brilliant thoughts on the subject. Writing out of his scientific personality, Darwin drafted this rather cold sounding logic as an argument for marriage. Ladies, don't expect to swoon over the next few lines with romance heaving in your bosom!

Against the idea of marriage Darwin noted, "the expense and anxiety of children" and the fact that a married man could never "go up in a balloon". An odd one perhaps, but maybe just his way of expressing that marriage will tie him down and limit his risk taking (in his view!)

More positively, in favour of marriage, he spoke of acquiring a "constant companion and friend in old age". The clincher that settled the argument was that a wife would be "better than a dog, anyhow."

Remarkably, (and leaving aside the thought of marrying your cousin!) Mr and Mrs Darwin continued on to have a strong and happy marriage. On his deathbed in 1882, Darwin the logical, obsessive scientist cried out, "My love, my precious love."

Ten children in seventeen years shows that this love was genuine and that it wasn't all theory for our Charles and Emma, even with their extreme differences in personality which personify the 'Mars/Venus' analogy!

Mars and Venus is just a way of highlighting the subtle differences in gender, role, and expectations which we bring crashing with us into a new marriage relationship. Left alone, these differences can lead to tension and conflict, but if celebrated and understood, they can strengthen a marriage and make it shine. The key as ever is how we communicate with eachother. The aim is not to iron out differences or reduce contrasts to some awful shared level of shallow acceptance - the goal is to love one another selflessly and provide the foundation for a fruitful, lasting marriage.

It helps if you find a partner who 'gets' you and speaks your language, even if it isn't their primary way of functioning in the world. For all of us guys who live unthinkingly with our odd personality types, we find a good woman breaks her way into our closed in world and refuses to conform to our funny little ways.

Emma Darwin used emotion and humour with her man who was renowned for trusting clinical science and observation. She wrote to Charles early on in their relationship to say"After our marriage you will be forming theories about me, and if I am cross or out of temper you will only consider: 'What does that prove?' which will be a very philosophical way of considering it."

Emma Darwin was such a polar opposite that her Christian faith enabled her to stand by her man through all the flack and battles that Charles faced for proposing theories which purported to undermine that very same faith!

Ultimately, and in spite of their divergent personalities, the marriage worked because both were committed to serving one another out of deep love. Even if you don't agree with your husband's theories of evolution, when the journalists come knocking at the door you do the only thing a loving and loyal wife can do - pretend that your husband isn't at home!

Now, husband, you may not go up in a balloon so frequently, but that kind of love is even greater than a dog!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Running into blanket prayers!

I was talking with friends this week about how hard it is to actually go out for a run. I know I need to do it, I can feel in my body I need to do it, even have a perverse yearning to do it - But until In lace up my trainers and force myself out of the door, 101 pathetic reasons, excuses and distractions will prevent me from doing the one thing that I know to be important!

At the start of our latest week of prayer in our home church, this runners problem is suddenly understood by all of us who have faced down the battle to shut yourself away and intercede before God!

Richard Newton, writing 160 years ago,summed up the dilemma of our circling approach to prayer and its impact well:
"The principal cause of my leanness and unfruitfulness is due to an unaccountable backwardness to pray. I can write, read, converse or hear with a ready heart. But prayer is more spiritual and inward than any of these, and the more spiritual any day is, the more my carnal heart is apt to stray from it. Prayer and patience and faith are never disappointed. I have long since learned that if I ever was to be a minister, faith and prayer must make me one. When I find my heart dissolved in prayer, everything else is comparatively easy."

Or perhaps you've heard me mention John Welch before? Welch never welched on his prayer life, and wouldn't let anything stop him praying through, even the comfort of his bed!
Keeping a blanket near his bed so that he could wrap himself when he rose to pray during the night, his wife would often find him on his knees in the early hours. Once, she complained to find him bowed low and weeping. Welch replied, "Woman, I have the souls of 3000 to answer for, and I know not how it is with many of them!'

Whether it's our beds, our backwardness, our general apathy and lack of urgency, or even the distraction of good things and good people - Let's resolve to allow nothing to prevent us from lacing up our shoes and running into a richer prayer life. Let's agree together to make this week of prayer more than a week of dreaminess, or even wishing we were praying, but a week of sustained work in intercession. Prayer, patience and faith are never disappointed - Blankets at the ready by your beds!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

In tribute to Brennan Manning

With real sadness I heard that Brennan Manning died yesterday. One of the greatest contemplative writers of our generation, and a wonderful mixed up enigma of a man.
After fighting with the US Marines in Korea, he became a Franciscan Priest, spent time in France and Spain, even living as a hermit in a cave near Zaragoza for 6 months! Returning to the States, his honest admission of alcoholism emerged through writing which betrayed a breathtaking understanding of the grace of Father God and His 'Abba' heart for us.

All of Manning's books are worth reading, some over again and again. His ability to cut us to the heart, strip away our pretences and leave us alone with a God who still accepts us is stunning. My favourite, 'The Ragamuffin Gospel - Good news for the bedraggled, beat-up and burned out',is as good as it gets. In tribute to a great writer and exceptional man, I can do no better than give you a flavour of his heart, which will always lead you to Abba's heart.

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last 'trick', whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

'But how?' we ask.

Then the voice says, 'They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'

There they are. There 'we'are - the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life's tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”

― Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out. Died 12 April 2013

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Conflict is......

Marriage is under pressure like never before in our culture. There are enough external pressures against this lifelong, exclusive commitment between a man and women. However, I have yet to hear of political or religious conflict breaking up a marriage. Mostly the sad stories of self destruction that we hear are rooted much closer to home - basic problems of self centredness, inability to communicate, or the struggle to handle the inevitable conflicts that arise when two independent people come together and try to do life together!

In preparing for the second session of our 'Marriage Central' series which Caz and I are teaching through at home base, I found this excellent paragraph on handling conflict. Taken from Neil Anderson's 'Experiencing Christ Together', the contrasts between destructive and constructive conflict will be helpful for all of us to embrace, whether in marriage, friendship or the work place. Remember, conflict is inevitable, conflict is not the problem or a even a sign that things have gone wrong - it's simply what you do with conflict when it happens that is the most important thing!

Conflict is………
Destructive when : Spouses don’t understand the value of conflict that naturally comes when other opinions and perspectives are shared.
Constructive when: Spouses understand the need to hear the other side so that responsible decisions can be made.

Destructive when: There is a competitive climate which implies a ‘win-lose’ situation.
Constructive when: There is a co-operative spirit & commitment to the marriage that searches for a ‘win – win’ situation.

Destructive when: ‘Getting my own way’ is all important.
Constructive when: 'Doing it God’s way' is all important.

Destructive when: Spouses employ defence mechanisms, including projection, blame, suppression, withdrawal, aggression.
Constructive when: Spouses aren’t defensive and assume that disagreements evolve from the other person’s sincere concern for the marriage.

Destructive when: Spouses are locked into their viewpoint, unwilling to consider the perspective and ideas of their partners.
Constructive when: Spouses believe they will eventually come to an agreement that is better than any one individuals suggestion.

Destructive when: Spouses resort to personal attacks instead of focussing on the issues.
Constructive when: Disagreements are confined to issues rather than personalities.

Destructive when: Personal ideas and opinions are valued over the marriage.
Constructive when: The marriage relationship is more important than the need to win or to be right.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Don't miss Maundy mysteries!

If you are somewhere in the world which follows the Western church calendar, then today is Maundy Thursday! Maundy : The day before the much more celebrated Good Friday, the last day of the working week, the day we can't wait to get through in order to finally reach the holiday weekend!

Traditionally, Maundy celebrated the last Supper that Jesus enjoyed with his disciples. In some circles it carries other names, my favourite, 'Thursday of Mysteries.'It sounds like a day spent watching back to back Scooby Doo cartoons!
The word Maundy, an evolved Anglicisation of the old French Mande - Command. 'A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you' John 13.34

Saying these words, Jesus, the leader and champion, took a towel and began to wash the feet of his friends and his betrayer. What a shocking and uncomfortable way to demonstrate your love as service. Bending, humbling, assuming the position and role of a servant. A lowly servant at that, one who would go unnoticed, unthanked for his practical work.

That the Messiah who was welcomed and heralded into Jerusalem should stoop so low to conquer; That he should act out his commandment to love, not with words alone, but with actions; This is the greatest mystery of Maundy.

The mystery of a whole new kind of love: The servant leadership of footwashing about to be played out on the greatest stage in history within 24 hours. On a bleak hillside above Jerusalem, the one to whom John the Baptist said 'I'm not even worthy to tie your shoes', now not only bends to wash dirty feet, but gives his own dirty, battered and abused body, his very life.

The mystery of Maundy is the mystery of the grand drama at the beating heart of the gospel of love. The incomprehensible passion of a Saviour, giving himself up for the unworthy, the unrepentant, even the unaware.

In the rush to an Easter weekend - Don't miss these Maundy mysteries!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Looking for theology behind the chair!

St Augustine's chair, destroyed in the Reformation, now pieced lovingly back together for each enthronement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. Today, placed up near the altar table, behind the screen which separates the congregation from the main players and the action.

The Reformation should have seen the screens destroyed with the chair. What is this idea that there are parts of a building that are holy, parts of religion that are just for a select few, special places where God dwells and where the many cannot enter? Don't we remember as Holy Week 2013 begins that Jesus tore the screen down, ripped apart the giant curtain in the original temple which separated man and God? Didn't he open the way for all of us who believe to follow him boldly into the Father's holy house, and back out into the fallen world, still shining with his holiness? The great hope of the gospel is that there is no sacred/secular space, no where where God's people can't be or that God himself isn't. To put it another way, every secular place we go gets contaminated with holiness- no screens are necessary!

Unfortunately for our traditional Anglican friends, their theology never quite got through to the furniture. Slowly, over time, the furniture and tradition starts to shape theology again - Lovingly pieced back together by a small number who cherish the old ways but don't realise that they are indecipherable to post Christian Britain and incoherent to scripture.

Perhaps Augustine's magnificent patched up chair is one of the great metaphors for the Anglican inability to ever quite leave behind the old and come fully into New Testament Christianity. If Cranmer's reforming zeal from the beginning was eventually muted, I suspect his modern successor will fare no better against those who would walk quietly behind him, rebuilding pre Reformation theology as quickly as it is dismantled.

All of this of course makes it less likely that the gospel will be clearly seen and heard by the unchurched English- assuming any of them are still listening or looking hard enough for answers behind screens, walls and chairs.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Waiting for the white smoke of intimacy.

The world's media is camped out in a damp St Peter's square waiting for white smoke that tells us 115 select men have heard God speak on behalf of millions. These are moments of high drama and intrigue, but what if God intended that all of us could hear his voice and know his plans?

Way back when, Moses groaned at the needs around him, wishing that all God's people were prophets- he might finally get some peace! What Moses hoped for is now open to all of us. It used to be the chosen just few, on behalf of the many. Even after Jesus ascended, his anxious disciples drew lots to find a replacement for Judas - shifting the burden of hearing God away from nervous men and onto the luck of the draw, knowing a gracious God would work this way on behalf of weak people who couldn't fathom his heart.

Everything changed at Pentecost. Never again would true believers need to draw lots or hedge their bets. Suddenly, full of the Spirit of God,they were able to make decisions as though they could actually sense what God himself was saying. Instead of lots, they boldly said, 'it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit' as they released and appointed leaders. Leaders recognised by churches, received by the people, appointed by the Spirit- not just picked and enforced by the few.
This breathtaking clarity shouldn't be a surprise to us. Jesus had taught them that all his sheep can hear his his voice. Paul showed us that this had become the common practise of the churches when he said to the Corinthians that they can all prophecy one by one.

Isn't it dangerous? That's always the fear and the accusation. Yes, that's why denominations prefer control, it's safer than a free for all. But for those who are brave enough and will come in close enough, the New Testament paints a picture of mess and immaturity, that grows up into beautiful Godly intimacy and unity.

The fear is that anything goes and God's voice is lost amongst the background noise of ideas and opinions. But the first disciples devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to the word of God, longing for his true voice. In doing so, they discovered that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher, always willing to remind us of the truth of God's words - and so something wonderful begins to happen- Ordinary believers hear and obey, Gods kind of order is established not mans control or chaotic disorder from differing viewpoints. In relationship with the shepherd the sheep grow safe and well, strong and mature, responsive obedient, and remarkably unified.

So even as we pray for our Catholic friends that God will still work through their traditions, we long with a New Testament freedom for clouds of white smoke over the lives of all true believers in Jesus who are growing up in hearing his voice together.

Friday, 8 March 2013

In praise of cunning women and a roguish God!

Like it or not, there seem to be some aspects of God's character that are seen more clearly in women than in men. If Genesis 1 is right and the male and female of the species are both made in the image of God Himself, then I guess this statement shouldn't surprise us. It's just possible that the Creator God buried his rich character deep into the psyche and personality of men and women. Whilst both sexes point to who He is, men and women individually are capable of showing a unique insight to aspects of God's ways and worth.

This is never more apparent than in the little studied subject of cunning!
Shrewdness, guile or subtle thinking, prudence and wisdom. These are not uniquely female traits, but the girls are definitely in charge in the cunning department!

Think about the mother of baby Moses, commanded to throw her baby in the river. She obeyed to a degree, but only after placing him carefully with prayer and hope into a pitch lined basket, and sending her older daughter to follow him along the river bank. When Moses is discovered by the Princess, his sister Miriam pops out of the bullrushes quite by chance and offers to find a wet nurse for the boy that happened to be his mother. Genius - us fellas would never be able to work out and execute such a plan!

What about Jael, luring Sisera, the enemy general, into her tent with a promise of safety and hospitality. Perhaps if we read between the lines, Sisera had an expectation of some quite intimate hospitality. So using her body, then ordinary household utensils, Jael drugs him and pins him to the floor through his brain with a long tent peg and a hammer, releasing her people from oppression.

We could go onto Esther using the only real asset at her disposal, her looks, with King Xerxes to gain favour, then be open to God's purpose for her people once she had a hearing.

Or what about Rahab who lied to her king and gave him false information about enemy spies whom she believed God was with, all in order to save her family. She crammed her house full of relatives who were saved during the ensuing invasion, whilst a tell tale scarlet cord hung from her window.

Cunning is a fine line to dance along. There are stories of women who practise manipulation and control - that kind of counterfeit cunning comes from the serpent in the garden, taking something of what God made good and distorting it for gain. You see serpent cunning with Deliah using her looks like Esther to ensnare God's anointed leader - but without honour for God.
Jezebel or Salome carry echoes of Esther too, but distorted by wicked hearts and enabled by weak men. Salome is offered the same terms as Esther, up to half the kingdom, as she beguiled the king sexually - But unlike Esther, she harmed her people rather than serving the purpose of God, getting the head of John the Baptist served up after dessert.

Though the Jezebels and Salomes champion the dark side of cunning, a sin spoiled counterfeit version, it seems true that God himself, the master tactician loves to work this way.
Jesus tells us the story of the prudent manager in Luke 16. He commends the man for shrewdness for business practise that looks to us like fraud! Jesus Himself demonstrated a life lived as shrewd as a snake but as innocent as a dove. He shows us the perfect version of guile.

This characteristic cunning that is imprinted in our hearts as a reflection of the creator God is somewhere on the spectrum between the gullible and the rogue - but it feels much nearer to the rogue than we realise or are comfortable with!
So this blog is in praise of cunning women, who in their shrewdness and intrigue are displaying a small measure of God's perfection in the way that he works out his purposes in our lives - In praise of cunning women, and a roguish God!

Friday, 8 February 2013

Marriage Central

In a little under 8 weeks time we will have been married for 20 years! Years in which we've grown up together, remained best friends and learned how to flourish in a monogamous, exclusive relationship within a culture that is sex soaked and promiscuous.

In preparing to teach on marriage this weekend, I'm stunned by how counter culture real marriage actually is. What a statement it makes. We just thought it was normal, we're not expecting a medal for getting half way - but increasingly such a secure and happy relationship stands out like a beacon against a dark sky.

It's profoundly counter cultural for me to say: 'I give myself to her, to serve her, to cause her to shine, to think about her first over myself and my needs, to create more little people like us with her,to learn to handle trouble and hardship with her, to have my character shaped over years with her and by her. To unlearn everything the world has taught me about sex, lust and self gratification and with her, to learn how to make a giving and receiving love through all the seasons of life.'

It's profoundly counter cultural for her to say joyfully and freely to me:'My husband, my head! I'll trust you, submit happily to your leadership, I'll help you and release you and give myself to you for the rest of my life. I'll gladly give you alone my body. I'm prepared to lay down my rights and privileges, delay or even forgo my career to have your babies, to give them my best in time, energy and love over years and still love you first, passionately and joyfully'

The Spice Girls were right after all - 2 really has become 1. I finally has given way to we. The inherent selfishness of our consumer culture has eventually been undone in us by years of every day choices to submit to and lovingly serve one another.

German Reformer Martin Luther expressed it well 500 years ago. 'There are two ways to challenge selfishness. One is to enter a monastery, the other is to embark upon a marriage'. I for one am glad I took the second option 20 years ago and got the opportunity to learn together with my best friend how central marriage is to the rest of life and society.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Good Father- Noah Hawley. Book Review

It's the old cliche about a good book, but with Noah Hawley's 'The Good Father', I really couldn't put it down!

It's easy to say what the book is about, the story of estrangement between a father and his grown up son, a relationship broken since divorce years before, now brought into the spotlight through the unexpected murder of an up and coming Senator by the lost boy. The information about the plot is not enough though, it's a book you have to feel.

The sudden reordering of the Father's emotional world is shattering, his intense introspection and the impact on his new family heartbreaking. It reads like a thriller, at times with a touch of Grisham's legal procedure, mixed with big widescreen vista roadtrip descriptions of small town America. The truth as it begins to emerge is hard to swallow and you are left googling to see if this novel is really a true story.

What is most striking is the ordinariness of the lives of this family. They look just like us and those who live around us. They are essentially good people who have made the same kind of mistakes that so many of us have. Divorce, too many hours at the office, selfish choices. If we ever think it doesn't matter or we'll catch up in the end, this story is the ice plunge pool to wake us from such a notion. In short, it's like looking in a mirror in a harsh light at the impact on society of divorce that we like to pretend isn't there, that is really doesn't affect the kids all that much. Here it does, and deep down, we know it too.

That the father is driven to breaking point to redeem himself with his broken son is painful, sad and touching. His deepest longing is to be reconciled, and he refuses to think the worst of his boy. Even when he finally accepts that the son is guilty, it's as though he takes the guilt on himself, wanting to save him, to take responsibility for shaping a son who became a killer.

Reading this review it sounds like a depressing book, but somewhere in there is a story of redemption, not of confusion and meaninglessness. I don't think it is written as an allegory, but the narrative has glimmers of hope that stretch like a shadow to the perfect father. The father that none of us ever had and none of us ever will be. The Luke 15 Father who never gives up, never stops searching, never believes the worst, and takes all the disgrace on himself to bring you home. This exceptional book leaves you broken hearted, but yearning for a true dad, the ultimate good father.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Missions trends and the 10/40 window

The missionary movement has progressed in thinking and strategy over the last few centuries. Moving from a territorial idea – missionaries connected to trade routes and coastal areas in the previously unreached areas of India, China and Africa – to a later movement that saw daring groups push inland to the undiscovered interiors. China Inland Mission was a case in point.
The emphasis towards the end of the last century was to recognise the need to reach more than just the land, but people groups with the gospel. Simply establishing church bases in a nation was never the goal. Seeing the gospel communicated and rooted in the local populations through discipleship is the greater aim.

The big promise of the bible concerns this kind of discipleship to the ends of the earth. The colourful descriptions of Revelation show a huge number of disciples of Jesus, coming from every tribe, tongue and nation. In other words, from every people group that has developed on planet earth. In the here and now, the growing multi-ethnic church is a model of ‘one new man’ in Christ, but this is only a minimalist expression of the greater picture of multi-coloured, multi-cultured reality that will be ours to share as a part of God’s redeemed people in the new heaven on earth.

So what about these people groups? There are anywhere between 12000 and 20000 distinct people groups on the planet depending on how they are classified, of which over 5000 can be said to be unreached with the gospel.
Of these 5000 or so unreached groups, the majority live within what we call the 10/40 window. This is simply a geographical reference to the spread of land and people groups contained within the span of West Africa to East Asia – between the latitudes of 10 -40 degrees north on the map.

Again, if we are to follow the developing trend in missions and the biblical mandate, then we are concerned with the people rather than the land. Some people groups span borders, and all nations contain many distinct groups.
Here are some staggering facts about the peoples of the 10/40 window who don’t yet know Jesus.

Over 3 billion people live within this window, yet over 2.7 billion of them are part of unreached groups. Most of them have minimal, if any, knowledge of the gospel. Even if they do know something, they have little or no opportunity to hear or respond to the gospel with no living witness to the truth in their vicinity.

The three big religions of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are all rooted in this part of the world. Historically, their followers have been more resistant to Christian mission, far more so than in tribal regions of Africa. An understanding of these faiths, and their variations that have been syncretised to local culture is essential for those who seek to build bridges and communicate truth amongst these people.

80% of the worlds poorest people live here, with millions living on less than $500 per year. Most of the worlds biggest cities are growing rapidly here, generating a culture all of their own, and exacerbating the huge crisis for the urban poor. Over half of the worlds least evangelised mega-cities are within the 10/40 window. A discipleship that is good news to the poor and is practical and physical in providing helps that lift the poor from the scrap heap is essential in these massive urban areas.

In the 21st Century more than ever, a new generation of missionaries is being called out. We must work out our call to engage, to be those who will not only go to the interior, but who will connect with groups within groups, cities within cities, cultures within cultures with the unchanging, life transforming gospel. To finish with Hudson Taylor, speaking of the needs of China in his day: 'It will not do to say that you have no special call to go to China. With these facts before you and with the command of the Lord Jesus to go and preach the gospel to every creature, you need rather to ascertain whether you have a special call to stay at home.'